Yesterday, I laid out the case for avoiding XRCDs…especially if you’re considering paying $35 for one. Heck, I charge $35 for a Blu-ray disc with HD-Video; three mixes and loads of extras! I heard from a couple folks in appreciation and one person who said that I was being mean. Information is power. I actually laud the folks at JVC for doing their very best to deliver everything that the Redbook standard can deliver. I think they are over priced and over hyped but they do deliver everything that was on the source recording. I meant it when I said that the dynamic range of virtually all commercial music doesn’t come close to using the full 16-bits available. Most rock n’roll and pop music would fail miserably if there were huge dynamic swings. The radio station wouldn’t know what to with a dynamic recording.
Contrary to the claim from JVC that they deliver “eXtended Resolution” on their CDs, there is a special technique that can add 4 additional bits of dynamic range to the venerable CD. The method is called HDCD and it was developed by Reference Recordings Keith Johnson and Michael Pflaumer. Normally, I would rant against saying that a CD could exhibit HD (High Definition) specifications and I would quibble that an HDCD is not really HD by my definition. Still the format as developed by Pacific Microsonics did advance the potential fidelity of compact discs before any of the real HD format showed up.
How did HDCD eclipse the 16-bit barrier of the Redbook spec? Well, they encoded some special codes in the LSB (Least Significant Bits) that when read by a custom decoding chip would translate to potentially better fidelity. They messed around with dithering, Peak Extend, which is a reversible soft limiter and Low Level Range Extend, which is a reversible gain on low-level signals. These techniques do actually accomplish what they set out to do but the discs had to be processed or encoded with HDCD AND the CD players had to be able to decode the process. While the discs did remain compatible with standard non-HDCD players, there was some compromise to the noise levels.
Pacific Microsonics introduced HDCD (which were identified with their logo) in 1995 and as many as 5000 titles were processed with it. In 2000, Microsoft purchased the assets of the company and included the patented technology in their Windows Media software players. The format still exists but only as a legacy decoder in hybrid machines like the Oppo line of players.
If you recall, 2000 was the year that DVD-Audio and SACD were introduced. Audio enthusiasts looking for better fidelity were ready to move to 24-bits and higher sampling rates. In fact, I remember having that very conversation with Michael Pflaumer at a trade show…I think it was an AES convention in San Francisco years ago. As I was about to launch my own record label and recognized that CDs would be superseded by high definition PCM at 96 kHz/24-bits, I wanted to know why anyone would want a CD with a custom format added to it for a few extra bits when there would be new software and hardware that advanced way beyond the CD specs. Michael remained steadfast to the notion that HDCDs would have a place in the marketplace. Perhaps he was right.
I think they had the right idea. HDCD was a REAL improvement to CDs! Unfortunately it didn’t happen ten years earlier when it might have had an impact.