Ella v. Ella

As if to say "Take That!", a few days after my Nirvana Nevermind post, I received an email from David Chesky of HD Tracks which eventually led to a complimentary download of Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! ($24.98). I had two choices, 96kHz/24bit and 192kHz/24bit and I opted for the latter. I figured it would be fun comparing it to my old Verve LP of the same title.

First let's get the associated's out of the way:

Analog: Rega P3/Denon 103/Auditorium 23 step up > Auditorium 23 Interconnects > Leben RS-30EQ Phono Preamplifier > Auditorium 23 Interconnects > ...

Digital: MacBook Pro/Pure Music > AudioQuest Diamond USB > Ayre QB-9 > Shindo Interconnects > ...

...Leben CS-300SX Integrated Amplifier > Auditorium 23 speaker cable > DeVore Fidelity The Nines

I bought my LP of Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! used since I was < 1 year-old when it came out in 1961 and my father thought it an extravagance to buy a few-month-old a record no matter how much I cried. So my LP isn't in perfect shape (but compared to me, I'd say the LP has aged much better—my knees pop louder and I've certainly developed more ticks). But let's get right to the heart of it, who wins? Analog or Digital?

My grandfather was a carpenter and if he visited your home and a door didn't close smoothly, he'd get his plane and scrape away at it until it did. Of course we're talking about back when doors were made of wood and you could form them to fit. To my ears, better digital sounds like a master carpenter has taken a plane to it. Ella's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! at 24/192 sounds silky smooth. It's purely a pleasure to listen to and if you want to listen into Ella's stunning voice until you nearly drown in delight, this delivers the goods.

Compared to the LP, the whole affair also sounds ever so slightly less exciting. But it also sounds more resolute and flawless as if our view onto the performance has been brushed clean and clear and is only hindered by the fact that we were not there and our accumulated technologies and electronics are doing their damnest to make us forget that distance. Bravo! The HD Tracks download also adds three additional tracks to the LP version including the ever so delectable "I Got A Guy" which alone is worth the price of admission (if I'd paid and I gladly would have).

The Dance, Henri Matisse (1909) Museum of Modern Art

But what is it about an LP that gives it an edgier edge? Is it its imperfections that threaten to intrude at any moment adding an underlying tension to the listening experience? Do I just love a distorted view? I don't really think that's it. I think the difference between listening to vinyl and a digital file has more to do with things you don't listen to or for. It has more to do with The Entire Experience. After all, once sound leaves your speakers and enters your room as music, all bets are off in terms of intellectualizing the listening experience (at least I'd hope so unless you're working). And of course if you wanted, you could download Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! right now as opposed to trekking out to a used record shop with no assurance that you'll find a copy let alone a copy worth buying. You may have to wait.

Of course we're also comparing hardware (and software) since you cannot play an LP without a turntable and a cartridge cannot track ones and zeros. Which brings me to my one real complaint and that's with Verve's choice of Jean Dubuffet's painting "Tete d'une Femme" for the LP's cover which strikes me as too brut for Ella. I'd have gone with a Matisse myself.

But that's really what we're talking about—Dubuffet or Matisse. Analog or digital. Each presentation is simply a different view onto the same event and whether we prefer one or the other is not nearly as important as the fact that the more important factor is connecting to the work of art at hand. And I'd say we're in the supremely fortunate position to have a choice between the greater of two goods.

Vincent Kars's picture

I wonder if this is about the difference between vinyl and digital only.

In general the guys selling hires won’t tell you what the source is but if it is analog, there is a whole chain of processing applied (AD, mastering) to get the ‘new’ digital recording.

Might explain the differences too.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...who look for promo copies of LPs believeing that these early pressings are typically better sounding than later runs. Based on what I've heard, I'd have to agree.

So yea, mastering, pressing, re-mastering, re-pressing, and processing can certainly add to perceived difference. That said, I believe an important aspect of the listening experience has more to do with the associated ritual than sound quality.

DeFgibbon's picture

interesting to compare the hrez download to something like the new 45RPM Analog Productions LP. More apples to, er, apple-colored oranges...

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Yes, the 45rpm release would make for an interesting comparison and we might as well add in the 24/96 version and SACD although I'll need to take out a second mortgage to compare more than 2 releases.

deckeda's picture

...was how some titles have been dynamically compressed compared to earlier releases of the same recordings. If it was Chesky's intent to prove not all downloads he sells are afflicted, that's great but no one ever claimed otherwise, as far as I'm aware.

It's telling however, that he didn't pick a major artist pop or rock release. I have yet to hear of anyone complaining about old jazz being a problem there.

The rest of your piece regarding the ritual of LPs is far more interesting but there isn't enought time or space here to comment about that, admittedly another topic.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I was making that part up, "As if to say...". I honstely don't know why I was treated to this Ella download but my guess is David Chesky thought I'd enjoy it. And I did.

I've seen people complain about a lack of energy above 22k as well as the dynamic compression issue but this is another story. Here's a favorite quote on LPs,

"And every time, this thought hit me: It wasn’t a record she was handling. It was a fragile soul inside a glass bottle." Haruki Murakami from South of the Border, West of the Sun