Moondance by Van Morrison–Spotify v. FLAC


Moondance, Van Morrison’s third solo album, recorded from August to December, 1969, and released February 28, 1970, is a true classic rock album.  Moondance placed #65 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.  A detail history of the album can be read at Wikipedia.  Discogs lists 64 different versions of the Moondance, the most of any of the 51 Morrison albums listed there.

Play the album while you read.

As I wrote yesterday, “Pono, We Have a Problem,” I just bought a new Denon AVR-X1000 receiver that can play 24-bit FLAC files and I wanted to find the best album I could to test out high definition audio.  At the time I couldn’t decide for a number of reasons, but mainly because I couldn’t find a FLAC album I wanted to spend $25 on that I would enjoy listening to the whole way through.  Then one of my readers, paintedjaguar, chided me for not having the patience to savor a whole album, and I realized he was right.  I needed to not think about hit songs, but just find a great album.

Concurrent with looking for a FLAC album to buy, I was setting up my new receiver to play Spotify and I thought, “Why don’t I play some albums from my HDTracks wish list to see if I can sit through any of them.”  The first one I picked was Moondance, and as an extra surprised, Spotify had a recent remastered 4-CD edition of Moondance.  I fired it up and was blown away by the sound.

I don’t know if it was my new receiver, or the new remastered CD, but between the two of them Moondance sounded awesome.  The soundstage was huge, and every instrument was distinct, bright and highly textured.  I sat and savored the entire album in one sitting.  It was like listening to a fantastic concert.  I later read that Van Morrison wanted to record the album live, and tried to make it sound like a live performance in the studio.

Listening to Moondance has taught me I was wrong to always want to just buy hit songs, and that sometimes a whole album is a coherent work of art that should be experienced occasionally as one performance.

I was so impressed with the sound quality of Spotify’s streaming that I wondered how could it possibly sound better.  This streaming MP3 version impressed me like playing SACDs or 180g vinyl.  When it was over I knew I had to buy the 192kHz 24-bit FLAC version.  If Neil Young was right, the high definition version should make the MP3 version feel broken.

So I did.  And it didn’t. 

To be fair, there’s a problem in making the comparison that tells a very complicated story.  The Spotify version, which is a MP3 compressed file streaming at 320bps, should have only a fraction of the recorded information that the 24-bit FLAC file had, and thus it should have sounded fractionally good.  The trouble is the FLAC file apparently is from an older CD release, and the Spotify version was from a newly remastered CD, and they’ve done an excellent job, like the recent remastering of The Beatles CDs.  I was not comparing apples to apples.

On the other hand, this implies a whole lot of possibilities to consider.

  • There’s still plenty of room to improve CD technology.
  • There’s still plenty of room to improve MP3 technology.
  • There’s still plenty of room to improve streaming technology.
  • Albums can vary significantly depending on how they are mastered.
  • How is the loudness wars affecting our listening?
  • Where do FLAC editions come from?
  • Would playing the remastered CD version of Moondance in 192kHz 24-bit FLAC sound significantly greater?
  • How important is hearing ability in all of this?
  • How important is being in the right frame of mind at the time?
  • How important is the playback equipment?

All these possibilities are starting to make my head explode.  My quest to enjoy my favorite music in the highest resolution possible has led me on quite a chase.  Moondance is a fantastic album.  It’s so good it sounds great on AM radio all the way up to my big stereo system.  Does it matter how high resolution is the recording?  I’m listening to the album as I write, played through Spotify on my Klipsch THX computer speakers.   It sounds great, but nothing like last night when I had kicked back in my recliner and played Moondance loud through my new receiver and my floor standing Infinity speakers.  Then I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1969 and I was sitting at a table in a small club listening to a concert.  And that was with a MP3 recording, technology with supposedly the least quality of all the formats.

Don’t get me wrong, the 24-bit FLAC recording sounded incredibly solid.  Van’s voice was rich and thick, and the instruments were smooth and deep sounding.  It has the warm feeling that vinyl fanatics always gush about, but it lacked the punch of the remastered copy, and it soundstage was smaller, with the instruments less distinct.

It’s also important to understand when I played Moondance I was in the most receptive mood possible.  It was at the end of the day and I wanted to relax.  The bright sun was fading and the moment felt serene.  I was in my La-Z-Boy and I didn’t want to go anywhere, or do anything else.  I had just read paintedjaguar’s comment, and I was challenged to experience a whole album.

This says, if you can find the time to listen to an album, you should make an effort to hear the best possible version you can on the best possible equipment you have.  Music deserves the same attention we give a movie when we’re at the theater.  We don’t want to hear other people chattering, or chomping on their popcorn, or feel the glare of their iPhone screens in our peripheral vision.  When we’re watching a movie we stop thinking and experience the show.  That’s how we should listen to music when we’re ready to play a whole album.  I know most of the time we want music to be the daily background music of life, and that’s perfectly copasetic, but sometimes you should just listen to music like watching a movie at the theater.

I beg my friends to come over to listen to albums with me and they all claim I’m crazy.  They can’t believe I waste time that way.  They think of nothing of getting me to sit in a dark movie theater with them for two hours, but won’t spend forty minutes with me playing an album.  Of course, some of them will spend $50-150 to go to a live concert, especially to see dinosaur rockers long past their prime, trying to recreate their classic songs from the albums I want them to come listen to with me.  Go figure.

High definition audio is cool, but it’s not the point.  Albums are works of art.  They have history to be understood.  They are moments in time.  They are powerful expressions of creativity.  The lesson I’ve learned in this pursuit of higher fidelity is to play the music on the best equipment possible, with the best speakers or headphones available, and to take the time to listen when you can shut off your mind and let your consciousness flow down steam with the music. 

And yes, play your music as loud as you can stand, (yet don’t offend your neighbors).  A whole lot of fidelity comes through just by turning it up and paying attention.

JWH – 4/25/14

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