Hold on to those old CDs! The best sounding version of a song may not be the new “Remaster”


I have been ripping all of my CDs using EAC (Exact Audio Copy.) as bit perfect FLAC files to my media server for the last six months. This process and the ability to instantly compare one version of the same song of an artist to another version has made it easy to compare the audible differences between different releases of that same song.

The newest “Remaster” may or may not be the best version from an audiophile’s viewpoint. The advent of the iPod and the desire of music executives and some misguided artists caused a crazy downward spiral of musical fidelity by compressing the music to make it louder either for the iPod or to have a louder product that some music executives think sells better.

I have had quite a few people ask me why I have so many different versions of the same song by the same artist on my music server. The answer is simple: You have to listen to all of them to ascertain which one has the best sound. It may be the latest “remastered” version or it may be the original CD release, or it could be a specialty “audiophile version”.

Here are some of my observations: I pulled up four different releases of Elton John’s “Nikita”, one from the original album CD release “Ice on Fire (1985)”, another from “To be continued(1990)”, another from Greatest Hits Volume III (1987)” and from “Greatest Hits 1970-2002 (2002)”. I proceeded to compare all of these versions going back and forth over and over again. What may be surprising is that they all sound different. Surprisingly the best sounding version is the one from “Greatest Hits Volume III” from 1987. I would have thought that the best sounding version would be from the “Greatest Hits 1970-2002” as that version is the latest and a dual layer SACD Hybrid disc. I am only comparing the ripped CD versions, but the CD version on the SACD Hybrid disc should have been mastered from the same DSD version used for the SACD layer. However, the best sounding version is from the 1987 release on “Greatest Hits Volume III”. I repeated this procedure with many other different artists such as the Beach Boys, Elvis, Abba, Bob Dylan and others. The results were the same; there was always one version of a particular song that stood out from the others.

I can only postulate that the different versions may have been mastered by different mastering engineers or the mastering equipment (i.e. the A to D converters, the alignment of the master tape to the tape machine used for mastering, etc.) or the actual tape used to master from may have been different. (Maybe a safety master, which by definition would be a 2nd generation tape)

Of course it is a well known fact that there are remastering engineers that are legendary in their ability to get the job done right. Steve Hoffman and Bill Inglot are two engineers that always seem to find the real master tape and make the best sounding transfers preserving all of the available dynamic range with the best resolution. So, if you see something mastered by them, it is probably the best version available.

What’s the moral of this story? Don’t sell those old versions of songs you like, they could be the best version. Don’t try to preserve disc space (hard drive space is now cheap) if you are ripping your discs to a media server. Rip all versions of the same song by the same artist in a lossless format such as FLAC; you will then be able to easily compare them.

I would be interested to hear what observations any of you Secrets Readers may have had regarding this subject…..

Greg Mahoney

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