I’ve been on this converting SACDs to DSD files binge as of late, and in addition to the 400 or so discs I currently have in my library, I’ve been on a bit of a buying spree, especially with regard to Japanese import discs, like those from SHM. Most new production SACDs sell for around $30-$35, but the SHMs – if you shop at Acoustic Sounds (AS) or Elusive Disc (ED) – retail for $60, even the brand new ones. If you shop around online, you can find new release SHM SACD discs for about $30 (sometimes less!) – the very same discs AS and ED are selling for $60. It’s absolutely crazy, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Last week, I bought three import SACDs, including the brand-new release of the Pat Metheny Group's Offramp. The new price of that disc at AS is $60. Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve spent tons of money over the years at Acoustic Sounds, but I just can’t figure why it’s possible to get the very same disc for half the price elsewhere. And trust me, if you’re at all familiar with SHM SACDs, there’s no faking the distinctive dark green coating (designed to minimize laser diffraction when reading the disc’s reflective surface) on the disc’s outer surface – the cheaper ones are definitely the real thing!
Now, of course, you don’t get quite the same level of service that you should be accustomed to getting from the higher-priced vendors. For example, I’ve been buying a lot of discs recently from an online retailer in Kentucky, importCDs.com, and while the pricing is superb, the service is somewhat variable from experience to experience. I bought a couple of SHM SACDs from them my first time, and decided to go with the low-priced Media Mail shipping. The discs shipped the same day, and arrived about three days later, in perfect condition – jeez, I just might be onto something here! I ordered several more times, same basic experience, no problems at all. My last order from them, however, took twelve days to arrive; Louisville, Kentucky is about 375 miles from me in Georgia, but my last order traveled a total distance of almost 2,200 miles, going all the way to Stockbridge, Massachusetts before it finally started making its way back to me. And the package looked like it had been through a hurricane or a flood – thank God the discs were wrapped in cellophane – and although the discs were perfect, every disc case was cracked.
By comparison, my last order from Acoustic Sounds came with free shipping via FedEx, but it also took twelve days to get here, so take your pick. But had I ordered these three discs from AS, the cost would have been almost double the price from importCDs.com. Now, I understand that the SHM SACDs are limited edition discs, and as they sell out, the prices typically tend to get pretty out of control everywhere on the internet. That’s a given – but at the very least, if you shop around and don’t wait too long, you can get some amazing buys on SACD discs online at the time of their release. If you’re at all interested, go ahead and pull the trigger – as an old friend used to say, “he who hesitates is lost.”
Of course, I’ve been ripping the discs to DSD files and playing them via I²S with the Douk Audio Digital Interface, and the sound is nothing short of incredible over my system. Here are a few that I’ve been listening to recently. Just as a footnote to the SHM SACDs: for those of you who are heavily into the surround-sound aspect of SACD, they’re strictly 2-channel, stereo-only discs. Just an FYI – in fact, with rare exception, most of the SACDs being produced these days are 2-channel (stereo only) discs.
Patricia Barber – Café Blue – Unmastered
Chicago native Patricia Barber tends to get something of a bad rap whenever it comes to her style of jazz music; her discs often tend to get pigeon-holed as “audiophile” recordings. And therefore – regardless of their great sound – they're considered typically of very little value artistically or in the bigger scheme of things. I have an associate who writes for one of the same audio publications I do, and a few years back at the AXPONA show in Chicago, Bes Nievera of Music Direct had arranged for Patricia Barber to give a live performance. The associate in question told me that “he couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” and that he “can’t stand that audiophile crap.” I can’t understand that, because I actually loooove Patricia Barber’s music; it’s often quirky and offbeat, and she embellishes everything she plays with her own unique take on the music. And not to mention that it’s always incredibly well recorded; many of her discs were produced and recorded by the phenomenal Jim Anderson — enough said, basically!
This is one of those records that’s been released in every available format, and in every remastering of every available format, but you’re going to have to trust me on this – you’ve never heard Café Blue like this! Originally a digital recording, session engineer Jim Anderson took the master tapes in 2011 to Capitol Studios in Hollywood where he took them into the analog domain and remixed the album on Capitol’s custom Neve mixing board (considered the No. 1 Neve unit in the US!), using analog reverb chambers to add ambience to the mix. Those results alone were spectacular, but then Gus Skinas at the Super Audio Center in Boulder, Colorado took those tapes and created an “unmastered” version, where he basically stripped the mixes down to their rawest state. The result is this “unmastered” SACD, and the sound defies all logic — this is maybe the finest-sounding SACD disc in my entire digital collection, and yet I almost passed on this one, even though it was only $23 at importCDs.com.
For the uninitiated, Barber’s music is some of the most inspired post-modern jazz out there, her work at the piano is superb to say the least, and she gives her supporting cast of musicians plenty of room to stretch out and solo. You’ve probably never heard of any of the guys who were in her band at the time, but they’re all outstanding virtuosic musicians. I’ve had this mix of jazz standards and originals in my library for over a decade, and several of the songs are in my regular rotation in my car, but I’ve never heard this music like this – I was literally flabbergasted on first listen, and couldn’t believe that I almost passed on getting it. This disc is easily the most dynamic DSD recording in my growing library; the live, in-your-room realism is just off-the-charts good, and Café Blue – Unmastered comes very highly recommended!
Premonition Records, SACD
Pat Metheny Group – Offramp
I bought the LP of this album when it first came out in 1982; having never heard anything by the Pat Metheny Group, I was taken by the graphically striking front cover image, and by the really glossy album cover. Offramp blew me away when I got home with it and placed it on my turntable – the ECM recording was dynamic and clear, and the music was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. And the quality of the Japanese pressing was beyond superb – it was probably the quietest vinyl and the finest LP to ever grace my turntable up to that point. I was hooked, and went on a PMG binge of sorts soon afterwards.
Moving into the digital age, I was never particularly impressed with any CD version of Offramp (or anything else in the Pat Metheny catalog, for that matter) – they all sounded, well, rather flat to me. Not at all as enjoyable as my original LPs, which I felt totally outclassed the ECM CD sound.
When I first saw the “coming soon” status of Offramp (along with about a half-dozen other ECM titles) as SHM SACDs, I was chomping at the bit to get a copy, and especially at the $30 importCD.com price. I was pretty upset when the e-mail arrived noting that it was already back-ordered on the day of release, but surprisingly, it shipped a couple of days later. It’s been well worth the wait – Offramp probably has the greatest level of dynamic range of any digital file (or disc) in my library. In my system, that includes my PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC and Stellar M700 mono amps, and playing into my Magneplanar LRS loudspeakers, it’s often necessary for me to push the volume control to 90 or higher to get reference-level playback. The sound is nothing short of superb, easily besting my original LP by a pretty wide margin. It’s that good!
Tunes like the bossa nova “Are You Going With Me” and the ever-mysterious “Au Lait” are rendered with supreme fidelity; I always felt the CD versions of Offramp had too much background noise in the really quiet parts of the music. That’s not a problem with the SHM SACD – this music has never sounded so vital and alive, and is presented with remarkable realism as well. And perennially sunny tunes like “Eighteen” and “James” (a tune I could put on non-stop repeat, literally forever!) have never sounded as great as they do here. At $30, the SHM SACD of Offramp is a complete no-brainer. Very highly recommended!
ECM (SHM), Japanese Import SACD
Tears For Fears – Songs From The Big Chair
Songs From The Big Chair is one of those Eighties albums that’s not only essential listening – even almost four decades later – but one that just about summarizes the Eighties experience. There’s not a bad song on the entire disc, and the really big hits like “Shout,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” ruled the airwaves during the mid-Eighties and onward. As great as this album is though, I never realized just how bad the CD sounded until very recently, when I picked up a CD copy at a thrift store, and was totally underwhelmed by how flat the disc sounded, even with the relatively high level of playback my current system offers. As great as a lot of vintage CDs sound on more modern equipment, some of them still sound, well, pretty awful.
So at the $30 asking price, I decided to take a chance on this disc – anything would have to be an improvement over the original. I’d seen some information about a Steven Wilson remix, but hadn’t been able to track down a disc copy, so buoyed by my recent SHM experiences, I decided to take a chance. Well, once again: money well spent. Whereas the catalog CD is anemic and rather harsh sounding, this one is anything but that. This is a bright-sounding disc, and that tends to get exacerbated by the Magneplanar’s quasi-ribbon tweeter, but the listening experience is nothing like the nearly unlistenable catalog CD. Very highly recommended!
Mercury/Universal (SHM), Japanese Import SACD
Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
When the first SACDs hit back in 2001-2002, the first five or so Elton John albums were released by Universal as hybrid, surround SACDs. A whole lot of people lambasted them, saying the sound was overly bright; I have to take issue with that. Having all the original Universal SACDs, I think the brightness was more of a byproduct of the SACD player design and available playback equipment of the day. I really don’t think most of the people complaining about SACD’s sound quality were listening on top-notch equipment. Anyway, I grabbed this SHM SACD disc, mainly because I could get it for $30, and because I kind of wanted to do a head-to-head comparison with the Universal SACD release.
Well, the winner is definitely the SHM, but only by the slimmest of margins; hearing these SHM SACDs is like waaay back in the day, when I’d spring for a Japanese import album. It would definitely be the best pressing of any album I ever bought, and generally the very best sound quality. I get much of that same impression with the SHM’s; when I play back Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the very first track, “Funeral For A Friend,” just totally displays the kind of extended soundstage, separation, and clarity that I expected to hear from a Japanese LP pressing. With no harshness or extreme brightness – the sound quality here is about as good as it possibly gets. Listening to this SACD really takes me back to when this music was new, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. And it’s such a great listen, it doesn’t wear you down either – very highly recommended!
Mercury/Universal (SHM), Japanese Import SACD
Diana Krall – Live In Paris
Diana Krall is another artist who’s been really maligned over the years; as far as I’m concerned, her first five-or-six mainstream Impulse/Verve albums are absolutely indispensable listening for well-recorded, superbly played jazz standards. When she arrived on the scene, she was young, beautiful, incredibly talented, and – most importantly – very well recorded and produced, usually by Tommy LiPuma. It’s no wonder that her handlers wanted to capitalize on her appeal by over-glamourizing her album covers and promotional materials, which ultimately had the effect of turning off a lot of jazz purists. Not to mention that in the early days, if you went to an audio show, chances are you’d get the equipment you were interested in hearing demoed to a Diana Krall album – she was oversaturated in every aspect of the audio experience.
That said, I still love those first few albums, and I really love this disc, Live In Paris, which arrived after the first four mainstream albums (technically, her actual first two recordings were not released until she had reached a much higher level of fan interest). I feel that Live In Paris is much more representative of what Diana Krall was capable of. It shows to great effect her incredible talent as a pianist, along with her unmatched ability among modern vocalists to get to the heart of jazz standards and songs from Tin Pan Alley. Diana Krall is in really great voice, surrounded here by top-notch artists like Anthony Wilson on guitar, John Clayton on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums, and Alan Broadbent conducts the orchestra. This was a great live DVD, it was a great CD, and the SACD takes that performance to an even higher level of audio excellence.
This is not an SHM SACD; it comes from Universal Japan, but doesn’t lag far behind in terms of the overall experience — I’d actually say the musical enjoyment I get from this disc is definitely on par with the SHM discs. Very highly recommended!
Verve/Universal, Japanese Import SACD
Header image of Pat Metheny courtesy of Wikipedia/R. Steven Rainwater.