by Robert Cowlin
Poor old CD takes a regular bashing from so called audiophiles and even the mainstream media, which is a shame because it remains the cheapest and most convenient way to get high quality sound, printed artwork, and transportable lossless audio data. Despite this, a significant number of people have decided that CD is not for them and are ditching their collections in favour of vinyl (under the assumption that it always sounds better) or streaming. Contrary to popular opinion, CDs manufactured in the 1980s generally have very good sound quality. Ironically, we have the laziness of the record labels to thank for all of the wonderful sounding vintage CDs that are now swamping the secondhand market. In their haste to take advantage of the fledgling digital format in the 1980s, great swathes of EQ’d cutting masters from the vinyl years were pulled from the shelves and hurriedly transferred to digital with minimal additional processing. Added to this are the then-contemporary releases that were mostly treated very well (up to c.1994) and often came with bonus tracks to promote the new format. The result is that there is now a great wealth of catalogue titles just waiting to fill gaps in every music fan’s collection for very little outlay. One need only add the simplest of playback devices (such as an iPhone and a good pair of headphones, or an old DVD player outputting digitally to a low-cost DAC like the Musical Fidelity V90) and good sound is ready and waiting. Much like in the 1990s when vinyl was a buyers’ market, so too in the 2010s is CD a buyers’ market. As anyone who has read these pages will know, buying music isn’t as simple as getting something on one’s preferred format (if only!), not if one wants to hear a recording in the best possible sound. Unfortunately the purchasing of music on CD is just as problematic as it is with vinyl. With this short post, I’d like to draw your attention to some particular types and series of vintage CDs that pretty much guarantee good sound quality. Next time you’re shopping for used CDs, keep these in mind!
So called because the label design resembles a crosshair, Target CDs were released by WEA in the early to mid 1980s. They are collectable from a historical standpoint because they are the original issues and thus represent the first time these albums were released on compact disc, they are also generally “flat transfers” of the tapes used. They were predominantly pressed in West Germany and Japan and are most likely sourced from EQ’d production masters originally intended for vinyl with no additional processing, compression, or noise reduction applied during mastering. Target CDs (and their associated “Target masters”) were later reissued as standard silver-faced CDs and some of them (like Rumours) are still in production today which means one can still purchase Target masters without paying the collectable price.
Toshiba EMI “Black Triangle” CDs:
“Black Triangles” are first generation CDs manufactured by Toshiba EMI Ltd in Japan during the initial launch of the CD format in 1983. Most stayed in print for less than a couple of years (some, like Abbey Road, much less), and are highly sought after because they are reasonably faithful transfers of the Japanese master tapes used for each title. These discs have a very natural unprocessed sound, particularly when compared to the officially sanctioned versions that British EMI released after 1986.
Original Jazz Classics (OJCCD):
Now for something a little cheaper and easier to find. Original Jazz Classics is a reissue label created in 1982 by Fantasy Records to present classic jazz albums from the Fantasy-owned labels (Prestige, Riverside Records, Milestone Records, Contemporary Records) with their original artwork and liner notes. Over 1,000 titles to date have been reissued as part of this series. Initial OJC releases were on vinyl and cassette, but they started pressing CDs in the mid-1980s which resulted in a huge array of previously rare titles being reintroduced to mainstream jazz fans and critics to much acclaim. In general, OJC CDs are very faithful to the original master tapes and can be purchased for less than £3. They’ve gotten some negative press in recent years because they sound a little soft and quiet next to overly processed remasters, this isn’t helped by the fact that OJC themselves reissued some of their catalogue as 20-bit remasters in digipaks in the late 1990s with an OJC20 catalogue number prefix – these are to be avoided. An original OJC master can be identified from its packaging, which uses traditional black CD trays and often has a late-1980s “digital remastering” credit on the back, and OJCCD catalogue number prefix. They are almost universally a safe buy, plentiful, and cheap. Many incredible jazz recordings are available through OJC, of particular note are Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus (OJCCD-291-2) and the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debby (OJCCD-210-2). Some of the OJC catalogue is available for streaming on Tidal and continues to use the original CD masters created in the 1980s.
In 1986 MCA Records revived the 1960’s jazz label Impulse! for a brief series of reissues. The mastering engineers involved with this project went uncredited, but it is known that veteran audiophile engineer, Steve Hoffman, worked on twelve of these titles in the early days of his career, with other respected engineers working on the rest. “All sourced from the original tapes with the exception of A Love Supreme, which was from the original Bell Sound cutting tape“. A list of releases in this series can be found here.
Island Masters (IMCD):
This series was initiated by PolyGram in 1989 and focused on reissuing good selling records from the Island catalogue at “mid-price” level. Sound quality is generally very good and faithful to the original recordings with the Cat Stevens and Free catalogues getting praise from fans and audiophiles to this day.
The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs:
Also known as The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music and The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs, this indispensable tome is a must buy for all classical music fans. The annual publication ranks and reviews currently available recordings of classical music, awarding points for both performance and recording quality. It makes the purchasing of classical music – which can be a minefield – much easier for novices and experienced collectors alike, which brings me on to…
Holst – The Planets (OSM/Dutoit), Decca 417 553-2, 1987:
Every music fan should own a copy of The Planets, and the OSM/Dutoit recording from 1987 is the way to hear it. Generally regarded as the greatest performance of Holst’s most popular work, this award-winning recording represents the pinnacle of late-1980s digital engineering with out-of-this-world dynamics and realism. If you only ever buy one piece of classical music, it should be The Planets.
Albums recorded and released in the 1980s and early-1990s:
Original CD issues of ’80s and early ’90s recordings are generally considered the best sounding for a given album. Of course, these should be considered on a case-by-case basis, but the proliferation of extremely harsh sounding modern remasters, especially of ’80s rock and pop, often makes the purchasing decision pretty easy. It is also worth remembering that, by the mid-1980s, most major studios had moved over to digital recording and the CD masters were given preference over analogue ones (frequently analogue masters were simply D/A transfers), with vinyl being pressed in increasingly poorer quality in an attempt to persuade consumers to buy the CD. The quality of vinyl records got even worse in the 1990s as CD became the dominant format.
Care, back-up, playback:
If properly cared for, a CD should last for a very long time and exhibit no playback degradation. Collectors of used CDs are advised to keep a micro-fibre cloth handy to wipe clean any soiled discs, more heavily damaged discs can sometimes be returned to full playing order with an ultrasonic cleaning machine that one would use to clean jewellery with. The best way to ensure accurate playback of all discs is actually to rip them to a lossless file format and play the resulting rip, this method offers an error-free form of playback and CD rips can be backed up for peace of mind. Most importantly, CD rips can be made with error-correction that isn’t time-limited and therefore malfunctioning discs can be rescued. The British Library uses dBpoweramp CD Ripper to back-up its CD collection with AccurateRip enabled for ensuring that the rip is an exact 1:1 copy of what’s on the disc. AccurateRip works by comparing binary data from your rip with a user-generated database. If your data matches another user’s (or, as is often the case, many other users’) it is highly likely that your rip is accurate. It is also important to use a CD drive with a high level of accuracy to make CD ripping easy and fast. Using AccurateRip data, it is possible to ascertain which drive is the most accurate. As of 2016, it is the LiteOn IHAS124, which can be purchased for less than £20 (CD/DVD Drive Accuracy List 2016).
Modern digital playback is source-transparent and reveals the excellent sound of many vintage CDs. A perfect sounding budget-conscious setup might consist of the highly regarded Marantz CD5005 CD player, vintage NAD 3020 amplifier, and Wharfedale Diamond speakers for less than £500. Alternatively, the Audioquest Dragonfly is a USB powered digital-to-analogue converter and headphone amplifier, capable of driving many high quality headphones from your laptop, phone, or tablet. This device paired with an award-winning headphone, like the AKG K550, can cost as little as £200 and offers brilliant sound quality. It’s never been easier to get good sound on a budget, so hunt down a bunch of vintage CDs, get yourself a good quality digital player, and enjoy pure perfect sound forever!