Let’s all be honest with each other, Opeth’s latest release, Pale Communion, is not even remotely a metal record. Sure, there are a few metal bits sprinkled here and there, but at the end of the day, Mikael Akerfeldt and Co. are still squarely stuck in the mid-70s, where bands like Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd reigned supreme. Yet despite its lack of death growls, there is also no denying that Pale Communion is indelibly Opeth though, incorporating all of the band’s signature elements ranging from lush Damnation style lullabies to those sinister sounding Blackwater Park grooves. It’s all right there on display, just delivered through a kinder, gentler progressive rock exterior.

But regardless of your feelings toward the record itself, Pale Communion‘s production is nothing short of stellar, which should come to you as no surprise given the fact that Steven Wilson was at the mixing helm. His mix not only ensures that all of the band’s proggy inklings were accurately accounted for, but also adds to the overall tenure and tone of the album as well, giving Pale Communion a sense of aural vibrancy while still maintaining its dark and brooding atmosphere underneath. Couple that with Paschal Byrne’s tastefully dynamic master, and Opeth’s latest may well be their best sounding record to date.

Perhaps knowing full well of this simple fact, the band has offered up its latest magnum opus in a variety of formats. There is of course the pedestrian Redbook CD as well as the 180g double vinyl, but there is also a 24-bit/96KHz high-res HDTracks digital download and even a 5.1 surround sound version released on Blu-ray too (an Opeth first). Today’s article is going to compare the Redbook edition to its high-res counterpart, and see what, if any, is there to be gained from spending a few extra bucks for well, a few extra bits.

First, let’s do the numbers. I took one of my favorite tracks on the record, “Moon Above, Sun Below,” as my reference sample, and threw it through Spek just to verify (as a rough cut) any spectral differences between the 24-bit/96kHz HDT version and its 16-bit/44.1kHz Redbook counterpart.

As you can see, the HDT version appears to be a true high-res release, with frequency information way past Redbook’s Nyquist of 22.05kHz, and even showing some spectral cruft near the top end around 45kHz or so. Though spectral analysis can be misleading, as far as I’m concerned, the 24-bit/96kHz is exactly that, with no dubious upsampling or odd ball lowpass filtering applied.

Now from a purely loudness perspective, both of these tracks are nearly identical. For our sample track, both clock in at DR11 and both peak at -0.10db with an RMS of about -13.45dB (for those sticklers out there, the HDT version measures -13.44dB on the TT). In English, level matching via ReplayGain or some other loudness equalization technology is not really necessarily since they are both already at virtually identical volume levels.

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As far as my playback chains go, I mostly switched back and forth under Audirvana Plus v2.0.2 using my Jerry Harvey Audio Siren Series Roxanne CIEMs through a LH Labs Geek Out IEM edition (review will be up soon). I also tried listening with my HM-901 with Balanced Card as a source just to see if an additional ESS SABRE 9018Ms would yield any audible differences over the Geek Out’s “paltry” single chip version. Most of my tests were in the form of simple ABX style testing, and entirely pseudo-scientific – pretty much the defacto standard methodology of every popular audiophile review site on the Internet. Caveat emptor.

To make a long story short, I couldn’t hear a difference. Not a one. This record is so well mixed and mastered, the higher bit and sampling rate are all for naught on my setups. I’m sure there is an audiophile out there who will claim my reference playback chain wasn’t “reference enough,” but regardless, both versions sound equally fantastic to me and you can’t really go wrong with either of them.

I also found that the more I listened to this record, the more I appreciated Pale Communion’s production. I first thought this album was just a decent sounding release, and now I’m thoroughly convinced it’s a reference quality recording, and one that should have a prominent place in every MFi’ers collection. Obviously, if you weren’t a fan of their last one, Heritage, neither the CD nor the HDT version is going to sway you since Pale Communion is clearly cut from the same cloth. But if you do have an open mind, and dig 70s prog rock, this is one of the best sounding recordings on the planet right now and an absolute must buy.