CD Junkies (SACD Edition): Kenny Fleshman

Kenny Fleshman in his listening room

I recently joined the Facebook group SACD Enthusiasts, where fans of the Super Audio Compact Disc format share photos and reviews of their recent purchases. One series of posts caught my eye. It was about the notable labels releasing SACDs (MoFi, Analogue Productions, Groove Note, Evosound, among others). The author was audiophile Kenny Fleshman. I could tell that Freshman really knew his stuff, so I reached out. Fortunately, the retired 64-year-old, who lives in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, was game to be featured as a 360ºSound SACD Junkie.

Fleshman got serious about the SACD format in 2019 when he was recovering from a near-death medical emergency. He upgraded his SACD player and was very impressed with the sound quality. He started selling off his LPs on Discogs, turning that income into SACDs.

“What amazed me about a good SACD is that it is what CD always wanted to be – ‘perfect sound forever,’” Fleshman told 360º. “There was no harshness or glare, the detail was incredible. Once I heard a few, I was off and running.”

How many SACDs do you have?

My Discogs shows 241, which includes some artist box sets so actually about 260. Funny, I have almost evened up my collection with LPs. I had 2,300 records four years ago.

Tell us about the system you use to listen to SACDs.

I started my audio-only system in 2011 and it has evolved steadily to what it is today by trading and selling gear to move up to the next level. In 2013, I moved my listening room to a spare space detached from the house. The room is 14.5’ X 16’ and was carefully remodeled for this purpose.

My current iteration consists of:

  • Marantz 30 Integrated amplifier
  • Marantz 30n SACD player
  • JBL L100 Classic speakers
  • SVS SB1000 Pro subwoofer
  • VPI Traveler-based DIY turntable
  • Parks Audio Puffin Phono preamp
  • AudioQuest & Blue Jean cables
  • SolidSteel rack

The room itself is treated with DIY sound panels and has been tuned over time. I recently used PS Audio’s SACD and book to fine-tune the room. It is truly as perfect as I can make it.

What do you love about the SACD format?

SACD fulfills the idea of the digital domain being superior to any other format. Originally the CD was limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz and many thought it was brittle and harsh. The nearly unlimited bandwidth of SACD makes for a nearly infinitely smooth soundwave.

The Marantz 30n really brought it to the top for me. They use their own proprietary circuit called MMM (Marantz Musical Mastering), which gives SACD the warm, human sound audiophiles crave. Modern SACDs are mastered with that in mind, so I am able to enjoy every nuance of a recording without that digital glare.

And the fact that I can listen to an album uninterrupted is a plus. High-end LPs are increasingly going to 45rpm, so four sides to hear an album is ridiculous. So, better sound, warmer sound, more detail, better dynamics, and convenience.

What are a few of your favorite SACD labels?

For vintage remasters of classic bands in rock and jazz, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MoFi) offers an incredible selection. The mastering is done specifically for DSD and the packaging is superb, with mini-LP jackets and inner sleeves. The Dire Straits discs are fantastic, and the early Santana, especially Caravanserai, are as good as I’ve heard them.

Octave Records, a division of PS Audio, is steadily releasing unknown current music that has been recorded from the beginning with DSD in mind. They are about to open the most advanced DSD studio in the world in Boulder, Colorado. I have bought almost everything they have released so far; I think 16 SACDs in all.

Stockfisch has made some astounding direct-to-disc recordings, and Evosound seems committed to producing some great new discs. Groove Note has released quite a few new excellent discs, too. Any of the Vanessa Fernandez SACDs are demo discs.

I understand that a lot of SACD fans listen in surround. However, you stick to stereo. Why is that?

I see the value of 5.1 when I watch a movie and the helicopter flies across the room. But most music, by far, was recorded for and is released in stereo. To do surround sound, an engineer has to reimagine the work for surround. I have been to hundreds of concerts in my life, with crowds from 23 (California Guitar Trio) to 23,000 (Fleetwood Mac) and have never heard anything behind me except people. There is no “ambience” or “venue sound” that makes a piece of music sound better. At best, you are hearing reflected sound from a poor room.

A case in point is classical music – the music rises up from the stage and comes at you in a wave, with easy placement of the instruments by your brain. There is never a kettle drum behind you!

In my room, or any well-made room, a soundstage is created between, behind, and around the two speakers. It is almost magical, as the sound spreads out, has depth and height. On a particularly good recording the speakers disappear completely, and I hear a wall of sound in front of me, almost holographic.

I did add a subwoofer last year, after avoiding it for a long time, so I am in 2.1. But the sub is only used to fill in low frequencies that the JBLs can’t reproduce without falling off, i.e. under 50 Hz. But it is almost unnoticeable, not a thumper at all.

Have you done an A/B comparison between a CD or redbook layer of SACD and an SACD? If so, was the difference significant?

Yes, it is significant. When you are dealing with so much more bandwidth the sound is seamless and seems to have no upper limit. I first noticed this on one of my first MoFi SACDs, Miles Davis’s E.S.P. It was astounding to me that such an old recording could have so much range.

In fairness though, I have also discovered that because of the Marantz 30n, that very well-made CDs sound great, too. I have also bought some Japanese remastered SHM and even a couple MQA discs. As in any format, it’s the mastering that counts.

What are some of the best-sounding SACDs in your collection?

The Bass Face Trio/Bossa, Ballads and Blues may be the best SACD I’ve heard. It was recorded direct to DSD, and it sounds like the trio is all across the front of the room. It is breathtaking to hear.

The Analogue Productions SACD box set of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s albums, Texas Hurricane, is a treasure. I’ve owned these on many formats, but these are without a doubt the best I’ve heard them. Because of the SACD mastering and the capabilities of the format, nothing is ever lost, even when cranking up the volume.

Bob James’s Feel Like Making LIVE! on Evosound is a studio live set recreating some of his music. It was recorded with SACD in mind, and the dynamic range, stereo separation, nuances of the instruments are almost hair-raising.

Are you optimistic about the future of the SACD?

I am optimistic that I can continue to seek out and enjoy SACDs, but at my age, how much time is that? I think SACD was too late – it debuted just as the internet came to life. Once people found out they could stream for free, even though the quality was abysmal, all physical media took a dive. The vinyl resurgence has brought a small part of the music loving population back to physical media, but really unless you spend a lot of money on an analog front end you will hear no benefit.

Oddly, the Japanese collector market is driving new remasters of music on CD, SACD, MQA and SHM. They can be a bit pricier but are not hard to find. MoFi and others are releasing SACDs while they are releasing high-dollar LPs. A $30 SACD versus a $125 One Step is attractive to an audiophile. And they never skip or crackle.

It’s hard to sell music that is readily available on streaming, which is the future of music. I can stream in high definition, but really don’t enjoy it. I use streaming for listening while I go for walk, or by the pool at happy hour, or to sample a potential purchase.

There will always be people like me that will buy CDs, SACDs, and even LPs, but even though the sales numbers look promising, they will likely never reach the numbers of the golden age of physical media.

There are plenty of good SACD players out there still. And plenty of SACD inventory, too, especially on the used Discogs market. But it will take a collection of CDs, SACDs, and LPs to make a decent collection of physical media.

I set out in 2011 to create an analog system that would help me relive my younger years, when everybody had a stereo. As my system and room developed, and got better and better, I came to fully appreciate the capabilities of SACD and the digital domain. If I could have everything on SACD, that is all I would buy.

Well said. Thank you for your thoughtful insights, Kenny.

Hit up the Wikipedia article on SACD and get educated on the hi-rez format.

And get acquainted with more CD Junkies here