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No. 91 December 2011

The First Impression Music label, led by Mr. Winston Ma, an American of Chinese origin, should be well known to the readers of “High Fidelity” and not only to them. Initially the company specialized in re-masters and recordings issued on HDCD discs, also using gold reflective layer, and later on XRCD. Beautifully issued discs were the result of Mr. Ma’s love and passion for music and sound. And because he owns a significant collection of direct-to-disc LPs as well as new recordings, both analog and digital, made especially for his label, it was natural for him to compare the results of his efforts with the master tapes. And since he also owns a high end stereo system, he can do that comparison (the description of his listening room can be found HERE). As I mentioned, a large part of his catalog are XRCD discs. Mr. Ma used to go personally to JVC studios (Victor Company) where the master tapes are digitalized and where the discs are pressed in limited amounts and in a rigorous process (this is why they are so expensive – usually you press insane amounts of discs with a glass master, and here this amount is very limited). So he spent his life traveling back and forth between Japan, his home, and the recording studios. And the recording companies where he negotiated using their master tapes for subsequent re-editions. As it turns out, that was usually the most difficult part of the process.

The company fared well, issuing jazz and traditional Chinese music on the one hand, while on the other enchanting re-editions of classical music recordings from the archives of Decca and Philips. A logical next step was to enter new territories and hence the appearance of titles from Verve – like The Oscar Peterson Trio We Get Request, or Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto Getz/Gilberto. The world probably did not hold its breath but I did. Both discs showed the well known material in a completely new light – the best possible for a digital edition. They were issued in a completely new formula, the K2HD process, designed with Mr. Ma’s help. The full name of the process is: “K2HD Mastering; 24-bit 100 KHz Mastering”. The reflective layer was made from pure silver.
I mention the technical details on purpose, because they are part of the FIM phenomenon. Mr. Winston Ma is one of the hottest advocates of XRCD, K2HD, etc. It is enough to mention that the first XRCD24 disc was issued by First Impression Music in 2002, and the K2HD on the turn of 2007/2008. Yes, Mr. Ma left his imprint on the audio world!

On this wave of success, one year later FIM announced subsequent titles, which suggested growing cooperation with Verve. Among the announced titles was Ella & Louis by the duo Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, one of Verve’s true pearls. But it did not happen – after the first announcement the discs were more and more delayed.
In the beginning of 2010, after my several emails expressing my concerns about the situation, Mr. Ma responded: “Wojtek – FIM has a big problem with discs production. The pressing plant we used cannot guarantee the quality we need. We tried to contact Sony DADC, up to the level of their general director, but we could not come to an agreement, because this is a big company and the minimum order must be half a million of discs. […] This is why we will try to do something on our own, maybe buy our own machines. One thing I know for sure – we cannot lower our discs manufacturing standards.” It turned out that the pressing plant ruined the sound of seven titles while Mr. Ma was away and the whole print had to be destroyed.
So the company had a big problem. The situation was clear (and costly) with the XRCDs – all are pressed in the JVC plant near Yokohama. However the K2HD discs and the next FIM “patent”, DXD discs (these are CDs where the material is prepared from DXD recordings, 24 bit/384 kHz), can be pressed anywhere. So I waited patiently another year during which came a surprising, probably not only for me, message from Mr. Ma that FIM wants to issue recordings from their catalog on Flash cards, using high resolution files – an idea recently realized by the Canadian company Fidelio Musique Inc.. For me that was hitting bull’s eye – all the previous FIM efforts of “smuggling” 20 bits through the 16 bit CD standard resulted from the desire to overcome its limitations. And now we would get a digital copy of what the CD was pressed from.
Things got going, we got some announcements of the first three titles in internet shops and then they disappeared. What happened? It turned out that the distributors boycotted the new medium, hinting that the resignation from the physical CD format with its beautiful design, so important in case of FIM (and its sub-brands Lasting Impression Music and Golden Strings), will terminate their agreements with the label. Simply said, they do not want to sell the Flash cards. Was it about the “physical” presence of the product or fear of piracy – I do not know. But the effect was immediate: FIM dropped the project. Thanks to Mr. Ma I received one of the titles, FIM Super Sounds! I (FIM DXD 066 USB), one of the few existing cards. Someday I will tell you how it compares to the XRDC version. From these two situations you can already see that it was not easy. To this came Mr. Ma’s serious health problems; he was very ill for a long, long time and we did not know how this would end. Fortunately things got better and recently I have received an email from Mr. Ma that he is better and returns to work.

And he has lots of work – in the last half a year he started three very important projects, not only for the small audio world: UltraHD 32-bit Mastering, cooperation with engineers from the former Telarc, now Five/Four Productions, and a project of selling high resolution music over the internet.
In June 2011 I received information about the two first projects. Winston Ma wrote about a new, special system of mastering, based on his experiences with XRCD, K2HD, and finally DXD. UltraHD 32-bit Mastering, as it is called, was designed together by Five/Four Productions and First Impression Music. Its goal is to keep as much information from the master tape on the CD as possible. It assumes conversion of any signal (analog or digital) to 32 bits, which allows preserving the maximum currently available dynamics. The system does not specify a sampling rate, leaving this decision to sound engineers. It turns out that 192 kHz is not always the best. With some recordings sampling frequencies of 96 or 176.4 kHz are better, resulting in better “homogeneousness of harmonics”. As you can see this is not about the CD itself but rather about preparing the material that will be put on it – exactly as with XRCD and K2HD.

As I said, the UltraHD 32-bit Mastering is a cooperation between FIM and Five/Four Productions. It had a kind of pre-start, the disc of Linda Ronstadt What News?, issued by First Impression Music with the Pure Analog logo and a catchphrase “32 bit 192 kHz Captured!”. This disc was prepared only by FIM.
Now, we know a thing or two about Mr. Ma but who’s behind the other company? Well – they are next “riders of the wind”, top sound engineers and mastering engineers on the planet. The company is made by the team of people who previously managed Telarc, which was bought in 2005 by Concord Music Group (Concord Music Group is owned by Village Roadshow, created in 2004 by merging Concord Records and Fantasy Records), and its operations were “extinguished” in the sense that the team working on music recording was disbanded, so its heart and lungs were extracted.

And yet the Telarc history goes back as far as the year 1977, when the company was founded and was awarded with many Grammy’s for best discs and best recordings. Its motto was “The Telarc Sound”. They have pioneered the introduction of the 20 bit sound recording (in the end of the 80-ties), 24 bit recording in 1996, and DSD recording in the 21st century.

In 2009, after reorganization of the corporation, its Telarc Records Group department laid off twenty six employees and stopped the production of their own recordings. Four of those people, key engineers, founded an independent recording-mastering company Five/Four Productions, Ltd. They were the Grammy Award winners, sound engineers Michael Bishop and Robert Friedrich, Grammy Award winner, producer Thomas Moore and the chief of technology Bill McKinney.

The new FIM discs are issued in the US (production, mastering, and pressing). They are available in two versions: regular and Limited Edition, with a metal box bearing the UltraHD logo. The Limited Edition discs come from separate stampers, where only the first 2000 copies are made, similar to XRCD. In FIM nomenclature those are the equivalent of former UltraHD discs.

Initially the following discs were issued:

  • The Producer's Choice I Limited Edition (Ultra HD), FIM
  • The Producer's Choice II Limited Edition (Ultra HD), FIM
  • The Producer's Choice III Limited Edition (Ultra HD), FIM
  • Super Triango! Limited Edition, FIM
  • G.F. Handel, Messiah Limited Edition, Proprius
  • Niels Thybo, Bo Stief, Lennart Gruvstendt, Super Trio, Sundance
  • The TBM Sounds! Limited Edition, TBM
  • Rossini, 5Sonate a Quatro Limited Edition , Philips
  • Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Ella&Louis, Verve
Next in line are ten titles from the… Telarc catalog.

And so we come to the third project which may be called opening for the future. I am talking about selling hi-res music over the Internet. After the failed attempt with Flash cards it seemed that FIM would give up such idea for good. But it didn’t – it runs with it.
On the August 26th and 27th, 2011 in the office and listening room of First Impression Music there was a meeting devoted to hi-res music, called The Summer Summit. Its goal was to come up with an idea of how to offer hi-res music to the customers, while keeping the current structure of sales of the physical carriers. The following persons participated in the meeting:

  • FIM: Winston Ma, John Tucker i Henry Yang
  • Five/Four Productions: Michael Bishop, Robert Friedrich
  • Actiontrax: Dan Poras
  • Burmeister: Rob Niemann, general director
  • “Positive Feedback Online”: Dr. David W. Robinson, editor in chief
  • Playback Designs: Jonathan Tinn
During the meeting they decided to prepare a special FIM webpage, dedicated to selling hi-res music over the internet, to get the license for the DSD master tapes from Concord Music (Telarc, Concord, Rounder and Fantasy), and to make DSD material sales possible over the internet. It was also decided that the materials will be made available in the WAV format, and not FLAC. Interestingly, they also discussed the case of FIM LPs, which are to be marketed soon.
The ambitions of the meeting participants, who formed a society, reach further because they want to set a general recording standard, so that the hi-res material would need to pass as little steps as possible. As you can see these are very ambitious goals. What will be their result – we will see. We can only wish them success and keep our fingers crossed.

Finally, let’s talk about a kind of “spin-off” of what FIM did. On October 28th, 2011 the company sent us an email saying that in the beginning of August Universal Music Group started sales of K2HD discs, made by the same JVC engineering team that made K2HD discs for First Impression Music. The discs were pressed by Memory Tech, the biggest high quality pressing plant in Japan, with a box similar to FIM and LIM discs. The first 1000 copies are numbered.
Due to a special agreement with Universal, First Impression Music received a certain amount of the numbered copies. They underwent the same process as UDC discs, which means they were covered with RCC, washed in de-ionized water and listened to, verifying for errors. Of course they were aluminum discs, not gold. In this group we find the following discs:

  • The Best of Andrea Bocelli, Vivere
  • Gold Greatest Hits – Carpenters
  • At Her Very Best – Nan Mouskouri
  • The Andrew Lloyd Weber Collection – Sarah Brightman
  • Holiday in Italy
  • Espana – Ataulfo / LSO
  • Con Amore – Kyung Wha Chung / Philip Moll
  • Pure – Hayley Westerna


First Impression Music, Inc.

Head Office
7309 233rd PL NE
Redmond, WA. 98053
Tel.: (425) 868-5326 Fax: (425) 836-9061

Sales Office
17530 NE Union Hill Rd., Suite #150
Redmond, WA. 98052
Tel./Fax: (425) 883-3330
Internet Sales Support

Wojciech Pacuła
Editor in Chief

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"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

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