Steely Dan—Aja

Onderstaande recensie van de Japanse SHM-SACD/DSD remaster van Steely Dans meesterwerk “Aja” verscheen eerder op (het sindsdien gearchiveerde) SA-CD.net (op 25 februari 2015)

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I have been listening to this version of Aja since it was released in 2010, and so far hesitated writing something about it here. But the many contradicting reviews posted here made me decide to put my two cents worth in, and it goes without saying, this review remains wholly my subjective point of view—I’m not claiming that, for example, those who faulted this edition for sounding even worse than the RBCD remaster have cloth ears. It all depends on context (type of equipment, room acoustics, personal physiology, or indeed the psychology behind the false implication that is implicit in “I spent an enormous amount of money on this, so it better be way better than the RBCD”).

I won’t make any comment on the musical quality of this album. Many if not most SD fans will concur with me that it’s an undisputed masterpiece within their oeuvre. So that’s a full *****.

Just for the record: I have the first (2010) pressing SHM-SACD, not the second print of last year. Apparently, they have different serial numbers: mine is UIGY-9026. The 2014 reissue should have UIGY-9591, but this difference should be immaterial (unless they somehow messed up the second print, which we shouldn’t assume).

I compared the SHM-SACD at issue with the guaranteed best vinyl version out there, now deleted: i.e. the 30th anniversary all analog HQ 180gr LP issued by Cisco (company now defunct), mastered from the analogue tapes by Kevin Gray and Robert Pincus at AcousTech Mastering, 2007. I shall occasionally also say something about the 1999 remaster, which I have in a Japanese (2001) pressing (if that matters anything). That 1999 remaster is thoroughly satisfactory in its own right, considering how loud most redbook remasters are—at any rate, the Aja redbook remaster doesn’t suffer in the slightest from the loudness disease. But that doesn’t mean you could just as well substitute it for this SHM-SACD.

The equipment used is, for the vinyl, not just any old entry-level turntable, but a Nottingham Analogue Ace Spacedeck turntable with matching tone-arm, Ortofon 2M Bronze cartridge (fine-line diamond stylus, MM). My amp is an old-fashioned (but not old!) true-analogue Audio Analogue Puccini Settanta rev 2.0 analogue integrated amplifier (so nothing digital in there in contrast to the receivers that many who standardly prefer to listen in MC mode will use). The SACD is played on the excellent Sony workhorse SONY SACD XA5400ES (with internal straight DSD>analogue conversion). My speakers are pretty neutral (Opera floor-standers). No further gimmicks. Just the sound of the vinyl and SACD respectively, as it should be. I should stress again that my Sony does not convert to PCM before converting to analogue, so there’s a straight path from the DSD encoding to analogue (which comports with the fact that this SHM-SACD was a straight DSD transfer of the analogue tapes, as clearly indicated in the cover). Why all this fuss about which equipment I used? Well, as for the SACD, I think the fact that the signal path is not via PCM, and no PCM was involved in the mastering, could (!) make the difference between slating and praising this SHM-SACD.

I found that it is also important, when comparing it to the 1999 remaster, that it should be played at high volume. The relative benefits of the SACD will then become clear quite audibly. When played at lower volumes, there appears to be less notable difference between the SACD and the 1999 redbook.

For me, the Cisco vinyl is the gold standard for Aja: once on the platter, and the stylus hits the groove, you’re in for an auditory euphoria. Extremely wide dynamic range, fantastically deep soundstage, stunningly great clarity for all instrumental and vocal parts. It’s one of the vinyl records that I own that really make you believe that vinyl IS indeed better than any digital—it isn’t overall of course, all things considered. Of course, you also need to have a more than decent cartridge and turntable to be able to extract the fine details of the Cisco.

So how does the SHM-SACD compare? Well, not bad at all!

Track no. 1 (“Black Cow”): great clarity of the hi-hat, good separation of bass, brass, hi-hat, and drum, both kick and snare. Guitar is satisfyingly detailed. Female backing vocals are pleasantly clear and smooth. Electric piano is slightly reverberant, but that is perhaps due to the nature of the instrument, although on the vinyl this is no problem at all. Good clarity overall.

Track no. 2 (“Aja”): Steve Gadd’s extraordinary drumming on the title track comes across effortlessly, massive and thumping, without loss of detail. Vibes subtle in the background. The clip-clop percussion in the background seems a little clearer than on vinyl. Piano clear, no distortion at all. However, compared to the Cisco, at times there is a slight glare hanging over the ensemble play, as if the instrumental arrangement is too tight. Although, as said, Steve Gadd’s drumming comes across superbly, it has just a little less punch than the sheer power you, as listener, are confronted with on the Cisco, the overall presence on the SACD seems somewhat flatter. But this is really nitpicking, as the SACD sounds incredibly good and with plenty of oomph. The 1999 remaster (in my Japanese version) is not bad at all in this track, but it just lacks that last bit of crispness and extra dimension—and I mean dimension in the geometrical-spatial three-dimensional sense.

The dry snare on track 3 (“Deacon Blues”), played by Bernard Purdie, quite the different drummer from Gadd, is equally well conveyed on both SACD and the Cisco vinyl. But again, as for the SACD, the electric piano is perhaps somewhat more reverberant on the SACD. The guitar parts are a fraction brittler, though bass is pleasantly restrained and tight. Towards the latter part of the track, the ensemble tends to get a tiny bit smudgy. This is even more the case with the 1999 remaster. But it is my feeling that this track wasn’t as well recorded as the previous two and those on side 2, a bit flatter and drier. This is revealed more on the digital formats than on the vinyl, for some reason.

Track 4 (“Peg”): good separation of hi-hat, snare, good thumping bass, nice sonorous backing vocals (Michael MacDonald!). Satisfyingly deep bass drum. The solo guitar part is exquisitely rendered, on both SACD and vinyl. Vinyl has a slight edge though on this track, in terms of separation and presence/ambience. But the SACD is still more than excellent.

Track 5 (“Home at last”): electric piano, synth horns, guitar and drum parts all well separated in a deep and wide stage. Very satisfying bass has a slightly better presence on the vinyl, perhaps a bit too indulgent. But especially the piano sounds great on vinyl. The synth horns resonate nicely; I don’t hear this as well on the SACD; ditto the little high pitch synthesizer ditty/interlude. “Home at last” thus sounds better overall on vinyl, without denigrating the SACD, which just sounds a tiny fraction flatter, less sparkling.

Track 6 (“I got the news”): the hi-hat and backing vocal ensemble in the middle part is extremely well conveyed on the LP. Clear separation, not the slightest sibilance in the cymbals on the LP. There is some sibilance in the cymbals on the SACD. But further nothing to complain about the SACD.

Track 7 (“Josie”): perhaps the best song on the album, there is nothing to complain here, all instruments are clearly separably noticeable, a nice rolling bass, sharp and clean guitar parts, both rhythm and solo, nice ensemble. However, on the Cisco, this is even better, the little details in the drumming, the hi-hat, you just don’t hear them on the SACD. As listener, you’re witnessing the sheer pleasure of the drummer’s playing. Also, the LP can be played at really high volumes without any distortion.

All in all, the Cisco vinyl still trumps the SACD, in my opinion, but this is because the Cisco vinyl is so damned good, not because the SACD is shamefully lacking in noteworthy qualities. Let there be no doubt about it: it is a great sounding SACD, showing no veiled sound at all, as some other reviewer thought; everything you want from a SACD, wide soundstage, great dynamics, clear presence and good clarity, it’s all there in abundance. Clearly, it’s not a contemporary DSD recorded SACD, but that’s comparing apples and oranges: given its analogue tape source of nearly 40 years back, the SHM-SACD version of Aja is the best digital version available (and imaginable), and is nearly as good as the Cisco vinyl remaster, which probably benefits from the AAA treatment, without any conversion issues. Hence, my ****1/2 for sound is a comparative rating. I for one thoroughly recommend the SHM-SACD, even though all things considered I prefer to listen to the Cisco vinyl.