The following was written in the early 2000s.
Who’s Next has been remastered for audiophiles many, many times, more often than not quite badly in our opinion. To be fair we should point out that our opinion has changed quite a few times over the course of the last twenty years.
This then is our story.
Back in the days when I was foolishly in the thrall of half-speed mastered audiophile pressings, I thought that the MCA Masterphile was king. That was probably the mid to late ’80s.
BRITISH TRACK LABEL ORIGINALS
By the early ’90s I had discovered how good the Black Label Original British Track pressings could be and started preferring those. A bit murky but tubey-magical, full and rich, precisely the way a good British rock recording (Faces, Jethro Tull) should be.
JAPANESE AND GERMAN
Of course by then I had played numerous Japanese and German pressings, none of which sounded right to my ears, then or now.
MCA HEAVY VINYL
In 1995 the MCA Heavy Vinyl version came out, mastered by Kevin Gray. I quite liked it at the time but no longer do; it’s brightened up and much of the fine detail of the recording is missing. It’s also notoriously badly pressed, resulting in stitches in the vinyl that are quite audible on practically every copy.
Then the Simply Vinyl LP came out and sounded amazing to me (at the time, who knows what I would think of it now). It soon went out of print and hasn’t been seen since. If the SVLP of Tommy is anything to go by, it was probably quite good, but no match for the real thing.
The Classic came along in 2005, and the story there is a complicated one. Classic had to cut that record many times before they managed to make the version that we know now. The first time around it was a disaster. But before I could put it on the site, they had recut the record, more than once it turns out. Eventually they got it to sound “good,” for Heavy Vinyl anyway. Our 2005 review can be seen below.
Who’s Next Hot Stampers
Back in 2007 we did a big shootout for Who’s Next, and as is so often the case, the shortcomings of the Heavy Vinyl version were mercilessly revealed when standing side by side with The Real Thing. Oddly enough, and contrary to expectation, even the domestic Decca label copies had amazing sound, not just the British Track label pressings I had favored for so long. (To keep from being influenced by biases of any kind, when we do these shootouts the listeners have no idea which pressing they are evaluating.) Allow me to replay some of the relevant commentary from our Hot Stamper Shootout.
The Classic Almost Rocks
In fact, let’s get right to the sound of that one. It’s actually shockingly good, better than it has any right to be coming from Classic Records. The bass is PHENOMENAL; no British Track pressing had the bass punch and note-like clarity of the Classic. It shows you the kind of bass you had no idea could possibly be on the tape. It reminds me a bit of the Classic pressing of the first Zep album: in the case of the Zep, it has dynamics that simply are not to be found anywhere else. The Classic Who LP has that kind of bass — it can’t be found elsewhere so don’t bother looking. (Don’t get me wrong; we’ll keep looking, but after thirty plus years of Track Who LPs, we kinda know when we’re beaten.)
The Who Sound
But what the Classic is missing is what the best Tracks have in spades: weight and whomp. There’s a POWER to the sound that the Classic only hints at. The crashing guitar chords that are the hallmark of The Who Sound in general and Who’s Next in particular lack the weight of the real thing; they don’t punch you in the gut the way Townsend no doubt wanted them to. (And Glyn Johns too, one of our favorite engineers of all time). Moon’s drums don’t blast away like cannons on the Classic. Folks, this is The Who’s sound. Everybody who’s ever seen them live knows it. (I saw them back in the day when Moon was still behind his kit and I’ll never forget it.)
I guess you can say that Classic did the best they could, but when you hear a good Track copy like this, one that can REALLY ROCK, there’s no going back. Playing the Classic you would never suspect that you’re missing very much of the Who Sound, but of course, in the world of records, everything is relative. You can’t know what you’re missing until the right record shows it to you. This is why we play so many copies of the same record — we’re looking for the one that has the sound we’ve never heard before.
I’m A Reissue
The other problem with the Classic is that, as good as it is, it has that “I’m A Reissue” sound all through the mids and highs. It can’t hold a candle to the good Brits in terms of sweetness, smoothness, spaciousness, richness, presence, life, texture and all the other things we talk about endlessly on our site.
Tubey Magical Acoustic Guitars? Not gonna happen on the Classic. British Track LP only. Multiply that times every instrument on the album and you have a list of what’s better about the Track.
You Want to Turn The Volume DOWN? Are You Out of Your Mind?
Now if you want to play this record at 70 db, little of this discussion will make sense. There are some dumb ideas floating out there in Audiophile land, but this has to be one of the dumbest. Anybody who plays a record like Who’s Next at moderate levels should be taken out and hosed down. How do you think Townsend went deaf, by playing his music too softly? He played his music LOUD because that’s the way he wanted you to hear it. Moon beats the hell out of his drums because he likes the sound of drums beaten HARD. If you don’t have the stereo to play this record right, don’t make excuses and DON’T make up bizarre theories about volume levels in the home. You’re not fooling anybody with those kinds of rationalizations. If your speaker distorts that’s your problem, pal. Don’t lay that trip on me.
Some of us have done our homework and take pride in what we’ve managed to accomplish. We’ve been challenging ourselves and our systems with records like Who’s Next and Aqualung for thirty years. We know how good these records can sound on systems that have what it takes to play them. If you’re not going to turn up the volume, don’t waste your money on a good Track pressing. Buy the Classic; at 70 db it will probably sound good enough. Spend the money you save on wine and cigars — an audiophile cliche of course, but one that tends to hold true in my experience for those who play their records quietly.
What follows is the commentary for the Canadian One Sided Half-Speed that we had at one time.
Getting It Exactly Backwards
Half of this record is Half-Speed Mastered! There’s an interesting story behind this album. Those of you who’ve been collecting audiophile records for a long time may remember that Who’s Next was as an MCA Masterphile Half-Speed Mastered pressing produced in Canada. I remember liking it back in the day, which had to be 15 years ago at least. But they are very rare and I haven’t played one in many years.
I ran into some sealed Canadian pressings of Who’s Next, and when I cracked one open to play it I noted it had Masterphile written in the deadwax on one side. Apparently they had made so few Masterphile pressings that the metal work was still useable and they decided to press some “regular” records with one of the stampers.
And I remember I used to tell people that the good side, side one, was the Masterphile side. Then three or four years ago, I had occasion to play the record. Lo and behold, side one was bright and phony, and side two was rich and sweet, like the good Track Label pressings! I had gotten it exactly backwards.
A recurring theme here at Better Records has to do with the phony sound of audiophile records that we used to like, and the more natural sound of regular records, which are the ones we like now. This is another example. The better your equipment gets, the fewer so-called “audiophile” pressings you will want to have in your collection. The upshot to this story? Side two sounds great on this copy!
Bottom line? The right Track pressing is still The King. We hope to have more to offer on the site in the months to come so stay tuned. And if we change our mind about which pressings we think sound the best, we will happily come clean about that too.
We Already DID Change Our Minds!
In the last few shootouts we’ve done the Decca Colorband originals are often, but not always, the winners on side two. They rock the hardest and have the best low end.