There is nothing I can write about What’s Going On that hasn’t already been written. From its release in 1971 until today, it has been a classic album. Coming in at #6 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums list (2012 Revision) its power and brilliance are hardly up for debate. It also has not suffered from a lack of reissues this past decade.
The source for this release is not established. I would guess they use the same 24/96 masters that are being sold by HD Tracks. According to their website “Mastering was completed by Kevin Reeves at Sterling Sound NYC, using the original masters from the Motown Records vault. The masters were played on a modified Studer A820 with Wolke Butterfly heads and converted to digital at 192khz/24bit resolution using the DCS 904 converter and Sterling’s proprietary mastering systems. As always, the most direct signal path was maintained throughout the mastering process.”
To see how the Blu-ray version sounds, I compared it directly to the recent 40th Anniversary 2CD+LP release. Oppo BDP-105 and BDP-103D players serve as transports for the albums, sending the digital audio over HDMI to a Yamaha CD-A5000 preamp. A Parasound Halo A31 amplifier drives B&W CM10 speakers.
On first listen you may not hear as much of a difference as you expect to hear. The CD version and Blu-ray version both offer a wide sound stage and good detail. As I listened and switched between the two the difference becomes more clear. The CD version has a thin sound, especially at the high-end. Voices sound more natural and authentic on the Blu-ray release.
While the sound stages are similar in size they are not in weight at all. On the Blu-ray you feel more like you are in that room than hearing a recording. The added weight of the Blu-ray comes across the more you listen to it. Instrument separation and clarity improves on the Blu-ray release as well.
One very noticeable difference is that the tape hiss on the Blu-ray is far more in the background than on the CD release. You can hear it on both, but due to the higher noise floor of the CD it is more audible. Going back and forth between the two I never find myself preferring the CD release. The benefits of the Blu-ray version range from barely noticeable to clearly audible, but nothing earth-shaking. However I still will not put back in the CD the next time I want to listen to this album.
However I’m not blown away by this release. First, it’s $30 for only 9 tracks. Compared to the Rolling Stones Grrr Blu-ray Pure Audio disc that offers up 50 tracks for under $20 that is awful. Since this is probably the same master that HDTracks uses, you can get it from them for only $18 and that includes 3 bonus tracks. The 24/192 version from HDTracks is $25 and I don’t know why they don’t use that version on this disc instead of the 24/96 one.
Finally the Blu-ray Pure Audio discs include a digital download of the album, but it is an mp3 version. It uses a 320kb/sec bit rate, but it is still an mp3. Why not offer a lossless copy of at least CD-resolution to the people who buy this, since they obviously want higher quality audio?
There is nothing wrong with the content or quality of What’s Going On. Unfortunately, with the pricing of it, and the other versions available, it makes little sense to buy it. Had they thrown in a 24/96 download, so you get physical media and the same files as the HDTracks version, it would make more sense. Or if they included all the tracks that HDTracks offers here, or at least the 24/192 version. Instead, we get a release that was already a niche one, with how many other quality versions have come out recently, and make it cost far more than it should.
If you want a great sounding copy of What’s Going On that you can just stick in your Blu-ray player, then this one works great. However, you can get the same thing for less money if you get the HDTracks download and put it on a USB stick.