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Rhino Records Quadio Blu-ray Round-up: Fine High Resolution Four-Channel Quadraphonic Mixes By Black Sabbath, America, Randy Newman, War, Gil Evans

Mark Smotroff explores great new quadraphonic, four-channel “Quadio” releases on Blu-ray Disc….

The new series of Quadraphonic reissues from Rhino Records make for a wonderful listening journey, allowing musical exploration of a past most of us never had the chance to experience. Digging deep into the archives of the vast catalogs of the once and former entity known as Warner Communications, this series includes four-channel releases from record labels such as Elektra, Asylum Atlantic, Reprise and Warner Brothers and, surprisingly,  music which originally appeared on the United Artists label.

For those of your reading who are unfamiliar with the term “quadraphonic sound” — or simply “quad” for shorthand — I’ll try to summarize it in an admittedly ridiculously condensed “big picture” manner. This technology was in essence the great granddaddy to what we now experience via Dolby Atmos, Apple Spatial Audio and 5.1 surround sound today (DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD). In the early 1970s, efforts were afoot to deliver music via four speaker sound systems. There were two different types of quad vinyl formats as well as Reel-to-Reel and even 8-track cartridge tape options!

While the effort was noble, the reality of achieving a good quad listening experience back in the day was cumbersome and ultimately problematic for the consumer. A major failure, after several years of attempting to establish the concept in the marketplace — coupled with an unnecessary format war between rival vinyl platforms — the early quad audio formats were effectively shelved, leaving an enormous catalog of titles which had been mixed into the four-channel format to languish in the vaults. 

Still, the concept was solid but it took decades before we started seeing some viable surround sound alternatives such as a DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD and more recently with Dolby’s expansive Atmos technology to enable it in the mass market.

Obviously, seeing opportunity given the increased buzz and interest from consumers with the surging growth of Dolby Atmos surround systems, Rhino Records has wisely reached back into its archives to bring some of these classic vintage quad recordings out of the vault and back into the daylight.  So far they have done a handsome job of remastering these ancient recordings from the heyday of early surround sound initiatives. All are transferred From the original half-inch four-channel masters and manufactured on Blu-ray Disc including 192 kHz, 24-bit high resolution Quadraphonic and Stereo mixes

I recently reviewed the fantastic, Rhino “Quadio” release of the 1974 Charles Mingus opus called “Mingus moves”. You can go to my review which ran last year by clicking here.

Each of these Quadio releases sell for about $25 — which is very very reasonable! — and you can get them by clicking on any of the titles in these reviews that follow and it will take you to links on Amazon or directly to Rhino’s website.  Following are some highlights of the new ones I’ve been checking out…

Black Sabbath: Paranoid

There have been numerous attempts at issuing a surround sound version of this seminal album by England’s legendary, goth-leaning proto heavy metal band, Black Sabbath. But, from everything I’ve heard thus far from hard-core fans, the results have been ultimately disappointing. I think the last one was issued on standard DVD so the fidelity was probably fairly compressed knowing how other DVD-based audio-only releases have fared for other artists I like such as Jethro Tull. 

So, I was especially intrigued and interested in checking out this Quadio Blu-ray Disc version of Paranoid. I have to say I really enjoyed it!  I will qualify all of this by stating upfront that I am not one of those aforementioned hard-core Black Sabbath fans! However, I have come to respect them over the years and certainly enjoy some of their music, especially from the first several albums. So my perspective may be a little outside of that of deeper fans. 

What I really liked about this presentation of the music is that it removes some of the dense, sludgy, murky sensibility I remember from listening to two channel mixes of the album.  The Quadio mix opens up the music a great deal, allowing those big overdriven, distorted guitars to flourish in the room. 

Ozzy Osbourne’s lead vocals sound great all around. There are some fun moments such as on “Paranoid” when the signature riff comes out from behind you at start (a similar production strategy is used for ” Electric Funeral”). ”Iron Man” is super cool with the robot voice and guitars panning around the room a bit.  “Hand Of Doom” has an neat ping-ponging of vocals at points. “Rat Salad” may well be my fave on the album for the massive drum solo which will put your rear speakers to the test!  Yes, the kick drum is hitting from behind! Hey, it was 1974 and Quadrophonic sound was new so anything was fair game. 

Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is a really fun mix in Quadio.

’Nuff said. 

War: The  World Is A Ghetto

This one was a surprise for me because back in the day legendary soul-funk band War was recording for United Artists Records, a label not affiliated with the Warner universe (at least as far as I knew). Obviously, through years of corporate conglomeration consolidation, they no doubt acquired the rights to their catalog. So it is quite wonderful that Rhino Records has issued this Quadio mix — a quadraphonic mix which frankly I never knew even existed!

Like the Black Sabbath album before this, one of my problems with War’s records on vinyl — at least as released here in the United States — has always been a sort of muddiness to the sound. United Artists’ records generally sounded a little flat in the 1970s across many different artists, frankly (not just War). There were exceptions along the way, such as Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die.

Anyhow, hearing The War Is a Ghetto in quad is quite a revelation again. The music sounds rich and full, the funky jams grooving like I’ve never really felt this music groove before. And I’m hearing all sorts of nice dynamics going on from the percussion and vocals and horn sections, and so on, and so forth.  This Quadio release is a strong one for sure!

Gordon Lightfoot: Sundown.

I’ve was curious as to how I would feel about hearing a folk-leaning pop record like Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown. Unfortunately, my expectations here kind of came true.  I’ve long wondered about the “why” of creating a surround mix of such a (for lack of a better word) traditional feeling album. Don’t get me wrong: the music is fine and it sounds great for what it is. The high resolution presentation of Mr. Lightfoot’s music certainly sounds more open than the stereo vinyl editions I have heard (and own).  But other than that, this is not exactly a “wow-gee-wiz” sort of mix that offers a rich new perspective on the music. At its root, Lightfoot’s music here is somewhat simple folk-based pop. This is one for the deep fans but not likely to become a demo disc for audiophiles.

America: Holiday

I was almost ready to question this album just like the prior Gordon Lightfoot Blu-ray. But then I remembered: a fellow named George Martin was producing the band at this point so I had hopes that the quad production might actually be interesting.  And it was/is!   America’s Holiday a rich listening experience, blending their CSN-like vocal harmony and songwriting styles with richer (and more British, frankly) orchestral ideas. 

As to whether you “need” this Quadio disc will come down to how much you love this music. Given it was a #3 hit here in the U.S. including two Top 10 singles (“Tin Man,” “Lonely People”) I suspect there might be a few readers out there who are into this group.  The album opening instrumental overture “Miniature” is lovely  and there is a really nice natural ambient piano on “Glad To See you.”  And when those big ELO-like strings envelope the listener at different points during the album, there are magic immersive listening moments for sure. 

Gil Evans: Svengali

This live “orchestral jazz” album by legendary composer/arranger — and noted Miles Davis collaborator on legendary albums such as Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain — has always been one of those recordings I’ve struggled to “get into” over the years. I wonder if perhaps part of the problem I have had with Svengali is that it was a very dense modern big band recording. Thus the prospect of opening up the music into the room across four channels was very appealing to me. And indeed, I think I enjoyed this album as a listening experience more than ever before via the Quadio Blu-ray version. The orchestral sounds are rich and full and having the music coming from multiple channels kept my attention and interest high. 

Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys

This Quadio release is one which may help me to reconsider this artist’s work. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of Mr. Newman’s music and certainly respect all he has accomplished over the years. But for some reason I’ve simply not connected with his albums as they often felt a bit… constrained somehow (and I say this purely from a mix presentation perspective).  

Well, putting on this Quadio Blu-ray Disc of Newman’s Good Ol Boys was a bit of a revelation!  The production, no longer limited to two channels breathes so much air in this lush four-channel presentation, I found it a night and day listening experience. I need to spend more time with this one but all that richness swells around you… the strings… the horns… the studio ambiance. I’m not 100-percent sure but I got the sense that I was hearing Mr. Newman’s physical pushing of the foot pedals on his piano at the start of “Mr President.” And those strings on “Louisiana 1927” are just beautiful filling in the room around and behind you. This is a pleasant surprise for sure!

I hope this helps give you some idea of what to expect without too many spoilers.  If you are interested, I have reviewed many other surround sound titles over the years here at AudiophileReview which you can find easily by searching for key words (ie. title, artist, format, etc.) on our home page.

Keep an eye on my posts here as I hope to review more new surround titles as they come out (and when I can get my hands on them!). 

[Mark Smotroff has been reviewing music at AudiophileReview for many years but can also be found at AnalogPlanet.com. In the past he has written for Sound & Vision, DISCoveries, EQ, Mix and many more.  An avid vinyl collector and music enthusiast who has also worked in marketing communications for decades you can learn  more about his background at LinkedIn.]

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