Blues Breakers: Another Sonic Viewpoint

Randy Wells' recent review of this Sundazed reissue may have seemed thorough and matter-of-fact to most of you and judging by the emails, well appreciated, but the folks at Sundazed were anything but pleased, which kind of surprised me, though Wells did prefer the Audio Fidelity release so perhaps I should not have been surprised.

Mr. Wells compared Sundazed's mono LP and CD editions to an expensive LP original and to an out of print Audio Fidelity gold CD so really, even if he thought those were better, what's the harm? Well the harm is to pride, and that can cut sharply even if the resultant press spurs Sundazed sales.

I've got the Sundazed mono LP reissue but not the CD. Rather than asking Sundazed for a copy I bought one from its website and had Mr. Wells send me his Audio Fidelity gold CD so I could compare for myself. 

I've just been sent the latest MSB Platinum Diamond DAC IV digital to analog converter  fitted with an ultra-ultra low jitter clock, along with the company's transport and outboard power supply. My recording engineer source tells me it's the best he's heard decoding his own high resolution digital recordings so I'm sure it's at least "pretty good"!

So I've sat down and compared the two CDs to each other and to the Sundazed LP and here's my take:

First of all, this is not a great recording to begin with, though Gus Dudgeon would go on to making some of the great ones later in his career. But it's an honest recording, primitive and direct with a lot of microphone bleed-through as producer Vernon explains. It's dimensionally flat overall and dynamically lackluster too and if you crank it up too loud it's a lot of fun but it will also make your ears bleed. It's much better appreciated at moderate levels where the "live" quality still comes through and you hear decent instrumental differentiation without it turning into a pile of sonic hash.

From what I could determine, both CDs were sourced from  the same original UK master and if not, the Audio Fidelity came from the original London master. Adding to some confusion is Audio Fidelity's choice of using the original UK DECCA cover art and Sundazed's decision to use the London label on its disc!  I much prefer Sundazed's DigiPak packaging and I like that they give you the tape box image that says "Decca Record Co. To be used for Manufacture of Gramophone Records." Does that mean the tape was a "production master" produced for vinyl production and perhaps slightly compressed and/or EQ'd? I don't know. And since I'm not sure exactly what tape Audio Fidelity used—either the same one, or a copy of the master sent to America by Decca—I can't account for why the two sound somewhat different.

Of course, there are two different mastering chains and two different playback machines and two different A/D converters, with Audio Fidelity uses one that encodes HDCD—a format few can decode these days. And of course two different sets of ears doing the mastering and probably EQ-ing.

Wells' described the Sundazed  compared to the Audio Fidelity as having " (reduced) dynamics, a polite and laid-back treble, a drier mid-range, and a fairly flat soundstage."

There's no doubt that Kevin Gray's mastering for Audio Fidelity is somewhat warmer in the midbass, a fact immediately apparent on the opening tom-tom downbeat. In fact, at first I thought perhaps he'd snuck in a bit of additional reverb but it's more that the warmth accentuates the reverb.

The Audio Fidelity edition is definitely warmer and somewhat softer and easier on the ears and that warmth is in part I believe what Wells hears and describes as 'depth' on this mono recording. But I do not hear the Sundazed as being "polite" in the treble compared to the Sundazed! It may give that impression because it sounds as if Gray has upped the midbass and therefore, the treble will be relatively polite by comparison, but at least on my system, I thought the Sundazed was more extended on top with a faster attack.

I also thought the "reduced dynamics" he noted on the Sundazedis perhaps partly a result of the Audio Fidelity's midbass "push". Just compare the opening track's first few notes. Neither version is a paragon of dynamic contrasts because the recording was born compressed.

The Sundazed is definitely leaner in the mids, but tighter and more rhythmically taut—it's like comparing a softly sprung car with one that's tuned for better handling: the softly sprung one will feel better going over the potholes (and believe me this recording is full of potholes!) but on the open road when you hit the gas the lean into a turn, you'll want to feel that harder suspension!

Which version you might prefer is dependent upon the rest of your system, your sonic tastes and especially how loudly you like to listen. The Audio Fidelity is easier on the ears at high SPLs, the Sundazed can get a bit hard—not harsh though. 

I bet were Gray and Irwin to sit down and listen to both over a beer and discuss what they heard and what they did to finish the product, they would not be in disagreement. No doubt Gray went for "audiophile" sensibilities with a somewhat warmer portrayal and Irwin went for the tighter, springier and I'm sure he'd say more honest approach. But really when there's no playback standard involved, no one's right and no one's wrong. It's just a matter of taste.

I found the Sundazed mastering more exciting and more detailed but I couldn't play it as loudly as the Audio Fidelity without sonic strain setting in. 

As for the vinyl, it was cut anonymously at an undisclosed location, probably from a digital source, hopefully at 24 bit resolution. Judging by the relatively good fit'n'finish and the somewhat ragged edge, it has "Rainbo" written all over it—and these days that's not a bad thing, especially compared to still mediocre United in Nashville.  

Comparing the Sundazed LP and CD, I actually preferred the CD (don't hit me!). The CD's top end (through this monster MSB transport and DAC) offered more detail, clarity and shimmer to the drums and overall better instrumental focus. The LP sounded somewhat warmer but at the expense of transient precision and rhythmic certainty. 

So there you have it: a second opinion. Both CD are very good given the recording quality. The Audio Fidelity is easier to listen to, the Sundazed produced greater rhythmic excitement—on my system. 

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michaelw.jones's picture

Interesting article :)