Various Artists – ‘Sonic Boom’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

On September 24th, Denon Classics will release their first three DVD-Audio discs; one of which is a collection of classical music excerpts, jazz tracks and set-up material entitled ‘Sonic Boom’. You might think that the title is not particularly appropriate for a disc that boasts Vivaldi, Berlioz and Mahler orchestral works, but you’d be wrong, because also included is an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’, complete with digitally recorded cannons and fireworks.

The ‘Sonic Boom’ production crew includes a few familiar names, the most recognisable amongst them being that of co-producer Mark Waldrep of AIX Records fame. Denon’s first high-resolution disc has been clearly aimed towards those looking for a one-stop showcase of both the format and associated playback hardware, and as such it contains a diverse range of music together with a comprehensive selection of cuts to help calibrate and install one’s playback system.

Calibration should always come first, but it is actually the third section on Denon’s disc. Understandable if the first musical selection began upon disc insertion, but it doesn’t no matter how long you wait, which means menu navigation is required. It’s disappointing to find that Denon Classics haven’t been paying attention to WG-4’s latest disc navigation and playback guidelines…

The calibration chapters, all thirty-four of them, are remarkably comprehensive, but there’s a problem. Nobody has bothered to explain, either on the disc or in the accompanying booklet what any of the test tracks do or what one should be listening out for. Chapter thirty is ‘Surround Check – 1/1oct. Band Noise with Reverberation 125Hz > 1kHz > 8kHz’ …and? After many years in the field, even I’m not 100% sure what I’m supposed to be doing with such a test, I can only guess, so those who are new to multi-channel audio, the very people at whom the disc is aimed, are likely to be completely baffled. The idea is good and Denon are to be congratulated for making an attempt to improve the standard of DVD-Audio playback, it’s just a shame that their efforts have been devalued due to the lack of any accompanying documentation. The front of the disc states that it contains “…instructions on how to set up and evaluate your 5.1 surround playback system…” but all I could find was a brief paragraph which in part reads “…refer to the manual that accompanied your DVD player for hook up and speaker placement suggestions.

The meatiest musical segment is that containing the nine classical excerpts, opening with ‘Also Sprach Zarathiustra’ by Richard Strauss, performed by Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt. Widely recognised as the theme for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ the piece grumbles menacingly and builds into an impressive crescendo, but I was instantly struck by its aggressive high frequencies and an edgy, raucous bite to the brass section.

The second cut is a short passage from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, performed by the Saatskapelle Berlin and conducted by Otmar Suitner. Its fidelity is markedly superior to the proceeding track as it boasts a more even and refined nature, but is ruined by the ridiculously fast tempo dictated by Suitner who is either desperate for the toilet or rushing to catch the last bus home.

A section from Hдndel’s ‘Music From the Royal Fireworks’ follows and it’s also excruciatingly bright, compounded because of the nature of the work and the instruments used, some brass sections for example, are only one stage removed from the sound of a swarm of bees and the ending is marred by an unnatural and premature fade. The performance is excellent however, as one would expect from I Solsti Italiani. The same ensemble also plays Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’ from ‘The Four Seasons’, but this piece is more even tempered with a wide dynamic range and excellent clarity, yet for some reason the track is significantly louder than any of those that precede it so you’ll probably be reaching for the volume control…

I’ve mixed feelings about the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s presentation of Dvorбk’s ‘Coming Home’ (from the second movement of ‘From the New World’). The rendition of the piece is outstanding, on a par even with Harnoncourt’s Teldec recording and the fidelity acceptable, there’s ample low frequency grunt and no sign of high frequency aggression. Yet quite unlike the Teldec version, I felt the dynamic range of the piece had been curtailed somewhat and there is also a good deal of ambient noise, paper and feet shuffling throughout many of the quieter passages. If you’re enjoying the performance, as I was, you’ll also be disappointed by another abrupt fade into…

March to the Scaffold’ from the ‘Symphony Fantastique’ by Berlioz, conducted by Eliahu Inbal and played by the Radio Sinfonie Orchester, Frankfurt. It’s at this point that disc fidelity takes another downturn. Horns are raspy, the brass swamps the remainder of the orchestra and the dynamic range has obvious compromises, quiet passages are unnaturally loud and leave little headroom for the full orchestra.

Next up is the 1812 excerpt and here it pays to heed Denon’s warnings about excessive dynamic range, the digitally recorded cannons are certainly loud, really loud in fact, but one gets the distinct impression that their place within the music is simply for ‘effect’, rather than the original artistic intent. In fact, this version of the 1812 from Compendiamusic Inc. has more in common with the opening of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ than Tchaikovsky’s original score, especially when the Royal Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Simonov reach the final passage, which is jazzed-up almost beyond recognition. Fidelity is also disappointing – leaving aside the thunderous cannon explosions – as the orchestra has a lacklustre, dull character, a stark contrast to the ‘uber-bright’ Strauss and Handel.

The conclusion to Beethoven’s ninth ‘Choral’ symphony, also performed by the Saatskapelle Berlin, suffers from what is a flawed recording; soloists are far too forward while the choir is decidedly distant, to the point of being indistinct. When the orchestra performs alone however, the balance and fidelity of the piece is excellent, which only makes the choral elements more disappointing. Dynamic range compression is an issue once again; both choir and orchestra together are only a shade louder than a solo triangle, which jumps out of the percussion section during the piece’s conclusion.

Mahler closes the classical section of the disc and it’s a strong finish, thankfully. Both orchestra and voices are finely balanced and the female soloist remains distinct even during the choral finale, which is quite a challenge for both recording engineer and performer.

In fidelity terms, the disc’s shorter Jazz section stomps all over all the classical selections, the RPO Pops, conducted by Henry Mancini play Pink Floyd’s ‘On the Turning Away’ and this track alone wipes the floor with anything the disc’s first section has to offer. Bass punch is excellent, dynamics wide and fluid and there’s an outstanding sense of presence to all the instruments involved.

Jumping at the Woodside’ is another clear winner, where all voices are clearly defined and easily legible, what a shame the same thing can’t be said for the Beethoven’s ninth excerpt. ‘Whirly Bird’ and ‘Stardust’ are equally impressive, but it’s ‘In the Shadows’ that takes top honours; a wonderful jazz recording where the drums have bite, punch and an uncanny vibrancy, bass is tuneful and all elements pin sharp.

The fidelity of the disc’s musical selections is so up and down that any reviewer worth his/her salt would feel compelled to describe them all, but when it comes to summarising the surround mix one has a far easier task. Although all selections are 3/2.1 MLP at 96kHz 24-bit, the entire disc is essentially a two-channel offering. Absolutely nothing happens in the surrounds, they simply convey subtle ambience, whereas the centre channel provides a moderate ‘fill’ between one’s front left and right loudspeakers. If you’re expecting a surround tour de force then disappointment is on the cards, but looking on the bright side there is nothing distracting or artificial about the surround presentation which should suit those who are not accustomed to music delivered from any more than two channels. There’s a 448kb/s Dolby Digital 3/2.1 option for DVD-Video backward compatibility, but no dedicated two-channel alternative for either DVD-Video or DVD-Audio platforms.

In summary, ‘Sonic Boom’ is a real hit and miss affair; some of the classical tracks are downright awful and yet all of the disc’s jazz selections are outstanding. I’ve awarded the disc a fidelity score of 60%, but based on the classical section alone it would have been 40% and on the jazz section, 90%. The big question is, whether the second section alone is worth the price of admission? Possibly, yes, and the comprehensive calibration chapters help too, even without any instruction as to how they should be used. However, what is clear from this sampler is that Denon’s forthcoming DVD-Audio discs have great potential and I for one will be watching the label closely.