Monday, 3 February 2014

The Beatles White Album HD Audio v CD v Vinyl

Detailed comparison of the HD 24bit Audio, CD and Vinyl 2009 stereo release of the The Beatles White Album

So the other reason to start really looking at HD Audio was a that Doug, a good friend asked me whether it was worth getting into High Definition Audio, and specifically about the Beatles 24bit "Apple" USB Stick: "Is this anything special?".  My answer was probably not, but we've had a plan to try and verify that for a while for and this is a major step towards.

So there are two parts to that "Is this anything special?", the remastering part and the HD part.  On the 2009 version versus 1968 I'm not really a qualified enough Beatles fan to know, so that is a future back to back listen with Doug.  This was an early listen to look at the 2009 versions at a technical level and which ones to take forward to that listen.

The 2009 HD 24bit USB stick is a bit controversial as it doesn't provide a 96khz+ version, only 44.1khz.  Conspiracy theory out there goes that this is to hold back a final, ultra premium 96khz or 192khz version as a money making exercise.  Other opinions are that this was just an unadvoidable result of technical decisions early on in the big remastering project, when high resolution audio trend hadn't really taken hold.  On balance of probabilities I'm guessing the second, but you never know.

So into the test went the CD 16/44.1, the USB 24/44.1 and the Vinyl - the 2012 release from the 2009 remaster - i.e the same as the Digital ones




I again didn't do a lot of pre-reading on the three version on them deliberately.  However when back when I first talked about this and researched the lack of a 96khz, I remember there being a lot of discussion about whether the 24bit one was or wasn't better, so I expecting it to be a lot more close.

I did though put both tracks through the Dynamic Range Checker - this time, both scored the same respectable 9.

Equipment
As with Muse test 
This again means that the 568 will be up-sampling in this case both the CD and HD audio.

Test Method
Again equalized Sound Pressure Level (SPL) with a meter between the sources this time to about 92db at peaks.

For digital testing, using the same 1 song, 20 track (10 HD, 10 CD) playlist blind randomised, and then playing 5 back to back blind,  marking each A or B, and then comparing to the versions that had played.

I did this over four tracks

  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Blackbird
  • Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  • Back in the U.S.S.R

For vinyl, playing the vinyl 30s or so ahead of the digital and manually switching back and forth to the digital through most of Side 1 Disc 1.

Results
Complete failure to differentiate at all between the two digital versions.

I wasn't expecting a big difference between the two, but my A/B marking scores were nearly exactly as good as just randomly guessing.  At various times I thought I could hear the faintest of things in the big 2nd guitar entry "GRAAANGG", at the start of USSR, but back to back ABX style listening proved I utterly couldn't back that up.

It was rather sobering.

Vinyl again sounded very good, but this time, the stereo difference was marked.  The very clear decisions in the remaster of LEFT or RIGHT for certain things, and where voices singing over each other in chorus which seems to happen on a lot on these tracks, were much more clearly further out to the sides in the digital.  Not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.  Generally the remaster is going for a very clear new sounding sound, and very clearly a STEREO sound as far as I can hear and ultimately I though the CD version suited it better.  I'd still say that the vinyl was slightly more musical, but it didn't seem to be what the remaster was going for, so for once I didn't prefer it.

Discussion
Not being able to scientifically separate CD and HD versions was very disheartening, even if not hugely surprising.  I had kind of thought it might be the case, but was determined to hear something, however I really couldn't back any differences up at all. On the plus side, I got to listen to a lot of the White Album, that to my shame, I'd never listened to at all before as an album, though many tracks individually.

In terms of what does this show about HD audio I'm not sure really very much.  I'm sure the limiting factor with this master from 1968 is not the digital technology, but rather the original recording.  I'm also not saying that there isn't a difference between the two digital sources, just that I can't reliably tell that difference enough to tell them apart.

I was really surprised that the vinyl didn't come out better.  But there you go.  Annoyingly, the vinyl is a lovely thing, and I'd much prefer to listen on it if sitting down to actually listen for pleasure, so I'll just now have to do so, knowing I slightly preferred the sound of the CD version in this case!

Conclusion

The Apple 24bit USB CD is a convenient way of buying all of the Beatles back catalog at theoretically the highest quality.  However you shouldn't bother upgrading your system for high definition sources just to get this version, as if you want the remasters, the CD (to my ears) are basically as good. 

Post Script

This version or a really good 24/96 rip of it appears in some Beatles circles to be the definitive audiophile version. This Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version, appears to be massively collectable and hugely expensive. So Thousands!, rather than Hundreds for the Apple CD

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