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JVC's XRCD..., nothing completely new, but made much better

Wolfgang Bleier, Austria
June 2008

There was a time, when we could see the tunes shining on rich, black vinyl and we could feel the music with our fingertips. We could blindly put the stylus to the first touch of Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath", and we knew it's track ten on side 2. It was the time when we literally could "hear" a record with all of our five senses, and when groove-locks caused exactly the same section of a music to repeat. We were children of the analog time - and we still are "made analog". Somehow we understood how this format worked, it was tactile and had that certain good feel.
Today we almost can't remember that we had to turn our longplay records every 25 minutes, which somehow determined also our petting intervals, or the .......tack........tack.......tack...... crackle when the diamond stylus has reached the lock groove that told us "it's time to turn off and to go to bed".

In these good old days, before Sony and Philips have left to us the compact disc, Japanese half-speed super virgin-vinyl LP pressings that were made by the Japan Victor Company were the object of desire of record collectors. JVC used really good virgin-vinyl and produced thick, flat, quiet slabs of beautiful black.
Now, JVC since some years devotes itself in a similar way to the making of CDs. XRCD (Extended Resolution Compact Disc) is JVC's endeavour to enhance the CD format to utmost sonic quality by using state of the art proprietary technology.

Here is how JVC explains the making of XRCDs

Source of Information: printed materials in an XRCD album of the JVC label.
(Bill Evans, "Sunday at the Village Vanguard")

The Extended Resolution Compact Disc (XRCD) from JVC brings the listener higher fidelity and improved audio quality by enhancing the process of mastering and manufacturing compact discs. All of this is done within the current CD standard, so no special cd player or decoding box is needed to hear the benefit of the XRCD.

In most cases, after a record has been mastered, a U-matic 1630 format tape is prepared and shipped to the manufacturing plant. At this point the artist, producer, and engineers can only hope that their work will return to them in a relatively unchanged form. This manufacturing chain is not standardized, and while digitally correct, does not always reproduce the highest audio quality possible. Since the manufacturing process works as a number of components linked together in series, the overall performance can only be limited by each stage. This means that extreme care and attention must be paid to every aspect of mastering and manufacturing to get the most out of the process.

JVC has painstakingly gone through every step of the mastering and manufacturing process with the goal of retaining the highest sonic purity of the original music. This was accomplished not by just measuring the results, but in extensive listening tests to determine the best configuration. Every combination of equipment, connections, AC power regulation, word clock distribution, mastering format, delivery system and compact disc construction was tested. The result is the XRCD, a compact disc that offers clearer definition, more accurate imaging, and higher audio quality than any compact disc before. Best of all, it does not require any decoding to be heard, the XRCD plays the same as all other compact discs.

The XRCD process starts at the mastering level. The analog signal is taken directly from the mastering console and digitized using JVC's 20 bit K2 super coding. The K2 is a 20 bit, 128 times oversampling analog to digital converter which provides a dynamic range of 108 db-96 db THD, flat frequency response in the passband to within +.05 db and a substantial reduction of harmonic distortion for low level signals. The K2 super coding also provides a bit down mode to convert 20 bits to 16 bits, and interface signal reshaping to eliminate time base jitter in the digital data stream. These two functions are taken advantage of during manufacturing.
The 20 bit digital signal is then transferred to a Magneto-Optical disk instead of transferring it to the U-Matic 1630 format tape. The XRCD process takes advantage of the stability of the Magneto-Optical disk, as well as its 20 bit capacity, by using it as the audio storage medium for delivery to manufacturing. At the JVC manufacturing plant in Yokohama, the 20 bit Magneto-Optical disk is converted to 16 bits using the K2 super coding in bit down mode, via a SDIF connection. This stage resolves the high resolution 20 bit signal to 16 bits while retaining the integrity of the low level information. The 16 bit signal is then EFM encoded. Another K2 circuit, called the K2 laser, is used to reshape the EFM signal right before going to the laser of the glass cutter. This last stage is the same circuit used for the K2 super coding interface, which eliminates any time based jitter that may be present in the data stream.
Throughout this process, the word clock is amplified and distributed to other stages to keep the original sound quality at a maximum. All cables and connections between equipment use the SDIF-2 interface for sonic quality and music integrity. Tests determine the SDIF-2 offered a superior transmission of digital audio, far above the AES/EBU standard. A number of CD reflective coatings were also tested including 24ki gold and pure copper. Ultimately aluminium was picked after extensive listening tests, as providing the best audio representation.

The end result of this manufacturing process is the highest quality digital transfer from mastering to compact disk. All of this attention to detail allows the listener to enjoy the music just as the artist, producer, and engineers originally intended it. Every nuance of the performance is duplicated as it was recorded, with higher accuracy in both sound quality and imaging.

So says Japan Victor Company, and I wanted to know more about it.

In general I'm of the opinion that we should give the quality of music reproduction the value that serious artists unreservedly deserve and bought some of my favourite Jazz records to experience JVC's special breed of CDs.
The day they have arrived my excitement was big. To unwrap the handsome book-style album was already very promising, its high quality told me "there's something special inside". "This is always" with intimate balladry of Eden Atwood was retracted by my Studer A727 and I went to track number one "Without a Song".
The first that came to my mind was a surprisingly inviting warm sound. The second was rich, followed by vivid and delicately clear. Atwood's voice had a pleasant presence, Bill Cunliffe's piano strings came clear and warm, and Larance Marable's drumbeats had a nice sizzle and the cymbals were tickling my ears with pleasing sweet highs. Harrell's trumpet was natural and airy, and Darek Oleszkiewicz's bass came sonorous but yet unobtrusive and dry, exactly as I like it most. Not less impressive was listening the live performance of the Bill Evans Trio "Sunday at the Village Vanguard", recorded in New York City in 1961, a milestone of modern Jazz.

To jump to final conclusions of course would be too early, but the sound I've heard suggests to buy more XRCD's of various genres. The difference between regular CDs and XRCDs is perhaps not as spectacular as one might think, but I am glad to say that, at least to me, the XRCD indeed sounded audibly better. It fills the room with a more detailed soundstage that is transparent, more natural and warm, which makes listening a true pleasure and not tiring like some of regular CDs unfortunately do. I'm tempted to say, what I could hear so far is closer to a tape recording.
The distinct improvement obviously comes from much better care and attention paid to the mastering and manufacturing process so the original sonic character remains subtly preserved. This first experience with XRCDs was on Jazz releases (another one was also featuring Bill Evans, the renowned "Everybody Digs Bill Evans" recording), which made me quite curios, how XRCDs would compare to regular CDs in other genres. A while later a Blues record of Mighty Sam McClain confirmed to me the legitimacy of elaborately produced XRCDs for those who value good sound.

It appears to me that a more recent production accentuates the sonic quality of XRCDs subjectively better than old recordings from a time when audio technology was still in its nappies. In my opinion it makes little sense to invest in XRCDs to listen to recordings from the forties, as the often lower quality of such recordings overlays the advantages of XRCDs (a statement that may not be acceptable to purists).
Now, are they worth the price at least twice as high as regular CDs? Well, that depends, as we used to say, and in the question "value for money" I wouldn't vote for a clear yes or no until I was able to compare CDs and XRCDs in a broad range of various genres on different audio systems. If you don't hear the difference on your system, don't force yourself to buy. But should you really care about the sound of the music you listen to, you will like JVC's XRCDs.

As JVC says, "the manufacturing process works as a number of components linked together in series, and the overall performance can only be limited by each stage. This means that extreme care and attention must be paid to every aspect of mastering and manufacturing to get the most out of the process."
If we consider that JVC in the end produces sound, not just discs, then playing XRCDs in our audio systems is "the final stage" in processing fine musical details subtly preserved. Having said this, and if money doesn't matter too much, I clearly vote for the sonic signature of JVC's X and R if played on good audio systems.