Back when I was still a pretty little kid I remember my older brothers getting into high fidelity systems (the first "high end" amp we had in the house was a used Fisher 500 receiver). As my middle brother was into electronics, other amps 'n gear started popping up around the house along with all manner of emerging audiophile gadgetry: early tube amps, short wave radios, Advent Speakers, High Fidelity Magazine, Stanton 681 EE Cartridges, Watts' Parastat and later the Discwasher brushes... and so on...
My brothers and I (and some of my young friends getting into music) would go to audio stores to hear new speakers and soon found ourselves geeking out on the great sound we could get from certain records when played REAL LOUD! Edgar Winter's Frankenstein was an early fave with its super low end synthesizer break. But before Steely Dan's Aja arrived, the audio demo disc of choice which I remember hearing at many a HiFi store showroom was none other than Joni Mitchell's 1974 pop smash Court and Spark. Particularly, the second song on the album -- "Help Me" -- was always a first choice for a speaker or amp demo, with its still breathtaking-but-simple intro by session drummer John Guerin. Recorded drums had really never sounded quite so clear, realistic and in your face. That drum break still causes pause and brings you into the song like pretty much no other in pop music save for Hal Blaine's intro to The Ronette's classic "Be My Baby."
Recently my friend Johann reminded his friends on Facebook that it was the 44th anniversary of Court and Spark's debut this year. (Dang... time's a flyin'!) so I thought this might be a good time to explore whether that drum intro is still demo worthy on the few formats I have access to. And I have to explain that this process is admittedly and decidedly unscientific. I have two sound systems in different rooms with different capabilities, so all that will impact the ability to truly judge whether one format is "better" than another. However, having listened to these systems and this music a lot over the years, I can "hear" whether something is sounding good or if different anomalies are sneaking into the game. So please keep that in mind when you read this folks.
I started with a clean late 70s promotional copy of Court & Spark that I've had for years. Full and round, those tom tom hits resonate quite beautifully. As it is the second track on the record, the fidelity on that track is usually pretty fantastic. Unfortunately, the later parts of the album have always suffered especially as the record gets to the center of the disc. And this is particularly enhanced by the 70s-era pressing I have -- while I do like getting original pressings whenever possible there are often issues with vinyl from this period largely due to the oil crisis and cost-cutting measures many labels were employing at the time (recycled vinyl, etc.). One of these days I'll spring for the Rhino 180-gram reissue. But this issue is no doubt one reason that I own Court & Spark on CD!
COMPACT DISC / HDCD
The CD of Court and Spark is a pretty good one all in all -- I have the later HDCD version, which I can play back on my trusty old Oppo BD-83 (more on that in a bit) -- and in many ways a winner over the LP specifically with regard to inner-groove distortion of tracks. The intro to "Help Me" sounds pretty great although as I turn up the volume I am hearing the downside effects of what I have to assume is digital compression for the CD format when played on my budget line Sony BX37 (which I keep around as it lets me play SACDs and such in my office, not usually used for critical listening) as well as through my iMac (via a Mytek "The Brooklyn" DAC). Joni's big, strummy acoustic guitar sounds a bit plunky, as if you are hearing mostly the pick going across the strings and less of the resonance of the actual instrument. There is a some harsh edge around her vocals too which is not present on the LP and some of the studio presence -- if you will -- is reduced, comparatively. But as a demo disc, it will still push some air out of your speakers as those tom tom drum hits make the rounds.
All that said, when I took the same CD and played it on my Oppo universal player via my home theater living room set up, the HDCD layer was being decoded and it sounded really pretty great and noticeably fuller, closer to the LP sound. There was rich bass and mid range coming through and the music didn't all fall apart into harshness as I pumped up the volume. Also, I was hearing more of the studio environment -- that "presence" I mentioned earlier -- particularly around Joni's acoustic guitar. How do I know I was "hearing" the HDCD layer? Well, I made sure my TV screen was on while I was playing the CD and pressed the "display" button on the Oppo, which gives you more detail what is on the disc being played. In this case, the letters HDCD came up on the screen as it played.
Playing the "master quality" (MQA) version of "Help Me" (again, via my iMac, decoded by a Mytek "The Brooklyn" DAC), much of the harsher edge I heard while playing the standard CD layer is gone, replaced by simply a fairly intense level of brightness. Joni's guitar sounds more guitar-like, akin to the vinyl and those drum hits are super present. Streaming at 24 bits and 48 kHz (decoded to 192 kHz in the Mytek DAC) you can almost feel the flex of the drum heads as John Guerin makes the rounds of the tom toms. Its pretty neat!
So. now the big question remains: which version sounds best? Honestly, Dear Readers, I'm not going to "go there." Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses.
The vinyl version sounds very natural and overall warmer sounding to my ear -- I recognize it is a sound to which I'm personally accustomed. I'm playing back the LP on a Music Hall MMF 7.1 with a Goldring cartridge fed through a little Bellari tube pre-amp, so there is the trickle down effect of that processing impacting the sound. The vinyl is somewhat compressed as it probably had to be to keep the average mid-70s consumer stylus from jumping out of the grooves -- Court and Spark is overall a very high fidelity album! And then there is the aforementioned problem with inner groove distortion and such. I may try to get the Rhino reissues to see how that fares.
The CD gets a nod for convenience and because it lets me take the music in the car or rip it to my mobile devices -- plus having the ability to hear it in HDCD on my Oppo player makes this a keeper, at least until a higher resolution version comes my way. Maybe someday the HDTracks folks will find it in their hearts to send me the 192/24 version they have up there for review (wink wink, nudge nudge).
The Tidal stream is really quite good and I suspect that most average audiophiles (if there is such a thing) would find it very serviceable as long as you don't mind being tethered to your computer while listening. It sounds real good. If I was to listen to this album regularly via Tidal, I'd probably turn down the treble on my amp a tad as it feels almost too bright. That may or may not be an issue with Tidal. One of my concerns with any digital transfer is the actual source recording used and if an older LP master tape (ie. one that was optimized to compensate for vinyl's eccentricities) was used to create the high resolution transfer, well that might sound unnaturally bright. While I'm not a mastering engineer (I have done a lot of recording at home and in studios) I suspect that if you are listening to that version of the recording without the later-applied LP disc mastering processes to reign things in, things might sound extra sparkly, perhaps too much so. I'd love to hear a flat transfer of the true master tape sometime (some interesting discussion on that topic here on another popular forum for those interested in reading more about it).
And of course, I would really love to hear this album in surround sound -- there was a quadrophonic version out back in the day (I'll take mine on Blu-ray Disc, please, with high resolution stereo and bonus tracks 'n perhaps other goodies from the period).
So there you have it, a demo record from the past is still alive and well in the 21st Century! No matter which way you play it, Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark will certainly put your high resolution and stream-based listening to the test.