Pianist Jun Fukamachi did this LP for the "Pro-Use Direct Cutting Series" on Toshiba Records in 1976, he plays solo on a Steinway grand piano.
Record producer Winston Ma has been releasing LPs and CDs in various audiophile formats over the years from Golden String to First Impression Music, from gold discs to XRCDs and K2 HDs. He never seems to tire of experimenting, always looking for the best possible medium of music reproduction at any cost. Now, we get one of his latest dreams. He explains in this disc's booklet notes that "Direct cut LP...has the most breathtaking dynamic contrast and richest musicality, combined with stunning presence and definition." That's right, a quarter century into the CD age, he admits that vinyl records still sound best to him. That's why he decided to make this latest CD recording of an LP.
Huh? Yes, he has recorded an LP directly to CD, using no master tapes. The record he used is what he considers the best-sounding LP in his experience, "Jun Fukamachi at Steinway," a Toshiba-EMI direct-cut recording from around 1978, taken from the only brand-new copy known currently to exist, on loan from Toshiba-EMI's own studio library. Using the latest state-of-the-art technology (DXD, Digital eXtreme Definition), recording and mastering engineer Bruce Brown meticulously transferred the sound of the "Fukamachi" LP to CD using two separate phono cartridges, turntables, and tonearms for comparison purposes.
This may be the ultimate audiophile CD of all time because you get to hear the same recording played back through two of today's top pickups-a van den Hul Colibri XC-HO and an FIM Black Ebony One; five tracks recorded twice each for ten tracks in all. Four tracks are from the "Fukamachi" LP: Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major and Fukamachi's own "Just Driving You Crazy," "Ran-Ran," and "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Messenger"; plus a bonus track of Lennon and McCarthy's "Day Tripper" from the album "Super Strings" by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble, conducted by Tsugio Tokunaga. The total length of the disc is fifty-five minutes, but since everything is repeated twice, it's really about twenty-seven minutes of actual musical content.
OK, I said it's an ultimate audiophile recording because it's the kind of disc that isn't primarily intended for musical listening. Oh, the music is all right, but there isn't much of it, and it varies so much, there is little continuity to it. No, this is a disc for demonstrating to yourself and to other audiophile friends what pure sound is all about. It is for convincing people that LPs really do sound better than most CDs. It's for arguing about which of the two cartridges used for playback is better. That kind of thing. You know: The stuff that audiophiles dream of and live for.
The first thing I noticed about the sound is that it is, indeed, terrific. It is probably the best piano recording I've ever heard. I just wish it were, like, sixty full minutes of Chopin Nocturnes or something worth sitting down and actually listening to as music instead of just sound. The dynamics are, as Winston says, strong and wide; the definition is superb, startling, in fact, in its clarity; and the sonics are perfectly natural, perfectly realistic, with no harsh overtones, no glassiness, no edge.
The next thing I noticed was that the two cartridges do sound different, if only so slightly. Right off, I noticed that the Black Ebony was louder than the van den Hul; measuring the first few notes of the first two comparison tracks with a sound-level meter, I found the Black Ebony about four or five decibels louder. So, if you're going to make comparisons, adjust for volume. Next, I noticed in the program notes that each of the comparison tracks differs in length by several seconds. The Nocturne as played back on the van den Hul, for instance, is 11:22 minutes and on the Black Ebony 11:04. I'm not sure what to make of this. Either one turntable is running at a very slightly different speed than the other, or the timings were simply measured differently. As far as a preference between the two cartridges is concerned, I leave that to dedicated audiophiles to argue. I thought the Black Ebony was the tiniest bit warmer than the van den Hul, with a touch fuller bass, but I didn't go back and forth enough times to determine the matter to my satisfaction. Let's just say they are different and leave it at that.
The kick, though, is the nostalgia factor. I haven't listened to an LP in years, and it was kind of fun to hear the needle plunk down on the vinyl surface, hear a momentary pre-echo, and then hear the occasional soft ticks and pops, even from a brand-new LP. Ah, those were the days. And, I guess, still are.
Now, if Winston is going to do anything further with this idea of transferring records to CD, I hope he choses a few albums of more extended musical play, with more content a person can actually listen to. Also, you're probably wondering how much this disc is going to set you back. Well, it ain't cheap. Again quoting Winston from the disc's booklet notes: "We offer 3 editions of this special production: Regular DXD CD, at K2 HD price, boasting higher definition quality; Collector's Edition with RCC (Resonant Control Coating), and washed with deionized cleaning solution, at a higher price. Very limited Direct-from-Master Edition 24k Gold with RCC, deionized solution washed and dynamically balanced, at a premium price."
Heaven only knows what that "premium price" is; I didn't have the guts to look on FIM's Web site to find out. But I know it won't be too much for the audiophile in search of absolute, transcendent sonic purity, perceived or otherwise.