Best Pressing Shootout: Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch — 1977 King Japan vs. 2015 Music Matters 33

Japanese pressings in general, and King Records pressings in particular, have been faring very well so far in my Brest Pressing Shootouts. Now it’s time to bring in another of the vaunted “best reissues” series: the recent Music Matters pressings. They’re expensive as hell, they’re hard to get into Canada — but no less an authority than London Jazz Collector says they sound close to as good as first pressing originals.

It’s a battle of the Blue Note reissue titans. Let’s see who emerges victorious…

The pressings

I picked up my 1977 King pressing of Out to Lunch on the same day that I bought my copy of Ornette Coleman’s Live at the Golden Circle, Volume 1 at Cosmos Records here in Toronto. It sounded amazing right off the bat — though I couldn’t help thinking it didn’t sound quite as amazing as the Ornette record. This despite the fact that Out to Lunch is reputed to be one of Rudy Van Gelder’s audiophile masterpieces, due to its sparse instrumentation and the fact that it didn’t have any piano, his sonic kryptonite (as a fan of Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock, I totally agree with this assessment: piano does not sound good on their classic records). Of course, musically it’s an undisputed masterpiece. Although I personally like Eric Dolphy a tiny bit better on Hill’s Point of Departure, Mal Waldron’s The Quest, and his own Out There and Iron Man, I totally get why everyone else thinks this is Dolphy’s career highlight.

I picked up this 2015 Music Matters 33rpm copy very recently. I ordered it brand-new on Discogs from a Canadian seller who only accepts money orders or electronic transfers from Canadian banks. Which is to say: who only sells to Canadians. Sort of an ideal situation, because while this copy was pretty expensive ($90) it was ridiculously cheap by out-of-print MM33 standards. On the same order, for $70, I also got an MM33 copy of Point of Departure. (I also got some “Blue Note Classics” Jackie McLean sessions for $10 each, and a Tone Poet copy of Wayne Shorter’s Etcetera. Good haul.) These two are the only Music Matters records I own. I haven’t heard the 45rpm discs, but I hear those sound worse, and I am decidedly not a fan of having to switch sides every ten minutes.

For the record, I had literally never played this record before doing this test. It went straight from the sealed package onto the turntable.

A King wrapped up in a Music Matters.

Both pressings come in nice jackets. The King cardboard is thick with good colours. The Music Matters has the gatefold with the nice photos inside. As much as I like all that, I’d rather not have a gatefold if I don’t need it — they take up too much shelf space.

My digital comparator is a 24/192 MQA Tidal Master.

Verdict

The King is… not king! Music Matters FTW.

In a sense, I am relieved: finally, the Japanese pressing didn’t win. Otherwise, you might have thought I was the victim of some kind of rabid Japonophilia. (Actually, I sort of am…)

The King and the Music Matters both sound amazing, but the Music Matters is clearly better: better-defined, more alive, with more “splash,” especially on the cymbals. Both are very good sounding; the Music Matters is amazing. It really makes you wonder about all this talk of master tapes degrading. Music Matters were able to press this copy from a master tape over 50 years old, and it sounds absolutely stunning.

I am sense, though, I am disappointed. These Music Matters discs are really expensive. Very few of my favourite records are available in the MM33 format — Jackie McLean’s Destination Out, for instance, is 2x45rpm only. It would be more convenient for me if the Kings always sounded better. (Of course, it’s very possible that some Kings do sound better than some Music Matters. But not this one!)

The only question left is whether an original RVG, Plastylite first pressing in mint condition would sound as good as the Music Matters. Given the prices, I’ll almost certainly never know. I’ll just have to content myself with knowing that, in at least one other case, the King actually sounds better than an original RVG, Plastylite first pressing

Listening notes

Current setup: LP12 (Hercules II PSU, Cirkus bearing, SSP12, Kore subchassis, Ekos 2 tonearm w/ stock cable, Dynavector XX-2 MkII cartridge), Dynavector P75 MkI, Linn Silver RCA, Schiit Mjolnir w/ Telefunken E88CC, Hifiman HE1000v2 w/ stock balanced cable. (See here for my digital setup.)

“Hat and Beard”

Full King. Vinyl totally silent. I’ve listened to this gorgeous pressing many times. Just giving it another quick listen to get my ears used to it again. Amazing. Vibes feel like they’re ringing in my head. Gorgeous texture on Dolphy’s sax. Drums are so Anthony Williams and thus so exactly my thing. Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet is sharp without being grating. Can I imagine anything being better? Hmm, not really. The bass isn’t maybe as in focus as it could be, but I would guess that’s a recording issue given how otherwise superb all the instruments sound. Ah, now (during a nice Williams-centre drum part) the bass comes into gorgeous focus. And then it’s bowed! Beautiful. Good clang on that cowbell or whatever it is. This is just an amazingly nice-sounding recording (and an awesome song). Closing riff with Dolphy on bass clarinet and Hubbard on trumpet is just the sort of thing I love Dolphy and this album for. And it sounds incredible. 

Full Music Matters. Vinyl silent but maybe I can hear more tape hiss? Okay, just cracked the packaging on this album. It’s the first time it’s been exposed to air and, within seconds, it’s on the record player! Sounds very nice. I think the drums are coming through with a bit more life? Vibes are really hitting. Lots of oomph and bass on the drums — but maybe a bit of annoying thud? Overall, my sense is that this sounds a little better than the very very good King. Just a bit more lively, dynamic, real. But it could be a level thing — I didn’t touch the volume knob and this might be just a touch louder. Dolphy’s screamy alto sax part is gorgeously textured, and yeah, the drums are so sharp here. Aah, so is Davis’s bass! I think it’s a bit closer focus here at a moment that was a touch foggy on the King. Hubbard’s solo feels sharp without being grating, as on the King, but I think the other instruments are coming in more clearly here, setting a nicer, wider soundstage. I still am hearing that kind of thuddy quality on some bass notes — and it’s making me a little headachy. Clang is super sharp. Lovely stuff. My sense is it’s probably a bit better than the King. But could be levels.

Full digital (MQA 24/192). Obviously silent but is the tape hiss also louder here than on the King? Definitely good but flatter. Drums and bass clarinet not jumping out at me, not standing out as excellent. Lots of “thud” — more than on the Music Matters. Tiring, “hard” — boomy and screechy. Definite sense this is 15% or so worse than either vinyl. Ah, really so thuddy, busy, hard to listen to. Cymbals don’t sound delicate — distorted and globby. Time to check everything in direct comparisons…

S-2-s digital vs. Music Matters. Not even close. The MM is bright, ringing, alive, in focus, spacious. The digital is behind a veil, it’s grey and dull. 20% difference at least. The thuddiness totally disappears when switching over to vinyl. Cymbals are the clearest individual differentiator — so much splash on the MM. Hubbard’s trumpet is all thud on digital, gorgeous on vinyl. The thud really makes it hard to listen to the digital. I left it on there for a while nonetheless to get the full effect of switching back to vinyl — and it’s gorgeous! The MM sounds amazing in comparison. Definitely 20% better. 

S-2-s digital vs. King. The King doesn’t have the fineness, the brightness, the detail, the sharpness of the MM. Much better than digital but not I don’t think quite as good as the MM — especially on the cymbals, which are so amazingly crisp on the MM. The texture of Dolphy’s sax is just as good as on the MM, I think, though, and there is no hint of any thud. It seems to be about the same, but with just a little lost off of the high end. Difference is more like 10-15% here, closer to 10%. So the Music Matters wins handily. 

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