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Listening Report: Elton John’s Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary Boxed Set Preview (Part 3: The Hi Res Surround Sound & Stereo Mixes)

Mark Smotroff wraps up his deep dive into a favorite album’s expanded edition…

Because of circumstances which will make more sense a bit later in this part of my listening report, I reversed the order of my review cycle. Beginning first with the live video bonus material on the Blu-ray (click here, in case you missed it), I then explored the demos and bonus tracks found on the compact discs found in Elton John’s Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary edition (please click here in case you missed that part of the review). 

The 50th Anniversary boxed set of Madman Across The Water includes three CDs, a Blu-ray Disc, commemorative poster and beautiful 100-plus page hardcover book

So, now… going back to the beginning…

The very first thing I did when I opened up the box for Elton John’s Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary collection — well, after fan-boy geeking out over the wonderful included poster and reading some of the beautiful, informative hard cover book telling the story of the album’s genesis — I took out my 2004 Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) version of Madman Across The Water and put it on as a reference listen. 

The 2004 SACD of Madman Across The Water

You see, that earlier SACD and the Blu-ray Disc in the new set both contain the wonderful multi-channel 5.1 surround sound mix crafted by audio engineer and producer Greg Penny. Beyond his work on smash hit albums for k.d. lang — and numerous tracks on Elton’s Duets as well as the entirety of Made In England — Mr. Penny created beautiful immersive mixes of most every of the “classic era” of Elton’s albums from the 1970s. Not all have (yet) been released but for the ones that did get released (most of the “classic” first run of albums up through Captain Fantastic) they are among my favorite surround listening experiences. They were all issued on the SACD format initially (save for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which also came out on the competing DVD Audio Disc format).

I am particularly fond of the Madman Across The Water surround mix and am excited that it may get a second chance to entice a broader audience. You see, apart from those early SACDs — a high resolution music platform (if you will) which was unfortunately caught up in the “format wars” competing against DVD-Audio Disc, resulting in stalled sales all around — as far as I know this new Blu-ray is the first appearance since then of the 5.1 mix on a modern and easily accessible audio format. 

The SACD of Madman Across The Water has long been a favorite demo disc for showcasing my living room “home theater” system to friends. Mr. Penny found an especially nice balance on this particular mix, presenting a natural band flavor in the upfront channels, yet delivering a very strong sense of immersion through the surround fields. He uses them tastefully, frequently for vocal harmonies, orchestral sections and even some percussion. It is a very musical and fun mix, yet not gimmicky.

Of course, crafting a great surround mix was aided by the fantastic raw material he had to work with: these exquisite productions by Gus Dudgeon with Paul Buckmaster’s brilliant orchestrations.  These recordings have always sounded huge even on vinyl and in a home theater setting they sound even bigger. The drums in particular are wonderfully engaging, sympathetic to the music and perhaps most importantly: rocking!

One of my favorite moments on the 5.1 mix happens early on in“Tiny Dancer” as the harmonies and strings come in from behind and envelope you in their richness. Listen for — and feel — the woody-acoustic mandolin and sitar chiming against the orchestral middle section of “Holiday Inn.”  The driving, churning haunting orchestral sections on “Indian Sunset” makes me tear up almost every time I hear it.

But for me the ultimate surround track on Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary — one of my “go-to” demos to show my friends how great the home theater experience can be when done well — is the second to last track, ”All The Nasties”

The song starts out with a hushed piano vocal introduction by Elton and as the song builds you start to hear more and more instrumentation build up in front of  — and around —you, the listener. Be sure to be sitting in the “sweet spot” of your listening area for this one, folks! 

When the second half of the song kicks in — a quasi Gospel revival moment with Elton comping simple repeating chords supporting a chanted melody line from a choir — the drums begin to make their presence known… and felt!  They are ginormous with some incredible full-drum-kit fireworks which will put your home theater speakers to the test. 

And each time I listen to this mix, I notice little details. This time I realized that the tambourine makes a wonderful circular spin around the room just as the song closes down! It is a sweet closing touch.

Sonics-wise, I am finding the Blu-ray an even more enjoyable listening experience than the SACD. This is probably in no small part due to Bob Ludwig’s 2016 remasters which were used for making this set. But I do wonder if the vibe I am hearing and feeling might also be due to how my Oppo UDP-203 Player processes the sound of SACD vs. Blu-ray. I’m not sure but something sounds a bit different. Subtle, but different. 

To my ear the Blu-ray Disc in the Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary super deluxe edition boxed set sounds a bit tighter and more focused than the SACD (and that is saying something as the SACD sounds pretty terrific!).  

Both mixes on the Blu-ray Disc in the set are offered in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity (PCM for stereo and DTS-HD for surround). The stereo mix sounds excellent of course, offering a nice shimmer of brightness yet decidedly rich and round. 

But I confess that I am particularly fond of the surround mix and it is my choice when I want to play the album on my home theater system.  

An Important Blu-ray Disc Update

I must point out that while reviewing this new set, early on I did notice one minor but significant mastering issue as well as an unfortunate production error on the Blu-ray Disc (hey, mistakes happen, folks). I reached out about this to Universal Music they have acted on it professionally and quickly, releasing a formal statement yesterday on social media which I’ve re-posted here:

Universal conveys their sincere apologies as we have discovered a problem with the super deluxe edition Blu-Ray for Elton John’s Madman Across The Water which is released on June 10. No other formats are affected and we will ensure the issue is corrected at no cost to you.

The 5.1 Madman Across The Water track featuring Mick Ronson on the Blu-ray is incorrect as it is the album version instead, which we will replace on the new disc.

We sincerely hope that this will not spoil your enjoyment of this beautiful 50th anniversary set.

Again, we offer our sincere apologies to everyone who has purchased the super deluxe edition CD set, and for the inconvenience it has caused. We are having the replacement Blu-Ray disc manufactured and it will be expected to ship early July.

If you have a Blu-Ray and want a replacement disc here is what you have to do: 

When you email OperationsSupport@umusic.com to request a replacement disc Universal asks that you include proof of purchase/ownership (sales receipt/email confirmation/screengrab/photo of you holding your box set etc). and please note that the replacement disc will ship in a plain white sleeve so please retain your existing sleeve.”

You can also click on the outlet names here to read Universal’s message as posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  

I have to send out much kudos to the team at Universal for responding so promptly on this, delivering a solid action plan for Elton’s fans. Bravo!

That said, you can certainly still play the regular album on the Blu-ray Disc which comes in the set and once the replacement arrives you’ll be able to rock out to Mick Ronson’s fabulous and ripping solo in 5.1 Surround and Stereo. 

Recorded during the Tumbleweed Connection sessions, this is a very different and particularly special version featuring this legendary guitarist whose name some of you might recognize from his time in David Bowie’s band The Spiders From Mars during his legendary Ziggy Stardust era. 

Speaking of that track, one interesting difference you should expect when putting on the Blu-ray version of Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary is how the tracks are presented on the disc: effectively, chronologically. So the track listing on that disc begins with that early Mick Ronson version of the title track instead of tagging it on at the end. I think this is a cool approach as it ultimately ensures the original album’s continuity as through-playing listening experience without spoiling the vibe at the end of the final track, “Goodbye.”  So, if you don’t want to hear the Ronson version and would like to just start with the regular album sequence, just skip forward one track and settle in for a great high resolution listening experience. Super simple.

Blu-ray Disc from the 50th Anniversary boxed set celebrating Madman Across The Water

It is worth noting for those who may have missed it, the Mick Ronson version of “Madman Across The Water” has long been available in stereo on Compact Disc via the 1992 Rare Masters collection and as a bonus track on the 2004 Tumbleweed Connection SACD, both in stereo and surround sound. It is also included on Compact Disc 1 of this new collection as one of the several bonus tracks included after the regular album. 

One last detail which will make owners of the SACD version of Madman Across The Water rejoice: the longer version of “Razor Face” will remain exclusive to that surround sound disc. The four-plus minute original album version is now in surround sound as well on the new Blu-ray Disc included in this set. However, there is a first time stereo version of the long take included as a bonus track on one of the CDs in this new collection. Got that? This is a little involved but it is ultimately a win win for everyone. Now more people will hear the longer mix and collectors will want to hold onto their original SACDs for that unique surround version of the song.

I hope you enjoy Madman Across The Water 50th Anniversary as much as I have. I still can’t believe that this mesmerizing album which I was given as a gift when I was just a little kid is now 50!  But, I’m also pleased that this music is enduring and continues to inspire new fans around the world. And now with this super deluxe set, this music is sure to be preserved in the widest possible variety of formats for future generations to discover and enjoy. 

Reproduction of the cushion Elton made from the original jacket used for the cover of Madman Across The Water (on sale at Elton’s website!)

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