in: News & Features

February 8, 2013

BSO Concerts: 12 Ways to Listen Without Being There

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RKOlogoThough BMInt and its readers have for some time rued the loss of the live Friday afternoon broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, we are very happy to acknowledge that WCRB and Classical New England as well as the BSO itself have greatly expanded the possibilities for listening to the BSO’s Saturday night performances. There are now 12 different ways to tune in, and Classical New England is about to announce a 13th. BMInt is very curious about this plethora of signals. So we began by asking the BSO’s Director of Public Relations Bernadette Horgan why the BSO and Classical New England offer exactly the same on-demand concerts on their respective sites and what the BSO is planning for the web.

Since WGBH and the BSO each have their own online visitor base, it makes sense to offer the broadcasts through both sites in order to capture the greatest number of listeners most passionate about the BSO’s online concert recordings. At present, this makes the most sense, but since the possibilities for disseminating content are always changing, we’re regularly reviewing the options on how to best reach both our actual and potential audience for recorded online concert content.

It was only last April when the BSO announced that it would offer online streaming of BSO, Pops, and Tanglewood concerts on its site, www.bso.org., in partnership with 99.5 Classical New England—a big step for any performing arts organization. Following on that success, we’re now in the planning stages of defining the BSO’s next step in providing additional online performance content, though we won’t have anything new to announce on this subject until we’ve completed that process. That being said, any further steps in online content need to be carefully considered in relationship to the orchestra’s primary focus on the live concert experience, the cost-profit ratio involved in providing additional online content, and any additional fundraising measures that might be needed to support any possible new offerings.

Classical New England’s Managing Director of Classical Services Benjamin Roe responded:

As far as I’m concerned, the more opportunities that listeners have to access BSO broadcasts, the better it is for both organizations. One thing we’ve learned in the world of digital media is that it’s not a zero-sum game, e.g., one organization’s success is not another one’s loss. Opening pathways to experiencing the excellence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a live performance setting—which, in my view, includes the quality of the broadcast recording, production, and commentary—is also why we’ve revived a syndication network of public radio stations around New England, and actively pursued the occasional opportunities to share these concerts on both a national and international basis with NPR, American Public Media, and such European broadcasters as the BBC, France Musique, and ORF (Austrian Radio).

To help our readers navigate our dozen local choices, we enlisted the help of the Boston Audio Society (BAS), an independent nonprofit member-supported organization promoting the highest quality of music reproduction and home theater as well as high standards in recording and transmission. Longterm BAS members Stephen Owades (who happens also to be a 43-year veteran of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) and John S. Allen prepared the following report based on their and fellow members’ exhaustive analyses. [FLE]

BAS members identified, digitally recorded, auditioned, measured and reviewed 11 different transmissions of the Boston Symphony concert from October 13 th, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony. Owades collected the different versions and analyzed them for dynamic range and frequency content.

The 11 sources are as follows:

At the December meeting of the BAS in the spacious listening room of a member who has high-quality, smooth and wideband playback equipment, we listened in stereo, using only one speaker each for the right and left channels, plus a subwoofer. Owades played the same excerpt from each version, and asked attendees to write down comments without knowing which was which. Following the listening session, Owades revealed the sources of the excerpts and showed graphic displays of waveforms and frequency spectra. He also showed a table comparing the dynamic range of the different versions. His clear conclusion, supported by the comments, was that the on-demand and Concert Channel streams were both substantially better-sounding than any of the live or delayed broadcasts and streams. The latter suffer the dynamic compression used for everything that goes through the main signal path at WGBH. Owades’s measurements in fact showed that the WCRB analog signal, for whatever reason, had substantially less compression than the other broadcast signals.

Owades and many other BAS members don’t necessarily fault WGBH for its choice to compress certain broadcast signals, since many people listening casually or in noisy environments may well prefer the compressed version (which is done pretty well). But if you want to hear these concerts at their best, the on-demand and Concert Channel streams are definitely the way to go. These streams have the same dynamics as the master recording, and sound essentially identical to it.

The HD broadcasts appear to suffer some further audible degradation due to their low data rate, especially the WGBH HD2 broadcast, which shares digital bandwidth with the main WGBH program and has half the data rate of the WCRB HD signal.

The usual way to reduce the data rate of digital audio is to omit frequency bands which are quiet enough that sounds in other bands are judged to mask them, also to adjust the precision of encoding in bands which are transmitted. HD radio uses another, extraordinary method: all frequencies above 8 kHz are synthesized. This was obvious in the spectral displays, where they had a different appearance from lower frequencies. The encoding and synthesis apparently resulted in a treble rolloff, noticeable in the WGBH HD2 signal—though that remains to be confirmed: it also could possibly have resulted from the tuner and recorder which captured that signal.

An important feature of the digital signals, however, is that they are noise-free, and that the WGBH HD2 signal is strong in areas south of Boston and behind hills, where the WCRB signals—both digital and analog—are weak. Digital signals never distort due to multiple signal paths, and can bridge noise pulses and short signal dropouts without audible loss. Digital reception, of course, requires a digital receiver, and it is also very much an “all or nothing” proposition. As an analog signal weakens, it gets noisy in stereo, must be switched to mono to quiet the noise, and then finally turns noisy even in mono. A digital signal is either received well or not at all. In a moving vehicle, or with a marginal signal, digital reception may be intermittent. On WCRB HD or WGBH HD1, a tuner will switch to the analog signal if the digital signal becomes too weak; there may be some audible glitching as it switches. On WGBH HD2, the tuner will go silent, because there is no analog backup for the second HD signal.

Analog FM stereo is bandwidth-limited to 15 kHz, to maintain a guardband between the baseband mono signal and stereo separation signals. Somewhat to Owades’s surprise, all of the Internet streams also were lowpassed at 15 kHz, though there is no technical need for this. The bandwidth restriction would not be noticeable to listeners. Only the master recording preserved signals up to the limit of (unimpaired) human hearing.

The on-demand channel has a lower data rate than the Concert Channel, and so, at least theoretically, is less faithful to the master, but it is far more user-friendly. Brian McCreath of WGBH has told Owades that WGBH has “re-architected” the BSO Concert Channel. It is still a continuous loop of one concert after another, but it now contains only the music portion of each BSO program: no announcements, extended applause, or features. There is metadata identifying and elucidating the performances embedded in the stream, but most players and apps can’t read this metadata, and thus, since one can’t identify what one is hearing, the Concert Channel is suited chiefly for background music even though it’s the best-sounding option of all. An iPhone app called “TuneIn” is able to display a portion of the metadata for that channel (the work and composer), but not the performers or performance date. So if you want to listen to a particular piece from a particular concert, the BSO Concert Channel will be of little help.

BAS members have also recorded all the live and delayed broadcast versions of the Verdi Requiem broadcast of January 19, 2013. These will be reviewed along with the master, on-demand and Concert Channel recordings at the society’s upcoming meeting at the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio. Multiple recordings were made of WGBH HD2, so it will be possible to determine the reason for the treble rolloff. A detailed summary of both meetings will be published in the quarterly BAS newsletter, the BAS Speaker, available to members in print or electronically (selected back issues are electronically available to the public).

More information about the Boston Audio Society, including dues and times and location of upcoming meetings, is here.

24 Comments

  1. Encourage to learn that there are still societies so devoted to minutiae.

    It would be interesting to know whether the free availability of BSO concerts, so well documented here, helps or hurts ticket sales.

    Comment by de novo2 — February 9, 2013 at 10:32 pm

  2. Thanks. The BAS has been in existence continuously for over 40 years, with membership numbering from the hundreds down to a fraction of that. Some of us are amateur musicians as well as audiophiles, and as many if not more do work as occasional recording engineers. One penchant that sets us apart from most other audio hobbyists’ clubs over the decades and around the world is a keen and unwavering interest in scientific approaches to audio.

    Comment by David Moran — February 10, 2013 at 1:45 am

  3. This was a truly informative investigation, meticulously done and reported.
    It does, unfortunately, reveal more of GBH/CRB perversity: The outlet
    useful for background listening (Musak?) is allocated 50% more bit rate than
    those used for selective, attentive listening.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 14, 2013 at 8:56 am

  4. Sorry; confused. Which “outlet” are you referring to? All the ones listed are for the regular classical programing, no Muzak.

    Comment by David Moran — February 14, 2013 at 2:34 pm

  5. I assume Marty meant muzak rather than Muzak. He was probably expanding on Owades’s statement that “…the Concert Channel is suited chiefly for background music even though it’s the best-sounding option of all.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm

  6. Lee is right; I was being snide.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 17, 2013 at 10:29 am

  7. A few weeks ago (before I read this article) I tried to listen to the live BSO broadcast via internet radio and I just found the compression too painful. I don’t mind listening in the car; you need the compression and the limitations of the car stereo cover a multitude of sins.

    If you’re curious about what I was listening on, the newest part is a Grace Digital Tuner (the one that actually looks like a stereo component). The rest of the chain is ancient but still good: NAD 116 preamplifier, NAD 216 TXH power amplifier, and a pair of Rectilinear III highboy speakers.

    Right now I’m upstairs at my computer listening to the BSO Concert Channel and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto number 1 is splendid on my mid-fi system: Lenovo IdeaCenter Q150 computer, Onkyo TX-8211 receiver and TDC 3 speakers. (The only way you know what those speakers are is if you lived in the Boston / Cambridge area in 1971.)

    Two questions:

    1. Is there any way to know what’s playing on the Concert Channel? (Now it’s Prokofiev; I think Symphony number 6 but I’m not sure.)

    2. Is there any way to get the Concert Channel on a stand-alone Internet Radio?

    Comment by Mark Lutton — February 17, 2013 at 5:16 pm

  8. Mark, the Concert Channel does come with cue-sheet that indicates title and composer. Unfortunately,no conductors, musicians or rerecorded date. The idea to remove any commentary from the loop was as dumb move as it could be but it is kind of predictable nowadays from WCRB, isn’t it? It is kind of dead on arrival with barbaric MP3 digital compression, rate conversion and many other nasty things. I wish they keep the original 48x clock and 320kbit rate or at least 256 but they are way behind the curve.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — February 17, 2013 at 5:42 pm

  9. Mark L:

    You can see at least what is currently on and upcoming (one selection) just by going to

    http://audio.wgbh.org:8106/index.html?sid=1

    And you can also paste the first part of that url into Winamp or VLC and probably some of the other players, to use their EQ if you like. If you can live with ignorance (easy to google performance and performer info), the 192k sound is spectacular, Romy again to the contrary, and uncompressed.

    And not that you asked, but make sure that all of the larger drivers in your Rectilnear have been resurrounded (‘refoamed’), and you can easily do much much better than your TDCs; no reason to be midfi with a desktop system.

    Comment by David Moran — February 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

  10. That link is very interesting. It tells us that the peak number of listeners was 15.

    Comment by de novo2 — February 17, 2013 at 7:31 pm

  11. David Moran wrote: …the 192k sound is spectacular, Romy again to the contrary, and uncompressed.

    Yes, it is very emblematic for morons from Boston Audio Society, it what Russians call “Woe from Wit”… It turns out that 192k does not use any digital compression. How indicative!

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 19, 2013 at 12:42 pm

  12. Ah, the namecalling is back; that new gentler Romy could last only so long, or was an impostor.

    >> It turns out that 192k does not use any digital compression.

    One wonders what this could possibly mean. It should not be called moronic or any other name because it clearly arises from language comprehension difficulty. 192k is data-reduced by definition, but has no dynamic-range compression.

    Everyone else, listen for yourself to the Concert Channel at a healthy level and see what you think of the sound. The recent Sibelius and Shostakovich, wow. It’s like the old days of ‘Adventures in Sound’ except no FM background noise.

    Comment by David Moran — February 19, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  13. The Moron, I said above: “dead on arrival with barbaric MP3 digital compression” and you immediately popup with your sophomoric desire to disagree with m,e insisting that the 192k is uncompressed. Regardless if you understand the difference between digital compression and dynamic compression, calling you idiot was not a “name calling” but highlighting of your actual definition, meaning and purpose. You need to be swollen with pride that I humiliated myself by replaying to you.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  14. Criminy, whoever said 192 is not data-‘compressed’? Not I; all I pointed out is how fine the BSO sound is on its Concert Channel. As for getting so ugly again with anyone who corrects your errors, or only disagrees with you, we have all been there. Your language simply makes this fascinating and helpful site resemble others: foul, obnoxious, frightening to participate in.

    Comment by David Moran — February 19, 2013 at 3:11 pm

  15. From time to time I apparently need to remind commenters that they need to exhibit good manners. Since I have no intention of moderating individual comments, my only recourse is to un-approve individuals who breach decorum.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 19, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  16. David says: “Criminy, whoever said 192 is not data-’compressed’? Not I; all I pointed out is how fine the BSO sound is on its Concert Channel.” As I posted elsewhere, at about 192kbps the difference between data-reduced and full-data audio is EXTEMELY difficult to detect.

    THE problem, as I’ll restate here, is the horrible miking of the orchestra that in no way sounds like the BSO I have heard in person at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm

  17. >> in no way sounds like the BSO I have heard in person at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.

    Not disagreeing or picking a fight (see my comments to you after other BSO article), but I, and I think most people, do not typically want to hear quite what they hear in SH. Of course it depends on seating: I just the other night (Strav and Haydn) sat in W center, a rare occurrence for me, and it was quite like a grand, wondrous stereo soundfield. But many other seats are (still enjoyably) more like mono with the treble turned all the way down plus a little ambiance. So sophisticated reasonable people can disagree about miking, soundstage image, and solo prominence. (And do!)

    Comment by David Moran — March 4, 2013 at 4:11 pm

  18. I agree with Lee: this is not a “blog”, for venting without evidence or qualifications.
    It is an exchange among polite and competent listeners.

    If users abuse the space, they should be barred. My preference would be forever, but
    if the Publisher disagrees, then, let’s say for six months or a year.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 4, 2013 at 8:21 pm

  19. Don Drewecki said: about 192kbps the difference between data-reduced and full-data audio is EXTEMELY difficult to detect.

    Don, if it is your position then I can only assure you that you have very little idea what to listen while you are listening. It is very common in pro-audio industry, so you are very much not alone.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  20. Sometimes I feel like my hearing has decayed in the SH. The truth is, one has to be in front half of the hall on the floor to get good sound, which is probably the primary reason for going to the SH to hear live concerts. I really don’t care how may ways to listen to BSO. There are thousands of CDs to listen to.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm

  21. It is said that Seiji Ozawa thought the best sound was in the center of the back row of the second balcony. My seat for two of the series I subscribe to — Ist Balcony Left, C 37 (last block of seats on the side) — is probably not be the best, acoustically, but the sound still seems fuller than over the radio. The location, on an aisle in that corner of the hall also has its benefits: quick access to the espresso line at intermission, and even quicker access to the coat room line at the end of the concert.

    Seeing the music being played and conducted can sometimes create distractions — focusing on one detail, and losing track of the whole; but I think it’s worth it for the overall sound and experience of the music and the chance to applaud the performers.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 5, 2013 at 6:14 pm

  22. >> I can only assure you that you have very little idea what to listen while you are listening. It is very common in pro-audio industry,

    Romy, a serious question not related to supernatural hearing and the blind-tested transparency of CRB/BSO 192k streaming (the highest quality online by far):

    How do you think BMint readers should hear local classical concerts if their FM reception is unacceptable (assuming the concert is broadcast) and they cannot get to attend, much less afford tickets? Do you have any constructive thoughts on quality of “content delivery,” as the phrase goes?

    Comment by David Moran — March 5, 2013 at 9:00 pm

  23. My own favorite seats in Symphony Hall are in the side of the first balcony, about halfway back. It’s a good compromise between the fullness of the back of the second balcony and the adrenaline rush over the stage. More than either of the other extremes, those seats offer excellent the clarity of perception and balance between sections.

    The floor I find a bit of a puzzlement. There are some very good seats, a few funny dead spots, and it can at times feel as though the performers are playing RIGHT AT YOU, which may enhance one’s understanding of their athletic prowess but doesn’t necessarily make the music more enjoyable. (That was my experience at the Verdi Requiem last month, when I sat just forward of the center. It has never been a problem, however, when I’ve been in the front row of the orchestra.)

    Comment by Camilli — March 5, 2013 at 11:23 pm

  24. Yes, Camilli, the sound at the floor at the Symphony Hall is puzzle but the puzzle that has pretty much no universal solution. Besides the dead spots that you had mentioned the A-W rows have some ugly dynamic compression. When the orchestra climes even to fff then at most of the floor sits it feels like somebody stole a propeller from an aircraft and despite the engine is ravening there is no movement. That compression, besides many other nasty things, made orchestra enable to play soft. Our BSO generally an orchestra that do not have very pleasant sound when they go soft but sitting at most of the floor sits you juts amplify that unpleasances. Sound gets slightly more alive on further sits (after X) but Sound picks some other problems in there.

    The absence of a universal solution on floor come from the fact that Sound varies with filling of the hall, type of the people to a degree, time of the year (dressing). You might pick your “best” sit for the specific given type of the work, given configuration of orchestra but the reality very frequently overrides your best intentions. Generally, playing the Symphony Hall sitting gambit you might get very good Sound on Symphony floor for pre-Beethoven size orchestra and if the Hall let say at 80% filled. For larger scale music and sold out Hall (particularly during cold season) it might be very difficult to find an interesting sits from sonic perspective.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — March 6, 2013 at 9:06 am

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