In a warehouse building a mile or so west of Chicago's Loop, I found the headquarters of Music Direct. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven - shelf after shelf of difficult-to-find high resolution software; all well priced. It took me a long time to look through the inventory because it was all stacked by label, not artist or genre. I also found a variety of high-end hardware around the edges of the space.

Only a handful of customers cross its threshold each day, since most all sales are by mail-order, telephone or via the Internet. But those lucky few who make the trip will probably spend many hours with the knowledgeable sales staff there. Jim Davis officially started the company as a one-man operation in 1996 to sell hardware by flyers out of Skokie/Illinois. The software side came later and now represents about 50% of gross revenues. Jim is still the driving force behind the company.

I spoke to Rob Gillis about the software portion of their business. Rob is the main music buyer - and there I always thought I was. He's been with the firm for 5 years and splits his time between Music Direct and its sister company, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, which operates from the same address, with mastering facilities in Sebastopol/California. Rob is an amateur musician and a keen listener with a very catholic taste. He has worked in radio, public relations and concert promotion.

Phil Gold speaks with Rob Gillis and Bes Nievera.
Rob, what is the mix of business on the software side?
Analogue sales remain steady over the years, but SACD and more recently DVD-A have shown strong growth. SACD currently outsells DVD-A 9 to 1 and represent about 30% of our software sales. However, our December sales for DVD-A have been particularly strong, and we have seen individual customer orders for a mixture of SACD and DVD-A releases, which may reflect the greater availability of universal disc players.
Do you find SACD and DVD-A a significant step up from RedBook CD?
Don't write off CD just yet. The JVC XRCD issues show the full potential of the RedBook medium and give both SACD and DVD-A a strong run for the money, at least in the 2-channel format.
I'd like to see JVC applying the same dedication to SACD or DVD-A releases. I'd be the first in line to sample those discs. Do you listen to all the new releases?
Between us, we listen to most new releases and report on our findings in our weekly electronic newsletter Soundbytes which you can sign up for here and in a print newsletter, which we mail to our customers every six weeks or so.
Have you always worked out of this location?
The company has been forced to move three times already because of strong growth and expansion needs, but we're set for quite a while at this current location.
How would you compare the merits of DVD-A and SACD?
I feel that in some ways, they are directed towards different markets. SACD is for the 2- or 6-channel audiophile, the musical purist, while DVD-A is less suited for a listening-only system, requiring as it does a video interface for setup.
So where do you see the DVD-A succeeding?
DVD-A may be most successful in combination with video - like extra music tracks on a video release. So far, the sound on most DVD-As has not overly impressed me, though I am enthusiastic about certain labels like AIX and DTS and specific recordings. I also feel that there is something a bit warmer in general when it comes to the human voice with DVD-A rather than SACD.
You find some DVD-A releases unimpressive - in what way?
Often the engineers have placed the listener in the middle of the players, rather than using the surround channels for ambient information only. Copy protection may also be taking a toll on audio quality.
But you are enthusiastic about the future of DVD-A?
There is certainly potential for DVD-A done right, but we are not there yet, consistently. The new Big Phat Band: XXL [Silverline 288206-9], which is crisp, detailed and gives a good sense of space, shows just how good DVD-A can sound. To be successful, we will need hybrid CD/DVD-A discs, and these are not yet commercially available.
Let's turn our attention to SACD.
The picture is a brighter on the SACD front, where copy protection has been less of an issue, and where a hybrid dual layer format has been designed in from Day One. The repertoire is much wider, and some of the labels are producing first-rate discs.
Any recommendations?
As a sampler, you must try Mark Levinsons's Red Rose Music Volume One [RRM 01 - stereo/hybrid]. I am also very pleased with all the releases on the Artegra label.
What's so special about the Artegra SACDs?
Artegra is one of the first to use DSD recording where the higher sampling rate is implemented from the beginning in the original recording process to give an extremely clean sound. With DVD mastering from analogue, you can get everything off the tape that's there, but you have to deal with tape hiss on older recordings. With DSD mastering from digital, there is obviously an extra format conversion step which Artegra eliminates.
I'm a keen headphone listener, like my editor, Srajan. Do you have anything interesting for headphone listeners?
You just have to hear this new recording from England - Ric Sanders Group In Lincoln Cathedral [Heliopause HPVP101CD]. There is a second CD in the box, with amazing binaural versions of 6 songs, 2 DTS recordings and an MPEG video, which will play back in your DVD player. Ric Sanders on violin, Vo Fletcher on guitar and Michael Gregory on drums and percussion perform thrilling music recorded in the shadow of the dreadful events of September 2001.
Good talking to you, Rob.

On Rob's recommendation, I bought a copy of Shostakovich's String Quartets 2&8 played by the Rosalyra Quartet [Art 1002 - multi-channel/hybrid]. I also picked up some SACD releases by Mobile Fidelity: Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible [UDSACD 4003 - multi-channel/hybrid], John Coltrane's Soultrane [UDSACD 2020 - mono/hybrid] and Patricia Barber's Modern Cool [UDSACD 2003 - stereo/hybrid]. On DVD-A, I bought Steely Dan's Everything Must Go with some bonus DVD-Video tracks of a unique unscripted evening with Steely Dan and Rita, Las Vegas' most well-known cab driver [Reprise 48435-9].

Promoter Linc Materna kindly sent me the Ric Sanders Group recording In Lincoln Cathedral, which was as yet not in stock at Music Direct when I dropped by. The vast acoustics of Lincoln Cathedral are eerily captured on both CDs in this set and you will already be familiar with Ric's violin work if you are a Fairport Convention fan. The music is a delicate mixture of folk and jazz on acoustic instruments, including Jimi Hendrix's "Little Win", George Harrison's "Life Itself", and Miles Davis' "It's About That Time". It'll take me some time to get my head 'round this unique recording.

I next spoke to Bes Nievera Jr. about the hardware side of their business. Bes is Music Direct's Director of New Product Acquisition. A 23-year industry veteran, Bes has been part of the Music Direct sales team since 1996. In his spare time, he has also hosted jazz programming for public radio station WDCB-FM in Glen Ellyn/Illinois, as well as contributed his services as a remastering engineer for the Chicago Jazz Tour compilation CD for Big Chicago Records.
Do you sell a lot of hardware here?
We've really done very well in this area, especially with the increased activity in analogue. While most of our sales are through the catalog or our website, clients are welcome to make an appointment to visit us and audition many of the products found in the catalog.
Are people still interested in turntables and cartridges?
You bet! We've increased that segment of our business threefold over the past few years, thanks in part to our sales team and because of our expanded product selection. Tweaks are also a particular specialty - for both analogue and digital sources, but especially for Rega turntables.
You sell a wide variety of hardware - which manufacturers are you most closely associated with?
We're very proud to represent PS Audio, Legacy loudspeakers and McCormack Audio, and now Marantz and Esoteric, to name a few.
Do you sell any universal disc players?
Our new 2004 catalog now offers the most diverse selection of universal players on the market today. I'm especially enthusiastic about the new McCormack UDP-1 - it will be one of the best-sounding high end players at a very reasonable price.
We also have players from Marantz, including their wonderful DV8400, and Esoteric's very potent DV-50. All in all, we've done a bang-up job with this category, Phil.
Where do your clients live?
We do a great deal of business with domestic customers and it's constantly evolving. We also respond to audiophile needs from all corners of the globe through our catalogs, flyers, weekly e-mails and website. On a given day, I'll be taking orders from customers in the Netherlands, Holland, Thailand and the Philippines.
I understand that both you and Rob are keen audiophiles.
Yes, but that sentiment trickles down to everyone here. We all have a vested interest in music and the way that it sounds on our gear, whether it's here or at our office. Rob's the popular music historian, while I dig world music and funk. We have passionate folk and bluegrass lovers and die-hard classical fanatics as well - another reason why we keep the diversity in tastes popping throughout the catalog.
You operate an efficient organization here.
Thanks! Jim Davis (Music Direct's President) and the efforts of the entire Music Direct team are part of the reason for the tremendous growth - and it shows in the customer's positive feedback from our catalog as well as the products we recommend. We strive for customer service and total knowledge on all the products we sell, to ensure total customer satisfaction.
I can vouch for that - I ordered my AKG K1000s from Music Direct and they arrived the next morning, border-crossing into Canada and all! What does the future hold for Music Direct?
It has been and will always be our goal to be the resource for audiophiles worldwide. We have evolved from a small, homegrown outfit to become the biggest name in audiophile retail in a relatively short time. With the talent we have, Music Direct will thrive for a good long time
A most modest ambition, Bes. Thanks for speaking with me today.

You can visit Music Direct at their website , or drop in at 318 N Laflin St, Chicago, Illinois 60607. You can ask them to put you on the mailing list for their new catalog, and I'm sure you'll find it interesting reading.

Editor's note: One day before Phil delivered this unexpected but glorious copy to my desk, I received the following -- equally surprising -- e-mail from Mark Waldrep of AIX Records:


First let me thank you for the obvious effort and attention to detail that you and your team have put into a truly first-class website for audiophiles. There are far too few places of merit online or otherwise that are as thorough or thoughtful in their approach to a subject that is frequently clouded in bias and unfounded opinion. I also would thank Rob at Music Direct for mentioning your site during a recent phone call. He doesn't yet know the level of appreciation that will fall his way.

My name is Mark Waldrep and I am the founder and chief engineer of AIX Records, a new audiophile label dedicated to the recording and distribution of real high-resolution, multi-channel audio. Started just 3 years ago, AIX has built a small but growing reputation for quality, diversity and for uncompromised attention to maintaining the fidelity of a live performance. We only record and release completely new high-resolution recordings on DVD-Audio/Video. The tracks are captured live but without an audience in a wonderful performance hall in Los Angeles. The genre of music doesn't much matter to me. As a composer and musician myself, I love music of all kinds, from Bach to Boulez and from Chet Baker to Eric Johnson. During the past 3 years, I have produced over 30 new titles using lots of stereo microphones and a completely digital PCM encoded signal path at 96 kHz/24-bits. The results are mixed in stereo, and two POVs of 5.1 surrounds - "stage" and "audience". We include video of the sessions, lots of bonus stuff (a guitar lesson from Laurence Juber!), and a complete commitment to the highest end audio I know how to capture and reproduce.

I would love to share some of the work that I have done in the past few months with you and some of your reviewers, if you are interested in taking a listen. I didn't start AIX Records with dreams of becoming a large record company. I have a successful digital audio/DVD production company that pays the bills. I have been very encouraged by the responses that I received. Many hardware manufacturers have asked for materials for the upcoming CES 2004 show (Halcro, Birdland, McCormick, Butler, Piega and a few others).

I've gone on too long, sorry. Please let me know if you're curious. I'll happily send you some of our discs.

Mark Waldrep
AIX Records

It appears high time that ye olde Editor embrace some sort of universal platform to begin reporting on this new genre of high-resolution music - not remasters of golden oldies, but cutting-edge productions of today. One just-on-time phone call from Bel Canto's John Stronczer today -- synchronicity! -- solved the challenge: I'll be bringing his universal PLayer PL-1A from the CES [without the Faroudja video processing circuitry of the PL-1 but otherwise identical, with progressive scan processing available on the Component outputs and Audio delay compensation when progressive scan is used], to review it and SACD/DVD-A software. So stay tuned for a sneak preview in January, and a full-blown blow-by-blow feature review in March. And, be prepared for a new lower price, details of which will be released soon but John made it sound like as though audiophiles would make exuberant flips of disbelief in response. Can't wait to get the lowdown and tell you about it post-CES. Already riding the SACD/DVD-A wave? Music Direct seems to be one resource that ought to be on your map. It certainly is on mine now. But make sure you type the letter "a" in front of or you'll end up on a different website altogether. Todays folks are at!