Listening #123

Let's say you're lucky enough, or just plain old enough, to have bought a copy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood on January 12, 1966. Let's say you're lucky enough or just plain smart enough to have held on to it and kept it in perfect shape for the past 47 years. And let's say it was one of the first 500 copies, which the author signed. If so, congratulations: For once in your life, even the smuggest collector can't claim that his copy of a book is "better" or more valuable than yours.

Of far greater importance, of course, is the artistry between its covers: The person who, in 2013, buys an ink-and-paper copy of In Cold Blood is guaranteed the same reading experience as the person who bought his or her copy on the day the book was first released. That's how the publishing industry works, God bless them.

The idea behind the recording industry purports to be the same, but the reality is different: The consumer who, in 1966, bought a copy of Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde was rewarded with one experience. The person who bought the same thing 40 years later got something else altogether.

And it's a shame, because that Mahler recording is important: As important in its own way as In Cold Blood, or any number of other buyable works of art.

I feel the same way about the Beatles catalog. Their music is as important as it is charming and fun and adventurous. I can't imagine a time when the Beatles' reputations as writers, arrangers, and performers—as artists and innovators—won't be held in the same high esteem as they are today.

But the person who, in 2013, takes an interest in hearing the Beatles for the first time will not hear them at their best, because all the currently available commercial recordings of their work are presented in digital sound rather than the recordings' native analog. And although much of that digital sound is good digital sound, it isn't up to the best analog standards. At the same time, the digital sound of some selections in the Beatles catalog is downright mediocre—and not because contemporary digital technology is so good that it exposes "flaws" in the original: a lie of which the technopologists in the recording and audio industries never seem to tire.

Not only that, but those digital files, good and not-so-good alike, represent not the original analog master tapes, but versions of same that were subjected to modern reequalization and compression, the primary purpose of which was apparently to boost the bass content in an effort to create a sound more appealing to modern listeners (footnote 1).

Not only that, but the recent and richly ballyhooed reissues of the Beatles albums on LP—sold singly or as The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set (Apple AEMI 33809)—were all mastered not from the original analog master tapes but from 24-bit/44.1kHz digital copies (footnote 2) thereof (a revelation that comes courtesy of my friend and colleague Michael Fremer, who broke the story on

The people responsible for this new wave of LP reissues imply that it was their concern for the fragile and irreplaceable analog master tapes that led them to cut the new vinyl from digital files. I would suggest that the cutting of new analog masters is precisely the sort of project for which such tapes are kept and preserved in the first place: If not for this, then what? Another, presumably more "perfect" wave of digital remakes every 15 years?

The people responsible for the new LP reissues imply that 44.1kHz digital is good enough for what we are led to believe will be the last series of Beatles LPs. I, on the other hand, would suggest that good enough is not good enough. I think the consumer of 2013 ought to be able to enjoy any music—let alone the Beatles, for God's sake—in sound that is at least as dynamic, natural, colorful, wide of bandwidth, and altogether listenable as when the recordings first came out. Hearing these recordings at their best should not be the privilege of only a relative handful of fortunate record collectors. Yet with every new wave of reissues—or, in the case of the dubious Love LP and DVD-A, reimaginings—we are given considerably less than the best, all while being asked to pay for the same music over and over again. Perhaps the time has come to rock the boat.

Doris gets her oats
Let's pause to consider an important point: A signal that has been digitized is a signal that has been digitized, period. Once you convert an analog music recording—a thing of virtually infinite resolution and remarkable complexity—into a digital file, you have reduced the amount and the density of data in that recording by at least some degree. After A/D conversion, you can do any number of things with that file, the most common being to convert it into a new analog signal, but the latter will no longer be exactly the same as the original.

In a domestic playback system, D/A conversion is usually performed just upstream of the preamplifier. However, if you prefer, you can have your digital recordings converted even further upstream: by the company from which you buy them, at the LP-mastering stage, right before they're pressed onto vinyl. Considered as mere data, there's no difference between the two, and to expect better, more analog-like sound from the latter than from the former would seem an expression of the most ardent optimism. Or, as I stated in the June 2012 edition of this column: "[A]n analog pressing of a digital recording is still a digital recording. And the 'better' the mastering job, the more digital the results will be. If you leave a pointillist watercolor out in the rain, dots will run. But they're still just dots."

But I admit, I've noted one respect in which digital recordings do seem to sound better when played back via the analog medium of phonography: They seem capable of sounding more physical than they do via CD or streaming file, with a distinctly better sense of touch of mallet on drum, plectrum on string, that sort of thing. Whether this is something that digital playback technology simply can't do very well in its present state, or whether there's some arcane relationship between physical media (as opposed to the mere moving of electrons) and the physicality of sound, I don't know (footnote 3). I'm at peace with the possibility that I'm deluding myself, and with the even more seditious possibility that, if I'm not delusional, the thing that I'm hearing and enjoying is a distortion. Big deal.

And so it was that I approached with an open mind the opportunity that I found in November: My friend Sasha Matson had just received his own Stereo Vinyl Box Set, pre-ordered earlier in the year, but his immediate travel plans prevented him from listening to it for another couple of weeks; Sasha wondered if I would like to borrow the box for a few days—thus giving me a chance to audition all 16 discs and to compare them with my own collection of Beatles recordings.

I began in the middle, comparing the new version of Revolver with my own original Parlophone stereo copy of same, the latter being in mint-minus shape. The first thing I noticed about the new release was nothing: absolutely no surface noise whatsoever. I didn't hear one single tick or pop, nor the slightest hint of groove-grunge, at any time while auditioning this record. The same was true of every LP in the box—all of which, I should add, were also supremely flat: a "Stop there" recommendation for some record lovers, and I don't suppose I blame them.

That said, I was surprised that Revolver—which I consider one of the Beatles' best-sounding recordings—was among the albums most poorly served by Apple's recent remastering job. On the original, for example, Paul McCartney's voice in "For No One" is colorful and immediate: almost startlingly well recorded. On the new LP, however, he sounded veiled and chalky by comparison: characteristics that marred the vocals on almost every track on this disappointing reissue.

I decided then to take a less scattershot approach, and went back to the beginning of the collection—and was rewarded, to at least some extent, for my effort. The reissue of the first title, Please Please Me, sounded quite good: open, clear, and crisp whenever called for, but without being brittle. And the physicality of the playing was indeed superb: Check out the very deliberate arpeggio with which George opens "Misery," and his chording and single-note work in "Ask Me Why." Ringo's drumming sounded similarly fine—if compressed, overall, in the original recording—as did the percussive note attacks in Paul's conspicuously boosted electric-bass lines.

With the Beatles brought more of the same good clarity and physicality. And in numbers such as "All I've Got to Do," the LP was more realistic and listenable than the 2009 stereo CD reissue, the CDs making a mushy, crunchy mess of such things as vigorously struck hi-hat cymbals.

Then I ventured into The Unknown: My own collection of Beatles albums, such as it is, comprises two original Parlophone monos, one original Parlophone stereo, a German EMI/Odeon, and a mix of American and Canadian Capitols—but I've never owned a vinyl copy of A Hard Day's Night, and thus have no way of knowing if the original recording has the same brittle top-end crunch I hear on the new LP—and, for that matter, the 2009 and 1988 stereo CDs. Of all the A Hard Day's Night releases I've heard, the mono CD of 2009—available only as part of the boxed set The Beatles in Mono—is by far the most tolerable and impactful. I can only assume that an original mono LP is better still, while admitting that the 2012 LP, though not a terribly good-sounding thing in and of itself, might well be among the more acceptable alternatives.

Footnote 1: I can assure you, the irony of a "Listening" column sniffing at those who would sacrifice authenticity in favor of pleasure is not lost on me.

Footnote 2: These are apparently the same 24/44.1k remasterings, downsampled from 192kHz originals, that were released in that resolution as FLAC files on a USB dongle in 2009. The 2009 CDs were decimated to 16-bit word length, of course. See Robert Baird's article on the remastering in the October 2009 issue of Stereophile.—Ed.

Footnote 3: And, yes, it's another of those things that the combination of a low-compliance pickup and a high-torque turntable motor do far better than their wimpier cousins.


deckeda's picture

This audio interview and other pages from MF's corner will also be of interest:

There are a few cringe-worthy things the engineer asserts (limiting the cutter head to 16kHz is "necessary") and reveals (the USB stick's files usage, the consumer DAC) as well as some pleasent surprises such as the fact these LPs are less dynamiclally constrained than the originals.

My takeaway since November is that for those that haven't heard them this good previously, they'll be happy with their purchase because they do sound better than any of the CDs and few people bought the USB stick. For the rest of us, we know they could have done better on a few blindingly obvious fronts.

My reaction to reading AD's column here was cathartically wonderful. I wanted to scream, "YES ART GO AND KICK EMI'S ASS!"

WillWeber's picture

I've been on the fence about this purchase, your review is to be quite helpful in my decision. Unfortunately. But fortunately I did not already spring. I have also read rumblings about pressing quality (the lack thereof) from many purchasers' reviews, poor fill in the grooves presumably. You did not mention this problem so it may not be too widespread, per a very limited statistical sampling.

If I may be cynically speculative, I might suspect that the reason the master tapes were not used is that these may have been secretly sold to the highest bidding collector, at circa $60M, with a vintage Ampex thrown in for good measure. It only makes sense, since the digital "master copies" are probably considered "good enough" for any next generation of profits. Do you really think these guys give a hoot on a strawberry field about audiophiles, or art, Art?

I had similar hopes for the remastered cd issues, but these sound oversaturated to me, in a photoshop image processing kind of way. It may make them a sort of vivid, but so are cartoons.

Oh well, was so hopeful that these would be special, alas perhaps no. Maybe by some miracle, in the future...


dalethorn's picture

I never was a huge Beatles fan, preferring the dark side haunted by Stones, Yardbirds, Animals et al. But I have a few digital Beatles tracks from circa 1964: And I Love Her, Things We Said Today, I'll Be Back, I'll Follow The Sun ... most of these in a minor key not coincidentally ... and the recorded quality seems unusually good to me - better in many ways than their later recrdings. Then by an amazing coincidence, a few Stones tracks I have also from 1964: I Can't Be Satisfied, Around and Around, Confessin' The Blues, Empty Heart, It's All Over Now, 2120 South Michigan Avenue ... also have better recorded quality than most of their later recordings.

Worse yet, many of the downloads on albums like Let It Bleed have obvious tape dropouts, something I don't hear on these 1964 recordings.

BTW, my copy of 1959's Time Out is a 'K2HD' disc from Sony Japan. I don't know how it might compare to the hirez downloads, but it is good.

Paul Luscusk's picture

Just like xrcd.

volvic's picture

I read this article twice; once when I got my subscription and yesterday online.  It is obvious Art loves this band (who doesn't) and reviewing and critiquing each record was I suppose a labor of love.  I might still buy the box set but I have a clearer understanding as to what I am buying thanks to Art's review.  



ElizabethS's picture

The theoretical complaint aside. the sound of my new White Album rocks. When i heard it I started dancing. Something I have not done to my Brit copy, nor my US numbered copy.

So a big thumbs up from me for the remastering.

jastrup's picture

Strange, A Hard Day's Night is one the most natural sounding albums from the Beatles IME. This is based on a box called Beatles Collection (which are UK pressings, probably made somewhere around 1980) AND the USB reissue. I have found this to be consistent on the various iterations of my system, even in the AAC files I have made for my iPod. 

PeterHH's picture

I had most of the Fab Four's lps when they first came out. The word on the street was that the German pressings were best, then the Japanese, then the British, and finally the American. There was also some difference in song selection e.g. the American Rubber Soul led off with "I've just seen a face" and did not include 'Nowhere Man.'

Since my boyhood lps went up in a fire decades ago, I have bought a number of Beatles and Stones CDs over the years. The earliest CDs were kind of flat and faded sounding, while recent ones sound 'thin' and 'cool' but at least have good dynamics and pretty good detail -- the timbre is a bit monchromatic but it's hard to say how much of that is due to playing them though solid state amps and modern speakers. The Chess Chuck Berry double CD sounded heavenly when I played it through KLH Sixes driven by a Rotel poweramp fed by a Dyna PAS2 with the tone controls goosed (it is a mistake to remove them, campers!)

For a while I used to rifle through used record bins looking for lps I had as a kid, as an alternative to buying them on CD. In this way I discovered that modern equipment is brighter (duh!) and more dynamic. Timbres are less vivid but dynamic contrasts a lot more dramatic, as compared to our old Scott-Fisher-Weathers system.

I wonder whether sixties master tapes are still good enough to permit a genuine AAA release. Listening to recent vintage digital remasters I do seem to hear flaws in the analog masters, and in some cases they may have been there all along but often they are so egregious that I suspect deterioration. The flaws I have in mind do not sound like they are of digital origin.

Which gives me an idea: Where the tapes have deteriorated, why not locate a mint copy of an original lp and digitize it either with a laser turntable or simply play it through a great analog front end and digitize the preamp output? i.e. use an lp in top condition as your 'master.'

Parting comment: the worst effect of the proliferation of digital reissues is that the customer is forced to guess which one is the most faithful. I don't want to have to buy several versions of A Hard Day's Night to find the one that sounds as I remember it. On iTunes I get sick of fishing around to find the original version of a beloved Top Forty tune. Looking for the original version of She's Not There with the snare drum flams intact has been a living hell! There are all sorts of not-what-you-wanted versions of everything now. Maybe there's a guidebook out there that sorts these version issues out but I doubt it.

rdubya73's picture

"[A]n analog pressing of a digital recording is still a digital recording"

Of course this makes sense, and as a relatively new vinyl collector, these words have haunted me as many of the titles I'm after are produced/recorded after the advent of the CD/digital tamepring. New vinyl enthusiasts contributing to the resurgence of the format are faced with this paradox.