Month: January 2017

A Thiller Like You Have Never Heard in Your Life

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This copy has Triple Plus Shootout Winning sound on side one!

  • A killer Top Copy: Triple Plus (A+++) on the first side, Double Plus (A++) on the second
  • The sound is huge — big, wide, deep, and open, with the kind of three-dimensional soundstaging that lets the music unfold in front of you and around you
  • Billie Jean and Beat It sound out of this world here, but that’s not fair to the rest of the album since every track does
  • “More than just a phenomenon…it is simply great music.” — AMG 5 stars

 

The sound on this copy is huge — big, wide, deep, and open, with the kind of three-dimensional soundstaging that lets the music unfold in front of you and around you as well. You get the bottom end punch that’s so crucial to this music and tons of energy as well. The bass is meaty and well-defined, showing you the rhythmic foundation that the music needs. The overall sound is transparent with amazing texture to practically every element.

Michael’s voice is marvelous on this copy — breathy, textured, and positively dripping with emotion (just listen to him break down on The Lady in My Life).

A Real Thrill(er)

Thanks to constant improvements in our stereo, we’re now getting this album to sound better than it ever has. Extended highs appeared where none had been before. We were hearing synthesizers buried deep in the mix we’d never heard. All of a sudden, these ’80s pop records had amazing analog magic.

If your system is up to the task, you won’t believe how big and lively this album sounds. Who woulda thunk it?

Good old Bernie Grundman handled the mastering and managed to do a really nice job; unfortunately, most copies of this mass-produced classic don’t give you all that much of the magic.

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus and maybe a bit better is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of later pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful originals.

If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.

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Advice on Elvis’s Records

This is my favorite Elvis Costello album,  although the first album is every bit as good.

I remember loving the sound of my old Brit copy from twenty years back, even to the point of agreeing with Michael Fremer when he put it on his top 40 rock album list. Now I know better: that most of them leave something to be desired, especially down below. Did I have good one? Does he? Who can say? Everything is different, and revisiting old sonic favorites can sometimes be a bit of a shock. (Of course this is especially true for all the old MOFIs I used to like. Now most of them make me gag.)

Elvis: Still The King

By the way, we played a domestic copy of this album, just for fun you might say, and sure enough, it was a real mess. Boosted highs, poor bass definition and copious amounts of grit and grain — ’70s Columbia at their best, what else is new? The first album and Spike are the only Elvis records I know of that sound good on domestic vinyl. Forget the rest. If you love Elvis Costello as much as we do around here, we suggest you do yourself a favor and trash your domestic LPs — you need a British copy to even get in the ballpark, and that’s far from a guarantee of good sound. Elvis is “Still the King,” but you would never know it without the right pressing.

All About Elvis

Porky Not So Prime Cut

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British Band, British Pressing… Right?

Nope. It’s just another Record Myth.

We had an original British pressing in our shootout, unbeknownst to me as it was playing of course. And guess where it finished: dead last. The most thick, congested, crude, distorted, compressed sound of ALL the copies we played. We love the work of Porky, Pecko, et al. in general, but once again this is a case where a British Band recorded in England sounds best on domestic vinyl. (McCartney on Apple is the same way.)

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For this music to work all the elements need to be in balance, with correct timbre for the relatively few instruments that make up the arrangements. Opacity, smear or grit instantly destroy the whole point of having a straightforward production, which is to be able to have all the parts laid out cleanly and clearly. Get the production out of the way and just let the music speak for itself.

The truly Hot Stampers remind you of the kind of basic rock and roll record that really knows how to rock. Back in Black comes instantly to mind. Black Dog off Zep IV. This is the sound you want your Straight Up to have. The title of the album is the key to the sound. No fancy packaging, just the band, Straight Up.

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Listening in Depth to Pretzel Logic

Yet another album we are clearly obsessed with

Click on the link below to pull up the many reviews and commentaries we’ve written, as well as Hot Stamper copies that are currently available on the site.

Pretzel Logic

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It’s positively criminal the way this amazingly well-recorded music sounds on the typical LP. And how can you possibly be expected to appreciate the music when it sounds like that?

The reason we audiophiles go through the trouble of owning and tweaking our temperamental equipment is we know how hard it is to appreciate good music which sounds bad. Bad sound is a barrier to understanding and enjoyment, to us audiophiles anyway.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Rikki Don’t Lose That Number

By far the biggest hit on this album and one of the biggest for the band, it’s also one of the clearest indicators of Hot Stamper Sound. The Horace Silver inspired intro is at its best when you can easily hear the acoustic guitar in the left channel doubling the piano. On most copies it’s blurry and dull, which causes it to get lost in the mix. Transparent copies pull it out in the open where it belongs.

That’s the first test, but the real test for this track is how well the (surprisingly) DYNAMIC chorus is handled. On a properly mastered and pressed copy, Fagen’s singing in the chorus is powerful and very present. He is RIGHT THERE, full of energy and drive, challenging the rest of the band to keep up with him. And they do! The best copies demonstrate what a lively group of musicians he has backing him on this track. (If you know anything about Steely Dan’s recordings, you know the guys in these sessions are the best of the best.)

Check out the big floor tom that gets smacked right before the first chorus. On the best copies the whomp factor is off the scale.

Shocking as it may seem, most copies of this album are DOA on this track. They’re severely compressed — they never come to life, they never get LOUD. The result? Fagen and the band sound bored. And that feeling is contagious.

Of course most audiophiles have no idea how dynamic this recording is because they’ve never heard a good pressing. Only a handful of the copies we played had truly powerful dynamics. These are Pretzel Logics with far more life than I ever dreamed possible. Hey, who knew?

(As an aside, back in 1976 I had my fifty favorite albums professionally cleaned on a KMAL record cleaning machine at the stereo store I worked at. They would give you a custom record sleeve along with the cleaning, and sure enough I found my original Pretzel Logic with its KMAL sleeve. My copy was pretty good but no Hot Stamper.)

So, yes, it really did take us thirty years to find the best copy!

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Listening in Depth to Heart Like a Wheel

Yet another album we are clearly obsessed with

Click on the link below to pull up the many reviews and commentaries we’ve written, as well as Hot Stamper copies that are currently available on the site.

Heart Like a Wheel

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

A key test on either side was to listen to all the multi-tracked guitars and see how easy it was to separate each of them out in the mix. Most of the time they are just one big jangly blur. The best copies let you hear how many guitars there are and what each of them is doing.

Pay special attention to Andrew Gold’s Abbey Road-ish guitars heard throughout the album. He is all over this record, playing piano, guitar, percussion and singing in the background. If anybody deserves credit besides Linda for the success of HLAW, it’s Andrew Gold.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

You’re No Good

Right from the git-go, if the opening drum and bass intro on this one doesn’t get your foot tapping, something definitely ain’t right. Check to make sure your stereo is working up to par with a record you know well. If it is, your copy of HLAW belongs on the reject pile along with the other 90% of the copies ever pressed.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

Amazing acoustic guitars! Lots of tubey magic for a mid-’70s pop album. And just listen to the breathy quality of Linda’s voice. She’s swimming in echo, but it’s a good kind of echo. Being able to hear so much of it tells you that your pressing is one of the few with tremendous transparency and high resolution.

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Today’s Heavy Vinyl Mediocrity

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[This review was written many years ago, around 2004 I think.  This was one of the first DCC records I did a shootout with against regular TML domestic pressings and found wanting.]

Sonic Grade: C

As much as I admire Steve Hoffman’s work for DCC, on this title the DCC is not as good as the best domestic copies. The best domestic pressings are leaner and meaner than the DCC, and just plain more fun. The DCC sounds thick in the midrange and fat in the bass, although some of that boost in the bass could have been used to the advantage of some of the domestic pressings we played. 1 DB or so at 50-60 cycles would help, but the DCC has a boost in the middle and upper bass that causes the bass to sound bloated next to a good pressing. 
See all of our Linda Ronstadt albums in stock

I like rich sounding records just like Steve does, but his version of this title is too rich for my blood. If your system is lean sounding you may prefer the DCC, but we found it less than agreeable over here.


Further Reading

We have a large number of entries in our new Listening in Depth series.

We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.

You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.
Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

Dire Straits – Piano and Snare

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

Telegraph Road does something on this copy that you won’t hear on one out of twenty pressings: It ROCKS. It’s got ENERGY and DRIVE.

Listen to how hard Allan Clark bangs on the piano on side one — he’s pounding that piano with all his might. No other copy managed to get the piano to pop the way it does here, clear and solid. Wow, who knew? Maybe this is the reason HP put the record on the TAS Super Disc List. (I rather doubt he’s ever heard a copy this good but who’s to say?)

More Dire Straits

Best test for side two?

The snare drum on Industrial Disease. Play five copies of the album and listen for how much snap there is to the snare on each of them. It will be obvious which ones get the transient attack right and which ones don’t. (If none of them do try five more copies!)

One Way To Know

This modern album (1982) can sound surprisingly good on the right pressing. On most copies the highs are grainy and harsh, not exactly the kind of sound that inspires you to turn your system up good and loud and get really involved in the music. I’m happy to report that both sides here have no such problem – they rock and they sound great loud.

We pick up every clean copy we see of this album, domestic or import, because we know from experience just how good the best pressings can sound. What do the best copies have? REAL dynamics for one. And with those dynamics you need rock solid bass. Otherwise the loud portions simply become irritating. A lack of grain is always nice — many of the pressings we played were gritty or grainy. Other copies that were quite good in most ways lacked immediacy and we took serious points off for that.

The best copies of Love Over Gold are far more natural than the average pressing you might come across, and that’s a recognizable quality we can listen for and weight in our grading accordingly. It’s essential to the sound of the better pressings, which means in our shootouts it’s worth a lot of points. Otherwise you might as well be playing the CD.

If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in their presence in the studio, this is the record for you. If you exclusively play modern repressings of original recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but new records do not, practically not ever.

What is lost in these newly remastered recordings? Lots of things, but the most obvious and bothersome is TRANSPARENCY.

Modern records are just so damn opaque. We can’t stand that sound. It drives us crazy. Important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate regular pressings — is simply nowhere to be found. That audiophiles as a group — including those that pass themselves off as champions of analog in the audio press — do not notice these failings does not speak well for either their equipment or their critical listening skills.

It is our contention that no one alive today is capable of making records that sound as good as the vintage ones we sell.

Once you hear this Hot Stamper pressing, those 180 gram records you own may never sound right to you again. They sure don’t sound right to us, but we are in the enviable position of being able to play the best properly-cleaned older pressings (reissues included) side by side with the newer ones. This allows the faults of the current reissues to become much more recognizable, to the point of actually being quite obvious. When you can hear the different pressings that way, head to head, there really is no comparison.


Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below.

The most important advice on the site can be found under the heading The Four Pillars of Success.

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and directly address in this commentary from way back in 2005.

Here are more entries in our ongoing Shootout Advice series.

Sinatra – Swingin’ in ’61

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

Of the five records Sinatra released in 1961 (Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!; Come Swing with Me!; Ring-a-Ding-Ding!; Swing Along with Me; and I Remember Tommy), this is clearly one of our favorites. (And by the way, what’s with all the exclamation marks?)

Billy May deserves much of the credit for the “swing” that’s all over the album. His band is jumpin’, and on the best pressings — such as this one — the sound conveys the energy with virtually none of the grit and hardness you hear on so many of Sinatra’s other albums (Sinatra at the Sands comes immediately to mind, but there are far too many others).

More Frank Sinatra

This is 1961, and tubes and ribbon mics are in charge of the live-in-the-studio proceedings. With a vintage original pressing such as this one, you hear the kind of sound they heard. (And if you play the record at ear-splitting levels you will hear even more of that sound. Can you imagine how loud this band was playing?)

We were especially impressed with the large dynamic swings of the arrangements. And the fact that the best pressings never get aggressive even during their most dynamic passages.

MORE RECORDINGS FROM 1961


AMG Review

Recorded with Billy May, Sinatra Swings was Frank Sinatra’s first straight swing album for Reprise Records. In terms of content and approach, the record is remarkably similar to his final Capitol swing effort, Come Swing with Me. In fact, Capitol thought the album, originally titled Swing Along with Me, was so close in its sound and title that they sued Sinatra. The record label won the suit, and the singer had to change the name of his Reprise album to Sinatra Swings.

Of course, that didn’t change the actual content of the record. Even though the tone was similar, there were some differences from Come Swing with Me — the ballads have strings, there are saxophones on the record, and the material is more lighthearted on Sinatra Swings, much like the songs on Come Fly with Me.

The restored sense of humor makes Sinatra Swings preferable to Come Swing with Me, even if it doesn’t have the concentrated precision of the first two Sinatra/May sets.

Jethro Tull – We Broke Through in 2016, Finally

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    • Triple Plus (A+++) on side two and nearly as good on side one – this is one of the best copies to EVER hit the site
    • We haven’t had any copies of this album at all up since 2013, and no White Hot copies since 2008 – it’s that tough to find
    • Guaranteed to MURDER any Pink Label Island original you have ever heard – these are the Hot Stampers
    • Melody Maker thoroughly recommended the album in 1968 for being “full of excitement and emotion” and described the band as a blues ensemble “influenced by jazz music” capable of setting “the audience on fire”. Wikipedia
    • See all of our Jethro Tull albums in stock

Folks, this is the best copy we are going to have on the site for a very long time. It took years and hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to get this shootout going and this killer copy is the result.

Tull Records Are Tough To Cut Right

It’s very common for Jethro Tull records to lack bass or highs, and more often than not they lack both. (Think of your typical copies of Aqualung and Stand Up, for example.) The bass-shy ones tend to be more transparent and open sounding — of course, that’s the sound you get when you take out the bass. (90 plus percent of all the audiophile stereos I’ve ever heard were bass shy, no doubt for precisely that reason: less bass equals more detail, more openness and more transparency. Go to any stereo store or audiophile show and notice how bright the sound is. Ugh.)

Just what good is a British Classic Rock Record that lacks bass? It won’t rock, and if it don’t rock, who needs it? You might as well be playing the CD.

The copies that lack extreme highs are often dull and thick, and usually have a smeary, blurry quality to their sound. When you can’t hear into the music, the music itself quickly becomes boring.

If I had to choose, I would take a copy that’s a little dull on top as long as it still had a meaty, powerful, full-bodied sound over something that’s thin and leaned out. There are many audiophiles who can put up with that sound — I might go so far as to say the vast majority can — but I am not one of them. Small box speakers and screens are not for me. Those systems don’t do a very good job with bands like Jethro Tull, and a stereo that can’t play Tull is not one I would be very likely to own.

Flute

Of course one of the key elements to any Jethro Tull record is the sonic quality of the flute. You want it to be airy and breathy — like a real flute — and some copies will give you that, but keep in mind there are always trade-offs at work on old rock records like this. It’s a full-bodied, rich sounding recording. Make sure your system is playing it that way before you start to focus on the flute, otherwise you are very likely to be led astray.

A Big Speaker Record

Let’s face it, this is a Big Speaker Record. It demands to be played loud. It requires a pair of speakers that can move lots of air below 250 cycles. If you don’t own a speaker that can do that, this record will never really sound the way it should. It will certainly never come to life the way it should.

I’m not saying don’t buy it. Maybe one day you’ll get hold of a pair of big speakers and be able to play this record like a pro. (Considering the price of big speakers today, that’s not very likely unless you win the lottery, but we can always hope.)

We Was Wrong in 2008 About Tull

We listed a White Hot copy of This Was in 2008 on the Island Pink label, and noted at the time:

Be forewarned: this ain’t Stand Up or Aqualung. I don’t think you’ll be using any copy of This Was to demo your stereo, because the recording has its share of problems. That said, this record sounds wonderful from start to finish and will make any fan of this music a VERY happy person. We guarantee you’ve never heard this album sound better, or your money back.

Now we know a couple of things that we didn’t back in 2008.

1). This album is a lot better sounding than we gave it credit for years ago. It’s not perfect by any means but it is much better than the above comments might lead you to believe.

We chanced upon an exceptional sounding copy of the album a couple of years back, and that taught us something new about the record:

2). The Pink Label pressings are not the ideal way to go on this album.

Once we heard the exceptional copy alluded to above, we played it against our best Pink Label copies and it was simply no contest.

The Pink Label original British pressings can be good, but they will never win a shootout up against copies with these stampers (assuming you have more than one copy – any record can have the right stampers and the wrong sound, we hear it all the time).

MORE 2016 BREAKTHROUGHS

Frank Zappa Big Band Jazz Fusion Masterpiece

Waka/Jawaka

 

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  • This copy is an absolute KNOCKOUT, with Triple Plus (A+++) sound on both sides
  • A Top 100 Title, and deservedly so: the sound is HUGE – big, rich, punchy, lively and clear
  • The size and power of a big band, Zappa style, with White Hot Stamper sound? There is (almost*) nothing like it
  • Rolling Stone raved that it’s “…some of the best material he’s done in years.”

See all of our Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention albums in stock

(*Other than The Grand Wazoo, which can have sound every bit as good but is not the equal of Waka/Jawaka musically.)

What an incredible album. I know of no other music like it in the world. It’s not big band, it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s a unique amalgamation of all three with an overlay of some of Zappa’s idiosyncratic compositional predilections (say that three times fast) thrown in for good measure.

In our opinion it’s nothing less than Zappa’s MASTERPIECE, the summation of his talents, and a record that belongs in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection. (We say that about a lot of records audiophiles don’t know well, but we’ve been doing it for most of our 27 years in this business and don’t see much reason to stop now.)

The Secret

Most copies, especially the WB brown label reissues, are dull and smeary with not much in the way of top end extension, failing pretty miserably at getting this music to come to life. This copy gets as much of what we like about the sound to actually come through the speakers as any copy we have ever played, and that makes it a very special copy indeed.

Not long ago we discovered the secret to separating the men from the boys on side one. On the lively, punchy, dynamic copies — which are of course the best ones — you can follow the drumming at the beginning of ‘Big Swifty’ note for note: every beat, every kick of the kick drum, every fill, every roll — it’s all there to be heard and appreciated. If that track on this copy doesn’t make you a huge fan of Aynsley Dunbar, I can’t imagine what would. The guy had a gift.

Big Swifty!

The 17-plus-minute-long Big Swifty is a suite in which each section slowly, almost imperceptibly blends into the next, so that you find yourself in a completely new and different section without knowing how you got there — that is, until you go back and play the album and listen for just those transistions, which is what makes it worth playing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.

Big Swifty is a jazz suite with amazingly innovative work by Sal Marquez on trumpet. He single-handedly turns this music into a work of GENIUS. I can’t imagine a more talented player. Zappa on guitar is excellent as well. Aynsley Dunbar plays his ass off, only falling short when it comes time to do his drum solo on Waka/Jawaka. The interplay of each of these rock musicians is in the tradition of great jazz artists.

And since the drumming throughout this record is so crucial to the music itself, a copy that really gets that right is one that gets everything right.

A Desert Island Disc

What more can I say? If you love Zappa you need this record. If you want to expand your musical horizons and hear big band like you’ve never heard it before, this is the record for you. I’ve listened to this album literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. It gets better every time I play it.

Blue Labels and Reissues

By the way, the Blue Label originals are quite a bit better than the later Warner Brother reissues. I would avoid any reissues for Zappa’s albums; we’ve never heard a good one. And that includes the Classic Records reissue of Hot Rats.