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Krakow Sonic Society
KRAKOW SONIC SOCIETY MEETING #70:
BLUE NOTE ON XRCD24

Previous meetings of the KSS:
#69: Power in the walls
#68: McIntosh – MCD7000+MA250 vs. MCD301+MA275
#67: Tara Labs The Zero
#64: HQCD + Blu-spec CD

WWW:
Blue Note Records
Audio Wave Music
Elusive Disc

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

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Digital technology improves by the day. Two forces reign there – the urge to manufacture best possible hardware and best possible software. This separation is clear and widely accepted. And because technology is either digital, or striving in that direction, the development is quicker and quicker. The main power driving this progress are, of course, technologies related to computers – according to the improved Moore’s law (quite old actually – Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel posed it in 1965, and he was talking about doubling the number every 12 month) the number of transistors in an IC doubles every 24 months. But in a short while the semiconductor technology will hit a wall, because we cannot create a transistor smaller, that the smallest particle, can we? But until that happens, the computing power grows quickly. Software does not develop as fast, but even in that category, surprising things do happen.

The “digital revolution” did not forget audiophiles. Although there is a quite common consensus, that the best turntables are still better than CD players, yet the group of audio file players and server users grows. They use also high resolution audio files, which – after the fiasco of the project named Super Audio CD – strive to technical perfection. Myself, I am torn – while admitting the advantages of each of the formats, I cannot pretend, I do not see their shortcomings. This is why I choose that, what is known and “safe”, the Compact Disc. I am not telling you, that this will always be the case, but for the given moment, this is true. This is why each innovation in this, archaic (to a much bigger extent than turntables! The latter are the absolute summit of the analog technology, while the CD is just an interlink, something that should have been abandoned long ago, and forgotten), medium electrifies me. And when the musical aspects are added to that, then I stand perfectly still pointing at it, like a bloodhound…

This information appeared last year. The company Audio Wave Music (a new entity, founded by the internet giant Elusive Disc) informed, that they plan to issue a series of 25 titles from the Blue Note catalog, in the XRCD24 technology. This is really something interesting, because Blue Note never appeared on XRCD before. And although looking at the titles, we can see, that this is a “second” lineup of musicians, it was about choosing titles and names, that are not so “obvious”, and many times issued in many, many formats.

The titles are listed below:
1. AWMXR-0001 Hank Mobley - Soul Station
2. AWMXR-0002 Horace Parlan - Speakin' My Piece
3. AWMXR-0003 Sonny Clark - Cool Struttin'
4. AWMXR-0004 Tina Brooks - True Blue
5. AWMXR-0005 Lou Donaldson - LD+3
6. AWMXR-0006 Johnny Coles - Little Johnny C
7. AWMXR-0007 Dexter Gordon - Doin' Allright
8. AWMXR-0008 Lee Morgan - Tom Cat
9. AWMXR-0009 Donald Byrd - The Cat Walk
10. AWMXR-0010 Horace Silver - The Cape Verdean Blues
11. AWMXR-0011 Jackie McLean - Bluesnik
12. AWMXR-0012 Freddie Hubbard - Open Sesame
13. AWMXR-0013 Horace Parlan - On the Spur of the Moment
14. AWMXR-0014 Lee Morgan - Candy
15. AWMXR-0015 Stanley Turrentine - That's Where It's At
16. AWMXR-0016 Lou Donaldson - Lou Takes Off
17. AWMXR-0017 Herbie Hancock - Takin' Off
18. AWMXR-0018 Jackie McLean - Swing, Swang, Swingin'
19. AWMXR-0019 Tina Brooks - Back to the Tracks
20. AWMXR-0020 Art Blakey - The Big Beat
21. AWMXR-0021 Art Blakey - A Night In Tunisia
22. AWMXR-0022 Stanley Turrentine - Look Out!
23. AWMXR-0023 Dexter Gordon - A Swingin' Affair
24. AWMXR-0024 Kenny Drew - Undercurrent
25. AWMXR-0025 Grant Green - Talkin' About!

Juicy pieces! This is “my” music, so I left a subscription on Elusive Disc for all the titles. The plan was, that each month two titles will be issued, starting November 2009. But something must have gone wrong, because I received the first titles only in January this year, albeit it were four first titles together.

Blue Note is a legend, an institution. In the 50-ties and 60-ties the biggest names, the most important jazz players recorded there. The label had also luck with regard to sound engineers, where the unquestioned no1 was Rudy van Gelder. But his recording technique and studio sound were not to everybody’s liking, and with the passage of time, are judged harder and harder. The RVG discs, this is the name chosen by EMI, the current owner of Blue Note Records, have a rather light, often somewhat sharp sound, but with directness and dynamics. The piano was the worst treated instrument, and it was also sounding poorly on all the re-masters. But nevertheless re-editions of discs from that era, especially those prepared by van Gelder, were awaited and disappeared from shop shelves quickly. Companies specialized in vinyl should be praised most for refreshing the Blue Note heir, especially Analogue Production, which offered them in the form of 45rpm 180g LPs. But this time we will deal with the digital editions on the Compact Discs. Besides the regular European and American versions, Japanese mini-LP versions were offered, which were master for me, at least till now. As far as I know, those versions were issued by Toshiba-EMI in three waves: first year after year in 1998 and 1999, and then in 2003 (all were 24 bit re-masters). But there was never a XRCD24 version available.

Although we wrote many times about the XRCD format (of course this is not a true format, but we usually describe it as such) and the related K2 technology, it is worth to repeat a few facts associated with those. XRCD and K2 are related on many levels, but they do not always come together – although each XRCD disc (including XRCD2 and XRCD24) comes to life using the K2 technology, not each K2 disc has to be a XRCD one. And although both trademarks, and technologies behind it, are owned by JVC, still XRCD is owned by JVC Victor Creative Media Co Ltd. (earlier JVC Music, Inc.), what means a company with American capital, and the K2 to Victor Entertainment, Inc., Japan – a fully Japanese company. Like I say, XRCD24 is not a new format, this is just a special way of manufacturing Compact Discs, allowing to place a signal with 20 bit resolution into the 16 bits of the CD, without the need of using special decoders. The technology is based on a very thorough signal processing – starting with the master tape and ending with pressing of the disc. In the first step the master tapes are prepared. Companies like Mobile Fidelity do mastering themselves, but in case of XRCD this step is made by the company preparing the given issue, not necessary a Japanese one. In this case, the tapes were prepared at Ocean Way Mastering studios in Hollywood, by Alan Yoshida, produced by Joe Harley and Robert Bantz. Let me just add, that Yoshida-san is the co-creator of XRCD…

The next step is the conversion of the signal to digital 24 bit format in the K2 converter. The 24 bit signal then goes through a special Digital K2 filter, which “regenerates” the signal, correcting errors, minimizing jitter, etc. Such signal is then recorded on a magneto-optical disc Sony PCM-9000. And this digital master “tape” is sent to Japan, to Yokohama, where the JVC pressing factory is located. The disc is then processed by the Digital K2 filter and converted in the JVC K2 Super Coding converter to 16 bits. The glass master is then cut using a DVD K2 laser, which cuts elongated pits (Extended Pit Cutting Technology), which in turn is used to create the metal pressing masters. And finally the discs are pressed – JVC resigned from one step in the production.

SOUND

Blue Note is a legendary company. This is why each appearance of new versions of titles taken from their catalog electrifies the music lovers and audiophiles. And if this is a XRCD24 version, then this is really SOMETHING. In the Audio Wave materials, this edition is depicted as “The Definitive Versions of Blue Note are on XRCD24”, what can be true – if we take into account the technology itself – but under the condition we are talking about digital material here. But technology is not the most important thing, but the fact how it is used by the people using it. Hence this session and the comparison with the best versions available to date, the mini-LPs issued in Japan by Toshiba-EMI in the Limited Edition version (24 bits, Rudy van Gelder remaster). The methodology of the listening session was simple – we covered the disc on the player (Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE) and one of us changed the versions – so that we did not know which one is playing at a given moment. This was not an ABX session, because that would require short samples and instantaneous switching between them, otherwise it is not significant, but a simple ABAB one. In the first question the listeners had to decide, which version they like most. And only in the second one we tried to guess, which one is the mini-LP and which the XRCD24.

As it quickly turned out, the whole setup was not necessary. From the first seconds of the first disc - Horace Parlan Quintet Speakin’ My Piece, we knew, we dealt with two completely different visions of the material. Also very quickly, not knowing what is playing, we decided which disc is which. Only Tina Brooks brought us from our self confidence. But I will get back to that. We assigned letters to the discs, and always the first disc played was “A” and the second was “B”. In the first test, with the mentioned Horace Parlan disc, the “A” was the Japanese, and “B” the new XRCD24. The votes were as follows:
Rysiek 1 – A
Rysiek 2 – A/B
Janusz – A
Wojciech Pacuła – B

I will just remind, that in the first question it was about showing, which version we like more. In the second round I asked to show, which disc is which – we agreed, we show the XRCD version. The responses were as follows:
Rysiek 1 – B
Rysiek 2 – B
Janusz – (did not vote)
Wojciech Pacuła – B

So you can see, that we had 100% score. We just could not miss. Janusz said: “XRCD seemed to me a bit mudded, too heavy. The “Japanese” was clean air, and not a veil”. Rysiek 1: “The impression that we have more sound on the Japanese is brilliant. Everything can be heard better. Unfortunately for me, the whole stage condenses to only one plane, there is no depth, as if everybody would be recorded with the same volume level, or everyone would have the same gain on the mixing table”. Rysiek 2: “For me it is clear, that XRCD deepens the sound, makes it nobler, gives a more relaxed sound. The “Japanese” has a more detailed sound”. I do agree with all that, but I want to add some detail to this description. The XRCD version is about 2dB softer, so you need to take this into account and play both on the same level. The Japanese cardboard has stronger treble, not harsher, but richer, fuller. The cymbals are much closer there, and more present. Also the midrange, so in this case the trumpet and sax, were closer to us, almost “in” the loudspeakers. But I chose the XRCD version, because that was a true spectacle. The cymbals were softer, they sometimes lacked the richness of the older version, but the new one showed them in a more natural way, like on the stage, and not in a loudspeaker. This is exactly what Rysiek said – this is how a band sounds on a stage in a club, and on the Japanese version, it was a studio recording, quite dry, and thus more detailed.

Listening to the disc Sonny Clark Cool Struttin’ confirmed everything we discussed a moment ago. This is why the indication of the XRCD disc took no more than two, maybe three seconds, the presentations differed by so much. But the listeners, when asked to indicate their preference, voted differently than the first time:
Rysiek 1 – XRCD
Rysiek 2 – XRCD
Janusz – XRCD by a hair
Wojciech Pacuła – „Japanese”

I do not know, if this was about getting used to the new discs, or that we started to appreciate elements, that escaped us earlier. But it was clear, we changed our minds. Still the cardboard was “richer”, more here and now, but that, what attracted the listeners, was the mentioned earlier depth, quietness and internal harmony of the XRCD. And for me, this time the live aura, strong treble and dynamics of the cardboard version seemed better. Janusz: “I still believe, that the XRCD is more faded, has the accents placed lower and less midrange. But the bass – it is splendidly controlled there, there is a lot of it, and it has natural timbre. The Japanese seems to have no contrabass at all”. Rysiek 1: “For me the Japanese sounded here like hi-fi. Hi-end was from XRCD”. But the last disc we listened to was a surprise for us. True Blue Tina Brooks sounded completely opposite than before – I mean, the cardboard version was dark and faded, and the XRCD had much more treble, was clearer, fuller, etc. In the question which one is the XRCD we were all wrong. But we pointed to this version as the better one.

So how should we judge the new versions? Are they better than the earlier ones? Is it worth to buy them? Despite what we expected, it is not possible to give an unanimous answer. Frankly speaking, we expected more from the XRCD24, some kind of breakthrough. But because the new edition sounds so different to the best Japanese edition, we can think about buying them. But if we own already the cardboard sleeve versions, then I would recommend to give the new discs a listen, and buy only those, which we deem better. Doubling the collection has no value here, in my opinion. But if we do not have those titles yet – then the case is clear – this is a different, but an equally splendid edition. I will buy all the titles, as then I will have a collection. It is incredible, how different the same material can be looked at! The classic Japanese editions are much lively, closer to the first plane, but have a worse perspective, they are not so vivid, and have a much worse bass. So we have to choose ourselves. And it is only a pity, that the new edition did not turn into a classic, something canonical . Another approach, a valuable one, but not so “definitive”, as it was destined to be…

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„High Fidelity” jest miesięcznikiem audio, ukazującym się nieprzerwanie od 1 maja 2004 roku. Do października 2008 roku nosił tytuł „High Fidelity OnLine”. Jego celem jest próba dotarcia do tego co najważniejsze – do MUZYKI. Wierzymy, że aby oddać pełnię zamierzeń kompozytora, wykonawcy, realizatora, konieczne jest zapewnienie maksymalnie przezroczystego toru odsłuchowego. Takich urządzeń, w każdym przedziale cenowym, szukamy. Najciekawsze prezentujemy na łamach magazynu.
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