The “audiophile mastered version” of Nine Inch Nails’ new album Hesitation Marks is something that we and plenty of other folks were really looking forward to. A few prominent artists have released fully dynamic recordings on CD in the last few years (Jack White, Fiona Apple, etc) and while NIN or Columbia or both didn’t have the guts to do the same with Hesitation Marks on CD, the hope was that at least the “audiophile” version would provide some respite for those of us tired of endlessly fighting the Loudness War, which has now raged for twenty years. As we now know, it was not to be.

The one positive thing from this experience (unless your name happens to be Alan Moulder or Tom Baker) is that the reaction to this farce has been swift and brutal. As the saying goes, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool audiophiles just by slapping that word on anything, no matter how bad. Mastering engineer Barry Diament summed it up pretty much flawlessly:
I wonder why anyone would think a recording of loudly played music, which is meant to be played loud, should be effectively predistorted by making the recorded level on disc loud, rather than achieving that loudness with the playback volume control.

While I admire what I take to be the intent of the “audiophile” version, going from a DR rating of 5 (with 6 tracks overloaded!) to a DR rating of 6 (with – only- 2 tracks overloaded) isn’t exactly pushing the audiophile envelope. Makes me think the definition of the term “audiophile” is either completely misunderstood or it has been stretched to (well beyond) the breaking point.

I did the original CD mastering for “Pretty Hate Machine” (way back when, for TVT Records). To my knowledge, it has a DR rating of 13 and no overloads at all. It can be turned up, using the playback volume control, for a non-distorted hearing of the music, with all the “punch” put into the original mixes.

Some folks like their music a bit squeezed. It provides an illusion of loudness because it simulates the near overload (or in some cases, full overload) of a playback system taxed and stressed to the edge. I wouldn’t argue with whatever brings anyone their listening pleasure but personally, I don’t want the illusion of loudness, I want the real thing. And the only way to get that for real is with the playback volume control. (Turning up that playback volume control also brings with it other benefits, just as having to turn it down to achieve the same apparent level with a compressed recording, will bring with it certain drawbacks.)

Maybe there will be a “super audiophile” version next, with a full 7 dB of DR and only one track overloaded?

It would seem the real audiophile version of this release might currently be the one on vinyl.

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When we looked at the standard and “audiophile” 320Kbit MP3 versions of “Everything” in the last post, we were very surprised to see that the audiophile version had vastly more clipping (a result of the MP3 encoding process) than the standard version. But wait. Isn’t it supposed to be a bit quieter and a bit more dynamic than the standard CD version? Shouldn’t there be less clipping, not more? We were a bit puzzled by this, until we realized that in the case of “Everything.” the audiophile version is both quieter and louder. The average level is a bit lower, and it is slightly more dynamic, but that was achieved in part by pushing the peak level even higher than the standard CD version. It goes all the way to 0dBFS and stays there, as seen in the excellent post by Dr. Mark Waldrup of AIX Records. The extreme peak level wreaks havoc with MP3 encoding, and creates clipping hell.

The reason we’re talking about this yet again though, is Barry’s last point. In terms of the DR meter, the vinyl version of the album at least seems promising, but we couldn’t know for sure until we were able to listen to it and measure it ourselves. Let’s take a look at “Everything” one more time.

Now this is more like it. Genuine, honest to goodness dynamic range, and it sounds as good as it looks. The bass is clean, tight, and punchy, and the details that are lost on the CD and completely buried on the audiophile master are front and center. We posted mastering engineer Ian Shepherd’s response in our last piece, and while we somewhat disagree with Ian on what the audiophile version gets right and what it gets wrong, I don’t think there’s any question that the vinyl is vastly superior to both digital versions in every way.

Ultimately, what we have here is business as usual. Great sounding, dynamic vinyl releases are nothing new, we’ve talked about plenty of them here. What I still don’t understand though is why the audiophile version is what it is. Was the whole thing just a nefarious plot to get more people to purchase the album through than otherwise would have? Maybe. Even if that’s the case, what harm would it have caused to release the fully dynamic vinyl master digitally? Why bother to create a third version, especially if it completely sucks? If we hear anything from Moulder or Baker, we’ll let you know. Until then, buy the vinyl.