- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 May 2019 01 May 2019
Every so often, I post to my Facebook page my opinions on audio- and music-related subjects, to see what others think. For example, on March 27, 2019, I uploaded an image of the cover of AC/DC’s album Back in Black (1980) and wrote: “Is it only me who thinks that this is one of the best-recorded rock albums of all time?”
I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one. Within seconds, many others chimed in, either to simply Like my post or to add their own remarks. From Rich Maez, of Boulder Amplifiers: “We have hi-res files of that album at the factory. It’s a regular demo piece for those that want to hear rock in our big sound room.” From Rune Skov, of Gryphon Audio Designs: “It is not just well-recorded, it’s a freaking good album.” Audio Research’s Aldo Filippelli supported me with “Agree 100%!” Audience’s Lenny Mayeux wrote, “I do too.”
Then, in his review of Meze Audio’s Empyrean headphones, published April 1 on SoundStage! Solo, Brent Butterworth referenced track 2 of Back in Black, “Shoot to Thrill.” I was startled -- Brent had never mentioned the album in a review before. He went on to say that the Empyreans brought out “contrasts” that he “didn’t even realize were there,” then said: “Back in Black represents a careful layering of sounds rather than the undifferentiated, stampeding sonic mass I thought it was.”
Back in Black is seldom the first album to come up when most audiophiles talk about good recordings. I think it deserves better. After all, a great hi-fi system should be able to reproduce music of any genre with ease, and this classic heavy-metal album from 1980 is an ideal example of its genre. Its raw power and energy will tell you if a system can really rock, and its clear-as-day sound of a real band in a real room can tell you things about soundstaging, positions of aural images, and even image sizes -- just listen to that drum kit.
As a result of the responses to my Facebook post, I did a little more research, which led to an interesting test -- a test that could lead to more tests, not only for Back in Black but for other well-known recordings.
Back in Black: background
Although I was familiar enough with the music on Back in Black when I made that Facebook post, I knew little about how the music had come to be, other than that the band was from Australia, and that this album, their sixth, was the first to feature new lead singer Brian Johnson, who replaced Bon Scott after Scott’s death on February 19, 1980.
I learned from Wikipedia.org that Back in Black was recorded at Compass Point Studios, in Nassau, Bahamas, in April and May of 1980, and released on July 25 of that year. Jeff “Mutt” Lange produced the album. Apparently, “the area was being hit by several tropical storms, wreaking havoc on the studio’s electricity.” Still, “The general attitude in the studio was optimistic. Engineer Tony Platt was dismayed, however, to find the studio’s rooms were not sonically complimentary to the group’s sound, which was designed to be very dry and compact.” You’d never know that the power was out for some of the time, or that those rooms were a problem -- the album sounds great, and Back in Black has sold incredibly well: so far, more than 50 million units worldwide.
I looked up the album on Discogs.com, and was amazed at how many times it’s been issued: on LP, cassette, CD, even HDCD and 8-track -- more than 300 editions. And, as I learned later, even that number is apparently incomplete.
From what I could see on Discogs.com, the original releases in 1980 were on LP, cassette, and 8-track. The first CD versions didn’t show up until 1985. (The Compact Disc was introduced to North America in March 1983.) If Discogs.com’s list is correct, the first remastered version appeared in 1994, on Atco Records. It was done by Ted Jensen at New York City’s Sterling Sound, purportedly from the original master tapes. It’s hard to tell how many subsequent remasterings there have been, but I’ve learned of one more -- in 2003, by George Marino, again at Sterling Sound, and again using the original masters.
The most obscure finds on Discogs.com were of HDCD versions of Back in Black produced in China in 2002 and 2006, respectively from Elektra and Universal. The catalog number for the 2002 version is 7567-02-1206, which doesn’t strike me as odd, but the 2006 catalog number is listed as DSD-1541. DSD is the recording format used for the high-resolution tracks contained on Super Audio Compact Discs, the format jointly developed by Sony and Philips Electronics. Is the 2006 edition an SACD? No idea -- nor could I find online any other information about either of these releases.
Based on Discogs.com’s information, the highest-resolution digital editions of Back in Black still readily available all seem to be CDs. To be sure, I checked HDtracks.com, where I found other AC/DC albums, but not Back in Black. (However, Rich Maez’s comment on my Facebook post still piques my interest about what they’re listening to at Boulder.)
Seeing all those CD versions, I began wondering which version I owned. But when I found its slot in my CD rack, it was gone. I have no idea where it went. So I added one more unit to the album’s 50 million by ordering the 2003 remastering from Amazon Canada ($10, free shipping). (Ten bucks is a pittance to pay for a CD. When I began buying CDs in 1986, they cost $15 to $20 USD apiece. Today’s $10 is only $4.33 in 1986 dollars.) As you’ll find out below, it was a good thing I bought the new one.
As I waited for my new CD to arrive, I petitioned some of our writers by e-mail to find out what they think of Back in Black. During ensuing discussions with them, I thought of a listening experiment we could do. Since many of us owned a copy of the album, I figured it would be fun to find out if they all sounded the same -- and, if they didn’t, what the differences might be, and which version might sound best of all.
Four of our guys were game for the test: listening to seven different editions, all ripped from CDs to WAV or FLAC files. Five writers provided one edition each, and I provided the other two, both from my new CD: a WAV and a FLAC version, to see if anyone thought the two file types of file ripped from the same disc sounded different. (Not everyone who supplied a version of Back in Black took part in the listening test, and not everyone who listened supplied a disc.)
A fly in the ointment was that not all seven versions of the album were ripped on the same computer with the same software -- a limitation I couldn’t overcome at the time. I also had four reasons for not swapping the various CDs in and out of a CD player: 1) Aural memory is short, and swapping consumes valuable time. 2) Sourcing two or more identical, high-quality CD players isn’t as easy as it once was -- fewer companies make them today compared to ten years ago. 3) None of our writers has a CD transport or player of the same caliber as his external DAC, so we’d be compromising what we hear. 4) The discs would have to be ripped to files anyway, to do the technical analyses I wanted to do (see below).
Our four listeners were: Gordon Brockhouse, Brent Butterworth, Diego Estan, and Aron Garrecht. Each listened to all seven versions on his own system, whose sound each was, of course, most familiar with. I labeled the versions V1 through V7 -- only I knew which was which.
At that point in the test, other than the CD I’d just bought, I didn’t concern myself with learning about the provenance of each version of Back in Black used in the test. I didn’t want any input from me to affect their listening impressions, and rather than run the risk of letting something slip, I figured it would be safer if I just didn’t know. Instead, I waited until the results were in to do my background searches. I also did no critical listening of my own -- I was too close to the preparation of the test to be assured that something wouldn’t bias me. All in all, it was as “blind” a test as I could make it with any sort of convenience.
Here’s what each writer heard . . .
I primarily used “Hells Bells” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” for my comparisons. I was able to eliminate options V3, V5, and V7 pretty quickly. Even with the levels of all versions matched, these three sounded flat by comparison.
V1 sounded pretty good: fast, crisp, punchy bass; cymbals pretty well defined without sounding splashy; background noise slightly higher than what I’m used to.
V2 had the highest levels of background noise, and the sound was a hint brighter yet less defined than V1.
V4 had more of everything: punchier bass, better-defined images, more depth, more dynamics, better focus, but perhaps a wisp more coolness. It was like turning up a TV’s Contrast control -- but I still liked it.
V6 had, by a smidge, the least background noise -- the sound was clean, and images were tightly defined. V6 was very similar to V4, but a hint more polite -- it was probably the best-sounding version, if not quite as fun to listen to as V4.
I’m intimately familiar with this album. It was one of the first CDs I bought, back in the early 1990s, and I own it on vinyl. I focused on “Hells Bells” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”
The first difference I noticed was in average volume level: V1, V2, V4, V6, and V7 were louder than V3 and V5. I’m sure that my CD, an original non-remastered version, was V3 or V5. Although I didn’t perform a digital analysis of the files to ascertain average volume, I did try to play each version at the same volume, using as a reference my own perception of the vocals. I estimated the difference between the louder and softer versions to be 5 to 6dB.
I first focused on V3 and V5, going back and forth between them several times, carefully listening to the bass, midrange presence, treble, imaging, detail, etc. I repeated this process on more than one day. Eventually, I concluded that V3 and V5 were identical.
I then listened to V1, V2, V4, V6, and V7, repeating the comparisons described above. I concluded that they were all identical to each other except for V7, which seemed subtly different (see below).
Next, I compared one of the apparently identical louder versions (V6), which I assumed was a remastering, and one of the softer versions (V3), which I assume is the original release. I adjusted the volume by 5dB each time I switched between versions. After laboring over these a while, I concluded that the only difference was that the louder version (V6) had a bit more bass. Kick drums sounded fuller, with more volume and slam. I welcomed this change, and overall thought the louder versions -- V1, V2, V4, V6 -- were more enjoyable to listen to.
A few days later, I compared V6 and V7, this time with “Back in Black” as the test track, trying to pin down that “subtle difference” in V7 I’d heard earlier. As already noted, the volume levels of V6 and V7 seemed identical, so I left the volume unchanged as I went back and forth several times, quickly alternating versions. Though the differences were indeed subtle, I felt that V6 had slightly deeper, punchier bass than V7, and presented a bit more detail and layering in the rhythm guitars.
Conclusions: V1, V2, V4, and V6 are identical, and were my favorites overall.
My setup was an Apple Mac Mini running Audirvana 3.2.16 via USB into an iFi Micro iDSD DAC and headphone amp driving HiFiMan Edition X V2 headphones. I turned off upsampling in Audirvana so that I was listening to the unprocessed 16-bit/44.1kHz files.
I listened to “Hells Bells” and “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and my impressions were pretty consistent with both tracks. V3 and V5 sounded flat, compressed, and uninvolving. My favorite was V6 -- it was lively and dynamic. V4 was a close runner-up, with V2 and V1 not far behind. V4 sounded a bit sharper, more dramatic than V2. Is there a little dynamic compression going on in V2 and V1?
V7 was an interesting case. It wasn’t as dramatic or as engaging as V6 and V4, but was a bit smoother and easier to listen to. (But is that what you really want with this music?) I’m not sure where to rank V7.
I rarely listen to Back in Black, or most other rock/metal albums, through a high-end audio system, so I decided to listen to it through a merely good system: a Schiit Audio Fulla 2 DAC-headphone amp driving Direct Sound Serenity II headphones, which have a flatter frequency response than most headphones. (They’re adapted from a model originally designed for musicians.) I listened to two cuts: “Shoot to Thrill” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” The results with these tracks differed a little, but there was enough consistency for me to pick favorites . . . and least favorites.
I immediately dismissed V3 and V5, because they were mastered at relatively low average levels that wouldn’t have been unusual in the 1980s or early 1990s, but now sound feeble compared with more modern masters that take advantage of digital’s full dynamic range. The Fulla 2 had enough juice to get these tunes playing loud through the headphones I chose, but the amp built into my laptop couldn’t get them cranking even when I raised the volume to “100.” I soon dismissed V2 (along with V3 and V5) because it sounded more dynamically compressed than the best versions, its treble seemed duller, and its bass seemed a bit more bloated.
Four of the versions let Back in Black sound like it’s supposed to: so kick-ass that it seems as if it might burst right out of the headphones. For me, V4 emerged as my favorite overall because it had a little more top-end sparkle and depth than the others, which gave the music just a little extra edge and made the reverb seem more apparent. V1 and V6 were similar to each other, and right up there with V4 -- both sounded slightly more tonally neutral than V4, but weren’t quite as lively or as involving for me. V7, too, sounded good -- much like V4, but perhaps with a somewhat more compressed, less punchy sound.
Even with only four listeners, some obvious trends emerged. One was that V3 and V5 were eliminated by everyone, with Diego Estan saying he thought they sounded identical. I didn’t have the V5 disc here to check its origin, but I did obtain the V3 disc, from Diego, who’d already supplied it as FLAC files. His CD’s catalog number is A2 16016, which I was able to find on the Discogs.com listing -- a 1987 pressing released in Canada. V5 came from Jason Thorpe, who, like Diego, is also Canadian. These, too, were FLAC files, but Jason had long lost his original disc, as I did, so we were unable to verify its details. But having heard them, it’s not hard to believe that Diego’s and Jason’s versions might be the same.
Diego’s version (V3)
Most consistently ranked at or near the top was V6, which came from me -- the FLAC files from my new CD of the 2003 remastering that I’d ordered from Amazon. Its catalog number is 80207, which shows up numerous times in Discogs.com under different countries and labels -- either Epic and Albert Productions, or Columbia and Albert Productions. But there’s a discrepancy: The back cover has a sticker that says “Made in USA,” which I thought should’ve pegged it to the single US Discogs.com-listed release. But it didn’t: Discogs.com lists Epic and Albert Productions as the labels, whereas the back cover of my copy includes logos for Columbia, Albert Productions, and Sony Music -- it doesn’t match up exactly. I suspect it’s some sort of Canada/US hybrid not listed there. Another listing to add to Discogs.com?
Doug’s version (V1 and V6)
Two other notable mentions were V4 and V7 -- both fared well, with Brent putting V4 right at the top. Diego essentially had V4 at the top, too, because he thought its sound tied with V6, V2, and V1. Gordon and Aron seemed to put it in second place. I’d gotten V4 from Howard Kneller as FLAC files. It, too, is the 2003 remastering, also with a catalog number of 80207. It should be identical to mine, but its cover art is different: the labels listed are Epic and Albert Productions, which precisely matches the Discogs.com description of the US release. Is it possible that my new version really is a little different from this one? Or has the ripping itself made a difference? For now, it’s impossible to tell.
Howard Kneller’s version (V4)
V7 comprised WAV files ripped from an Australian CD by SoundStage! Australia’s Edgar Kramer. This was a 1994 remastering -- the only remastering of that era in the test group -- which we could tell based on the information printed on the CD’s back cover. However, its catalog number is 7243 8 23966 2 8, its release year 1997. Neither the catalog number nor the release year match the Discogs.com entries exactly. Another entry to add?
Edgar’s version (V7)
V2 kind of got lost in the shuffle, ranked somewhere in the middle by all four listeners. These were FLAC files sourced from Aron Garrecht’s CD, a 2003 remastering, catalog no. 80207, like mine and Howard’s. But its label symbols are Epic, Albert Productions, and Sony, meaning that, again, it’s a little different from both of ours -- and everyone thought it sounded different, too!
Aron’s version (V2)
Finally, the comments on V1 were interesting because this version also came from me -- the same disc as V6, but ripped as WAV, not FLAC files. No one ranked it poorly, but only Diego thought it sounded the same as V6, and the other three didn’t include it in their top two. Interesting enough for further exploration, to find out if there really is a difference.
Audiophiles have typically favored WAV because it’s uncompressed, whereas FLAC is compressed, but losslessly. Many people, including me, believe there should be no difference -- once decompressed, the bits sent to the DAC are identical. However, those who hear a difference think that decompressing FLAC files somehow degrades sound quality. In this test, FLAC came out unanimously on top, which should leave people on both sides of the fence scratching their heads -- as I am.
All in all, from this four-listener sampling, I think it’s safe to conclude that both remasterings improve on the original release, with George Marino’s of 2003 favored over Ted Jensen’s of 1994 every time.
Further tests . . .
My next step is to further explore five of the versions: Diego’s 1987 version (V3), since it’s representative of what was released so far back; Edgar’s 1994 remastering (V7), because it’s the only one that demonstrates what that first remastering sounds like; my FLAC (V6) and Howard’s (V4) versions, because they were said to sound the best; and my WAV version (V1), because three of four writers said it sounded different from the FLAC (V6), when theoretically it shouldn’t.
The first step will be to look at them all technically, using a music-file editing program such as Audacity, to see how they vary in terms of loudness, dynamic range, and whatever else we come across that might help us better understand the differences we heard. With Diego’s and Edgar’s versions, the technical differences should be profound compared to the 2003 versions, since they come from different eras and had different masters. But why the three versions of the 2003 remastering -- particularly the WAV and FLAC versions (V1 and V6) I made from the same disc -- sounded different to our listeners is even more intriguing, and needs to be explored.
Then, if our writers aren’t yet sick to death of Back in Black, I’d like to relisten to all or some of this subset to determine if they still hear the same differences. This time, however, I’ll rip all the files using the same computer, to rule out any variability there.
Will repeated hearings repeat the differences already heard? Time will tell, but feedback from our writers indicates that they enjoyed this test, and not because every one of them is a fan of Back in Black; instead, they were intrigued by the differences they heard. Some of us would like to expand these tests to other recordings. Gordon Brockhouse suggested that we might next try a Beatles album.
Good news for Back in Black fans -- cheaper and better
For consumers, the most interesting thing to come out of this test is that the current CD edition of Back in Black, readily available for a low price, also seems to be the best sounding -- instead of some obscure, out-of-print pressing you’d have to scour used-record stores, pawn shops, and yard sales to find. And who knows, we might yet find some amazing version that sounds even better, or another remastering will improve on everything done before -- maybe next year, for the album’s 40th anniversary. But right now, the best-sounding version of Back in Black can be had for far less, in real dollars, than it cost when first released -- good news for fans of AC/DC’s classic album. Try it in your system to hear for yourself -- and when you do, if you have a different version that you think sounds even better, let me know. The testing isn’t over yet.
. . . Doug Schneider