Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For a special instalment in the series, we’re pitting two versions of Bob Dylan’s flawless ‘Blood On The Tracks’ against each other to see which stands as the definitive version of the album.
Much has been written about the context surrounding Bob Dylan’s 1975 magnum opus, ‘Blood On The Tracks’. Frequently characterised as a return to form, that is deeply unfair on the excellent and underrated albums that preceded it; it is fair to say, though, that the album marked Dylan’s first outright classic in the best part of a decade. One of the most emotive and lyrically rich offerings of his career, ‘Blood On The Tracks’ is one of those rare albums comprised of back-to-back songwriting master classes. Musically, too, the album is one of Dylan’s most nuanced and intricate – it’s a combination that leads to ‘Blood On The Tracks’ being one of the most accomplished albums of its genre and decade, and a real essential.
We’re going to be comparing a Near Mint condition 1975 UK 1st Pressing with a 2013 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab audiophile reissue to see which sounds better. Before we get started, there are a few things to bear in mind; our original pressing is over four decades old and, although it remains in beautiful condition, it has definitely been played many times (albeit on high quality equipment) which may have led to some minute degradation of playback quality. The 2013 MFSL version, on the other hand, has been played only twice at the time of writing – so it remains as fresh as it’ll ever be. Another thing to consider with this comparison is that the original pressing was produced in huge quantities to satisfy a hungry mass market, whereas the 2013 reissue is a limited edition aimed at a far more discerning (and richer) audiophile market. The difference in price is significant between the two, with a great condition original costing around £15 – whereas you’d be hard pressed to find the MFSL version for less than £35.
So, how do they stack up? Well, we made lossless recordings of both records played on the same equipment and did a side-by-side comparison of the two. We’ll cover pressing quality first. Of course, the MFSL version has a definite advantage here as it’s only been played a couple of times, so the fact that it’s somewhat quieter than our original isn’t a surprise. The MFSL has a low noise floor audible in-between some tracks but generally pressing quality is excellent and the music resounds clear and uninterrupted. It’s testament to the quality of the vintage CBS pressings that our original holds up so well; surface noise is very minimal and totally inaudible during the music for the vast majority of the album’s runtime. It’s worth noting also that the weight of the records is hugely different between the two. For a mid ’70s release, the original CBS release is on surprisingly lightweight vinyl – so light that it can be wobbled in hand with ease. The MFSL version, on the other hand, is a well cut, sturdy 180g and certainly feels much higher quality than the original. Overall the MFSL wins here, but the CBS original holds up well.
Sonically there’s a lot to cover in terms of differences. It’s worth saying up front that both perform excellently and sound great – to the point where some of the differences weren’t obvious until we did a direct comparison. Having said that, the MFSL is the clear winner of the two; by comparison it makes the original sound as though it’s being heard through a light veil. The original is a rich, clear recording but there’s an immediacy and greatly enhanced clarity in the MFSL that makes the original sound somewhat distant by comparison. The drums take an obvious boost, with the top end being filled out considerably on the MFSL version, lending the pressing a punchier, sharper sound that never grates but instead lends the album a heightened detail. The intricate acoustic guitar of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ likewise rings out in a way that makes the original seem ever-so-slightly dull by comparison. The harmonica parts have a definite improvement also; Dylan has long had a penchant for searingly intense harmonica parts that frequently have a rather harsh top end. The MFSL version manages to make the harmonica parts less fatiguing without detracting from their presence; it’s an effect that can be hard to adequately describe without the listener having heard it themselves but it certainly makes the overall audio experience subtly, but not inconsiderably, more enjoyable than the original pressing.
The original pressing still sounds great and it remains very enjoyable; however there’s no denying that the MFSL version is superior and that’s the one we would recommended, albeit with a caveat. More casual listeners will doubtless be satisfied with a nice condition vintage copy because the original’s sonics still sound great and only appear diminished by comparison to the superior, but more expensive, MFSL edition. Hardcore fans and those for whom the price-tag is of no concern, however, would do well to pick up the MFSL version as it’s a great pressing with superb mastering which shows ‘Blood On The Tracks’ in the best light.
The sonic improvements on the MFSL edition amount to a lot but are individually relatively subtle, mostly coming alive either during side-by-side comparison or when played on high quality equipment. The packaging and presentation, on the other hand, is hugely different between the two – and significantly higher quality on the MFSL reissue. The original is packaged and presented much as you would expect a standard, non-limited release from the mid ’70s to be – it’s housed in a well printed non-gatefold sleeve and with hard-card inner sleeve. It’s well made but not extravagant and, although the spine is easily readable and it more than meets expectations given it’s vintage, presentation is nothing to write home about. The MFSL edition, on the other hand, boasts gorgeous presentation that definitely lives up the high quality of the mastering.
The sleeve for the MFSL edition is a very chunky gatefold, printed on thick stock heavy card. It physically weighs a not inconsiderable amount and has a tactility to it that definitely makes it feel like a high quality product. The inner gatefold spread features a couple of candid shots of Dylan from the album’s sessions, a touch that goes some way to contextualise the album, albeit subtly. Fittingly, the record is also housed in one of MFSL’s own high quality audiophile inner sleeves.
Upon reflection, there is a clear winner between the two: the 2013 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version is the superior and likely definitive edition of the album – having said that, a good condition original copy still has an impressive sonic impact and can be attained for significantly less than the MFSL edition. Ultimately you get what you pay for when choosing between the two – not to mention the fact that there are plenty of other pressings out there to choose from – however, in a nutshell, we think most would be happy with the original but that the more dedicated, serious listener would benefit from going the extra mile with the MFSL edition. Both remain great choices but the MFSL is the superior of the two.