Any views on SHM-CD and other Japanese exotics

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Any views on SHM-CD and other Japanese exotics

 

I recently came across a SHM-CD (Super high material CD) version of a record I enjoyed years ago as a LP: Karajan/BPO DGG recording of Mozart Adagio & Fugue, Beethoven Grosse fuge and Richard Strauss Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.

 

I was curious to see if this exotica had any significant improvement to offer or whether it amounted to snake-oil salesmanship such as I suspect of exotic connecting wire.

 

The first hearing of the Mozart included an excellent reproduction of the double basses and left me wondering whether this was me hearing what I expected to hear or was it truly an improvement. As I have no way of making a proper A-B comparision, I thought I might seek opinions from the Forum.

 

Japanese exotics.

I live the last few years in the region (moving mostly between China and Korea) and I can have easy (or at least easier) access to the Japanese "exotics". I have so far purchased only SACDs, not any SHM-CD or SHM-SACD. The Japanese SACDs from Exton, Triton, Esoteric and King International are truly superior products of (most of the time) quite impressive results in production values, including the actual sound. 

I have also some old recordings of EMI, DG or Decca, in SACD format, from the Japanese Universal or Warner. Most of them have distinctive improvements in detail, dynamics, precision and ambience.

I can trust that the same may apply to SHM-CD, if one can afford them. They cost in Korea and China as much as almost three expensive CDs! Japanese SACDs are more affordable (normally, less than two expensive CDs).

Parla

SHM-CDs are snake oil. Their

SHM-CDs are snake oil. Their marketing premise is along the lines that the use of better plastic materials lets the CD laser read the data on the disc better and that would have an audible effect. However this just plays on the common misunderstanding that a CD is read like an lp which it isn't.

 

All standard CDs contain defects at the pit level on the disc as manufactured. This is nothing to do with whether the disc has been abused by the owner and badly scratched. Even the best manufacturing plants in the world produce new CDs with these errors. To stop this being an issue, the data on a CD is encoded with extra error correction information which is used by the CD player to perfectly correct these errors. This happens all the time (several times per second) when you listen to a CD without you knowing.

 

The point is that these errors at the pit level are perfectly corrected so there is no benefit to an SHM-CD. Even if the SHM-CD material improves the laser beam properties, it will not affect the already error free data that the CD player outputs.

 

 

Ted

I agree by the way that SACDs

I agree by the way that SACDs are often worth having and shouldn't be considered in the same category as SHM-CDs.

 

Ted

Some heard the difference.

Although I do not wish to contest your argumentation and expertise, Ted, a good number of people I know in Korea and Japan (where I reside for this period of time), have tested the same programs of music in CD and SHM-CD formats (i.e. the original CD and the same in the SHM-CD format) and they claim that they have seen (or actually heard) considerable differences with this "snake oil" format. They may all be deluded, but that is the case here.

Personally, I stick to SACDs wherever and whenever an interesting repertory is available. I also find the pricing of SHM-CDs exorbitant, in any case. Finally, what is suspicious is that, apparently, this format is used only for...reissues!

Parla

The Japanese branches of

The Japanese branches of major record labels sometimes do their own engineering of sound for resissues so it is hard to separate this sort of thing from claims about the format per se.

 

The trouble with claims about the SHM-CD format itself, is that these days with software on a computer it is perfectly easy to look at the data and errors on reading a CD. A standard CD and an equivalent SHM-CD can easily be ripped to your hard drive on your computer. If SHM-CD manufacturers wanted to prove their claims that the SHM-CD was somehow read better then they would easily be able to show it by comparing rips of a standard CD and the equivalent SHM-CD. But they can't (since both files would be the same and error free), so they don't.

 

It's the same issue with reissues on standard CD. Sometimes for major reissue projects there has been some serious effort to improve the sound. But engineering time is expensive, and most reissues are just repackaging (perhaps at most with a readjustment of volume level if new tracks are added)

 

I've read countless reviews (including in Gramophone) where the reviewer senses an improvement in sound unaware that they are listening to the same data.

 

Ted

Well said, Ted.

Well said, Ted.

 

You remind me of a time when in Shenzhen, Southern China I bought a Japanese-made, gold-coloured "audiophile" CD of the 1970 Decca/Argo Vivaldi Four Seasons (ASMF, Marriner). It sounds very good, naturally, but a quick check with Exact Audio Copy and one of the many CD databases on the web reveals it to be a bit-perfect copy of the original "plain vanilla" recording.

 

As with SHM, the gold colouring is there for marketing purposes only, and has done precisely nothing to the sound.

Roderick

Despite all the reservations, their market works well.

Whether snake oil or not, the Japanese "exotics" (not only the SHM-CDs but also the Esoteric SACD, the K2HD-CDs or the XRCD) work pretty well in the Far-East as well as in some markets in US and less in Europe (mostly in Germany, as far as I can tell). Whether all these people who purchase these, most of the time, highly expensive products are all deluded is another question, but those I know claim they hear a difference in listening the "same data".

Personally, I found out that, among the various SACDs I have purchased in my stay in Far-East, there are two SHM-SACDs, namely the Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 with Michelangeli/Giulini (Universal/Japan) and the Beethoven's String Quartets Nos. 12 &14 with the Smetana Quartet on Supraphon (in Japanese mastering and pressing). The first one I have it in the original DG CD format and the above SHM-SACD one. I can clearly state that the latter has a better definition, more ambience, smoother sound and bigger dynamics vis a vis the CD format.

I have also five Operas in the most expensive category, i.e. the Esoteric SACDs. Among them the "Magic Flute" with Solti, which I have it in the original CD format as well. Again, there are clear differences in the detail, the depth and the dynamics. Of course, all the above with my equipment and with my ears. Perhaps, others might see no difference, based on their circumstances and situation. However, the market exists and works well (the production of all kind of reissues in these formats thrives).

Parla

format or mastering

The problem with these things is that you cannot be sure it is the format or the mastering. Many cd's are mastered with significant dynamic compression, in order to play well on modest gear and in smallish rooms. If the marketing department (rightly) decides that buyers of SACDs (or opera Blurays) are a more discerning crowd with better gear, the mastering engineer may be told to retain more of the original dynamic range. So yes, they may sound better (I think many opera Blurays do), but not necessarily because of the technical superiority of the format.

Willem

Mastering or format?

This is true, Willem, as for the K2HD format which admittedly advocates the best possible mastering. However, the XRCD is supposed to provide mastering and manufacturing improvements, while SHM-CD is focused only (or mainly) on improvements of the manufacturing process.

You are right about the mastering process of the SACDs which are dealing with old recordings, but what about the original ones made using this format?

Parla

mastering and recording vs distribution format

You have to distinguish between recording and distribution format. Most/nearly all recordings are done in high resolution pcm, if only because there is very little dsd recording equipment. For distribution it is then converted to dsd, even if this is not a bit perfect process. I would not worry, but those who believe in the superioty of dsd should. Recording is done in high resolution for maximum latitude for errors in level setting, to allow for subsequent sound shaping, and for convenience - there is little of that margin of error in de cd red book standard, and it is indeed not necessary in the distribution format.  But it helps the recording engineer enormously.

The problematic stage is in what happens after the actual high resolution recording. At this stage the engineer puts all the recorded tracks together, and has to decide on level and dynamic range. This is also where all kinds of frequency response shaping, limiting and compression techniques are used, with increasingly sophisticated software. These days, and particularly in popular music, engineers are encouraged to set the peak level very close to the limits of the format (or even above that), and raise the average level as well, by reducing the dynamic range. This is called the loudness wars, because the music will sound louder and the brain translates louder as 'better'. The resulting sound is quite typical for modern pop music, and even older pop recordings are now remastered to obtain this modern effect. It is also a style that works well for car audio and earbuds. Classical music has suffered much less, but has not been completely immune. Quiet recordings with a wide dynamic range do exist, but require a more powerful audio set up that not everyone has. Hence, the mastering engineer has to compromise.

Therefore, it is not the actual cd format that is deficient, but the mastering that is optimised for lesser systems. The cd format is capable of 96 dB dynamic range, and on top of the at least 30-35 dB background noise of a normal domestic environment that is more than enough to play both the quietest passages and the loudest ones of even a big symphony orchestra. In fact, the latter would damage your hearing if the full cd range was indeed used. So, if you really want to hear more detail, you do not need a higher resolution distribution format, but a quieter room. And a recording that was mastered to utilize the full dynamic range of the cd format rather than just a part of it. If such mastering is only available in the SACD or BD format, so be it. But it is not the format. For those who are interested in the horrors of modern sound shaping there are quite a few YouTube videos that demonstrate how this is done.

Willem

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