It’s the time of year for saving money!
I am going to assume a few things for those of you reading this article:
a) You know who Led Zeppelin were…
b) You have some version of their 2003 release entitled How The West Was Won, probably on CD…
c) You probably never heard the DVD Audio Disc (DVDA) version of the album including the 5.1 surround soundtrack…
That said, I’ll just jump into the meat of my review here: the new Blu-ray version of How The West Was Won is a welcome reissue and a marked improvement over the original DVDA version.
Why? Well, first off lets talk specs: this particular DVDA was created at 48 kHz and probably 24 bits (my VLC player is showing it as 48/32!). It probably could have been higher but given the relative space limitations of the DVDA platform, that would likely stretch How The West Was Won into a three disc set which, I suspect, would have made the package prohibitively expensive for the times. The new Blu-ray version on the other hand delivers the same music in twice that resolution (96 kHz, 24-bits), and the storage capacity is big enough to handle all 18 tracks on a single disc. That jump in resolution and fidelity, as well as the new mastering, has been enough for me to transform How The West Was Won from a “listenable,” “archival,” “cool addition to the collection” type release to a genuinely “enjoyable” recording I know that I will want to play repeatedly. It sounds real good all things considered.
Maybe the experience will be the same for you…
When How The West Was Won came out on DVDA back in 2003, I had to search long and hard to find a copy and when I did I was generally pleased. A 48/24 DVDA was likely to sound better than a 44/16 CD plus it offered the music in 5.1 surround sound. But after initial listens, I never really went back to the album on any regular basis since it sounded simply “good.” Don’t get me wrong, the performances were (and are) pretty fantastic so it was cool to have, but oddly it turned out to not be an especially engaging experience for some reason. I remember some fans commenting upon its release that they had bootlegs which sounded better. While I’m not sure about that, I will say in retrospect — having gone back to listen to it with fresh ears — that there was indeed a harsh sort of edge to the original DVDA which probably made it less pleasant for me to listen to.
The new Blu-ray Disc version of How The West Was Won is pretty much a night and day experience, although the difference does not initially hammer the listener over the head. Like the original DVDA, this new Blu-ray offers up a mostly straightforward stereo mix presentation of the music (even in the 5.1 surround version as the surrounds are used mostly for concert hall / crowd ambiance). However, the overall sound of the recording on this new version is where this new Blu-ray Disc shines — it sounds so much warmer, rounder and rocking. It sounds like what a good, very natural well made live recording from 1971 or thereabouts probably should sound like. Again, the audio is presented in high resolution, 96 kHz / 24-bit 5., in DTS-HD Master Audio Surround as well as DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo and LPCM.
The differences became especially apparent as I turned up the volume on my amp. At least from my listening experience, when I pump up the volume on the DVDA version everything starts to get pretty harsh quite quickly, making it less enjoyable to listen to (and that is a problem with music like that of Led Zeppelin, which most people like to play with the volume control set to 11!). On the new Blu-ray version I was able crank up my home theater system pretty loudly — I’m in an apartment so I can’t rattle the neighbors too much! — and everything rocked but remained warm and punchy. This version of the album feels (if you will) more analog flavored than that sort of crunchy digital footprint I hear on the DVDA. How The West Was Won contains some prime Led Zeppelin performances, originally recorded by legendary producer/engineer Eddie Kramer at the LA Forum and Long Beach Arenas in the early 1970s. According to the album liner notes, these recordings were “mixed from the original multi-tracks under supervision and approval of Led Zeppelin.” The new mastering for Blu-ray Disc was supervised by Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page in 2017.
I always liked the acoustic mini set on this collection — “Going to California” and “That’s The Way” — and those songs sound particularly wonderful on this new Blu-ray release. Its as close as most of us will get to having a genuine Led Zeppelin “unplugged” set we can play in high resolution on our home theater systems. John Paul Jones’ electric Mandolin playing is super present as he plays off of Jimmy Page’s big dreadnaught acoustic guitar flat-picking.
There are several versions of How The West Was Won available to fans these days. There is a so called “super deluxe edition” boxed set which has the whole album on three CDs and four LPs plus a standard DVD for about $150. You can also buy the LP, CD and even a high resolution HDTRacks download version individually. From my vantage point however, the Blu-ray Disc version is the best value, containing the higher resolution form of the music and offering the most options for playback: there are DTS-HD Master Audio and PCM Stereo as well as Surround Sound versions on the single disc. The Blu-ray also delivers a fun array of concert photos from the period which appear on your viewing screen as you play the disc. Available for about $18 (heck, if you have Amazon Prime its under $16!), the package also includes a glossy-printed booklet with some spectacular live concert black and white photography of the band .
Not ready to plop down the bucks again for this one? Well, if you have a subscription to Tidal you can find this album streaming up there in master quality audio (MQA) format. What that means is if you have the right DAC (digital to analog converter) this stream will play back in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity. How does it sound? To my ear, and comparatively, it is quite bright and clean sounding, a more digital presentation than the Blu-ray Disc version (more akin to the sound on the DVDA version, actually).
So your choice of playback will depend on the kind of listening experience you are seeking.
Any way you choose, you really can’t lose on this one.