I’ve been reading high-end audio mags for more than 25 years and collecting vinyl for more than twice as long. About 15 years ago, I began noticing the already high prices of the very best audio gear creeping up. A few years later, I began to wonder if reviewers were equating higher cost with greater enjoyment, especially when prices began to go from already high to there’s no way I or anyone I know can afford this stuff.
It’s easy to lose perspective with audio, just as it is with cars, housing, and many other consumer goods. Cost can become a badge of status rather than a means of securing something as simple as transportation or living in warmth and comfort. Lately, I’ve noticed that reviews for expensive vinyl reissues seem to be following the same trend. I’m concerned that the lowly LP is becoming a status symbol.
In 1979, a couple of friends who had good turntables and loved The Dark Side of the Moon bought a pressing manufactured and marketed by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. The LPs were half-speed mastered and pressed at Victor in Japan. LPs pressed in the US at that time were often made from recycled vinyl, which was noisy. MoFi’s pressings were notably quiet when the needle hit the lead-in groove, and they sounded so much better than the US pressings we owned. I began seeing more MoFi releases, usually in hi-fi shops. They cost about $20 at a time when the average LP was less than $10 (all prices in USD).
Soon after, I started spotting other Japanese pressings for about the same price, first in shops in New York and Philadelphia, then in a couple of stores in central Pennsylvania. As with MoFi LPs, these import LPs were quieter, sounded better, and were worth the extra cost for records I particularly liked. I bought a few Japanese pressings of Beatles LPs, as well as some Verve reissues brought to the US by PolyGram as part of a reissue series marketed to American jazz lovers.
For years, the price divide between mass-market vinyl and better-quality LPs remained sensible. Into the early 2000s, when vinyl was still doggedly hanging on, a standard reissue on a label like Sundazed would run $20 or so, while a MoFi or Classic Records reissue fetched $30, or maybe a little more for a two-LP set cut at 45 rpm. Then, in 2016, a few years into the vinyl resurgence, MoFi released an UltraDisc One-Step reissue of Abraxas, Santana’s second LP. It’s been an audiophile favorite ever since its original release in 1970.
Early UltraDisc LPs listed for $100 and were housed in a fancy box that contained the LP in a reprint of the original cover, along with a brochure describing the One-Step process. Discogs has a short article explaining the process, which has been beset by controversy. Matt Bonaccio covered the scandal involving MoFi’s One-Step releases in a 2022 article on SoundStage! Global. The scandal began with a One-Step reissue of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, then ballooned to take in many of the label’s other releases.
The UltraDisc One-Step release of Abraxas was the first time I can recall an LP being issued at such a high price. Around the same time Abraxas appeared, the Electric Recording Company (ERC), based in London, also began selling expensive reissues. Early releases focused on classical music, then the label moved on to jazz and eventually pop music. Single LPs pressed by ERC are in the $400 range.
In 2019, Analogue Productions entered the high-end vinyl game with its Ultra High Quality Record (UHQR) series. UHQR releases are carefully mastered, plated at Quality Record Pressing, a subsidiary of Analogue Productions, and pressed on Clarity Vinyl, a formulation that Analogue Productions says is the purest vinyl available. The first UHQR releases were pressings of Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love in mono and stereo versions. They retailed for $100.
When Analogue Productions announced last year that it would be reissuing Steely Dan’s albums in UHQR editions, I wasn’t tempted, especially at a list price of 150 bucks. I thought about maybe—maybe—buying The Royal Scam, my favorite by the group, but I’d have to work hard to justify spending that kind of money for an LP. However, when I recalled a trip to an audio shop with a friend a few months before the first reissue in the series, Can’t Buy a Thrill, became available, an idea began to form in my mind.
I have a copy of Aja, Steely Dan’s sixth album, that I bought the week it was released in September 1977. I’ve used “Home at Last,” the second track on side 2 of the LP, to evaluate audio gear since 1981, when I bought a pair of Ohm Acoustics Model E loudspeakers. I thought I wanted a pair of big multi-driver speakers, but the salesman (my late brother Jordan’s friend Shawn) told me it wasn’t the number of drivers in a speaker that mattered, it was the quality of the drivers and the crossover.
I saw a copy of Aja nearby and asked Shawn to play “Home at Last,” I considered the album one of the best-sounding LPs in my collection, and I wanted to listen to this track through a pair of really good speakers. I wanted Victor Feldman’s piano in the intro to ring out soundly, and I wanted to hear the natural reverberation of the instrument. I also wanted to hear Larry Carlton’s rhythm guitar strikes clearly and the harmonic richness of the horn part. Most of all, I wanted to hear the attack and fullness of Chuck Rainey’s bass lines and the satisfying low-frequency punch of Bernard Purdie’s kick drum.
I listened to “Home at Last” through the Ohms and bought them because the Fisher and Pioneer speakers in the shop didn’t sound as realistic and musical as the Ohms did. The cost was higher than my price range, and they were worth it.
As noted earlier, I was in an audio shop when I began to think about evaluating one of the Steely Dan UHQR releases. A friend took me with him to help evaluate some gear he was thinking of buying. He brought along a few audiophile pressings, and I took my copy of Aja. After listening to his LPs, I asked the store owner to play “Home at Last” from my record. As soon as the music started playing, I could tell by their body language that my friend and the shop owner were surprised at how amazing the record sounded. To begin with, it was quiet because I had deep cleaned it a few months earlier. It’s also an unusually good late ’70s US pressing. The depth and detail of the music was so impressive that we let the album play until the end of side B, then the shop owner cued up a couple of hi-rez streams of Aja, including one that had been mastered by Steve Hoffman. “Neither of them sounds as good as your LP,” he said.
When the release date for the UHQR release of Aja approached, I had already made up my mind to compare it with the pressing I know and love. I found info on my copy of the LP on Discogs, thanks to the matrix numbers etched into each side’s lead-out groove: side A has matrix number AB 1006 (RE-3)-A, while side B has matrix number AB 1006 (RE-3)-B P4. My pressing was done at the Columbia Records pressing plant in Pitman, New Jersey, and was among the earliest copies of the LP.
Bernie Grundman mastered Aja and cut the lacquer for the original LP. According to Acoustic Sounds, Grundman cut the lacquer for the UHQR release using “an analog, non-EQ’d tape copy.” My goal was to discover whether this UHQR is so much better than my pressing that it’s worth the money Analogue Productions is charging.
The original Aja album is on a single LP, while the UHQR release is cut at 45 rpm and spread across four sides on two LPs.
When I played the album’s opening track, “Black Cow,” from my original pressing, I noticed a little noise on the lead-in groove, so I gave it a good cleaning using a Spin-Clean and vacuumed away any remaining liquid with a KAB vacuum-cleaning system. I dropped the needle and heard silence. Not bad for an LP that’s nearly 50 years old. When I played the UHQR, I again heard nothing on the lead-in. In fact, it was so quiet I returned to my old copy to make sure I hadn’t imagined it was that quiet. Cranking the volume, I could hear a tiny bit of groove noise that wasn’t present on the UHQR. The care that has gone into the manufacturing of this new LP is highly impressive.
Satisfied that my old copy was a good basis for comparison, I began my listening. I went back and forth several times between the two records to check my impressions. After quite a few plays, I found myself thinking there were more similarities than differences between the original release and this new one. That’s not surprising, given that Grundman mastered both. On the first play, I thought Paul Humphrey’s light hi-hat taps in the opening moments of the song had a little more presence on the UHQR, but when I went back to my original, they were just as audible.
Joe Sample’s clavinet echoed somewhat more soundly in the left channel on the new pressing, and Donald Fagen’s vocal reverberated a little more audibly in the right. Larry Carlton’s guitar arpeggios in the intro sounded more fleshed out, but the difference was not dramatic. Chuck Rainey’s bass had more low-frequency impact on the new pressing, but a more pronounced attack on the older one. There were things on the original that I preferred. The backing vocals, in the rear and in support of Fagen on the original, were slightly further forward on the UHQR. The horns that enter in the second verse were deeper toned and warmer on the original.
“Deacon Blues” is the last song on side 1 of the original LP, but on this new pressing, it takes up all of side 2. Dean Parks’s acoustic guitar in the right channel had a bit more presence on the UHQR, and Bernard Purdie’s cymbals had a touch more sparkle. Walter Becker’s bass lines had more force on the new pressing but more definition on the older LP.
As with “Black Cow,” I felt the backing vocals on “Deacon Blues” were more prominent on the UHQR, and I heard some sibilance. Pete Christlieb’s solo had more texture and grit on the UHQR, but it seemed to unfold more effortlessly on the older pressing, at least on my system. Towards the end of the song, one of the guitarists, either Larry Carlton or Lee Ritenour, plays a muted guitar line with a heavy reverb or delay added, and on the original LP, it sounded out more forcefully and the echo was more pronounced.
With some anticipation, I turned to “Home at Last.” Victor Feldman’s piano echoed somewhat more soundly in the right channel on the UHQR, and Bernard Purdie’s drum rolls sounded slightly more focused. Feldman’s chords on the vibraphone were more pronounced on the new pressing, and Larry Carlton’s guitar chords had a brighter, sharper tone. Donald Fagen’s synthesizer solo was more clearly etched on UHQR, and Purdie’s crash cymbal had more shimmer and sustain.
On the other hand, while Chuck Rainey’s bass lines were fuller on the UHQR, they were more focused and easier to follow on the old pressing. Carlton’s guitar chords had more snap on the new pressing but sounded richer on the original LP. The horns on the UHQR were more immediate and intense, but they were more balanced on the old pressing. Saxes were so emphatic on the UHQR that I had to focus to hear the warmth of the lower brass instruments, which do so much to give the horn arrangement its complex harmonies and mixture of tones.
Many of my preferences for certain aspects of the original pressing are based on nearly 50 years of playing an LP that has been a reference for me. Grundman made a few choices on this new master that differ from his earlier one, and they’re fine. I don’t dislike them, and it’s possible I may come to prefer them. To be clear, the new pressing is very good and sounds terrific.
Is it worth $150? If you love Aja and collect various pressings, you may want to add this one. In the late ’70s, MoFi released a version of Aja that gets mixed reviews, and there’s a 2007 Cisco Music reissue of the album that’s well regarded, but used copies will run you more than the UHQR. You can find early pressings done at Santa Maria and Pitman plants on Discogs, but the sellers whose descriptions include play grading want $60 to $75 for them. In other words, if you want a good-sounding, clean copy of Aja, you’re going to shell out. Geffen Records has reissued a more affordable version of the album for $29.99 (Geffen / UMe Records—B0035028-01), but even favorable reviews for it are muted.
In response to my initial question, no, the album is not worth $150—mainly because its extravagant, inconvenient packaging needlessly adds to the cost. The LPs are housed in an oversized slipcase box with a wooden dowel spine. The cover inside is heavier weight cardboard than the original with tipped-on, laminated artwork. Inserts include a brochure with liner notes by Donald Fagen and photos of the original tape boxes, a brochure describing the pressing and quality control for the UHQR LPs, and a third brochure that documents the pedigree of the UHQR you’ve bought.
The packaging has been a sticking point for many who’ve purchased UHQR releases. A review on TrackingAngle.com of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill mentions this. So does a review on Stereophile.com of the UHQR reissue of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. In both cases, the reviewers seem to think the correct response to these complaints is something like: “Eat your broccoli. It’s good for you.”
The slip box for each UHQR is 13″ high, 13.5″ wide, and 1″ deep. It won’t fit on most record shelves, but more than that, it adds to the cost. Analogue Productions released all of its Doors album reissues on two LPs, each cut at 45 rpm by Doug Sax. They sound amazing, the vinyl is absolutely quiet, and the records are packaged in heavy cardboard covers with tipped-on artwork. Other Analogue Productions 45-rpm releases are housed in standard-weight covers, but the mastering and pressings are exemplary.
These earlier two-LP sets from Analogue Productions cost $60. Allowing for the increased production for the UHQR releases (they’re made from a purer vinyl compound and pressed with a flatter profile), a $10 increase per LP seems reasonable to me. Throw in a nice slipcover that lets you store the set with your other LPs and add another $10. At $80 or $90, I’d already own Countdown to Ecstasy, I’d have strongly considered picking up Pretzel Logic, and I’d have pre-ordered The Royal Scam (available next June).
I’m not prone to knee-jerk opposition to expensive reissues. The Craft Recordings “Small Batch” LPs are $109—which is within reason, though still expensive. They’re well mastered, pressed at Record Technology Inc. (RTI) using a “one-step” process, and nicely packaged. My copy of Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners sounds better than the mid-’60s Dutch pressing I picked up years ago. It comes in a cloth-covered slipcase that fits on my record shelf. Once again, if they were packaged in somewhat less opulent slipcovers that still distinguished them as collectible LPs and priced under $100, I’d buy more “Small Batch” reissues.
There are plenty of affordable audiophile reissue series available. Both the Blue Note Tone Poet and Verve Acoustic Sounds reissue series are available in the $40 range. Craft Recordings has two audiophile reissue series, the Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds reissues, available for $30, and the recently resurrected Original Jazz Classics, which go for $40. All have been well pressed, at either RTI or Quality Record Pressing, and come in hefty, beautifully printed covers. Other Blue Note and Craft Records reissues are available for under $30.
So why am I bellyaching? Because price is often a strong incentive for convincing yourself that something is better than it really is. Is the UHQR reissue of A Love Supreme an improvement over the still-available and far more affordable Verve Acoustic Sounds reissue ($39.95)? I doubt it.
The ability to enjoy music should be within everyone’s reach. There may be reasons for buying the Steely Dan UHQR reissues other than sound quality, including collectability, but keep in mind that Analogue Productions is pressing 30,000 copies of Aja. Ignore the superlatives you find in reviews and audio forums. The UHQR Aja sounds good, but if you have an original pressing, you probably don’t need it. Put that one on your turntable now, and you’ll hear what I mean.
. . . Joseph Taylor