The notion of music playback formats -- and which ones might be better for certain types of music -- is something that has been on my mind again of late. And seemingly, its on the minds of others, based on comments I've read on social media. Is classical best served on CD or high resolution download? Does vintage jazz sound best played in its original monaural incarnation on old records and shellac 78 RPM discs? Does one digital version of an album sound significantly better than another? Can streams compare to physical media?
So many questions! And there honestly is no one "correct" answer. All are valid, dependent upon your personal preferences, tastes and quirks. For example, as much of a vinyl junkie as I am, one thing about the format that has always driven me a bit batty is the off-center pressed disc -- which for certain types of music can destroy the listening experience for me as it makes long held notes waver in and out of tune. Thus I "tend" to skew my listening of piano based recordings toward CD or high resolution downloads.
That's not to say I don't have my fair share of vintage classical and jazz piano recordings on LP -- I do! -- but, more often than not I also have said recordings on CD or better if it is a recording I love. Case in point: I own the five disc boxed set of Oscar Peterson's run at The London House in Chicago from 1964 because I love those performances and all the albums which came from it, especially The Sound of The Trio album which was culled from it. That said, I've not ever really found a genuinely great original pressing of that album so the CD is a really an essential spin for me. I have all of the original peak period Elton John albums on quite stunning SACDs (stereo and 5.1 surround mixes) in addition to original UK pressings of most of the same albums.
And so it goes... or at least, and so I go!
Recently, I picked up a new vinyl reissue of John Coltrane's classic jazz meditation A Love Supreme in a deluxe edition on LP with two extra discs of bonus tracks. That alone makes the set of interest to me as a fan of the album and the artist. But it got me thinking, well, which is "the definitive" version of this to listen to these days. I own the album in several formats including a mid 60s Impulse LP and the SACD. Plus with access to Tidal and the ability to stream in MQA format at high resolution, I thought this might be a good time to take a listen to each and see if I noticed any difference in the listening experience.
I will start this very loose "shoot out" style review with an important caveat that what I am doing here is very much an instance of audiophile "hair splitting" and my approach is decidedly un-scientific and purely subjective. The goal is not to achieve a definitive frame by frame comparison -- just here to give you some idea that there might be some differences in what you are hearing based on the format you are listening to, how it was made and how the music ultimately gets to your ears. So take this for what it is -- my opinion. Ultimately its about the music and if you like the sound of a particular album on your particular sound system, that is ultimately all that matters. That said, I did hear some differences, subtle though they may be.
Hearing A Love Supreme on vinyl long playing records is pretty much the benchmark for many listeners. And even though my copy isn't super mint, it is a relatively early pressing, probably from the late 1960s (on the red ringed border, Impulse label). It still sounds pretty great after all these years with that rich, round mid-range-y warmth and crisp but not annoying highs. A well balanced recording, some might say...
The SACD of A Love Supreme sounds quite good but is noticeably brighter, particularly on the drums and cymbals. Coltrane's saxophone takes on additional sharpness as well. McCoy Tyner's piano sounds real nice with a lovely sense of soundstage and positioning very much apparent. Elvin Jones' tom toms sound particularly alive on this version.
Wow, things get a bit confusing on this streaming music service when it comes to A Love Supreme as there are at least five versions of the album up there! Even for a completist geek like myself, this is a bit of overkill and it would be best served if someone at Tidal curated these recordings into one or two best/complete versions to make it easier for the average streamer to get their heads around all this music. I'm not going to look at the different bonus tracks and such; I'll just be commenting about the core original album. And for the purposes of expediency of writing up this review, I tried to listen about a minute and a half into the first movement on each version for the sake of creating an equivalent point of comparison.
CD QUALITY STREAMS (16 bit, 44.1 kHz)
A Love Supreme -- This one sounds pretty good, like an early CD of the basic album, everything is "there," but the music is displaying some of that crunchy digital flavor in the stream -- that is, it can sound harsh at times. The tom toms don't have much punch, until you turn up the volume a bit, bass is not quite as well defined. Coltrane's saxophone sounds a bit on the boxy side as well in this version.
A Love Supreme - Deluxe Edition -- This too sounds like an earlier CD of the album, perhaps a bit brighter (and to my ear a bit less enjoyable because of it).
A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters -- This version of the recording seems to be a bit quieter with a bit more dynamic range, tom toms sound better and the bass is more defined and audible on this version. Cymbals are comparatively a bit more subdued in the mix, so perhaps this one is -- in that regard -- closer to being "true" to the original version.
A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters (Super Deluxe Edition) -- This version is fuller sounding -- and even quieter -- yet still, with more acoustic bass sound apparent and the tom toms resonate more. Still less of that annoying digital feel on this recording. I'm guessing this version was made from a more recent mastering. Again, increasingly more true to the LP experience.
A Love Supreme -- This version is fuller sounding and like The Complete Master versions, it is a quieter stream so you have to turn up your volume. However, it basically sounds quite nice, again with warmer resonance on the tom toms. This version sounds closest to the SACD incarnation -- running out of the computer at 24 bits and 48 kHz but decoded to 96 kHz within the Mytek DAC I have recently started using (this is how MQA works, in case you are wondering). Coltrane's saxophone sounds warmest on this version.
The first problem I had with the new reissue of A Love Supreme : The Complete Masters is that my copy turned out to be badly warped, so it went back to the store. That said, even with the ugly warp the album actually sounded really very good all things considered. It wasn't unnaturally bright, a common issue I have with many a modern remaster. The standard weight vinyl is well centered and quiet and the records bear period accurate early 60s (orange target styled) Impulse labels. Actually, it sounded so nice that if I can get a better edition that isn't warped I might even consider replacing my 60s Impulse pressing.
This warp really is a shame since the package comes with a fascinating booklet that -- among numerous wonderful photos and essays -- reproduces Coltrane's original score for A Love Supreme so you can get an understanding of just how planned out this work was. There is no doubt a lot of thought which goes into creating great improvisatory music! But, the warp is one of the "Achilles heels" of the vinyl universe and thus it gets dinged a notch or three for that factor alone -- quality controls really need to be maintained, especially when someone is being asked to shell out upwards of forty dollars for an album. You can find the regular album reissued on LP in the twenty dollar range.
The big gaping hole in my A Love Supreme listening experiences -- some might call it the elephant-not-in-the-room -- is the realization that I no longer own a Mono copy of the album! I am not sure what happened to my copy but I'm quite sure I had one at one point-- it might have been purged when I downsized many years ago. I know that many prefer the Mono mixes so this is an important enough record to own in both incarnations to compare and contrast. I am adding that onto my shopping list for 2018!
Anyhow, as I indicated at the start of this exercise, there are no definitive answers here as each version has strengths and weaknesses. My old LP is well loved but still has a nice presence about it. The new reissue vinyl sounded good but the warp was a deal breaker (for now until I get a new copy eventually .... hopefully, not warped!). The Tidal streams were useful, and the MQA version sounds pretty solid, so if you like streaming and have a rock solid Internet connection, this might be a good option for you (I don't have a genuinely great Internet connection -- sorry Comcast -- so there were problems with tracks buffering fairly frequently).
All this does add up to a lot of options for music fans and audiophiles alike! I do hope that this gives some of you ideas to consider and explore on your own.
Let us know what your favorite versions of A Love Supreme are in the comments section below. We'd love to know...