Before we go any further, I have a question: Why are we guessing?
I received an email recently from a customer who had gone to great pains to do his own shootout for a record; in the end he came up short, with not a lot to show for his time and effort. It had this bit tucked in toward the end:
Some of [Better Records’] Hot Stampers are very dear in price and most often due to the fact that there are so few copies in near mint condition. I hate to think of all the great Hot Stampers that have ended up in piles on the floor night after night with beer, Coke, and seeds being ground into them.
Can you imagine all the 1A 1B or even 2A 2B masters that ended up this way or were just played to death with a stylus that would be better used as a nail than to play a record!
As it so happens, shortly thereafter I found myself on Michael Fremer’s old website of all places, where I saw something eerily similar in his review for the (no doubt awful) Sundazed vinyl. I quote below the relevant paragraphs.
So how does this Sundazed reissue hold up next to an original 1A Columbia pressing that I bought new when it originally was released (it still has the Sam Goody “C” Valley Stream sticker on it, with the $2.49 markdown written in pen)? Well, for one thing, when people say records wear out, I don’t know what they are talking about! Since it was first released more than forty years ago, I’ve played this record a hundred times at least, in Ithaca in my fraternity house, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Hackensack and now and it still sounds fantastic. It’s quiet, it’s detailed, it’s three-dimensional and it still has extended, clean high frequencies.
No reissue could possibly touch an original 1A pressing of just about any Columbia title and that goes for this reissue, which is very good, but not as open, spacious, wideband, transparent and “tubey” as the original.
He later goes on to give this piece of advice:
If you can find a clean, reasonably priced used original 1A pressing, it’s definitely going to sound better, but if you can’t, this reissue sounds very good and you’ll not know what you’re missing.
The entire review can be found on his site for those who care to bother. As an aside, if, as MF seems to believe, you won’t know what you’re missing on the Sundazed LP, you need to find yourself another hobby. If it’s anything like most of their cardboardy crap, it’s missing more than it’s finding.
1A, or Is 1B Better? What About 1C?
It occurred to me that I had never taken the time to memorize the Hot Stampers for the album, one for which we have done Hot Stamper shootouts numerous times. 1A did not ring a bell, but that really doesn’t mean much anymore, as memorizing stamper numbers at my age is not as easy as it used to be.
So I went to our Hot Stamper Master List (which we keep in a handy Excel file) and there I found ten entries for Hot Stamper pressings for the album. None, not one, mentioned 1A for side one. (We like 1AC, 1B,1F,1AF,1AH, 1D, to a greater or lesser degree, depending. Seems there are quite a few good stampers for PSRT on side one, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Now, 0 for 10, that’s pretty bad, right? Wait, it gets worse.
So I went to the shelf where we keep the “also-ran” copies which have never made it to the site, sometimes because of condition issues and sometimes because the sound is less than Hot Stamper quality. Sure enough there was one copy sitting there with a 1A stamper for side one. It had received practically our lowest Hot Stamper grade, A Minus. (This may sound like a relatively high grade, but remember that records that don’t sound pretty darn good in our initial testing never go through the cleaning process. Those are the records that would have been given Cs and Bs if we had actually bothered to clean them and put them into the shootout.)
What Does It Mean?
Not much, really. Let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean 1A is not a potentially good sounding stamper. We had one copy that didn’t cut it, but the next copy with that stamper that comes our way might be absolutely amazing, the best sounding copy ever. Who can say what it would sound like without ever having played it? Michael Fremer may think he can tell you how good it sounds without playing it, but he’s a very special fellow, isn’t he? Powers far beyond those of mortal men and that sort of thing?
The real question we should be asking is: What does 1A have to do with finding Hot Stampers? There the answer should be very clear.
Absolutely nothing. Looking for Columbia 1A pressings may be fun for the record hunting audiophiles of the world, of which I am one, but it is only good advice if we know that it has nothing to do with better sound until it demonstrates that it has something to do with better sound. Until it does it’s just another number, no better or worse than any other.
Wrap Your Head Around It
This is clearly something that Fremer has never been able to wrap his head around. In this respect he’s no different from most audiophiles. OF COURSE the 1s RCA pressing is the best sounding pressing. OF COURSE the 1U Island pressing is the best. Everybody knows that A sounds better than B and B sounds better than C, and on and on through the rest of the alphabet.
Everybody may know it, but like so much conventional wisdom in audio, it’s demonstrably untrue and we’re having none of it.
A Truly Dismal Track Record
I put not an ounce of stock in Fremer’s conviction that he has a good sounding 1A copy; let’s face it, his track record is just plain dismal when it comes to picking good sounding pressings. However, if you pick up some 1A pressings and like the sound, by all means you should pursue them. AND, if you pick up some bad sounding pressings you should STILL pursue them. You may find one that blows your mind, and you can’t find the one that blows your mind unless you buy it and play it, right?
Obviously this is a complicated subject, one which should be of great concern to all record collecting audiophiles. The Book of Hot Stampers commentary does a pretty thorough job (if we don’t say so ourselves) of laying out the particulars, so allow us the pleasure of recommending that you read it once again.