High Fidelity: Audiophile releases offer analog, digital options

By  Todd Whitesel

In this edition of High Fidelity, we’ll look at some of the audiophile-quality, high-resolution musical offerings available in both analog and digital formats. The better your music sounds, the more you’ll listen to it — and enjoy it. That’s what it’s all about.

Before we jump in, you might want to review our audiophile glossary to get familiar with some commonly encountered terms.

Now, on to the music!

Rhino/Warner Bros. Records (www.rhino.com) have a truly impressive selection of regular and 180-gram LP reissues, with artists including Van Morrison (Astral Weeks, Moondance and His Band And The Street Choir), Talking Heads (Talking Heads: 77), Black Sabbath (Heaven And Hell, Mob Rules, Live Evil and Dehumanizer), Prince (Purple Rain) and Warren Zevon. I was fortunate to get a sampling of all these artists and came away even more impressed.

Every record I heard was very good to outstanding. The Van Morrison reissues are particularly excellent. I was mesmerized listening to “Beside You,” the meditative track from Astral Weeks. The guitars that open the song have a depth and presence in this reissue like I’ve never heard. I’ve probably heard Astral Weeks a hundred times, but listening to this release was like hearing it — truly hearing it — for the first time. Highly recommended. I have three different issues of Moondance, and par for the course, the Rhino version left the others in the dust.

Morrison’s third solo effort, … Street Choir, is a very underrated record and one that really shows off Morrison’s roots. The sound, again, is fantastic and a first point to those who think CDs trump dear old vinyl. Throw on “Crazy Face” or “Call Me Up In Dreamland” and let the nonbelievers raise a hand.

Besides vinyl, Rhino has released the three-CD Grateful Dead set To Terrapin: Hartford ’77. You may not know it, but Rhino’s Dead reissues have all been HDCD discs, and this collection is no exception, which was mastered from the original two-track analog masters. The sound is excellent, with clearly defined separation of instruments. It’s cool to hear the monumental “Terrapin Station” just before the release of the namesake album, as the Dead toured it to the first of countless receptive audiences.

Linn Records (www.linnrecords.com) is a Scotland-based offshoot of Linn Products, longtime manufacturers of high-end audio gear. Linn is one of many “record” companies that have embraced the Internet, giving their customers a multitude of options to download music across multiple genres in multiple formats. Much of the Linn catalog consists of classical music, much of it available as 24-bit/192 kHz FLAC files. But fans of folk, jazz and rock will find something to their liking here.

I downloaded four recordings from Linn: Thin Lizzy, UK Tour 75 (16-bit/44.1 kHz); Gareth Williams Power Trio, Shock! (24-bit/44.1 kHz); Fiona MacKenzie, Elevate (24-bit/44.1 kHz); and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (24-bit/192 kHz).

Although the Lizzy album was recorded at Red Book levels, I wanted a baseline comparison for Linn’s other high-res offerings. If you think that live rock begins and ends with Lizzy’s classic Live And Dangerous, give UK Tour 75 a listen. It’s rough around the edges but has energy and balls galore. For some reason, Thin Lizzy was one of the few bands that recorded drums right. In concert, here, we get Brian Downey tearing up the traps. When he plays the ride cymbal, it sounds like a ride cymbal. The extended version of “Still In Love With You” is worth the purchase. This is an awesome live recording of a band about to throw a roundhouse ’round the globe.

Fans of jazz piano will want to check out Williams’ Shock! It’s a fantastic disc spanning ballads, bop and cool jazz. The music (12 originals and a John Coltrane cover) and performances are electric. Williams and his trio mates — bassist Laurence Cottle and drummer Ian Thomas — have a musical simpatico that makes songs such as the funked-up “Keeping Up With Our Jones’s” or the moody “Holey Moley” ring in the head after the final chord. Great music and great sound.

Fiona MacKenzie is a Scottish singer and songwriter with a folky bent, but her album Elevate is less Vashti Bunyan and more Kate Bush. MacKenzie’s voice is clear and bright, and this recording lets her shine on a compelling mix of originals, including three sung in Gaelic.

Lastly, it’s been awhile since Goldmine featured classical music, but for those who like the occasional orchestral foray, Linn has a very good selection of Studio Master quality (24-bit/192 kHz) available for purchase. The Studio Master files for Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. are very large — some are more than 1 gigabyte in size. Even through my high-speed cable modem, these files took anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour to download.

As well, very few computer sound cards and media players are equipped to play 192 kHz files, requiring users to download the files and burn them to DVD before playback. The steps required are best read on Linn’s site, but I’ll say that the resulting discs are among the best-sounding in my collection, with a boldness and airiness that blew me away listening. From the first thump of strings, this one’s a winner.

Each Linn album download includes cover art and applicable booklets and inlays. The Web site also has detailed instructions on how to burn and/or play downloaded files across varying formats and operating systems.

HDTracks
(www.hdtracks.com) offers digital downloads in four formats, including hi-res 24-bit/88 kHz FLAC and 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC. Several releases by The Kinks are available in the 24/96 format, including A Soap Opera, Give The People What They Want, Misfits, Muswell Hillbillies and One For The Road (Live).

I chose Misfits, downloading it to my computer and then burning a copy to DVD. Misfits has always been my favorite Kinks’ album. Ray Davies’ musings on the significance of rock and roll for adults is one that we all have, or will have, pondered at one point. The answer is, of course, “Hell yes, rock and roll is important!” (My paraphrasing.)

And this version of Misfits is awesome, with a gorgeous clarity and openness that came through from the first note. The decay of the first cymbal crash, for example, lingers for several glorious seconds before fading out entirely. It’s a low-price ($15.98) entry into audiophilia and a recording that may send you back to re-examine The Kinks’ hearty back catalog. Like all HDTracks’ offerings, Misfits comes complete with full liner notes and cover art in PDF documents, which can be printed to give your disc a professional look.

Audio Fidelity (www.audiofidelity.net): This California-based record label specializes in HDCD-encoded 24kt+Gold CDs, mastered by studio guru Steve Hoffman. Previous releases have included works by Bad Company, Montrose, The Doobie Brothers and Deep Purple. Audio Fidelity’s latest Gold CDs are Alice Cooper’s School’s Out and The Cars’ Heartbeat City.

The original recording of School’s Out suffers from an overall muddiness that can’t be overcome through remastering — the electric guitars sound strident and just plain weird in places, and the drums aren’t much better. While the guitars and drums aren’t great, the piano, bass and strings have better fidelity. And the songs are among the Coop’s best, with raunchy rock and good humor running throughout. This Audio Fidelity remaster sounds as good as this record probably ever will.

Heartbeat City was a glossy production from the beginning, as The Cars jumped from crunchy new-wave rock to cool and polished MTV-style singles. The synths took increasing precedence, serving as the foundation for nearly every song here — what happened to the guitars? Besides the reliance on keyboards, the drums are given the big, dry sound that producer “Mutt” Lange perfected in the ’80s with other acts such as Def Leppard. Heartbeat City yielded the massive hit “Drive,” and this recording reveals the subtle nuances of the arrangement. Turn it up and listen deeply.

In addition, AF has reissued The Ramones’ classic concert document It’s Alive on 180-gram vinyl. This two-record set could be Audio Fidelity’s crowning achievement, a brawny offering that captures the excitement of the original with a palpable “you’re there” feel. It’s Alive is a worthy replacement to that beat-up copy you probably put away years ago. I’ll never tire of hearing Dee Dee count in every song, “1-2-3-4!”

Mobile Fidelity (www.mofi.com), or MoFi, has been in the business of remastering and reissuing great music for decades. The company is well known for its original master recordings, many of which quickly go out of print and become very expensive and very collectible. Among MoFi’s recent compact disc offerings are Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and Foghat’s Fool For The City, released as a 24kt Gold Audiophile Ultradisc II and Ultradisc UHR SACD, respectively.

Little (pun intended) needs to be said about Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes. It’s a masterwork featuring the monumental talent of Lowell George and the mind-blowing interplay between him, keyboardist Billy Payne, bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Richie Hayward. This disc is gold indeed, with the guitars, bass drum, organ and vocals (everything!) sounding particularly good. And the overall blend of instruments is excellent. Listen to “Easy To Slip” as the organ slowly seeps in or “Trouble” to hear the best of the best.

Fool For The City is a hybrid SACD disc, playable in all CD players — to hear the SACD mix, you’ll need a compatible player. I listened first on a standard player and through my SACD player. The biggest improvements you’ll hear, regardless, are in the depth and clarity of the electric guitars and vocals. It’s cool to break apart the individual chords and lines as Lonesome Dave Peverett and Rod Price wail on their respective six-strings — as when they lift the wings on “Terraplane Blues,” one of ’Hat’s many smoldering blues rockers.

Each CD comes beautifully packaged in a mini-LP, gatefold cardboard case, with liner notes (where applicable), a thinner cardboard CD liner and, finally, a soft mesh CD jacket to protect the disc.

MoFi does more than digital. I also received their LP reissue of the Allman Brothers Band classic Idlewild South, pressed on half-speed-mastered 180-gram vinyl and packaged in an archival anti-static sleeve. From the opening needle drop I was impressed — about two seconds into “Revival” you hear one of the Brothers yell out something like “Go!” in the right channel. The recording is spacious and warm — very warm — and sounds like a live recording. Listen to “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ ” for proof. “Midnight Rider” is also excellent. You can “feel” the energy of Gregg Allman’s voice, as it rises with the storyline of the lyrics. Dickey Betts’ timeless and oh-so-atmospheric eulogy “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is another listening high point, with some great drumming by Butch Trucks (whose drums sound like drums!). And check out Berry Oakley’s rolling bass line, like a log sliding in water. Flip the album over and listen to the drive ABB put into Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.” It’s a remarkable cover, with superb drumming, guitar playing and singing from Oakley. MoFi got this one right.

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