Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like A Wheel – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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

This original Capitol Orange Label LP has TWO SUPERB sides, with side two earning our top grade of A+++ for its White Hot sound! And side one was nearly as good at A++ to A+++. These are the highest grades we are awarding to any copy on the site, folks. It doesn’t get any better. The sound is uncharacteristically smooth, sweet, clear and Tubey Magical, light years from the grungy grit and grain that plagues most copies of Heart Like a Wheel.

Things are different since our last big shootout back in 2009. We learned a lot about the record and have added plenty of new commentary to back it up. If you’re a fan check it out.

Let’s be honest: the average copy of this album is an audio disaster. Those of you who love this album as much as we do are going to be shocked when you hear how wonderful it can sound. We bet you never imagined it could be this good, and we happily back up that bet with a full money back guarantee!

This shootout was no small project — we dropped the needle on more than a DOZEN copies.This is the only one to earn better than a Super Hot Stamper grade (A++) on both sides. I’ve been playing this album for years, and I can tell you it is no easy task to find this kind of smooth, sweet, analog sound on HLAW. On top of that it’s also full-bodied, lively, and super-transparent. The vocals are breathy and full with incredible immediacy. Folks, the Heart Like A Wheel magic is here.

What to Listen For — Both Sides

An extended top end does miracles for Linda’s voice; copies that lacked extension were noticeably harsher and harder sounding in the midrange. What good is a Linda Ronstadt record with hard harsh vocals? No good, that’s what.

The Track Listing tab above will take you to an extensive song by song breakdown for each side, with plenty of What to Listen For advice.

The Latest Finding

Last time around we wrote:

Compression Killed The Radio Star

One thing we noted with interest while doing this shootout was how compressed the first track is. When the chorus comes in, and Linda seems to be singing louder — should be singing louder, with a substantial coterie of vocalists backing her up — the volume is actually lower. In the verse immediately following you can hear that not only is she singing louder, but the amount of dynamic contrast in her voice is greater. Go figure.

The compression also means that that song will never sound the way we would wish it to. But that doesn’t mean it won’t sound good. It means it will sound good in more of a radio-friendly way. On a good copy, one with relatively little grain and plenty of bass, the music can still be very enjoyable, and that includes a Number One Pop Hit like ‘You’re No Good’.

Well, yes and no. Not exactly that we were wrong, but that better cleaning and better playback (all that revolutions in audio stuff) have now allowed us to hear that some copies are actually much more dynamic on this track than others. Quite dynamic in fact.

Think about it. Bernie Grundman is going to cut this record many many times, maybe more times than he wants to. Is he always going to apply exactly the same amount of compression to each cutting, or is he going to experiment a bit and see what works better over time? Or maybe he just learned a thing or two as he went along.

Which is pretty much what we do when playing copy after copy. The best pressings show us precisely what it is they are doing when they actually work. We can’t know that in advance; we’re learning on the job so to speak.

Original Is Better, Part 212

For those of you who are still buying into the conventional approach to finding better sounding records — 1A, dash one, whatever stamper is first is bound to be the best — try to find yourself a nice Bernie Grundman Z1 stamper. He went on to cut numbers well into the high teens, but Z1 is the first. We’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s the best.

Side One

A++ to A+++, really JUMPING OUT of the speakers, with energy and dynamics we simply did not hear on other copies. Breathy vocals, richness and transparency, this side is hard to fault. (OK, one copy was a bit bigger, which is why this copy was docked a half plus, but the overall sound is far beyond what audiophiles will be expecting.)

Side Two

A+++, so lively and clear — finally a first track that’s not murky yet has solid bass and is full-bodied. This is the combination that is so hard to find. Here it is!

Dig That Andrew Gold Sound!

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.

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.

Val Garay Is The Man

Kudos once again must go to Val Garay, the co-engineer here with Dave Hassinger (who owns The Sound Factory where the album was recorded). Garay is the man behind so many of our favorite recordings: James Taylor’s JT (a Top 100 title), Simple Dreams (also a Top 100 title), Andrew GoldPrisoner In Disguise, etc. They all share his trademark super-punchy, jump-out-the-speakers, rich and smooth ANALOG sound. With BIG drums — can’t forget those. (To be clear, only the best copies share it. Most copies only hint at it.)

I don’t think Mr Garay gets anything like his due with audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them. This is a shame; the guy makes Demo Disc Quality Pop Records about as good as those kinds of records can be made. If you have a Big System that really rocks you owe it to yourself to get to know his work. This is truly a KNOCKOUT disc if you have the equipment for it. We do, and it’s records like this that make the effort and expense of building a full-range dynamic system worthwhile.

To be fair, Heart Like a Wheel is never going to make anybody’s Top 100 Greatest Sounding Rock Records list, and certainly not ours. The other records we mention above clearly sound better than HLAW. Did Garay engineer better sounding recordings as he gained studio experience? Was Hassinger’s role helpful or hurtful? How about Peter Asher’s contribution? Did The Record Plant have better equipment by the time Prisoner in Disguise was recorded?

These questions will probably never be answered. The one thing we do know is that HLAW is not the equal of the better Ronstadt’s and the killer James Taylor recordings that came along later in the decade. Musically, for Ronstadt, yes. The album is clearly her masterpiece, a Hot Stamper copy of which deserves a place in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection.

A Shout Out to Our Good Friend Robert Pincus

I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Robert Pincus, who recently told me what the stampers of his good sounding personal copy were. Knowing those numbers allowed me to dig through some copies that I hadn’t played yet and find great copies like the ones we are offering here today.

In a way this is a form of networking. There are too many records in the world for one person to try to figure out which ones sound good and which ones don’t.

Audiophile Reviewers are Worthless, Part 67

This is what reviewers are supposed to do for us, but unfortunately audiophile reviewers are completely HOPELESS and WORTHLESS. All you have to do is read the commentary in the major audiophile mags or on the audiophile reviewer Web sites for any given record and then buy a copy for yourself to know how wrong they are time and time again.

We have a whole section called Reviewing the Reviewers devoted to calling them to account for their bad reviews. Practically every hot stamper shootout is an exercise in beating the pants off the audiophile version of the album, whether it be Heavy Vinyl, Half-Speed Mastered, or both.

We could literally do hundreds of such commentaries, but why bother? Those of you who’ve heard how good Hot Stampers sound don’t care about those other pressings, and those that like those kinds of pressings don’t believe Hot Stampers can even exist. Which makes the readership for such debunkings practically nil.

Not to worry, we will keep doing them as time permits. We like rubbing the audiophile community’s noses in their own crappy vinyl.

AMG Review

Following the same formula as her early records, Heart Like a Wheel doesn’t appear to be a great breakthrough on the surface. However, Ronstadt comes into her own on this mix of oldies and contemporary classics. Backed by a fleet of Los Angeles musicians, Ronstadt sings with vigor and passion, helping bring the music alive. But what really makes Heart Like a Wheel a breakthrough is the inventive arrangements that producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt, and the studio musicians have developed. Finding the right note for each song — whether it’s the soulful reworking of “When Will I Be Loved,” the hit “You’re No Good,” or the laid-back folk-rock of “Willing” — the musicians help turn Heart Like a Wheel into a veritable catalog of Californian soft rock, and it stands as a landmark of ’70s mainstream pop/rock.