It’s the time of year for saving money!
The new 10CD plus Blu-ray super deluxe edition box set celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Who’s legendary 1971 release — Who’s Next — is an amazing, immersive listening journey on many levels.
Across the ten disc collection we get to experience live concerts, studio outtakes, demos, alternate takes, unreleased songs and more. I will get to exploring those details soon but the big elephant in the room that many are probably wondering about has to do with the contents of the included high resolution audio-only Blu-ray Disc. This features new stereo, surround sound and Dolby Atmos remixes by acclaimed producer and composer/musician Steven Wilson. It also includes a 96 kHz 24 bit transfer of the newly remastered original album that has been restored using Plangent Processes technology and remastered by long time Who engineer / producer Jon Astley.
As good as the Dolby Atmos and 5.1 mixes are, the star of the show for me this time around is the Plangent Processes / Jon Astley restoration and remastering of the original Stereo album mix.
Plangent’s technology has been used by no less than Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead among many others, renown for its impact in correcting tape speed and other mechanical recording anomalies which can create playback irregularities. These sorts of challenges ultimately can change the flavor of a recording, sometimes dramatically, outside of the artist’s original intention. To learn more about Plangent, please click here.
What we’re getting to hear now for the first time is the original album, clear of the distractions of tape speed inconsistencies. The resultant recording is much closer to how The Who actually played the music in real time. The instruments sound tighter with more distinct separation. Each instrument appears more realistic. Vocal harmonies are tighter. And, believe it or not, the musicians are all more in tune than ever before — especially on tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Many little but significant details are now much more audible as they were previously blurred. Pete Townshend’s acoustic guitars sound remarkably rich and fat, more like if you were right in front of them while he’s playing. The bass sounds more precise, Roger Daltry’s vocals sound more realistic than ever and Keith Moon’s drums sound incredible.
For more perspective on this fine Stereo presentation of the album, please visit Analog Planet (click here) where my review of the new half-speed mastered vinyl edition — mastered from the Plangent restoration — goes into greater detail on the process including comments from the producers.
The Surround Sound Experiences
Steven Wilson’s new Dolby Atmos and 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound remixes of Who’s Next are generally excellent, immersive and engaging. However, they are imperfect for no-fault of Mr. Wilson’s. In the thankfully detailed liner notes within the hardcover book included in the set, Wilson explains the challenges he and the producers faced in creating this remix, particularly the hard fact that the multi-channel tapes for two of the songs are missing! So they had to go to some extreme lengths to make a workable surround and Dolby Atmos listening experience. “Song Is Over” was reconstructed including using available individual elements from other takes. The version of “Bargain” presented here is a simulated surround mix created with the Penteo “upmixing” technology, made from original 1971 final Stereo mix. The resultant surround listening experience is thus not seamless and perfect, but until the missing tape reels are located, it is the best possible solution.
That said, the tracks which are mixed into surround and Dolby Atmos generally sound excellent!
Another challenge Wilson had in preparing his remixes had to do with the fact that the original album was recorded in three different recording studios on both 8- and 16 channel recorders. With the 16-channel multi-track tapes, there was more flexibility to create an immersive listening experience. However, some of the recordings presented immovable hurdles, such as Keith Moon’s drums effectively being locked in Mono!
If you love surround music and The Who and Who’s Next, you will want to hear this but you’ll also need to go into the process with realistic expectations. The good stuff is good and the great parts great, but the middling moments are what they are and we have to be understanding and accepting. It is what it is, as they say.
This reminds me a bit of the scenario which happened with the surround mixes of The Who’s next album after this, Quadrophenia, some years back: after the boxed set was released with a partially completed mix — only half of the original tapes had been located as I remember — eventually all the tapes were found and a proper and more finished sounding mix was issued as a stand-alone Blu-ray Pure Audio disc (click here for my review of that).
Lets hope that they eventually find the missing tapes and can create an updated stand-alone version!
That said it’s still worth the price of admission just to hear Steven Wilson’s Dolby Atmos mix of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the clear champion of this Blu-ray surround listening experience. Its a bit of a marvel to immerse oneself in!
Before I get to that, I must flash back to certain high fidelity moments of classic rock from the time period in which Who’s Next emerged. In this post-Sgt. Pepper’s world, there was something of a trend to create dramatic and dynamic moments of musical contrast, riffing off the still-to-this-day stunning orchestral build-up and crash down at the end of “A Day In The Life.”
Subsequently we started hearing more elaborate, dynamic and even orchestral productions from many other popular music artists including The Who, such as in “Sparks,” “Amazing Journey” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in their groundbreaking rock opera Tommy.
So this final track on Who’s Next— “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — features a break down toward the end of the tune revolving around the spectacular early synthesizer and organ pulses Pete Townshend had prepared for the song coupled with Keith Moon’s explosive drumming and Roger Daltry’s roof-raising scream signaling the epic finale. As long as I have ever heard this album — my older brother got it around 1971-72 — this song has been a favorite demo disc among audiophiles for showing off high fidelity sound systems and speaker systems. It is a “Play Loud” favorite, for sure!
In Dolby Atmos, as the song breaks down before that final rush, those organ- synthesizer parts gently float around the room, immersing the listener in a more three dimensional manner (above and around). Its really a lovely effect. While the band starts to come back in bit by bit, particularly Moon’s monstrous hammer-of-the-godz pounding of the skins on his drum heads, the music takes on an arguably more epic perspective. The original Stereo and the surround versions are excellent but the Dolby Atmos mix just takes it all a step further in numerous ways.
The album opening track “Baba O’Riley” offers similar sonic joys, as the synthesizer sequences percolate around the listener and the eventual violin solo seems to emerge a bit more out into the room. There is some interesting extra crunching electric guitar apparent toward the end as well in a front channel.
The new 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound mix offers a quite wonderful and a different listening experience of Who’s Next. I’m just guessing here but historically, I have found Dolby’s treatment of music in surround sound to appear a bit softer, resulting in a listening experience that is more about spacial sensibilities and room feel. Meanwhile, mixes I have heard presented in DTS HD Master Audio tend to sound much more discrete, with more pinpointed information coming from the various channels / speakers. To that, Steven Wilson’s new surround mix is an excellent and markedly different — but no less good — listening experience than the Dolby Atmos version.
For example, on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” there are handclaps apparent in both versions but on the 5.1 mix the handclaps appear much more distinctly from the rear channels. Curiously, on John Entwistle’s “My Wife,” the lead vocals on the Dolby Atmos version appear rather naked in the front-center channel to the point where one can clearly understand exactly what he is singing — it never was precisely clear even on the original mix. However, the 5.1 mix sounds more like the original Stereo version, with the slightly blurred (I assume) double tracking adding a cool texture at the expense of lyrical clarity.
If you enjoy surround sound and Dolby Atmos music listening experiences and if you love The Who, you’ll probably want to get this super deluxe edition of Who’s Next. Its a bit pricey (approximately $260 on Amazon at the moment), but it also includes 10 CDs of outtakes, demos, alternate mixes, singles, B-sides and much more. There is even a beautiful hardcover full color book, poster reproductions and also a graphic novel included! In part two of this review I will try to summarize all that is in the other parts of this elaborate but wonderful collection.