Review – Reconsidering the Remastered Van Morrison Moondance, Astral Weeks, & His Band And Street Choir releases from HD Tracks & Rhino Records & Audioengine D3 24-bit DAC & Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X Headphones

The 1970 release of Moondance by Van Morrison heralded his return to the studio after Astral Weeks, a critically acclaimed album from 1968, that didn't have a strong commercial appeal. Astral Weeks was based on improvisation and contained cryptic lyrics, and represented a break from the earlier work Morrison was known for. Moondance, which became a perennial critical and commercial success, was released on CD at the start of the CD era, and has been one of a handful of titles by Morrison that have been denied the audio dusting of a modern remaster. This changed with the recent remastered release of the title in several forms including a 5-disc deluxe version, and a high-resolution download from HD Tracks. How does this updated version hold up?

I've owned Moondance in several formats: 1970s and 80s era vinyl, 1980s original Warner Brothers CD, many of the tracks on various greatest hits CD compilations spanning two decades. At last comes the opportunity to hear it anew on a deluxe 5-disc release from Rhino/WB and also a high-resolution version from HD Tracks. It is interesting that with all the various myths surrounding the release, Rhino/WB didn't provide any detailed technical notes. Morrison immediately issued a statement laying waste in no uncertain terms to the idea that he backed the new release. So much for a kindler, gentler Van Morrison. Of course, Morrison couldn't prevent a release so it's nice to see the material handled with such care by Rhino, which shouldn't surprise anyone considering the label’s history with reissues. Few in the industry have a track record comparable to that of Rhino, and this release is no different.

Audiophiles will likely be most interested in the inclusion of the Blu-Ray disc along with the three discs of previously unreleased takes from the recording sessions, and the original release in remastered form. But there is another way to access the stereo Blu-Ray content - HD Tracks has made available a high-resolution 192K stereo mix, identical (according to Rhino) to the stereo mix available on the Blu-Ray disc, and in my listening tests I could tell no difference between them. The Blu-Ray disc references a bit of Morrison mythology with its 5.1 surround mix, a mix that is legendary to Morrison fans. When WB started its DVD-Audio release campaign a decade ago, the rumor was that a surround mix was created, completed, and ready for release, until Morrison nixed it. So, it's interesting to read Elliot Scheiner's liner notes mentioning that 10 years ago he created a surround mix, and it is finally here.

Whatever the actual circumstances, it's wonderful for it to be available at long last. I found it quite enjoyable, with respectful placement, and the mix’s warmth enhances the music. If you have a surround system, it might just be your preferred audio selection. Since the surround mix was done with 10-year-old technology, it would appear that the rest of the mixes are more modern, presumably made with more contemporary hardware and software, but that might not be the case. Although the original DVD-Audio spec was set at 96k for surround sound, the format can support 196k, so it's entirely possible that all the content on the new release is actually 10 years old from the time of the DVD-A surround mix. And Rhino confirmed that in fact the Surround Mix and the remaster of the album proper were done in 2001, while the other tracks from the sessions were mixed in 2012-2013.

Rhino did confirm that the normal CD version included in the Deluxe Version is derived from the 192K stereo version, downsampled to 44.1k/16 bits. I've read the various forums all stating different facts, and all that is clear is that most of the facts are in fact rumors or hunches. So, if folks are hearing different things, it is probably due to their own gear. I made a point of comparing the HD Tracks 192K release with an external HD and the Blu-Ray 192K version using the Oppo BD-105, so that I was utilizing the exact same headphones, headphone amplifier, DACs, and playback system, and as far as I'm concerned there was no difference, which is as it should be. According to Rhino the HD tracks version is from the flat analog master and was prepped in 2013 and not the same as the physical set.

The Blu-Ray disc contains a Dolby TrueHD 192K (not 48K as originally listed on press releases and on sites like Amazon) 24-bit PCM stereo mix and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound audio of original album. The HD Tracks release is available as either a 192k or 96k sampling rates, and Rhino confirmed that the HD Tracks release is identical to the Blu-Ray disc, with the advantage of playback through a computer, or from a hard drive using an external DAC. That the HD Tracks release lets listeners play it through computer is really important, something not possible for the vast majority of home and laptop systems which lack Blu-Ray drives. It joins Astral Weeks and His Band And The Street Choir as other HD Tracks releases to almost complete the initial Morrison release cycle.

I was curious how the original CD release held up, and surprisingly it was better then I expected. The original CD mastering was pretty competent, but the increase in clarity and dynamic range of the new release are easily apparent when comparing them, although there is a dropout at the start of "And It Stoned Me" during the first 10 seconds,  whereas just about every other version of the song that I've heard including that first CD release do not have the dropout. I wonder if had this been a complete restoration if this could have been corrected? There are lots of remastered versions of tracks from Moondance, including a Japanese release available only as import, but this represents the first serious documented remastering.

The Blu-Ray release is pretty minimal, with no extra fills or frills, and no videos - only audio. So much so that to find the high-res stereo mix, you need to use the Audio button on your player just to find the option. I listened to the disc with the excellent Oppo BDP-105 Universal Blu-ray Disc Player, and it provided an open, airy sound, revealing not only of the remastering, but seemingly a different mix. Back to the mythology of the release. It isn't made clear if this is a remix, or a remastering of the existing stereo tape, but even a cursory listen reveals a different placement, emphasis, and soundstage when compared to the original release. According to Rhino the official word is that this is a remaster, not a remix. 

Even knowing that, it would appear that this is more than a remastering, but a remix and mastering of the source tapes. I was curious how dramatic the difference might be between the old CDs and the new CDs. For me, surprisingly it wasn't that dramatic, instead it was subtle. Although there is less noise, and the instruments and bass are rendered with more precision, I didn't find it to have the “wow” difference as last year's Jethro Tull Aqualung release which was a full-blown remix and remastering from the source tapes acheiving the sound the band always sought for but was unable to obtain till the new release, but this version of Moondance is definitely a worthwhile upgrade. I also used the Oppo BDP-105 with its USB interface and excellent built-in headphone jack to listen to the HD Tracks version with Audio-Technica's new ATH-AD900X headphones. The combination of the high-res download, the Oppo's excellent DAC setup, and the Audio-Technica ATH-AD900X’s newfound precision and airiness really allowed nuances of Morrison's performance to shine forth. With our computers I was also able to review the titles using the brand new Audioengine D3 portable 24-bit DAC and headphone amplifier. Using Decibel, Pure Music, and Amarra as music players on my Mac systems the new D3 proved an excellent product and comes highly recommended especially at its price of under $200 dollars, and it reinforced the audio enhancements to Moondance, Astral Weeks, and His Band And Street Choir in this set of HD Tracks releases. Audioengine has built a loyal following for is product line of affordably priced, reliably musical product line. From powered speakers to their new D3 24-bit DAC, we came to rely on it as our standard for USB powered DACs, and easily competes and surpassed for us the somewhat cooler sound of the Dragonfly USB DAC.

I did reach out to Rhino and Elliot Scheiner for technical details on the release, but they weren't available at press time. This is a shame, since by comparison, detailed notes are available for other releases (i.e., the new Grateful Dead and Miles Davis releases from HD Tracks), and as the consumer base grows for high-resolution releases, the industry really needs to step up its game and provide details for each and every release, if for nothing else than to assuage the critics who think that consumers are being misled, and offered normal CD releases just upsampled at triple the price, or other concerns. If the industry doesn’t adopt a consistent template of sorts for consumers to know where their hard-earned money is going, can a lawsuit or two be far away from a grumpy consumer? While some labels are very good at revealing the tech details, many aren't, so it might be best for the industry to move forward on its own now to head off possible future regulatory action. The public loves those details, as the Beatles remastering project proved when it provided detailed interviews with the engineers involved with the project, and those interviews garnered an enormous numbers of viewings from sources like Amazon and YouTube, and were included in the mainstream press. That information, the tech details of a remastering or restoration of a well-known title, only makes the new version more valuable and more highly sought after. Everyone wins! Consumers are better informed and feel better about their purchase, the label makes more money from a back catalog title, and the distribution partners have more marketing tools at their disposal. Ok, enough soapbox preaching!

As mentioned earlier, the only way to access the surround mix and high-res stereo release is to purchase the entire five-disc deluxe set. It would have been nice to have a CD/Blu-Ray set available, or at least be able to allow HD Tracks the ability to offer the surround mix, similar to Society of Sounds’ decision to offer the surround mix of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. With regards to those other discs, they are full of alternate takes, including "I Shall Sing" which was completed and ready for inclusion with the original album, but ultimately left off. It is great to hear it here. The myriad other tracks are nice, but I think that most folks will listen a few times, possibly add a track or two to their playlist, and for the most part stick to the album's original track listing. A bit more info on the mastering and approach taken for the reissue would have been a welcome addition, if for nothing else to put the rumor mill at bay. The expanded version features 50 unreleased tracks including studio outtakes plus multiple takes and a final mix of the unheard track, "I Shall Sing." Until now, no one has heard Morrison's version - Art Garfunkel had a Top 40 hit in 1973 with the song, which appeared on his 1973 solo debut.

One limitation of the Blu-Ray disc is that it is difficult for listeners on the go, or those wishing to use their own DAC to listen to. For Mac users it is impossible to listen on their computers due to Apple's decision to forgo Blu-Ray support. Fortunately HD Tracks has the title available as high-res download for the entire deluxe edition, with the exception of the surround mix, so I found myself playing those files with my computer and system. It is commendable that Rhino/WB is putting such care and attention into these releases, and allowing us to listen to Moondance anew so that we can feel we are back in the studio with Morrison as he works his angst ridden romance into the music, as powerful as ever with dusted off sound, full of subtleties and range, available finally after so many years. Van Morrison Moondance Deluxe edition and the HD Tracks digital download deluxe edition are both highly recommended for all Van Morrison fans. We look forward to future releases, maybe even a modern remix and remastering of this iconic title.

Harris Fogel, Posted 12/22/2013

For more information on the Van Morrison Moondance Deluxe Edition:

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