18 Sep A Rough Guide to Vinyl Audiophile Pressings (Part 1)
The Musical Experience Question
So why the heck would I spend $30 (US) or more on a premium vinyl record, hi-res FLAC, or SACD which I can easily find the exact same title for $20 (US) or less from another re-issuer or in the used bins? Before you answer, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions about the musical experience you seek.
- Do I really care about the audio quality of what I am about to purchase?
- Am I just after the music to casually listen and maybe later discard?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, then go for the cheaper physical copy or download. You’re after a common musical experience that is shared by 99.999% of the world’s population. On the other hand, if you are seeking audio nirvana and looking for more in a recording that you might already be intimately familiar with, note for note, the additional money spent should be worth your time.
An Introduction – By a Confessed Audiophile
Since I was kindly asked by the folks at NeedleGroove to write about my thoughts on audiophile pressings, I have been racking my brain on how best to tackle this topic. Despite a few late nights pondering the topic, I figured, foremost, this blogging project should serve to be helpful to others who want to dip their toes in the audiophile pool. This may not be without some controversy since the term ‘audiophile pressing’ can be an extremely subjective topic regardless of what is slapped on the packaging or spoken of in a multitude of internet chat rooms. An online search for many of the world’s most popular recordings will yield debates about which issue of an album sounds best. And sometimes, an original can best a well-regarded audiophile reissue.
To use the term, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ the same rings true in a lot of regards with audio. Aural fidelity is in the ears of the listener. You’ll find as you delve into the subject that everyone has their own personal preferences on mastering and production. But to some degree, there is some objectivity that can be found within this topic based on the end product that is produced. Elements of an old computer science programming term that many have heard all too often can be applied to the slabs of vinyl or digital files we listen to so frequently, ‘Garbage In = Garbage Out.’ If you don’t take care of your music product in every step of the production process, you’re going to end up with something that wasn’t intended. And whether some people perceive the faulty, end product to be beautiful or not, is another question.
The unfortunate reality of the music business is that many of the bigger labels don’t care (or care enough) about that end product that ends up in the consumer’s hands. Their goal is to get the music out to the masses cheaply to maximize their own profits. If most truly did care about their end product, today, digitally, everyone would be pushed to using hi-res downloads (or hi-res streaming) as we have seen with the advent of Blu-ray and Ultra HD in the video world. And unlike video, audio has taken a reverse trend for the masses and instant convenience has trumped quality. Many younger listeners haven’t been exposed to a high definition audio experience and even if they did, it may be a tough sell unless they were told how to listen. Unlike video, an individual’s ears are not as sensitive to what can be seen by the eye.
In a perfect world, we would have a constant stream of superior sounding physical product (180 gram vinyl, Blu-ray discs, SACDs, etc.) that one could hold in their hands, admire the cover art/liner notes, and cherish for their lives. That said, not everything has a bleak outlook and with the resurgence of vinyl and HD Audio we are coming into a new golden age for audiophiles. Even though the amount of physical output is dwindling, the major record labels do realize there still is a place for the physical media. In a lot of cases, physical media has been driven to niche market of die-hard fans that are willing to pay a little more for what they love and with unnecessary trinkets thrown in for good measure. For example, a Dark Side of the Moon super deluxe box set that includes a scarves, beer coasters, and marbles. (…I know what you’re thinking, marbles and a scarf??? I haven’t played with marbles since I was seven years old. I was questioning that one too.)
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon Immersion Box Set
Despite the uber-boxsets, the majors have been allowing a few independents to put out high quality reproductions of albums using the original master tapes with attractive packaging, faithful or exceeding that of the original. Enter the audiophile re-issuer.
Mobile Fidelity’s Miles Davis – ‘Four’ & More
I have learned multiple things about the label re-issuers over the years but I am not aware of any consolidated information anywhere. You can get bits and pieces of information from all over the web and while I have several books about vinyl as a recorded medium, nothing can be found specifically on this topic. I am assuming there is some interest given the discussions seen on various audio and vinyl forums so hopefully this will help some of the neophytes.
The focus of these writings will be on the labels predominately focused on vinyl reissues and not the hi-res digital services or small independent audiophile labels that also strive to break new artists with well recorded, engineered, and mastered albums that most of never seek or bother to hear. Keep in mind, there are many of these types of labels out there (i.e. Chesky, Mapleshade, etc.) and I do recommend sampling a few to see what a true audiophile recording should sound like digitally.
Chesky’s The Ultimate Demonstration Disc
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself what should a true audiophile recording sound like, outside of just plain good as a descriptor in a music blog, magazine, or catalog? What is a true High Definition audio experience? In my humble opinion, which is shared by many professional reviewers, it should sound like the artist is in your room playing for you and only you. For the experience, imagine closing your eyes and clearing your mind. The listening experience would produce the illusion of the ‘they are here’ or ‘I am there’ effect that audiophiles actively seek. Pay in mind you don’t need to spend a fortune on high end playback system to get that effect…although, it does help not to be playing stock audio equipment from a big box store. The illusion of being transported to the Village Vanguard to see John Coltrane play in ’65 or being in the room while Bob Dylan is laying down the tracks for first record, my friends, is how good a true audiophile recording can get. To some, the experience is very addictive and rewarding despite costing a little more. Going back to the computer analogy though, not all studio recordings are that good given the musical input and processing on the tapes but many can come close if they were well recorded to start. Many albums recorded in the 50’s and 60’s can better the output of any commercially released CD today and the originals of these albums are highly sought out by your average audiophile. The original albums from these eras can also be very expensive in very good or better condition and this is what makes the audiophile reissues appealing. Especially for those who can’t afford that ocean front property in Malibu.
To start a fellow music lover down the audiophile path, I have been asking myself, 1.) Do I start out discussing a few personal favorites? In other words, stick with what I know to be good. 2.) Do I go through the various labels chronologically as they started to appear? Or, 3.) Good or bad, should I stick with what is available on the market today? In this effort, I have decided to work with all three questions and stick with what I have heard myself aurally. I find it better to write a truthful review from my perspective versus anecdotal information I can dig up from others on the web. That said, from a chronological standpoint, there were a few labels that appeared in the 70’s and 80’s (i.e. Nautilis Master Disc & the CBS Half Speed Mastered series) that have been reported to have some great sounding records but I personally have yet to find one that hasn’t been run over by a car. Again, since I haven’t been able to hear these, I won’t be covering them unless by some miracle I stumble across several cheaply at a record convention over the next several months.
One exception will be made on the third question mentioned above. The Classic Records label will be covered in a future write up. Even though this re-issue label is now defunct, many of the Classic Records can still be found at reasonable prices from various online retailers.