Some of my closest friends are car nuts. In fact, my best friend loves to search out the perfect car for restoration and go for it. He’s done it with a ’65 Corvette convertible, a ’67 Porsche 911, Porsche 914 and is currently staring down years of work on a Triumph TR6. After a visit to Detroit this past summer, I couldn’t help but relate to the passion, patience and resources that it takes to do what he does (along with the patience and accommodation of his spouse…his garage has three cars in various stages of assembly in it!). Making recording is similar in so many ways (including the patient partner).
I bring up automobiles this morning because I remember the concept of “blueprinting” an engine. The auto companies produce a detailed specification for their engines using CAD computer applications. The actual milling of the metal and fabrication of the various parts introduces small errors (certainly within acceptable tolerances) that make the parts less than perfect.
However, if an engine is “blueprinted” then each part is brought in line with the exact specification as envisioned by the design engineer. The result is that a “blueprinted” engine is much closer to the ideal engine than those that you and I get in the cars that we purchase from the sales lot.
That’s what JVC does when they re-release a classic album on an XRCD type compact disc. The XR stands for “Extended Resolution”. XRCDs usually cost about twice as much as a standard CD. There is nothing extended about the resolution of an XRCD.
Figure 1 – BLock diagram of the HVC process for creating XRCDs.
Making an XRCD CD is like “blueprinting” an engine. The entire mastering and manufacturing process is more tightly controlled, the pits are positioned with greater precision and advanced dithering the input signal from 20 bits to 16-bits is employed (dithering is the process of randomizing the least significant bits of a series of words to minimize quantization noise). However, the end result is still a Redbook Compact disc, which means it can’t actually have any additional resolution! It might be more perfect CD but to charge double for simply meeting the Redbook specification seems a dubious model. It would be nice if all CD were made to this higher standard.
The JVC magic is in the mastering process. Recordings to be prepared for CD release are either analog or digital (PCM or DSD) when they arrive at the final mastering stage. If the master is digital then the transfer to the mastering system is done via a digital transfer. Hopefully, the master contains more than 16-bits so that the mastering engineer can manipulate the amplitude and EQ without losing any of the low level information. If the source is an analog tape (which it seems the folks at JVC count on when creating an XRCD) the conversion to PCM digital is done at either 20 or 24-bits using a patented “K2” analog to digital converter. I’m sure the “K2” converters are very good or at least were state of the art back when XRCDs were first introduced back in 1995, but converters have improved dramatically in the intervening years. Maybe they should come out with a “K3” process (bigger numbers are always better).
The digital file is then sent on a “magneto-optical disk” to the JVC manufacturing plant. The engineers use a Rubidium clock to minimize jitter and down-convert the 20/24-bits words to 16-bits using a “super-coding” process. Remember that virtually all commercial music releases and absolutely ALL of the ones that were originally recorded on analog tape have less than 16-bits worth of dynamic range. In reality, the “K2” process need only worry about getting 10-bits or 60 dB of SNR into the glass master. All of this craziness about 20 and 24-bit dynamics used on analog masters is overkill.
The replication facility encodes the master using EFM (Eight-Fourteen Modulation), which is a method of ensuring that there will be some “ones” in the digital stream to keep the optical reader happy. The resultant 16-bits is processed through a “proprietary Extended Pit Cut DVD K2 laser technology” to produce the glass master. This process uses a laser beam recorder (LBR) to etch the pits into a piece of glass. This glass master is then used to create stamping masters from which CDs are pressed.
The article I read says that the XRCD process creates “precise pit lengths to eliminate time jitters”. There is no jitter associated with the position or length of the pits on a CD. The data is read by the optical laser from the pits (and lands) and re-clocked within any quality CD player. Basically, it’s a stream of words pulled from the pits and then sent out to the DACs in a tightly clocked sequence. The original rubidium clock is old news by then.
I’ve posted on this topic previously. The resolution of a Redbook CD cannot be “extended” by using better mastering methods or custom processing of any kind. There will always be 44.1 kHz samples and 16-bit words on a CD. The best that can be said about XRCDs is that they are among the best CDs ever replicated. But the quality of the source audio and the quality of the mastering process determine the overall sound of the final replicated CD much more than the “K2” converters or XRCD label. This is another example of marketing over media.
If the music you want is available as a normal CD file or download, you should acquire it that way. If you spend $35 on an XRCD, you’re wasting your money. Here’s a troubling and completely impossible statement from a review on Amazon of the XRCD of Steve Miller’s “The Joker”, “Without a doubt, this is a High Resolution CD”.