The New Maria Callas Remasters: Good or Bad?

The other day, I posted about the new box set of Maria Callas’ Complete Studio Recordings being available for download on the iTunes Store. I had a few exchanges with Andrew Rose, of Pristine Classical, which restores historical recordings, and Andrew said that he thought the Callas remasters were not good. He told me he was writing something for his newsletter, and granted me permission to reproduce it here.

Here’s what Andrew Rose has to say about these remasters.

There’s been a surprising amount of fuss about a new Maria Callas box set recently. Music and tech blogger and Macworld writer Kirk McElhearn noted its appearance on iTunes – “This is the first big classical box set I’ve seen on iTunes sold as a set” he wrote on Facebook this week. I’ve also seen it popping up on music websites – on Qobuz, for example, the music is being promoted with a picture of a box set, but it’s actually being offered across individual albums in various formats up to and including ultra-hi-resolution 24-bit 96kHz lossless downloads.

A couple days ago I also received an e-mail on the subject from a Pristine Classical newsletter subscriber called Rob (who I’m sure is reading this), who wrote:

“Since you’ve tackled a few, when you get a spare moment, hoping to hear your appraisal of Maria Callas Remastered (The Complete Studio Recordings 1949-1969).”

I clicked on the link in Rob’s e-mail, which took me to Amazon’s UK website where the new set could be purchased on CD for £210.99. Bizarrely the same set can be bought on Amazon’s French website for €199 – which is nice because Amazon currently reckons £210.99 equals €280.34!!! Eighty Euros is quite a saving – if you’re in the UK and want to get the set check out Amazon’s European websites first.

Anyway, it so happens that I already own, alongside a stack of original vinyl Callas albums, EMIs’ last Complete Studio Recordings box set, released in 2007, which looks a lot like this:


It’s also considerably cheaper right now – £77.38 (€108.81) on Amazon UK, or better still, €69.90 at Amazon France. (Tip: French buyers get cheaper Callas, it seems – the UK EMI box is 55% more expensive.) That’s a third of the price of the new edition for French customers. So is the new remastered version three times better than EMI’s old version?

(As an aside, a friend of mine with a vineyard in St. Emilion once remarked that Chateau Petrus, one of the world’s most expensive wines, was made a mile or two down the road from his own, but cost 50 times more per bottle than his did. Was it better? Yes. Would he rather have one bottle of Petrus or fifty bottles of his own excellent Grand Cru? The latter, please…)

Sorry for the interruption – back to my question: is it worth, as a listener, paying three times as much for the new remastered set? In a word, “no”, and I won’t be investing my money in it. What I have done though is invested in some of the ultra-high-resolution download tracks – so you don’t need to – and subjected some random samples to a few checks and tests. This also allowed me to follow up the (inevitably) speculative response I gave to an e-mail I received back in August from the music critic David Patrick Stearns:

“As you’ve no doubt heard, Warner/EMI is bringing out a Callas box with new remasterings taken from master tapes and I’m doing a story about it for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

To be honest with you, I like your remasterings better. It seems to me that the difference is this: Warner/EMI is trying to bring out all that’s there on the master tape, the odd result being that Callas voice has rarely seemed so harsh to me.”

So, what exactly do you get for your money? My expectations were admittedly low, and in my first test I wasn’t surprised with the results. Yes, it’s been transferred this time at 24-bits and 96kHz. No, it doesn’t sound any different to the older EMI issue that’s now a third of the price. (This was a track taken at random from a 1955 recording of Madame Butterfly – you’ll be able hear my own take on this recording in a few weeks).

There was only one audible difference between the two: the new one was louder. Yes, turn your amp up around 5dB when playing the old transfer and you can have all the joy of the new one!

I concocted a track which began with the older transfer, cross-faded into the new version, then cross-faded back to the older one. With the levels matched I listened over and over again, on my studio monitors and on my headphones. I couldn’t hear the joins and I couldn’t detect any qualitative difference whatsoever. There was nothing at all to indicate that I was listening to a “new and improved” recording, however hard I listened, and I like to think my hearing is reasonably perceptive, given my line of work.

The 24-bit transfers have clearly helped the engineers to maximise the sound levels (they can set record levels a bit lower and then increase the final levels digitally to get the most out of a CD’s 16-bit sound without bringing up any audible digital noise).

But what about those super-duper 96kHz sampled high frequencies? There’s quite literally nothing there.

To be technically correct there is of course something there: a whole 26kHz of uninterrupted tape hiss from 22k up to 48k. Tape hiss, being random low level noise, has no practical frequency limit – if your tape heads can reproduce it it’ll probably go on up and up, almost ad infinitum. But those microphones, those amplifiers, those mixers and those tape record heads in use back in 1955 did not go on up ad infinitum. They started to roll off somewhere around 20kHz, and by 22kHz you’ve pretty much reached the upper limits of what was captured. Which is as high in frequency terms as a CD can go, as it happens. Above that there was no musical content whatsoever on the 1955 recording. So there’s no advantage to be had whatsoever in wasting money, bandwidth and storage space on a 96kHz version of the recording in question. There’s plenty of music contained within the constraints of a standard 44.1kHz CD. But beyond that, the rest is noise.

Next I turned the clock back to 1953 and one of the most famous Maria Callas recordings of them all, Tosca – one of the first Callas recordings I tackled here at Pristine (PACO 080). This time there were minor differences to be heard over the previous outing on EMI. The pitch on the new transfer was marginally higher (closer to my own pitching than heard on the older transfer, though they’re all close). There was also what appeared to be a slight boost in the treble.

But what was most interesting here was the new dynamic range – or rather the lack of it. With the loudest moments set up to match between the two transfers (leaving my own out of the picture for the time being) it was noticeable that the new transfer was louder in all the quieter sections. This suggests one immediate cause: compression of the audio signal to make everything appear louder. Not in the way Rock music does it – this is certainly subtle – but the irony here is that this new 24-bit transfer, which as such has much greater potential dynamic range, uses less of that range that the old 16-bit transfer did. By compressing the audio levels (and no, this isn’t data compression as in MP3, don’t be misled by the terminology), essentially squashing the dynamic range, this might (along with the equalisation) be part of an answer as to why my Mr Stearns felt that the Callas voice had “rarely seemed so harsh to me”.

On the plus side for the new set? There’s no denying the box set is lavishly packaged. So much so, one can’t help but wonder whether this is where the budget for this project went, rather than spending lots of time and effort in the remastering suite (it doesn’t take a genius to load up a tape machine and press play and record, after all). I may be wrong of course – this is speculation based on sampling two discs out of 69 – but it’s informed speculation, it’s measured speculation, and its tested speculation.

In making at least one recording subjectively “louder”, by reducing its dynamic range, one might consider that the new release is in this respect actually inferior to its predecessor, still available at a third of the price. It certainly isn’t using its full 24-bits, nor its 96kHz sampling rate (though it’s possible that the later recordings might offer the odd cymbal crash the breaks the upper limits of the CD). And if other recordings simply invite you to turn up the volume a small amount in order to replicate the “new” sound, why buy the whole lot again – or rather, why not go for the cheaper set for as long as it lasts?

If packaging is your thing, or you want to splash your cash and get the “Mastered for iTunes” lossy download – at €149.99 here in France, still more than double the price of the 2007 EMI non-lossy CDs – then why not blow a couple of hundred on the set? It’ll look very nice on your shelf. But don’t throw away your old copies just yet, whoever remastered them…

Andrew Rose

It’s interesting to note that Sterophile raves about these remasters. The American magazine says:

“Once we get to material remastered from the analog tape masters, the restoration of the treble edge of Callas’ voice and high-frequency extension of the orchestra, combined with palpably greater richness and body, sounds as though a previously clouded window on Callas’ artistry has been scrubbed clean.”

So who to believe? I know that Andrew has not only listened to the recordings, but also analyzed the sound, measuring such things as dynamic range, and the Stereophile writer says nothing about that. They did listen to some of the new remasters compared to the old, but, what a surprise, they didn’t choose what they heard.

“Warner supplied members of the press with a CD that compares the last 16/44.1 remastering of five arias with the new 24/96 versions downsampled to 16/44.1.”

So, Warner chose the ones that would sound best compared to older versions… Pretty sly marketing strategy.

If you’re interested, you can get this set from, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, or the iTunes Store.

And if you like historical recordings, stop by Pristine Classical and see what they have to offer.