Add to that the thrill of holding the item as it was first sold, and it’s easy to see why this would be the gold standard for originality. But of course you’re only going to be able to hear the records that got commercially released (and then only the ones you can find and afford!) – what about everything else? You’re also at the whim of where the producer got their records pressed – some of the original Sun singles are notorious for the poor quality of the vinyl used in their manufacture, so even a perfect copy will only sound as good as the pressing.
So is the LP compilation any better? Unless it’s an original LP, you’re going to lose the magic of holding an original, and even original LPs will often have been released well after the singles on them had become well known. It’s likely that, as a less disposable item, the LP itself might have been better pressed, and might have survived in better condition but, if a modern compilation, that all depends on where the original was taken from to compile it. If taken from an original 45, it will have all the inherent flaws, unless it has been ‘enhanced’ in the process, in which case what you’re hearing is what the modern sound engineer thinks it should sound like. You’re also vulnerable to some ham-fisted editing (as with a well-known series of compilation LPs that shall remain nameless), with introductory chords or, more often, playouts clipped off to squeeze more tracks onto the album or just through plain carelessness.
As for CDs, well they’re subject to all the issues surrounding a modern compilation LP, save perhaps for the question of the quality of the pressing. I’m not convinced by the argument about the impact on quality of sound from the process of compression. Given the state of recording equipment of the period, I wonder if the dynamic range and clarity would actually have been sufficiently better, or at least better enough for us to hear it. Given that we’re also likely to be listening to it on rather more sophisticated equipment, and I’m not convinced that what we’re hearing has any less aural impact than an original. What CDs and LPs do give us, of course, is the ability to range freely amongst everything that was recorded at the time, rather than only that which was released, but we’re supposed to be talking about quality here, not quantity.
So those are the formats we’re likely to be able to obtain relatively easily, but how might we get closer to a truly original sound? If we’re really lucky, we’ll have the chance and means to acquire an acetate disc, either the first cut from a master tape or, even rarer, something recorded direct onto acetate disc. As something intended as a ‘test shot’, these items are by definition ephemeral and so carry a wonderful sense of originality, but they were very prone to deterioration and so, while a potential source of unreleased material, unless we’re talking about something which has survived untouched and undecayed, the chances are that we’re not going to be listening to a very pure reproduction of the original performance.