Written by 6:00 am Audiophile • 4 Comments

Can You Listen Beyond The Analog and Digital Glitches?

Mark Smotroff wonders if people know how to listen…

Music people are funny these days. We want the tunes. We generally want a lot of music. And we want it to sound as good as possible. But sometimes I think people get a bit hung up on little details. 


I know that I’m guilty of this. 

At times I’ve even gone to seeming extremes in writing my reviews to prove a point, such as my recent piece on Neil Young’s fine Tuscaloosa album which — on my vinyl LP version — had a particularly annoying anomaly at the start of a fairly quiet portion of the recording. It nearly ruined the whole album listen for me. Some may think I’m a nit picker but I don’t think so… its just a matter of where the nits happen and how they hit my listening experience that makes me want to pick… 

The tell-tale “pfffft” of “non fill” on a fancy 180-gram Rhino Records’ Milt Jackson archive reissue sent me returning the offending platter to the store because — especially for the $25 or so that it cost me — I rightly expected that record to be perfect.  

But… yet… when I find an old deep groove Blue Note or Prestige LP from the 1950s or early 1960s that has seen a lot of play over the years — what I tend to describe as having “received a lot of love” in the form of regular play and enjoyment — I find I can listen through the little ticks ‘n pops of time. 

AR-ListeningMonterose450.jpgWhy is that? 

Part of it is probably just conditioning on my part: I grew up with old records and have listened to thousands of hours of music on albums and 45s and such.  But I think there might be something else going on here that I find appealing:  I am hearing in those grooves the sound that people heard back in the day when those records were released. I’m listening for not only the music but the aura (if you will) of what people heard when the music was first released.  The way the music was presented at that point in time, using that specific type of vinyl formulation and that specific type mastering.

A couple years ago I found a very rare Blue Note LP from the 1950s at an estate sale (for next to nothing, btw) that isn’t perfect.  My copy of J. R Monterose (Blue Note 1536) is in real good shape all things considered but there are some visual scuffs here and there. It plays great all the way through and has a certain sound about it. Curious, I went ahead and bought a later reissue of the same album and it wasn’t quite the same experience.  I wasn’t enjoying the vibe as much and would rather play the original Blue Note pressing than the newer cleaner sounding edition.

AR-ListeningMonteroseTIDAL450.jpgThere is a CD quality stream of the album on Tidal now (click here for that) which is ok in a pinch but I get more out of the listening experience playing my original vinyl pressing, ticks ‘n pops ‘n all using a genuine Monaural cartridge (which minimizes the noise in many ways… click here to read about that phenomenon).

I am able to listen beyond the analog glitches here and there…

That is just my experience, of course. For some of you a streaming digital version may well be more than acceptable, especially if you don’t have an original vinyl pressing to compare to as a benchmark.  It might even be more desireable. I get it. 

In 2016 I found a 1959 Mal Waldron album at a garage sale which turned out to look pretty trashed but I grabbed it anyhow since it was cheap and looked rare. Turns out it was.  There aren’t even any original pressings for sale on Discogs and the reissues can be pricey (click here). The clean originals on eBay are going for big bucks (click here for one extreme example). 

AR-ListeningMalWaldron450.jpgSo for a couple bucks, I am more than OK with having a visually imperfect copy to explore the music. And if I want to hear a cleaner copy digitally I can find it streaming on places like Tidal (click here), but that is a different listening experience.

My Facebook post about this album — made to some of the music groups I participate in — as the test run for my Denon DL 102 Monaural Cartridge ran like this:

First spins of my new Denon Mono cartridge. Quite a little beast of a unit there and it almost didn’t quite work on my tone arm, but so far its sounding pretty amazing! This 1959 Mal Waldron album on Bethlehem is visually pretty trashed. Playing it with a stereo cartridge it sounded shockingly wonderful; on this the whole thing comes to life and apart from some light clicks, it sounds tremendous, mostly quiet and crisp, head to toe… not at all sounding like a record that looks like someone’s kid might frisbee’d it across the room at some point. Crazy! Thanks to Michael Trei for suggesting I try this cartridge.”

It doesn’t always work this way, of course.   

AR-ListeningVinyl450.jpgAnd, with reissues getting better and better the gap continues to close as far as the need for an original pressing goes. The Beatles in Mono vinyl boxed set pretty much eliminated my need to hear my original (and less perfect) original UK Mono pressing of The Beatles’ White Album. The producers of that set captured the essence of the original sound of that album and made some significant improvements along the way. The new version of Magical Mystery Tour blows away any earlier Mono version I’ve heard before, even a UK pressing of the original 7-inch 45 RPM double EP version that was released there in 1967. The first part of my three part series on that set talks about that album (click here, its on page 2)

The number of digital downloads I’ve come across that have surpassed the vinyl experience are smaller, but they do exist and continue to improve. The 192 kHz / 24-bit HD Tracks downloads of Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Innervisions in particular are quite knocked out. I reviewed it several years ago (click here for that).

I guess where I am going with all this is that if you are listening to the music primarily, ultimately whatever version you have — a $2 1970s reissue from the bargain bin at Amoeba or an MQA stream on Tidal — anomalies will bother you less, be they digital or analog…. over compression to an occasional scuff or pop.  With caveats, of course… Again, if I pay premium coin for a spiffy reissue I expect it to be perfect and then some.  The onus is on the manufacturers to make sure that they deliver the goods, be it 200 gram LP, a 7.1 Blu-ray Disc or a MQA-encoded high resolution stream from a subscription service. 

AR-BadfVinyl450.jpgAs audiophiles, we still strive for listening perfection most of the time. But in some instances, an imperfect older version is the perfection and will deliver a better listening experience than a digitally created high priced grey market reissue made off a CD or even some reissue where the care wasn’t put into it (which I’ve discussed a bit previously, click here and here)  

Keep reading here on Audiophile Review as we try to showcase the good ones when we find them and sometimes call out the bad…  It’s a learning process.

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