Finally, MF and TP Agree on Something

beatlrubbeWe are so excited to tell you about the first of the Heavy Vinyl Beatles remasters we’ve played! As we cycle through our regular Hot Stamper shootouts for The Beatles’ albums we will be of course be reviewing more of them*. I specifically chose this one to start with, having spent a great deal of time over the last year testing the best vinyl pressings against three different CD versions of Rubber Soul.

The short version of our review of the new Rubber Soul vinyl would simply point out that it’s awful, and, unsurprisingly, it’s awful in most of the ways that practically all modern Heavy Vinyl records are: it’s opaque, airless, energyless and just a drag.

I was looking forward to the opportunity to take Michael Fremer (the champion of thick vinyl dreck from sources far and wide) to task in expectation of his rave review, when to my surprise I found the rug had been pulled out from under me — he didn’t like it either! Damn it all.

MF himself could hear how bad it was. True to form, he thinks he knows why it doesn’t sound good:

As expected, Rubber Soul, sourced from George Martin’s 1987 16 bit, 44.1k remix sounds like a CD. Why should it sound like anything else? That’s from what it was essentially mastered.The sound is flattened against the speakers, hard, two-dimensional and generally hash on top, yet it does have a few good qualities as CDs often do: there’s good clarity and detail on some instruments. The strings are dreadful and the voices not far behind. The overall sound is dry and decay is unnaturally fast and falls into dead zone.

It strikes me as odd that the new vinyl should sound like a CD. I have listened to the newly remastered 2009 CD of Rubber Soul in stereo extensively and think it sounds quite good, clearly better than the Heavy Vinyl pressing that’s made from the very same 16 bit, 44.1k remixed digital source.

If the source makes the new vinyl sound bad, why doesn’t it make the new CD sound bad? I can tell you that the new CD sounds dramatically better than the 1987 CD I’ve owned for twenty years. They’re not even close. How could that be if, as MF seems to believe, the compromised digital source is the problem?

Fortunately I didn’t know what the source for the new CD was when I was listening to it. I assumed it came from the carefully remastered hi-rez tapes that were being used to make the new series in its entirety, digital sources that are supposed to result in sound with more analog qualities. Well, based on what I’ve heard, they do, and those more analog qualities obviously extend to the new Rubber Soul compact disc. At least to these ears they do.

Possibly my ignorance of the source tape allowed me to avoid the kind of confirmation bias — hearing what you expect to hear — that’s one of the biggest pitfalls in all of audio.

I take issue with more of MF’s methods and conclusions further on. First, though, a little background.

Obsessive Audiophiles

At some time in my early twenties I was infected by the stereo bug, which resulted in my becoming an obsessive audiophile at an early age, a condition which has only gotten worse with time. I’m coming up on my fortieth year in the hobby, the last twenty five of them professionally as the proprietor of Better Records.

Approximately twenty years ago I discovered (along with my friend Robert Pincus) that there were very special pressings in this world that sounded much better than their seemingly identical counterparts. In addition, the more critically I listened, the more I noticed that not only do no two records sound the same, but no two sides of the same record sound the same.

This, as you may well imagine, radically changed my approach to finding the best sound on vinyl. Soon enough finding, cleaning and comparing large numbers of pressings became the sole focus of our efforts here at Better Records, resulting in the hundreds of Hot Stamper pressings you see available on our site today.

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the sonic differences among pressings we describe in our listings, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified audio expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

If, however, you are on our site and taking an interest in the records we offer, we assume you actually can hear, and your equipment can reproduce, these differences. We currently offer virtually no Heavy Vinyl or audiophile reissues of any kind. Our customers, which hopefully includes you, know better than to waste their money on them.

Old Paradigms and New

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom. Fremer is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment:

It’s not my pleasure to be so negative but since I have a clean UK original (signed for me by George Martin!) I’ll not be playing this one again. Yes, there are some panning mistakes and whatever else Martin “cleaned up” but really, sometimes it’s best to leave well-enough (and this album was well-enough!) alone.

We can’t imagine how anyone can have a system in this day and age that can obscure the flaws of the original Parlophone pressings of Rubber Soul (or any other Yellow and Black label Parlophone pressing for that matter). MF apparently does (as do some of our customers, truth be told), but we have something very different indeed. One might even consider it the opposite of such a system. Our system is designed to relentlessly and ruthlessly expose the flaws of every record we play. Only the best of the best can survive that level of scrutiny. This commentary addresses this issue in more depth.

Doors Progress

So MF can hear that the new Rubber Soul is not very good, but seems to have more trouble noticing the flaws of his original pressing, which makes him, what? Half right?

The new Doors remasters have left him in roughly the same spot.

He raved about the digitally remastered Doors Box Set when it came out, but now that Acoustic Sounds is doing Doors albums on 45 he is singing a different tune:

Whatever I wrote about that box then [5/1/2010 if you care to look it up], now, by comparison, the best I can say for The Doors on that set is that it sounds like you’re hearing the album played back on the best CD player ever. It’s smoooooth, laid back and pleasant but totally lacks balls, grit, detail, spaciousness and raw emotional power. The entire presentation is flat against a wall set up between the speakers. The double 45 has greater dynamics, detail, spaciousness and appropriate grit—everything the smooooth 192k/24 bit sourced version lacks.

We, on the other hand, had no trouble at all hearing how bad it was right from the start. For our last Hot Stamper shootout winner of The Soft Parade we noted:

Need I even mention how much better this copy sounds than the recent 180g version from the Rhino Box Set, digitally remastered by Bernie Grundman? That thing is just awful, possibly the worst sounding pressing I have ever heard. The Gold CD Hoffman did for Audio Fidelity would be night and day better. So much for the concept of vinyl superiority. Not with Bernie at the helm.

To his credit MF finally recognizes his mistake, but let’s stop and think about how he came by this insight. He did it by playing a pressing that, to his mind, has every reason to sound better, being sourced from analog tapes and mastered at 45. Now he hears that Bernie’s cutting sounds like a CD. To us it sounded worse than a CD when we played it the first time, vinyl or no vinyl. We even recommended the Hoffman-mastered DCC Gold CDs for those who didn’t want to spring for one of our Hot Stamper pressings. As we like to say, good digital beats bad analog any day.

Real Progress

Then again, who are we to talk? Bear in mind that as recently as 2000-something we were still recommending the DCC vinyl pressings, records that I can’t stand to listen to these days. My system couldn’t show me how colored and lifeless they were then, but it sure can now.

It’s amazing how far you can get in 10 years if you’re obsessive enough and driven enough and are willing to devote huge amounts of your time and effort to the pursuit of better audio. This will be especially true if you are perfectly happy to let your ears, not your brain, inform your understanding of the sound of the records you play.

If we thought like most audiophiles, that money buys good sound and original pressings are usually the best, there would be no such thing as Hot Stampers. That’s Fremer’s world, not ours. He’s making progress in some areas, not so much in others, but man, he sure has a long way to go. At this rate it will take him forever. It just goes to prove that old thinking and wrong thinking can really slow down your progress. Take our advice (and stop taking his, which is also our advice) and you will be amazed at the positive changes that are sure to come your way.

Training Your Ears

Of course, we should note that it helps to have a staff of five doing the work we do, including a full-time record cleaning person. All of the members of the listening panel were musicians with already well-trained ears when we hired them. From the start they had no trouble appreciating the differences between pressings.

I, on the other hand, am not a musician. Over the years I simply tried to get my stereo to sound more like live music. As it improved over the years it allowed me to hear more and more of what was really on my records. I slowly gained the skills I needed to do the kind of critical listening comparisons that are currently the heart of our business. Let me be the first to admit it was slow going for, say, the first twenty years.

It has been my experience that most audiophiles are in that same non-musician boat. The problem seems to be that stereos are not nearly as good at teaching these skills as musical instruments are. Unless you are of an experimental mind and are willing to devote a great deal of your time and money to the audio game, you are unlikely to develop the skills necessary to critically evaluate recordings at anything approaching our level.

Unfortunately, playing into this vicious cycle, those same critical listening skills are the very ones you need to make your stereo revealing enough so that even subtle differences between pressings become not just clear, but obvious. Better ears lead to better stereos, but bad stereos make it hard to develop better ears. That’s why I made so many mistakes and learned so little in my first twenty years as an audiophile. But enough about me. Back to Rubber Soul.

So, What’s The Grade?

MF’s grade for the new Rubber Soul pressing was a 5 on a scale of 1 to 11. If we were to follow the more standard scale of 1 to 10 we would probably give Rubber Soul a 2, at most 2.5 (and that’s only if we were in an awfully generous mood). The new record is a drag, and even the remastered CD is better. Under those circumstances how can the 180 gram pressing be a 5? Maybe in Fremer’s world you automatically get three points for being made out of vinyl. He seems to really like the stuff, even when it doesn’t sound good. Never could figure that one out.

More Beatles Heavy Vinyl

Due to the heavy volume of mail on the subject (2 emails flooded in) we finally broke down and bought the set. As we pursue our Hot Stamper shootouts of The Beatles’ catalog we will be commenting on how the new pressings sound from time to time and in no particular order. We’re also in no particular hurry; practically nothing on Heavy Vinyl impresses us these days and we expect The Beatles records to be no different, rave reviews (for most of them) from audiophile reviewers notwithstanding.

Added Benefits

There is a clear benefit to doing it this way, and it’s something you should consider when doing your own shootouts, and when tweaking your system too. We have achieved better results lately by doing it like this:

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album at certain key moments of your choosing. Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that the others do not do as well, using a specific passage of music — the acoustic guitar John beats the hell out of on Norwegian Wood would be my first choice — it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing, 180 or otherwise, reproduces that passage. When some or all of the good stuff that the best copy showed you comes across less musically, or even disappears altogether, then you may find yourself beating the same dead horse that we end up beating practically every time we review a modern pressing. Where did all the good stuff on this record go?

The process is simple enough. First you go deep into the sound. There you find something special, something you can’t find on most copies. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

Admittedly, to clean and play enough copies to get to that point may take all day, but you will have gained experience and knowledge that you cannot come by any other way. If you do it right and do it enough it has the power to change everything you will ever achieve in audio.

Tweaking your system should proceed along the same lines. Using the above process, get to know some specific attributes of a recording inside and out. Then and only then is it time to tweak, when your system is at its best and the blood is pumping through your ears. If your experience is anything like ours, the results you achieve using this approach will be much more reliable over the long term.

We still end up undoing many initially promising tweaks the next day, usually when some record we know well doesn’t sound the way it should. But you learn nothing unless you try, so we keep at it, and so should you. Some of the spaghetti will stick to the wall eventually, and when it does it produces one of the best highs in all of audio.

Of course it’s always a good idea to confirm whatever changes you’ve made with other records you know well. In audio it’s easy to be wrong. Even MF is figuring that one out it seems.

* After playing two titles and hearing the same mediocre sound, this program is on indefinite hiatus. Who has the time to play such crappy records, especially when there are so many good ones, or potentially good ones, that we never seem to get to?