Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.
During our most recent Hot Stamper shootout we were reminded of a fact that had slipped our minds: Trying to get this record to sound right is a truly humbling experience. Without a doubt it deserves the title for Most Difficult to Reproduce in the Rock and Pop category. (Yes, we know, there is no such thing, we just made it up.)
This record will bring any stereo to its knees, including one like ours, which is tuned and tweaked within an inch of its life. Everything has to be working at its absolute best before I would even consider any attempt to play the album. It’s not enough to have the stereo warmed up and cookin’, with everything in the house unplugged. The electricity from the pole needs to be at its best, not that grungy garbage you get in the middle of the day or around dinner time, when all your neighbors have their appliances going. You need that late-at-night, two o’clock in the morning everybody-has-gone-to-bed-and-turned-off-all-their-stuff electricity for this bad boy to work its magic.
I learned an important lesson from a shootout we conducted not long ago, which boils down to this: You can play hard-to-reproduce records all day long if your system is tuned up and working fine. Ours has to be, every day. The shootouts we do require that everything is working properly or we simply couldn’t do them.
But you can’t play this record on such a system without retesting everything, because this is the Single Most Difficult to Reproduce Recording I have ever heard, bar none.
Which means I had to retweak a lot of my table setup to make sure it was 100% right, by ear. (None of those silly setup tools for us here at Better Records. You can hear when it’s right and if you can’t then you need to keep at it until you can.)
Controlling the Balance
But the biggest change was getting the BALANCE right, and not by setting the balance control at the 12 o’clock notch on the preamp, and not by making sure the vocal is focused dead center either. Those are approximations at best. Ambrosia requires the highest standards of playback, and in the case of balance that means judging the total amount of energy, especially below the midrange, coming out of both speakers. When the energy coming out of the speakers is at its maximum, the sound is louder, more dynamic and more spacious at the same volume setting. And if you’re like me, that volume setting is Very Very Loud.
The Old 80/20 Rule in Action (But It’s Actually More Like 90/10)
When I was done not only did the record sound better than I ever thought it could, the system did too! This is what a Test Disc is all about. It shows you what’s wrong, and once you’ve fixed it, it shows you that it’s now right. We audiophiles need records like this. They make us better listeners, and they force us to become better tweakers. You cannot buy equipment that will give you this kind of sound. You can only tweak the right equipment to get it. At most 20% of the sound of your stereo is what you bought. At least 80% is what you’ve done with it.
Detail Freaks Beware
This is the kind of record that will eat the detail freaks alive. If your system has any extra presence, or boost in the top end — the kind that some audiophiles mistake for “detail” — this record with beat you over the head with it until blood runs out of your ears. You need balance to get the most out of this album. The more your system is out of whack, the more this album will make those shortcomings evident. Once you have balance, then you can unleash the energy in a way that’s enjoyable, not painful. When this record is sounding right, you want to play it as loud as you can. It’s pedal to the metal time. This music wants to overwhelm your senses. When the system is up to it, it can, and will.