Wow... how do I objectively and fairly tackle reviews of these HDTracks downloads of the remastered original run of Led Zeppelin albums? I mean, here I am a fairly decent fan of the band from early on -- my older brother got the second album when it first came out, so Zep was part of the fabric of my musical youth / upbringing / landscape. I own all the albums, many of the solo recordings and side projects, choice live shows and such. Yet, I don't have any original UK pressings which to compare the the new HDTracks downloads; my US pressings are 70s vintage, but not especially remarkable.
Perhaps that is a good thing as I suspect a whole lot of you reading this are in the same boat: owners of the bazillion domestic copies sold around the world.
Well, lets see how things play out; for the purposes of this run of reviews, I will start at the beginning...
This eponymous album by Led Zeppelin is renown as the birthplace of that remarkable swaggering balls-to-the-wall sound that stepped up the rock and roll power-trio game in a most significant way. Led Zeppelin was arguably the most powerful electric blues sound on record since the debuts of Hendrix and Cream just a couple of years prior. Part of this sound had to do with Jimmy Page's rip-snorting blues guitar playing and Robert Plant's thunderous shout-down-from-the-heavens, angel-on-a-bourbon bender vocalization.
However, the unsung heroes that really made Led Zeppelin stand out were arguably the rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham.
And it is Bonham's drumming that jumps out at me most in listening to the HDTracks download of the first Led Zeppelin album in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity. Here you can really get a great sense of the feel of his drum kit, from the flare of the drum stick hitting the drum heads to the rush of air flying from the kick drum heads (as picked up by the microphones in the studio). There is a great room sound on this recording and you can really feel the tone of his tom toms and kick drum.
The guy had quite a foot!
Its quite a recording. So much so, that even when you turn up the volume on my original LP pressing you get all that room presence too, albeit with a bunch of mid-70s vinyl surface noise.
Curiously, some sibilance that I thought was on my LP is actually on the master tape.... I guess its just the way Robert Plant rolls off his "s" sounds and how the microphones picked up that detail.
One thing that the HD tracks showcases is the subtle dynamics of Jimmy Page's playing, such as on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" where you can more readily notice how he is playing softer at certain points on the acoustic intro, playing sympathetically off of Robert Plant's passionate vocal.
The real proof in the pudding for me on this HDTracks download is how the album sounds when played at both quiet and loud volume levels -- and I'm happy to report that it sounds great both ways! Particularly as I turn up the volume, I am not getting any sort of ear bleed from overly processed digital sound. There is a warmth of the analog tape in there even. The punch of John Bonham's kick drum on "You Shook Me" is just monstrous. When John Paul Jones' organ and Robert Plant's harmonica solos kick in, the sound is a bit more biting on the HDTracks version vs. the slightly more tempered LP copy I have; that is hardly a deal breaker. Jimmy Page's solo sounds tremendous there and -- reassuringly -- some distortion that I always felt was probably on the LP is actually the master tape.
With all this I will say that the original vinyl pressing still sounds remarkably good and that is a good thing for HDTracks since this high resolution download sounds pretty true to the feel of the original LP. Perhaps if my DAC (an audioengineD1) had some tubes or fancier processing in it, the 96/24 files would warm up more along the lines of how my Bellari Tube pre-amp warms up the LP sound... I don't know.
Is one version better than the other? I can't say for sure. I do know that this HDTracks version of the first Led Zeppelin album sounds real good overall and seems to be a good option for many of us who already have halfway decent vinyl pressings but would like to hear the new Jimmy Page remasters without taking up loads more space in our collections.
The download comes with a bonus of a pretty wonderful sounding (all things considered) live concert from 1969 in Paris. The live show is notable a fine performance and fairly good soundboard quality sound which -- from what I've been able to ascertain from the Interwebs -- was originally broadcast on the radio back in the day. It is not quite a monitor mix as it has a fair amount of room ambiance in there, so the recording is quite enjoyable as vintage live recordings go. It is very cool to hear early versions of songs that would appear on Led Zeppelin II, such as "Heartbreaker" and "Moby Dick."
All in all, this is a solid release. My only gripe is one I have had with many other HDTracks releases in the past -- they really should include the booklet one would get with the CD in package as a PDF.
This a pretty essential HD Tracks download to get if you are a Zep head.
Next time we'll look at the HD Tracks download of Led Zeppelin III ...
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.