Album Title: Mozart Clarinet Quintet K.581, Horn Quintet K.407, String Quartet K.169
Performers: The Old City String Quartet, Corey Klein, horn Ruokai Chen clarinet
Label: AIX 86065 (Blu-ray 3D)
Playing time: 62'50"
Recorded: June 11, 2010

The members of the Old City String Quartet are four young adults from the old city of Philadelphia. To me violinists Bryan Lee and Joel Link, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw were no strangers since my first encounter with their Blue Moon Award winning recording of Mendelssohn and Debussy Quartets [Unipheye Music UM-0205] back in July 2009. When I first heard them I’d thought they must be mature musicians with an average age in the  mid-thirties who had been collaborating for at least 10 years. My guess was wrong. At the time of that recording, they were about 19 or 20 and still studying at the Curtis Institute of Music on full scholarships.

Later that year, I also recommended Camden Shaw’s immaculate rendition of three immortal works for unaccompanied cello: Bach Suite No.5, Kodaly and Legeti’s Sonatas [Unipheye Music UM-0206]. Three years later, having graduated and won the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition 2010 Grand Prize and Gold Medal and traveled to Italy to participate in the Emilia Romagna Festival 2011 and concertized in uniquely historical venues in the region, the quartet members are now bringing us an all Mozart program in high definition and 3D video.

They perform the K.169 quartet and are joined by their fellow Curtis Institute graduates Roukai Chen and Corey Klein in the Clarinet Quintet K.581 and Horn Quintet K.407. In March 2012, the Quartet changed its name to the Dover Quartet in honor of their formation at the Curtis Institute of Music, after Samuel Barber's Dover Beach which was written for and premiered by the Curtis Quartet.

This is Mozart playing of the highest order. Blithe interplay and engaging dialogue between the players is effortlessly precise as though trigonometrically aligned to every complement of an entry angle or crossing of the intertwining phrasal arcs. Yet there is nothing mathematical or mechanical. The emotional values are calmly conveyed with a warm overtone in both the clarinet and horn quintets. These young musicians have natural amiable stage manners. They don’t have to act. Everything is in the music. Audiences will have no difficulties knowing how much they love their music.

Having said that, I must hasten to add that for a classical performance the video part was what I felt most comfortable giving a pass. I find the montage of wide shots and close-ups from various angles most incongruous with the music even though the two are perfectly in sync. Unlike operas or ballets, I’d rather view the entire concert in one take, full frame of the stage throughout. But I guess most people would find that less interesting and are used to switching to ‘movie mode’ when watching classical music videos.

The AIX 3D high-definition video has native resolution of 720p (1280 x 720) captured with Multiview Video Coding (MVC) cameras on a single video stream. That means the video signal is backward compatible with 2D equipment if you don’t have a 3D setup as in my case. First I watched the concert on Oppo’s BDP-83 through a Benq W1000 1080p projector. The visual quality was very natural and film like. Details were there if you wanted to look for them but wouldn’t jump out to grab you. Later I took the disc to an electronic store for a 3D demo. The details became razor sharp on their Samsung 60” LED TV. The 3D images looked like holograms as in the movie Avatar. Even the mic stands and pot of flowers on the stage looked three-dimensional.

Real HD Audio
is one major advocacy of AIX. As founder/producer/engineer Mark Waldrep put it:"A high definition recording is one that equals or exceeds the capabilities of human hearing. This means that the two most important parameters of recorded sound or music are the frequency response and dynamic range. According to my definition, a track that contains frequencies up to 48kHz or even more and a dynamic range approaching 130dB qualifies as HD. If the specs of a recording fall short of these numbers then it would be standard definition. As a result, CDs, analog tape and vinyl are all standard definition."

My audio system was a Restek Sector preamp (LR) + Winsome Labs Mouse (x4) driving Mark & Daniel Sapphire (LCR) and Topaz (RL/RS). Paired subwoofers were Yamaha YST-SW200, receiving audio signals from L, R and subwoofer out. HD audio and Mark & Daniel speakers are made for each other. Colors, textures, dynamics, every sonic attribute you’d crave was there. Perhaps most impressive and realistic was the energy of the performers and the density of their sound. Forgive the cliché, but it really was like being there.

One striking uniqueness about this AIX recording is its very strong sense of intimacy. While most surround sound recordings present us with the grandeur of a concert hall, this feels more like a private home gathering. Mark Waldrep received his Ph.D. for music with a sub-study in binaural sound. This gave him the advantage as an engineer to determine how his recorded music should sound like. He’s a big believer in XY and ORTF stereo miking because that best simulates human hearing with two ears and gives the best playback of imaging and sense of distance (or depth of stage in audiophile terms). Recording each musician with a pair of dedicated XY or ORTF microphones gives him the flexibility of shifting their relative perspective to rearrange the musical landscape. From what I can hear here, he applied that to surround sound recording with amazing results.

While I didn’t care much for the visuals, they nonetheless served well as virtual stage layout. The ensemble was arranged in a semi circle with the opening facing the camera (audience). Each player was miked using a stereo pair instead of a single microphone. (The upper strings were miked from above in XY configuration and the cello, clarinet and horn from the floor in ORTF configuration.) AIX was the first label to pioneer multiple mixes about 12 years ago by which the listener can choose between 5.1 stage mix or 5.1 audience mix and of course traditional 2.0 stereo. All three options are selectable through the Blu-ray player’s remote control. Switching over only pauses the video and mutes the audio for 1 or 2 seconds, then resumes. It would not stop or restart so ABC comparison are instantly revealing.

The difference is clear. Stage mix puts the listener onto the stage amongst the musicians. If your position is in line with the surround speakers, you feel like sitting right there in the opening spot of the circular layout. If your position is in the center of the five speakers, you are completely surrounded by the ensemble. Audience mix puts the listener in the best seat in the main floor of the recital hall although at a distance the three-dimensional high definition realism is still evident. Having tasted the sweets of 5.1, 2.0 stereo sounded flat by comparison.

All technicalities aside, music connoisseurs should be most impressed by how the musicianship was faithfully documented by an authentic one-take approach. The entire recorded work was never edited nor artificially manipulated. No dynamic processing, no equalization, no artificial reverb, just straight through the microphones onto 24bit/96kHz PCM audio master through mixing and balancing before being encoded/formatted into the Dolby TrueHD layers of the Blu-ray disc. No complicated upsampling conversion. Oops, I went technical again. To savor pure music in pure audio form, I moved to my favorite surround sound room with 12.4 speakers driven by mostly tube amps. The Blu-ray player was the 3D ready Oppo BDP-95 equipped with Sabre32 Reference Audio DAC. I turned off the 15" monitor after audience mix was selected. It’s one of the most involving moments despite Mozart not being my favorite.

One final word on one last technical tidbit. There’s a BD-ROM section on this disc for copying a variety of sound files for use in music servers or portable players: 24bit/96kHz FLAC, MP3 at 320 kbps and a 24bit/48kHz mix AIX calls Headphones[xi]™ that is designed to emulate surround playback in a set of phones.