Advice – Making Audio Progress

It can be done. Here are some ideas.

Where Cheap Turntables Fall Flat – The Music of Franz Liszt

 

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Classical music is unquestionably the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge set-up. The Liszt recording you see pictured is a superb choice for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like.

One of the reasons $10,000+ front ends exist is to play large scale, complex, difficult-to-reproduce music such as Liszt’s two piano concertos. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you choose to, it would surely be the kind of record that can show you the sound your tens of thousands of dollars has paid for.

It has been my experience that cheap tables more often than not collapse completely under the weight of a mighty record such as this.
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Neil Young – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Live and Learn

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Below you will see our old Hot Stamper commentary from 2004 as part of the discussion of EKTIN in an older shootout (9-08), comments which we now renounce, disown, reject, repudiate and disavow with extreme prejudice. Huh? Here’s part of our mea culpa

Our latest shootout this time around left us with a fairly large serving of egg on our face concerning the commentary we had written for our previous shootout, a textbook example of We Was Wrong. We rarely try to make excuses for our mistakes, but give us a break, that last shootout was more than four years ago (September 2004)!

Allow me make two obvious points about that fact: Tempus fugit for one, and things sure have changed for another. Here are the relevant excerpts from what we oh-so-mistakenly had to say back then about the Two Tone Reprise original pressings:

“Hot Stampers”

Every other version of this record, except for the right originals, is painfully bright, harsh and distorted. This is one of those cases where the master tape that was used to make this early pressing has definitely been lost, stolen or gone missing for some reason, because the amount of just plain old distortion on later pressings is pretty serious, and it seems like the later the pressing the worse the sound. And the worst part about it is, no matter how bad the tape is that they are using, they keep brightening it up, making a bad situation worse.

I found all this out the hard way. I bought copy after copy hoping that one of them would sound good. But none of them did.

There’s more of course, most of it as embarrassing as the bits I quoted. (The old listing will be on the site for all to see, an act of self-flagellation or a cautionary tale, you be the judge.) (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – What makes you guys think you know it all?

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We definitely don’t know it all. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. If we knew it all we couldn’t learn anything from the piles and piles of records we listen to every day. With practically every shootout we learn something new about our favorite records. That, more than anything else, is what makes the kind of tedious, time-consuming, mentally exhausting work we do fun. 

It should be said that most audiophiles, at least the ones I know well, do not have the patience to critically analyze ten different copies of the same record for hours on end. For me (and everybody else who sits in the listening chair) it’s all in a day’s work.

I learned to critically listen for extended periods of time back in the early ’80s. I got heavily into — obsessed with might be more accurate — tweaking my table setup, system components, wires, vibration controlling devices and the like.

Listening for differences in interconnects and listening for differences in pressings calls upon precisely the same set of skills. If you can do it all day, if you actually like tweaking and analyzing the sound of your stereo for hours and hours, you will undoubtedly end up with a much better sounding system, as well as one helluva high quality collection of records (not to mention very finely honed listening skills). Here’s a good way to chart your progress. (more…)

Prokofiev / Symphonies No. 1 & 7 – Seventies EMI Classical LPs and Vintage Tube Playback

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What to listen for on this album? That’s easy: The all-too-common ’70s EMI harshness and shrillness. We could never understand why audiophiles revered EMI as a label the way they did back the day. I chalk it up — as I do most of the mistaken judgments audiophiles tend to make about the sound of records, my own judgments included — to the limitations of the equipment, bad setups, bad rooms and poor record cleaning. 

If you had vintage tube equipment back in the ’70s — McIntosh, Marantz, etc. (I myself had an Audio Research SP3-A1 and a D-75a, later a D-76a) — the flaws heard on most copies of this record wouldn’t be nearly as offensive as they are to those of us playing them on the much more revealing systems that are possible today.

Working in unfathomably complicated and unpredictable combination, today’s modern systems, painstakingly set up and tweaked through trial and error, in heavily treated rooms, using only records that have been subjected to the most advanced cleaning technologies — these are what make it possible to know what your records really sound like. 

These are what make it possible for us to do our job. You, of course, have the option of hearing our records any way you like on your system and in your room. The cleaning and evaluation of the sound has been done.  The record will be yours to enjoy for as long as you live. (more…)

Prokofiev / Symphonies No. 1 & 7 – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

This White Hot Stamper pressing (on BOTH sides!) contains one of my favorite performances of the Classical Symphony, and it also carries the distinction of having the best combination of sonics and performance that we have ever heard on vinyl. (There is a recording by Previn and the LA Phil from 1986 with a performance To Die For; unfortunately it comes with the kind of mid-’80s tear-your-head-off-digital shrillness that makes the CD medium the worn out joke we analog lovers know it to be.) 

The First Symphony happens to be one of my favorite classical works of all time, right up there with The Planets and Pictures at an Exhibition. I wouldn’t want to go to a desert island without all three.

This WHS pressing has exceptional transparency and dynamics, allowing the energy and precision of the performance to shine through. Truly a sublime recording that belongs in any music collection, whether you’re a fan of classical music or not.

If I had to choose one piece of classical music that I would never want to live without, it would have to be the Prokofiev’s First Symphony found on this very side one. It’s a work of such joy that I’ve never failed to be uplifted by it — except when the performance is too slow, which it often is.

This is a difficult piece to pull off. Most of the time either the orchestra is not up to the task or the conductor misunderstands the work. Previn has a spritely take on the piece, which is precisely what it needs and, every bit as important, the London Symphony has the chops to bring his vision to life.

What to Listen for

The all-too-common ’70s EMI harshness and shrillness. We could never understand why audiophiles revered EMI as a label to the extent that they did back the day. I chock it up, as I do most of the mistaken judgments audiophiles make about the sound of records, to limited equipment, bad rooms and poor record cleaning (not to mention underdeveloped critical listening skills. Woops, I guess I just mentioned them.).

If you had Old School vintage tube equipment back in the ’70s — McIntosh, Marantz, etc. (I had an Audio Research D-75a and later a D-76a) — the flaws heard on most copies of this record would not be nearly as offensive as they are to those of us playing the record on a much more revealing modern system.

Which is the only kind of system that can tell you what’s really on the record. That’s the kind of stereo we need to do our job; you, of course, have the option of hearing it any way you like on your system. Here is what we heard on this copy. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like A Wheel – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame. 

This original Capitol Orange Label LP has TWO SUPERB sides, with side two earning our top grade of A+++ for its White Hot sound! And side one was nearly as good at A++ to A+++. These are the highest grades we are awarding to any copy on the site, folks. It doesn’t get any better. The sound is uncharacteristically smooth, sweet, clear and Tubey Magical, light years from the grungy grit and grain that plagues most copies of Heart Like a Wheel.

Things are different since our last big shootout back in 2009. We learned a lot about the record and have added plenty of new commentary to back it up. If you’re a fan check it out.

Let’s be honest: the average copy of this album is an audio disaster. Those of you who love this album as much as we do are going to be shocked when you hear how wonderful it can sound. We bet you never imagined it could be this good, and we happily back up that bet with a full money back guarantee!

This shootout was no small project — we dropped the needle on more than a DOZEN copies.This is the only one to earn better than a Super Hot Stamper grade (A++) on both sides. I’ve been playing this album for years, and I can tell you it is no easy task to find this kind of smooth, sweet, analog sound on HLAW. On top of that it’s also full-bodied, lively, and super-transparent. The vocals are breathy and full with incredible immediacy. Folks, the Heart Like A Wheel magic is here. (more…)

For Pete’s Sake, What’s Wrong With Blue? – Thoughts on “The Definitive Vinyl” Version

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In 2007 a customer took issue with our summary rejection of the new Blue.

Tom, 

I find it curious you are not carrying the new Joni Mitchell Blue vinyl issue. Even to the point of saying you can do better… for 25 bucks? After clicking on the LP cover and reading the comments from over the years it makes me wonder what your agenda really is. I paid $250 for a wonderful WLP and this Rhino issue smokes it, even as good as it is. I even have a Cd cut from this mastering session off the analog FLAT, not Dolby tapes and this vinyl even beats it…. of course just my opinion.

I have listened on $100,000 systems, all the way down to portable units, solid state and tube and there is no denying this is the definitive vinyl version….. and again for 25.00. What a bargain.

Maybe all you did was look at that Rhino sticker and think back to the Grateful Dead records they did a few years ago (horrible) and just assumed this wasn’t up to Better Records standards.

Thanks for reading. I enjoy your e mails and store….

Tom

Tom,

We don’t review records based on their labels or stickers. And of course we never assume anything about the sound of a record. We talk about this stuff all the time. Here’s a relevant quote:

My approach to reviewing records is pure skepticism: a record sounds good if it sounds good, regardless of how it was made, who made it, or why. I’ve heard lots of expensive so-called audiophile equipment do a pretty poor job of making music over the years, the owners of which had an armful of reasons for why the sound should be truly awe-inspiring. But it just wasn’t. Most fancy gold faceplates are nothing but lipstick on a pig in my opinion.

I heard Blue poorly reproduced at a friend’s house, and this is probably the best explanation for this letter writer’s inability to understand our position on Blue.

And paying $250 for a White Label Demo that apparently doesn’t sound good is the height of audiophile collector foolishness. That money should have gone for better equipment or room treatments or tweaks, something, anything, to make this guy’s stereo and room work better than they do.

Actually this brings up a good point. If I had to choose one record that separates the men from the boys, the stereos that really work from the phony, lifeless audiophile systems you might read about in the magazines or hear at an audio show, Blue would be a darn good choice.

The problem there is that you have to be one serious record collector to have a great copy of Blue. But good pressings are out there, if you can clean and play them properly. This is why we created the Blue Game. It can be done, and we can help you get there, but most of the work has to be done by you.

Naturally we are happy to do the shootouts for you and charge you the pretty penny the winners command, but for those of you who want to find out what’s wrong with the new Blue and don’t want to buy a Hot Stamper from us, there is a third way: Blue, The Game.

Making Audio Progress – Step One: Weed Out the Heavy Vinyl

 

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In his latest letter Dan tells us of his disappointment with the new reissues he’s been trying:

… And thanks again for that amazing “Who’s Next” record. It was startling to hear the difference between that and the Classic – and that was one of the better modern audiophile records!I can’t tell you how many modern reissues I’ve bought over the past couple months that have lost, and lost badly, to just my one single original or early pressing of an album. Reissues by AC/DC, The Who, ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones, and Patti Smith have all failed miserably against my merely average sounding originals.
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The Beatles on Vinyl – An Audiophile Wake Up Call

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The sound of the best pressings of The Beatles — when cleaned with the Walker Enzyme fluids on the Odyssey machine — are truly revelatory.

So much of what holds their records back is not bad mastering or poor pressing quality or problems with the recording itself. It’s getting the damn vinyl clean. (It’s also helpful to have high quality playback equipment that doesn’t add to the inherent limitations of the recordings.)

Know why you never hear Beatles vinyl playing in stereo stores or audio shows? (Love doesn’t count; give me a break.)

Because they’re TOO DAMN HARD to reproduce. You have to have seriously tweaked, top-quality, correct-sounding equipment — and just the right pressings, natch — to get The Beatles’ music to sound right, and that’s just not the kind of stuff they have at stereo stores and audio shows. (Don’t get me started.)
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Letter of the Week – … going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in …

Customer Testimonials

More on The Stereo

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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…)