Sunday, February 17, 2013

Fine Ol' Vinyl

While Susan had an appointment in Buckhead, I took some time to run over to Fantasyland in search of primo vinyl finds. I located a number of records while there, but the three that most interested me were a trio of upscale vinyl collectibles: Seals and Crofts' Summer Breeze on Nautilus SuperDisc, Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams on Mobile Fidelity, and Kansas' Point of Know Return on Columbia MasterSound. These are three different upscale collectible vinyl labels that date back to the 1970s/1980s (although Mobile Fidelity is still in business producing upscale vinyl reissues).

All three labels produce their albums via half-speed mastering--that is, the original masters are played back at half speed, which allows maximum information transfer to the vinyl and lets the cutting head take more time to cut each groove, allowing for greater detail and more cutting accuracy. The end result is dramatically improved sound quality, a more lifelike sound quality, and a much richer sound "presence." In addition, there's a less evident "sonic floor" (that background noise you hear during supposed periods of silence that lets you know that you're listening to a record), further emphasizing the richness of the sound.

I have hoped for an opportunity to listen to all three formats for comparison, having heard advocates of each as the superior recording system. Since Fantasyland had perfect copies of all three at very affordable prices, this was the ideal means for me to give it a sonic test.

I've listened to all three albums a couple of times, and I must confess that I felt like the Nautilus SuperDisc did the best job of convincing me I was listening to a musical performance rather than a record. Each instrument was distinctive, resonant, and filled with sonic character; voices were clear, crisp, and individually recognizeable in every harmony; and the songs had both warmth and crispness. Mobile Fidelity's recording was a close second; the only real difference I noticed was a little less sonic separation--that is, I heard the whole song very well, but found it more difficult to listen to each individual instrument or voice without sonic bleedover from other instruments. The Columbia MasterSound was third because it was almost too bright and sharp; the album at times seemed a bit too piercing in its sound, as if it needed a little more tonal balance. I have to admit, though, that this could be the music itself--Kansas has always had a crisp, sometimes harshly bright sound that tended more towards the upper end, and a more nuanced album might lend a different result.

Nevertheless, all three albums have a phenomenal sound, and I'm glad I had the chance to do a sonic comparison. (I know that the only true sonic comparison would involve playing the same album in all three recording formats, but I don't know of any album that was offered from Nautilus, Mobile Fidelity, and Columbia MasterSound, so that may be impossible.)

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