Most every audiophile worth even a little bit of his or her salt will knowingly and often quite emphatically assure you if asked that picture disc LPs typically deliver some of the worst sound reproduction. This is due to the nature of the medium, which is effectively a printed paper picture wrapped in clear plastic / vinyl medium onto which the grooves are pressed.
Originally developed mostly for novelty and kiddie records in the 1940s and 1950s (there are some dating back even earlier!), by the time the first "modern" picture discs appeared on the market in 1970, audio gear had improved to a point where it was very easy to hear the difference between picture and standard black vinyl LP editions,. Even on modest gear.
Indeed "the" first rock picture disc put out by Warner Brothers Records to promote the album Air Conditioning by progressive rock band Curved Air, is noisy to the point where its almost unlistenable. I have a copy and can assure you it sounds genuinely not good (I'm being kind here).
But... but... but...
However, Air Conditioning remains one of the coolest looking picture discs, ever, so it remains a popular collector's piece in some circles.
All this raises the "what if" question as to whether it might be possible to make a picture disc that sounded at least respectable in its reproduction of the recording in question, or in an optimal world, one that sounded genuinely great? Well, that may be the case with the Record Store Day edition of David Bowie's 1970 hard rock proto-glam classic The Man Who Sold The World.
Now, you may wonder why in the world I would buy a picture disc in the first place? Well, you see, this Bowie album is a curious fish in the world of record collectors given that it has had four -- count 'em 4! -- different covers over the years and around the world. The original U.S. covers on Mercury featured a neat cartoon drawing, later replaced with a more Ziggy Stardust-flavored image when the album was reissued on RCA Records (the label Bowie switched to in 1971 as his stardom ascended). In the UK, Bowie appeared in a dress, lounging on a Victorian era couch for the cover of the same album, sporting gender bending (for the times) long flowing blonde locks of hair. In Germany, the album sported a very surreal drawing featuring a sort of flying hand about to flick away the planet earth -- with Bowie's face emerging from the wrist area.
And here's the rub, kids: it sound pretty freakin' great!
The disc is dead quiet. The grooves are well centered. And, most importantly, the music sounds terrific, with great separation, crisp highs and warm welcoming lows and mid-ranges. It really surprised me!
This disc is a European pressing so it stands to reason that it might well sound better than even my original orange label RCA US pressing (on Dynaflex vinyl) -- I don't have a UK or Germany original pressing to compare it too.
But I didn't expect it to sound this much better given it is a picture disc.
I can speculate why:
-- Perhaps the (likely) 180-gram black vinyl center provides a more stable surface for the picture images to be attached to and thus creates a more better sounding disc when eventually pressed...
-- Perhaps there is a new process whereby images are printed directly to the vinyl center instead of bonding pre-printed paper to it, removing a source of the noise floor common to most picture discs from the 1970s onward...
-- Perhaps a thicker clear vinyl outer layer enabled more accurate groove creation and thus reproduction upon playback...
But... I don't really know for sure.
However, it is kind of undeniable that this picture disc sounds better than any picture disc I have ever heard!
Now, I'm not suggesting that you trade in your spiffy import and Mobile Fidelity pressings for something like this. Yet, it is kind of encouraging to think that possibly -- just possibly -- you can have a little visual fun with your LP purchases, buying discs that sound as good as they look.
Rad concept, eh?
Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World picture disc is indeed a pretty rad thing, so don't hesitate to buy one if you can find it. It can be a fun addition to your collection that will sound as cool as it looks!