Trying to evaluate and compare audio quality can be a dispiriting exercise, not least because most of us appear content to listen to music on tiny earphones attached to mobile phones that fail to eliminate the sound of the outside world unless you turn up the volume beyond 11 and risk getting Brian Johnson’s ears.
Recent audio innovations – SACD, surround sound – have failed to take off for lack of interest. But among the small but growing minority who prefer to play their music on vinyl, a format that was deliberately killed off in order to sell CDs but refused to die, audio quality still matters.
And it is for these people that Universal Music, together with the famous Abbey Road Studios, is launching a series of half-speed mastered albums. In essence the master source is played at half its recorded speed, and the cutting lathe that etches the grooves into the record is also run at half speed, enabling more sound information to be etched into the groove.
Obviously it’s a lot more technical than that, but the result is a significant improvement in the middle and treble sounds, more bass and a better stereo image. You don’t need a turntable that costs a second mortgage to appreciate the improvements either. You can hear the difference on an ageing bog-standard Pioneer deck that’s been exhumed from under piles of magazines and (ahem) CDs.
Analogue fundamentalists may be disappointed to learn that the master source of the six albums that launch the series – which are pressed on 180-gram vinyl and come with the original packaging that includes, for example, the set of postcards tucked into the sleeve of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St (7⁄10) – are digital transfers from the original analogue master tapes.
But then the original quarter- or half-inch masters don’t get out much these days, and the digital transfers are good enough to show up not only the clear, spare sound of Free’s Fire And Water (9⁄10), John Martyn’s Solid Air (8⁄10) and The Police’s Ghost In The Machine (8⁄10), but also the relatively poor quality of the tapes of Cream’s Disraeli Gears (5⁄10) and the intrusive 80s production values of Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream (6⁄10), hence the low scores for some of these reissues.
More interestingly, some of the albums sound better through hi-fi speakers than the remastered CDs which sound as if they have been remixed for those crappy earphones. Has someone been messing with our ears?