Advice – Making Audio Progress

It can be done. Here are some ideas.

Letter of the Week – … going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in …

Customer Testimonials

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This week’s letter comes from our good friend Franklin who was having some serious sound problems that were driving him crazy after moving his speakers from the long wall (not a good idea) to the short one (much better as a rule).

He already had one pair of Hallographs, which had helped his room problems quite a bit. We rely on three pair, and the second and third pair were a big improvement over the first, so we recommended another to Franklin, which, by the sound of this letter, seems to have worked miracles!

This link will take you to the commentary for our Blood Sweat and Tears albums similar to the one that Franklin references.

Hello Mr. Port,

Just to let you know what you already know about this LP. When I first received this ($500) LP and listened to it, I thought I had really messed up.

I didn’t hear all the nuances you described. I just put it away and forgot about it. What a BUMMER!!!!! But I decided to try it again after placing the new pair of Hallos. I moved them all over the place. I even have the floor marked all over with painter’s masking tape to remind me where the best spots are for the Hallos. Floor really looks funny.

Sometimes when you make a change, it seems to be better for some LPs but not others. But when a change impacts all the LPs positively, you know you are in the game. I am going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in. I will tweak some more but for now I’ll just enjoy.

Regards,
Franklin

Franklin,

Thanks so much for your letter. When your system is cookin’ and you’re hearing all your records sound better than ever, that’s when audio is FUN. You had to do a lot of work to get there and the good sound you are able to enjoy now is your reward.

It’s amazing to me how little audiophiles are interested in actually making their stereos sound better. You reap what you sew in this hobby. Mediocre sound is easy; good sound is very very hard — that’s why I so rarely hear anything outside of my own system that strikes me as any good. Most audiophiles haven’t worked very hard on their stereos and they have the sound to prove it.

We write a lot about the ENERGY and POWER found on the best pressings of some recordings; the BS&T record we sent you is a perfect example. It’s the kind of recording with so much going on that it is guaranteed to bring practically any stereo system to its knees. When a record such as this gets loud, all the problems of your stereo become impossible to ignore. (One reason The Turn Up Your Volume Test is such a great test; the louder the problem, the harder it is to ignore.)

Turn Down the Volume, or Solve the Problem?

Rather than simply turn down the volume, why not solve the problem? That’s what the Hallographs do. All that energy that’s bouncing around your room is causing huge amounts of distortion. If you’re like most audiophiles it’s one of the main reasons you can’t play your system loud. The sound will become strident, edgy and sour; the soundstage will lose its shape and collapse into a chaotic mess; the bass definition will go out the window, turn bloated and get up into the midrange where it had no business being . These are mostly room problems. No matter how good your equipment is, these problems attend to most listening rooms. Concert halls aren’t twenty feet wide, but there sure are a lot of listening rooms that size, and smaller, which means room reflections are sending the sound waves crashing into each other all over the place. (more…)

Yes – Close To The Edge

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Close To The Edge

  • An amazing copy of this Prog Blockbuster, with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the first side and solid Double Plus (A++) sound on the second – super quiet vinyl too, as quiet as any copy we have ever listed
  • An incredibly complex recording, with huge organs, light-speed changes and an abundance of multi-tracked parts   
  • A recording that will push even the highest quality, most heavily tweaked stereo to its limits – if you can play this record good and loud, you can play anything
  • 5 stars: “Close to the Edge represented the musical, lyrical, and sonic culmination of all that Yes had worked toward over the past five years. In 1972, Close to the Edge was a flawless masterpiece.”

This vintage Atlantic pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound. (more…)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Jazz Hall of Fame.

This time around no other copy of Time Out could touch our good Six Eye Stereo pressings — they were in a league of their own.

If you’ve been with us for a long time you may remember that this was not always the case. We used to really like some 360s as I recall, as well as the original mono pressing. This time around, not so much. 

This time around most everythings’s different. Allow us to explain.

1. Our stereo is different; we’ve made quite a number of changes to it since our last big shootout for Time Out a few years back.

2. We’re different; we have better (I would hope) listening skills. In fact I’m sure we listen for different qualities in a recording than we might have years ago.

3. Even more importantly, we don’t have the same pile of pressings we had years ago. They’re gone, replaced by a new batch. This new batch had some killer original pressings, some good 360s, and not much to speak of on the later labels.

With a different batch we might have found a great sounding 360 pressing; we have to believe they exist, and we certainly can’t say that our best copy here could not have been bettered in some way. That would be foolish; anything can be bettered. But for us, in 2014 (and probably through 2015), this is it. This is the right sound. (more…)

Audiophilia 101 – What Kind of Audio Fool Was I?

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Audiophilia 101

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Today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making as a budding audiophile more than thirty years ago. Heavy Viny, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each with a track record progressively more dismal than the next? 

Our Story Begins

One Man Dog has long been a favorite James Taylor album of mine. It didn’t catch on too well with the general public when it came out but it caught on just fine with me. I used to play it all the time. As a budding but misguided audiophile back in the early ’70s, I foolishly bought the import pressing at my local record store, The Wherehouse, assuming it would sound better and be pressed on quieter vinyl. The latter may have been true, probably was true, but the former sure wasn’t. Turns out even the average domestic original is far better sounding, but how was I to know?

Compare and Contrast? What For?

Back in those days it would never have occurred to me to buy more than one copy of a record and do a head to head comparison to see which one would sound better. I approached the subject Platonically, not scientifically: the record that should sound better would of course sound better, so why waste time testing?

Later on in the decade a label by the name of Mobile Fidelity would come along claiming to actually make better sounding pressings than the ones the major labels put out, and — cluelessly — I bought into that nonsense too. (To be fair, sometimes they did — Touch, Waiting for Columbus and American Beauty come to mind, but my god, Katy Lied, Year of the Cat and Sundown have to be three of the worst sounding records I’ve ever played in my life.) (more…)

Cat Stevens- Tea for the Tillerman – Making Progress in Audio

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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 are 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…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. (more…)

Sinatra At The Sands on Dahlquist DQ-10s – My Neophyte Audiophile Mind Is Blown

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The story of our latest shootout is what real Progress in Audio is all about.

Back in the early ’70s this was actually the album that first introduced me to honest-to-goodness “audiophile” sound.  

I was at my local stereo store listening to speakers one day, and the salesman made a comment that the speakers we were listening to (the old Infinity Monitors with the Walsh tweeter) sounded “boxy”. I confessed to him that I didn’t actually know what that meant or what it would sound like if it weren’t boxy. 

So he hooked up a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10s and put Sinatra at the Sands on. I was amazed at how the sound just floated in the room, free from the speakers, presenting an image that was as wide and deep as the showroom we were in. That speaker may have many flaws, but boxiness is definitely not one of them.

This description is pretty close to what I thought I heard all those years ago

The presence and immediacy here are staggering. Turn it up and Frank is right between your speakers, putting on the performance of a lifetime. Very few records out there offer the kind of realistic, lifelike sound you get from this pressing.

This vintage stereo LP also has the MIDRANGE MAGIC that’s missing from the later reissues. As good as some of them can be, this one is dramatically more real sounding. It gives you the sense that Frank Sinatra is right in front of you.

He’s no longer a recording — he’s a living, breathing person. We call that “the breath of life,” and this record has it in spades. His voice is so rich, sweet, and free of any artificiality, you immediately find yourself lost in the music, because there’s no “sound” to distract you.

Or so I thought at the time. (more…)

Joni Mitchell – Blue – Rhino / Warners Reviewed

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Sonic Grade: B-

In March of 2007 we remarked that we would not be carrying the new 180 gram Rhino pressing of Blue. We noted at the time: 

Since Kevin and Steve are [perhaps erstwhile] friends of mine I won’t belabor its shortcomings. Let’s just say I think you can do better.

The following is an excerpt from our first successful Hot Stamper shootout back in 2007. Blue has only gotten better — dramatically better, if I may be so bold — since then.

The copy of Blue we are offering today is one of the few that sounded good before. Now it sounds really good. It got much quieter after applying some of our new cleaning techniques, and the sound became even warmer, richer, sweeter and more transparent.

Both sides sound wonderful — rich, sweet, and delicate. The warmth, breath, and presence of Joni’s vocals take this copy to a place light years beyond the typical copy, not to mention any reissue. The guitars sound amazing, particularly on side two, and the piano has weight without hardness. There’s tons of energy and lots of ambience, plus real depth to the soundfield — you really hear INTO this copy. Try that with your Rhino LP.

The best pressings (and better playback equipment) have revealed nuances in this recording — and of course the performances of all the players along with it — that made us fall in love with the music all over again. Of all the tough nuts to crack, this was the toughest, yet somehow copies emerged that allowed us to appreciate the sonic merits of Blue and ignore its shortcomings. Hot Stampers have a way of doing that. You forget it’s a record; now it’s just Music. The right record and the right playback will bring Blue to life in a way that you cannot imagine until you hear it. That is our guarantee on Blue — better than you ever thought possible or your money back.

Diminishing Returns in Audio?

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Diminishing returns? Sez who? In our opinion, it’s another Old and Pernicious Myth.

I often read this comment in audio magazines regarding the piece of equipment under review, as if to say that we are so close to audio perfection that a gain of a few percent is the most we can hope for from this or that new megabuck amp or speaker. In my experience the exact opposite is true. 

There are HUGE improvements to be made on a regular basis, even without spending all that much money (keeping in mind that this is not exactly a poor man’s hobby).

If you are actively involved in seeking out better equipment, trying new things, and tweaking the hell out of your system as much as time and patience permit, I think an improvement of 10-25% per year in perceived sound quality is not an unreasonable expectation. (more…)

Record Collecting Axioms

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In an old commentary for a shootout we did for Carole King’s Tapestry album we took shots at both the CBS Half-Speed Mastered Audiophile pressing and the Classic Heavy Vinyl Audiophile pressing, noting that both fell far short of the standard set by the Hot Stamper copies we’d discovered. This finding (and scores of others just like it) prompted us to promulgate the following axiom of audiophile record collecting, which we are calling…

Better Records Record Collecting Axiom Number Two

The better your stereo gets, the fewer Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered pressings you will want to play, or own for that matter.

(This assumes a fact not in evidence: that audiophiles get rid of their bad sounding records. It has been my experience that the reverse is actually more often the case. Most audiophiles seem to like to hang on to their bad sounding audiophile pressings, Why they do so I cannot for the life of me understand. To me a bad sounding audiophile record is a record that has no business being played and should either be tossed or sold, with any proceeds from the sale applied to the purchase of good records — you know, like the ones on our site.)
(more…)

Jethro Tull – Aqualung – A MoFi Disaster (But Don’t Tell This Guy)

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Sonic Grade: D

We noted in our Hot Stamper review for Aqualung that the MoFi is a disaster, with the murky bloated DCC even worse. (We didn’t like the Classic either.) 

But we used to like the MoFi and DCC just fine. What could possibly have changed?

It’s a long story, and a pretty long commentary, which we have excerpted from a customer’s letter, along with our reply.

We have edited our original commentary and his letter for the sake of brevity.

Now the letter:

To: Tom Port,

As far as “Aqualung” is concerned, I have a Mobile Fidelity issue of this album which sounds great and being pressed on some of the best vinyl in the world by people who are known for their meticulous care with records, I don’t think that there would be much difference at all in the quality of different Mo-Fi pressings of this or any of their records.

The key phrase here is “I don’t think that there would be much difference at all…”. You see, this is not something to think about, this is something to test. Thinking got this gentleman nowhere; testing might have had the opposite effect. (more…)