SHM-SACD – super-expensive, but how super is the sound?

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.

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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.

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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.

2 thoughts on “SHM-SACD – super-expensive, but how super is the sound?”

  1. Hey, just discovered this blog and very much looking forward to reading your ‘back catalogue’.

    Do I understand correctly, that the SHM-SACD is merely the same digital format, but only using a small proportion of its possible capacity? I agree with you that this is probably nonsense.

    I’m all for higher resolution, however, but I have yet to give 24 bit or 96 kHz music sources a good audition; I must read your posts on the experiments you have done in detail. It is my feeling that psychology plays quite an important role, however. This was brought home to me a few years ago when doing my own A/B comparison between a CD and a Minidisc recording (remember them?). Lining them up and flicking between them using the source switch on an amplifier I found I could hear the difference which really disappointed me. The Minidisc version was more ‘muffled’ and the top end wasn’t there – which was what I had rather feared. But I then realised that my headphones were plugged directly into the CD player headphone socket, not the amplifier (I had thought it was remarkable the way I’d synchronised them so exactly first time!).

    It seems obvious to me that a nasty amplifier design presented on a solid platinum plinth is going to ‘sound better’ than a much better amplifier in a hammerite-painted box purely due to psychology. I think it would be impossible to shake this off, even if the listener actually knew it. I’m sure the same goes for SHM-SACD, £1000 mains cables etc.

    Digital compression is a very interesting subject I think. I have just found that I can still hear the artefacts within the newer 320kbps streaming services (the BBC calls this ‘HD’ sound) which surprises me (not just psychology this time!). Due to the way the compression works, it only seems to be a problem on ‘noise’ type signals and I could actually hear it (in headphones only) in the ‘silences’ between classical tracks as reverberation fades out and where the audience are shuffling in their seats, coughing etc. It’s ironic that compression works beautifully for ‘clean’, harmonically-simple recordings like a classical piano recital or a solo voice, but sounds absolutely terrible on ‘wall of sound’ type recordings with fuzz guitar, clashing cymbals etc. although the 320 kbps is way superior to the more common 128 or 160 kbps. I’m looking forward to the day when we can stream at full uncompressed CD rates (only four times 320 kbps) or could possibly choose to stream in 24/96, compressed to the equivalent bandwidth, perhaps.

  2. The truth of the matter is this : the shm sacds do sound better . I have over 30 of them and I have yet to hear one which isn’t appreciably better than it’s sacd equivalent .However the cost of these discs is completely OTT and puts them out of reach of anyone living in the real world .

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