Monday, February 17, 2014

HDCD: Making 16-Bit CDs Sound Like Vinyl LPs?

It might be happening more in the rock and pop world than in the Classical music world but is HDCD the most cost effective way to make Red Book spec 16-bit 44.1-kHz sampled CDs sound like vinyl LPs? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Given that DVD-Audio and SACD discs are now about as rare as 78-RPM shellacs in your typical local Tower Records and HMV franchise, it seems that the “lowly” Red Book spec 16-bit 44.1-kHz sampled compact disc had become the new vinyl LP for those whose ears still find those illegal music download files even below par with their 1980s era mix-tapes made in a boom box cassette player. But did you know that there’s already a “technology” out there that can make your Red Book spec 16-bit CDs sound as smooth as vinyl LPs without paying 500 US dollars worth of funds from your credit card on some online store. It’s called HDCD and even those 50-US dollar Mainland Chinese made universal disc players even now has been able to decode one since 2002. 

Even though it is happening more in the mainstream rock and popular music world than in the Classical music world – as Reference Recordings are the only CD manufacturing firm making HDCD encoded Classical music recordings – it seems like HDCD might be the only “hardcore audiophile tweak” that dates back from the 1990s that has gone mainstream. But what is HDCD? 

Before a US government tenured scientific researcher named Richard Fryer established his own hi-fi company known as Spectral Audio, he was luck enough to be privy to some US Army psychoacoustic research that dates back to the days of the Manhattan Project showing results that identifies parts of the human ear capable of detecting audio signals or sounds as high as 80,000 Hz. Then while collaborating with Keith Johnson who later started Pacific Microsonics on how to “encode” 20-bit 88.2-kHz sampled high resolution digital audio data onto a consumer electronic established 16-bit 44.1 kHz audio data carrier, thus creating the first practical High Definition Compatible Digital or HDCD. 

By around 1992, Reference Recordings started offering HDCD encoded Classical music titles on Red Book spec 1-bit CDs that were later coveted by audiophiles due to their relatively wide availability, affordability and most of all – sound quality that’s miles ahead of the CDs made by major record labels. Plus the introduction of the relatively low cost Pacific Microsonics PMD 108 HDCD filter during the mid to late 1990s only increased the HDCD’s appeal as the most cost effective way to make your CDs sound like vinyl LP records. 

When compared to the competing Sony Super Bit Mapping process, Pacific Microsonics’ HDCD system was markedly superior due to its ability for its midrange and upper bass frequencies to sound as smooth as vinyl records. Even HDCD encoded CDs played in a CD player without a HDCD encoder could sound much closer to vinyl records in a side-by-side comparison with a non HDCD encoded version. And the CD titles with HDCD encoding became widespread in the mainstream rock and pop world during the mid and late 1990s. From Paula Cole’s This Fire to Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings albums just to mention a few. And all of them carried no or just a little bit of a price premium over plain-vanilla CDs.  

Given that the HDCD encoding system is such a brand new process during the 1990s that some CD titles got released by their respective record labels without indicating that such titles were HDCD encoded. Back in 1996 Go Kart Records released the CD pressing Pretty Ugly by Lunachicks (GKCD24) which is HDCD encoded since the HDCD indicator lights up whenever I play this particular Lunachicks CD yet there’s no mention of HDCD on the Pretty Ugly CD’s liner notes / inlay cards whatsoever. Another “undocumented” HDCD encoded CD pressing that came my way back in the 1990s is In This World by Olu Dara (Atlantic 83077-2) which is probably one of the few HDCD encoded Jazz CDs that I had the fortune of hearing first hand; Though the liner notes mentioned that it was recorded at the vacuum tube and analog gear laden Sear Sound in NYC by Danny Kopelson. 


Arlynne Ann said...

To my ears - the best HDCD encoded Red-Book spec CD ever stocked by mainstream music stores is The Ultimate Experience by Jimi Hendrix (517 235-2). This HDCD compact disc managed capture the mid 1960s era studio gear crackle with the uncompressed dynamics of Jimi's electric guitar and Mitch Mitchell's drum-kit. It makes the Independence Day soundtrack (09026-68564-2) HDCD and the Lunachicks' Pretty Ugly (GKCD24) HDCD encoded compact disc sound dynamically compressed by comparison.

VaneSSa said...

Given the "flattering" nature of Pacific Microsonics' HDCD encoding on vintage recordings - on The Ultimate Experience the Jimi Hendrix greatest hits compilation for example - how come it is not used on reissues more? Sony's Super Bit Mapping, Deutsche Grammophon's Authentic Bit Mapping and UV22 encoding seems like the "de rigueur" when it comes to reissuing 1950s and 1960s era recordings onto Red-Book spec 16-bit CDs.

Je M'Apelle Ja'Nelle said...

Not all HDCD encoded CDs are created equal like you've cited in the Jimi Hendrix The Ultimate Experience HDCD encoded CD (517 235-2). I have an HDCD encoded CD of Avril Lavigne's Under My Skin which is a Ukrainian pressing - it sounds dull compared to the non-HDCD encoded US pressing.

Ringo said...

You're absolutely right, Ja'Nelle, I have Ukrainian pressings of Avril Lavigne's first two albums that are HDCD encoded and both of them had that notorious "Hack SDMI Tone" that can be easily heard by keen-eared audiophiles.