The easiest and shortest version of the answer would be something like “Hot Stampers are pressings that sound dramatically better than the average pressing of a given album.”
My good friend Robert Pincus coined the term more thirty years ago. We were both fans of the second Blood, Sweat and Tears album, a record that normally does not sound very good, and when he would find a great sounding copy of an album like B, S &T, he would sell it to me as a Hot Stamper. It was a favorite album and I wanted to hear it sound its best.
Even back then we knew there were a lot of different stampers for that record — it sold millions of copies and was Number One for 15 weeks in 1969 — but there was one set of stampers we had discovered that seemed to be head and shoulders better than all the others. Side one was 1AA and side two was IAJ. Nothing we played could beat a copy of the record with those stampers.
After we’d found more and more 1AA/ IAJ copies — I have a picture on the blog of more than 40 all laid out on the floor — it became obvious that some copies with the right stampers sounded better than other copies with those stampers. We realized that a Hot Stamper not only had to have the right numbers in the dead wax, but it had to have been pressed properly on good vinyl. All of which meant that you actually had to play each copy of the record in order to know how good it sounded. There were no shortcuts. There were no rules of thumb. Every copy was unique and there was no way around that painfully inconvenient fact.
For the next thirty years we were constantly innovating in order to improve our record testing. We went through hundreds of refinements, coming up with better equipment, better tweaks and room treatments, better cleaning technologies and fluids, better testing protocols, better anything and everything that would bring out the best sound in our records. Our one goal was to make the critical evaluation of multiple copies of the same album as accurate as possible. Whatever system our customer might use to play our record – tubes or transistors, big speakers or small, screens or dynamic drivers — our pressing would be so much better in every way that no matter the system, the Hot Stamper he bought from us would have sound that was dramatically superior to anything he had ever heard.
It was indeed a slow process, and a frustrating one. Lots of technological advancements were needed in order to make our Hot Stamper shootouts repeatable, practical and scalable, and those advancements took decades to come about. When I got started in audio in the ’70s, there were no stand-alone phono stages, or modern cabling and power cords, or vibration controlling platforms for turntables and equipment. No tonearms with extremely delicate adjustments. No modern record cleaning machines and fluids. Not much in the way of innovative room treatments. A lot of things had to change in order for us to reproduce records at the level we needed to, and we pursued every one of them as far as money and time allowed.
Our first official Hot Stamper offering came along in 2004. We had a killer British pressing of Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat which we had awarded our highest grade, the equivalent of A+ (White Hot). Having done the shootout, I wrote up the review myself. At the end I said, “Five hundred dollars is a lot for one record, but having played it head to head against a dozen others, I can tell you that this copy is superior to every copy I have ever heard. It’s absolutely worth every penny of the five hundred bucks we are charging for it. If no one wants to pay that, fine, no problem, I will put the record in my own collection and thrill to its amazing sound for the rest of my life.”
As you can imagine, it sold immediately. That told us that the demand was there. To provide the supply, we eventually ended up needing about eight of us working in concert. It takes a crew of people to find a big batch of vintage LPs of the same title, clean them, do the Hot Stamper shootout, then check the playing surfaces on each side from start to finish, and finally describe the sound of each individual record on the website to the best of our ability.
Yes, we like to tell our customers exactly how to go about finding their own Hot Stampers, how to clean them, how to do shootouts with scientific rigor, and all the rest. But to be brutally honest, if you actually try to do it right, it’s just a crazy amount of work. Virtually no sane person would have the time and energy required to devote to it in order to be successful.
However, since it’s the only proven way to find the best sounding records, to us we think it’s worth it. And that is what you are paying for when you buy a Hot Stamper — all the work that neither you not anyone else on the face of the earth is willing to put in. (more…)