Acoustic Sounds
Logo for the Super High Material SHM-CD format
By: Malachi Lui

April 17th, 2023



SHM-CD: An Improvement?

Diving into JVC Kenwood's Super High Material CDs

My dive into specially-manufactured Japanese CDs didn’t start so well, with the Sony Blu-spec CD2 format turning great recordings into fatiguingly bright, glorified white noise. But I’d already committed to trying those other Japanese CD formats too, so while still somewhat skeptical I hoped that these other CDs wouldn’t be a complete waste. Today’s feature centers around the SHM-CD, frequently used by the Japanese branches of Universal and Warner Music.

What is SHM-CD?

Developed by JVC Kenwood, the Super High Material CD, or SHM-CD, first hit the market in 2007. (If you’re not familiar with the basics of how CDs are made, read the previous Blu-spec CD2 feature.) JVC Kenwood claims that instead of the standard CD polycarbonate, they use a higher quality polycarbonate developed for LCD screens. A supposedly better injection molding system combined with the more transparent material means that the polycarbonate more precisely forms the data “pits” and upon playback, reduces jitter and better focuses the playback laser for a more accurate reading (or reduces birefringence). JVC Kenwood also touts reduced distortion and “improvement in bass range volume.” Are they talking about better signal to noise ratio? The marketing features several graphs to demonstrate the SHM-CD’s apparent superiority, though some hardly make any sense. Look at the graph below; on what scale are they measuring these things?

A graph demonstrating the performance of SHM-CD versus normal CDs


I’d already heard a few SHM-CDs that I enjoyed, such as the 2016 remaster of Fishmans’ Long Season, which sounds so good that you forget it’s a CD. However, it’s already a great recording and since it was done on computers in 1996, the CD is master resolution. I’ve never heard any other CD of that album but the SHM is very good.

I started this test with the 2004 remaster of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, comparing the 2015 SHM edition with the 2017 EU repress done at Optimal Media. While the sound of the Optimal one was good to begin with, the SHM-CD was absolutely transfixing. The whole presentation felt more organic and cohesive without sounding thick or particularly soft. Backgrounds were quieter in the way that a high-quality record is, Eno’s voice was more lifelike, and it all had this liquid characteristic that served the music incredibly well. The SHM had better instrumental separation yet also felt more whole. One could argue that the Optimal CD has sharper detail and superior imaging, but in a way that makes each sound isolated from the overall work. The SHM revealed its more natural detail with long term listening. The Optimal CD will end up with a friend who will hopefully love the music and sound as much as I do, but on my system with the Arcam CDS50 I can hear the improvement of the SHM-CD.

A set of SHM-CDs auditioned for this feature

More listening revealed that the SHM sound that made the Eno disc so great doesn’t quite work for everything. I bought the SHM 2CD (standard packaging) of John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth compilation, which features Paul Hicks’ very warm recent remixes. Compared to the internationally-distributed box set’s Sony DADC Austria-pressed CDs, the SHM had more vivid imaging on musically simpler tracks, yet brought out too much detail in busier mixes. My ears couldn’t find what to focus on and simply tuned out instead. Still, the SHM had more robust yet controlled bass, and while I preferred the EU CD on most of these tracks, I don’t think anyone would regret purchasing the SHM.

Well-recorded jazz can very clearly expose the sonic deficiencies in anything, so I compared the SHM-CD of Bill Evans’ You Must Believe In Spring with the hybrid SACD. Both use the recent Plangent-processed remaster. Evans’ piano had more realistic decay on the SHM-CD than the Red Book layer of the hybrid SACD (pressed by Sony DADC Austria), though the SHM had some lower midrange grain. I wouldn’t describe the SHM characteristic as bright, though the right-panned hi-hat was sharper on the SHM and not exactly in a detailed way. Generally, I found the SHM You Must Believe In Spring appealingly smooth but too soft for long-term enjoyment. Of course, the SACD’s DSD layer was a step above both its Red Book layer and the SHM-CD, with better space and greater dynamic contrast. Comparing with an SHM-SACD would be interesting, though it seems that Universal Japan has slowed down with those.


The SHM-CD works really well for some recordings and not so well for others, though your mileage may vary. It’s noticeably more detailed than standard CDs, though more detail isn’t always best and for those who have midrange-rich systems, the SHM’s very liquid sound might become too smooth. Still, I didn’t find the SHM difference as intrusive as the BSCD2 difference; even if the standard CD of something is better than the SHM, the SHM will certainly suffice. Knowing this, I’ll buy some things on SHM-CD but get standard CDs for others; I can’t make a blanket generalization on what’s “better.” As always, you’ll have to choose for your ears and your system based on what music you’re listening to.


  • 2023-04-17 12:04:02 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    There's really no way to determine if the SHM-CD version of a recording is better than a standard CD (or vice versa) unless every other step in the process is identical. A different source, a tiny change in mastering or equalization, or a half decibel in volume level can be responsible for any perceived improvement or degradation in the sound.

    • 2023-04-17 12:48:23 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      These SHM-CDs use the same exact mastering as the standard CDs available worldwide. I highly doubt any of these are re-EQ'd for the Japanese market either.

      • 2023-04-17 01:22:38 PM

        Come on wrote:

        It would be interesting how you can be only halfway sure about that.

  • 2023-04-17 04:49:49 PM

    Jake wrote:

    Will SHM-CDs play on standard cd players?

    • 2023-04-17 05:09:51 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      yes. as explained in the blu-spec feature, all of these specialised japanese CD processes follow the red book standard unless it's an SACD

  • 2023-04-18 02:55:06 AM

    guy joseph wrote:

    I'm wondering: are these different versions actually the same, bits-wise? That is, are they bit-to-bit identical transfers? It seems like they should be, if the only differences are in the manufacturing. I get where a CD deck might be able to read one physical disc better than another, due to how the discs were made, and then the CD player or DAC would have to use more or less error correction.

    If they are bit-perfect, then it seems any qualitative difference in the sound would be due to how accurately the reader is able to read those bits.

    But if they are bit-perfect versions, what would happen if you copied the file to a system drive? Would both versions then sound the same? Same bits, now read from the same storage device. Same sound?

    (For what it's worth, late '80s/early 90's MoFi CDs were supposedly superior, in part, because of using gold for the reflective layer instead of aluminum. The gold would reflect the laser more precisely or some such stuff. 'Ultradiscs' or something like that.... They were also supposed to last longer, which could be true....)

  • 2023-04-18 02:36:24 PM

    Jeff 'Glotz' Glotzer wrote:

    Very cool read, ML. If I see a recording I'd like to have and it is on SHM-CD, I will definitely give it a shot. I'll check for possible reviews if they exist, but the end result is all that matters.

  • 2023-04-20 10:48:44 PM

    Lemon Curry wrote:

    Anyone besides me find this very disturbing? Change the layer, get different sound? Is CD this bad? I'm openly worrying that the error rates are far beyond what we realize. If true, no wonder vinyl has persisted thru the digital years.

    • 2023-04-21 01:37:27 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      your concerns about CDs are valid, though the same argument could be made about records. press it on a different machine, get different sound. use a different vinyl formulation, get different sound. send it to plating at one place versus another, massive difference in sound.

  • 2023-04-21 01:08:46 AM

    Matt wrote:

    Thanks Malachi. Your observations on SHM are consistent with my own. I also find the SHM SACD (single layer) are considerably better than the Hybrid SACD's too (from the same master) - but those tend to be harder to buy new outside of Japan. I just bought the Keith Jarrett Koln Concert on SHM SACD new from Amazon Japan and it sounds great. I hope the small SACD resurgence in Japan continues!

  • 2023-04-24 04:39:54 PM

    Hal Espen wrote:

    As Lemon Curry says, this is disturbing.

    Why can't this question be studied with an engineering approach rather than a wine-tasting exercise? Does the JVC-Kenwood chart above reflect measured parameters of improved balance, range, clearness, volume, and resolution, or listener impressions?

    It would be a major audio technology story — really, a shocking scandal — if careful testing could establish with measurements (using the same source material and standardized playback gear) that millions and millions of regular CDs are inherently flawed and tend to provide audibly impaired fidelity because essential elements of the complete 16/44 encoding are failing to be read and delivered with bit-perfect accuracy, and that SHM-CDs consistently reveal this subpar performance with measurably and audibly superior results. After all, no one is saying that SHM-CDs enhance sound quality, but merely deliver a non-distorted version of the 16/44 audio that ordinary CDs manage to render with crummier fidelity. Right?

    I'm not sure what the ambiguous and inconclusive guesswork derived from from a subjective listening comparison provides apart from a vague anecdote, leaving us with a lingering mystery about SHM-CD marketing claims.

    • 2023-04-24 05:12:35 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      i think JVCkenwood's chart is based on their measurements, it's just unclear what the units of measure are. and using normal gear, how would one measure this stuff at home?

  • 2023-04-24 06:29:06 PM

    Matthew Vaughan wrote:

    All of these supposedly superior CD technologies are absurd. Audio CDs are essentially the same as CD-ROMs, which must be bit-perfect since they contain software that might completely fail to work if there were the slightest error. It's also easy to verify that what gets written onto a CD is bit perfect when read back, and players are good enough these days that they can read a CD, without errors, at many times the normal playback speed. Also, the speed the bits are read off the CD is not related to the clock of the D/A converter, so nothing that can be done to make the pits more "perfect" or "regular" would have any effect on jitter. All the bits get stuffed into a solid-state buffer or cache memory long before they hit the D/A converter anyway. If someone says the "same" master sounds different using different CD technologies (and they're not imagining things), then it is clearly NOT the same master, no matter how it was advertised. (It could be the "same" master, normalized to a different volume levels, like -1dB vs -0.1dB, for instance, with the latter sounding much better - though not necessarily noticeably much louder - to most listeners unless the output volume is matched very precisely.)

  • 2023-04-25 12:53:20 PM

    OTOT wrote:

    IME the only reason to buy SHM-CDs are when there is a dedicated, different mastering unavailable elsewhere. I have several like that. The results are easily compared with software to show they are different than a commonly available domestic mastering. Otherwise the "special" material they are made of makes no difference, because the mechanism in the CDP doesn't care about that - it's only reading the data and playing it. People will convince themselves of all kinds of stuff though.

    Note: there are many SHMs that feature the same mastering as a common release. The ones with a different mastering have to be specifically searched out.

  • 2023-05-08 11:37:05 PM

    jeromelang wrote:

    Way back in 2008, , one of my colleagues who worked in the speaker design department, invited me to his house for a listening session. It was in one of those quaint little suburbs in Tokyo, which one has to change trains a couple of times to get there. i wouldn't been able to find it on my own. well, rather excitedly, he wanted to share with me the sonic merits of the SHM CDs (from Universal Music). one of the many universal SHM discs he played was the Keith Jarrett's Koln concert (originally recorded in analogue under the ECM label). We compared it against an earlier German pressing disc he bought while he was stationed in Germany many years ago. I let Sugiura (He prefers to be called "Yuki") use the conventional methods first (just hit the play button on the remote). and our first impression was - the shm disc sounded fuller-bodied, compared to the earlier German pressing, which was more distanced. Both discs have constricted soundstaging - the height barely reached the speakers' tweeter position, and imaging was upfront, forward of the speaker baffles. The piano tone on both discs sounded clangy and very dry, and as i didn't know it any better then, since it was my first exposure to Keith Jarrett, i would have said that he was playing an electonic keyboard. Either that, the piano might have been so closely mic'ed, that there was no chance for the venue's reverberations to blossom naturally. I noticed that this German disc have the aluminium silver area covered very close to the spindle hole area (unlike most discs nowadays you see which has a wider band of clear plastic area around the spindle hole). From my experience buying 1st print West Germany made CDs on ebay, i instinctively knew that it wasn't a first print, since the spindle hole area wasn't entirely covered in silver. There was still a 2mm gap of clear plastic around the spindle area. Nevertheless i suggested that my friend sit back and let me do the cueing up (using my special procedure)for the rematch.

  • 2023-05-08 11:37:37 PM

    jeromelang wrote:

    What I did was - remove the disc. Shut down the player. After about 10 secs, I power it up again. Letting the player read TOC, display the "no disc" sign and settled Then I loaded the disc, and close the drawer, and let it read TOC and settle on "0", as most disc player do. Then 1 finger each on the FORWARD button and the PLAY button, I press them in that order in quick succession. The result - the SHM disc still remained constricted in soundstaging and upfront, and the piano still sound clangy. But the German disc then sounded totally transformed. instead of sounding "distanced", we heard the piano performance receeding further back into the soundstage, very distinct from the huge swathes of reverberation that recreated the feeling that this performance was recorded in a very large space, the height of which we could make out to be close to the ceiling of the listening room, the width extended beyond the boundary of the 3 walls that cocooned around the speaker system. Also what is startling is that we then heard distinctively, the fundamental (basic)notes being hammered, then followed by myriad harmonics of the resonating strings interacting and modulating against each other, and then blosooming into a magical sonic cushion of sound in a large cavenous hall, as 3 separate and distinct entities. As we tried each discs again back and forth (using my specific procedure), it became very clear that the shm disc sounded hard and lifeless. loud climaxes sounded constricted, while fundamental notes, the harmonics and subsequent reverberation don't quite "separate" as they should. This is something the SHM CD has failed to do and something my friend didn't realised until he heard an earlier CD pressing, albiet a subsequent pressing, but made and released by the original german label compared against it.

  • 2023-05-08 11:38:30 PM

    jeromelang wrote:

    I also tried playing the german disc again using the conventional cueing method. When i did that, the piano started to sound clangy again, the soundstage collasped, and the individual notes and reverberation no longer sound as separate entities. Cueing the disc using conventional method to play in this way made the german disc sound as lifeless as the shm CD. Jump to march 2010, I went back for a rematch. This time, armed with the true first pressing, West Germany made CD that i managed to find on ebay. This original first pressing have the spindle hole area covered entirely in silver. The disc track listing also differs from subsequent pressing and shm CD in that it contains only 3 tracks. The last track, which is available on the other 2 later CD discs, and also available on the 2-disc gatefold LP, had been omitted from this first pressing CD disc. We compared all 3 CD disc, again using the above mentioned procedure. Needless to say, the sense of theseparation is even more vivid on this first pressing disc.

  • 2023-05-08 11:39:20 PM

    jeromelang wrote:

    However, when we played the disc a second time (exact same method), the piano, while still sounding deep into the cavenous, reverberant stage, now has more focus, more palpable weightage, surrounded by a rich tapestries of sound moulded by the interplay of the resonating strings using the pedals and holding down the keys. For the whole of 25 minutes as we sat fixated, listening to the first track of this first pressing disc, a profound and transcendant drama unfolded as we savour the grandeur and sweep of Jarrett's playing in his prime. Playing1st print CDs, erasing player's memory and using direct-access method of cueing will reward the listener with unprecedented qualities like these:

    • imaging has more defined outlines.
    • there is a palpable solidity to the centre-fill image that leaps out from the woodwork.
    • can perceive a full figure body with the centre-fill vocal image
    • top-end is airy and well extended.
    • clear separation between the reverbs from the main vocals and instruments (thus NOT smearing the timbre of voices and instruments)
    • there is an effortless ease to the musical flow
  • 2023-05-09 01:51:22 AM

    jeromelang wrote:

    On my Sony SCD-1 (now dead) and SCD-XA9000ES SACD players there is an automatic fine laser alignment feature - if you leave a RBCD or single layered SACD disc or Hybrid SACD disc inside the tray and power off, then power up again, they will use that disc inside as a reference calibration disc to align its laser mechanism - and in doing so, provide better sound for subsequent, same-type discs.

    Different CD/SACD pressings from different countries used as a reference calibration disc for the fine laser alignment will create different sound from the player. Most of the time, Japanese pressing RBCDs and SACDs (single layered or hybrid) seem to create better alignment, so that the player will sound better playing a lot other CDs and SACDs later. Earlier West Germany pressed or Taiwanese pressed RBCD discs seem to create the poorest laser alignment, so that after using them as a reference for calibration, a lot same-type discs played on the player sound poor (forward, closed in, lacking dynamism).

    For the purpose of this laser alignment, SHM CDs and SHM SACDs seem to create the worst laser alignment. After using SHM CDs or SHM SACDs for the fine auto laser alignment, subsequent discs played on this machine as a whole always sound the worst - dulled, closed-in, unfocussed imaging, and lacking liveliness.