Month: May 2016

The Doors – L.A. Woman – Rhino Heavy Vinyl Reviewed

doorslaSonic Grade: B

The pressing we auditioned from the Doors Box Set was surprisingly good. It’s rich and smooth with an extended top end — tonally correct in other words — and there’s lots of bass. This is all to the good. For the thirty bucks you might pay for it you’re getting a very good record, assuming yours sounds like ours, something we should really not be assuming, but we do it anyway as there is no other way to write about records other than to describe the sound of the ones we actually have on hand to play.

What it clearly lacks compared to the best originals is, first and foremost, vocal immediacy. There’s a veil that Jim Morrison is singing through, an effect which has a tendency to become more bothersome with time, as these sorts of frustrating shortcomings have a habit of doing.

A bit blurry, a bit smeary, somewhat lacking in air and space, on the plus side it has good energy and better bass than most of the copies we played. All in all we would probably give it a “B.” You could do a helluva lot worse. All the ’70s and ’80s reissues of this album we’ve ever played were just awful, especially those with the date inscribed in the dead wax.

See all of our Doors albums in stock

The Pretenders – Get Close

pretegetcl_wtlf_1461687961What to Listen For

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

The best copies have superb extension up top, which allows the grit and edge on the vocals to almost entirely disappear. Some of it is there on the tape for a reason — that’s partly the sound they were going for, this is after all a Bob Clearmountain mix and a Jimmy Iovine production — but bad mastering and pressing adds plenty of grit to the average copy, enough to ruin it in fact.

You can test for that edgy quality on side one very easily using the jangly guitar harmonics and breathy vocals of My Baby. If the harmonic information is clear and extending naturally, in a big space, you are more than likely hearing a top quality copy.

Size Matters

Take it from us, it is the rare pressing that manages to get rid of the harshness and congestion that plague so many copies.

Look for a copy that opens up the soundstage — the wider, deeper and taller the soundstage the better the sound — as long as the tonal balance stays right.

When you hear a copy sound like this one, relatively rich and sweet, the minor shortcomings of the recording no longer seem to interfere with your enjoyment of the music. Like a properly tweaked stereo, a good record lets you forget all that audio stuff and just listen to the music as music. Here at Better Records we — like our customers — think that’s what it’s all about.

And we know that only the top copies will let you do that, something that not everyone in the audiophile community fully appreciates to this day. We’re doing what we can to change that way of thinking, but progress is, as you may well imagine, slow.

Get Close has long been a personal favorite of mine. Side one starts off with a bang with the song My Baby, one of the best tracks this band ever recorded. Of course at this point it’s hard to call The Pretenders a band as it is pretty much Chrissie Hynde’s show. She continues to mature as a songwriter, and the arrangments and production value are excellent as well, with heavy hitters such as Steve Lillywhite, Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine involved.

The Domestic LP and CD

The domestic LP is pretty awful, and the domestic CD is even worse, practically unlistenable in fact. I have one in my car; only the judicious use of the treble control, steeply downwards, makes the sound even tolerable.

But the album rocks — it’s great driving music.

More Pretenders

 

Rock of the Westies — Rockin’ Like No Other

john_rocko_rocks_1267812441Another in the long list of Great Albums That You Probably Don’t Know. This record is SHOCKINGLY better than I remember from years back. It’s a knockout, with a great bunch of Elton rockers that still hold up forty years later. It’s much more like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road than it is the two albums that preceded it, Caribou and Captain Fantastic. To these ears it’s a return to form after two misfires.

Caribou is just not a good album on any level; my grade for it would be something in the D range. Captain Fantastic is decent, something along the lines of a B minus: third tier, worth a listen from time to time but not a Must Own by any stretch.

Contrast those two with Rock of the Westies, which clearly deserves to be considered a Must Own, right behind Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, at the bottom of the top tier or atop the second and well ahead of Madman Across the Water and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

And there is simply nothing to come later that can touch any of these Classics from Elton’s prime period, 1970 to 1975.

This music has ENERGY like no other Elton John record we know of; in that sense it has much in common with GYBR, a real rocker in its own right (although practically every song on that album is a bit longer than it should be, succumbing to the perils of the Double Disc: too much time to fill).

We had a blast playing this one good and loud, which is how it was clearly meant to be heard.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

The best sides rock like crazy with serious size and energy. Also, the better copies don’t get too congested in the choruses, a problem we often come across.

Audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them do not seem to be listening for these sonic qualities, the kind — size, energy, dynamics, freedom from congestion — that are very difficult to reproduce (at the loud levels we prefer) and vary dramatically from record to record.

These are what separate the men from the boys, the Hot Stampers from the Nice Sounding Records.

Size

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

More Elton John

 

Phil DeLancie Digital or George Horn Analog?

peppetoday_ojc_1441117461We’ve wanted to do Art Pepper Today for more than a decade, but the original Galaxy pressings were just too thick and dark to earn anything approaching a top sonic grade. Thirty years ago on a very different system I had one and liked it a lot, but there was no way I could get past the opaque sound I was now hearing on the more than half-dozen originals piled in front of me.

So, almost in desperation we tried an OJC reissue from the ’90s. You know, the ones that all the audiophiles on the web will tell you to steer clear of because it had been mastered by Phil DeLancie and might be sourced from digital tapes.

Or digitally remastered, or somehow was infected with something digital somehow.

Well, immediately the sound opened up dramatically, with presence, space, clarity and top end extension we simply could not hear on the originals. Moreover, the good news was that the richness and solidity of the originals was every bit as good. Some of the originals were less murky and veiled than others, so we culled the worst of them for trade and put the rest into the shootout with all the OJCs we could get our hands on.

Now, it’s indisputable that Phil DeLancie is credited on the jacket, but I see George Horn’s writing in the dead wax of the actual record, so I really have no way of knowing whether Mr Delancie in fact had anything to do with the copies I was auditioning. They don’t sound digital to me, they just like other good George Horn-mastered records I’ve heard from this period.

And of course we here at Better Records never put much stock in what record jackets say; the commentary on the jackets rarely has much to do with the sound of the records inside them in our experience.

And, one more surprise awaited us as we were plowing through our pile of copies. When we got to side two we found that the sound of the Galaxy originals was often competitive with the best of the OJCs. Which means that there’s a good probability that some of the original pressings I tossed for having bad sound on side one had very good, perhaps even shootout winning sound on side two.

This is a lesson I hope to take to heart in the future. I know very well that the sound of side one is independent of side two, but somehow in this case I let my prejudice against the first side color my thinking about the second. Of all the people who should know better…

More Art Pepper

 

Vince Guaraldi / Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus – Keeping the Players Together

guarajazzi_wtlf_1406113104

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises, here discussing the importance of transparency, ambience and resolution.

The arrangement of the players is straightforward, with the bass hard left, drums hard right (with leakage well to the left on the cymbals, but that’s another story), and Guaraldi on piano in the center. (The first track of side two reverses this arrangement; why I have no idea.)

Here’s the crazy thing about this recording: The best copies really connect up — tie together — the space each of the players is in. I heard it during the shootout, and I can’t recall if it actually happened more than once or twice, but I know I heard it. They are all live, they are all on the same soundstage, but on most copies you would hardly know it.

They sound like they are playing in booths, the ambience never extending very far in any direction. The best copies have so much ambience that one player’s space extends all the way to the edge of the other player’s space. The effect, though rare, is nothing less than magical.

The piano is solid, mostly clear and not hard. Not many copies present the piano this way — correctly in other words. The amazing snare of Colin Bailey in the right channel is LIVELY and fun like you’ve never heard before.

There is no sacrifice in fullness, richness or Tubey Magic in the presentation, and that is the right sound for this music.

No Breakup on the Piano

I would be willing to bet that 90% or more of all the early pressings still in playable condition have some breakup on the piano. The old arms and carts of the day simply could not track the groove the way modern arms and carts can, and ended up damaging the record.

We are happy to report that this copy has no breakup on the piano at all.

The best copies bring out the contribution of the bass player better, the bass being essential to the rhythm of the music. On some, the bass is so tight and note-like you can see right into the soundstage and practically watch Monte Budwig play.

See all of our Vince Guaraldi albums in stock

 

Expanding Space Itself

Dark Side of the Moon

pinkfdarks_1603_1_1123544238

Recently we played a copy with all the presence, all the richness, all the size and all the energy we ever hoped to hear from a top quality pressing of Dark Side of the Moon. It did it ALL and then some. The raging guitar solos (there are three of them) on Money seemed to somehow expand the system itself, making it bigger and more powerful than I have ever heard. Even our best copies of Blood Sweat and Tears have never managed to create such a huge space with that kind of raw power. This copy broke through all the barriers, taking the system to an entirely new level of sound.

Take the clocks on Time. There are whirring mechanisms that can be heard deep in the soundstage on this copy that I’ve never heard as clearly before. On most copies you can’t even tell they are there. Talk about transparency — I bet you’ve NEVER heard so many chimes so clearly and cleanly, with such little distortion on this track.

One thing that separates the best copies from the merely good ones is super-low-distortion, extended high frequencies. How some copies manage to correctly capture the overtones of all the clocks, while others, often with the same stamper numbers, do no more than hint at them, is something no one can explain. But the records do not lie. Believe your own two ears. If you hear it, it’s there. When you don’t — the reason we do shootouts in a nutshell — it’s not.

A Whole New Dark Side

The best sounding parts of this record are nothing less than ASTONISHING. Money is the best example I can think of for side two. When you hear the sax player rip into his solo as Money gets rockin’, it’s almost SCARY! He’s blowin’ his brains out in a way that has never, in my experience anyway, been captured on a piece of plastic. After hearing this copy, I remembered exactly why we felt this album must rank as one of the five best Rock Demo Discs to demonstrate the superiority of analog. There is no CD, and there will never be a CD, that sounds like this.

In fact, when you play the other “good sounding” copies, you realize that the sound you hear is what would naturally be considered as good as this album could get. But now we know better. This pressing takes Dark Side to places you have never imagined it could go.

To say this is a sonic and musical masterpiece practically without equal in the history of the world is no overstatement. But you have to have a top copy for that statement to be true.
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