Remasters of the Universe

Music-mastering technology gives CDs a welcome boost.
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A glimpse of what might have been -- or still could be.

When the compact disc was introduced in the early 1980s (originally a joint venture between

Philips Electronics

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) many considered it the epitome of music-recording technology. At that time, the idea of producing small, warp/click/pop-free discs to distribute music was akin to putting men on the moon.

Literature from the beginning of the CD era shows pictures of people wearing surgical masks and hair nets working in sterile surroundings -- making these new music-delivery systems. Now that nearly every inexpensive computer can "burn" a CD, of course, this ancient history has become part of music-CD lore.

Technologically, these early discs were amazing for their time: 16-bit, 44.1 KHz digital masterpieces. That recording/mastering technology had been dubbed the "Red Book" standard.

Many consumers flocked to buy CDs. Why not? They couldn't believe they could now listen to music without ticks, pops and scratches. Audiophiles were skeptical, though, because in most cases CDs didn't sound as good as the same music on analog vinyl LPs. In some cases, even prerecorded cassettes sounded more like music.

Didn't matter.

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CDs were more portable, more robust and -- despite their higher price -- became more popular than any other format.

Over the years, more and more portable, compressed music files have taken the place of the real sound of music discs. (Have you ever heard what a downloaded song sounds like on a real, full-fidelity music reproduction system? It's barely music.)

But that hasn't stopped progress in the other direction. In addition to completely new disc formats (SACD, DVD Audio) engineers and scientists have been hard at work trying to improve the sound of CDs.

That's where JVC comes in.

The R&D team at the Japanese Victor Company worked long and hard to find a way to improve CD sound quality within the confines of the Red Book standard. That means that whatever improvements they came up with would have to be compatible with every single CD player ever made. (Unlike SACDs and DVD-Audio discs, which need special hardware for playback.)

As early as 1987, JVC gurus first developed a music-mastering system they called the K2 interface. K2 because both lead engineers' last names began with the letter K. Within a few years, the engineering team created the first 20-bit super-encoding system.

Fast forward to the present, K2 is now a 24-bit, 100 KHz music-mastering system that is compatible with any normal CD player.

So far, there have been a dozen or so releases of CDs using this new technology. Luckily more are on the way.

"This Is K2 HD Sound"

Thanks to Winston Ma's First Impression Music label (FIM) here in the U.S., these discs are making their way to the U.S. as well. Mr. Ma sent me a compilation/demonstration CD called "This Is K2 HD Sound" so I could hear for myself what the industry buzz is all about.

It's a 16-track disc made up of songs from the other K2 mastered albums -- many of Japanese origin. There is classical, jazz and even some vocal tracks. All are very musical and well recorded.

I was expecting very good quality CD sound. What I got was amazingly good. There is no way to put into words how good this disc sounds on everything from home music systems to my car CD player -- or even my


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and ThinkPad laptops. This music sounds like real instruments being played by real musicians sitting right beside you. I don't understand all the technical details, but I do know that these guys are on to something.

Hopefully it's not too late. Maybe there are still enough music lovers out there for technological breakthroughs like this to make a difference in the current MP3-riddled music world.

The K2 HD sampler disk is currently in great demand -- for good reason. You can try the First Impression Music

Web site.

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says the sampler will officially be available Jan. 22. Price is $36.

For the record: Ripped copies of this album do not sound as phenomenally good. Nor do exact duplicates. They lack the magic of the original. Don't even bother.

The sampler CD mentions that K2-mastered copies of "Jazz at the Pawnshop" will soon be available. Recorded 30 years ago, this audiophile favorite has been dubbed "The greatest jazz album of the century." The last one anyway.

I'm hoping the K2 version will extend that quote into the 21st century.

Now, don't get me wrong. At $36 each these aren't going to save the record industry from being ripped apart -- literally and figuratively. Maybe if they could be priced the same as those horrid-sounding downloaded files, there'd be a chance at saving the music.

But, and this is a big but, it does show there is still potential in the compact-disc format and a chance that the record buying public might, at some point, decide that sound quality is as important to them as portability. Instead of demanding higher-quality products as they do with high-definition televisions, I'm afraid that high-definition recordings will be relegated to cult/hobbyist/fanatic status.

Alas, it might be too late already.

With 34 years experience as a journalist -- the last 27 with NBC -- Gary Krakow has seen all the best and worst technology that's come along. Gary joined before it actually went online in July 1996. He produced and anchored the first live Webcast of a presidential election in November 1996. With a background as a gadget freak, audiophile and ham radio operator, Krakow started writing reviews for both Audio and Stereophile Magazines in the 80s. Once at, Krakow started writing a column to help feed his personal passion for playing with gadgets of all types, shapes and sizes. Within a short time, that column became a major force in many electronics industries -- audio, video, photography, GPS and cell phones. Readership soared, and manufacturers told him they had actual proof that a positive review in his column sold thousands of their products. Many electronics manufacturers have used quotes from his reviews in their sales literature as well as on their Web sites. There have also been a few awards too, including Emmys in the 70s, 80s and 90s.