The problems facing the music industry are well-known: the CD market is fast disappearing thanks to digital downloads, both legal and illegal, and income gained from downloads does not look likely to match that lost from CD. But what about the niche market for recordings of superior quality? Universal Music Japan has come up with a product that combines several ideas. The first is SHM, or Super High Material, first used for CDs with the claim that, despite being a digital medium, players would extract better quality sound from CDs made with it. The next theory is that the high-resolution SACD format will play back more accurately if the disk only includes a stereo layer, rather than including stereo, multi-channel, and standard CD layers. The result is a new SHM-SACD series, remasters of classic titles at premium prices.
The source used for these titles varies. Some are new DSD (Direct Stream Digital, the digital format of SACD) master made from copy master tapes held in Japan. Some are re-issues of existing DSD transfers. Some are newly mastered from original master tapes.
Who’s Next is apparently in this last group, newly mastered from the original tapes. It is said to have been done as straight as possible, with no equalization or compression, and is the original mix.
This is a favourite of mine, so I bought a copy. It comes in typically over-the-top Japanese packaging, SHM-SACD in a plastic film sleeve inside a paper sleeve inside a card sleeve. There is a fold-out cover with a photograph I’ve not seen before, liner notes, obi, and a card to return with suggestions for future titles.
I played the disk and compared it to my existing CD. In fact, I must confess, I have several copies. Who’s Next has been issued many times, and the most obsessive fans know that the best CD is an early one mastered by Steve Hoffman and made in Japan for the US market. He has written about how he mastered it on his forum, using as little processing as possible though he did add some modest EQ.
Both the Hoffman CD and the new SACD sound very good. I am not quite sure which I prefer, but it may be the SACD which sounds exceptionally clean and lets you easily follow John Entwistle’s fantastic bass lines. Or it might be the Hoffman CD which is remarkably crisp and muscular. There is an odd problem with the SACD, which is that the last track is noticeably louder than the others. It was recorded separately, but that seems no reason not to match the volume.
So do I recommend the SACD, and by extension, the new SHM-SACD range? Well, I am all in favour of mastering CDs with full dynamic range, no attempt at noise reduction, minimal processing, and without the excessive compression that mars so many new releases. The Who’s Next title shows what great results you an get with this approach.
That said, it is tragic to have these high quality new remasters restricted to a niche format at an excessive price. The SHM thing I suspect is nonsense; if CDs and SACDs made with ordinary material did not work properly, we would have noticed it years ago. The advantages of SACD are doubtful too, certainly for stereo, because the limitations of human hearing make the extended frequency response pointless. I have researched this to the best of my ability and while I don’t know for sure that high-resolution formats like SACD are completely pointless, it does seem that standard CDs can sound either the same or nearly the same when the audible difference is put to the test with any rigour.
The SACD format is also rather inconvenient. You cannot easily rip to to a music server, you have to make a further digital copy from the analogue output of the SACD player, and then rip the copy, probably breaching your license in doing so, and potentially degrading the sound quality.
I also compared stereo-only and hybrid SACDs using Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, which was issued in both guises. The stereo version sounds identical.
Still, even you are paying for a certain amount of stuff and nonsense, you are also getting SACDs that genuinely sound good, at least in the case of Who’s Next. Perhaps it could even be worth it.