The Sultans of Swing

Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene. He’s got a day time job; he’s doin’ alright…or maybe he’s stuck at home quarantined like so many of us. But hey, there’s always a bright side, right? Sheltering in place, staying at home, etc – it gives us a chance to be with our families and pets; and our records of course!

Working from home has given me the opportunity to finally do an A/B comparison that I’ve been drooling over since the original announcement that Mobile Fidelity was going to be releasing Dire Strait’s back catalogue in their 45rpm Gain 2 Ultra Analog series. It only took a few years for it to actually happen, and a few extra months for me to realize these had started shipping to actually grab one! Part of the reason I’ve been wanting to do this comparison and review is because of the history of great sound from Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler was/is known as a stickler for sound quality, and his playing style (he reportedly never uses a pick, preferring to use only his finger/fingernail/thumb to pluck to achieve maximum control over tone) is just so conducive to great recordings. Obviously it also helps that I like the songs and music he makes, but even if it isn’t your bag, I have to imagine most audiophiles could appreciate good, clean, sound regardless of their genre preferences.

For the last decade, my go-to copy of the Knopfler-led band’s debut/self-titled album has been the 2009 Bernie Grundman cut. It’s a pressing that constantly makes my list of “top sounding, affordable, albums” – it can still easily be had for $25 or less. Grundman, one of the best mastering engineers in the game, did his usual wonders with this one. It was sourced and cut from the original analog tapes (you can not go wrong with a Grundman AAA title), and was pressed at Pallas (which at the time was my #1 favorite plant, and still is #2 or #3 behind QRP and maybe RTI).

So, while I’ve been eagerly awaiting the MoFi pressings, I haven’t been terribly upset with sticking to my ’09 cuts. However, that calm and patience quickly faded when I was finally able to pull the trigger and order the full set of the Dire Straits MoFi titles – I couldn’t wait for the mailman to show up with my way-too-heavy package from MoFi’s parent, Music Direct. I ripped that thing open like a 5 year old on Christmas desperately grabbing for a new set of Legos, and the first thing I did was to move my table’s belt to the 45rpm setting and spun the Self-Titled album through maybe 3 or 4 times straight, without breaks or switching to something else. I was absolutely FLOORED by the sound quality. It probably would have been a good time to do a shootout between the two copies then. But, nope, I was greedy with my ears and so I had to wait until a literal pandemic forced my attention back to the task I was aiming to accomplish for years. Whoops.

Anyways, I’ve finally had time to A/B this, so I made sure to tune up all of my equipment – I cleaned my plinth, rebalanced my tone-arm, cleaned the stylus (highly recommend the OnZow ZeroDust), and cleaned both records. The equipment used is as follows:

  • Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut Carbon w/ Acrylic Platter
  • Cartridge/Stylus – MoFi Electronics UltraTracker; nude elliptical stylus
  • Phono Preamp – Parasound PPH100
  • Receiver/Amp – Marantz SR7000 (using Direct mode for analog inputs)
  • Speakers – Klipsch KG4

I decided that I would focus on comparing 2 tracks between the records; first being the well-known and timeless ‘Sultans of Swing’ and the second being the opening track ‘Down to the Waterline’. I chose these because on each copy, these tracks are the first of a single side (Sultans is B1 on the 2009, and C1 on the MoFi; Waterline is A1 on both). This helps in negating some of the potential distortion with tracks as you move closer to the runout (inner groove distortion or “IGD” is not really a problem on either of these copies, but in a shootout like this I wanted to hold all things constant as much as possible). The order of listening was: 1) Sultans (2009), 2) Sultans (MoFI), 3) Waterline (MoFi), 4) Waterline (2009). This order created a way to handle a first-impression bias, and made it a bit easier in changing speeds just 2 times.

I went into this knowing it would likely be a really tough competition. Yes, the MoFi has the added benefit of being cut at 45rpm; there are tangible benefits to that and they are audible. But the Grundman mastered release is just SO dynamic that I wasn’t sure how it could possibly be topped. Well…I found out pretty quickly. The 2009 pressing absolutely SMASHES from the first kick of Sultans, and the bass is incredibly detailed and full, but the MoFi pressing takes the highs to another level and brings out that incredible control over tone that Knopfler has with his guitar. It wasn’t so much that I was noticing new details – I feel like any hidden details that were previously hidden were revealed when I first spun the Grundman cut – but it was as if the final layer of a thin curtain between me and the band in the studio was finally (and suddenly) removed. The clarity was remarkable. Instrument separation was enhanced to the point of the imagining being scary-real. I played Waterline on the MoFi, and nearly got lost and let the next song – ‘Water of Love’, a great tune – play before I realized I had to switch. Going back to the 2009 cut wasn’t necessarily a “downgrade” as much as it was just hearing things with a slight filter on it. Not a bad filter, but a filtering that just left me feeling slightly unfulfilled after having such a revealing listening session.

All in all, the MoFi was the hands down winner, and I’m shocked to say that and that it was so abundantly clear. Now, that said, the MoFi isn’t going to be for everyone. If I had to nitpick, the 2009 cut has better bass and low end. It’s not a huge gap by any means, but it’s there. Ultimately, to me, I could do with a slightly diminished low end for what I gain in the mids and highs with the MoFi. I’ll also say that I had a VERY slight pre-echo on Sultans with the MoFi that I did not with the 2009 cut. Not a huge deal to me. But where this will be decided for most is the cost. As I noted before, the 2009 cut can be had for ~$25; whereas the MoFi lists at $50. That’s a huge price difference, and while I personally feel that the MoFi wins handedly, we’re working at margins that are already thin to even the most critical audiophile. So, use your judgement on this one. I’d assume this experience goes for the entire Dire Straits catalog, though I haven’t done the A/B’s yet for Making Movies, Communique, or Love over Gold. On Brothers in Arms (yeah, I still want my MTV and very 80’s-ish sounds) I’d actually recommend the Stan Ricker 2LP over the MoFi or Grundman; but that’s just personal preference. I don’t love that album much anyways. But for the rest, you have some great options, and can go with a more budget option with hifi sound or the premium version with even hifi-ier(?) sound. I love when there’s so many good options like that!

Anyways, thanks for reading my ranting and raving. Let me know if you have any questions about anything I wrote or anything you think I left out! Cheers, and stay healthy!

The Man Comes Around

Today (February 26th, 2020) would have been Johnny Cash’s 88th birthday, and so I’m spinning one of my favorite albums (in my entire collection, not just his discography) in tribute. This isn’t your granddad’s Cash, but no doubt he’d be able enjoy it – as would your father; it’s an album for the whole family as it transcends genre and eras of music.

2014 Remastered Vinyl Release

Released as the 4th entry in his American Recording series (which started out by recording in Rick Rubin’s living room), The Man Comes Around was recorded at the label’s studio and release in 2002; just one year before Cash’s death. Even in the end, Cash delivered a stunningly beautiful and haunting record; one that gives me chills every time I spin it. The recordings are mostly cover songs, with just 3 originals by Cash out of the 15 tracks, but these aren’t your run of the mill covers – he truly made these songs his own. The album is also a who’s-who of famous musician after famous musician. Fiona Apple, Don Henley, and Nick Cave make vocal contributions; John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fame and Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s guitarist Mike Campbell provided guitar tracks. In all, The Man Comes Around features songs by Nine Inch Nails, Simon & Garfunkel, Sting, Depeche Mode, The Beatles, The Eagles, and Hank Williams.

Johnny Cash in Rick Rubin’s home studio

The album opens with the title track, just one of the three Cash originals featured. The song is littered with references to the Bible’s Book of Revelation (including Cash speaking some readings from Revelation in the intro and outro of the tune). It was originally written a few years prior to the album’s release, but was reworked in 2002. It was one of the last songs Cash ever wrote. Following that, the 2nd track is arguably the song that re-launched Cash into stardom for a new generation, and has been used countless times in movies and television since its recording. Hurt, originally written and performed by Trent Razor and NIN for their 1994 album The Downward Spiral, also featured a music video released in 2003 that featured images of Cash’s life – it was named the best video of the year at the Grammys and CMA Awards. When approached about the idea of letting Cash record the song, NIN’s Razor said he was flattered but was concerned that the idea was a bit of a gimmick. That changed when he saw the video and heard the song. He was quoted as saying:

I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I felt like I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.

The next highlight of the album comes in the form of a duet with Fiona Apple on Bridge over Troubled Water. Cash’s ashy and stone-like vocals, opening with “When you’re weary; feeling small” set the tone until the beautiful, flute-like, voice of Apple comes in. It’s a perfectly mis-matched pairing of voices that works incredibly well…so well, in fact, that it was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for the best country collaboration. Flipping to side B, we open with a Sting cover, I Hung My Head; a track String wrote as a dedication to the TV westerns he loved as a kid. The real gems on this side of the album, though, are Depeche Mode and Beatles covers. Personal Jesus had never rocked so hard as it does with an acoustic guitar and Johnny Cash telling you to “pick up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer”. Side B closes with “In My Life”, which I personally love as a closing track to disc 1. Many people feel Disc 1 is superior to the second in the double album, buy MAN you are sleeping on the second half of this album if you skip it. It opens with a Tex Ritter song that can only be described in a visual that was incredibly famous of Johnny Cash – giving you the middle finger. As it goes, “and I hate you one and all, damn your eyes!” – Sam Hall is one of my personal favorite Cash tracks of all time! The goodness doesn’t end there, as track C2 is a beautiful cover of the traditional ballad Danny Boy. Get out the bagpipes and a box of tissues for that one.
“Sheriff, how are you – damn your eyes!” (“Sam Hall”; Tex Ritter)

I could probably talk endlessly about each song, analyzing the lyrics and comparing Cash’s version to the originals, but I’m not sure there’s enough characters allowed in a single post for that. But I do want to talk specifically about the vinyl release itself. The version pictured above is from the 2014 remastered release series. The sound quality on all of the remastered entries in the American Recordings series is gorgeous. Though recorded digitally, the best sound available is on the analog format. Rick Rubin did a remarkable job getting these tracks captured, and vinyl fans were blessed by the graces of mastering engineer Chris Bellman working on this project (with Rubin supervising). As a bonus, the US versions were platted and pressed at QRP – the pressing plant used for Analogue Productions and Vinyl Me, Please (Classics) released; known for superior quality control. EU versions, however were pressed at GZ Media, which is not as well regarded as QRP. If you’re in the market for this album, make sure you aim for a US pressing! Bellman noted, back in 2014 on the Steve Hoffman Forums, that there were actually 2 sets of lacquers cut for this – one for QRP and one for GZ. Now, I haven’t heard any complaints about the cut from GZ (though I have heard issues about surface noise and quality defects), so I can’t say if one lacquer cut is better than the other – but I’d still suggest going with the QRP pressing to be safe.

Between the excellent recordings, the song selections, the guests, Cash’s performance, and the quality in the 2014 vinyl release – this is one of my favorite albums in my collection and probably the one I’ve spun the most often over the past 5+ years. So, again, I’m celebrating Mr. Cash much in the way I celebrate his music nearly every week; I’m going to be spinning this album on repeat all morning! Happy Birthday to the bad ass Man in Black!

If You Get Confused, Listen to the Music Play

A week or two ago I posted about my complete Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab collection of Grateful Dead titles on Instagram & Reddit. I’m back with more Dead because, with the addition of MoFi’s Blues for Allah release, I was able to finally do an A/B comparison with my favorite Dead studio title – Blues for Allah. I’ve gone through many copies of this album over the years; from a 1975 US 1st pressing in VG- condition to the 2017 Rhino release that was initially only available in the Record Store Day box set.

2017 Record Store Day Box Set

I actually ended up sticking with the Rhino release because to my ears it sounded wonderful and the media condition on the 1st press was creating too much surface noise. I sold the original pressing and keep only the Rhino, but I was always looking for something compare it against. For the longest time I had my eyes set on the 2011 release from the now defunct Audio Fidelity label. Prices always seemed to be north of 3 figures and I never felt the need to spend that much, just for the sake of doing an A/B, as I was already really happy with the sound on the Rhino copy. That said, when Music Direct’s 2019 catalog came out and had a photo of Blues for Allah with the “Original Master Recording” on the jacket, I lost my shit! I called Music Direct that day and asked to pre-order. After roughly 1 year of waiting, it was finally released; and it sounded absolutely stunning. I was still curious how it stacked up against the Rhino, although I had my suspicions how this would end based on past similar comparisons I’ve done.

A complete collection of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s Grateful Dead titles

Before I start comparing the two pressings, I wanted to share a bit about the album itself. Released in the early fall of 1975, Blues for Allah was the first studio release after the band had announced the then-indefinite hiatus from live touring. A small departure from their previous albums, where songs that had matured on the live stage were recorded for an album, “BfA” contained songs that were mostly written and developed in studio sessions in the early part of ’75. The album featured a mix of new genres and styles from lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, and marked the band’s most commercially successful album at the time; reaching as high as number 12 during a 3 month stint on the Billboard charts. The album was far more experimental than earlier albums like American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (both which were based in the band’s late 60’s/early 70’s folk rock era), featuring elements of jazz and a slight dose of psychedelic rock. The album opens with a continuous flow of music from the segued Help on the Way -> Slipknot! 1st track, and seemingly morphs directly into the extremely catchy Franklin’s Tower. This is the first track that really gripped me on the album the first time I ever listened to it; with its repetitive refrain “roll away the dew”. The bouncing guitar riff featured throughout this tune was apparently inspired by Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, and once you know that you can’t unhear it! This opening segue makes for a perfect comparison track across the two pressings. What makes these perfect demo tracks to compare is that they will both start on the outer edge of the LP; chances of any IGD (inner groove distortion) will be limited – it won’t be something I have to adjust for in my analysis/rating. On both the Rhino and MFSL releases, these are tracks A1, A2, A3. Here are some details about each pressing below:

2017 Rhino Release

  • Pressed By: Record Industry
  • Masterd By: David Glasser
  • Release Notes: 1LP at 33 & 1/3rd; housed in single pocket jacket, inside generic poly innersleeve

2019 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Release

  • Pressed By: Record Technology, Inc. (RTI)
  • Mastered By: Krieg Wunderlich
  • Release Notes: 2LP at 45RPM as part of MoFi’s Gain 2 Ultra Analog series; limited to ~4,000

Before doing any listening, I took both albums to a local record store that has a an Audio Desk Systeme (a really expensive ultrasonic record cleaning machine) to have them cleaned. I put each into a new MoFi inner sleeve for safe and clean keeping. Then, before dropping the needle, I thorough cleaned the plinth to remove all dust, and used my Onzow ZeroDust to clean my stylus. My equipment used is as follows:

  • Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut Carbon w/ Acrylic Platter
  • Cartridge/Stylus – MoFi Electronics UltraTracker; nude elliptical stylus
  • Phono Preamp – Parasound PPH100
  • Receiver/Amp – Marantz SR7000 (using Direct mode for analog inputs)
  • Speakers – Klipsch KG4

As noted above, I was going to focus my testing first on the 3 segued tracks. The dueling elements between 2 electric guitars playing separate riffs, and a really funky baseline, make for a unique listening experience; but this is also where mastering is going to be hugely important. If properly mastered and fully dynamic, you should be able to separate each guitar and pull out the bass. If it is not, the guitars will sound muddy and will begin to bleed into one another.

I started with the MoFi (initially forgetting to put my speed to 45rpm, and wondering for that initial second why everything sounded odd), and I was first caught by how little surface noise there was on the lead-in track. Usually you expect some level of hiss or a pop, but there was none to be found. Kudos to RTI on that one! The song began and I felt the volume was slightly low, so I turned the receiver up 2 clicks. Jerry’s guitar with it’s signature envelope-filtered sound is what grabbed me the most on first impression. The tone was crystal clear and you “feel” it right there in the room. I turned my attention to the second guitar which is isolated to the left channel for all of the first portion of the segue trio. It too was really clear, though I found it was probably mixed just slightly too low – it can get lost on occasion under the baseline…which brings me to my next observation. The bass on this MoFi release is absolutely WONDERFUL! It’s big, bold, and round while retaining clarity and realism. After a couple listens I decided the bass was probably the MVP of the MoFi copy. As Help on the Way -> Slipknot is about to transition to Franklin’s Tower, there’s a tambourine that I’m not sure I’ve ever fully heard (or payed enough attention to). It’s something that likely gets buried without good mastering; being cut at 45 doesn’t hurt the ability to retain dynamics, either. By time Franklin’s rolled around, I was dancing in my seat. Elements of an organ are nicely layered, and that tambourine sticks around. But it’s still the “jumpy” riff (the one mentioned about that supposedly was intended to mirror Walk on the Wild Side) that carries the song and music. With side A completed, I put away the MoFi LP, reset my turntable speed to 33 & 1/3rd, and put the Rhino press on the platter.

Upon dropping the needle, there was definitely some surface noise. I had never really thought anything of it, but I think after listening to the MoFi it just seemed like there was a bit of excess surface noise. When the music began, I immediately flinched because the output was much louder than the MoFi and I had to turn down the receiver 5 clicks. With the volume levels more or less equalized to what I had used for the prior version, I noticed the same thing – Jerry’s guitar just sounds so damn real. I’m going to chalk this up to a factor of being a great source recording since both releases were very impressive in this area. Once again, I still felt the left channel’s guitar to be slightly buried, though on the Rhino pressing the bass is a little more mild; so it does quite get lost in this version. I did feel that some minor details were lacking, though. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was that the aforementioned tambourine does really get muddied on this LP. I can hear it, especially being more aware of its presence now, but it is nowhere near as clear as it was on the first go-round. What was really impressive on this, though, is how clean the vocals come through. I felt the MFSL copy maybe could have mellowed the vocals a bit – they came across on the hotter end; not quite “harsh” but not “smooth” either. On the Rhino release, they have a silk-like quality about them (especially on the final track I compared, Franklin’s).

All in all, this ended up being much closer of a contest than I expected – though I really shouldn’t have been that surprised. When I did my 4-way comparison of American Beauty, I was shocked by how well the Rhino release of that album stacked up. It was far and away the only thing that went toe to toe with the 45rpm MFSL; not even the original 1979 MFSL could compare. Ultimately though, like that prior shootout with a Grateful Dead album, the 45rpm cut from MoFi was just too tough to beat. It really has everything you want in an audiophile release – clear and liquid-like guitars, great separation to allow small elements to shine through, and full/round bass. It does come with a premium price tag though, and that’s like a decision point for many people. Do you spend $50 on the audiophile grade album, or spend less than half that for the version that nearly stacks up to that lofty level of the audiophile grade release? Ultimately, it’s great for Dead Heads and vinyl lovers alike that there’s the options to choose from. High end sound quality is rare enough these days, so to be able to choose between two versions of an album that are in-press and widely available is a great thing! If you’re looking to save some change – go for the Rhino – you will NOT be disappointed in the slightest! But if you have the change to spare and you’re looking for the absolute top-end version; it’s the MoFi.

One last bonus note – the MoFi may be strongest on a tune I didn’t compare between the two. The Music Never Stops is one of my all-time favorite Dead tracks, and the dry saxophone in that track is absolutely breath taking on this release. The realism is unparalleled. I’ve been here endlessly replaying that track while writing this, tapping my foot constantly. When you hear a good song, and the sound quality is good, it’s almost impossible for me not to have some sort of physical reaction wanting to move to the music. I once was told, while demoing audio gear, that you can judge how good the quality is by whether a person taps a foot/nods their head/etc. Even if the music is not an artist/genre/song they like, when a person hears good quality sound to a beat or rhythm, it’s almost impossible to not have a reaction to that. And I wholly believe that!

Anyways, hope this wasn’t too long winded, and I hope that some got enjoyment out of this (I know my ears did doing the listening!)

If you liked this, check out my American Beauty review if you haven’t already (linked above), or some of my other previous reviews and write-ups:

Dave Brubeck Quartet Jazz Impressions of Japan | De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising | Father John Misty Pure Comedy

A Showdown of Beauties

This is going to be a bit of a long read, so buckle up (or skip down to the winners, it’s okay, we all do it!). I wanted to post something a little special for what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 77th birthday. ’77 was my favorite Dead tour year, for whatever that’s worth, but that’s neither here nor there…for now.

Last year, I finally decided to pick up the latest Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab release of Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, putting the count of the number of different versions of this album in my collection at 4. Clearly, I love this album…a lot! I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s my favorite Dead studio album, but it isn’t far off. It’s very accessible to an outside listener, and has a few songs that would likely be familiar with people who don’t know much of Grateful Dead’s work.

A quick history of how the album came to be for those who aren’t familiar with it. It was recorded just a few months after Workingman’s Dead in the late summer of 1970, and continued the close partnership between the band and lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter has credits on “Box of Rain”, “Friend of the Devil”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Ripple”, and “Truckin’”. During the recording sessions the band brought in mandolinist David Grisman to play on “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple”, and Howard Wales to play keys on “Candyman”, “Truckin’”, and “Brokedown Palace” – both of these guests would later work on collaborations with Jerry Garcia; with Grisman recording 2 albums (a self-titled/untitled release and “Shady Grove”) and Wales featured on the Side Trips Vol. 1 album that was recently pressed for Black Friday Record Store Day. The album also came on the heels of the group spending time with CSNY; who reportedly helped the Dead with their vocal harmonization around that time – this point has been downplayed and confirmed by various members of each band across a few decades. In any event the vocals really shine on this studio effort, and in combination with the more relaxed sound (that was a result from more steel-pedal guitar from Jerry and guest spots from Grisman and Wales), it’s an album that holds up really well from the post-Woodstock era of music.

Given that I have a decent variety of versions of the album, I figured it would be fun to do some A/B/C/D comparisons between them and try to determine which was “best”. Obviously in music “best” is a bit subjective (everyone has different ears and preferences for sound), but in general differentiating “good” sound from “better” sound is not terribly hard to do with a decent set of ears and some critical listening ability. In retrospect, what made this a difficult task was that the original is known to be of really good sound quality while the others are 2 audiophile label releases and another all analog cut from a top-tier mastering engineer. Below are the different versions I have, and some notes on each release:

1970 Warner Bros. German 1st Pressing

  • Pressed by: Teldec-Press GmbH
  • Identifying Traits: “The Grateful Dead” printed on cover, which is laminated. Dark green labels, with center-aligned text (US first pressings have left-aligned text)

Notes about release:

  • No mastering credits are listed for any releases in the first run, but it is noted to be mastered at Artisan Sound Recorders

1979 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Pressed by: Victor Company of Japan (JVC)
  • Identifying Traits: Blue/turquoise “Original Master Recording” band across top of album cover

Notes about release:

  • Half speed mastered & cut from the original analog tapes by Stan Ricker
  • Pressed on JVC’s “Super High Definition Vinyl” compound

2011 Rhino Pressing

  • Pressed by: Record Technology (RTI)
  • Identifying Traits: RTI sticker and rectangular hype sticker noting that it was cut from the original analog masters, along with a Rolling Stones Top 500 review

Notes about release:

  • Remastered from the original masters by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering
  • Pressed onto 180g vinyl

2014 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Pressed by: Record Technology (RTI)
  • Identifying Traits: Black “Original Master Recording” band across top of album cover

Notes about release:

  • Mastered by Krieg Wunderlich using the MFSL Gain 2 system at half speed
  • Cut at 45RPM and pressed onto two 180g LPs

Before doing any listening, I took all 4 copies into my local shop and had them run it through their Audio Desk Systeme ultrasonic record cleaning machine and then placed each in a brand new MoFi inner sleeve. Then, before dropping the needle, I thorough cleaned the plinth to remove all dust, and used my Onzow ZeroDust to clean my stylus. My equipment used is as follows:

To start my testing, I began with my favorite track – “Ripple”. The song is blissful, has a lot going on “musically”, and allows for good separation of instruments to be heard; being a rather mellow tune. What made it even better for a comparison song is that across all 4 releases, it is always the outer-most track (Song 1, Side B for the 3 cuts at 33 1/3; and Song 1 Side C on the MoFi 45 cut). Being an outer track allows for a deeper cut and better overall sound.

I began with the 1970 original. I noted some minimal surface noise on the lead-in track (I am not the original owner of this – it was purchased used a few years back) which dissipated as soon as the music came in. Immediately I noticed how apparent the bass was; almost to a point of being too much…yet not quite. It was slightly muddled (I couldn’t fully visualize each note being physically played by Phil Lesh), but still very full. When Jerry’s vocals come in with “If my words did glow”, my immediate reaction was that the sound was very life-like. There’s some minor sibilance on the line “simple highway”, but otherwise everything was clear and smooth. As far as instrumentation goes, every instrument is discernable from one another, and Grisman’s mandolin really rings well during the “Ripple in still water” portion; though I did feel that there could have been more separation to give a more real sound to everything.

Next up was the 1979 MoFi. Not a trace of surface noise here; despite not being the original owner. Similar to the German pressing, the bass is very apparent right off the bat. This pressing’s bass is a bit clearer and less overbearing than the 1st press. Vocals again are very life-like, and perhaps a bit closer to the front. No sibilance detected over a few listens. What really shines here is the mandolin. As it built up, I let out an audible “wow!” which caused my wife to look over at me like I was some sort of crazy person.

After listening to the 2 early pressings, I moved on to the reissues. To avoid going in complete chronological order, I went with the 2014 MoFi first. The record plays immaculately – completely flat, and dead quiet. The soundstage on this was so good that I was able to close my eyes and see exactly where each instrument or lyric was coming from. Bass was tight and punchy, vocals were centered and clear, and the acoustic sounded as if it was being played in my living room. I obviously expected this MoFi to sound good, but for a second time in a single sitting I again let out an audible “wow!”. No look from the wife this time; I’d like to think it was because she was as impressed with the sound as I was.

Finally, I arrived to the 2011 Chris Bellman cut on Rhino’s label. Minor surface noise on the lead-in, and 1 decently audible pop/tick prior to the music coming in, but after that it was smooth sailing. I was really impressed with the overall sound of this copy. Whereas I felt the original may have had a bit too much bass, this version brought it down to a reasonable level while still being very full. Once again, the vocals sound great (at this point, I think the credit for that has to go to the source recording more than anything else), and the instruments all have a lot of room to breathe. I found this pressing very easy to listen to and pinpoint detail. Perhaps it was due to being the 4th go-around of the song, but I felt like I didn’t have to try to tune in to specific areas in order to hear them clearly.

I followed a similar process of listening, though changing the order, for 2 other tracks: Friend of the Devil and Truckin’. At this point I felt like I was ready to make some conclusions and rank the albums. So without further ado, below are my rankings and takeaways:

No. 1. 2014 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Not much of a surprise, but the scientific method proved out. Everything is just so good about this release and pressing. It had by far the most depth and the widest soundstage of any of the 4 copies. The music felt real and almost as if you could reach out and grab it. It was my clear cut favorite across all 3 tracks.

No. 2. 2011 Rhino Pressing

  • This was the shocker of the comparisons for me. Considering the price tag (recently selling for as low as $13.73), this pressing is an unbelievable value. Chris Bellman, as he usually does, delivered a fantastic mastering effort here that stacks up with those of much higher prices and the original releases. Across the 3 songs played, I had it ranked as #2 on Ripple, #2 on Friend of the Devil, and #3 on Truckin’. If you’re in the market for this album and the 2014 MoFi is out of your price range, this is absolutely the way to go.

No. 3. 1979 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Being placed at #3 should be no indictment of the quality of this release. As I noted above, this album in general is known for good sound and there are many well-regarded releases of it. Where this version excels is the pressing quality (JVC made some great stuff), and how it stayed true to the original “airy-ness” of the original.

No. 4. 1970 German 1st Press

  • Again, this ranking isn’t to say this version wasn’t good…but it just didn’t do anything to stick out as better than any of the others. I know there is a mentality that has prevailed across the decades that a 1st press is always more desirable than a repress/reissue/remaster, but this case just doesn’t fit the mold.

I know this may have been a bit of a long (too long?) read, but I really enjoyed doing the testing comparisons and listening in depth to one of my favorite albums of all time! I hope perhaps this helps those in the market for this album make a choice, and I truly hoped that anyone who made it this far enjoyed reading this.

If you have any questions on the review, methods, equipment, or anything else – feel free to let me know!

Vintage Horns & Clarity

We all listen to, and consume, music differently. From a Spotify stream played through a a cellphone’s speaker, to dropping the needle on a favorite record, to a Dolby Atmos mixed Blu-ray audio disc played from a true audiophile setup; and everything in-between. Our method of intake may differ, but the euphoric feeling of hearing something truly great is something that most people have experienced at one time or another. For some of us, that feeling is something we continually strive to experience, reproduce, and enhance. Some may call it an addiction, and they’re probably right…but I’ll tell myself it’s a healthy hobby to rationalize the time, effort, and money spent chasing that feeling!

A few months ago, I made a post on Reddit about bringing my Klipsch KG4 speakers out of storage. My plan was to keep them out for the weekend and then pack them back up into storage. But, alas, that was probably a foolish plan on my part. I played album after album, listening to the differences in records I knew well that sounded completely new on these speakers versus my standard R-15M bookshelf speakers. The longer I had the KG4s out and stretching their legs, the more floored I was by just how DAMN GOOD they sounded! Considering these speakers are roughly 30 years old (I believe they were purchased circa 1989), I wasn’t sure what to expect. My initial takeaway was that these vintage speakers have aged like a fine wine, and with very little need for upkeep. They have the classic, and often raved about, Klipsch horn tweeters; and boy…do they work wonders! The highs were crisp and clean, and the bass was well rounded (thanks to the rear passive radiators). The more I listened, the more I wanted to play, and the less I wanted to pack them back up into storage (sorry apartment neighbors!). I decided that I’d go through my hifi albums to really see just how good they could sound.

Before I go too much farther, let me detail my setup quickly:

Now, before I do any critical listening, I generally make sure everything is properly aligned and calibrated for best possible sound on this system. First, you may notice that my speakers are sitting on risers instead of directly on the floor. The reason for this is that, ideally, you’d like the tweeters of any speaker to be even with your ear level when seated in your preferred listening position. The stands they are on are actually sections of a component rack – I don’t have proper stands for these because I don’t (or didn’t) often bring them out to play…that may change going forward. One thing to note for people newer to swapping speakers in and out – if your Receiver has speaker setting options, make sure you check them before playing. My Marantz has a small/large option, as well as an option to indicate if you have a sub-woofer connected. If I were to play the KG4s on the “small” setting, I’d likely have been pretty disappointed in the sound. After getting the speakers connected and the receiver properly set, I move on to my turntable. First, I remove the platter and clean off any dust that has accumulated (the piano black color of my table really highlights dust…such a pain!) and once the plinth is clean I ensure the belt is on the right speed setting for what I plan to play. Then I pull out my trusty digital scale to make sure VTF is set to 1.70g (my preferred tracking weight for the 2M Bronze). Finally, I’ll dip the stylus into my Onzow Zerodust and I’m finally good to go! The process takes ~10 minutes tops, and while probably a bit over the top and unnecessary, it’s part of the routine now and I’m a creature of habit!

My playlist for the day was a mix of Classic Rock, 90’s Alternative Rock, and Jazz. But, by far, out of all of the albums I spun, my favorite spin of the day was my Classic Records Clarity SV-P II 45RPM set of Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington’s The Great Reunion. For those who aren’t familiar, Classic Records was a label that specialized in audiophile vinyl pressings and some high-end CDs. Founded in 1994 by known audio aficionado Michael Hobson, the label was sold to Acoustic Sounds in 2010. During the early 2000’s, Classic began experimenting with different vinyl formulations for their releases. The aforementioned album fell into their Clarity Series, and this set is top-notch all around! The Clarity releases employed the new SV-P (Super Vinyl Profile) II formula with groove guard on “clarity-clear” vinyl, and were also cut at 45rpm. The idea behind the clearish color (with a heavy blue tint in direct light) used was that the carbon black additive that gives a regular record its black color contains trace metals that can become magnetized and thus result in more static and general surface noise. This is probably true, though does border on some of the pseudo-science that crosses over into the audiophile world. I have black pressings of audiophile albums that have equally as little surface noise as this, so any perceived benefits of the clarity color itself may be less direct causation of the type of wax used and more a result of general good care being taken in all aspects of production. However, being cut at 45RPM does indeed allow for better sound, as it results in less overall distortion (especially on inner grooves). These are single-sided pressings, on 200g discs, which are intended to allow for deeper/more dynamic cuts; and reduced resonance. All of the releases in the series are sourced from analog tape, use an analog master, and were cut to lacquer without any digital components. Most were mastered at Bernie Grundman Mastering, either by Bernie himself or Chris Bellman. The albums come securely packaged in a removable-top box with thick poly-lined sleeves, a ton of bubble wrap, and a pristine album jacket with hi-resolution artwork from the original release. These releases are absolutely stunning, and compete well (and probably beat out) modern sets like Mobile Fidelity’s UltraDisc One-Steps and Analogue Productions’ UHQR sets. Better yet, their prices were a fraction of what modern sets are being priced at (when they were sold new, the secondary market on these Clarity sets are brutal).

Anyways, to the album itself – dropping the needle on disc A1, the album opens with the extremely well-known track It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing). The bass plucks for a few bars, and you can hear the slight fret buzz – a detail so minor that most likely don’t/can’t hear it on other versions, and then a horn appears right in your living room and blows you away. Satchmo eventually drops in and his grovely voice rumbles, centered in the soundstage. The song is irresistible to foot taping, and the sound quality is so good that I find myself listening to this track endlessly; simply picking the tonearm back up and restarting immediately after it comes to a close. On disc 2 (labeled A2) I did detect a slight pre-echo on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but it’s extremely minor and once the song kicks in you are lost in the realism of the soundstage. I often can close my eyes and picture being in a small jazz club with these legends right in front of me. Instrument separation on this release is unparalleled, and the amount of detail you can hear is incredible. Notably on the song Azalea, you can hear Armstrong inhale, away from the microphone, before he plays a line on the trumpet. It’s truly “revealing” in every sense of the world. It’s a fully immersive experience to hear an album like this.

All the above, to me, makes the time/effort/money sunk into my growing audiophile habit worth it. When you can hear a song you know and love, and feel like you’re hearing it for the first time; or that you’ve always listened with earmuffs on and now are really experiencing the un-blocked sound with “clarity” (heh, see what I did there?) …it’s just an awesome feeling! Again, maybe it’s an addiction. But I’ll still refer to it as a hobby. Or maybe an obsession. But a health one!

I know this was a bit long winded, so my apologies for that. Hope those that did read it enjoyed my takeaways, and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have – whether on my equipment, the record in question, or music in general! Thanks for stopping by; more to come soon!

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