The opportunity arose to put this wisdom to the test, with two different pressings of the classic Kind of Blue.This record must rank as the jazz audiophile’s equivalent to the Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon: the grey-pony-tail crowd’s pinnacle that sums up an era.
The Play Test
To put the test online, the track Freddie Freeloader has been ripped to MP3 from each pressing. They may sound much the same, or one may reveal itself as sounding better than the other. Alternatively, just enjoy the track of your chosing, and to hell with the competition. There are no prizes to win anyway.
The reissue: Freddie Freeloader (CBS) 1960
The Original : Freddie Freeloader (Fontana) 1959
Miles Davis (tp) Cannonball Adderley (as) John Coltrane (ts) Wynton Kelly or Bill Evans (p) Paul Chambers (b) Jimmy Cobb (d) Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC, March 2 and April 6, 1959
Speaks for itself, I won’t even try. Kind of Blue is probably one of the biggest selling jazz records of all time, along with Coltrane’s Blue Train. I wasn’t intending to blog it for the same reason, everyone knows it. That is, until the issue of sound quality came up.
Vinyl: Two different UK pressings of US Columbia CL 1355
The comparison of pressings on a high-end system was a revelation. It was also a good test of “expectation bias”, an interference with the critical faculties that plagues the judging of audio differences, and a common problem following significant financial expenditure.
Vinyl: BPG 62066 rough-textured orange UK CBS
Conventional wisdom says the Fontana original should sound the better of the two.
Right, the Fontana matrix indicates Philips UK plant. The Philips pressing weighs a good 20gm more than the thinner EMI pressing. In theory, heavy vinyl indicates better sound. Another useless theory.
The track listing conflicts with the track order of the vinyl, as noted by one fastidious owner of the Fontana (right) an error not corrected by the CBS pressing a year later.
Proof-reading obviously had no place in vinyl production.
A few years back, when I embarked on building a jazz collection, I won a copy of the original UK pressing on Fontana in a heavy Ebay dogfight. I crossed if off my wants list. When a friend turned up with a CBS orange label reissue, and suggested we go head to head between the two pressings, I had no difficulty accepting the challenge. I confidently expected the Fontana to wipe the floor with the CBS orange.
On went the CBS reissue, then the Fontana original. Oh dear. This isn’t supposed to happen. The CBS immediately sounded more “musical” – better rhythm and timing, a whole lot more enjoyable. Sometimes you can put differences down to obvious things like “fuller bass”, or “brighter treble”, but ultimately it is down to which draws you in, which produces the stronger emotional connection with the music. Swapping backwards and forwards confirmed the original Fontana was a much less enjoyable musical experience.. Experience trumps expectation.
This was a bitter pill. It calls into question all sorts of assumptions we make about the signposts to quality improvements. Both Philips and EMI will have received a copy tape from which to master their pressing. Two different engineers, two sets of cutting lathes, two different views on what sounds right. However they both sound very similar in presentation, but the end result is not the same
One possible explanation is simply that one copy was earlier in the number of pressing repetitions for that stamper, the pressure during each repetition finally wearing out the stamper grooves. It is said Decca changed stampers every 2,000 pressings, whilst other record plants went to 6,000, even 10,000. Which might mean somewhere out there is a better Fontana and a lesser CBS, and all is well with the world. Possibly…
Wandering up to London I chanced on a copy of the CBS issue displayed on the wall, not cheap due to the record’s mythic status. When I took it to the counter, the expert helpfully pointed out “It’s not the original, you know - it’s a later pressing” I nodded sagely. I know, I said. I know. Getting the record home, and after a good clean, the CBS gingerly went up on the turntable, followed by the Fontana.
Same story. My newly-acquired reissue trumps my original. That is indeed a bitter pill, however I confidently expect a US Columbia original will sound better than both: all I have to is find one. In the mean time, it’s a great piece of music to enjoy.