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Tearing it all apart: Reference recordings

Led Zeppelin Physical GraffitiWhen CD first came about alongside the hails of crackle free and clarity you could also hear the moans of how the sound is just too bright or too harsh. Often this was due to the poor process of the transfer from an analogue master to a digital medium or simply poor early day digital mastering which was often more forgiven when played through analogue media such as vinyl and tape. One could argue, however, that in many cases it was simply down to the fact that the reproduction equipment was not up to the task. The dynamic range source material hitherto hadn’t had so much width and so far less taxing of so called high fidelity equipment. This brings me to a couple of recording reproductions on CD that often bring Audiophile equipment to their knees.

Back in the early 90’s Led Zeppelin re-released their back catalogue, Jimmy Page having spent some time remastering the original recordings digitally.There were many in the Audiophile world who really did not like what had been done. To many listening to an album through was a painful, ear aching experience. When we, as Sonneteer, first started proper referencing our source material was recent, well recorded, highly dynamic and due to these qualities, a challenge to anything that claims high fidelity. The ‘Led Zeppelin problem’ really only surfaced as an issue when we were developing our first CD player, the Mark One Byron, as it is now known. We were comparing and referencing some CD players of the time that were either very popular or that we were particularly impressed with. Results were mixed, but there was strong evidence that the recordings might be just fine. We also assumed that they couldn’t have possibly have sounded so harsh in the mastering suite. I mean Jimmy Page was getting on but his ears can’t be that shot surely?

Doubt set in and development continued using the material that had served us well so far and the results are part of Sonneteer history. The Byron was universally received as a natural sounding CD player that takes the ‘digital’ out of the sound. Some even said it was the Vinyl like player, but (and we have evidence) with all the dynamics and without the crackle and pops. It was only one day when I decided to blow away the cobwebs with one of my favourite albums which I hadn’t heard for quite a while, the aforementioned Led Zeppelins’s Physical Graffiti, that it dawned. I had the CD lying around, so I popped it in to a Byron and pumped it up loud. Before I knew it, I was air guitaring and jumping around the office. It hadn’t crossed my mind that it might sound harsh of over bright. In fact it was perfect. Then it did occur to me and I realised that it sounded very real and very good. So one after the other I listened to more of the remastered albums with no onset of fatigue and a very high level of listening pleasure. This was good, very good.

A couple of years on and The Jam released their 25th anniversary Greatest Hit Album, The Sound of The Jam. It was a collection of all their hits and included a, what can only be described as a, remix of ‘That’s Entertainment’. If there was a remastering of a song that could or even today can tear apart a high fidelity system then this is the one. It’s a stripped down version of the original recording with Bass and drum overdubs left out. The guitars are given a lot of space to breath. Reproduced well and this is a recording that brings you as presently as you ever will be to the artist in the studio. Do it badly and it will tear your ears (and equipment) to bits. This will have gone unnoticed on the radio as radio stations compression will have warmed things up, but many a hi-fi will have been deemed not suited and moved on to something more mellow.

Needless to say, alongside our standard set of reference recordings, these two above mentioned are now part of the set. Alone they serve as a critical test. With the others and many new they allow us to critically evaluate every listened to step of a new product in development. It’s not enough for us to say an amplifier is great for Jazz or good for Classical. It needs to be good for everything or it’s not good at all. So if I come over armed with either of these CDs please be prepared for tears. Tears in despair or ones of joy.