David Bowie “Blackstar” (or ★ if you’re a fucking nutcase) has been released simultaneously in multiple digital formats – CD, Mastered For iTunes, and HDtracks 96Khz 24bit download. Of course this piqued my interest, so I thought I would do a quick comparison of all the digital masters, see how they stack up against each other. This will be updated in a few months when I receive my 180g vinyl, but living in the UK means that will be some time away.
First, the good news / bad news. All the masters sound pretty good to my ears, weighty and fast, not at all fatiguing. The bad news is that all of them, including the “24bit” HDtacks, are of course quite hotly mastered and feature a lot of digital limiting.
If you want to compare the waveforms or FFTs, open them in new tabs and flick between them. I’m not going to teach you how to use a fucking browser.
First up, the standard
I assume this will be the release most people listen too (having said that, I’m an old man and therefore have no idea what numbers the iTunes release will do). The CD Master is what you’d expect, quite limited dynamically – but never to the detriment of the music. I would go as far as saying that it’s almost entirely transparent limiting (software limiters are becoming really good, most notably Voxengo’s Elephant).
It’s a shame they couldn’t find their way to give us a few more dB headroom, it would really let those drums pop a little more. Clear, deep, fluid. Really nice mastering, regardless of the somewhat stunted dynamics. Interestingly, the dynamics analysis shows that the min RMS is -Inf, meaning that there’s no dithering present. Bit of a strange oversight there.
the iTunes release: ISO Records / Mastered for iTunes / 256kbps AAC
I don’t really know what Mastered for iTunes actually entails. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s some sort of automatic limiter or level control. There’s certainly no EQ differences to the other two releases here.
Upon first listen it sounds slightly more dynamic than the CD master, but upon closer analysis you can see that it’s simply been reduced in level by around 1dB. Admittedly, looking at the waveform below you can see that it’s not brickwall limited, but you’d be fucking pushed to say that it’s any more dynamic (read: it’s not more dynamic). It’s a real shame, because the whole mastered for iTunes nonsense would be a great tool to introduce some dynamics in to these modern masters. As it stands, I’m not sure what the intent of the program is. In reality, this is the CD master, passed through what ever is required to gain the “Mastered for iTunes” label. No audible difference at all. Again let me stress, it’s by no means a poor master and is pretty decent by todays standards. No dithering present in this one either, but being a lossy format maybe they are thinking that the decoder should be adding that.
The HDtracks release: ISO Records / Columbia / HDtracks / 96Khz / 24bit
I had high hopes for this one. I mean, at the end of the day what’s the point of paying more money for 96Khz / 24bit master if it’s just the CD master? Well, that is indeed the case here. It’s the exact same master as the CD – which didn’t need 16bits to render correctly, never mind 24. Sure, the full spectrum is represented, and now we’re no longer limited to the 22.05Khz of the CD or iTunes release. In reality this offers no audible advantage, and HDtracks continues to be a total scam in my opinion. They did however remember to apply dithering to this one before exporting.
What can we take away from all of this? Well, after having volume normalised all of the masters, I couldn’t ABX between them. This was done by upsampling everything to 96Khz, as well as downsampling to 44.1khz (I have a sound card that can natively change sample rate, so there was no internal resampling happening). The mastered for iTunes version is trying to encourage better dynamics, but doesn’t actually achieve that – maybe because the limiting was done before processing through Apples recommended booshit. What did surprise me was that the 256kbps AAC is utterly transparent to my ears. I can hear no pre echo, no frequency attenuation, nothing…
Unsurprisingly, the HDtracks 96Khz 24bit master offers nothing over the CD or iTunes. Yes, the frequencies stretch into the 30Khz region, but you’re not a fucking Galleria Mellonella. Plus, it’s likely only encouraging horrible software / hardware resampling in whatever system you’re using, resulting in worse overall sound quality.
The album is remarkable, strongly written, well produced and mastered very compitently – even if I am a little critical of the limiting. All of the masters are more than acceptable, so buy the one that’s cheapest or most convenient to own.
Going by what Tony Visconti said here, the vinyl is probably the one to have, but I won’t know until I get it. But that brings its own issues with hiss, crackle and dealing with people with a penchant for sonic elitism.
To read my thoughts on the masters of the other Bowie albums, please see here: The Best Bowie Masters. Now if you’ll excuse me, Yeezy season has begun.]]>