Since I moved from my headphone-based system to my loudspeaker system, I’ve been revisiting a bunch of my Best Pressing Shootouts. Well, I’ve become tired of all the red fonts I need to use for those — and in the case, I’m adding a totally new pressing into the mix. So rather that a “Revisited,” let’s call it a “Take Two.” Here we go!
My previous Tago Mago shootout describes in great detail my United Artists 1971 UK original and 1981 Celluloid reissue. They both sounded really good when I compared them last time, though the UK original sounded a bit clearer and more forceful than the French reissue, which was comparatively muddy in the bass.
One of the readers of this site — indeed, the only one I knew personally, though I do seem to get several thousand unique visitors a month according to my tracker! — is my neighbour Jared S (not to be confused with my friend Jared B — why are all the vinyl lovers in my life named Jared??). He read my previous shootout and kindly offered to lend me his copy of the highly-regarded 2014 Spoon Records reissue. Naturally, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity…
Here are the labels we’re dealing with…
I have listened to these three records every which way over a span of over six months, on a variety of good loudspeaker setups. In each of these configurations, the 2014 Spoon Records reissue sounded lousy. I don’t know why people say such nice things about it. It has all the traits of a bad digital transfer: it’s flat, harsh, grating, lifeless, and uninvolving. I love a lot of recent vinyl pressed from digital sources; indeed I’ve heard some amazing pressings sourced from 44.1/16. This is not one of them. I’d consider it a waste of money to buy this pressing. Save your pennies for one of the other two. Seriously.
The 1981 Celluloid and the 1971 United Artists UK original are both really good. The 1971 has a bit more detail, space, and clarity, particularly on texture-rich things like vocals and analog synths. It has plenty of drive and kick, too, and the bass is tight and forceful.
The Celluloid is much heavier in the bass (I also have a 1981 Celluloid Ege Bamyasi, and it’s also bass-heavy). In direct comparison with the 1971, it generally feels a touch bloated, though it’s not really a problem — and on a few occasions, I actually missed the full, round bass it offers. In terms of clarity and detail, it’s very good, but not quite as good as the 1971 UA.
I would definitely be happy with either of these. I happened to get my 1971 UA for a really good price, but they’re usually insanely expensive. The secret on the Celluloid is out, so they’re going up in value, too — indeed, I paid very slightly more for the Celluloid than I did for the UA! Anyway, make your own choices based on the prices on offer. I’d say the Celluloid is worth about $75CAD and the UA $150. I personally find the UK cover way cooler, too, so I’d hold out for it…
Also, may I just say: What an amazing record! I turned 50 recently. Hard to believe — it could have been recorded yesterday and we’d all be freaking out about it just as much.
Let no one say that I am not thorough. I originally did this comparison some time in the summer. But my system was in such flux at that point that I was a bit hesitant to post the results until I’d settled on a more or less “final” setup. I have now done so, so re-borrowed the record from Jared S this weekend, and so can now offer the above report with absolute confidence!
Current setup (April, 2021): LP12-like TT (“Palare” PSU, Karousel main bearing, Mober subchassis, Tiger Paw Javelin tonearm w/ custom cable, VAS-retipped Linn Troika cartridge with ruby cantilever and MicroRidge stylus), Paradise phono stage, “Konduit” interconnect, fully RSL’ed Naim 32.5 preamp with Naim/RSL ZapSnaps power supply, SKylla cable to power amps, Yamaha NS-1000M speakers. Mid and hi amplification: Naim Nap 135 monoblocks, Van Damme Tour Grade Black 4mm speaker cable, custom “Pontoon” external crossovers. Bass amplification: Lab.gruppen IPD 1200 active with DSP, Van Damme Tour Grade Black 4mm speaker cable.
Also worth noting: all records cleaned with E3 and put in the Kirmuss ultrasonic cleaner, exactly the same cleaning regime for all three.
Celluloid. “Paperhouse.” Definitely a B+ or better right from the start. Smooth, wide, clear. Snare is a bit hollow. I complained about too much bass on my headphone system; not here. Electric guitar on right channel, really distorted, sounds amazing. This pressing sounds really nice, really alive — better on this system than on headphones. I’m upgrading this pressing to an A for the rightness of the guitar tones, especially noticeable in the quieter parts in “Paperhouse.” Even though the UA UK sounded amazing yesterday after the enzyme cleaning, I’m going to predict that this pressing will edge it out… Definitely not complaining about the extra bass on “Mushroom,” which just sounds right and full on my loudspeaker setup. As with last time, the effect when Damo’s voice comes into focus is startling and cool. Yes, the drums are hollow and distant, but that’s clearly a production decision… Definitely an A pressing, really fun to listen to. Explosion sounds awesome and a little scary. Loving every minute of “Oh Yeah,” no complaints about the bass or any “bloat.” The width of the soundstage and the true tone of guitars are really impressive here. Stunning clarity on Damo’s voice when things quiet down and you get the classic spare Krautrock drum beat. Goosebumps moment. Fun to follow the very slight panning that happens with his vocals in this part. Really clear, driving, sharp, sweet, everything all at once at the end of the side. Really good!
2014 remaster. Hmm, seems a little flat and distant right off the bat. Vocals especially seem to be lacking life, everything is just a little crusty and sharp. Soundstage narrower, a bit of “glare” and hardness. A B pressing, maybe? Yeah, really not very pleasant compared to the Celluloid. Some moments later in “Paperhouse” stand out — spooky Damo vocals — but the whole impression is hard and glarey compared to the Celluloid. Not a pleasant listen. “Mushroom” has huge bass at the start, but the textures are off, so again it’s sharp and grating. “Startling” vocals don’t jump out like on the Celluloid. The explosion on “Oh Yeah” continues the harshness/grating trend and this remains really quite unpleasant without any of the audio thrills of the Celluloid.
UA. Wow, huh? HUGE bass, amazing atmospheric details I totally wasn’t picking up on in other pressings. Damo sounds like he has a cold, but the snare is uber-sharp and so are those little bells. This is the best of the lot to this point, definitely. The massive bass is a surprise — really punchy kick drum. The flatness I heard last round? GONE! Oooh, the rim hits when things get loud, by far the sharpest on this pressing. Woweee. Getting a great belly-tickle from the mids of the Strat. Sharp sounds are VERY sharp, deep/warm sounds are very deep and very warm — amazing stuff, definite high A, definitely the best of them. Wow the quiet parts of “Paperhouse” — just amazing guitar tones here, and vocal textures are eerily good. “Oh Yeah” has a great contrast of tones at the start — glassy vocals and snare (obviously very processed) against a beautifully true-ringing Strat. Hearing new subtle details in the right channel I’ve never noticed before. Not always a pleasant song, clearly deliberately processed for glassy effect — but the tone contrast and the little details clearly show that this is “the” pressing. Wow. Explosion is totally engrossing, amazing textures, like a different record! In the backward-singing part of “Mushroom” again a lot of the tones seem deliberately glassy, contrasted this time against the really deep driving bass. Quieter Krautrocky part then has totally natural, pleasing tones, especially Damo’s voice.
Just the start of “Halleluwah”
UA. Beautiful scratchy ambient details, then clear voice, with really deep kick drum — big thwomp. Nice delicate snare when things pick up. High A.
Celluloid. Okay now I see what I meant about the boomy bass. The ambient details aren’t quite as sharp, the vocal clarity is really close — maybe even a nicer 3D effect (on repeated listenings, no a bit behind actually?), the snare delicacy is close but not quite there, but the bass is too much, overpowering, loose. A.
2014. Really flat, no atmosphere or texture on opening, plinky and off. B. Really big difference — clearly, hold out for one of the analogue pressings.
2011 digital remaster (Tidal). Well at least the vinyl sounds way better than the plinky, nasty digital file. C+.
Listening again on April 2nd, 2021.
2014. It’s really nothing special, it’s quite flat, like a B-. Boring and lifeless, hmm, and then harsh and grating when it’s not dead-seeming. Weird and bad.
Celluloid. Way better, B+ or better. Lots more bass, vocals are actually clear. Cymbals sharp and dainty. Bass really pumping, slightly flabby. The 2014 is really not good at all. There’s a kind of phased effect on the vocals that I just didn’t hear on the 2014. Wood block super sharp and centered in breakdown. Breakdown is NOT harsh. Spooky vocals are spooky. A-, say.
UA. All details sharper, vocals clearer. Less bass and drive, though, missing it a bit. Strat is best defined of any version so far — great. Very clearly the best during breakdown, especially for spooky vocals and sharpness of the guitar palm mute (?) in the left side.