Vinyl Fidelity Shootout: Led Zeppelin II
It's crazy to think that Led Zeppelin II is only a couple years away from its 50th anniversary. The album was a defining moment for the group and cemented their legacy as the kings of blues-rock, living up to their stellar self-titled debut, and then some. LZ II attacks from the very first track, "Whole Lotta Love," and hardly gives the listener a chance to catch their breath during the 42 minute runtime. The iconic record has found its way into many collections over the years, and according to Discogs, has 507 versions, but who's counting?
With so many vinyl variants to choose from, one would think that finding a unanimous consensus for a definitive pressing would be near impossible, however, LZ II is one instance where there is a true one and only. The undisputed champion is known as the RL "loud cut" and can be identified by a tiny RL etched into the runout groove area.
When LZ II was first released, it was cut with full dynamic range and bass response, huge stereo separation, and guitars and drums that would tear through your speaker cones. The person responsible for this was legendary mastering engineer Robert Ludwig (hence the RL), and he apparently did not show any restraint while transferring the master tapes to wax.
The story goes that Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun gifted an RL copy to his brother to give to his daughter. Her Crosley-esque player, that was so popular in the 50s and 60s, couldn't track the record. The needle was literally jumping out of the grooves and skipping all over the place. The label's knee-jerk reaction was to immediately recall the RL release and quickly order a less dynamic, more tamed re-cut, which is what most people own today. Fortunately, some RL mastered originals made their way into the wild and have become highly sought after and valuable, with copies fetching hundreds of dollars.
As many people just getting into vinyl do, I picked up an original, non-RL LZ II as one of my first purchases a few years ago, but while reading thread, after thread, after thread, I was reassured the RL cut was sonic gold that had to be in my collection someday. Not wanting to pay an exorbitant amount of money on eBay or Discogs, I was hoping to luck into one from a garage sale or an unknowing record shop owner. After checking the dead wax of a couple dozen used copies without spotting the mythical RL stamp, I was deterred but not defeated. While recently making my weekly Friday afternoon trip to the local stores, it happened. I was flipping through the Zeppelin selection and came across that familiar faded, chewed up LZ II cover. Without much optimism, I slid the vinyl out and bam... RL in the dead wax! On both sides! Finally!!! I kept a firm grip on my unlikely find while I flipped through more bins, but who was I kidding, I couldn't wait to drive home and throw it on the turntable. As with most Zeppelin records, it was fairly beat up, with surface noise throughout, but for $15, I didn't mind one bit - finds like this keep the hunt alive.
This may be the most anticlimactic fidelity comparison we'll ever write, but let's get to the shootout. Although, I guess you never know - I mean, Trump won somehow, right???
Anticipating the inevitability of the RL reigning supreme, I figured why not start with the standard US release and at least give it the best opportunity for success. Having heard this pressing a few times, I already knew what to expect. Sadly, I've never been impressed with this release, which was a major reason I began researching online for a better sounding copy and eventually led me to the discovery of the RL.
The sound isn't godawful by any means but lacks the punch and excitement you want from freaking Led Zeppelin. It was all there — dynamic range, instrument separation, Robert Plant's soaring vocals, Jimmy Page's ear-piercing guitar, John Bonham's booming drums — just notably toned down and not at the levels the heart yearned for them to be. I've never not enjoyed spinning this version, but it always left me wanting more.
Expectations were almost unreasonable heading into this listening session. After wanting a copy for what seemed like forever, I couldn't wait to hear what all the fuss was about. Once the needle hit, even the lead in groove was loud with this cut's infamous tape saturation. None of that mattered when the music took over though.
All aspects of the recording were presented front and center, each note and cymbal was crystal clear, with everything almost recklessly jumping out of the speakers. The RL absolutely lives up to the nickname "loud cut." The stereo separation was fantastic and is a shining example of how it can propel a recording when used well. Song after song was completely engrossing and gave me a whole new appreciation for the album. As you can tell, it nearly knocked me off the couch. There's not much else to say other than after listening to my other release of this LP for a few years, the RL is a revelation.
If you're a fan of LZ II, and why wouldn't you be, then don't give up hope and make sure to take a peek at the run-out groove of every copy you happen upon. There is no version that comes close to touching the RL. It's truly something special.