Monday, April 29, 2013

The Battle of the Shelby Lynnes

"Oh, no. I think I screwed up. This is an SACD."

Despite the fact that I'm trying to become educated about all the competing digital formats these days, I can still come off as a knucklehead at times. At the recent New York Audio Show, I went down to the marketplace to buy something interesting to play for the attendees--something that has become sort of a tradition for me. I headed straight for Acoustic Sounds because they've been steering me right lately, especially when it came down to that Sam Cooke LP I bought at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last October. Since we weren't playing vinyl at NYAS, I was looking for a show-stopper of a CD, something like the Lim hi-rez discs I purchased at AXPONA New York almost two years ago. The Acoustic Sounds booth was stacked to the rafters with LPs, however, and little silver discs were few and far between. But I saw something that caught my eye: Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin'.

I already had an LP copy of this back home. That's an interesting story in and of itself--Colleen and I got it in trade from Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio for a rare vintage Apple t-shirt. Jeff warned us that the LP was just a garden-variety pressing from the original release, not Chad Kassem's well-received remastering for Acoustic Sounds. I played it several times, however, and thought it possessed excellent sound quality. In addition--and this is a tribute to Jeff, an avid LP collector--this copy was pretty close to pristine. I thought to myself, "If the regular version is this good, I wonder how good Chad's version is!"

So I scooped up what I thought was the CD version of the Acoustic Sounds JALL and headed back to my room. In the elevator I removed the wrapper and then started seeing the SACD logo everywhere. "Crap," I thought, "this isn't going to play in our system." We were using the splendid MSB Platinum Data IV transport, which is NOT a universal player. I thought wow, I just blew $30 for nothing. I didn't want to return it to Chad and look like a doofus, so I started thinking about how I could sell it on eBay and cut my losses once I got home. Needless to say, it played perfectly with the MSB transport. I figured that the MSB had a few more features than I realized, so I thanked my lucky stars. The disc turned out to be a major hit at the show, one of the two or three CDs I played whenever I wanted to really "wow" the room.

When I got home, I found that my lucky streak had continued: my Unison Research Unico CDE player, which plays only CDs, had no trouble with this SACD. That's when I realized that most SACDs these days have a redbook CD player layer on them--the labels are just getting lax in mentioning this on the cover. Sure enough, upon closer inspection there was a tiny little "compact disc" logo in the lower corner.

Once I knew I could play the disc, I decided that a comparo was in order. The Acoustic Sounds SACD sounded so good at NYAS that I thought it could easily beat the non-Acoustic Sounds LP. To a certain extent, I was right. The bass guitar on the opening title track was far deeper and more fleshed out than on the LP. The dynamic contrasts, therefore, were just a shade more vivid. But with the first gentle touch of the ride cymbal, I noticed that the decay on the LP was longer and had more texture.

These basic signatures carried on throughout the rest of the comparison--the SACD was more quiet in the quiet passages (and this album revels in its quiet moments), and the bass was more authoritative and realistic. The digital version also sounded less grainy through the upper midrange and lower treble. But the LP contained so many sonic epiphanies--moments where the music just sounded far more real and convincing and delicate. Overall, I'd have to say it was a toss-up; I think both sound wonderful. I guess the ultimate version must be the Acoustic Sounds LP version--the best of both worlds.

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