Comparisons Are Not Necessarily Odorous

From time to time, Rifftides readers have suggested that in evaluations of music I should pay more attention to sound quality. Like many musicians and critics, although certainly not all, I concentrate more on the notes than the reproduction. Once when Paul Desmond and I were listening to an ancient LP, I apologized for the scratches. Desmond was no technophobe; he loved the electronic wonders of his time. If he were around now, he would have an iPhone or a Blackberry, an iPod or a Zune–maybe all of those–and the best home theater and sound system available. But what he said that day was, “As long as I can hear what everybody’s doing, I don’t worry about scratches. It can be on a record, a tape or a strip of cellophane, for all I care. I listen to the music.” We agreed on that.

Audiophile sound, then, is not a primary requirement for my listening, but I appreciate it and have reasonably good equipment, so when Rifftides reader Michael Baldwin suggests a listening comparison, I’m willing to play along. Mr. Baldwin writes:

In a head-to-head comparison between the “Keepnews Collection” reissue CD series and the corresponding OJC CDs, which do you think sounds better? It seems to me that Joe Tarantino is utilizing the 24-bit remastering process well, and that the Keepnews versions uniformly sound better than their OJC counterparts, which are essentially flat transfers from the original master tape without any “futzing about.” Your opinion, please?

Orrin Keepnews produced the original recordings for Riverside, Milestone or Landmark. He co-founded Riverside and founded the other two. The labels are all now owned by Concord Music Group. Most of the recordings in the Keepnews series appeared in the first instance as long-playing vinyl records, then at least once as compact discs. This time around, engineer Tarantino remastered them with the latest digital technology and Keepnews produced them for reissue. For A/B comparison, I listened to the five most recent releases in the Keepnews Collection. They are:

McCoy Tyner, Fly With the Wind (Milestone)

Coleman Hawkins, The Hawk Flies High (Riverside)

Sonny Rollins, The Freedom Suite (Riverside)

Wes Montgomery, Incredible Jazz Guitar (Riverside)

Nat Adderley, Work Song (Riverside)

Nat Adderley.jpgFor the comparison, I fed two compact disc players into my sound system, played the OJC and Keepnews Collection CDs simultaneously and switched back and forth. I have no scopes or other test equipment. If I had, they might well show that the two players have different characteristics, although they sound the same to me when I do an A/B test playing identical copies of the same CD. The only test devices I own are attached to the sides of my head, so there is nothing scientific about my conclusions. To paraphrase Lester Young, I can’t tell you about your ears on your head, I can only tell you about my ears on my head. Your reactions might be more complex and extensive. Mine are simple.

In all five cases, I found that the stereo effect in the new versions is less dramatic than in the OJCs, that there was less inherent gain (volume) and that the high frequencies seem rolled off a bit. In general, the OJCs sounded brighter, more lively.

I must emphasize that I am splitting hairs. To apply the Desmond standard, in both versions I could hear what everybody was doing. These albums contain some of the best playing that Montgomery, Adderley, Hawkins and Rollins recorded in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and some of Tyner’s finest work of the ’70s. If you own the OJCs, I see no reason to ditch them in favor of the OK Collection versions. If you own neither and buy the new releases, you will have high quality reproductions of five imperishable old masters.

Make that six old masters. Mr. Keepnews deserves a lot of credit for preserving this music in the first place, and each CD in the OK Collection includes a new essay with his recollections and reevaluations.

The Rifftides staff invites you to use the comment function at the end of this item and let us know the results of your own comparison test.  

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  1. GordonSapsed says

    I found your comments about the Keepnews remastering interesting. I have poor hearing, due, they say, to damage from too much supersonic flying many years ago. However, two totally separate friends have commented recently on how much brighter and clearer the remastered Sinatra tracks sound on the recent “Nothing But The Best’ album. We have already bought that music twice – presumably they are shaping up for another release before CD finally goes, and then …..

  2. Jon Foley says

    I don’t own the Keepnews versions of the CDs you mention, but I did get the Keepnews reissues of Bill Evans’s “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” and also “The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In San Francisco,” and there are differences – but they’re subtle. The sound seems somehow “clearer,” which is not a suitable term in audio technology, but it’s the best I can come up with. I don’t think everyone with the original OJC’s should rush out and get the new ones; it’s not that huge a difference. But you’ll enjoy the Keepnews versions if you do get them.