Rachmaninoff – Speakers Corner Ruins a Classic Mercury, Part One

More of the Music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Reviews and Commentaries for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos

This commentary was written in 2004. We carried Heavy Vinyl back then, and for that, knowing what I know now, I can only apologize.

Back then, I thought I knew a great deal more about records and  how to reproduce them than I actually did.  Yes, I have to admit it: I suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

On the bright side, there is one very powerful benefit that I gained from being so mistaken. Having failed to recognize my own shortcomings, the signs that someone thinks they know more than they do are easy for me to spot. Here is one of my favorite examples. I link to it a lot.

If you want to see the effect played out in the cyber world, go to any audiophile forum and start reading any thread about records you find there. The D-K effect is hard to miss. Some of the experts on these forums have even convinced themselves that they know things that cannot be known, which is always a sure sign they know a great deal less than they think they do.  

Our Old Commentary

Some thoughts on the new 180 gram Mercury reissues by Speakers Corner and a bunch of other record related stuff.

The Absolute Sound weighed in with their view of the series:

Speakers Corner has given these recordings the respect they deserve. The packaging is gorgeous: a black album titled “The Living Presence of 20th Century Music” and displaying the Mercury logo holds the three records with their original covers and liner notes. In addition, there are informative annotations on the music and Dorati, and a history of Mercury Living Presence…They sound at least as good and in some ways better than the originals…There are no negatives and not enough superlatives to describe these magnificent reissues. It’s rare that performance, sound, and musical value combine at this level in a recording.

Arthur B. Lintgen, The Absolute Sound, February/March 2004

Let me start by saying that I have not listened to a single one of the new Mercury titles.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me state for the record that the chances of the above statements being true are so close to zero that they cannot be calculated by anything but the latest Cray computer.

Has Speakers Corner produced a single classical record that’s better than a well-mastered, properly-pressed original pressing? One or two. Maybe. [These days we would say zero is the right number.]  So what are the chances they did so with these? Almost none I would say.

The above review reminds me of the nonsense I read in TAS and elsewhere in the mid-’90s regarding the supposed superiority of the Classic Living Stereo reissues. After playing their first three titles: 1806, 1817 and 2222, I could find no resemblance between the reviews I read and the actual sound of the records I heard.

The sound was, in a word, awful. To this day I consider them to be the Single Worst Reissue Series in the History of the World. [Presently there are too many contenders for that title to hold that view anymore.]

When Harry Pearson (of all people — this is the guy who started the Living Stereo and Living Presence craze by putting those forgotten old records on the TAS list in the first place) gave a rave review to LSC 1806, I had to stand up (in print anyway) and say that the emperor clearly had removed all his clothes, if he ever had any to begin with. (And now he has a CD List? Ugh.)

This got me kicked out of TAS by the way, as Harry does not take criticism well. I make a lot of enemies in this business with my commentary and reviews, but I see no way to avoid the fallout for calling a spade a spade.

Is anybody insane enough to stand up for LSC 1806 today? Considering that there is a die-hard contingent of people who still think Mobile Fidelity is the greatest label of all time, there may well be “audiophiles” with substandard audio equipment or weakened powers of observation and discrimination, or both (probably both, as the two go hand in hand), that still find the sound of that steely stringed Classic pressing somehow pleasing to the ear. Hey, anything is possible.

As I’ve said again and again, the better a stereo gets, the more obvious the differences between good original pressings and most current reissues become. Modest front ends and mediocre playback systems can disguise these differences and mislead the amateur audiophile. One clear exception to this rule: Cisco Records, the people behind the wonderful June Christy, Young Person’s Guide and many others, which are a big improvement over the originals. [With better equipment, the shortcomings of the Cisco records are clear to us now. We find most of them as awful as anything else on Heavy Vinyl.]

And the “professional” is misled too. We’ve all had the experience of going back to play a record from years ago that is remembered as being amazing, only to find it amazingly bad. (The Japanese Led Zeppelin series comes immediately to mind. How could my system have been so dull that those bright pressings actually fooled me into thinking they sounded good ten years ago? I’ve done a few Mea Culpas over the years — that’s one of the bigger ones.)

Remember when Chesky records were the rage? Does anybody in his right mind play that shit anymore? (A short anecdote: A good customer called me up one night years ago. He had just finished playing the Chesky Spain, and had pulled out his Shaded Dog original to compare. The sound was so much better on the original he took his Chesky and, with great satisfaction, ceremoniously dropped it in the trash can. He told me, “Of course I could have sold it or traded it away, but nobody should have to listen to sound like that.”)

So back to the Mercuries.

Speakers Corner has a pretty spotty track record when it comes to making records. Some of their stuff is just junk. (Steely Dan, The Planets, We Get Requests — I could name fifty bad to truly awful sounding records they’ve made over the years.) We actually created a section for some of them, but there are so many I couldn’t find the time to list them all.

You’ll notice that we only carry a small fraction of the 100+ classical titles Speakers Corner has done, about fifteen at last count. They do better with Jazz; there we sell about twenty five of the better titles. Overall score? I would say one out of four is about right. Not bad. Not good, but not bad.

But better than the originals? That’s a preposterous claim that’s hardly worth responding to. But I had a few things on my chest I wanted to get off, hence today’s diatribe.

So why do we carry them? [We stopped in 2011 by the way] Well, some of them may be decent. I may not ever know though. They are so damn expensive due to the current exchange rates that I may not review them at all, as there is simply no profit in these records anymore.

Buyer beware obtains, but at least I’m honest about it, unlike some audiophile record dealers who want to hype these Mercuries as the Second Coming of Golden Age Vinyl. That, they definitely are not. (The First Coming was good enough for me, as you know. I am firmly on record as saying that the RCA, Decca, Mercury, London, etc. originals are the best sounding records ever made, bar none, and nothing I’ve heard has provided a shred of evidence to the contrary.)

Reports from ears I trust are not good, but that’s just on the Ravel disc. The originals are a fortune, the CDs don’t cut it, so what’s a mother to do?

For one thing, Speakers Corner needs to focus on doing better titles. Much of Mercury’s 20th Century music has a limited appeal. (Fetler? Berg? Schuller? Enough already.) The Byron Janis record coming soon, however, is a breath of fresh air. That’s a great Mercury. The piano tone on that recording is as solid as a rock. Hope they do a good job with it. Only one way to tell though, right?

Please forgive me for falling down on the job with this series. Most of you who buy records from us on a regular basis do so because we know a good record from a bad one and aren’t afraid to say it.

But… what we do, and the way we do it, is already so time consuming and, don’t laugh, unprofitable (per hour anyway, as I sit here on a beautiful Sunday afternoon), that to devote the time and resources to this series at this point just strikes me as foolish.

The last few months have seen a huge number of New LP Arrivals to the site, 691 so far in 2004 by today’s count, and this, as I’m sure you can imagine, takes an ungodly amount of time and effort.

Many of these are records I’ve owned for more than ten years, waiting for the right time and right way to make them available to those of you who appreciate these kinds of very special recordings.

Well, now is that time. The Mercuries will have to wait.

The second part of this commentary can be found here.

More Heavy Vinyl Reviews

Here are some of our reviews and commentaries concerning the many Heavy Vinyl pressings we’ve played over the years, well over 200 at this stage of the game. Feel free to pick your poison.

There are many kinds of audiophile pressings — Half-Speeds, Direct-to-Discs, Heavy Vinyl Remasters, Japanese Pressings, the list of records offered to the audiophile with supposedly superior sound quality is endless. Having been in the audiophile record biz for more than thirty years, it has been our misfortune to have played them by the hundreds,

How did we find so many bad sounding records? The same way we find so many good sounding ones. We included them in our shootouts, comparing them head to head with our best Hot Stamper Pressings..

When you can hear them that way, up against an actual good record, their flaws become that much more obvious and, frankly, that much more inexcusable.

Back to 2000

Even as recently as the early 2000s, we were often impressed with many of the better Heavy Vinyl pressings. If we’d never made the progress we’ve worked so hard to make over the course of the last twenty or more years, perhaps we would find more merit in the Heavy Vinyl reissues so many audiophiles seem impressed by.

We’ll never know of course; that’s a bell that can be unrung. We did the work, we can’t undo it, and the system that resulted from it is merciless in revealing the truth — that these newer pressings are second-rate at best and much more often than not third-rate or worse.

When I say worse, I know whereof I speak. Some audiophile records have pissed me off so badly I was motivated to create a special ring of hell for them.

Setting higher standards — no, being able to set higher standards — in our minds is a clear mark of progress. Judging by the hundreds of letters we’ve received, especially the ones comparing our records to their Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered counterparts, we know that our customers see things the same way.

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