The Every-Disc Player: Cambridge Audio 651BD


Available from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As a music lover, and especially as a reviewer for MusicWeb International, I am confronted with a number of different types of optical discs. CDs and DVDs are, of course, the most common, and have been around for a long time. But in the past couple of years, Blu-Ray discs have come into the market, and they are especially desirable for recordings of classical music concerts or operas.

But even CDs offer a variety of formats. In addition to regular CDs – which follow the “Red Book” standard – there are SACDs, and these come in two types: either in stereo or with multi-channel sound, and they are at a much higher resolution than standard CDs. While most SACDs sold today are hybrid – featuring a CD layer and an SACD layer – there are still some that are not. In addition to offering more channels or higher resolution, SACDs also offer much greater capacity, potentially providing a playing time that exceeds CDs.

Another format is the HDCD standard, which is not widely used. However, I have dozens of HDCD discs, because one of my favorite rock bands, Grateful Dead, issues all their recordings in this format. HDCD claims to offer better resolution than standard CDs, yet these discs are compatible with standard CD players.

There is one last form of “hybrid” disc: the DVD-A, or DVD-audio disc. This is a DVD, just like one used for a movie, but where there is little or no video. (There are generally only menus and/or still images.) The advantage of using DVD-A is longer playing time – up to several hours – and higher resolution files in stereo or multi-track.

When it comes to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, there are also audio formats that need to be decoded, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

So, with all these formats of optical discs, it can be very useful to have a device that can play them all. This is the case with the Cambridge Audio 651BD, which handles all of the above formats, including 3D Blu-Ray discs.

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Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100: Smaller Footprint, Higher Sample Rate


I’ve been following Cambridge Audio’s products since I reviewed the company’s original DacMagic for Macworld, back in 2010. The company has been kind enough to provide me samples of some of their devices, and I recently received a DacMagic 100, their newest DAC.

The DacMagic 100 is similar in concept to the original DacMagic, but is much smaller: it is 46 x 106 x 130mm (1.8 x 4.1 x 5.1″). To put that in perspective, it’s a bit smaller (length by width) than an Apple Magic Trackpad. It has four inputs: three digital inputs (two S/P DIF and one Toslink), and one USB input. So connecting this device to a Mac, you can either use a Toslink cable (this is a digital audio cable; all current Macs have headphone jacks which double as Toslink jacks) or a standard USB cable.

The front of the device has a power-on button, a source selector, and a display showing the incoming sample rate. One difference between the original DacMagic and the DacMagic 100 is that the new device goes up to 192 kHz; the original only supported up to 96 kHz. To be fair, most people won’t need this increased sample rate, as the majority of high-resolution music files sold are at 96 kHz, but some may want to use this, especially if they work with computers in a recording studio.

Output goes over standard RCA jacks. The original DacMagic (and the more recent DacMagic Plus) also have XLR outputs, which most people outside of recording studios won’t need.

So, the procedure is simple. In my case, using the Toslink connection, I run a Toslink cable from my Mac mini’s headphone jack to the DacMagic 100; it then connects to my amplifier. As with the DacMagic I had before, there is a noticeable improvement in detail, clarity and soundspace.

An external DAC replaces the internal chip in a computer or other device. While Macs have decent DACs, they are not designed for playing audio at high quality. Using an external device overrides the internal DAC in a computer, greatly improving the sound quality. You can also use a DAC such as this between a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player and your amplifier, to improve the sound of discs you play. There is a noticeable difference between the sound of an average DVD/Blu-Ray player and that of the same device with its audio running through a DAC>

The DacMagic 100 is not cheap. It is currently selling for $369 on Amazon.com. But it is an excellent device, offering great sound, and with four inputs, is flexible enough to serve either for a computer-based music system, or a more complete home entertainment system with multiple devices running through it. (For example, a DVD player, Apple TV and game console.)

Book Review: The Annotated Emerson

When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.

With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.

On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.

Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.

Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.

This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.

In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.

In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)

I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.

The First Ask the iTunes Guy Column on Macworld

About a month ago, Macworld announced that I would be “the iTunes Guy” for a new column where readers send in questions about using iTunes, iPods and other iOS devices. The response was overwhelming, and we’ve gotten a couple hundred e-mails already, just from that single announcement. Because of this, current plans are to run this column more frequently than what was initially planned, assuming, of course, that we keep getting so many questions.

Today, the first Ask the iTunes Guy column has gone live on the Macworld web site. I chose to focus on iTunes Match, as there are many issues and questions about this new service. Have no fear, though, future columns (I’ve already written several) will cover other aspects of working with iTunes: managing a library, ripping CDs, tagging files, working with playlists, and much more.

So, if you have iTunes questions, head over to the Macworld website and send yours in.

New Audiobook: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, in English

As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).

The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.

Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.

If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.

Buy Swann’s Way on Amazon.com or Amazon UK.

Here’s a sample of Neville Jason reading the famous “madeleine” scene: