If you’re old enough to remember a time before most music could be bought or pirated at the touch of a button, “import” CDs always had an air of mystique about them. Whether it was exclusive tracks on expensive UK singles or $40+ Japanese versions of western albums that might have a Japan-exclusive bonus track, US consumers always got the worst release despite being the biggest market.
But are Japanese CDs really that much better? Since becoming an audiophile it has been a curiosity. As an otaku I recognize that Japanese companies put more of an effort into ensuring consumers get the best product they can than western companies do, so it no longer sounds like an impossibility. I listened to these blind, meaning I did not know if the CD was the US or JP CD at the time, and used my $200-300 Bose system to ensure the differences would be noticeable on affordable sound equipment.
The test is by no means exhaustive and is limited to albums of which I happen to have US and Japanese copies.
Sonata Arctica - Silence (2008 Remaster)
Sonata Arctica is one of my favorite power metal bands, and I've listened to this album more times than I would care to count. Since the original album dropped in 2001 I've heard the western release at least 100 times. The differences were very clear.
"San Sebastian (Revisited)" had more of a difference between Japan and the US than the western remastered did from the western original. The Japanese release has air between each of the instruments and the vocals that give it a new and complete feel, while the western release crams everything into the same sound wave. The western release doesn't really stand out until the last minute. The Japanese release is strong from beginning to end.
There is simply more sound in "Sing In Silence." When touching my desk with the western release there is nothing; in the Japanese release, there is so much more sound that the desk vibrates. When comparing the two the western release sounds like an early mix and the Japanese release the final product.
"The End Of This Chapter' further sees a more polished product for Japan. From the piano in the intro, the extra energy in guitar, notes lingering in the air just a bit more prominently...it is a superior recording in every way.
Japan gets the 2008 remake of "Wolf and Raven" as a bonus track. Guitars and drums are traded for woodwinds and strings. Unlike most remakes, it becomes a completely different song and is a very worthwhile get for fans of Sonata Arctica.
Metallica - Metallica
This is one of the most iconic metal albums of all time. This time the American release is getting a bit of a handicap, as I'm comparing the 24-bit 96HKz FLAC release to the 16-bit 44.1 KHz Japanese CD. Is comparing a Corvette to an Accord fair? No, but for the consumer outside of Japan, the total cost of ownership is about the same.
The Japanese bonus track is "Am I Evil?" covering the 1980 Diamond Head song. Metallica's version completely overtakes the original and this is still the best recording of this song to date. Unless you are going to buy the vinyl of Garage Inc., and have a good amount of money invested in getting the most out of vinyl, nothing touches it.
Aside from that it almost becomes a matter of personal preference. There is no denying the pure force and amount of sound in the 24-bit FLAC. It is in a completely different universe from the US CD and is worthy of rebuying the album. But can the Japanese CD compete for similar money?
Yes and no. There is more separation between each instrument and the vocal in the Japanese CD, and it has the smooth sound that makes anime soundtracks so appealing. While a tricked out Accord is going to do some impressive things when racing, beating a Viper is a still a tall order.
For completists, collectors, and people who have come to appreciate the difference in mastering that goes into Japanese CDs, there are differences. The biggest improvements can be heard on "Enter Sandman" and "Wherever I May Roam" as these songs have an entirely new lease on life. Combined with the strength of "Am I Evil?" this is officially a draw, while the Japanese CD leaves the US disc completely in the dust.
Vanilla Ice - To The Extreme
Full disclosure: 1991-93 Vanilla Ice is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, while unironically enjoying his super obscure albums from 1998 onward.
If you were alive in the early 90s, you know "Ice Ice Baby" for sure. It was a major pop culture moment in a time when the world was a much smaller place. While fellow one-hit wonders Los Del Sol, Right Said Fred, The Buggles and The Knack are names few still recognize, Vanilla Ice retains his name recognition. Even among normies who are not Jojo fans.
One-hit wonder always felt a bit of unfair moniker for Ice, given that "Ninja Rap" remains extremely memorable 25+ years later and his work on the Cool As Ice soundtrack were quality songs in the pop style of the era. Yet it's understandable, as everything not named "Ice Ice Baby" on his hit album To The Extreme is...shall we say...an acquired taste at best.
The difference is immediately apparent on "Ice Ice Baby." There is so much more energy in the entire album. Smaller sounds in the background are more pronounced and change the presentation as a whole. It makes the US disc sound like a demo and this the final product. Vanilla has gone back to this hit on almost every album, and this may be his best non-metal version of the iconic track.
Even more surprisingly, the rest of the album comes alive to the point where I can call it decent, and not just a guilty pleasure that amuses me when in the right mood. "Ice Is Workin' It," "Play That Funky Music," "It's A Party" and "Ice Cold" become legitimately good tracks.
I was so blown away by the difference I heard when researching this article that I bought the Japanese release of Mind Blowin, his second studio album, which has never impressed me. Two thumbs way way up for Japanese To The Extreme.
Tenchi Muyo TV/Tenchi Universe Soundtrack
Finally, an anime CD! There aren't as many in the US as you might think, but I happen to have scored this one in a bargain bin some years ago. The track list isn't identical to any of the Japanese discs, but we'll do what we can.
The BGM tracks all have more depth on the Japanese CDs. The US CD sounds more like a VHS tape when compared side-by-side, which is not a good thing. Likewise, the Japanese vocal tracks on the US CD sound a bit lifeless when compared to the Japanese original. Couldn't they just make a bit for bit copy? Perhaps it was because they did a comparatively poor job mastering the excellent English vocal tracks and didn't want the Japanese tracks to outshine them on a technical level.
Regardless of the reason, this is another solid win for Nippon.
Despite the small sample size, it seems fair to say that Japanese CDs do in fact have something that western CDs do not. Whether it is worth the cost to import the disc to each individual is a different question entirely. While many CDs older than a few years can be found for a few dollars at local used bookstores/video game stores or online where you invariably pay more for shipping than the CD, importing Japanese CDs is more expensive. Between the cost of the disc and shipping, $15-20 is the final cost on the low end, and more than that if you have to pay a proxy buyer in Japan to grab it from Amazon or Yahoo.
It is a worthy experiment for audiophiles and musicians, but shabbos goyim that think MP3 or AAC represent real music will realize little or no return on the investment.