Guide to Audiophile LPs - Part 1 of 2

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Audiophile - in Latin 'lovers of sound'

Overview

It's 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.

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 in store so that you can replace cheap inner sleeves with these superior replacements.

Audiophile Labels

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL)

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.

See the range of new release MFSL LPs and MFSL LP rarities available in store.

Classic Records

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!

See the full range of Classic Records LPs available in store.

See Part Two of this guide.   
 
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