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A New One Step Benchmark: Patricia Barber, Café Blue

01-25-2021 | By Robert S. Youman | Issue 113

Patricia Barber remains one of my favorite contemporary jazz artists—both in the studio and live. Yes, her recordings are renowned for their sound quality and unique, if not eclectic arrangements, but she is much more than that. I lived in the Chicago area for many years and often found my way to her weekly Monday performances at the Green Mill Jazz Club in the city. She is a wonderful vocalist, and her skills on the piano are highly underrated.

She can take on a jazz standard and swing with the best, yet still bring forth a ballad with the intimacy and emotional connection that only the most elite performers can deliver. And, I am always surprised by her boldness and creativity when it comes to reshaping the pop hits of the day. The icing on the cake is her band. Together, they are as talented and as tight as any ensemble out there regardless of musical genre and performance.

Her discography is extensive and quite impressive. I would say that her breakthrough album from an audiophile perspective was the 1994 release under review here: Café Blue. Back in the day, you could not attend any high end audio conference or event without this recording finding its way to a turntable or CD player. I would also include her follow up Modern Cool (1998), Companion (1999), and Nightclub (2000) as must haves for any collector.

My understanding is that IMPEX will also be releasing a 1STEP pressing of Nightclub in the near future. Announcements have also been made for the official release of the new Patricia Barber Higher, which will be available on LP, Native DSD and Hybrid SACD with 5.1 Surround.

Caveat Emptor

System synergy and personal taste are critical when evaluating high-end audio hardware and music. This review is based on my subjective requirements, my subjective ears, my specific system configuration, and my specific listening room. This combination is only one data point of many that exist out there for these components. Please consider my comments and analysis appropriately.

Review System

I have included a comprehensive list of all my components and a description of my listening room. Please click on my name in red above if needed.

Photo By Jimmy and Dena Katz

Description, Packaging and Mastering

The IMPEX 1STEP Café Blue release is a 180 gram, 45 RPM double LP box set.  Manufacturing will be strictly limited to 5000 numbered pressings. LP packaging includes an impressive tip-on 3-sleeve gatefold cover and deluxe booklet. The gatefold cover is housed in an attractive slip case that just exudes quality and superb design. Collectors should be very impressed and pleased.

Café Blue was originally recorded on an Otari 32 track digital tape recorder by recording and mixing engineer Jim Anderson and his team at The Chicago Recording Company.  Yes, Café Blue is actually sourced from digital. For this IMPEX release, Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio re-mastered the recording from the original analog work masters.  Both gentlemen did an excellent job and the proof is in the pudding. This is just another example of why one should never discount what talented professionals can do regardless of the original source—analog or digital. Please see my further comments on sound below.


"One Step" releases have really become a thing. Whether it be 1STEP (Impex), or UlraDisc One-Step (MFSL), or Small Batch (Craft Recordings), all are being manufactured with the intent of simplifying the pressing process, and reducing the steps to get closer to the sound of the master tapes (see more details below). All of the One Step releases mentioned above are pressed at RTI.

This also includes the utilization of Neotech's proprietary semi-transparent VR900 vinyl compound for noise floor reduction and improved groove definition and tracking. I was not able to verify, but this compound or some variation of it, is also said to be utilized for the Analogue Productions UHQR Clarity-Vinyl, Music Matters SRX, and the recent MFSL SuperVinyl pressings.

You can use your favorite search engine to find more information on this subject, but let's just take a quote directly from the IMPEX website for their definition of the IMPEX 1STEP process. This should provide more insight:

"The Impex 1STEP process relies on short, tightly-controlled runs that require a new lacquer after each 500 pressings. This unforgiving format has the lacquer skipping the regular father-mother process, going right to a single convert and then pressing. Though this dramatically increases mastering and production costs, it also assures each run is more consistent from disc to disc, with less noise, clearer details and deeper bass. Reducing production complexity to just a single "convert" disc between the lacquer and the press greatly improves groove integrity, diminishes non-fill anomalies and increases signal integrity from the master tape to your system."


For the newbies out there, Café Blue is an outstanding starting point for Patricia Barber. This was her first release from Premonition Records, and it set the stage for all those that followed. Supported by an amazing group of jazz musicians including Michael Arnopol on bass, John McLean on guitar, and Mark Walker on percussion, Café Blue is a wondrous blend of jazz, pop, and original material that will get your attention from the very first note. Almost poetic on certain tracks, be prepared for something new and exciting if you have not experienced her music before.

I do not normally collect multiple copies of the same title, but as stated, I am a huge Patricia Barber fan and I do have several. With the help of some local friends, I was able to assemble five different releases for Café Blue—both analog and digital. I spent considerable time comparing them all, and it was quite interesting.

  • Premonition Records CD – 1994
  • Premonition Records 33 RPM LP (single disc) – 1994
  • Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Hybrid SACD – 2002
  • Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 45 RPM LP (double disc) - 2004
  • Premonition Records 33 RPM LP (double disc) - 2014

Let's keep this in the proper perspective. All of these releases sound very, very good. With that caveat in mind, there is no need to go into much detail for each release, but I did have preferences.

For a guy who loves his vinyl, my "go to" source for this title has always been the MFSL SACD. For whatever reason, on my system, I find that the bass reproduction from the SACD just stands out from all the others. It has an additional amount of detail and weight that really drives the music forward. From top to bottom, it leaves the original Premonition CD in the dust. And again, this says a bunch as the CD is still excellent by any standard.

The two Premonition LP releases were also superb, but slightly less appealing. On occasion, both had a certain edge and almost a bleached like feeling to the highs and mids. Patricia's vocals in particular could be forward and bright on certain passages. The later double 33 RPM set did have a huge soundstage with additional air and ambiance, but I still missed the bass performance from the SACD. Again, remember that these comments are based on my system and my personal preferences.

Most folks like to point to the MFSL 45 RPM as the benchmark. At $500 or more on eBay and Discogs, maybe it should be. It has a warmth and additional texture that the others are missing and that vinyl is well known for. Not quite the slam and muscularity of the SACD, but the vocals are superbly reproduced with a naturalness that makes it all so much easier for long term listening.

However, I found that the pressing quality and background noise level were both very disappointing. Just too many clicks and pops despite multiple cleanings. I also have the MFSL 45 RPM releases for Modern Cool and Companion. Unfortunately, all three have these same problems. I love MFSL, but not sure what happened here.

Which brings us to the Impex 45 RPM 1STEP. Bottom line, I was absolutely floored by the sound quality. First off, my copy was perfectly flat and extremely quiet. Compared to the MFSL 45 RPM, it was like night and day, and it did make a significant difference. Instruments and vocals just seemed to explode from a deep black background. I have ten or more One Step releases, and this sets a new standard for these variables.

Low end sound quality exceeded that of the MFSL SACD. The drums on "Too Rich For My Blood" were now properly unleashed and almost physically startling. Acoustic bass on "Ode To Billy Joe" had tremendous depth and separation. Very exciting! There was something that felt just right about all of this. You know it when you hear it.

For a digital recording, I'm not sure how much better the mids could be. Vocals seemed to be more properly rounded and clearly defined—neither set too far back or in your face. On "What a Shame," Patricia's smoky voice was fully fleshed out with a sense of ease and palpability that most digital and analog sources can only dream about.

There is a bunch of snare on this recording. Instead of the clinical hardness and grain that was even more apparent after multiple comparisons, we now have a proper golden sheen to the splash of the high hats, and a woodiness to the drum sticks that make you feel like this is very close to the real thing. You get the power and dynamics on percussion that were only hinted at before.

As you can tell, I was very impressed by the sound quality of this pressing. It seems that that Nightclub is now in the "On Deck Circle." I would love to see IMPEX take on both Companion and Modern Cool too. Companion is basically a live greatest hits package that was recorded in concert at the Green Mill Jazz Club in 1999. Possibly one of the finest recordings that I have in my entire collection, and justly deserves the 1STEP treatment. A boy can dream, can't he?

Final Thoughts

All in all, this is the real deal. For audiophiles seeking out the very best when it comes to visceral involvement and musical satisfaction, the IMPEX 1-Step Café Blue is a true delight. For those adding to their One Step collection or for others looking for an opportunity to experience this pressing technology for the first time, I strongly recommend that you check this one out. A quick log into your favorite on-line vendor will be well rewarded. Or better yet, do not walk but run to your local record store!

Track List:

  1. What A Shame
  2. Mourning Grace
  3. A Taste Of Honey
  4. Ode To Billie Joe
  5. Too Rich For My Blood
  6. Mahna De Carnaval
  7. Inch Worm
  8. Wood Is A Pleasant Thing To Think About
  9. Nardis
  10. The Thrill Is Gone
  11. Romanesque
  12. Yellow Car III


Dare I mention one more release of this music! I know that it will probably come up in the reader comments. In 2016, Premonition Records put out an "Un-Mastered" or reimagined Hybrid SACD of the original recording with a simpler more spare mastering of the music. A comparison deserves it's own dedicated space and article, but this just reaffirms the greatness and consummate interest in this recording.