By Andy Fawcett
As it transpires, most of what I’m about to tell you is not new — though, it was new to me, and thus hopefully merits the repetition. It is, however, tinged with craziness; most practitioners of this strange hobby of ours are probably quite comfortable with that, while hardcore rationalists will benefit from leaving their incredulity at the door.
Most of us probably burn the occasional CD-R; perhaps a disposable copy for playing in the car, or a compilation to impress our audio buddies. Thanks to the considerable computer processing power we all have at our disposal and the amazing ability of dirt-cheap CD burner drives to encode accurately at high speeds, the theory says that we can produce exact duplicates of our original digital data. “Digits is digits”, or so we’re told.
The reality, though, is that when auditioned in a decent system, the burned disc typically sounds a little less impressive than the original … despite the computer confirming that its data is bit-for-bit identical. Unless you plan to immerse yourself in the geekery of different burner brands, burn speeds etc. (there are whole online forums dedicated to it!), that’s probably where you’d leave it; near enough is good enough.
Since the early days of optical disc replay, there has always been a hardcore fringe convinced that there was more to getting the data off the disc than the theory suggested. Various types of disc stabiliser were sold, for instance, aimed at making it easier for the laser to read the fast-spinning slab of polycarbonate (though many sceptics believed that software error correction made that unnecessary). One of the most controversial of those early tweeks was the famous “green marker pen”, where some claimed to be able to hear the effect of a ring of green ink, traced around the outer circumference on the disc’s label side. It was proposed that the ink might somehow absorb stray or diffracted laser light – being a late adopter of CD, the novelty had passed and I never tried it myself, so I really can’t say. You’ll see soon enough why I’ve mentioned it, though.
The game seems to change when you use “black” CD-R discs. Infused with a dark purple dye, they are still reflective but not mirror-like, as is a conventional silver disc. Indeed, one’s instinctive reaction is to doubt their ability to play at all … though experience suggests that very few players actually have any difficulty with them. In use, then, they are no different to any other CD-R. Compare a recording burned to a black disc against the same recording burned to a silver disc, though, and the likelihood is that the black disc will sound noticeably, even significantly better. There’s a sense of clarity and dynamic expression to the black disc that leaves the silver copy sounding horribly muddy. As I said in the introduction, I claim no originality for this assertion – some belated research proves that it was made on the 6Moons site as far back as 2003 – but a number of friends have tried it, and the verdict has been unanimous. Can it be explained? Well, it seems plausible to me that the disc’s dark surface might result in less stray laser light bouncing around inside the drive and diffracted within the disc itself; in a similar way (though more effectively) to the “green marker pen” tweek of yore. I’m no engineer, though (you’d guessed that, hadn’t you?!), and I wouldn’t wish to debate it. The sonic evidence is plenty convincing enough on its own.
Then we get into slightly more worrying territory. You see, when you compare the duplicate copy on the black disc, not to another duplicate but to the original disc it was duplicated from … it sounds better than that, too! This is the point at which logic takes a back seat. Sure, the black disc may indeed be easier to read, but having been duplicated from the original silver disc it can surely not contain a significantly ‘better’ datastream than was read from that in the first place? Well, actually the complex mathematics of digital sampling does allow for the possibility that a first-generation copy can marginally surpass the original; but I don’t think that’s what I’m hearing. Again, I have petition only to the sonic results … which were compelling enough to convince one enthusiast I know to invest in a top-flight burner and duplicate his entire CD collection to black discs. He says he finds the originals unlistenable! Only with one player among those I’ve tried has the black disc’s superiority not been readily apparent, so it seems that hardware can be a factor too.
Black CD-Rs are apparently widely available in the US (under the Memorex brand), at a price very similar to conventional discs – so there’s no reason not to give them a try. I don’t know what the situation is in Europe, but no black discs are officially imported into Australia; postage costs make personal importation expensive and, after much googling, I was finally able to track down a local source (quick and reliable, and prices are good, too!).
Meanwhile, a friend had obtained some of the AudioXsell black CD-Rs, sold online at a very reasonable price. The dye in these appears more dark blue than purple; whatever the reason, they do seem to sound marginally better than the other black discs I’ve been using. A strong word of caution, though – my several attempts to e-mail the company have not elicited any reply (this from an online business!), while they have taken a large sum of money from a contact of mine and failed either to supply the discs or to respond to his messages. You have been warned.