Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

If you sometimes look in our music reviews in the section Music, you probably noticed, that we review from time to time discs from the American company First Impression Music. This is the company we went over 10 points in the sound quality scale, what was not logical, but needed to set a coherent reference in sound quality for all reviewed discs, regardless of the time point they were reviewed. For those discs we changed the score, so that all discs surpassing the 10/10 points would be marked as ‘reference’. Because it happened, that FIM discs, taken tender care and fine tuned by Winston Ma, the owner of that company, are usually a happening. Since the time we can buy re-editions of the classic Decca recordings (and in short time also jazz from Verve), the sonic and artistic values were combined. FIM was always in the head of the companies that use the newest, but already proven and worked out coding and pressing methods. One of the newest hobby-horses of Winston Ma is the newest work from the JVC studios – K2 HD (K2 High Definition). Being an evolution of the K2 coding it offers much something more, something that in further perspective would be an equivalent of the vinyl disc. Of course FIM was not the first company that uses this way of treating sound, as since some time JVC discs are on the market – first with a golden side, now with a red one. The latter is on all discs with the re-editions of the Bethlehem catalog (review HERE).

However FIM created art from discs of that type – both in the editorial sphere and in the sound sphere – in my opinion. Key is here the statement “in my opinion”. Just after receipt of the first K2 HD discs from FIM I tried to infect my friends and acquaintances with them. And I was responded with silence. Later some murmurs and statements that those are maybe good discs, but worse than XRCD… I could not believe that. After listening to all the recordings I had (about fifteen of them) I was convinced that this is a big step forward, that we get loose from some aspects of hi-fi and enter in terrains not related to reproduction of the sound of music, but music by way of sound. Characteristics like absolute smoothness of the midrange, slightly warm, “analog” presentation, higher dynamics and the lack of digital residue predestined this format for that role. This was not a simple passage of the material through a warming tube device, because despite those characteristics, the resolution on those discs is much better than in the classic K2, HDCD and XRCD. As it turned out the devil of disagreement was in the expectations.


To clear at least some of the doubts, or make a step in that direction, I prepared a special meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society devoted only to this topic. And the occasion was splendid: Poland was visited in the Great Week by our good friend; I am a fan of since years, Andrew Harrison. I wrote about him a few times, but this time the occasion was special. “Harry” was editor in chief of the oldest British audio magazine “Hi-Fi News” for years, and from a few years deputy editor in chief. I liked his shrewd tests and honesty in how he wanted to say the truth about them. And probably this led to him being fired. As Harry does no longer work for HFN. I wrote about the problems of this magazine in the last two years, when it was bought by another editor’s house, in my lead articles many times. First they got rid of the editor in chief, then a man from a completely other tale was put in that place, that had nothing to do with audio, and then the test laboratory head was promoted for that position. This would be nothing bad, if not for the issue with Ken Kessler, that was fired first, and then returned with fanfares, and then the clear will to get rid of everybody that had something to say in HFN. This is of course my subjective view of the conflict, but I based it on my discussions with the people involved and lecture of the magazine itself for many years. I knew for long that Harry was not easy. But if anyone trashes (literally, he wrote in the conclusion of the test to go wide around those speakers) loudspeakers of a known company (JMLab, Diva Utopia) and is not afraid to write that, then we do not deal here with a submissive person. One can argue that we in HFOL write only good things about the tested equipment (thinking – just like HFN now) but this is a result from the politics I adopted: we test only the things we like. And that’s it. I don’t have the time and will to write about the others. And HFN says they test everything they order and publish only the truth – the good and the bad one. And lately they only complement everything they receive – the good and the bad things. Harry visibly did not fit in that model. So he does not work there anymore. But he was immediately snatched by another magazine – “Hi-Fi World”. I will have to switch to that title – in the end the strength of a title is made by the authors that write there. Actually, HFW is the biggest, after “What Hi-Fi?” specialist magazine on the Islands. And this man comes to Poland. Why? To meet the parents of his girlfriend, Agnieszka. As you can quickly realize, she is a Pole that lives in UK.

So the meeting nr 53 of the KSS we devoted to K2 HD discs. To change the environment a bit, the session took place at my acquaintances place. A new system, a new room. This meant that the session in itself was not fully meaningful, because there were many variables. But there is no other way to test it; we have to listen in many places. After the meeting a few people, including me, listened to the same recordings in their systems. Anyway the system and the room were super-interesting. I asked the host, Marcin, to say a few words about it:

“In a very short way and simplifying, as all the things that were done were very work and time consuming, I will tell how I tried (and I am still trying) to convert the room (let me be clear – my favorite room) in a way, that the passion I devote myself to would give the best acoustic pleasure. The answer to the question “Why this way?” is very simple (and I think I am not the only person that thinks that way): I don’t like “dead”, purely to listening devoted, rooms, many times without windows and depressive. Of course I value their assets! I would be a hypocrite if I would claim that this is a bad way. But this is not the way for me. In my vision of sound and music there must be life, full life around me. For me the creation of a completely separate room, only for listening to music, separated from the home life, although absolutely real, would be the beginning of the end (of me and the music) and would close me in an unreal, introverted world, from which, I presume, I would only stick out my head from time to time, like the spy from the Rainland from the stories about Balthazar Sponge. But enough stories, let’s go back to the main topic. It will not be in order, but just like it was.

With that assumption described above, I tried to reconcile the many times non reconcilable aspects: without the change of the character of the room, hide as much from the eyes as can be hidden, and still get the sound that would be at least satisfactory in my personal opinion. Because the floor and the ceiling are joist constructions with over 25cm air cushions I needed to liquidate or minimize all kinds of parasitic and harmful from the acoustic point of view influences of that kind of building structure; most of all the resonance of the wooden surfaces. In case of the floor concrete pedestals were made (being a part of the foundation) on which slabs from dense marble Crème Marfil were placed. The slabs are temporarily placed on construction foam – after all works will be finished those will be placed on 1cm silicon sheet to eliminate vibration. The pedestals were made to isolate the room completely from the environment. The pedestals have dimensions of 1.5 to 1.5 meters, what allows choosing the loudspeakers freely. The floor has 5.2 to 5.1 meters and the height of the room is 3.2 meters. Calculating the cubature is now fairly simple. The ceiling is separated from the next floor by another 25cm air cushion (this is just how buildings in 1882 were constructed, and this building is from that year). This is also a fully wooden construction placed on joists. So to avoid the ceiling to behave like a giant diaphragm, after the calculations pertaining to its capacity were done, the ceiling was fully stuffed with Rockwool Super Rock (having one of the best coefficients in damping low frequencies) and on thick, 10cm rubbers on every 5 square meters a cut-to-size slab weighting 60kg is placed. This gives over 30kg of working dampening material, that efficiently blocks all the vigor of the construction to play together with the music. Oh, I almost forgot – both the ceiling and the floor (actually their corners) are tied together with metal cords to stone blocs placed perfectly in the middle, what splits the “diaphragm” into four smaller ones. So now a few words about the walls. Walls… (While you are reading, the room does not resemble that what was during the session of the KSS – everything is now refurbished). So the walls are and will be from three materials: limestone, wood and special structural plaster, applied directly on the wood. This plaster is based on dynamic working dynamically acrylic masses and cardboard. The assumption is that the amount of those three elements will be equal. How it turns out – we will see when finished. According to my assumptions the effect will be … as it should be. After all the refurbishment the final acoustic correction will be done with materials from companies dealing with adaptation of listening rooms. The amount and aesthetics of the materials will be adjusted without loosing the atmosphere of the room.”

Now you should have an idea of what and why. So now the system. The basis of it is the player Mark Levinson No 390S with variable output. The latter is connected to the monoblocs from Cayina 9084D. Those are big SET amplifiers with a 845 tube on the output and 300B triode in the control stage. The input is handled by two octal tubes 6N8P and 6N9P. This gives 28W in class A. All tubes were equipped with vibration dampening rings. And the loudspeakers – this is the top model and newest product of the Krakow company Sound&Line, still under fine tuning. This is the reason the cross-overs were outside (that will also be the case in the final product) in “prototype” boxes. Before the comparisons we listened to some of our discs to warm up. The sound had splendid dynamics and scale. The piano, a concert Steinway, sounded phenomenal, with realistic volume and size of the instrument. I was especially impressed by the left hand – very saturated and strong, like in real life. There were voices that the piano is too big, but as I remember it sounds like that from close range, so in the place the microphones were probably placed. The midrange was a bit warmed. Maybe not in absolute terms, but due to the quite gently led treble. This gave a very vivid sound with the instruments placed quite deep in the room. I like everything cleaner, also saturated and without squeaky treble, but more here and now. We had a never ending discussion on this topic – I tell about that later.

And, like the listening session showed, this is not just small talk. I think that the K2 HD discs propose that, what lacks Marcin in the classical music discs and what he is searching for modeling the sound of his system. Before I wrap up the meeting (and the journalists like to have the last word) let us give word to the listeners. I asked all of them to send me emails, but only those I publish arrived. Unfortunately – the people not present do not have the saying.

“My opinion about the K2 HD disc is in general positive. I say in general, because it hard to deny, that the amount of information enclosed on the disc is bigger than on a “normal” disc, but one cannot go around, at least in my system, the special emphasis on the midrange, what in many, especially sharpened systems, will play a positive role. And that what is positive in systems overexposing the treble, may not be so in other systems. In this case this was what happened. The hosts’ system reproduced the midrange and the bass very well, and the additional exposition of those sub-ranges did not suit me. The characteristics of the recording and the system summed up, what in consequence led to a deviation of the proportions in the musical presentation, that was still very interesting, but in my opinion a bit overdrawn. Just too much of the good stuff at once. But in general – it was good.”

I was very interested in the opinion of Marcin – he knew his system, so the only variable were the recordings. And I was not mistaken, because all problems I wrote about became visible, and our discussions got some food again.

“It does happen very rarely, but I really don’t know what to write. That what I would like to discus would not fit in the boundaries set for one person in a KSS meeting cycle, and we deal with many people here. I will not stretch the place, and using a smaller font will not go through. So maybe there will be time to fully analyze the problem, but I have now to shorten myself to fit in the given boundaries. So according to me, the essence of the difference between XRCD and K2 HD touches upon a big problem, being the question: how should music sound when we listen to it in our listening room? Should it be the sound we hear listening to the artist sitting somewhere in the room where he is performing? Or one that is “heard” by the microphones placed by the sound technician? Because those are the differences shown by the comparison, at least in my opinion. The problem is so big, that I cannot remember a meeting with the editor in chief, where we would not discuss it. To visualize what I am writing about I will use the example of the conductor, who hears a very different sound than a person sitting in the 15th or 20th row of the philharmonic. We can say (within the boundaries of the common sense) that he hears like the microphones “hear” that are used for the recording. This conductor, and especially a good conductor, always takes into account what the instruments will bring the listener combined with the concert room. And this is how K2 HD sounds. Fairly misty, but (to avoid misunderstandings) readable, without space drawn with momentum (especially in depth), that does not exist in nature. Calmly and dignifiedly, without a trace of nervousness with proper natural distribution of dynamics in comparison to a reference I acquired during the years. Painters of the audiophile world would say, that there is a certain live viscosity of the air between the instruments and the listener. The contours are not marked, because in real life they also do not exist. Everything sounds incredibly natural, it is hard to imagine, that it could sound in an other way… Until the XRCD format is placed in the player. Let us say it from the beginning it is a completely different animal. Letting aside the much higher signal level, the fans of clean, extra clear sounds (especially in jazz) will be delighted with the XRCD format. With proper saturation of all the instruments elements appear that are not accessible for the “listener from the audience”. Brass, triangles, special effects, hardness, often required in the audiophile world very slight contours of the sound…
Everything absolutely top notch. This format really shows the sound of instruments the sound engineer’s way in a system, meaning near field. From my contacts with different instruments this is conform to so understood acoustic truth. You just have to go to musical instrument shop and hear for yourself. Now recapping… I would lie if I told you, that I do not like such way of presentation of the sound like from XRCDs. The XRCD sound is phenomenal especially for two nations: orthodox audiophiles, not recognizing compromises and people that listen to music in an analytical way. Personally I account myself to the second group. 95% of my collection are discs with classical music. This is my passion. I like to analyze its structure, the ideas of the conductor or the soloists, listen to separate voices in the orchestra, differences in reverb of the distinct groups of instruments, this all helps in analysis and is most of the time inaccessible for standard editions. But there is always a “but” – I do not always listen to analyze… Often I turn on the discs just for relaxation. I not again, that the words above just scratch the surface of the topic, if one would like to see the whole theme. So approaching a short summary: in the XRCD format there is everything… Or maybe almost everything… Because there is no such naturalness and musicality like in the K2 HD format. There is too little of my beloved music available in K2 HD to support this claim fully, but for today, I would allow to cut my interconnect, by way of speaking, that nothing sounded so live in my system as the K2 HD material, it sounded like the real event viewed from the position of the spectator.”

“First some general restrictions to my subjective opinion:
1.The session was done on tube equipment with its own character
2.The ample of the discs was small – 1 K2 HD sampler versus 2 XRCD and 2 HDCD discs

The K2 HD disc is for me a defeat compared to the other mentioned format; in sport’s jargon 1:3. Only Habanera Fantasia from Carmen showed the superiority of K2 HD in the aspects of fluency, gentleness, musicality and ease of listening without loosing the hi-end aspects of the sound. In the rest of the tracks K2 HD disillusions, especially in the aspect of the depth of the stage, clarity and readability of the sound. The illusion of the event being “here and now” disappears, changing the music in a dead spectacle of sound being reproduced from a carrier. The impression of slowing down and softening was not pleasing for me, but rather caused boredom. Sorry, but on this example it can be clearly seen, that not every novelty is a step further to perfection. I thank the organizers and the leader for another common session and a lesson of “chasing the rabbit”.”

Hard words. I do not agree with any of them. Everybody has the right to issue his opinion, and this is the way this time, so I will also take privilege of that law.
In all shown statements a few common elements appear. I’ll try to put them together: fluency, gentleness, ease of listening, the amount of information available is higher than on a “normal” disc, emphasis put on the midrange, naturalness. Those are positive aspects. The negative were… warmth, emphasis on the midrange, gentleness, naturalness. Paradoxically the same characteristics were called upon as assets and then shortcomings. Interesting, really interesting. In the case of the K2 HD discs a certain dichotomy became visible, being in the branch from the very beginning, but explicitly named. Marcin mentioned that, but only when Ryszard talked to me a few days later and stated in this conversation that for him the sound must contain “the macro effect”, elements, many times not heard in the concert room, or he does not like it, it became clear that we talk about the choice of two philosophies of the sound. To some extent those are equal. According to one of them, at home we cannot get the same sound as in a live event. There is no such possibility, as in a room we cannot get realistic dynamics or reproduce realistic space. Everything is a kind of creation – the recording techniques and the reproduction. On the other hand, there are people that argument, the goal in itself is to reproduce the music as it sounds in reality. I think that both sides are right in some points and make mistake in others. In my opinion the goal of an audio system is to reproduce live music as truthful as possible. At the same time I know that there is no such possibility, that this is the unreachable ideal. That is why we have to try to reproduce it as good as we can. For me this is the reproduction of the recording, registration. Marcin goes in another way – in a way to manipulate the sound and its elements, to simulate the live event as close as possible. I think that this is a logical error, but I will not die for that. Anyway, this is the reason that for me the K2 HD is a revelation for me: finally, I get in my hands a recording, that, to a great extent, sounds like the real thing – with lots of detail, but drowned in the whole, without the “macro effect”. A bit like using a wide angle lens. In this case, my striving to get the system to play maximally truthfully that what is on the disc converged with the striving of the makers of the format, as now both ways go together. It was interesting how Harry described his impressions. Because we did not translate immediately what we said, he talked free from prejudice and only about that what he heard from the speakers. And he said that if it is about analysis of the recordings, from the realization side as well as the musical side, the XRCD versions were best, closely followed by HDCD. But every time we switched to K2 HD he had the impression, that the musicians play better, that their technical abilities are higher. With the earlier versions high school orchestras played, and on the K2 HD virtuosos, that know what to do with their instruments. And this is what it is about. At least I think so now.

We used the following recordings in our listening tests:

· K2 HD: Pachelbel, Canon in D, This is K2 HD Sound!, First Impression Music, FIM K2 HD 078
· HDCD: Pachelbel, Canon in D, Audiophile Reference IV, First Impression Music, FIM029 VD

· K2 HD: Esther, Kinderpiele, This is K2 HD Sound!, First Impression Music, FIM K2 HD 078
· HDCD: Esther, Kinderpiele, Canon in D, Audiophile Reference IV, First Impression Music, FIM048 VD

· K2 HD: Habaniera Fantasia from Carmen, This is K2 HD Sound!, First Impression Music, FIM K2 HD 078
· XRCD24: Habaniera Fantasia from Carmen, Grooving Classics, First Impression Music, FIM XR24 044

· K2 HD: Autumn in Seattle, This is K2 HD Sound!, First Impression Music, FIM K2 HD 078
· XRCD24: Autumn in Seattle, Super Sounds! II, First Impression Music, FIM XR24 067

Before the actual listening session we listened to K2 HD discs from the company Bethlehem and JVC and compared the standard version of the disc Philharmonic Ball London with its “full fledged” version Decca/First Impression Music, LIM XR24 019, XRCD24.


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Mark Levinson



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