Its very curious how time can alter your perspective on things.
An audiophile recording which once knocked your socks off back in the day might sound lame today with 20/20 hindsight. Adventurous music that blew your mind in ’69 (or ’79 or ’89 or ’99 depending upon your age bracket) now sounds remarkably tame with your more experienced ears. Music you once loved now might make you cower in shame now that you have moved on to more advanced sounds (unless, of course you are like me and you wear your Archies’ T-shirt proudly!)
So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I pursued a deeper look back into an old favorite from the nascent days of 5.1 surround sound: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. When this came out in 2003, I really liked it and in particular loved the bonus outtakes and session tracks (the “Unreleased Backgrounds” version of “Don’t Talk” is one of my favorite super quick demos to show novice listeners what Surround Sound is roughly about. Its very immediate). But I admit that back then I was somewhat new to the world of surround sound and was soon to learn just how amazing the format could sound given the right combination of dynamic well recorded music and adventurous mixing technique.
Recently, in the world of social media, I read some grumbles from certain music and audiophile types (particularly on the very active music groups within Facebook) about how awful the old DVD Audio version of Pet Sounds sounded in its 96 kHz, 24-bit 5.1 surround sound mix. Many still liked it for the 192 kHz, 24-bit presentation of the Mono and Stereo mixes. But they were harshing on (if you will) the 5.1 mix saying it sounded fairly wonky (for lack of a better phrase).
Now, I admit that I hadn’t been willing to splurge for the recent Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Box Set — which contains a new Blu-ray Disc version of the 5.1 mix — for numerous reasons. Mostly because I already had most of what was on the set and was up until now fairly content with the DVD Audio version of the surround mix.
Intrigued however, I wrote to the folks at Universal Music which owns the Capitol Records era Beach Boys recordings and explained the scenario. They kindly sent me a reference Blu-ray Disc from the new set to explore, compare and contrast and possibly review here on Audiophilereview.com.
The good news is that while much of the disc is the same, there is a noticeable difference in the sound on the Blu-ray Disc version of the surround sound mix. It sounds a bit warmer, a bit fuller, with less of the angular, periodically harsh digital edges that are apparent to me now, comparatively.
Again, 20/20 hindsight…
I do not have any sort of scientific reason for this difference, which has been the stuff of much speculation from what I’ve been able to ascertain from the Interwebs. I’ve read some suggestions that it was a mastering problem plaguing the DVD Audio Disc version. Perhaps some odd manufacturing anomaly impacted that portion of the music files contained on the disc. Some have suggested that front and rear channels were switched on some tracks (which is harder for me to grok since everything sounds sort of big stereo throughout, but…well… we each have our perspectives that are valid! More on that in a moment….)
Whatever caused the problem on the DVD Audio Disc is ultimately irrelevant at this point — it is history! The DVD Audio format failed to make a significant impact in the market so for most people, the Blu-ray Disc version will be the most feasible option to consider if they are interested in hearing the 5.1 surround sound mix (as well as getting the album in high resolution 192 kHz, 24-bit fidelity for the Mono and Stereo versions.
There are some other differences and details worth noting.
I can hear now that the mix indeed really isn’t quite 5.1 surround … its sort of like 4.1 as there is not much information — if any — coming out of the center channel. The DVD Audio Disc was like this too but the overall surround sound-field sounds are more enjoyable and full bodied on the new Blu ray Disc.
Some people seem to have had trouble with the surround mix back in the day as it wasn’t particularly discrete. Listening with fresh ears, I hear and understand what they are talking about. I mean, its super nice to hear the music all full and round coming out of the four speakers.
It sounds pretty big when you first start listening…
As a “discrete” experience, however, it does lack …. muchness (if you will). I have to assume that technical reasons forced the mix be kept in this sort of big multi-speaker stereo mode.
Perhaps it was the nature of the way this music was recorded — in large band, live sessions — where it might be near impossible to pull out individual instruments, without using heavy computer technology to isolate tracks. Perhaps at best they might be able to pull out sections of instruments such as strings or horns which might have been overdubbed separately.
It is also possible that pulling apart the instrumentation too much into a discrete 5.1 mix might make the music fall apart. This is one of the reasons, as I understand it, why The Rolling Stones have not put out their classic albums in surround sound — so much of the vibe of the band’s recorded sound came from that locked-in feeling of the rhythm section being tightly woven together in the mix.
]]>This is also one of those reasons why — in some instances with regards to older rock ‘n roll recordings made at the cross roads of Mono and Stereo — Mono mixes often hold up better as an overall listening experience and representation of the music. The core of the band is locked in between your ears when listening no matter how you listen to the music — be it on a fancy $100K all analog hand made system or a 3-inch transistor radio.
So, yeah, when you compare Pet Sounds in surround sound to, say, a stunning immersive experience such as Steven Wilson’s 5.1 remix of Yes’ Close To The Edge (which I reviewed here for those who may have missed it), (https://audiophilereview.com/audiophile-music/close-to-the-edge-in-51-blu-ray-is-pretty-much-perfect.html) there is no way the former is going to hold its own, relatively. As far immersive listening experiences go, it is not an equal comparison simply by virtue of the technical limitations that Brian Wilson had to work with in 1965-66 (four tracks at best) vs. what Yes had in 1972 (if I’m not mistaken, CTTE was made on a 16-track recorder).
More tracks generally translate into greater separation of instruments and thus increased opportunity for creating an immersive, discrete multi-channel listening experience.
Listening to The Beach Boys Pet Sounds in surround sound is a pleasant expansion of the Stereo remix. And both of those mixes remain but a complement to the original Mono mix, which will always be the definitive way to hear Pet Sounds.
With the Blu-ray, you get all the versions in 192 kHz, 24-bit fidelity ( 96/24 for the surround mix).
For that alone, if you are a serious Beach Boys fan, these sort of high resolution listening experiences alone make it worth picking up the Blu-ray version of Pet Sounds if you get the chance.
Now, if you already own the DVD Audio Disc (or can pick it up inexpensively), that is still worthwhile given the video layer which includes several black and white promotional films from the Pet Sounds era — bizarre, oddly wonderful, fascinating short films which are not on the Blu-ray version. The DVD Audio Disc version also includes on screen lyrics, different photos and even some visual commentary from Brian Wilson relative to the recordings. The DVD Audio Disc, at its root, offers the viewer/listener a compelling experience in which to explore Pet Sounds from different perspectives (again, Mono, Stereo and Surround Sound).
Conversely, the Blu-ray Disc version adds lovely instrumental versions of the whole album — which of course are not on the the DVD Audio Disc version.
So… to get the full offering, you really need both versions, Dear Readers-who-are-Beach-Boys-completists.
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary edition is proof positive that a good thing can get better. There is usually always room for improvement…
But wait, there’s more to consider…
I have to mention something else important and admittedly confusing: there is yet another high resolution version of Pet Sounds out there — at least on the Interwebs it is listed — on the Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc format. This seems to be presented in 96 kHz, 24-bit only and doesn’t appear to have the bonus material found on the 50th Anniversary edition or the DVD Audio Disc. But just know that it is out there. My guess is that it has the same mixes as on the DVD Audio and 50th Anniversary Blu-ray versions.
Just think…. Perhaps one day — and this is just me speculating/dreaming here, folks — they’ll work up an updated version combining the best of all the versions into one unified experience. And — who knows, maybe they’ll knuckle down and employ some new fangled computer technology to isolate the instrumentation which would enable creation of a better, more discrete, genuine 5.1 surround sound mix.
Now… wouldn’t that be nice!?