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Listening Report: Do You Need U2’s Achtung Baby On Vinyl?

Mark Smotroff re-considers a classic 90s era album with fresh ears…

U2’s classic early ‘90s album Achtung BABYis available widely now on vinyl.  Original pressings are still pricey collector’s items but there is a reason you might want to pick up the new 30th anniversary reissue which came out late last year.

I’m assuming it is based on the 2018 edition (which some of us, like me, missed). The new edition includes a bonus poster and a full-sized, full-color version of the booklet — so now you can see all the detail on the chessboard-like photo collage! The album is pressed on dark, well centered and quiet black vinyl which I’m assuming is a 180-grams thick. 

So all those basic reissue check points are fine and good. 

I’ve been re-immersing myself into Achtung BABY. first listening to my original CD in the car as well as the somewhat higher resolution 24-bit, 44.1 kHz streams on Tidal and Qobuz at home.  As far as I can tell from some searching on the Internet, basic tracks were recorded in analog (the wiki says it was done on one of the last Otari 24-track models) but there is no doubt that a fair amount of digital processing and editing went into its creation.

Also used was a DAT — a 16-bit digital tape recording format —  as well as a  controller which enabled sync with emerging digital audio workstations like Pro Tools. So it stands to reason that the album is effectively a hybrid production (which is not necessarily a bad thing folks).

There is no question about the album’s importance at the time and Achtung BABY remains a classic recording for U2. Some consider it their finest hour but that is a separate topic for debate elsewhere. I still love it and was pleased how timeless the music actually still sounds.  

So with streams available and used CDs plentiful, you may be wondering why you might need this album for your vinyl collection?

Well, quite simply, I’m finding the experience of listening to Achtung BABY more enjoyable on vinyl. I find that the warming effect of listening to the album through a pre-amp (I use a reasonably priced Bellari tube model) makes everything sound that much more sweet and richer. When I’ve listened on the streams and the CD, by the time I get to the second half of the album my ears and mind are a bit digitally exhausted. There is a lot going on musically and production-wise in Achtung BABY so having that additional warmth improves the album for me as an end-to-end listen. Breaking up the album into four sides gives the ears and mind some much needed breathing space as you pause to flip the sides.

I can’t help but think that the album was originally sequenced with vinyl in mind. Ending Side One with “One” is beautiful and haunting. Kickstarting Side Two with “Until The End Of The World” is like hearing another album beginning (which is how the best Side Two experiences often play out). 

Opening up Side Four with a song like “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” is a final burst, allowing the song to stand out on its own — vs. effectively being stuck at the end of the CD. The band then waltzes in high gear through the 6/8-time “Acrobat”driving toward the rich moody ending of “Love Is Blindness.”

Another nice thing about hearing Achtung BABY on vinyl is that I can turn it up pretty loudly on my amp with out the music hurting my ears (which happens with some recordings, particularly poorly mastered digital ones). I can’t say that about the 44.1 streams and the original CD. So, again, the vinyl warming effect is very helpful in managing the sometimes intentionally gritty textures which make this album a unique listen. 

Turn “Love Is Blindness” way up loud to get an idea of what I’m talking about…  Raw guitar sounds can be beautiful if they are handled properly. There are many nice amplifier tones and the ambiance of the studios Achtung BABY was recorded in coming through the speakers on this pressing.

I could go on but I think you get my point here. 

Going back to my original question in the headline: Do You Need U2’s Achtung Baby On Vinyl?

I don’t know about you, but I do! 

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