Heavy Vinyl – Is This the Best Sounding Sgt. Pepper?

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Letters and Commentaries for Sgt. Peppers

You might agree with some reviewers that EMI’s engineers did a pretty good job with the new Pepper. In the March 2013 issue of Stereophile Art Dudley weighed in, finding little to fault on this title but being less impressed with most of the others in the new box set. His reference disc? The MoFi UHQR! Oh, and he also has some old mono pressings and a domestic Let It Be. Now there’s a man who knows his Beatles. Fanatical? Of course he is! We’re talkin’ The Beatles for Chrissakes.

When I read the reviews by writers such as these I often get the sense that I must’ve fallen through some sort of Audio Time Warp and landed back in 1982. How is it that our so-called experts evince so little understanding of how records are made, how variable the pressings can be, and, more importantly, how absolutely crucial it is to understand and implement rigorous protocols when attempting to carry out comparisons among pressings.

Critically comparing LPs is difficult and time-consuming. It requires highly developed listening skills. I didn’t know how to do it in 1982. I see no evidence that the audiophile reviewers of today are much better at it now than I was in 1982.

Just to take one example: They all seem to be operating under the same evidence-free conceit: that the original is the benchmark against which all other pressings should be compared.

To those of us who have played Beatles pressings by the hundreds, this is patent nonsense. To cite just one instance, a recent Hot Stamper listing notes:

We defy any original to step into the ring with it. One thing we can tell you, it would not be a fair fight. The cutting equipment to make a record of this quality did not exist in 1967, not at EMI anyway.

We had the opportunity not long ago to audition a very clean original early pressing of the album and were frankly taken aback by how AWFUL it was in virtually every respect. No top end above 8k or so, flabby bass, murky mids — this was as far from Hot Stamper sound as one could imagine. If it were a Heavy Vinyl or Audiophile pressing we would surely have graded it F and put it in our Hall of Shame.

To be fair we have played exactly one early copy of the record on our current system. (Played a copy or two long ago but on much different equipment, so any judgments we might have made must be considered highly suspect.) Perhaps there are good ones. We have no way of knowing whether there are, and we are certainly not motivated to find out given the price that original Sgt. Pepper’s are fetching these days.

We can tell you this much: no original British pressing of any Beatles album up through Pepper has ever impressed us sonically. We’ve played plenty and have yet to hear one that’s not congested, crude, distorted, bandwidth-limited and full of tube smear. (The monos suffer from all of these problems and more of course, which is only natural; they too are made with the Old School cutting equipment of the day.)

If that’s your sound more power to you. It’s definitely not ours. The hotter the stamper, the less congested, crude, distorted, bandwidth-limited and smeary it will be. (Or your money back.)

The Best Pepper Pressings

How did we come to find the best Sgt. Peppers pressings? Our recent commentary about a wonderful Benny Carter record on the original Contemporary Black Label may serve to shed some light on the process.

We noted how Tubey Magical Benny’s trumpet sounded on the original, adding that it unfortunately comes at the expense of all the other instruments — drums, bass and piano — which are simply harder to hear — less immediate, less real, less “live in your listening room.” We went on to say:

Yet this is precisely the sound that many, even most, audiophiles would find perfectly acceptable. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones has to be that they have never heard a truly amazing reissue, the kind we sell all day long. Had they heard such a pressing they would be in a much better position to weigh the pros and cons of both. This is why we do shootouts. Every pressing has the potential to show you some quality you can’t hear any other way, some aspect of the sound you would not even know was possible. Super Hot and especially White Hot pressings — on the right equipment — can put you in the presence of a recording you had no idea existed. It would be no exaggeration to say that it happens to us every week.

Not to put too fine a point on it, comparing an original pressing of Sgt. Pepper with the new Heavy Vinyl reissue is simply comparing one badly flawed pressing with another badly flawed pressing. Pace Mr Dudley and his confreres, we’re not exactly sure how their efforts in this regard are of much benefit to audiophiles who take their record collecting seriously, at least to that subset of collectors in search of the best sounding pressings.

If you want to find an LP of Sgt. Pepper that sounds better than the original, that’s one thing. If, on the other hand, you want to find the best sounding pressing there is, that’s quite another.

Best Practices

Recently we did one of our regular shootouts for Sgt. Pepper, using pressings we know from experience with the potential for Hot Stamper sound. We cleaned them as carefully as we always do, but this time we threw the new 180 gram pressing into our cleaning pile. Then we unplugged everything in the house we could get away with, carefully warmed up the system, Talisman’d it, found the right VTA for our Triplanar arm (by ear of course) and proceeded to spend the next couple hours playing copy after copy on side one, after which we repeated the process for side two.

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album. Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that the others do not do as well, using a few specific passages of music, it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing reproduces those passages.

The process is simple enough. First you go deep into the sound. There you find something special, something you can’t find on most copies. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

At the end of the shootout we readjusted the VTA for the 180 gram pressing, again by ear, and listened to the passages we had just heard dozens of times.

What We Heard

We should say right off the bat that this album does not sound digital to us in the least. It’s not thin, harsh, grainy or bright. It’s not phony up top. It’s not completely devoid of warmth.

Keep in mind that the album is made from tapes remastered from analog into digital for the 2009 CD releases that were produced to replace the old, mostly horrible original Beatles CDs from 1987. The new vinyl of Pepper in stereo sounds to these ears an awful lot like the new CD of Pepper in stereo. In fact, it sounds to us like the folks at Abbey Road were trying their darndest to make the new CDs sound as much like they think old analog LPs sound. (Do sound? Should sound? Who can say?)

We sure can’t. It’s really just pure speculation on our part. Better that we confine ourselves to what we actually heard when playing the record. Allow us to highlight the four main areas where the new vinyl falls short in our opinion.

The new pressing is fairly crude compared to our Hot Stamper reissue pressings. I’m guessing it would be less crude than the originals that the audiophile and non-audiophile reviewers alike prize so highly, but that is not saying much from our point of view.

This crude quality is most easily heard on the vocals, which are just too hard and unnatural sounding to be enjoyable. We often use the term “breathy vocals” on the site when describing the highly resolving midrange qualities of the best pressings, the sense that you are listening to everything a real voice can do that a recorded one rarely can. The new pressing gets a failing grade in this area. No pressing with vocals as crude and hard as these could ever be called a Hot Stamper.

This was possibly even more bothersome than the crude quality we noted. There was a specific place in one of the songs we played, I think it was When I’m Sixty-Four, where Paul’s voice clearly gets louder on every pressing, sometimes dramatically louder. We listened for it because, let’s be honest, it’s a thrill when it gets so much louder. On the new pressing that doesn’t happen. Believe me, we were more than a little shocked.

Once we heard that effect, we noticed more and more that much of the music seems to exist on only the one level, and that means one thing and one thing only in our world: compression. Very heavy compression it should be noted, because there aren’t any Beatles records that don’t have plenty of compression on them already. (This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only bad when there is too much of it, when it calls attention to itself, as it does here.)

Lack of Frequency Extension
There is clearly not much going on either high or low on this record. As for the missing low end, the fundamental part of the Indian drum in the left channel of Within You Without You is hardly there. Some Hot Stamper pressings (not the best of course) have a problem reproducing the bottom octave of that drum too, don’t get me wrong. But it is a rather noticeable fault we had no trouble recognizing.

The top end was even worse; it’s almost completely missing in action. There is very little top end harmonic information coming from anything in the soundfield. I would bet money that the CD has a more extended top end.

Lack of Ambience
This of course ties in to the lack of high frequency extension, but it is also related to the crudity of the cutting, since there is no real transparency to speak of on the record. There’s not much air, not much space, and most everything sounds like it’s happening in two dimensions, especially when heard against the most three-dimensional Hot Stamper copies. It also all seems forced forward in a 2-D way, presenting a sound which I might have liked twenty years ago when my system was veiled and opaque. Now, having worked so hard for so long on my room, etc., I find that kind of sound completely unacceptable.

We’re Not Done Yet

So that’s what we have to say about the sound. What does one well-known reviewer have to say, keeping in mind that he’s using his original British pressing for comparison? I quote at length — without prejudice so to speak — so there can be no misunderstanding.

Forget about analog vs. digital: this reissue sounds not at all like the original pressing. It has been completely re-imagined via EQ or whatever to sound like a completely different album. It’s almost like what happens when a great work or art is “restored” and the patina that has accumulated through the ages is removed revealing a more colorful, three-dimensional vibrant edition. Here’s what I think is going on here: when this album was originally mastered in 1967 the monitoring gear was not nearly as good as it is now. Abbey Road now uses B&W 800D speakers for that. This reissue features a totally new EQ compared to the original pressing.

It’s a far more transparent sounding record. Instrumental separation is maxxed out almost like a 3D movie can be generated from one shot in 2D. You hear it immediately in the audience sound effect at the beginning. The audience is further back in space and more individual details emerge.

Yes, the original sounds somewhat hazy by comparison as if on the reissue the proverbial veils have been lifted (an audiophile cliché) I try to avoid. Bass is deeper and fuller, the midrange is far clearer and transparent. “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” has always been a sonic painting suggesting neon but now the tape loop effects are neon against a black velvet background.

Based on our commentary, you can imagine what we think of this analysis.

The elephant in the room really has no place to hide at this point. This is your idea of transparency? This is your idea of three-dimensionality?

In 1982 it might have been mine too. But some of us — we and our customers surely — have come a long way since then. Yes, we had only one pressing. If you want to buy ten copies of the album, clean them up and shoot them out for yourself, be my guest. For my part I cannot imagine a bigger waste of time.

Why Not Try the CD

If you happen to own an early pressing you like, you really owe it to yourself to hear just how good a Hot Stamper pressing of the album can sound. Click here to see what we have in stock.

If you don’t want to spend that kind of money, perhaps a listen to the new CD would be in order. I will go out on a limb and predict that the new CD is significantly better sounding in most ways than any original pressing you may own, as well as this new reissue, and the CD is about $15.