Cat Stevens – Making Progress in Audio from 1984 to 2004

More of the Music of Cat Stevens

More Reviews and Commentaries for Tea for the Tillerman

The following comments were written in 2004.

Hard Headed Woman is a song that has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. If you’ve been making regular upgrades to your equipment and taking advantage of all the new technologies available at the front end, such as: vibration control, electromagnetic stabilization, better arms, better cartridges, better phono stages, better motors, fly wheels, Synchronous Drive Systems, better power cords, better power conditioning, to name just a few, you are no doubt able to reproduce this song much better than you were in the old days. Speaking of congestion, it had previously been our experience that every copy of the record had at least some congestion in the loudest parts, typically the later parts of songs where Cat is singing at the top of his lungs, the acoustic guitars are strumming like crazy, and big drums are pounding away and jumping out of both speakers. 

I used to think that Cat’s voice got hard and harsh when he got loud on the passage that starts with “I know… [big drums here] many fine feathered friends…”. Now he gets even louder, the drums are much more powerful, and yet he still sounds like a real person, not an overdriven recording.

A classic case of Blaming the Recording. The record was fine. I just couldn’t play it right.

Modern front ends, properly tweaked and set up, can handle the kind of energy found on this song in a way that wasn’t possible before. I like to say that if your turntable is more than 15 years old and you haven’t done much to your front end since then, you are living in the vinyl stone age. There have been a number of revolutions in the area of LP playback, not the least of which is the Disc Doctor cleaning fluid we tout so obsessively, all of which have allowed us to reproduce familiar records in a startlingly realistic way never before possible.

{We no longer use this fluid, the Walker Enzyme System is dramatically better.]

Cat’s mixes are full of subtle elements that may require many listening sessions over the course of years, even decades, to recognize and appreciate. Consider them an extra reward for having played the record so many times. (I’ve played hundreds of copies over the last thirty plus years and never tired of it once. The best albums only get better with time.)

Small Changes, Big Effects

I made a further point about Tea for the Tillerman a few years back.

It hadn’t been that long since we did the last big shootout for Tillerman, and in that time little of the equipment we own has changed. Some tweaks here and there, but nothing that seemed at the time to make that big a difference.

But what I’m hearing on this album now is DRAMATICALLY better than what I remember. All kinds of things are happening on this album I never noticed before, happening in ways that are so much more involving and exciting than I remember. Bad memory? Who’s to say? My guess: seemingly small changes over time add up to big effects in the end.

This of course ties in nicely with our Revolutions in Audio commentary. If you’ve been making steady improvements to your system, or have better cleaning technologies, or better room treatments, or cleaner electricity, you are going to be hearing a Tea for the Tillerman that you never knew existed.

It couldn’t exist, not until something allowed you to bring it into being. That something is the work you’ve been doing. If you haven’t been doing it, then nothing will have changed. Your only hope of hearing Tillerman better is to find a better sounding record. We’re happy to help you in that regard, but there is so much you can do to help yourself.

It’s a positive shame if you limit your musical enjoyment by choosing to ignore the myriad ways you can improve the playback of these wonderful recordings. This is the record that will show you how much those changes can mean to your listening enjoyment.

The best import copies in our shootout this time around managed to reproduce all these elements cleanly, on a larger soundstage, with dynamically more energy, sonic firepower the likes of which we have never heard on this album before.


Of course the reason I hadn’t heard the congestion and the dryness and hardness in the recording is that two things changed. One, we found better copies of the record to play — probably, can’t say for sure, but let’s assume we did, and, Two, we’ve made lots of improvements to the stereo since the last time we did the shootout.

You have to get around to doing regular shootouts for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any way at all. Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they might be or when they might have occurred, were incontrovertible. The album was now playing at a much, much higher level.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the importance of taking full 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, including us.

But in this case We Was Wrong. The congestion and flatness we’d gotten used to are no longer a problem on the best copies. We’ve worked diligently on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get Tillerman to play at a much higher level than we could before.

This is why we keep experimenting, keep tweaking and keep searching for the best sounding pressings, and why we encourage you to do the same.

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