CD SoundOff 2009: Welcome To The Jungle 
Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Thursday, 17 September 2009

“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.

The Players

cdRedbook 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.

sacdSACD: 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.

shmcdSHM-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-specBlu-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.)

hqcdHQCD: HQCDs are much like SHM-CDs. According to the Japanese website ( 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.

xrcdXRCD24 (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.)

The Titles

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.  


I played each CD on three different players (the SACD on two) to ensure a certain unit wasn't biasing my judgments. First, I listened to each disc in its entirety to get a feel for the recording and then began critical listening to tracks and bits of individual tracks.

harvest First up was Neil Young's Harvest. I had the 2009 redbook remaster, #4 of Young's recent dive into the archives. This particular Harvest underwent restoration and analog-to-HDCD 24-bit, 176 kHz digital transfer, prior to digital editing and mastering. Even back in 1972, when Harvest was first released, Young was as interested in putting out a great sounding record as he was a great record of songs. The sound on his early albums still holds up 37 years later, and this CD remaster is very good. If you've clung to your vinyl copy or copies of Harvest, you'll be happy to have this new edition in your collection. The mix of “Out On The Weekend” is particularly good. I listened in amazement as Young's voice seemed to emerge not from either the right or left speakers – or both – instead it seemed to come from in between the two, in a perfect stereo image. I haven't heard many recordings accomplish that, and even on this disc it doesn't happen every song. The SHM-CD version of Harvest sounds so similar to the remaster that I could detect no appreciable differences. At first, I thought the SHM disc was slightly brighter, but after several listens the two became one. Both discs feature a wide soundstage and bring out the emotion in Young's voice. As folks say in Minnesota, “It's a horse apiece,” meaning either one will work. In this case, I'd stick with the redbook remaster and pocket the savings. It goes to show that given a good original recording and some thoughtful studio work, modern CDs – plain old redbooks at that – can sound pretty darn good.

Genesis Genesis' Nursery Cryme is the first album that first brought the “classic” Genesis lineup together on a recording. This early effort from Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett is a creative triumph, conceptually, lyrically and musically. The tunes flow through disparately different sections and flow ever-forward like a river. Complex, layered and challenging, there's a lot to listen to and for on Nursery Cryme. Whether the dove-like notes from Gabriel's flute to the gentle arpeggios and savage leads laid down by Hackett, this is a recording that rewards repeated listens. I've listened to this record perhaps more than any in my collection over the last 25 years; even still, there were threads of background vocals throughout the recording that I had never heard, and listening to “The Fountain Of Salmacis” was like hearing it for the first time, so much more musical information was presented. The SACD stood tall against the bonus DVD, mixed in higher-res surround, and is worth purchasing the dual-disc set on its merits alone. I've been a fan of SACD from the beginning. It's a shame that it's fallen so far from the public's ear, now relegated primarily to classical releases. For all who say SACD is dead, please send me your fallen!

santana Santana's Caravanserai was one of those life-changing albums for me. Discovering this side of the great guitarist's music was like finding a hidden country on a world map. The fusion of jazz and the exotic, driven by myriad percussion and Santana's brilliant fretwork cemented this in my Top 10 ever. I know every note of this album and was anticipating hearing some lost chord within the tangle of beats and energy. The Blu-spec disc has a spacious soundstage and everything sounds right, but it doesn't sound better. I've heard this album hundreds of times – so much that each note is stuck in my head permanently – and I could detect no differences between this and the 2003 remaster, on which this is based. It makes me wonder what the blue laser hoopla is all about. If its main purpose is to correct bit errors, then it's an expensive correction. I have never experienced a problem with a CD player and failed error correction. Unless you're sliding in a severely scratched or otherwise damaged disc, you'll likely too not encounter such a situation.

evening star In the case of Fripp and Eno's Evening Star, the album was remastered in 2007 by Simon Heyworth and Fripp, whose ears I trust. In the liners, it is noted, “A measure of hiss was always present with analogue tape recordings. The use of two tape recorders on these recordings added an extra element of noise to the original masters. Modern mastering equipment allows for the removal of a great deal of the unwanted noise. However, a point is reached where further removal of hiss would also involve removal of some of the audio. These re-masters represent the optimal signal to noise ratio achievable using current techniques.” Tis true, that hiss is present if the volume is turned up appreciably, but it's also “part” of the recording, and as Fripp notes, decisions must be made not to compromise the spirit of the music. Is it a good remaster? No. It's an excellent remaster with even more of the music's pointillistic beauty revealed. From the intoxicating shimmer of “Wind On Water” to the haunting beauty of “An Index Of Metals,” this overlooked masterpiece has never sounded better. Is it due to the HQCD? I say no. One can purchase the same remaster on redbook CD for less than half the cost of the Japanese import and be happy.

planets The XRCD of Gustav Holst's The Planets was my happy surprise of the lot. I knew of the recording, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta's baton, but I had never had the pleasure of hearing it, particularly through such excellent playback equipment. The performance was captured originally with a complement of almost 30 mikes and recorded directly to 2-track Studer tape machines. The recording nearly jumps out at you from the first sweep of strings presaging “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Instruments sound like instruments arranged in symphonic space and have a tangible sense of vibration that emerges from the speakers in great gusts of notes and rhythmic flurries. The recording is equal parts thunder and sublime. Worth purchasing for the mind-blowing horns, alone.

Final Thoughts

As much as I wanted to – straining my ears, sitting in different positions, realigning my speakers and doing several blind tests – I found no appreciable sound differences between redbook CD, SHM-CD, HQCD and Blu-spec. Unless you are a CD collector and want your discs wrapped in alternate packaging and stuffed with liners printed in Japanese, you'll do just fine with redbook CD. The XRCD was the best of the non-SACD batch, with help from an excellent original Decca recording. Unlike the strange gimmickry of SHM-CD or Blu-spec, I could relate to the philosophy behind XRCD and wouldn't hesitate plunking down the extra dough for recordings dear to me. If you're looking for great CD sound, you can find it on CDs that were recorded properly to start. If you want more of a good thing, go for the SACD, where offered. They call it super, and mostly, it is.


Setup 1

  • Bryston B100-SST Integrated Amplifier
  • Bryston BCD-1 CD Player
  • Thiel SCS4 Speakers

Setup 2

  • Grant Fidelity A-348 Integrated Tube Amplifier
  • Grant Fidelity CD-327A Tube CD Player
  • Thiel SCS4 Speakers

Setup 3

  • Marantz PM 8003 Integrated Amplifier
  • Marantz SA 8003 SACD Player
  • Yamaha DVS-5770 DVD Audio/SACD Player
  • Axiom Audio Millenia M22 v2 speakers

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