By Todd Whitesel
What makes a compact disc collectible? Packaging? Great sound? For Audio Fidelity founder Marshall Blonstein, it’s a combination of those things, but ultimately, it’s the sound that matters.
That’s no surprise, considering his previous affiliation with DCC Classics, an audiophile label born in the 1980s whose releases benefited from the talented ears of recording engineer Steve Hoffman. DCC had a 15-year run, with the label reissuing more than 200 remastered compact discs and dozens of vinyl titles before ceasing operations in 2001. In 2002, Blonstein started Audio Fidelity and continued his pursuit of releasing audiophile-grade CDs and vinyl with Hoffman still at the controls, along with fellow engineer Kevin Gray.
GM: What differences do you see between the DCC and Audio Fidelity releases?
MB: In the DCC days, a lot of the recordings back in the ’90s had never been remastered, so we were dealing with virgin territory. Most of the recordings had never been remastered since their initial release in the ’60s and ’70s. With Audio Fidelity, a lot of the recordings have since been remastered, and they’ve been remastered in a way where there’s a lot of compression, there’s a lot of EQ-ing going on, so it took the original vision of the artist and producer and sort of made it louder to adapt to the CD format. We go back to the original version and vision of that artist and bring that quality back to the Audio Fidelity titles.
GM: Beyond the remastering process, what’s the biggest difference between Audio Fidelity’s 24-karat gold discs and redbook CDs?
MB: It always comes down to how well it was recorded to begin with and the source that we’re working with. When we get our hands on the original masters, it’s always a joy. But sometimes you don’t have the luxury of getting an original master and what you get is a “one-off” from the original master. We have to make sure there’s no EQ, there’s no Dolby [Noise Reduction] — it’s a clear, exact identical copy of what the master would have been like. And that goes back to the talents of Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray, and their ear and knowledge of where the tape came from, who tested it, who used it, how it was stored — all those factors are considered. But we’re pretty lucky in that we usually can get a hold of the original master, and we work from that when we can. If not, we make sure that the source quality is something we know will yield a final Audio Fidelity product we can all be proud of. We always want to try and meet a standard so someone can listen to it and know that what they’re listening to is different than a traditional CD. It’s a better sound; whether it’s 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent, in some cases it’s 25 or even 50 percent better. It’s for those people that hear the difference. That’s whom I always wanted to make music for.
GM: The 24-karat gold CD lineup has artists ranging from Stevie Wonder and James Taylor to Judas Priest and Alice Cooper. How do you choose the titles?
MB: You have to take into consideration, first off, what title you think would be acceptable to the audiophile-collector-music lover marketplace. The next step is, “Will the label license that to us?” We’ve been requesting some Elton John and Police for probably a year now and haven’t yet been able to get approval — we’re hoping to. It takes time when you have something as broad as The Doors and then you have an Alice Cooper [album] — I’ve been a big Alice Cooper fan for a long time, and when we listened to the Alice Cooper titles, we saw a real opportunity to improve what was already there. You don’t think of Alice Cooper as being a musical entity, you think of him as being a visual entity, but his music was recorded very well. We were able to go in there and work with the music and pull sounds out of there that nobody even knew were there, but they were always there to begin with. Then you move on to Kate Bush’s “Hounds Of Love” — a wonderful title — so how do you come up with the idea to reissue Judas Priest? We’re trying to appeal to the broadest group of people we can. If we can get interest in what we’re doing from the fans of Judas Priest, then things move into the audiophile world. They look at us and say, “Oh, they have a Doors [reissue], they have a J. Geils on vinyl.” So it’s an introduction. We bring a Judas Priest fan in, and then we follow it up something like Asia. We can then follow that up with titles that are a little edgier than most of what we do.
GM: The 24 Karat Gold discs are numbered and limited to 5,000 pressings. Is that enough to make a CD collectable?
MB: It starts from the sound. It takes something like with Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book,” where, since its initial release, nobody has included the Braille with the album. We went to The Braille Institute and worked with them and had our printer do a special run with the Braille included, which we put on there. The packaging we do, we make sure we go back to the original; with the approval of the record company and the artist. And again, it’s the sound quality that we have. We have our numbering — we have people who collect the same number [of every release]. So it’s the combination of a number of elements that makes something collectable.
GM: The first Bad Company album on 24-karat gold disc sold out quickly. What’s been Audio Fidelity’s bestseller to date?
MB: That one was great. It was great, because it was only available to us for 9 months. When I went through Rhino/Warner Brothers and wanted to license it, they said, “We’d like to, but there’s only nine months left on the contract with us. After that we lose this title.” I said, “I’ll take it.” So part of the trouble was we told everybody about it and let people know that we have a nine-month window on this — if you’re going to buy it, buy it! And that caused a great feeding frenzy. People bought it, and when they listened to it, it was like, “Wow! I’m going to buy another one.” And at that time we weren’t limiting ourselves to [releasing only] 5,000 units. That’s been our biggest seller. We’ve had a number of titles sell 5,000 for us, so whether it’s Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” or The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like A Wheel” — those all sold 5,000. Once we get to 5,000, we just don’t manufacture a title any more.
GM: It’s becoming more challenging selling physical media to consumers. Where do you see Audio Fidelity five years from now?
MB: We are a niche within a niche. Our customers are willing to spend the time and money to find our product. I think as long as people look for quality — what we’re up against is mobility as opposed to quality, because it’s much easier to download a track, and that’s the way the world is going. We’re still making Rolls Royces; we’re still making Bentleys — that’s what we’re making. You can buy a Lexus or Infiniti, which are great cars, but there are always going to be people who want to buy a Rolls Royce or Bentley. That’s what we represent. The world is changing, but you can’t download one of our discs without losing some of the integrity and sound we put into it. If you want the very best, we’re still here.