One of my pet hates is distortion. It can ruin a beautiful recording and render it unlistenable in my mind. While I have a number of albums that suffer from distortion, it has been a number of years since I’ve heard music distorted as badly as John Coltrane’s Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording. At least that was the case when listening on headphones.
When a friend recommended the album to me, knowing that I’m a fan of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, I was truly excited for I had not previously heard this recording. Upon launching the album via Tidal Hi-Fi, I couldn’t believe how exceptional the introductory notes of Ogunde were, with Coltrane seemingly present in the room with me.
I honestly thought I was in for a truly amazing jazz experience, but that lasted all of about six seconds until the bass and drum stages kicked in. It was then distortion hell throughout the 28-minute track. It got so bad at times, that Coltrane’s exceptional performance was drowned out and sounded like he was playing in another room, or perhaps on the other side of town.
The second track, My Favourite Things, on the two track album (minus the introduction track) was a little less distorted, but at this stage my mind couldn’t relax as I was consistently waiting for distortion to once again dominate the music.
My immediate thought was this is a problem with Tidal, or their source. I wish that was the case, but as I downgraded the Tidal Hi-Fi 16bit / 44.1 KHz, 1411Kbps FLAC file to their 320Kbps AAC source, there was no improvement. I then went to the extreme and selected Tidal’s +96Kbps AAC source hoping that if the distortion was present, the over compression may drown out the distortion. Nope, that didn’t fix it either.
Determined to find a better mastering I turned to Apple Music, but the same problem existed. I just couldn’t believe that a Coltrane album could be recorded and mastered so badly. At this stage I would have welcomed a bootleg of the album. I even took to listening out of the right channel, as most of the distortion was present in the left channel. Well, that didn’t last as the distortion crept into the right channel as well.
Never to be beaten I started to do some research and found out rather quickly that this release is what I would call a ‘cash-in’ by the record label. That is to say that they had re-issued, re-mastered, and basically milked Coltrane’s back catalogue so much that all they had left was recordings that probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day.
Yes, I am being overly harsh on this recording, but only because I know how amazing Coltrane was as a live performer and recording artist. While his performance is incredible in this recording, the distortion is just too much to keep most people satisfied, except for the most dedicated fans.
If you intend on listening to this album, and all Coltrane fans should, then please listen via speakers as headphones interestingly amplify the distortion. When I used my Bose SoundDock Series III speaker (with the iPhone 5s via the lightning connector), and Bose Lifestyle 235 Series II system (via AirPlay –> AppleTV 3rd Gen –> Bose), the distortion was significantly reduced. I could actually enjoy the album, and I did, but it bemuses me as to the difference between headphones and speakers in representing audible distortion. I’m certainly no audio engineer, but I would welcome opinions as to why distortion is so much more prominent in headphones, besides the obvious fact that the sound is so much closer to your ears.
I should add that distortion was not only present on the iPhone 5s, but also via my mid-2013 MacBook Air. A further interesting note is when I connected my iPhone 5s to my Bose Soundlink Mini, via auxiliary, the distortion wasn’t as prominent in that configuration either. This allowed me to determine that it wasn’t an issue with the DAC, or internal AMP, in the source devices. That said, it still doesn’t explain why two sets of headphones, that otherwise perform well and are from different manufacturers, would amplify distortion to unlistenable levels.
Tim, thank you for the recommendation, but I’ve been spoilt by the sonic quality of my High Fidelity Pure Audio edition of A Love Supreme. It is unlikely that I will be adding the Olatunji Concert to my Coltrane collection, but I’d be happy to listen to a newly mastered version should it ever become available. That said, if the distortion is present in the original recording, then this release is as good as it will get.