The amazing thing about listening to old Led Zeppelin albums today is that they have lost none of their power. In some ways, they are more impressive than ever. Listen, for instance, to Robert Plant’s singing. My God what a magnificent instrument he had back then. Jimmy Page once said of first hearing Plant sing, “He had this voice.” He certainly did. John Bonham’s drumming, too, is more inventive than you might remember. John Paul Jones provides solid support on bass, and Jimmy Page’s dexterity remains as dumbfounding as ever (though he’s a lot sloppier than, say, Jeff Beck). The music itself was classic blues-rock, especially on their first release, and remains a prime example of the genre.
Led Zeppelin’s reign occurred squarely during the vinyl era, so it was something of a moment when their albums were first released in the CD format. Unfortunately, the sound on those discs was famously awful. More recently, though, fans have been treated to a spate of remastered, high-gram vinyl releases, as well as CDs freshly remastered by Jimmy Page himself. The LPs trounced both the original CDs and even the original vinyl. I’ll cover the remastered CDs as part of this compendium of digitized Zep. Meanwhile, the remastered CDs represented a noticeable but not a watershed advance over the originals.
Now comes the promise of the best digitized Zep yet. Both HDtracks and SuperHiRez.com have made the band’s entire catalog available at 96/24 resolution. Further, the services are offering two different masterings of the albums. I was anxious to find out if these releases would finally substantially up the sonic quality of Led Zeppelin’s digital output.
I count myself a disappointed owner of the original CD set. Its problem is not so much a matter of sounding overly digital. Rather, the issue is one of presence. These CDs sound faded and remote, like images on an old tapestry. Yet even this state of affairs can’t dull the ferocious attack the group unleashed on the world with Led Zeppelin. And, as I’ve already noted, the Jimmy Page remastering improves things. The sound remains muted, but less so. This allows timbres of acoustic instruments to come through at least somewhat convincingly, and there is more space. However, neither dynamics nor bass are much in evidence.
But forget all that, because now we have the high-res downloads—and they rock. To be sure, they rock to varying degrees, so let’s dig into them. I mentioned the availability of two versions. The first, dubbed “remastered,” is apparently not taken from the Jimmy Page masters. Nonetheless, this version sounds a lot more like what we all remember from the vinyl and easily outshines either of the CD versions. Boy, it sure is nice to hear some bass! Most importantly, the missing highs are largely restored. Channel separation is also better, which helps to create some nice soundstage width, if not depth. I would still wish for better dynamic contrast. All of these comments apply to both the SHR and HDtracks releases, which are indistinguishable.
The other version being offered is called “deluxe.” These are drawn from the Jimmy Page remasters, and also include a bevy of additional material. This version is even more spacious and revealing than the “remastered” download. Here you can really appreciate Bonzo’s drum work and Plant’s soulful vocals. Again, these comments hold for both online suppliers. (If I told you I could tell the difference between their versions, I’d be lying.)
The deluxe editions cost about half again as much of the remastered mixes. For that you get not only better sound but also a live version of pretty much the entire album. Recorded in Paris in 1969, these tracks are worth listening to—once. After that, the shrill sound is likely to drive you away. Nonetheless, for sonics alone I’d opt for this version without a second thought.
The CD of Led Zeppelin II was no improvement over its predecessor; the sound remains rolled off and thick. And once again the Page remastering represents an upgrade in verve and clarity. This time, though, the gap between the original and the remaster is more substantial. In fact, as I listened to Page’s version in 44.1/16, the sound was good enough that I wondered if the 96/24 downloads would top it. As it turns out, they do, though not by the margin I observed with Led Zeppelin.
The most notable improvement with the “remastered” download of Led Zeppelin II is that it has a lot less digital glare than either CD. Still, this version left me bored and uninvolved, probably due to the uneventful dynamics. By now this may go without saying, but these observations apply to both the SHR and HDtracks versions, which sound the same.
The “deluxe” version from both services is again the superior choice, with tighter bass and more drive. Plant’s vocals are more prominent—that’s a good thing—and dynamics finally get cracking. This time, the deluxe edition’s extras consist of rough mixes and backing tracks. These are only moderately interesting, especially since the finalized tracks all boast markedly better sonics. So, as with Led Zeppelin, you won’t be plunking down the extra coin for this version because of its extras. Rather, you’ll do it because this is the inarguably the best-sounding digital version of the album in existence.