A Short Survey of Audiophile Record Labels (TAS 197)

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A Short Survey of Audiophile Record Labels (TAS 197)

The word “audiophile” has always struck me as one that carries two messages. One speaks of appreciation, connoisseurship, a passion for great sound and the equipment that delivers it, the closest thing indeed to the absolute sound of live music—while the other seems loaded with elitism, snobbery, a specialized club for the golden-eared only, a place where sound (form) trumps music (substance).

The latter description is often attached to audiophile record labels, which, usually lacking the budget and other means to attract top talent, often present mediocre music in stunningly great sound. But it would be a mistake, as well as simply unfair, to lump all audiophile labels into a single wobbly stack of LPs, CDs, and SACDs. To clarify, I’m not speaking about mainstream labels such as RCA, Mercury, Blue Note, etc., that spent years building superb sounding catalogs with some of the world’s leading music makers. While labels like these may have an audiophile aesthetic, they aren’t the small, mostly independent labels I’ll be covering here. That said, those great mainstream labels form a solid backbone for the audiophile labels they spawned, those that specialize in reissuing past classics. It should also be pointed out that reissue labels owe something of a debt to TAS-founder Harry Pearson. Without tooting our own, it’s a simple truth that HP’s longstanding “Super Disc” lists and championing of these labels turned those old, once relatively obscure LPs into collector’s items, which in turn paved the way for the reissue market.

It’s not uncommon for audiophile labels to be started by guys that also make high-end equipment. And while I can’t be certain that Bob Fulton started things—he was also a pioneer of specialty cables—I distinctly recall an early and very live sounding recording of a high school chorus singing, well, does it really matter? Back in the day, your local high-end shop would also have stocked LPs (no CDs yet) by early practitioners such as Sheffield Lab and Crystal Clear, both of which specialized in spectacular sounding and hard to make direct-to-disc recordings; Mark Levinson, who made recordings for use as reference tools with which to build his early gear; and from Japan, Denon, which made original classical recordings, along with King Analog, one of the first to reissue heralded classical recordings on vinyl.           

With apologies to any I’ve overlooked, and a few, like Cisco, which has just recently been resurrected, here’s a condensed view of the main players.

The music side of the equipment catalog and Web retailer Acoustic Sounds, Analogue Productions is the brainchild of a Louisiana-born music fanatic named Chad Kassem. The label records its own original blues releases in a converted church now called Blue Heaven Studios, but the majority of its catalog focuses on superb LP and hybrid SACD reissues from Fantasy Jazz, Blue Note, and Impulse among others. Double-LP 45rpms may be all the rage, but Acoustic Sounds and its mastering arm, AcousTech, must get credit for being the first to go there.

A labor of love for former high-end retailer and current Wilson Audio guru Peter McGrath, Audiofon Records specializes in creating near spooky “you-are-there” recordings of classical chamber and orchestral music. McGrath has a true ear for music, and frequently records some of the world’s finest instrumentalists, as well as the Florida Philharmonic. McGrath is also a pioneer of stunningly real-sounding multichannel recordings.

While it may be justly known for its specialty cables, AudioQuest has spent many years recording music. With releases on vinyl, CD, and SACD, and mostly engineered by Joe Harley, who is also associated with Groove Note and Music Matters, AudioQuest Music covers mainly small jazz, pop, and blues ensembles. 

Overseen by brothers David and Norman, Chesky Records began as a reissue house but quickly morphed into a producer of original recordings. Chesky releases run the gamut, but typically focus on the New York jazz scene as well as the excellent original compositions written by David Chesky.

Classic Records made its first big splash reissuing “golden age” RCAs. The company’s catalog has since broadened considerably to include Mercury and other classical labels, and a string of superb rock and jazz titles—all with impeccably reproduced cover art and extras. Classic has also championed 200-gram vinyl as well as special vinyl formulations (such as its new “Clarity Vinyl”), and offers pretty much all manner of standard and heavyweight vinyl, as well as a bevy of different digital formats. Its out-of-print catalog now includes many collectible reissues.  

Groove Note founder Ying Tan was an early partner in Classic Records but soon ventured off on his own. The label specializes in terrific sounding original recordings of jazz vocalists and small ensembles on vinyl and SACD, as well as occasional reissues.

Overseen by a passionate enthusiast named Todd Garfinkle, M•A Recordings produces mostly original music—and a refreshingly wide range of it—captured in large acoustic spaces that are as important to the label’s outstanding recordings as the music itself.

Mapleshade is a record label as well as a mansion turned recording studio that’s located in the woods of Maryland. Over its 23 years, Mapleshade has produced a superb sounding CD collection of of jazz, classical, world, gospel, rock, and other genres.

Founded in 1977, Mobile-Fidelity Sound Lab is one of the original reissue labels. Known for its deep catalog of eclectic releases centering on the finest rock and jazz, the company is equally known for its half-speed mastering techniques, its insistence on using first-generation masters—hence the “Original Master Recordings” banner atop its covers—and innovative technologies such as the 24-karat gold plated Ultradisc CD and Ultra High Resolution (UHR).

While acknowledging the influence of Analogue Productions’ 45 Series, and even using the same AcousTech mastering team and facility, Music Matters burst onto the scene with the launch of a stunning series of 45rpm Blue Note LP reissues. Many are well known, but several are neglected treasures that have been given new life. Sweetening the deal, Music Matters presents its vinyl in beautiful gatefold jackets, with the originals covers augmented by five additional lovingly reproduced session photos taken by Blue Note’s Francis Wolff.

A relatively new player on the audiophile scene, Original Recordings Group (ORG) reissues 180g-vinyl rock (such as the Nirvana catalog) as well as 45rpm jazz from labels such as Impulse.

Opus 3 and Proprius are Swedish labels that have been going strong for a quarter-century or so. Both record a wide range of acoustic music and both create highly natural sounding recordings. The latter’s Jazz at the Pawnshop is among the most famous of all audiophile recordings, and is often derided for its great sound but not so great music.

True to its name, Reference Recordings has been creating superb sounding LPs and CDs for more than 20 years. Under the guidance of Tam Henderson and engineer Keith Johnson, who is also responsible for designing Spectral electronics, RR has built an impressive catalog of over 100 titles of classical, jazz, and vocal music, and collected three Grammy Awards.

While it’s no longer an active player, Sheffield Lab revived the “direct-to-disc” recording technique used in the days before magnetic tape. With musicians playing live, the sound was mastered on the fly and cut directly to the master lacquer. The number of final pressings was necessarily limited, and the musical results were quite variable. Used copies are still available (at a premium), as are later (not as good sounding) CD pressings made from backup tapes. 

From Germany, Speakers Corner reissues a remarkable range of 180g-vinyl LPs. With uniformly excellent sound, the label offers classics from A&M, Chess, Columbia, Decca, DG, Harmonia Mundi, Impulse, Mercury, Mercury Philips, RCA, Verve, and others.

While economic woes have reduced Telarc to a shell of its former self [see Industry News, Issue 194], the label that pioneered excellent digital sound (though its first release was direct-to-disc) leaves us with a fine catalog of original classical, jazz, and blues titles from a terrific roster of musicians, many in multichannel sound.

Arguably the ultimate audiophile label, Water Lily Acoustics is run by Kavi Alexander, who uses ultra-purist custom analog tape machines and other gear, as well as the Blumlein recording method to capture world, classical, and folk musicians in about the most gorgeous sound imaginable.

While the company no longer releases music, Wilson Audio created a fine catalog of classical and jazz discs—largely as reference tools for speaker development—that are easily available online. 

With an extraordinarily rich and varied catalog, JVC’s XRCD (Extended Resolution CD) series remains strong under the guidance of Elusive Disc. The sound is typically exceptional, rivaling SACD and sometimes vinyl.