May 15, 2007
Nanotec-Systems Nespa Pro Optical Disc Finalizer
Some audiophiles have been whining about the alleged inferiority of CDs for so long that many newcomers to the hobby simply accept it as fact. Then they go out and buy a CD player. But what is one to do? At least 80% of my CD collection is unavailable on LP, and LPs in good condition are hard to find in numbers large enough to offer a reasonable choice when youre looking for just the right thing to play. Recent vinyl reissues are nice but expensive, and very boring. Does anyone actually listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival anymore?
But LPs have always given us a sense of control. A turntable system is so imperfect, has so many ways of going adrift, and can be adjusted in so many ways, that playing a record properly has always separated the audiophile from the average foot-tapper. We have a hand in the outcome. It takes skill. With the CD, to paraphrase my favorite Audio Critic cartoon, all we have to do is listen to the damn music.
Enter Nanotec-Systems, a Japanese company that sells a wide variety of tweaks, from the Minus Ion Disc to improve DVD picture quality to an ultra-high-grade motor-oil additive "for the person who wants a silent environment to enjoy car audio." Their Nespa Pro Optical Disc Finalizer ($825 USD) offers at least the possibility of some control over the sound of CDs -- certainly more than a CD player does. Nanotec offers, according to their delightfully fractured English, more hall ambience, broader and higher images, and better instrumental definition (especially of piano), as well as improved vocals, dynamics, and even sound level (although the volume control can usually take care of that). Thats a lot to deliver in a single tweak, but such promises are not unusual for makers of tweaks.
The Nespa Pro is a plain-looking thing: a black metal box about the size of a paperback, with a standard AC adapter in back. You flip up the cover (its a top-loader), place a CD on the little spindle so that it covers a window with a bulb behind it, set the counter for 30, 60, or 120 flashes, close the lid, and it starts popping away like a paparazzo.
Yes, I know what youre thinking, but thats no ordinary flashbulb in there. Nanotec loves numbers, especially very small and very big ones. Their oil additive, for instance, contains silver particles that are eight nanometers in diameter. The bulb in the Nespa Pro boasts an intensity of 3,000,000 lux, up from a mere 1,000,000 in the original Nespa. If one ordinary candle gives off 10 lux and sunlight, at its most intense, is 100,000, then the unimposing little Nespa Pro packs the power of 300,000 candles or -- thats right -- 30 suns. Forget polarized glasses; wed all be blind or living in caves.
OK, its bright. So, as Miles Davis used say, what? How do those big light numbers translate into sound, and am I really supposed to put my CDs in there?
Nanotec thinks it may have something to do with argon gas, which gets trapped between the CDs pitted metal layer and its polycarbonate body during manufacture. The Nespa Pros super-intense light, they opine, either destroys the argon outright or drives it out, possibly through a maze of submicroscopic passageways in the disc material itself, and from thence into the atmosphere. Once the gas is dissipated, the metal layer can relax, sinking even deeper and more securely into its pits. As a result, your laser presumably will have less trouble navigating pits and land (the unpitted area of the discs surface); no longer will it glance off raised edges that should have been flush with the land, or bounce over giant gas bubbles at the bottom of pits, which evidently play havoc with all aspects of digital sound and may even be responsible for digititis itself, and our overall distrust, even hatred, of the format. Thats the theory, anyway.
My review system features a dCS Verdi and Delius front end, Audio Physic Virgo loudspeakers, a Z-Systems rdp-1 digital preamp, VAC Renaissance 30/30 Mk.III power amp with Signature upgrade (stock tubes), and SRA V-series bases under all components.
Judging the Nespa Pro seemed at first to be childs play. Theres nothing to interact with the rest of your system and nothing is affected but the discs, so its a perfectly controlled experiment. Just treat a CD, leave another copy of the same title untreated, mark one, then shuffle and put one in the disc drawer. The problem, of course, is acquiring enough duplicates. Because I pay for all my discs, I decided that eight or so would have to suffice. For those, I chose only recordings Ive known and loved through hundreds of playings. Then, to increase the sample size, I treated one disc in each of a half-dozen two-disc sets (no anthologies, of course), and referred more casually but just as often to the pile of frequently played discs (30 or so) Id run through in a flashing frenzy the first two nights I had the Nespa in-house. At this point Id yet to discover Exact Audio Copy, a terrific program that makes just what it says it makes. Eventually, all the discs I would Nespa would be EACs.
But after hearing the first result, I was no longer thinking about procedure. For years, Mozarts Divertimento in E-flat Major, K.563, performed by the Leopold String Trio [Hyperion CDA67246], has been one of my favorite chamber-music recordings. My system hasnt changed significantly in a long time, yet I was immediately struck by what I thought sounded like a different recording. Missing was a subtle but unmistakable edge to the strings, and each instrument seemed more visible against the obligatory blacker background, fitting more deftly into its place in the soundstage. I didnt notice any other changes, but at this point I didnt care, either. I was on to something, however unexpected.
Not all the discs in my longtime reference group had quite this impact on me after being treated by the Nespa Pro, but there were some pleasant surprises. The Williamson Brothers, a bluegrass duo from North Carolina, recorded a terrific album, Still Light of the Evening [Wildchild! 08952], but, like most of parent label Mapleshades output, its only slightly brighter than the Nespas 3 million lux. After a 30-flash spin, the boys gorgeous, high-flying harmonies sounded slightly more masculine. The mandolin and banjo were less irritatingly piercing, allowing the bass to lift its head and contribute more. It sounded as if the whole presentation had been slightly shelved down in frequency. Once again, the imaging had less of a billowy, floating quality; it was pinpoint-precise.
Handels keyboard suites, in their definitive versions by Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov [EMI 69340], feature a very live-sounding stage that bristles with such details as turning pages, nicely layered coughs, and, of course, wonderfully delineated piano. Unfortunately, the room is extremely reverberant, making the keyboards, especially Richters, sound like the house piano at the Five Spot. On a system that leans toward brightness, you may think this recording overrated. But after the disc had taken a ride in the Nespa, again at only 30 flashes, I was surprised to hear that, compared to the other discs in this set, some of the clang had been dissipated, leaving what sounded like more of the fat middle of each note.
Before I report on my long-haul listening to my Nespad discs, you need to know that these differences Im talking about were subtle. There was no wow factor, no wives bursting into the listening room waving checkbooks. The magnitude of the Nespa Pros effect fell somewhere between a new interconnect and landing on the correct polarity. Still, after those quick track comparisons, I wanted to flash my entire collection before returning the review sample. (Its bulb would have burned out long before Id finished, necessitating shipping it back to Japan for a new one.) Lucky for me, I dont trust quick A/B comparisons.
Diane Hubka is easily my favorite working singer. I must have listened to her last album, You Inspire Me [VSOJAZ], 200 times. She specializes in avoiding old warhorses and instead singing seldom-recorded standards and little-known originals, and she really sings out instead of whispering or slowing everything down to a recitation. On "Sunday in New York," her sexy soprano rides a carpet of studio ambience that can only be called lush, reminding me of the deep groove rush on an LP just before the music starts. It makes her voice bigger. It wasnt until that track, the 11th on the disc, that I began to get the nagging feeling that I was missing something, and a nagging feeling of any kind is the last thing an audiophile needs. Theyre usually expensive. But Hubkas voice was definitely thinner, and though the guitars of Bucky Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola were a little better defined in space, they were also a little less splashy, less exciting. No colors bled over the lines.
I got the same feeling listening long-term to vibraphonist Joe Lockes Very Early [Steeplechase SCCD31364], an album every vibes guy should own. Here vibes really ring, just as they do when youre in the room with them. Its a glassy sound that just keeps going, and the aftermath of one note seems to hang for a moment into the next. At first, I was pleased by the Nespad versions ability to separate the notes and clear away some of the overload from the drums and bass -- I could see the instrument better.
But listening for a while to the non-Nespad copy opened my ears: Now I was getting much more of the cloud of sustain around the notes, which made the whole thing just seem wetter and more realistic. Close-miked acoustic instruments playing together often sound muddled. Tame the resonance, get more of the middle of each note and less of the cloud, and youve got a much more orderly recording. But youve also got a recording that, for me, is less realistic and more traditionally digital. The last time I heard changes like these was when I temporarily switched to a solid-state amp after a tube gave out in my VAC 30/30. The formerly floaty soundstage, which had seemed to spread in every direction, became sharply focused, every note a bullet and right on target. I enjoyed being locked in for a while -- then longed for the resonance, sustain, and ambience I was missing.
So back and forth I went, one night listening to a stack of treated discs, the next night nothing but originals. Then, while reading a great new book about the battle of Midway, the truth hit home. Drifting through my room was Charlie Haden and Pat Methenys Beyond the Missouri Sky [Verve 314537130-2], a gorgeous album of acoustic guitar and bass that, like the Joe Locke disc, sounds very thick and very close. I had figured 60 Nespa flashes for this one. I didnt hear quite the level of difference Id heard with Very Early, but I did sense increased clarity. Suddenly, a bomb fell through the deck. Static. Then silence. Then music. Then more silence. My first thought was tube trouble, but the lights on the VAC were all green. No, it was the CD. Huge dropouts, ugly gaping holes ripped through the music. I sat stiffly, listening to the rest of the carnage unfold. Well, at least now I thought I knew what was happening.
It seemed I was losing information! Yes, the halo of brightness around a trumpet no longer bothered me, but it no longer delighted me, either. Yes, the Locke disc sounded less cluttered. You can argue that all the missing information was bad information and good riddance, or that every vibration included on a recording increases its realism. When mastering engineers are faced with putting material from 78s onto CD, they often choose to employ the CEDAR process, which gets rid of annoying ticks and pops at the cost of some high-frequency information. Done properly, the CEDAR treatment results in clean, clear, digital-sounding recordings. But when compared to a warts-and-all straight transfer, theres no contest. Then instruments vibrate the way they do in real life, the upper harmonics as well as the lower, along with the occasional tick. I dont know how the Nespa burns off this information. If it made every disc sound like DCCs Steve Hoffman had remastered it, I wouldnt care how it worked, either. Id buy three.
After discovering how to copy discs via EAC and resolving never to place in the Nespa another CD Id paid for with my own money, I made myself a sampler to treat. The Nespa isnt supposed to have the same effect on burned-at-home CDs it does on factory-made ones, and since I dont remember using any argon in the process, I was prepared for a non-event. But when I fired up Parkers Mood, Roy Hargroves collaboration with Stephen Scott and Christian McBride [Verve 314527907], his trumpets overtones, which can make me wince on certain notes, had mellowed. Scotts piano, formerly as clangy as Richters, had smoothed out. The effect was very nearly the same as placing a rack of overcoats between the speakers. Not unpleasant, by any means, but if it requires enduring a bit of an edge to get all of the upper harmonics and room ambience, put me down for some edge. Never in my life have I heard a trumpet in a jazz club that didnt make me wince a time or two. Theyre made out of metal.
If you want to, you can change the sound of every CD in your collection all at once, with no effort or damage to the music, with a nice new interconnect. And the interconnect will never burn out. If, after a while, you dont like that sound anymore, you can pull the interconnect from your rig like a bad tooth and sell it on the Internet. Put the original cable back in place and aural order is restored. But if youve altered enough of your favorite discs, youre going to be chasing a sound you may never hear again.
Finalizer? Final is a long time. What happens if, after enjoying your "creations" for a while, you tire of them, as I did? The kicker is that you have no idea how the disc is going to sound before you treat it with Nanotec-Systems Nespa Pro Optical Disc Finalizer. Yes, generally speaking, a bit of sparkle was missing from instruments that produced a lot of treble. Resonance from instruments with big, hollow bodies, like basses and guitars, was also somewhat reduced, putting more emphasis on the sound of the strings. Images seemed smaller, tighter, more focused. But you cant know for sure beforehand. The Nespa Pro has no controls, no settings, no guidelines other than "If 30 doesnt do it, try 60."
Seems like quite a risk to me.
Nanotec-Systems Nespa Pro Optical Disc Finalizer
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