American Exclusive! ABKCO's Vinyl Rolling Stones Reissues

Right to the point: no, the 11 new ABKCO limited edition 180g vinyl Rolling Stones reissues ( already available in Europe) do not quite measure up to UK DECCA originals, but who expected that? The tapes are between 35 and 40 years old and the superlative DECCA playback/cutting/plating/pressing chain is long gone. If you have the DECCA originals you’re not shopping for these anyway.

Sure, in an ideal world we’d prefer to have had albums like Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed and Aftermath cut to lacquer directly from the original tapes, but they weren’t. Instead, the final DSD masters created by Bob Ludwig referencing original UK Decca, and US London LPs were used.

Despite the naysayers who claimed they could hear frequent use of compression, noise reduction and heavy-handed EQ moves, Ludwig assured me that while there were a few minor “touch ups” where absolutely necessary—and only for restorative purposes—for the most part he simply made the usual mastering moves needed to re-create the spirit of the originals. You don’t think someone at DECCA put up the tape and made a flat transfer to lacquer for the original releases do you? That rarely happens, which is why today’s mastering engineers attempting to re-create the sound of the originals are thrilled to find mastering notes in the tape boxes.

ABKCO decided to use the DSD masters for the sake of product uniformity (so there wouldn’t be any gross discrepancies between SACD and LP), and to make sure the vinyl was reissued as it wished. So the big issue for buyers is: do you buy LPs cut from “digital?” Well 1984 issue 44.1K/16 bit digital is not 2002 2.83MHz/1bit digital. Having heard a direct mic feed of a jazz trio and then the feed through a prototype DSD converter at Sony studios played back on WATT/Puppies, I can vouch for DSD's close to transparent performance. I doubt anyone reading this turning the knob between the two would know which was live and which was DSD (thought I was going to say “Memorex” didn’t you?”). The converters have only been further refined since that demo a number of years ago.

While some have speculated that cutting heads would not take kindly to the above 20kHz DSD bandwidth, Diverse Vinyl’s superb sounding Alison Krauss LPs have laid that issue to rest, and for most listeners so will these Stones issues.

Another sticking point for many considering these reissues is the DMM cut made to a copper disc instead of to lacquer. Without getting into the nitty gritty of DMM cutting and copper disc processing, both methods have supporters and detractors, though the dismal sounding DMM LPs of the 1980’s have made most of us detractors. Count me among them.

So, when ABCKO announced that these 11 titles would come cut DMM from the DSD masters, there was great disappointment among vinyl fans, myself included. But rather than dismiss these titles out of hand, I chose to keep an open mind and actually listen to them.

The titles are: England’s Newest Hitmakers, Out of Our Heads (UK), Big Hits (High Tide & Green Grass),Aftermath (UK), Between the Buttons (UK), Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, Hot Rocks 1964-1971, and Metamorphosis. I would have liked to have 12X5 as well, but you can’t always get what you want.

I made comparisons between original UK DECCAs, original US Londons (including, where appropriate, mono London FFRR’s pressed in the UK for distribution in the U.S.) and the SACDs. I “A/B” ed LPs with SACDs, and did back to back listens between original pressings and the reissues.

And the verdict? Look, if you had problems with the SACDs because of alleged noise reduction used in places, and other issues, which you can check out in impressively maddening detail at you will have the same issues here, since these LPs were mastered from Bob Ludwig’s DSD masters. The individual who put together that website’s rundown is to be commended for being an absolute fanatic. I did not listen with the same degree of precision as he did—on headphones— nor do I suspect did The Rolling Stones. This guy knows more than Mick Jagger about Jagger’s own recordings, I guarantee! I suggest you check out what he’s written, although you will find one fatal flaw: he’s not referenced anything to the original LPs! Instead he’s comparing various CD reissues from around the world, and that to me is completely insane as the original UK vinyl is the true reference.

What surprised me most about these new LPs was not that they don’t sound “digital,” because that’s not how this works anymore, but that the DMM did not cause the kind of thin, metallic sound I associate with DMM LPs produced when the format was new. Instead, these new LPs, while not quite as transparent, airy and open as the originals, manage to maintain their suppleness and overall tonal character. For instance on “Mercy Mercy,” a big, distorted, lovable mess featuring subterranean bass and added studio brightness, the reissue closely tracks the original in all of the areas I consider important to delivering the original experience.

Overall, image solidity, three-dimensionality and harmonic integrity on these releases, pressed at RTI on 180g vinyl is far better than expected. Bass extension is also quite good, and I don’t think anyone will be disappointed with the overall dynamic expression—another area where DMM cutting tends to have problems. On the downside, transients are slightly softened, high frequency extension is somewhat limited, the last bit of air found on the originals is missing in action and the overall sound is somewhat thicker and less transparent than the original. These are errors of omission so minor, if you don’t have originals for comparison, you won’t miss a thing.

If you own American-pressed originals, I think you will be more than pleased by these reissues, which don’t sound at all “digital” in the clichéd sense. If you own UK DECCA originals, you’re not in the market for these anyway.

I’d say, check out Beggar’s Banquet and if you like what you hear there, you’ll like the others. I don’t know who Don Grossinger is, but he did the DMM cutting (his name is on the lead out grooves of all titles). I think he took Bob Ludwig’s masters and did an excellent job translating them to vinyl. For those who feel that the conversion to digital has “tainted” these releases and put an electronic boundary between the listener and the sound of the tape, and that you might as well listen to the SACD, I say such thinking is strictly “old school.”

Let us know what you think.

Zerv's picture

Should the records in this set that were obviously recorded in mono be played with a mono cartridge?

Maury's picture

Just for perspective I have large Maggies in the main system with tubes upstream. Treble in-room is very flat and of course Maggies with ribbons have air. That said, I was flummoxed when I first heard the DSD LP issues of BB and TSMR. I couldn't decide if what I was hearing was more natural sound or dead sound. I am not crazy about my relatively early (not firsts) UK Decca stereo pressings of either of these titles so I was not biased against the DSDs. After several plays and back and forth comparisons there was no doubt though. What MF said I agree with but even more emphatically. They are not thin or metallic but boy are they dead and lifeless.