Why a Shootout?
Since 2009, two new issues of Grand Illusion have appeared on the scene. Each has a unique mastering job. For those who don't know, mastering is the final spit and polish added to a completed song or album mix before it is released. When CDs were released back in the 80s (GI's original issue on CD is now well over 20 years old), in some cases they were basically dumped on the market. That's why around 1990 or so you started to see a lot of "remasters" - mastering the final mixes again properly for CD, and not using, say, an old vinyl or tape master for the CD version.
Remasters of the Styx A&M catalog were announced around the time of the original hits packages in 1995/1996, but never released. The only time the Styx catalog has been remastered at all in the USA has been for compilations.
The discs used for this comparison are:
The original Japan for Japan pressing D32Y-3124 (which should be the same as all worldwide pressings like the USA for the most part).
The 2009 mini-LP sleeve Japan for Japan pressing UICY-93921, which is a SHM CD (click the link for more info on SHM)
The 2010 Audio Fidelity gold CD AFZ 067
I do have other pressings (like the original Japan-for-USA, USA, Canada, etc.), but three is enough (and all I really have time for).
For good measure, I'm also going to compare a few tracks to the following CDs:
Styx Greatest Hits (31454 0387 2, 1995, USA)
Styx Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (B0002104-2, 2004, USA), which was later renamed Gold
The latter of those two collections I know did use the master tapes, so it's a fair comparison.
Do these new issues of The Grand Illusion sound good? Let's find out ...
Important Note: All copies I am reviewing/comparing I paid for, so these opinions are in no way influenced by the fact something may have been free.
Basic CD Information
Track Listing and Timing Comparison (all times from Windows Media Player)
||31454 0387 2
|The Grand Illusion
|Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
|Come Sail Away
|Man in the Wilderness
|The Grand Finale
As you can see, all are close in timing except for the CSA: The Styx Anthology version of "Man in the Wilderness", which is the "long" version.
I'm not going to do anything like a null test to see if these are from the same source - digital or analog. Honestly, I don't care about the source. You can get good sound out of a copy, so the bottom line is the end result. Sure, coming direct from the original master is better, but it is NOT a guarantee of better quality.
Hands down the winner of the packaging is the SHM from Japan. It is a miniature reproduction of the original LP and its inserts, including the poster. The Audio Fidelity is not bad, and also includes a copy of the poster as well. The booklet has all of the lyrics, pictures of the LP rings, and the green color is a bit dark, but pretty good. The poster colors are a bit off - the skin tones are almost orange. Someone had fun with Photoshop. The original Japanese is actually pretty good all things considered, and I like the inserts better than its US counterpart. The back insert uses the original GI back cover, while the US pressings have those 80s digital numbers and such next to the track listings. Later US pressings have horrible color on the front inserts; it's like Universal/A&M gave up.
It's well documented out there that CDs have gotten louder over the years, hence you may have heard of the loudness wars. It's nothing new - it's been going on since the days of vinyl - but overly loud CDs can sound pretty bad and "crispy" for lack of a better term. This article is a pretty good summary, and has a link to a video you should check out.
Now, having said that, loud can be fine. Hitting digital 0 isn't bad. It's more about the overall tonality as well as the peaks - you can have loud and good. In that case, that's what a volume knob is for. If it has loud, crispy, and poor tonality ... well, you get the point.
So how loud are the various issues? Here's a comparison of "Come Sail Away" (from Adobe Soundbooth; ripped WAVs from each disc):
Note the copyright at the bottom of the page. Do your own rips for pictures. If I find these pictures on other sites like SteveHoffman.tv, I will ask for them to be removed.
31454 0387 2
Clearly the two loudest versions are CSA: The Styx Anthology and the Japanese SHM. Let's look at zooms of the same section from those two:
The SHM certainly hits digital 0 more, but there is no audible clipping which is the key. It is not Death Magnetic. There are still peaks and valleys, albeit not as many as other mastering jobs. Neither is brickwalled which the picture above would lead you to believe.
Again, do not let the picture of the waveform tell the whole story. Loud isn't necessarily better, but these two CDs are still quite listenable to. Those who live by the waveform and die by the waveform probably wouldn't go near them. I'm documenting this only because I know some people care.
So How Is the Sound?
With the loudness part out of the way, I can move onto what really matters: the sound.
I'll state this up front: I never had a major issue with the original GI CD. In fact, the original few Styx A&M CDs released 1987 or earlier (Kilroy, Paradise Theater, Cornerstone, Grand Illusion) all sound pretty decent. The others (Equinox, Crystal Ball, Pieces of Eight, and Caught in the Act ... Live) which came out between 1988 and 1990 sound horrible. I will also be honest here: if you can find it and afford it, get the Japanese SHM CD of Caught in the Act - it's worth it. It sounds great. More on the SHMs in another article which I will publish at a later date.
For fun, I gave a quick listen to one of my vinyl pressings of GI - one from Japan with a catalog number of GP-2048. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not miss vinyl, but for this comparison, I felt I should at least do some sort of "what captures the tonality of the vinyl". Quite honestly, I felt that particular pressing is a bit lacking in definition and a bit muddy, but certainly warm. I also listened to another vinyl pressing - the Mobile Fidelity (MFSL 1-026) half speed master from the late '70s. This pressing is better than the Japanese: less mud and more low end. It's evident on songs like "Man in the Wilderness", where the bass guitar has attack and bottom end bloom on the MoFi in a way that's not on the Japanese. Both pressings have decent low end, though and things like the Taurus bass synthesizer on "Man in the Wilderness" have low end punch. It's definitely more detailed, but a touch more more "polite", or restrained. I like its soundstage and overall tonality better than the Japanese vinyl. Like CDs, I have other pressings but two was good enough to get a sense of the vinyl, and the MoFi is particualrly valid because like the Audio Fidelity, it is considered more "audiophile".
All digital versions of the album sound it to some degree - and it's why I generally choose "Come Sail Away" as the main comparison as it's got everything (piano, synth, harmonies, guitars, full dynamics, etc.). Pianos as well as cymbals (and highs in general) can sound particularly harsh in digital when mastered wrong.
The D32Y Japan-for-Japan pressing (which I'm using to represent the "original" version on CD) isn't the loudest CD in the world (see waveform above), but has decent tonality - especially for something released in the mid-80s. The soundstage is nice and wide. As I said, I never had a big problem with it. "Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)" sounds pretty good here - a bit of that digital harshness on the highs (which is really only evident when you compare different pressings), but decent tonality. Tommy's 12-string acoustic sounds like an acoustic guitar. "Come Sail Away" also fares pretty well, but gets a touch muddy when it kicks in and the guitars are doing those arpeggiated runs. The piano is what you expect from an early 80s matering ... no surprises. The bass drum on the intro to "Miss America" sounds good, but the hi-hats sound harsh and have that digital sibilance. It also gets crowded when that song kicks in, meaning a bit of mud. "Man in the Wilderness", another challenging track in terms of dynamics and instrumentation, sounds good here. The bass guitar in the beginning has attack as well as bit of bloom. When cranked in volume, the Taurus bass synth in the middle part has decent low end as well. I don't have a subwoofer, but two large front speakers, and it drives them nicely. If you don't turn up the volume, it's a bit anemic. Where the limitations of the 80s come in here is with the cymbals - they just don't sound quite right or as good as other pressings. The early analog-to-digital converters were not great for some instruments as I pointed out, and the limitations can be heard in context of this copmparison.
If you go by the waveform alone, the Japan SHM CD released in 2009 is arguably the most radical mastering job. However, I feel it has excellent tonal balance from top to bottom. The bass blooms without being overpowering or getting lost, yet has definition. I do not find the highs harsh. Midrange is good as well. Where a song like "Come Sail Away" is going full blast with the arpeggiated guitars, they don't get as lost. The bass drum on "Miss America" sounds great, and the hi-hats sound like hi-hats ... in fact, I love the sound of the drums on this release. The "Castle Walls" bass in the beginning sounds good, not like it is coming from an AM speaker. It has nice bottom end. The Taurus bass pedals used in the middle section of "Castle Walls" sounds great here - no complaints; so do the tom toms John Panozzo plays. The stereo spread is not narrow, and I would say it's pretty wide. GI is a pretty atmospheric album, and having a wider stereo spread IMO helps it. The SHM's biggest problem is volume/loudness, but that's what my volume knob was made for if I don't want to crank it. It is a very analog sounding CD to my ears for the most part, with the exceptions being things like the intro to "Come Sail Away".
The Audio Fidelity sounds different than either of the two previous CD versions. What you notice is that it has a narrower soundstage which in my opinion is to its detriment. GI needs a wider soundstage, and the original pressings and the SHM have that. It makes the sound overall a bit more boxy and closed in. The tonality of the AF is pretty decent overall, but restrained is the word I would use. It loses the digital harshness of the original pressing on the highs and cymbals and definitely has more resolution. In fact, the cymbals sound pretty natural here. The title track and "Miss America" are great examples of the change in A-to-D converters in the past 25 years. When "Come Sail Away" kicks in a full tilt, it doesn't sound as muddy as the original, but I do feel the arpeggiated guitars get a bit more lost, maybe due to the new EQ. Something seems a bit off, and it's clear the original mix is a bit off after listening to this track a lot. A slight remix may not be bad. In "Man in the Wilderness", both the bass guitar and Taurus are spot on in tonality, but don't have good bottom end in my opinion.
The GI tracks on Greatest Hits from 1995 lose a lot of the digital harshness of the mid-80s GI CD. The soundstage is appropriate for the tunes (wide enough). I do feel that this release is a bit bass-shy, even when cranked. In some ways despite it being a bit bass-shy (although the kick drum on "Miss America" has good punch), I think this release splits the tonal difference pretty nicely. I would have been OK with remasters sounding somewhat like the tunes on this collection.
The GI tracks on CSA: The Styx Anthology are also very different, although both these tracks and the ones on Greatest Hits were both mastered by Bob Ludwig. There is definitely more detail and resolution (again, nearly 10 years of difference here in converters). While I like that aspect, I feel that listening to it now, the tracks are a bit more muddy overall in the EQ department. Things like cymbals and the acoustic guitar sound more natural, and the kick drum/hi-hats on "Miss America" sound good, I think it's a mixed bag. The arpeggiated guitars on "Come Sail Away" get lost a bit. They certainly sound good and this collection is the best bang for the buck (and most balanced). Part of the problem is that when doing a compilation like this, the tracks all need to sound a bit cohesive, so you have to take tracks from different albums and make them not sound like they are too dissimilar. The soundstage here is perfectly fine - no complaints there.
The Grand Illusion is my favorite album by any artist, period. I've listened to this album many, many times since really getting into Styx in 1983, so I know it well. None of these versions is what I would call "definitive"; they all have pluses and minuses. In the end it will boil down to preferences of what you like in sound and/or loudness. Different eras have different mastering styles, and the sampling I did shows that. One thing is apparent: GI was recorded very well. There's a lot of musical information to be had.
In terms of the two new pressings, I came a way a bit cold after listening to the Audio Fidelity. Between the narrower soundstage and the overall tonality, I can't help but feel it sucked some of the fun out of the album. A song like "Miss America" sounds too restrained; it needs to rock. A song like "Fooling Yourself" needs to sound open and airy; it doesn't here. "Come Sail Away" (its middle) and "Castle Walls" are moody; they aren't on this release. Overall, I'd say the AF is closer to the D32Y but with more resolution, slightly louder, and a narrower soundstage. Quite frankly, I feel GI loses its majestic nature on the AF, and this version feels like a missed opportunity since it's clear Universal/A&M will not be releasing album remasters.
The mini-LP SHM is a whole other ballgame. It's a lot of fun to listen to, and yes, you will probably need to turn the volume down. The low end is definitely goosed, but it certainly takes advantage of the full range speakers can provide. Despite its loudness, I'd probably reach for this copy first if I was listening to GI on CD if it was handy.
If you're happy with the current CD and don't have upgrade-itis, it's probably good enough. None of the digital representations of GI are an embarassment by any means, and the fact that the original CD still holds up pretty well says a lot. If I had to choose one of the two new ones, it would be the SHM over the Audio Fidelity for four reasons: soundstage, better EQ, better packaging, and more analog sounding than the original. Better luck next time, Audio Fidelity.
On a certain online forum, they're already knocking the review for a few reasons. Here are my responses:
1. Really? Do you need to know my equipment? I tried it on two different systems with different configurations, not to mention with headphones on my computer. My main system is not a $200 Fisher stereo, but it's not a $10000 system, either. You don't need golden ears or a massive stereo to hear a narrow soundstage.
2. To the poster who said "If his CD player is not HDCD capable he has not heard the AF disc at its best." One system can decode HDCD. It sounded NO better - HDCD does not fix poor soundstage.
As for the comment "The author of that review raves about the sound of the 2 disc Styx Anthology in a different review, which is heavily smiley faced over eq'd mess, IMO" - if you read my comments above with regards to CSA: The Styx Anthology I clearly don't prefer it in this shootout, and four or five years on, it is not my preferred mastering for the catalog for a lot of it. That review was written at a point in time, and quite frankly, I see no need to delete it if I've altered my opinion since. I stand by what I said then, and reserve the right to change my mind.
To the comment "Looks like SHM won over AF hands down!" - what part of the last paragraph are you not getting? I clearly state more than once that the original CD is just fine, but if I had to pick between the AF and the SHM, I'd take the SHM. It has more natural EQ, and is less clinical. The real killer of the AF is the soundstage. It saps the energy from a great album. I would rather take an album that is louder but more musical than one with less volume and less musical.
5. The AF isn't horrible, but it's not the best version out there. I'd still take the original CD over it. If you love the AF, great. I don't feel it's worth the $10 - $20 premium over the original, and your money could be better spent elsewhere. Go buy an overpriced piece of vinyl you want! :)