JAPAN: Like CDs, only better…

CDs have been with us for just over 30 years, so it’s hardly surprising that we’ve seen more than a few attempts to get more out of the format in that time.

Trouble is, anyone wanting to change the basic set-up runs the risk of falling foul of the Red Book, which defines what makes a CD.

More than one attempt at enhanced CD has been ruled ‘not a CD’ in the past, and that’s no bad thing: the standard ensures you can buy discs confident that they’ll play in any CD hardware, from your home system to the car or computer.

Even HDCD discs, developed by Pacific Microsonics and now part of the mighty Microsoft empire, had to be compatible with standard CD players, yielding their extra quality when the player has an HDCD decoder.

So if you can’t mess with the encoding or the physical properties of the disc, why not try to find ways of making discs sound better in all CD players? That’s what’s been going on in Japan recently, with the result that we now have three new disc ‘formats’ on sale, each claiming enhanced audio quality.

I say ‘formats’ in quotes, simply because these new discs are entirely standard CDs, needing no new hardware to play them; in fact, all that’s been done is that the discs have been designed to be easier to play.

CD players make mistakes
Very simplified science bit here: all CD players make mistakes when reading discs, whether as a result of vibration, marks on the disc or whatever. And with the disc spinning at speeds of up to 500rpm at the centre, slowing down to 200rpm as the optical system reaches the edge, some misreading of the data on the disc is inevitable during the 5km+ journey from start to end of the data spiral.

The reason you don’t hear glitches in all but the most extreme cases is that the player has built-in error correction to take account of problems.

Easy reading
So if you can make a disc easier to read, the error correction has less work to do, and the result should be a better sound, right?

That’s the way Denon/Nippon Columbia, Sony and Universal Music have been thinking, and while there was understandable hilarity over the very expensive optical glass Crystal Disc CD process released in Japan earlier this year by JVC/Victor and Memory-Tech, the three companies are currently releasing discs which are about the same price as standard titles.

The difference is clearer
So what’s new? Well, in the case of two of the new disc technologies, it’s largely down to materials. Nippon Columbia’s HQCD uses a higher quality polycarbonate for the data side of the disc, along with an improved material for the reflective layer within. The combination of greater transparency in the clear material and a more reflective layer means more light is bounced back from the disc to the optical pickup, making it possible to read the disc more accurately.

The same principles apply to Universal Music Japan’s SHM-CD system. The name refers to the use of Super High Material, in this case a polycarbonate with greater transparency, though unlike HQCD, no claim is made of quality improvements in the reflective coating.

A conventional CD pit (left) and the Blu-spec version

Finally, there’s Sony, which of course has taken a different approach for its Blu-spec CD. In this case, it’s using Blu-ray Disc technology to make more accurate CD masters: specifically, a blue laser is used to ‘cut’ the pits and lands carrying the disc’s data. As the promotional pictures above show, the result is more sharply-formed pits on the disc, again increasing the accuracy of the reading, as you can see from the beam patterns below.

The beam pattern when reading a standard CD (left) and a Blu-spec title

And once again, in case anyone’s confused by the Blu-spec name, these discs are playable in any standard CD hardware.

In other words, while much of the record industry is giving up on physical media sales in the face of digital downloads, the Japanese labels are actually doing something to tempt enthusiasts back to CD-buying.

Compare and contrast
So is this the next big audio breakthrough? Or just a way of rehyping the back catalogues? Only way to find out was to get hold of some discs. The good news is that all three systems have sampler albums combining a new-spec disc and the same material on standard CD; the bad is that they’re Japan-only releases, so some credit card flexing was in order on the CD Japan site.

Hmmm… the shipping for the clutch of discs we ordered was almost as much as the cost of the discs themselves – all three series are bargain-priced at around £6 a pop – and insult was added to injury when we had to pay the post office a £13 handling fee to take £9 of VAT off our hands before it would deliver the package. However, the discs arrived in just over a week, and I’ve spent the past few days taking a listen to everything from Dylan to 10cc, and from Bach to Wagner, with a bit of classic jazz along the way.

Daft names, but...
OK, so the samplers have daft names – Feel the Difference of the Blu-spec CD Selection, Have You Ever Been Experienced? from the SHM-CD camp and the snappily named Denon Remastering and HQCD Sampler – but each of them makes a convincing case for the technologies employed.

Of course, cynics may suggest that the accompanying standard CDs may have been ‘tweaked down’ to make the Blu-spec, HQCD and SHM-CD versions sound better by comparison, but having played all of the tracks repeatedly, and compared them with existing copies of some of the same recordings, I have to say this doesn’t seem to be the case. The standard CDs sound very good indeed, but the ‘new-spec’ versions just have a bit more of – well, everything, really.

Greater impact
The greater impact is what immediately gets the attention; everything from big-band Wagner to a live Allman Brothers Band track just seems to hit harder, and there’s more detail in everything from guitars to drums, while voices have more presence and body. The silly smiles started with the opening riff of The Kinks’ You Really Got Me, and were still in place as a spot of James Brown powered out of the speakers.

I was hoping to be impressed with the classical and jazz stuff, and I was, but was less prepared for how good these new techniques could make old rock and pop recordings sound.

Better on any player
And the strangest thing of all? The differences between standard and new-spec CD were apparent on piece of CD-playing hardware I could lay my hands on, from Sony’s SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player to the NaimUniti, and from an elderly Marantz CD-63MkII KI-Signature to the line-fit system in the car. I tried the discs on Blu-ray and DVD machines, and it seemed that the less promising the hardware, the more striking the effect.

Clearly giving so-so disc-reading mechanisms an easier time plays dividends, and while the analogue electronics in some of the DVD hardware I tried was a limiting factor, running a digital feed out to the NaimUniti showed that the ease with which the disc was being read was a major factor in the sound.

Which new system sounds best? Hard to say, given that the same material isn’t available on all three, but the advantages of each are clear enough to have me searching through the CDJapan site for a few more purchases.

So what can you buy?
It’s not just tinkly audiophile stuff available: all three are strong on classical and jazz recordings, as you might expect, but it goes much further than that. HQCD, for example, has an extensive Tangerine Dream selection(!), stacks of King Crimson, and a couple of Fripp and Eno albums.

Blu-spec CD has an extensive Bob Dylan catalogue, the whole of Billy Joel’s output, Michael Jackson, Elvis, Simon & Garfunkel, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Deep Purple and much more.

SHM-CD, meanwhile, has Rush, Pink Floyd, all of Rick Wakeman’s solo albums, and the likes of Steely Dan, Guns N’Roses and T Rex. And we’re talking entire catalogues here, not the odd album or two.

Oh, and there’s a 15-disc Carpenters 40th anniversary package, yours for just under £250 plus shipping. Good luck with the VATman on that one…

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.