I found this article online which interests me and repost its extract here for subsequent reading. I did not write the article.
CDs - It is very important to buy good quality CD pressings. Everyone who collects LPs seriously has in mind the quality of pressing – the first pressings by particular record labels were better than later ones; they were and are still more collectable and also more desirable sonically. The rationale is that as pressings continue, the master tape deteriorates and the sound becomes less like the original.
For some reason, not much is written about superior quality of collectable CDs. I decided to pen down this article after I became a proud owner of four Japanese first pressing CDs. These Japanese first pressings were collectables because they sounded superior sonically. I bought The Best of Vienna Boy’s Choir, Bill Evans, a Horowitz in Moscow, and an extremely expensive Cliff Richard; I think the Cliff Richard CD actually had a price tag of HK$2,900 and therefore required some considerable thoughts before I parted with my money.
In any event, the real purpose of me relating this is that I was charmed and also surprised at the real excellence of the recordings in question. Played through my system, I must say that the sound reproduction was stunning. In the old days, all one could get from a compact disc was a rather small, mean and unpleasant sound. Now this is not necessarily true; at least not with the right equipment and the right pressing. These pieces of music were thoroughly engaging. When I played Bill Evans and compared to an ordinary Bill Evans pressing, the difference was frightening!
Audiophile means lovers of sound in Latin. The benefits of audiophile LPs include low surface noise and better dynamics already present on CDs by definition. However, while CDs as a format do not have these limitations, they often suffer from the same poor mastering processes (such as mastering from sixth/seventh generation masters) and a 'pile it high, sell them cheap' mentality that results in CDs which can sound shrill, unexciting and dull. In contrast, audiophile CDs are often mastered from the original master tapes using meticulous mastering processes, allowing the sound of the original recording to be presented as accurately as possible.
Standard CDs are often pressed on cheap aluminium while most audiophile CDs are mastered onto 24k gold plated discs, the latter have the advantages of having a longer life span than traditional aluminium discs and are also more effective as a playing medium. This is because the gold surface is more reflective and easier for a CD player laser to read more accurately. In a nutshell, analog sound waves that are heard by the human ear are converted to 1s and 0s to be recorded onto a CD, and then the CD player converts these 1s and 0s back into sound waves when the CD is played. The gold surface on audiophile CDs allows the succession of 1s and 0s that are stored on the surface to be read as accurately as possible, allowing the CD player to convert the 1s and 0s into the most accurate representation of the analog sound wave that was originally converted into these 1s and 0s. This arguably results in better sounding CDs which have a smoother, less clinical and more analog type sound.
Audiophile CDs available include 1) Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL), arguably the best new release audiophile CDs currently available. MFSL introduced their range of gold plated CD releases in the 1990s, which have been mastered using the same meticulous mastering processes as their LPs, but are each pressed on 24 karat gold plated CDs as part of their 'Ultradisc' range. In similarity to their LP releases, MFSL audiophile CDs are made from the original master recordings and are often far sonically superior to their standard CD counterparts, having a smoother and more analog sound. MFSL CDs are often only released for a short period and then go out of print. Earlier releases are often highly sought after. All releases come in 'lift lock' style cases, which raise the CD when opened. Some older releases also came in 'long boxes' which were larger boxes containing the CD. These are now extremely rare as many people discarded the long boxes.
MFSL also introduced a range of hybrid SACDs and hybrid surround sound SACDs. SACDs have a higher sampling rate than standard CDs and so arguably have a much smoother sound. You can play these hybrid SACDs on a standard CD player, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of MFSL's mastering processes, but they can also be played on an SACD player to enjoy the full sonic benefits of the SACD format. As such these releases offer exceptional value for money.
2) DCC released a variety of albums on audiophile CDs, including arguably the best sounding releases of The Doors albums. Now very rare.
3) CBS Mastersound were released as CD equivalents of the half speed mastered audiophile LPs (see Audiophile LP Guide) from CBS Mastersound. Popular releases included Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' and in similarity to many of the rare Mobile Fidelity releases, they were released in 'long boxes'. Now very rare.
4) Others. There are many other audiophile CDs released and often plated on 24k gold from other labels - most of which offer the same benefits if they have been mastered from the original tapes and care has been taken during the mastering process. 24k plating does little to improve the sound of a poor mastering job though, so its always worth checking if the release has been mastered from the original master tapes and there is some note of a careful mastering process.
LPs - Overview
It is no exaggeration to say that vinyl has experienced something of a resurgence in the last decade. In a world of musical convenience gained from the introduction of CDs in 1983 and more recently mp3 players, many ask what the appeal of vinyl is and why people are still buying. It would be easy not to understand its appeal if you have never heard how good an LP can sound on a good music system. From the moment you open a record, the size of the artwork, its touch and smell suggest that its something special, beyond the simple convenience of CDs, but nothing comes close to the experience of listening to it. If you are using a good turntable and hi-fi, playing a record can be a wonderful and enjoying experience, arguably being a much closer experience to hearing the music live - with an analog medium sounding less artificial than CDs and compressed digital formats.
The increase in vinyl sales over the last decade are not just from 'normal' LPs you can still buy in some stores and online, but also from the sale of audiophile vinyl pressings, which are manufactured with much greater care and always arguably sound much better than cheaper releases. Please find below a comprehensive overview of audiophile vinyl pressings - how they're made, what the big labels are releasing audiophile records and links to reviews of some of the best sounding releases we've heard. Think of us as your guide to the best quality records now available, allowing you to listen to your favourite albums fresh, enjoy as close to a 'live listening experience' in your home as possible and gain the best possible listening experience from your music system.
LPs - General Overview:
- Vinyl Quality. Most audiophile LPs are now released on vinyl weighing either 180 grams ('180g') or 200 grams ('200g') and are denoted as such to indicate the greater quality of the vinyl used, often being 'virgin vinyl' meaning purer vinyl is used rather than the recycled plastics used in the production of standard LPs. A result of the greater quality and weight of the vinyl is usually lower surface noise and less cross talk. Please note: earlier audiophile LPs (including those from MFSL, Nautilus, Nimbus Supercut, etc.) were released on standard weight vinyl, but the quality of the vinyl used was very pure and as such, the quality of the sound on these releases is as good - or in some cases better, than the quality of newer releases. Furthermore, heavier vinyl arguably has a longer life and can withstand repeated plays more than the cheaper, less pure vinyl used on standard LPs.
- Original Master Tapes. Audiophile records are often mastered from the original tapes that were used to record the album in the studio or live. This is in contrast to many standard LPs which are mastered from sixth, seventh or even eight generation copies or dupes. With each successive copy sounding less like the original tapes and losing something in the copying process, mastering from the original tapes means that the sound of the resulting record will be as close as possible to the sound of the original tapes and thus as close as possible to the experience of actually being there during the original recording. Many audiophile records are mastered from the original tapes and clearly state this on the record, for example, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) releases are all labeled 'Original Master Recording' to make this as clear as possible!
- Half Speed Mastering. Half speed mastering refers to the speed of mastering the original recording onto the master lacquer, which is then used to make the masters that press each LP. Many standard LPs are mastered at standard speed, which means that the master tape moves at the same speed as the original recording session and the master lacquer moves at 33 13 rpm. In contrast, it is also possible to run each of these machines at half speed. As a result, there is twice as much time for the cutting stylus to cut every possible detail and delicate groove modulation, resulting in LPs where you can hear details and nuances on your favourite albums that you never heard before. Furthermore, mastering at half speed uses less power and as a result the cutting head amplifiers use only one fourth as much power, resulting in much greater head room, better dynamic range, frequency response and lower distortion. This is another reason why resulting audiophile LPs can sound much closer to the sound of the original recording in comparison to standard LPs.
- Mastering Process. Audiophile LPs are produced with much greater care and consideration at every stage of the mastering process. Some labels clearly state a special feature of their mastering process. For example, Classic Records use tube amplification in every stage of their mastering process, following the logic that tubes sound warmer and less clinical than transistors and as such, the resulting LPs should follow suit. In many cases, mastering engineers may have to work with master tapes that are damaged or which need level adjustments to compensate for deterioration.. It is an art to do this and to still achieve a sound as close as possible to that of the original recording. In some cases, there will be master recording notes to work with, but damage to a recording tape over time can mean that some albums take considerable time to master properly. In any case, there are some clear cases of significant improvements in sound from some audiophile LPs when compared to original pressings, for example with Carole King's Tapestry from Classic Records, which sounds much more realistic and less 'EQ'd' than standard original pressings. There are some mastering engineers who have achieved small celebrity status for the quality of their mastered albums, for example Steve Hoffman and Bernie Grundman.
- 45rpm, One-Sided LPs, etc. Many audiophile labels have recently released some LPs which are playable at 45rpm. This is an extension of the logic used for mastering at half speed. Mastering an LP at 45rpm rather than 33rpm gives a greater groove length in which to press x period of music, which should arguably result in greater detail and resolution. One sided masters follow similar logic, with the suggestion that this results in one perfect playing surface.
- Direct to Disc. Some audiophile LPs were released using this process, which means that the pressing is made live, with the signal from the session going through to the cutting lathe. The logic behind this approach is that the resulting recording should be devoid of the limitations of a recording medium and should have low distortion, excellent dynamic range and the widest possible frequency response. However, the practicalities of this approach have meant that these releases tend to be solo performers and are of the majority jazz albums. Furthermore, modern digital and 'lossless' recording techniques on newer albums mean that the benefits of this approach are arguably less important now.
- Original artwork, labels, and inclusions. Most audiophile LPs include where possible accurate reproductions of the original cover art, LP labels and any other inclusions which were included at the time of the original release. Such dedication allows you to enjoy the record as if you were buying it for the first time again, but with the advantages of the better mastering.
- Poly-lined inner sleeves. Most standard LPs are packaged using cheap paper sleeves, or in worst cases cardboard sleeves, which can scratch and scuff the vinyl when removing and replacing it before and after play. In contrast, most audiophile LPs are packaged with poly lined inner sleeves, which include a sheet of poly lining to protect the vinyl from getting damaged and for safer storage. Mofi refer to their version of these as 'rice paper inner sleeves', which are also now available in packs of 10, 25 and 50 so that you can replace cheap inner sleeves with these superior replacements.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL or Mofi) was one of the first companies to release audiophile records in the late 1970s. Denoted as 'Original Master Recording' due to the mastering from the original tapes at half speed, Mobile Fidelity went through several periods as a company, which is reflected in the dates of their releases. However, the philosophy of releasing the best possible sounding releases has remained, as has the company's dedication to presenting luxury packages that include original album artwork and sleeve notes wherever possible.
The earlier releases from the 1970s and 1980s, were pressed on 'super vinyl', which was standard weight (as most audiophile releases during the period were), but was an extremely pure vinyl produced by JVC in Japan, so pure infact that it is translucent when held to the light and feature 'an extraordinarily quiet playing surface, extreme durability and a lifespan many times exceeding conventional pressings'. In 1979, Mofi released their LP master of Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' which was a huge seller and became the benchmark hi-fi system test LP for years to come. Following this release, Mofi started to release further releases from 1980 onward. These earlier pressings have some of the most quiet surfaces available of any audiophile LPs. In fact, many near mint and mint examples have next to no surface noise and the level of resolution is incredible. Many releases from this period often sell for high sums second hand, but they are still usually the best sounding releases of the album in question available and likely to rise in value in future, thus also being an investment to some buyers. These releases were mastered by Stan Ricker and Jack Hunt.
Mofi also released three now legendary LP box sets. The first released in 1982, 'The Beatles Collection' is legendary as being the best sounding release of the fab four's albums ever available. The second released in 1983 was 'Sinatra, a collection of his best albums from the Capital label years. The third released in 1984, the 'Rolling Stones Collection' was a collection of their first albums, none of which was released separately (only 'Some Girl's and 'Sticky Fingers' - two of their later albums, were released separately by Mofi). Each box collection is expensive to obtain, but are worth every penny and are arguably three of the best audiophile collections ever released and were all individually numbered. These box sets also included the 'Geodisc' which is arguably one of the best cartridge alignment tools available, but is now available from Mofi and is in store. During this period, they also released several UHQR (Ultra High Quality Records) titles which were pressed on 200 gram (200g) vinyl and marketed as sounding better than their standard counterparts. They also released some cassettes during this period using the same mastering processes, but these are rarer and arguably less desirable now than the LP releases.
The next wave of releases came in 1994 and were referred to as the 'Anadisq' series. These used a different vinyl compound and were released on heavy 200 gram (200g) weight vinyl and mastered using the 'Gain system'. These releases were also all individually numbered.
The original company folded in 1999, but was resurrected by Music Direct and is now releasing audiophile LPs and CDs again. Its debatable whether the newer LP releases equal the quality of the earlier releases, but the company still follows the same 'Original Master Recording' philosophy. These newer releases are mostly released on 180 gram (180g) weight vinyl and include some 45rpm releases.
Classic Records are a recent US audiophile label dedicated to producing high quality new LP pressings. Each release is mastered at half speed from the original master tapes using an 'all-analog mastering process' which also uses tube amplification at every stage of the mastering process. The majority of their releases are pressed on high quality 200 gram (200g) weight vinyl, which has virtually no surface noise and sonically superior dynamics. Classic Records are also highly dedicated to releasing each album with the original artwork, LP labels and any other materials which were included with original pressings. Their dedication to this is shown in the quality of the each release, with albums having thick, heavy duty sleeves, and many being presented exactly how they were when originally released. For example, Led Zeppelin's III has the original wheel cover, 'In Through the Out Door' includes the brown paper bag cover and booklet, The Who's 'Tommy' includes the original booklet and tri-fold sleeve. In short, Classic Records have aimed for each release to be a sensory experience, and as close to the experience of buying the original LP as possible. As a result, their releases allow you to enjoy the experience of buying your favourite albums over again, being in sight and touch exact replicas of their original counterparts, but with the advantage of the quality of the LP included, which in many cases far succeeds the quality of the standard LP release.
Classic Records are critically acclaimed for the sound and presentation of their releases, many of which are now considered to be the definitive releases. These include the Led Zeppelin catalog, which sound of which is breathtaking, The Who catalog, and many more. They are also due to release the Beatles catalog in late 2007 or 2008 - so we will get to enjoy these albums once more and see if they equal or exceed the quality of the Mobile Fidelity releases!
Nimbus Records have achieved somewhat of a legendary status within the audiophile circle for their 'Supercut' releases, which were only available by mail order through the Hi-fi magazines 'Practical Hi-fi' and 'Hi-fi Today' in the early 1980s. Nimbus mastered each release from the original master tapes using the best available mastering processes. Infact, Nimbus employed many techniques for each release that were not commonly used. For example, generally when bass moves from channel to channel on an LP, groove modulation is employed to reduce the movement of the stylus and this results in this bass being centered more over both channels. Most audiophiles would argue that this - and in fact anything, which changes the original recording should be avoided although this is common practice on most LPs. For example, the release of 'Joan Armatrading' had bass moving from channel to channel in several places, but Nimbus did not limit this, resulting in an outstanding pressing. Nimbus also had the ICI company produce an extremely pure vinyl for the LPs, which has amazing frequency reproduction and is virtually noise free - similar in quality to the 'super vinyl' used on earlier Mofi pressings. Due to their rarity and small pressing quantities, they are often more expensive than audiophile LPs from other labels, but the sums paid can be justified by the outstanding quality of the pressings and the fact that they tend to rise in value over time and as such are deemed as investments by some audiophiles. Other releases included Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here', Beatles 'Sgt Pepper' and Wings 'Band on the Run' and many other excellent titles.
Nautilus At a similar time to the original Mofi LP releases, Nautilus released a comparatively smaller - though excellently mastered number of audiophile LPs in their 'Superdisc' series. Most of these were mastered at half-speed and pressed on high quality standard weight vinyl. These are also rare releases and were released in limited quantities. Nautilus also released some direct to disc releases.
CBS Mastersound This label released a large range of half speed mastered LPs during the 1980s, all mastered on excellent quality vinyl and using the best available mastering techniques. These releases also include a 'CBS Mastersound Information Sheet' (where still included), detailing the mastering processes used. These releases are arguably sonically equal to many of the earlier Mofi releases, but often do not command such high sums and as such are usually quite a bargain. The exceptions are for some of the releases which are outstanding such as Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here'.
Sheffield Lab released a range of audiophile LPs during the 1980s, many of which were mastered direct to disc.
Pure Pleasure are quickly gaining an excellent reputation for releasing excellent sounding jazz and blues releases on 180 gram (180g) vinyl, many of which are mastered from the original master tapes.
Sundazed are dedicated to releasing older rock, folk and psychedelic albums, which have included much of the Bob Dylan catalog (in original mono), the Byrds catalog (also original mono) and many more. Each release also includes faithful reproductions of original artwork and LP labels and are pressed on high quality 180 gram (180g) weight vinyl. The Bob Dylan releases are arguably the best sounding versions of these albums available, each having a much fresher sound than on standard pressings - which in some cases can be surprising, for example with 'Highway 61 Revisited', on which 'Like a Rolling Stone' sounds much fresher than most other versions available.
Warner/R.T.I.These releases are mastered at half speed, often by some celebrity mastering engineers, including Stan Ricker - who mastered many of the earlier Mofi LPs. They are pressed on high quality 180 gram (180g) weight vinyl and are always presented with high quality thick artwork sleeves and LP labels.
DCC released a small number of audiophile LPs, most notably the Doors catalog, which were arguably the best releases of their albums ever available, many of which were mastered by Steve Hoffman.
Japanese LPs are often highly regarded for having excellent sound quality and for being produced on excellent quality vinyl. They can usually be identified by an 'OBI strip', a long piece of paper around the cover with the album details in Japanese. Some releases are also pressed on red vinyl, which some argue has greater sonic qualities than standard black vinyl, though this is debatable and arguably depends more on the actual quality of the vinyl used.
Conclusion: Audiophile LPs are generally more expensive as a rule of thumb in comparison to standard LP releases, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. The greater care, craftsmanship, presentation and most importantly the sound quality of audiophile LPs mean that you are getting something truly special, that will allow you to get the very best out of your music system, and enjoy music the way it was recorded and supposed to sound. Many people who head audiophile vinyl are surprised by the details and sounds they can hear on their favourite albums that they have never heard before and the entire experience is like buying the album for the first time and enjoying how good it sounded when you first heard it. What's more surprising though to the majority of converted vinyl enthusiasts is how much better audiophile LPs can sound in comparison to their CD counterparts, making a real case for vinyl as a format and a luxury for any high end music system that deserves only the very best.