A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 8: Listening to Beethoven–or Do CDs Sound Better than LPs?)

Or do LPs sound better than CDs? Or, in the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Or is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation?

Just for fun, we decided to listen to several recordings of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (also known as Eroica). Just about every recording was an award winner, or the work of a notable conductor working with one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestras. People who are serious about their two-channel stereo systems often use classical recordings to test their systems because (a) the instruments are acoustic, unadorned by digital special effects, and (b) by and large, classical recordings are made by serious engineers working to the high standards of deeply experienced conductors and label executives.

karajan-beethove-3-dgWe started with one of the past century’s best–Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1961-2 for Deutsche Grammophon. I had just picked up a $4 LP, in very good shape, from Bop Shop Records in Rochester, NY. And I was anxious to do some critical listening with a more sophisticated phono stage pre-amplifier, the Sutherland Insight (which will be the topic of an upcoming article). Everything else in my system remained as it has been for nearly twenty years, except a replacement phono cartridge that’s easily five years old, the Shure Vx15. A very good system, but not an extravagant setup. We would be able to hear the recordings clearly. And we planned to test both LPs and CDs from various eras, various labels, to determine which we liked best. Not a scientific survey, but a reasonable way to spend a winter afternoon.

So: Karajan… Energetic, punchy, but the instruments were not clearly delineated from one another. The record looked pretty new, but we heard a lot of clicks and pops. Not much energy in the mid-highs or the mid-lows. A violin section sounded like a single, thick violin. Some strain evident–the playback was not as stable or confident as I hoped it would be. All in all, not we had hoped for.

eroica-bernstein2Next up: Leonard Bernstein from the same. Era. This was my LP, purchased decades ago, kept in it boxed set, played maybe ten times. This was a master work from Columbia Records at the label’s prime. The performance is ambitious, engaging, flowing–but the sound of the horns and the strings was compressed, very limited in highs and lows. We wanted to hear the depths of Beethoven explored by Bernstein in his prime–but the recording let us down.

eroica-toscanini1Before going modern, we decided to go for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, first on LP and then on CD, recorded in 1949–before stereo recording was available. This was state-of-the-art at the time, but the dynamic range was so limited on these recordings, they did not stand up to modern listening. Historical interest only.

colin-davis-beethoven-symI had high hopes for my treasured 1995 CD set from Colin Davis and the Staastkapelle Dresden. Sure enough the CD really delivered–a full range of highs, lows and everything in-between. Wonderful placement of instruments. Lots of clarity, distinct individual violins and basses, just the right horn sounds. I was excited–but somehow, the listening experience was a few marks less than thrilling. After Karajan and Bernstein, the passion felt a little lacking. A fine performance is not the same as a thrilling performance, and when I’m listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, I want to be thrilled. But the sound was more satisfying here than it was on any of the LPs.

Two more shots. Strangely, it’s the same Dresden orchestra, this time led by Herbert Blomstedt in the 1970s and released by the lesser-known Berlin Classics. Again, very good orchestra, very good conductor. This is digitally remastered, perhaps a strike against. The sound is a little thin, not as robust as the Karajan LP, but the performance is full-bodied and fun, if a little slow. The horns sound like horns, the violins sound like violins, there some separation between instruments, and it’s fun. Some of the highs are not reproducing perfectly, but they’re more than acceptable. And it’s a remastered CD. If there’s any logic to the argument that CDs are better than LPs, or vice-versa, I can’t even remember what I was supposed to think.

beethoven0371Now here’s my last one. It’s a digital remaster from 1963, a CD box that I didn’t even know I owned. It’s the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig led by Franz Konwitschny, a notable if not famous European leader. And it’s very good. The energy is there, the instruments sound like real instruments, and it’s compelling. And it’s a remastered CD. I’m listening now, and overall, it’s just plain better than anything else I’ve heard today.

How is this possible? A world class LP from one of the world’s most revered Beethoven conductors on one of the world’s most meticulous record labels, played on a very good stereo system, ought outdistance everything else in the category. Right?

Let’s give Karajan from 1962 another try. As it happens, I just found a box of all 9 Beethoven symphonies, on DG (Deutsche Grammophon), that I bought in very clean condition for $8. (The box was misfiled; I just spotted it.) I’m getting up to remove Konwitschny from the CD player to play a record–and I’m finding that I really want to listen to that CD. I’m engaged, involved…but I also want to finish and publish this article.

From the start, the Karajan is very good. The orchestra is towering, formidable, lovely and sensitive, propulsive. The musicians are spectacular. When the orchestra gets busy on a thick and aggressive passage, my room is filled with life and extreme energy. But the strings are thinner, the horns are less clearly defined, the highs not quite right, the lows are not offering quite the thrill I just heard on CD.

I want to hear this classic record properly, but I am maxing-out the capabilities of my current stereo system. My sense is that the Karajan, and probably the Bernstein, can and will sound better, perhaps much better, if I swap my lower-priced (though highly-regarded) cartridge for something better, a cartridge that excels in presenting mid-highs and mid-lows now so understated when I audition these LPs. I also hope the horns will be more stable, the strings and complicated passages reproduced without the strain that I can now hear too clearly, and the tympani will hit me in the solar plexus.

Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs.

At the same time, I am more and more confident that my CD player, though 20 years old, sounds quite wonderful, holding its own against my rapidly-improving analog phono setup. I hold the other components in equally high esteem. I am especially pleased with the improvements made possible by the Sutherland Insight, now holding the place long held by an inexpensive but competent phono stage–as a result of the Insight, I can hear all of my LPs with far greater clarity, punch, and fidelity to original instrument sounds.

Back to the original questions:

Do LPs sound better than CDs? – Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs. The answer depends upon the quality of the performance, the quality of the recording, and as we’ll see in future articles, the quality of the manufactured CD or LP (the pressing, etc.)

In the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Yes. Almost always. Except when the performance is so special, even a crappy recording does not detract from the pleasure of listening.

Is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation? Oh, there’s a plenty good answer. A very good performance on a very good LP can be spectacular, and the same is true of a very good CD. The quality of the equipment matters as much as the quality of the recording. And you can GREATLY increase the quality of the LP with surprising ease–by washing it. More on that in an upcoming article.



Best in Class

I guess I ought to begin with the obvious question: what is common thread that connects Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Adele, and Beyoncé?

The answer is Columbia Records. Founded in 1888, it’s probably the oldest record label. Along with sister labels Epic, Okeh, and a few others–set the standard for the U.S. recording industry for half of the 20th century. This story, now in book form by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, is, well, epic. The book is called 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story (the term “360 Sound” refers to a tagline associated with Columbia’s stereo LPs).


“(I Ain’t Got) Nobody” was one of the many songs that made Bert Williams famous. He was among the first non-white stars in the United States.

After some novelty acts, Columbia establishes a firm footing with vaudeville superstar Al Jolson; the great singer and comedian who later starred in the Ziegfield Follies, Bert Williams, and one of the fathers of country music, Emmett Miller. A short time later, John Philip Sousa joined the label (at the time, his full band could not be recorded due to early microphones, so the sound was thinner than it was in live performances). Add W.C. Handy, and an equally impressive range of classical performers.

Columbia became a major force in “race records,” recognizing, early on, White consumer interest in Black performers. From this era came Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and artists that those familiar with the genres continue to buy: Blind Willie Johnson, for example. There was country (and western) music, too: Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff. Next came jazz pianist Art Tatum, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. And Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby. And gospel music: The Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson. And that’s all before the organization really found its way.

(As I said, this is an astonishing story. It’s wave after wave of the superb artists in every genre, all working, at one time or another, for the same label, or cluster of labels.)

So here comes the 1950s with Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Glenn Gould, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney… and almost no rock n’ roll. Mitch Miller–a company executive and in his own right, a very popular recording artist as a leader of a singing group–was against the whole idea. Still, they were strong in every other genre–classical in particular, and jazz. It was here that Miles Davis recorded most of his best work, with Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and so many others. Unfortunately, although quite classy, there wasn’t much profit in classical, jazz or (most) Broadway recordings. Country was better: Flatt and Scruggs, Lefty Frizell, The Stanley Brothers, and eventually, Johnny Cash.

Along the way, there’s some tasty back-and-forth between Columbia and its long-time arch-rival (in just about every musical category), RCA Victor (which, in its golden age, was owned by RCA, which owned NBC to Columbia’s CBS). The two companies do their best to mess with the other, stealing artists, introducing competing record formats (the LP came from Columbia and the 45 came from RCA).

For a while longer, they stick with easy choices, and steer clear of the growing revolution: they sign Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis (who sells an insane number of records), and Robert Goulet.

Columbia RecordsAnd then, it happens. They sign Bob Dylan. Everything begins to change. Simon & Garfunkel come next. Suddenly, the cool jazz label, the reliable country label, the powerhouse classical label, becomes the unbelievably great rock label. The Byrds are covering Dylan songs and selling lots of Byrds and Dylan records. Donovan is signed to Epic, and debuts with a hit (“Sunshine Superman”). There’s a new executive in charge (much of the whole story is told through the eras of individual executives). His name is Clive Davis, and now, Columbia is the place to hear Janis Joplin and Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Leonard Cohen, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Chicago. They sign Earth Wind and Fire; Johnny Cash records an album at Folsom Prison; Monk and Miles are selling lots of jazz, with Miles into fusion, and appealing to rock audiences. And then, by the mid-1970s, there’s another wave of newcomers: Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen. A great story is becoming better and better.

And then, another wave, this time bringing Willie Nelson to the company and making him a star. The jazz story continues to heat up with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and a newcomer from the young lions of jazz, Wynton Marsalis. On the classical side, Yo-Yo Ma is becoming a star.

All of this is one company, basically one record label. Of course, the story continues through hip-hop, Ricky Martin, an aging Bob Dylan, Michael Bolton and Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child and John Mayer. Chris Botti and Joshua Bell.

Yes, they’ve been bought and sold, multiple times (now owned by Sony). For me, the best part of the journey (oh yes, Journey was one of theirs, too), the best part of this coffee table book, is the era that picks up in the early 1950s and winds down about twenty years later. That’s when CBS was a very special place, in part because Columbia was just about the coolest record label around. It’s a good story, fun because of the memories, remarkable because of the achievement. And, I think, the best way to experience the era is on the vinyl records that Columbia invented, most of them now available, used, for about $5 at just about any good used record store.

columbia labels

So, I’ve been thinking about other labels with equally rich histories. The Warner Music Group includes Atlantic, Elektra, Nonesuch, and Warner Bros. Records. Historically, Atlantic’s strengths have been R&B and rock; Elektra’s have been folk and rock; Nonesuch has evolved into something like a (smaller) modern day Columbia Records with interesting artists, Broadway, classical, and international; Warner Bros. is, more or less, a popular music label. The crazy history of the labels that became Sony Music now encompasses Columbia’s long-time competitor RCA (Victor) as well as the Columbia labels; in just about every category, from Broadway to classical to country, RCA and Columbia were head-to-head, and although I want to write that Columbia did it just that much better on the rock and pop side, I’m reminded of the Jefferson Airplane (less so, the Starship), John Denver and others from the heyday (none were Dylan or Miles Davis–so maybe Columbia did do it better). In classical music, the labels now assembled under the current Decca Label Group, now part of Universal, include London/Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, but neither attempted the breadth of genres associated with Columbia. Similarly, the likes of Verve, A&M, and other Universal labels, lacked the grand ambition (and, probably, the monies available from CBS). EMI’s story is more complicated, and although its U.S. division, Capitol Records, released many pop and rock records, and some Broadway, it never established the breadth of material available from Columbia.

So, in terms of wide-ranging, deep-repetoire, and long history, it’s Columbia Records and its best competitor, RCA (Victor), but I urge you to have a look at all that Nonesuch has done, too.

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