A little more than a year ago I visited my friend Mike, whose audio system is similar to mine. We both like vintage tube gear, and he has a matching Eico power amp and preamp. He recently had his mid-1980s AR turntable refurbished, and his CD player is a Yamaha CD-N500. We settled down to an evening of drinking wine and listening to music, most of it on vinyl. Mike’s is a great-sounding system, and he’s since made some upgrades, including a pair of Klipsch Heresy speakers. I’m eager to make the long drive to hear it again.
One of the records we played was The Duke, Joe Jackson’s tribute to Duke Ellington. I’d bought the CD and liked it well enough. I appreciated Jackson’s intentions, and thought the album was a respectful tribute that worked about half the time. But it never fully grabbed me -- until I heard it on vinyl. On LP, Regina Carter’s violin has more fullness, warmth, and natural sound, Steve Vai’s guitar tone is richer, and Sharon Jones’s voice comes out farther into the room.
When I got home and played the CD, I found that while I still liked it, it just didn’t move me as Mike’s LP had. So I was pleased when, for Christmas, he sent me a copy of The Duke on vinyl; listening to it, I discovered that I hadn’t just imagined the things I’d heard at his place. The LP has so much more depth and three-dimensionality that some tracks that didn’t quite jell for me on CD sounded transformed on LP. The electronic keyboards in the medley of “I’m Beginning to See the Light / Take the ‘A’ Train / Cotton Tail” sounded bland on CD; the sound had so much more structural depth on LP that I could hear and appreciate the complexity of the arrangement. The keyboards sounded less mechanical, more musical. It was now possible to hear how Jackson had developed and thought out the arrangements.
I’d respected Jackson’s affection for Ellington, and enjoyed many of the tracks on CD, but on vinyl it became a recording that I now like very much and play more often. It’s common for me to find that music I enjoy on CD, or even in higher-resolution digital formats, still sounds better to me on vinyl. It’s not always the case, and it isn’t always the transformative experience that I experienced with The Duke. But, usually, I’d rather listen to my favorite music on vinyl.
CD playback has improved dramatically since the introduction of the Compact Disc 35 years ago. In fact, it seems to improve every five to seven years -- about as often as computer technology does. Since a CD player is, in effect, a computer, that makes sense. In the last year I got rid of two disc players that were about that old, and their replacements, one of them a universal player, make CDs sound, to me, as close to analog as they ever have. They’re much better than the players they replaced, and those players were better than their predecessors. With CDs, it’s now possible for me to really hear the attack of the bass, the punch of the kick drum, the sustain of a crash cymbal. The soundstage is wider and deeper. Thirty-five years after Sony and Philips introduced the Compact Disc, its sound has finally comes close to the experience of listening to vinyl.
Bernie Grundman mastered Classic Records’ vinyl reissue of Time Out, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic, best-selling album of 1959 (Columbia/Legacy). He also mastered Analogue Productions’ SACD/CD edition. They’re sonically very close, but in the same way that switching from the CD to the SACD layer brings me closer to the music, turning then to the LP opens and expands it even more. Joe Morello’s drum solo in “Take Five” sounds deeper, more holographic -- as he strikes each drum, it’s easier to visualize its position in the kit. Brubeck’s piano rings out more forcefully, Eugene Wright’s double bass sounds more natural and resonant, and Paul Desmond’s alto sax comes out into the room, letting me hear his breath control more easily.
I received a lot of LPs for Christmas in 2016, including Joe Jackson’s terrific 2015 release, Fast Forward (Ear Music 0210650EMU). When I reviewed the CD for SoundStage! Access, I enjoyed both music and sound. The two-LP set (Ear Music 0210662EMU) was pressed on 180gm vinyl in Germany. Jackson recorded the album in four cities -- New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans -- in each city with a different group of musicians. Four songs from each city were released on a series of four EPs; the LP edition devotes one side to each city.
The CD sounds terrific, but on the LP I hear more air around the instruments, and more bottom-end punch. Graham Maby’s bass in the New York session has more attack, and each note is fuller, with longer sustain. Brian Blade’s brushes on snare drum in the title track are more focused and audible, and Jackson’s piano sounds larger and more impressive. His voice is more centered and out front, and it’s easier to hear the texture in it.
On vinyl, Blade’s drums are set off more in “If It Wasn’t for You,” and his cymbal splashes hang in the air longer. Bill Frisell’s guitar solo in “See No Evil” has more bite, and the background vocals at the close of the track are more layered. “A Little Smile” (Amsterdam) sounds just a little more lively, and Jackson’s piano is more driving. The strings in “Far Away” sound richer, and Stefan Kruger’s drums snap with more body and authority.
On vinyl, the music has more room to expand and deepen. Jackson’s voice in “So You Say” (Amsterdam) is more nuanced and warm, and his piano solo is more natural and sounds clearer. Earl Harvin’s drums in “Junky Diva” (Berlin) ring more sharply, and the reverb echoes more strongly. Overall, this track comes across more subtly on vinyl.
Fast Forward isn’t massively better on LP than on CD -- on either format, it’s a very enjoyable record. But in the small ways that bring me back repeatedly to a recording, the vinyl is the more enjoyable format. Markus Ehrlich’s tenor sax in “If I Could See Your Face” (Berlin) has more timbral detail, with less edginess. Stanton Moore’s drums in the New Orleans session sound impressively large on both formats, but more expansive on vinyl. The instruments in “Satellite” are more balanced on LP; on CD, they sound a bit too close together.
Last fall, when Linda and I visited our daughter in Washington, DC, we spent a day in Georgetown with her and found a great record shop that offered a wide selection of new vinyl. In visits to record shops I’d been trying to find LPs by the Tragically Hip, and was pleased that Hill & Dale had several. I’m a little ashamed to admit that in nearly 30 years of fandom, I hadn’t gotten around to buying any of the Hip’s albums on vinyl. Shame on me. I remedied the situation by picking up their 1991 album, Road Apples, in a 2016 reissue released through Universal Music Canada and pressed in the EU (probably in Germany, by Optimal). The vinyl is flat and quiet.
The album’s first track, “Little Bones,” is a great, snorting rock tune that never fails to get me up and dancing (provided no one else is around). The Hip opened with this tune the first time I saw them live, and it’s one of my favorite rock songs. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it on CD, but the first thing that jumped out from the new LP was Gord Sinclair’s bass playing -- it sounds stronger, more fleshed out, more viscerally powerful on vinyl, his rhythmic and melodic talents reaching farther out into the room. I’ve long considered Johnny Fay to be one of rock’s best drummers -- his feel for the backbeat rivals Charlie Watts’s -- and this pressing gives his drums more slam, force, and dimension.
The Tragically Hip are as adept at playing acoustic ballads as full-on rockers. “Fiddler’s Green” features beautifully understated slide guitar by Rob Baker and skillful acoustic guitar playing by Paul Langlois. The acoustic guitars sound warmer and more natural on vinyl, and more open. Fay’s percussion thumps harder, and Gordon Downie’s voice has more focus and realism. Small details, such as the sound of guitar picks sweeping across strings or the ringing sustain of an open guitar string, are easier to hear on LP.
I was so impressed with the vinyl edition of Road Apples that I put the band’s 1992 album, Fully Completely, on my Christmas list. “Fifty Mission Cap” is one of my favorite rock songs by any band. The snarling guitars have even more bite and depth on vinyl, and again, I was impressed by how much better Sinclair’s bass came across. His rolling lines have more body and sheer force on vinyl, and it’s much easier to hear how locked in he is with Baker and Langlois. Fay’s snare rings out like gunshots, and his kick drum moves more air.
In “Wheat Kings,” another stirring Hip ballad, the acoustic guitars are more three-dimensional on LP, with more resonance and realism; Baker’s acoustic leads and intervals behind Downie’s voice sound more naturally acoustic, and his dobro playing is more detailed and filled out. Fully Completely is a good-sounding CD, but as soon as I heard the guitars and thumping bass in “Looking for a Place to Happen” on vinyl, I was pleased to have another Tragically Hip album in my favorite format.
I’ve ordered the LP of Up to Here (1989), the Hip’s first full-length album, and will pick up Day for Night (1995), when it’s released on vinyl later this month. I’ve loved this band ever since I first caught them in concert more than 25 years ago, but I don’t know that I truly appreciated how good their records were until I heard them on vinyl. The things I love about them -- the roaring guitars, Fay’s fluid but stomping drumming, Sinclair’s inventive and powerful bass playing -- are so much clearer. And on LP, Downie’s voice is even more emotionally involving than on CD.
Listening to music is an aesthetic experience, and thus inherently subjective. When articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines talk about the return of vinyl, there are inevitably postings by people who think that people who listen to vinyl are in the same category as those who deny climate change or think the earth is flat. These posters believe there is no audible difference between CDs, high-resolution music formats, and even MP3s.
That’s fine. Plenty of people seem to get what they need from music through computer speakers and other lo-fi sources. Some of the life-changing experiences I’ve had with music -- e.g., hearing the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” or Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” on my parents’ clock radio -- didn’t require high-end audio. But for me, hearing that same music in higher fidelity is transporting, and it happens more deeply with vinyl.
Vinyl was pronounced dead 25 years ago; since then, many have assumed that it disappeared forever. Folks would be surprised when I told them I still bought new vinyl, and that new records were still being pressed. In fact, plenty of labels never stopped reissuing music on LP: Analogue Productions, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Sundazed, Classic Records, and others. Classic is now defunct (you can find their remaining stock at Acoustic Sounds), but the others remain, joined by newer reissue labels, such as Intervention Records. A few weeks ago, I read an article that projected sales of new LPs in 2017 to exceed 40 million units and $1 billion.
CD players are now very good and will continue to improve. There are lots of CDs in circulation, so even though sales are down, there are still reasons to keep making CD players sound even more lifelike. Universal players let me enjoy SACDs, FLAC files, and other hi-rez music. Yet the format I most enjoy -- the one that, for me, reproduces music with the highest accuracy and fidelity -- is based on a technology well over a century old. It looks like it’s here to stay.
. . . Joseph Taylor