The energy that record companies devote to ensuring their consumers buy the same music over and over again never fails to astonish me. I suppose it all began in the 1970s when independent companies such as Mobile Fidelity began offering ‘half-speed remasters’ of popular best-selling rock albums, particularly those that attracted audiophiles in the first place.
Then along came the CD with its supposedly miraculously large dynamic range and scratch-free reproduction. Again, those same best-sellers were pushed onto that format, complete with a price premium to match those ‘half-speed remasters’, and what did we find? A very variable result, with some recordings well-mastered even from the earliest days (I have excellent CD versions of Wire’s Pink Flag, and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus dating from those early days), but many sounding somewhat lifeless compared to LPs. a few sounding downright bad.
So began the CD remaster. Some in the 1980s, a lot more in the 1990s and 2000s. In some cases, they really do sound a lot better than their precursors. In others, marginally so. Some sound merely as if they have been remixed to boost the bass, some sound genuinely opened up with more detail coming through. But it is all a matter of degree. And, in a movement of sweet irony, much of this music is recompressed, reduced in sonic quality and recycled as mp3, WMA or iTunes. Portability easily trumps fidelity in most people’s estimation.
Now we are moving into DVD audio and SACD, allowing 5:1 and more remixes for home theaters and supposedly even greater fidelity. In strict signal terms, yes, the greater bandwidth of these new formats allows for even greater fidelity to the original source. But for most of us, it doesn’t matter at all.
For me the best thing about CDs was the removal of all those scratches and hisses. I was never such as audiophile that I really cared that much about the sonic imperfections of the earlier CDs. Certainly I can hear the improvements in the remasters. Sure they are nice, but they don’t really alter whatever artistic value I get from the music. Two speakers, mostly just headphones, are all I am ever going to want for music reproduction so the multichannel enhancements are essentially meaningless. In truth, I’m not even sure the jump from mono to stereo was really that significant. I prefer to spend my cash on seeking out some fresh and new music rather than buying yet another copy of Dark Side Of The Moon.