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Well, here's your answer: The Japanese win. Hands down. Big time.
To start off, I compared the album tracks of the 2004 U.S. remastered versions of VOICES, H20 & BIG BAM BOOM against the limited edition, Japanese, K2 remastered, album mini-LP-sleeve replication versions of the same titles. Then I compared the bonus track remixes on each U.S. remaster to their counterparts on the Japanese-only 12-INCH COLLECTION, VOLUMES 1 & 2.
I cannot attest if the difference between the two remastering results are a result of:
1.) The K2 process being more robust than whatever mastering equipment was used (at Sony Studios in NYC) for the U.S. versions
2.) Whether the Japanese utilized source material closer to the original masters than the U.S. versions, or
3.) If the Japanese engineering was just better, or they took more time & care, than their U.S. counterparts.
Whatever the case may be, the K2 albums, and the two Japanese remix Collections, blow the U.S. versions out of the building. There is more of everything: More gain, bigger soundstage, more definition and, oh yeah, baby, more bottom end. The remixes on the U.S. versions are adequate; on the Japanese COLLECTION CD's, they THUNDER.
The three U.S. titles have nine additional remix tracks. All of these tracks appear on the two Japanese COLLECTION titles. All of the sonic accolades I attributed to the individual K2 album remasters apply to these two CDs also.
The bottom line? If you're a fan of the band, you have the cash and some above-average gear, the K2's and the dual-remix CD's are the ticket. While the entire RCA H&O catalog is available on the limited edition K2's (with the nice mini-LP sleeves), there would be some serious moolah required to acquire the full set. I consider the 3 titles mentioned here to be their best overall work from that period, so I opted for just those.
I'm currently piling thru all of the "Hits" packages from recent years to determine which has the best audio. It will be interesting to run the 2004 "Ultimate" set against the new "Essential" package.
WHAT IS A JAPAN "MINI-LP-SLEEVE" CD?
Have you ever lamented the loss of one of the 20th Century's great art forms, the 12" vinyl LP jacket? Then "mini-LP-sleeve" CD's may be for you.
Mini-sleeve CDs are manufactured in Japan under license. The disc is packaged inside a 135MM X 135MM cardboard precision-miniature replica of the original classic vinyl-LP album. Also, anything contained in the original LP, such as gatefolds, booklets, lyric sheets, posters, printed LP sleeves, stickers, embosses, special LP cover paper/inks/textures and/or die cuts, are precisely replicated and included. An English-language lyric sheet is always included, even if the original LP did not have printed lyrics.
Then, there's the sonic quality: Often (but not always), mini-sleeves have dedicated remastering (20-Bit, 24-Bit, DSD, K2/K2HD, and/or HDCD), and can often (but not always) be superior to the audio on the same title anywhere else in the world. There also may be bonus tracks unavailable elsewhere.
Each Japan mini-sleeve has an "obi" ("oh-bee"), a removable Japan-language promotional strip. The obi lists the Japan street date of that particular release, the catalog number, the mastering info, and often the original album's release date. Bonus tracks are only listed on the obi, maintaining the integrity of the original LP artwork. The obi's are collectable, and should not be discarded.
All mini-sleeve releases are limited edition, but re-pressings/re-issues are becoming more common (again, not always). The enthusiasm of mini-sleeve collecting must be tempered, however, with avoiding fake mini-sleeves manufactured in Russia and distributed throughout the world, primarily on eBay. They are inferior in quality, worthless in collectable value, a total waste of money, and should be avoided at all costs.