Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Classical Audiophile Reissues, Part 1 (Three Cornered Hat Shoot Out)

I've been supplementing my collection lately and scarfing up some Salvatore Supreme Recordings Demi-Gods and Basic list items (see our links in the lower left). I must say I am going to break away a bit from the great one  (I've been modeling my system to gain better "Sound Floor" and Aqlam just got the Salvatore rave components, Frankenstein 300B and Coincident Phono Stage.) First up is the famous SXL 2296 pictured left. I've not loved my Speaker Corner reissues of Decca and they have appeared to be the victim of a dry sound (please stay away from the La Folia reissue also as the ATR mastercut can be had used and sometimes sealed for reasonable prices and their is no comparison). The Falla under review is in Salvatore's Basic list and the originals are quite expensive even on the London Blueback, so I decided to give this a try (I'll report in part 2 on Janis/Rach3 Mercury). Surely, a quite dynamic sound, but very dry. I hope the originals don't sound this bad and for me this opens the door in a big way that the prescribed Salvatore system and recordings may be flawed in that their does not appear to be a reverence for the microdynamic and palpability of some of the original pressings on RCA, Mercury, Decca/London, EMI ASD and SAX. I am stumped by this, but must conclude that the step up transformer based high output MC sound in even the best configurations, must improve the sound floor markedly while also losing some of the microdynamics and palpability of an all tube signal path. The Speakers Corner under consideration here does impressive in the macro-dynamics area and definition, but falls utterly flat in the palpability and microdynamics. We'll get back to this in some further reviews below, but onward for now!

Also on the Salvatore list are a selection of Classic Records Everest reissues. One of these is a very nice Demi-God and will be reviewed in part 2. These were mastered by Bernie Grundmann with his all tube mastering rig (Bernie do the ORG stuff now). Over the course of listening to nearly a dozen of Grundmann's tube efforts, the sound is very dynamic and extended but is also a little bit washed out in the palpability arena (similar issues with Doug Sax The Master Lab stuff too). I suspect this may have much to do with the more modern tube complement in Grundmann's cutting amps, but this is pure conjecture as I 'm not aware of any detailed information on his equipment. I suppose you can't have everything and these modern tube cutting systems do seem to have a much better sound floor and increased dynamics.

Sargent's Prokofiev 5 is an impressive affair sonically. Despite some palpability issues, the dyamics are impressive and could the 35mm sound be more dynamic in some ways? A very worthy occupant of the Basic List and highly recommended though I must say I doubt this is the best performance of a piece that is not one of my many favorite Prokofiev pieces.

The Everest Falla sports the Complete Ballet and really is on par with the above Prokofiev sonically, but perhaps without some of the power bass given the piece. A worthy and interesting LP, but I'm not sure the complete ballet is for me.

These two Everest and the one's coming up in part two are still available new. At this time Acoustic Sounds has great prices and if wait for one of their 10% of sales (Memorial day, etc.), you should be able to score 4 Everests for $90 delivered which is an awesome price for a ticket to Salvatore land. The Classic reissues look awesome with very thick stock on the covers and vinyl noise is acceptable, but not perfect.

In part 2, I will make an effort to compare to some of the original Everest pressings, but I seriously doubt they will be competitive with Grundmann's laudable efforts. Any palpability advantages of the originals will not overcome the impressive dynamics and 35mm vividness revealed by Grundmann's efforts.

While we are at it we might as well have a Three Cornered Hat Shoot Out. How can I do this when we are talking about reissues? Because I have the original Blue and Silver pressing and the 2nd Magic pressing which is technically a reissue. First up the Blue and Silver which is the winner of this shoot out despite a surprisingly light bass presentation. It has nice palpability and high frequency presentation and is a fine record though I do not absolutely love it. The second Magic pressing (similar looking, but not sounding to the 2nd ASD label called semi-circle) sounds like someone poured some gravel into the violins. These pressings also sound a bit rolled off and really just do not have the magic of the original Blue and Silver (however, in some cases you might find a Blue and Silver stamper number on the 2nd label I've heard). I hate the 2nd label Magic with a passion bordering on the religious. Every other emi pressing and label type has redeeming quality except for these and possibly the SAN White Angels which seem to suffer the same affliction. I'd love to get a copy of the Concert Classic reissue SXLP 30198. I paid $60 for the Blue and Silver and coughed up $16 for the Magic pressing just so I could see the difference. The budget conscious might try to snag the Ace of Diamonds reissue of the Ansermet and really the ORG reissue ought to be nice too at $55 new.

Aqlam is quite the fan of this LP and it is another impressive effort by Grundmann (now with ORG). The ORG 2LP 45rpm reissue packs a punch and retains a nice tube sound that is remarkably close to the original. I compared with my original and I was surprised, but the original despite a slightly recordy sound in comparison to the ORG beat it overall because of a more coherent, palpable sound with greater micro-dynamics. Side 1 of the ORG is damaged and I'll be returning it for something else. The ORG vinyl seemed a bit noisy for a new pressing (but not bad enough to demand a return.) I am very impressed with Grundmann's efforts at ORG and this LP is on sale for $40 at the Elusive Disc right now. I got my original just this Fall for less, but I suspect that the 45RPM ORG will win out on many systems. Brahms himselft stated in a fit of passion, "I'd give all of my Compositions if I could have written such a Piece as The Hebrides!" All of this being said, I do not think this is one of the great Decca/Londons. It is very, very good.  Sadly my Stereo Treasury STS 15091 leaves a bit to be desired and I'm not confident of the quality of something like a grooved FFRR reissue with the same cover (but you never know....)

I really had trouble selecting a Hi-Q release as the Electric Recording Company has greedily locked up the rights to the 60 best vintage EMI recordings. Hi-Q has been left to pick the remains of the catalog, but fortunately their is a lot of meat on the EMI bone. It was a hard call, but on listening to the digital versions and performance reviews of many of the recordings I went with the Kletzki Sibelius 2 recorded in 1955. Online, one could hear that the digital copies had a bit of a rolled off sound without the greatest dynamics, but it seemed like it had potential, Kletzki's performance was a bit under the radar, but well liked. Mind you this was pressed by EMI just like the Testament stuff (which I detest and reader Kho concurs). Another reader pointed out that this was a direct metal disaster or DMM. Usually, DMM is the kiss of death in most cases unless it is done very, very well. I have quite a few DMM german pressings of French Harmonia Mundi which are unbelievably good (see Salvatore Land link where many of these are in the mighty Divinity and Demi-God sonic classifications.) So, actually when I heard the Hi-Q were DMM I secretly had high hopes.

The Hi-Q sound on this LP was amazing. I still can't believe EMI did this and I'd be very interested in any vintage rock reissues EMI might attempt with this technology. Amazingly, EMI has preserved much of the tube feel and goodness. This is a sea change from the Testament reissues and very, very promising. I can't comment on how good Hi-Q is in the bass, dynamics, and thunder department as the original tape of this venerable recording never had it in it. Everyone who has heard this LP likes it and I think this is because of the performance and the remarkable preservation of the the "tube" sound for lack of a better word. I like the label and feel of this record which is quite stiff. The vinyl noise level was outstanding on the Hi-Q, much better than the Maag ORG or the Everest above. An excellent effort and I will have to seek out another Hi-Q title.

The Resphigi Queen of Sheeba was a fun selection from Reference. These are technically all reissues as for some time Reference stopped LP production putting out only CDs. The local audiophiles have quite a few of the recent Reference Recording efforts on hand, but not this one. Queen of Sheeba is a rarely recorded piece, which set this apart. The Queen was very enjoyable and the sound is astounding. Professor Keith O. Johnson (of Astounding Sound Show fame) has really out done himself. I believe one of the factors that has pushed these Reference LPs to new heights is Chad Kassem's QRP pressings (Chad owns Acoustic Sounds, aka Analog Productions, bought the defunct Classic Records, etc., a vinyl God). These are pretty quiet, but where they excel is in their reproduction of the extremes. Reference has been playing with their own half speed mastering setup for some time if memory serves me right with their point .5 masters at the end of their original run of LPs. Now, "the lathe system has custom electronics by Nelson Pass. The simple signal path contains no compression, equalization or unnecessary circuitry. RR Chief Engineer and Technical Director, “Prof.” Keith Johnson consulted on the design of the system and helped with the rebuilding of the lathe and electronics, which is owned and operated by long-time mastering expert Paul Stubblebine. “Prof.” Johnson has pronounced it equal to the challenge of our master tapes!" The results are really impressive and the sound is very different from the rest of the LPs under review which are all reissues of Golden Era recordings (1958-1963). Unbelievable bass extension and dynamics. A very clean crystalline sound that I am sure will impress on any type of system. This is the future of audiophile vinyl and it is a very bright future indeed. Reference Recordings sonically are a very different animal from any other label and I highly recommend them. My only complaint is the repertoire which seems to feature titles for which renowned audiophile records already exist. The B side of this LP is the Pines of Rome, need I say more.

In the background of this whole listening session has been a major upgrade of the power cables in my system. I've been in love with the sound of the PS Audio AC-12 and finally got all 9 power cables of it in my system broken in enough for some serious listening. I am amazed at the dynamics and sound stage definition provided by these cables, but I am shocked out how they allow micro-detail and palpability to flow in the system. My vintage vinyl sonically explodes with such a coherent front that the jump factor than many of the audiophile reissue efforts have at the extremes seems to be largely negated. The AC-12 let the tube black magic flow in unbelievable ways and have achieved a true synergy en masse in my system.

In my confusion for the Shoot Out, I got it into my little brain that my STS 15014, Falla, El Amor Brujo/Retablo De Maese Pedro, was the Stereo Treasury reissue of the very desirable earlier London Blueback with Argenta (CS 6050). Its not, its a reissue of the revered Decca SXL 2260. So, somehow this LP found its way into the melee last night. I'd heard it before and thought it was extremely impressive, but had not given it a full listen. Master Peter's Puppet Show was an astounding tour de force on the lowly Stereo Treasury. It had 95% of what one might associate with tube magic with an uncanny edge in the definition department.

Two years ago I made piles and piles of Deccas and Londons in the hopes of chasing down this elusive type of sound. STS 15015, Bruch/Scottish Fantasia, was a very nice LP (though I've got a number of copies and the Decca SDD Ace of Diamonds and other STS are not as good). I even wrote a piece on the late Bluebacks on this site.

The winner for the night and this article is the STS Puppet Show. A wonderful blend of tube sound with excellent definition. This may be the best pressing of this recording. I think I coughed up $12 for this copy as an additional piece for on an ebay order. I am glad I did. It seems I may have to work on my Decca piles to see if I can find more of these sonic gems. I am astounded.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Blue Note, Blue Note on the wall, which is the fairest one of all?

There's really no argument that Blue Note produced some of the finest jazz recordings and records of the 1950s-1960s. Put together management that had a genuine love for the music and respected their artists, an artist roster that was second to none and could afford the opportunity to take chances on some lesser known artists, the star recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, cover art that set the standard for coolness and sophistication for all genres of music, and arguably the finest recorded jazz sound at the time, and that pretty much sums up this record label. Original pressings of Blue Note recordings are the Rolls Royces of the jazz collector, much like the UK Columbia SAX records that we've discussed on this blog, though on average I'd have to say that the Blue Notes sell for a lot more ... even when condition is compromised.  They are that collectible.  I still remember in the early 2000s when I saw a beat up copy of Tina Brooks' True Blue with a library check-out slip holder pasted to the front cover, sell for more than $1000 on the flea-bay.  A great deal has been written about the Blue Note labelography and quality of pressings, and I will not attempt to repeat this.  For starters, there is Blue Note Records: A Guide for Identifying Original Pressings by Frederick Cohen that is available for purchase.  I don't own a copy, though I've heard this is well worth owning if you are serious about collecting.  I've found the site a great online resource.

I first became interested in Blue Notes when I was in my last year of college.  I took a course on jazz theory, and one of our assignments was to write up a report on five different jazz recordings of our choice.  While I had a limited CD collection at the time, I took advantage of the music library at Northwestern University, which had a dedicated listening room with an extensive jazz LP library.  I remember the day I browed through the shelves ... dozens of what to me at the time looked like original Blue Note records, all available to be sampled on headphones.  The whole label was new to me at the time, but I recall being very impressed with the cover art.  There was something about those covers ... the modern design, the hip photos of the lead artist, the album titles ... it was hard to put them down.  I picked up a handful: Donald Byrd's Royal Flush, Horace Silver's Blowing the Blues Away, Hank Mobley's Roll Call (yes, there was an original copy of that rarity) ... listening to them on headphones on that afternoon at the music library was a revelation.  I had never heard jazz sound so good, and to believe that these recordings were 40+ years old astounded me even more.  This was my first exposure to fine vinyl and motivated me to start collecting.

Of course, I had no idea at the time how collectible these records had become.  Ebay had a small presence at the time, and the internet was not what it is now, so resources were scarce.  The best source of info at the time for me was the Jazz Record Mart in downtown Chicago.  I had heard about the store on many occasions but had never gotten myself to go.  This was a perfect excuse.  However, it was also a rude awakening.  I discovered that not only were these records rare, they were expensive.  Being totally green, I was unaware of different pressings and their quality.  I just wanted the covers and the music.  I remember slapping down $50-75 for The Stylings of Silver with the Horace Silver Quintet and about the same or more for a copy of Six Pieces of Silver, also from the Horace Silver Quintet.  That was a lot of money for a college student at the time.  I brought them back to my apartment and played them on one of my roommates' DJ turntables.  The music was phenomenal, but somehow, the presentation of the music didn't have the same punch and kick as it did at the music library.  The covers also weren't made of the same thick laminated cardboard as I'd seen in the library.  I managed to pick up a few more LPs before I realized that many of them weren't worth it (I later realized that these were all the troubled 1980s DMM pressings).  Anemic sound sucked the life out of these legendary recordings.  The RVG 24-bit remastered CDs kicked their butt in every way except that they didn't come in attractive 12 inch covers.  My Blue Note LP collecting days were over.  I brought the dozen or so I had to another local Evanston record shop and sold them for a whopping loss of $20 for the entire set.  A harsh realization of how uneducated I had been about the whole process of collecting.

CDs dominated my listening for the next two years, until I moved to Washington, DC in the middle of medical school for a research year at the NIH.  It was here that the love for vinyl had a resurgence.  More time combined with incrementally more cash gave me the opportunity to scour the used record bins of Montgomery County, Maryland, and where I would slowly learn the ropes about the jazz LP collecting world.  Over the next five years, I picked up somewhere over 100 Blue Notes from all eras.  I had a handful of 47 West 63rd pressings, though mostly not in great condition.  A slightly larger number of New York USA pressings, in mostly but not all better condition.  Plenty of Liberty Records and 1970s pressings.  As I experimented with listening to these on different vinyl rigs, starting with a Technics SL-1200 MK2 and finishing with the VPI Aries 1 that I still use now, it became clearer to me that yes, pressings did matter.  It was amazing how good an original pressing would sound, even if it were scratched up.  A grading that would forever curse a classical record would somehow be quite acceptable for a Blue Note.  Yes, there'd be surface noise, but the music was so dynamic that you almost instantly forgot about the crackles and pops.  However, the magic of these early pressings was soon to be lost on many of the later pressings, especially once you departed from the early Liberty Records era.  This has been well known for a long time, and most collectors will tell you that if you have a pressing that was pressed by the original Pastylite factory, you're generally in good shape with regards to sound quality.  The earliest pressings of the Liberty Records era were also very decent and could be comparable to the Pastylite pressings, but after that, the plunge was pretty steep.  The blue label pressings of the 1970s truly lacked a great deal of the punch of the originals.  The trade-off, of course, was price, since the later pressings could generally be had for a fraction of the price.

I was relatively pleased owning these records until two years ago, when I decided to go down the dark road of collecting Columbia SAX records.  To finance these purchases, I ended up selling off nearly the entire Blue Note collection, with only two to three unsellable records remaining.  At the time, it didn't matter so much.  I had practically all of them on CD and didn't miss them.  I was far more interested in exploring the sounds of von Karajan, Klemperer, Galliera, Cluytens, Richter-Haaser, Giulini, and more.  Blue Note vinyl for me ... was an afterthought.

Well, I don't know what it was exactly that brought me back to Blue Notes after The Purge, but suffice it to say that I got the fever again this winter.  First, I took things slowly, picking up a few less expensive Liberty Records pressings.  Then I discovered the world of audiophile Blue Note reissues from the now defunct Classic Records, Analogue Productions, and Music Matters.  I dove into the online literature detailing differences in pressings and quality. Then I made the mistake of purchasing a couple original pressings, which reminded me of just how kick ass these records could sound.  Then ... well, you know how it goes.  Collecting is a disease.

While I recognize that come relatively late to the discussion of which Blue Note pressing is sonically the best, I nevertheless wanted to gradually share my thoughts, having recently listened to a wide variety of original "Pastylite" pressings, early and later Liberty pressings, United Artists reissues, Classic Records 200g mono reissues, Analogue Productions 45 rpm reissues, and Music Matters 45 rpm and 33 rpm reissues.  In many but not all cases, originals offer outstanding sound.  Most of my Liberty pressings have come up very close to the originals.  However, I have been particularly impressed with the audiophile reissues.  Classic Records reissues come with the original style covers as the originals as well as the labels and heavy weight of the vinyl.  Soundwise, they sound closer to the original sound than the Music Matters.  However, the Music Matters are a very special set indeed.  While they don't sound the same way that RVG cut his records, they go above and beyond in my opinion to capture the actual sound of the session.  Production quality is uniformly impressive, and though they are by no means cheap, you can easily order a copy for a mere fraction of a near mint original.  Rule of thumb, though, is that everything is on an album to album basis.  And just like I set out to review the Columbia SAX series two years ago, my hope is to roll out the same for Blue Note Records.  As always, I'd welcome any discourse on this topic from readers around the globe.  Happy listening!