“We really needed good control over the sound, and we got that with digital, but we lost the sound. We don't have the sound anymore, unfortunately, it's gone.”
Neil Young, 1993, from MTV's “Week In Rock” 1993
“The Compact Disc was a good idea.”
Sony Music SACD insert
Back in the early 1980s, a star was born. The compact disc arose from various engineering labs as the much-touted successor to the venerable LP. Praised for its “perfect sound” and progression beyond the noisiness of records, compact discs soon became the audio format of choice. In a few short years, hundreds of thousands of the little plastic discs were being produced, as the CD raced ahead and analog records fell behind. All was well – seemingly – but there were a few analog holdouts who screamed “digititis!” This new format is murdering my ears. Such pleas fell on deaf ears (no pun intended) for years until somebody started listening and realized that perhaps the compact disc could be improved. Sure, companies such as DCC, Sheffield Labs, Mobile Fidelity and a handful of others chose the rocky road of audiophilia over mass production, but they were filling niches not the shelves of mass retailers.
Yet, somewhere in the complacency of digital dreams a dark idea refused peaceful sleep. The CD, still had some 'splainin' to do. Why were some CDs not sounding as good as records? Bottom line, digital is bits, analog is continuous wave. The very nature of stop-and-stop digital meant that it couldn't hope to replicate the ongoing surf of analog – unless “more” of the sound was allowed to come out. A CD could already better the dynamic range of an LP by 20 decibels, but it didn't necessarily make for better sound. What of the warmth and smoothness of vinyl? The velvety richness? What if the sample rates of a CD were increased? Right on. What if you put an exotic stripe around the edge of the jewel case, remaster the disc and use a lot of engineering terms to boost its desirability? “Hey, that CD is selling for $18; I think we can get $30.” Huh? I mean, right on.
Fast forward to 2009, and the compact disc is still holding on, though its spindly little sibling – the digital download - is showing no fear of older brother. As MP3 threatens to knock CD off the mountaintop, as the CD once did to the LP – and even as CD market-share is being eroded by MP3s, consumers still have a half dozen CD “types” to choose from. If you thought home theater was confusing, hold onto your HDMIs as we take a wild ride through the curious world of compact discs.
Redbook CD – The standard compact disc that accounts for the majority of the CD market. Redbook CDs are 2-channel stereo discs, recorded at 16 bit PCM (pulse code modulation) and sampled at 44.1 kHz. They are playable on all compact disc players.
SACD: The Super Audio CD was a joint creation by Sony and Philips, employing Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recording instead of multi-bit PCM technology. SACDs have a dynamic range, frequency response and sampling rate exceeding standard CD. By comparison, redbook CDs have a frequency response of 20,000 Hz, while DSD can reach theoretically 100,000 Hz. Redbook CDs have a dynamic range of 96 decibels, while DSD can deliver 120 decibels. SACDs also deliver a sampling rate of approximately 2.82 million samples per second, compared to redbook's 44,100 samples per second. SACDs are true high-resolution compact discs. Many SACDs are “hybrids,” sporting both a redbook layer and SACD layer, ensuring compatibility with non-SACD players. Some SACDs play only on SACD-compatible machines. Unlike redbook CD – or other CDs in this review – SACDs are also capable of 5.1 Surround playback along with 2-channel stereo.
SHM-CD: Standing for “Super High Material CD,” this JVC/Universal Music Japan is composed of a polycarbonate resin, which is trumpeted to improve transparency and provide for more accurate reading via the CD laser head. (Plays on all compact disc players.)
Blu-spec CD: This Sony creation uses a blue laser, instead of a red laser, to burn information to disc. Supposedly, the blue light reduces jitter that could compromise a recording during playback. (Plays on all compact disc players.)
HQCD: HQCDs are much like SHM-CDs. According to the Japanese website (www.hqcd.jp) and HQCD home: “Utilization of higher-quality polycarbonate in addition of adaptation of silver alloy as the reflective layer, [a] compact disc with superior sound quality is realized. HQCD can be played on all compact disc players.” As well, the site asserts that by using this better polycarbonate – the same used for LC TVs - “high precision pit transcription can be achieved... The transparency and very low birefringence (double refraction) contribute to quality sound production.” Additionally, the silver alloy is touted to have better reflectivity, bringing the sound closer to the original master.
XRCD24 (24 bit super analog): Another JVC effort: XRCD (Extended Resolution Compact Disc) attempts to bring the world of high-resolution audio – using a 24-bit digital signal during the manufacturing process - to every CD player out there. No effects are employed to disguise a recording's shortcomings or “enhance” its strengths. The original analog signal is digitized with a 24-bit analog-to-digital converter, which regenerates a 24-bit digital word that's then recorded to a magneto-optical disk (an extremely reliable but slow to write storage medium). The optical disk is played back once more through the digital-to-analog converter, converted from 24 to 16 bits and sent to a laser for cutting on a glass master. These processes are monitored with a Rubidium clock, a highly accurate and stable atomic clock. A final master stamper process makes XRCD stampers directly from glass masters, limiting the production run of any XRCD. Sound familiar? (Plays on all compact disc players.)
I gathered a batch of titles that I knew very well, representing at least one of each of these formats, and sat down for some comparative listening. The release, format and price paid per disc follows:
Neil Young, Harvest, Archives Official Release Series Disc 04 (CD; Reprise/517937-2) - $12.99: Link
Neil Young, Harvest (SHM-CD; Reprise/WPCR-13242) - $35.00: Link
Santana, Caravanserai (Blu-spec CD; Sony Music Japan/SICP 20039) - $36.49: Link
Fripp & Eno, Evening Star (HQCD; Discipline Global Mobile/IECP-10153) - $39.00
Gustav Holst, The Planets (XRCD; JVCXR-0228-2) - $33.99: Link
Genesis, Nursery Cryme (Hybrid SACD + DVD-Audio; Virgin Music/50999 519547 2 7) - $39.99: Link
Before The Deluge
Let me preface this by stating my frustration with Sony Japan and JVC/Universal Japan. I sent numerous information requests, trying in vain to find a contact person who was in charge of marketing or had some knowledge or even knew of the existence of Blu-spec and SHM-CDs. All such attempts failed. There is an astonishing disconnect between Japan and the States regarding these formats, which is even more astonishing considering that these discs cost upward of three times as much as their redbook counterparts. It would be helpful if the labels behind these releases offered a bit more than “delivers unbelievable high quality sound” or “uses Blu-ray technology to provide ultra high quality sound.” Many folks would see “Blu-ray” and assume it's a Blu-ray disc, but it's not Blu-ray at all. It's not high-resolution audio; it's still the same old CD pitted with different laser light. Does a blue laser cost three times more than a red? Does it produce a disc sounding three times better? How? What is a higher-quality polycarbonate? Again, is the polycarbonate thrice superior to redbook? Seriously, why? Ultimately, consumers are left to go on blind faith, cryptic marketing and scant reviews available on a handful of audio forums.