Finding Hot Stampers is all about doing shootouts for as many different pressings of the same title as you can get your hands on.
There are four basic steps you must take, and you have to do right by each of the four if you are going to be successful at discovering and evaluating your own Hot Stampers.
We discuss every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this blog. Although none of it will come as news to anyone who has spent much time reading our stuff, we cobbled together this commentary to help formalize the process and hopefully make it easier to understand and follow.
If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the pressing you have in your collection, but the actual recording it was made from — you have to do some work, and you have to do it much more thoroughly and carefully and above all scientifically than most audiophiles and record collectors we’ve met apparently think is necessary. Don’t be one of those guys. Do it right and get the results that are simply not possible with any other approach.
The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stamper Shootouts
The work of finding these very special pressings is made up of these four parts.
- You must have a sufficient number of copies to play in order to find at least one “hot” one.
- You must be able to clean your copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.
- You must be able to reproduce your copies faithfully.
- You must be able to evaluate them critically.
This Approach Will Help You Find Better Sounding Records
There is a clear benefit to doing it this way, and it’s something you should consider when tweaking your system too.
Lately we have achieved the best results by going about it like this:
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 at key moments of your choosing.
Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that others do not do as well, using a specific passage of music — the acoustic guitar John beats the hell out of on Norwegian Wood just to take one example — it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing reproduces that passage.
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.
Admittedly, to clean and play enough copies to get to that point may take all day, but you will have gained experience and knowledge that you cannot come by any other way. If you do it right and do it enough it has the power to change everything you will ever achieve in audio.
Tweaking your system should proceed along the same lines. Using the above process, get to know some specific attributes of a recording inside and out. Then and only then is it time to tweak, when your system is at its best and the blood is pumping through your ears. If your experience is anything like ours, the results you achieve using this approach will be much more reliable over the long term.
We still end up undoing many initially promising tweaks the next day, usually when some record we know well doesn’t sound the way it should. But you learn nothing unless you try, so we keep at it, and so should you. Some of the spaghetti will stick to the wall eventually, and when it does it produces one of the best highs in all of audio.
Of course it’s always a good idea to confirm whatever changes you’ve made with other records you know well. In audio, as in life, it’s easy to be wrong.
This hobby is supposed to be fun. If you’ve been in it for any length of time you know that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But if you enjoy doing it at least some of the time, and you devote the proper resources to it — time and money — you will no doubt derive much more pleasure from it, especially if you use our approach.
It works for us and there’s no reason it can’t work for you.
Some Listening Basics
On our site, almost every Hot Stamper has a list very similar to the one you see below outlining the kinds of things we were paying attention to as it was playing.
- Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
- Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
- The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
- Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
- Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
- Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
- Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.
You would do well to listen for all these things and more as you conduct your own shootouts.
The kind of notes I take can be seen below. 4×6 Post-Its work great for this purpose, one per side. We go through thousands of them every year. Without specific notes on your records about exactly what you heard as you played them, you cannot possibly keep track of which pressings have how much of whatever qualities you were listening for. Extensive notes are a must.
I wrote a very long piece about the remastered Joni Mitchell Blue album in 2007 in an attempt to explain how we went about evaluating it (and finding fault with it), with advice as to how any audiophile looking for better sound could do the same using the methods we laid out.
We called it The Joni Mitchell Blue Game and introduced it this way:
Instead of us telling you what’s right and wrong with the new Blue, we’d much prefer that you tell us. Doesn’t that sound like fun? No? No matter, we can come back to it later.
You may have noticed that there is a great deal of commentary on the site about what we listen for, what we like, how to become a better listener, how to tweak your system, how we do these laborious shootouts to find you Hot Stampers, and on and on, ad infinitum and for some people ad nauseum. “We do the work so you don’t have to,” right?
Well in this game, you do the work so we don’t have to. Now that’s what we call a fun game!