Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” UK shootout: Fontana 1st vs CBS 2nd issue.

Last updated: November 5, 2016 (photos and text)
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Above, UK CBS pressing. It is conventional wisdom that earlier pressings are closer to the source  and should sound better. Below, first cover  UK release on Fontana.

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The opportunity arose to put this conventional wisdom to the test, with two different British 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. To date, four million copies of Kind of Blue have been sold in the US alone, in one shape or form.

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 choosing, and to hell with the competition. There are no prizes to win anyway.

The CBS 2nd UK issue: Freddie Freeloader (CBS) 1963/4

The original UK Fontana issue : Freddie Freeloader (Fontana) 1959/60

Artists

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

Music

Speaks for itself, I won’t even try. Kind of Blue is the biggest selling jazz record of all time. 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 (mono)

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, probably pressed 1963/4, which was when the newly formed CBS organisation purchased the two former Oriole pressing plants, in Slough and Bucks. (Previously, UK CBS were pressed by Philips 1961/3)

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Below: TFL 5072 Fontana black and silver UK first release 1959/60 as indicated by the ET purchase tax code stamped next to the spindle hole (tax code which applied between  April 8, 1959 and July 31,  1960)

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fontana-e-t-tax-code

The Matrix: CBS Oriole pressing

Right, the Fontana  matrix indicates Philips UK plant (420). The Philips pressing weighs a good 20gm more than the thinner CBS Oriole pressing. In theory, heavy vinyl indicates better sound. Another useless theory.

Liner Notes:

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The track listing conflicts with the track order on playing, as noted by one fastidious owner of the Fontana below. Sequence on both cover and label is 1. All Blues 2 Flamenco Sketches.

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Checking had no place in printing. The text was simply repeated as given, assumed to be correct. The sequence error first occurred on the first US release

Collectors Corner

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 CBS 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 second 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.

UPDATE

Since upgraded to a US Columbia 6-eye, stereo, here. And yes, US is the best.

28 thoughts on “Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” UK shootout: Fontana 1st vs CBS 2nd issue.

  1. Hello,
    Been following this blog with great pleasure for a while, but this my first post. I only recently got into buying vinyl again after a period of more than ten years without a turntable (I didn’t sell my records though, thank God !) Back then I wasn’t really into jazz but I am now.
    Anyway, i’ve just bought a copy of KOB on vinyl (I have the Davis/Coltrane cd-box, so I’m quite familiar with the music already). I’m just a little curios about this record I bought and I can’t seem to find exact information about it or a matching copy:
    It’s a UK stereo pressing, SBPG 62066, rough textured orange label, matrix numbers AA 885113 1Y/2Y/420(Phillps-pressing, I guess) label says 1960, but the cover isn’t a flipback cover although laminated (printed by Ernest J. Day), cover doesn’t have the Columbia/CBS stereo logo but has a stereo-sticker on the back.
    I dind’t pay much for it and I don’t expect to be much worth but it would be fun to know when it actually was printed. Maybe one of you will be able to shed som light on it?

    • Hi Thomas, and welcome

      There is a substantial thread on the timeline of British flipback/non flipback covers on this Hoffman thread, which might shine some light on the origins of your cover

      http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/when-did-emi-stop-producing-flip-back-uk-lp-covers.153535/

      Needless to say its of interest to Beatles collectors more than jazz.

      What’s more interesting to me is the matrix on a CBS orange being Philips rather than CBS/Oriole (like mine) That narrows the pressing to somewhere between 1961 and 1963 when CBS used Philips for pressing, after they ended the Philips/Fontana identity but before they bought the clapped-out Oriole plants

      Being stereo is a little bonus, as it’s a great piece of Columbia engineering. Having said that, it’s still worth looking for the superlative US Columbia six-eye.

  2. I love this site. I just won a six eyes mono copy on eBay. I had been looking and bidding for months now, and was finally successful on a nice VG++ copy with 1-A in the run out groove. (I am still not sure what significants the 1-A has. If anyone knows I would very much welcome an education on the subject).

    Anyway this will be my 4th copy to add to a collection of stereo reissues and a CD. I had a SACD only copy and sold it when I sold my player thinking the market was dead. I have been regretting that move since. Anyway, it appears SACDs haven’t taken their last breathe and may indeed be around for a while. So I brought a new reference SACD player and will fill my collection with another SACD KOB eventually.

    I can’t wait to compare my newly won mono copy to my others. I will be checking out the speed issue as well. It’s funny, as a young trumpet player I played along with Miles on this easy to play with LP, and never noticed a speed issue. Oh well, live and learn.

    Herb

    • Everything has been said in this matter. It’s a fact that KoB re-issues have been in pitch-corrected shape for about 18 years now.

  3. Ok, my turn to weigh in here:

    I have several pressings of Kind of Blue as well as the Legacy SACD etc. I have a six-eye era pressing with a 1A stamper on side one, a two-eye era pressing with 1-something stampers. But My pick for the best pressing of this recording is actually the Classic Records edition mastered by Bernie Grundman.

    To me, it has all the characteristics of the original Columbia pressings but with more detail. I have been amazed by the quality of every Bernie Grundman-cut record I have heard. He never fails to capture the original spirit of the recording and yet still seems to manage to squeeze out more realism and detail.

    That being said, my particular pressing has a few issues: it’s slightly off center on side one which results in noticeable wow and flutter during the piano on “Blue in Green”. Also, the vinyl seems to have become unusual noisy rather quickly. I’ve been told by someone who has forgotten more about records than I know that this is most likely the result of air pockets formed in the vinyl during pressing which then rupture as the record is played back. I have no idea whether that’s accurate or not.

    I can also say that I have other pressings on different labels pressed by the same company who pressed records for Classic Records that have the exact same issues.

    On the whole, I find a good majority of reissues disappointing. There is often either a failure to bring out the original beauty of the source recording or ham-fisted attempts to fix ‘shortcomings’ in the original recordings.

    This is one case where I think a reissue actually surpasses any of the original pressings.

    • I have a 180 gram pressing, 200 gram pressing and a unreleased clarity SV-P pressing of kind of blue. The clarity pressing is just amazing. Would love to compare it to an original.

  4. I have both a white label cbs usa and a fontana. The former has more body while the fontana has greater definition.

  5. Very interesting discussion 😉
    I was also wondering how a UK CBS stereo would sound (I think KOB is best presented in stereo). I heard the ESP title and it sounded promising but had some groove distortion so I ended up not buying it. However I can heartily recommend the Columbia Mastersound Gold CD edition which in my opinion is the best sounding CD edition. And I have them all right up to the recent box including the Blue Vinyl LP which is not too shabby 😉 The mastersound CD is simply great with airy hights, full bass and as Matty says the 3-track tapes are in pristine condition indeed.

    But I love LPs too and would like to get somewhat closer to the original LP than the blue vinyl mentioned above. And it seems that to get there you’ll have to trust your ears and not only go for this and that edition that should sound good 😉

  6. Hmm….in order to compare the two pressings presented here the sound of the CBS later pressing is much to be preferred – but then again why not? If the original tapes are treated well and does not deteriorate and give good clean copies to make masters from they could give superior results if the mastering plant and engineer does a good job and in this case they apparently have.

    Saying that I must say that I miss the stereo spread on this one. Anyone has info as how the CBS later stereo pressing would sound?

    • I’m curious about that, too. I only have the CD which is in stereo of course, but still I’d like to know how a 1st pressing stereo sounds. And the vinyl that I have is a cheap DMM reissue, but I’m sure it doesn’t hold a candle to an original.

      And call me a nitpicker, but… I had Kind Of Blue on my vinyl wish list for quite some time, but after reading the information in the booklet of the first and later Legacy reissue(s) that I have, I decided to not look further for it. The Legacy CD reissue explains that all vinyl editions play three of the five tracks at the wrong speed which had been corrected for the CD. The tape ran too slow (or too fast, can’t remember at this point) which results in three tracks not playing in the right key but a half note faster. If you look at it like that, the original vinyl is in fact a faulty product. It’s weird how honest record companies get if they have to sell CDs decades later, openly admitting that they have been releasing an LP that should never have passed a quality check in the first place for years! 😉

      • The speed issue is negligible – and very hard to detect with the open ear… The copies I referred to above are Stereo, and I rate both much higher than any CD reissues… As the years went by the master tapes deteriorated, and once its gone its gone.

          • OK, I’m willing to give in to that guys, but keep in mind that for the Legacy Edition they didn’t just use the regular (and overused) master, but the original 3-track session reels. The audio quality is just ab-fab.

            Still the entire debate tickled my curiosity, so if I’ll ever able to lay hands on an affordable, preferably first, stereo pressing, I’ll finally be able to make an honest comparison.

            The less evil black disc by the way is dominant here in my sanctuary: years of collecting seventies funk currently fill up two Ikea Expedit cabinets and a few smaller ones. It’s just that the amount of jazz on vinyl is still modest, so I have no other choice than to turn to CDs in most cases and high end or not, some painstakingly remastered and well researched reissues on CD are absolutely worth every penny. 😉

        • Not to mention that you can quickly and easily adjust the speed on most turntables to compensate for the speed issue if you so desire.

          I was first exposed to the music via the CD, so the first side of the LP always sounds hurried to me played back at 33 1/3. The speed issue is definitely noticeable if you’re not used to it. I had actually completely forgotten all about it when I got my first real Columbia pressing but quickly remembered upon hearing the first few bars of “So What” playing back a bit too fast.

          • I know. My turntables have pitch control, too, so to circumvent the problem I know what to do. It just shouldn’t be necessary if you think about it. Apparently the speed problem was known for all these years, vinyl reissue after vinyl reissue and they always remained silent about it, until they started with the later Legacy CDs and suddenly described it extensively in the CD booklets… Oh well, we can talk about this for hours 😉

  7. I agree with Tony. The Fontana has a bit more dynamic range and the sound stage is only slightly better. It’s unfortunate that the dynamics pushes the needle into the dirt and grime of the pressing. If only we could clean out that kind of grime, then old vinyl might be too perfect.

    That being said, I like both pressing very much.

    I have an original 6-eye mono and a CBS Japanese 80’s Stereo pressing. Both are wonderfully done and so very different to the point that I have to say, “It’s impossible to compare.” I just sit back and enjoy.
    Thank you.

    • Hi LJC, It’s me. Ethan. I wrote the comments here and didn’t notice it was in anonymous mode. also, I meant to write “I like both pressing(s) very much.” Wanted you to know that I can pluralize.

    • You seem to have misunderstood my post above. For me the Coumbia USA 2-eye was markedly better than the UK CBS – showing more grit (i.e. realism) and sparkle (i.e. more open sound). I much prefer the original Columbia.

  8. Interesting. Chance would have it that this is another one I have multiple copies of, including the orange label UK CBS reissue and the second original USA Columbia reissue from 1962-1963 (2-eye). …

    To my ear the Columbia sounds better – has more grit, sparkle and realism to it, that later reissues progressively depart from. In my experience there was no corner cutting between 1958 and 1962. If anything quality improved. Suffice it to say I have felt the need to take out a mortgage for the six-eye Columbia.

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