Steely Dan – A Killer Can’t Buy a Thrill (and Some Lessons We Learned)

Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill


During our shootouts, when we drop the needle on a copy and don’t hear that “Hot Stamper” sound, we toss that one and move on to the next. The difference between a truly Hot Stamper and most copies is so obvious that we rarely waste time on the pressings that clearly don’t have any real magic in their grooves.

Like we’ve said after some of our other Steely Dan Hot Stamper shootouts, you would never imagine how good this album can sound after playing the average copy, which is grainy, compressed and dead as the proverbial doornail. It’s positively criminal the way this well-recorded music sounds on the typical LP.

And how can you possibly be expected to appreciate the music when you can’t hear it right? 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.

We Was Wrong About the Sound

Years ago – starting with our first shootout in 2007 for the album as a matter of fact – we had put this warning in our listings:

One thing to note: this isn’t Aja, Pretzel Logic or Gaucho (their three best sounding recordings). We doubt you’ll be using a copy of Can’t Buy A Thrill to demo your stereo.

We happily admit now that we got Can’t Buy a Thrill wrong. It’s actually a very good sounding record – rich, smooth, natural, with an especially unprocessed. In that sense it is superior to most of their catalog; better than Countdown to Ecstacy, Katy Lied, Royal Scam and maybe even Gaucho. You could easily use the album to demo your stereo.

Mistakes Were No Longer Made

We used to think it sounded flat, cardboardy, veiled and compressed. It’s actually none of those things on the best copies. The reason we didn’t find those problems during our most recent shootouts is that we must have improved our playback. Precisely how I don’t really know.

Maybe the main improvements happened just last week with the cartridge being dialed in better. Or maybe it was that in combination with the few new room tweaks. Or maybe those changes built upon other changes that had happened earlier; there’s really no way to know. You have to get around to doing the annual shootout for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any distance at all.

Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they are or when they occurred, were incontrovertible. Can’t Buy A Thrill in 2015-16 was clearly sounding better than ever before.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the possibility, indeed the importance, of making real progress in this hobby by taking advantage of the Revolutions in Audio of the last ten or twenty years.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s natural to blame sonic shortcomings on the recording; everyone does it. But in this case We Was Wrong. The cardboardy grain, lack of frequency extension on both ends and overall veiled sound we thought were endemic to the recording cannot be heard on the best copies. (On the average copy, sure, which is why we don’t sell those, we trade them in.)

We’ve worked diligently for more than a decade on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get Can’t Buy A Thrill to play at a much higher level than we could before. This is why we keep experimenting, and why we encourage you to do the same. The benefits, over time, can be dramatic.

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