Record Playing and Setup Advice

Jethro Tull / Thick As A Brick – A Top Test for System Accuracy

From 2009 to 2010 this was our single go-to record for testing and tweaking the system.

Although we now use an amazing copy of Bob and Ray (the big band version of The Song of the Volga Boatmen located therein has to be the toughest test we know of bar none), we could easily go back to using TAAB. It’s absolutely ruthless when it comes to the slightest hint of artificiality in the sound of the system.

Since the biggest problem every audiophile is always fighting is artificiality (and, more often than not, losing, if I may be that cynical about most audiophile systems, our customers’ systems excluded of course), TAAB is one of the best recordings one could ever find to test and tune with. 

  • The better copies are shockingly dynamic. At about the three minute mark the band joins in the fun and really starts rocking. Set your volume for as loud as your system can play that section. The rest of the music, including the very quietest parts, will then play correctly for all of side one. For side two the same volume setting should be fine.
  • The recording can have exceptionally solid, deep punchy bass (just check out Barrie “Barriemore” Barlow’s drumming, especially his kick and floor toms. The guy is on fire).
  • The midrange is usually transparent and the top end sweet and extended on the better pressings.
  • The recording was made in 1972, so there’s still plenty of Tubey Magic to be heard on the acoustic guitars and flutes.
  • The best copies can be as huge, wide and tall as any rock record you’ve ever heard, with sound that comes jumping out of your speakers right into your listening room.
  • Unlike practically any album recorded during the ’80s or later, the overall tonal balance, as well as the timbre of virtually every instrument in the soundfield, is correct on the best copies.

That kind of accuracy practically disappeared from records about thirty years ago, which explains why so many of the LPs we offer as Hot Stampers were produced in the ’70s. That’s when many of the highest fidelity recordings were made. In truth this very record is a superlative example of the sound the best producers, engineers, and studios were able to capture on analog tape during that time.

Which is a long way of saying that the better copies of Thick As A Brick have pretty much EVERYTHING that we love about vinyl here at Better Records.

Furthermore, I can guarantee you there is no CD on the planet that will ever be able to do this recording justice. Our Hot Stamper pressings – even the lowest-graded ones – have a kind of ANALOG MAGIC that just can’t be captured on one of them there silvery discs.

More Jethro Tull

Reviews and Commentaries for Thick as a Brick

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Simon & Garfunkel / Bookends – Save the Life of My Child Is One Tough Test

More Simon and Garfunkel

Reviews and Commentaries for Bookends

The big production songs on this album have a tendency to get congested on even the best pressings, which is not uncommon for Four Track recordings from the ’60s. Those of you with properly set up high-dollar front ends should have less of a problem than those of you without them. $3000 cartridges can usually deal with this kind of complex information better than $300 ones.

(But not always. Expensive does not always mean better, since painstaking and exacting set up is so essential to proper playback.)

Save the Life of My Child — A Tough Test

I used to think this track would never sound good enough to use as an evaluation track. It’s a huge production that I had heretofore found all but impossible to get to sound right on even the best original copies of the album. Even as recently as ten years ago I had basically given up on reproducing it right.

Thankfully things have changed. Nowadays, with carefully cleaned top copies at our disposal and a system that is really cooking, virtually all of the harmonic distortion in the big chorus near the opening has disappeared. It takes a very special pressing and a very special stereo to play this song. That’s precisely what makes it a good test!

America — Another Tough Test

America is another one of the toughest tracks to get right. The big ending with its powerful orchestral elements is positively stunning on the rare copies that have little or no congestion in the loudest passages.

On virtually every copy you will ever hear the voices on this track are a little sibilant. Modern records are made with what is known as a de-essing limiter. This limiter recognizes sibilance and keeps it under control, because once the cutter head sees that kind of high frequency information, which is already boosted for the RIAA curve, it will try to cut it onto the record and the result will be this kind of spitty distortion.

What’s interesting is that none of the reissues we played managed to control the problem, even though the higher quality cutting systems they would have been made with should have been able to handle the extra power requirements. The reissues are not only spitty, but the spit tends to be grainy and aggressive on the bad copies, the worst of both worlds. (Careful arm adjustment — VTA, azimuth, tracking weight and anti-skate — is critical to getting the grit and edge out of the more problematical sibilances found on records such as this. You’ll be amazed at what a little tweaking can do.)

Adding to the problem on the track is the fact that it fades in over the ending of the previous track. This means that it’s actually a generation of tape down from the master, owing to the fact that that kind of mixing is generally done from two master tapes onto a third mixdown tape. From there further dubs might even have been made. Who knows how many generations of tape there might end up being between the master and the finished product?

Your Reward

As you may have read elsewhere on the site, records like this are the reward for owning the right stereo equipment and having it properly tweaked. There is no way in the world we could have played this album remotely as well 10 years ago as we can now. It only makes us appreciate the music even more.

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Kansas / Leftoverture – a certain “squawky, pinched” sound to the guitars…

This is one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity.

This copy of Kansas’ most consistent album, their masterpiece I might venture to say, has an OFF THE CHARTS A+++ side two! This copy shows you the ROCK album they actually recorded. The average copy of Leftoverture only hints at the power of the band.  

Side two just KILLED from start to finish, with the deepest, punchiest bass, moving up the frequency ladder to the clearest sweetest mids, and following it all the way to the top with the most extended grain-free, silky highs.

Most copies, like so many rock records from the era, are veiled and smeary. Often they lack extension at one or both ends of the frequency spectrum, more often than not up top, which results in harshness and shrillness, not the sound you want on a Kansas record!

But copies such as this one show you the kind of sound that is possible with Leftoverture. It is, in a word, SMEAR-FREE, with superb transients, textures and clarity that are the natural result of getting every last bit of musical information into the grooves.

Another tough test: the vocals on the first track. They often sound strained right from the get go. It’s the rare copy that doesn’t show some strain on those first four lines. This copy, as good as it was, even had a trace of it. (Sometimes the sound is so strained it’s game over after the first thirty seconds. Who can listen to that kind of sound?)

Folks, if you have the big speakers that a balls-to-the-walls rock record like this one demands, you are in for one serious audiophile quality prog-rock experience. (Or is is Art Rock as the AMG likes to call it?) Wall to wall and floor to ceiling barely begins to do it justice. Like so many of the great rock recordings, the sound just JUMPS out of the speakers!

Side one was good, but simply not in the same league as side one, not even close. We gave it an A+ for being open and extended, but it is not as full-bodied as the best.

More Kansas

More Prog Rock

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How To Get The Most Out Of Your Records – A Step By Step Guide

We’ve recently begun to include an info sheet with our Hot Stamper pressings that describes a few simple steps you can take to get better results with our records in your home. Since these tips really apply to all records and not just our Hot Stampers, we figured we’d outline them here and add a few additional thoughts. 

Here are a few tips for getting the best results from your LPs at home:

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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Listening in Depth to So Far

More Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Records in Stock

More Commentaries and Letters for So Far

This is a very difficult record to find with proper mastering (and good vinyl, ouch!). It seems that all of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s albums are that way. The average domestic pressing rarely even hints at how well recorded this band really was (and the imports are even worse — we’ve never heard one that didn’t sound dubby, veiled and compressed).

In my experience not even one out of ten LPs sounds right; I put the figure at one out of twenty. Most of them are shrill, dull, grainy, flat, opaque, harsh and in varying degrees suffer from every other mastering and pressing malady known to man.

But the best ones have some tracks in superb sound. When you hear the Hot Stampers for records like this you will simply be AMAZED. If you’ve ever heard a really good If Only I Could Remember My Name, an album that CAN be found with proper mastering, that should give you some idea of how good the first two albums can sound.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Déjà Vu

When you get a good copy of this album, this song sounds like it was lifted right off of a Hot Stamper copy of Deja Vu itself. It’s so rich and Tubey Magical you’d swear it couldn’t get any better. Huge amounts of deep bass. Acoustic guitars that ring for days. Midrange magic to die for. Not many of them sound this way, unfortunately.

If I could indulge in some more MoFi and Half-Speed bashing for a moment, the bass “solo” at the end of this song is a great test for bass definition. The notes are relatively high, and it’s easy for them to sound blurred and wooly. The MoFi, like virtually all Half-Speed mastered records, has a problem with bass definition. If you own the MoFi, listen for how clearly defined the notes are at the end of this track. Then play any other copy, either of So Far or Deja Vu. It’s a pretty safe bet that the bass will be much more articulate. I know how bad the MOFI is in this respect. Rarely do “normal” records have bass that bad.

Stephen Barncard Does It Again

Listen to this song and compare it to anything on the Barncard-engineered first solo LP by David Crosby. That is the sound of Barncard’s engineering — open, spacious, rich, sweet; tons of deep bass; absolutely no trace of phony eq on vocals; acoustic guitars that ring for days — the man is a GENIUS. Thank god he was involved with music of this quality. If only more of the LP pressings did a better job of revealing the exquisite beauty of the recordings themselves. (I suppose that burden must be carried by the few Hot Stamper copies we can dig up.) (more…)

A Simple Test for Polarity – Listen to the Solo Violin

More of the music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

More of the Music of Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

This is one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity.

Both sides are reversed.

On side two, the Chopin side, notice how vague the solo violin is with the polarity wrong.

As soon as it is switched, a solid, real, natural, palpable violin pops into view.

That’s how you know when your polarity is correct, folks!

This Heavy Vinyl pressing is also quite vague, but you can reverse your polarity until the cows come home, it ain’t gettin’ any better.

Here are some other Records that Are Good for Testing Vague Imaging


The top end of this record is clear, clean and correct. No other copy sounded like this one on the first side. When you hear all the percussion instruments — the tambourines, triangles, wood blocks and what-have-you — you know instantly that they sound RIGHT.

The overall sound is very different from many of the other recordings of the work that we have offered in the past. Rather than smooth, rich and sweet, the sound here is big and bold and clear like nothing we have ever played.

This is Front Row Center sound for those whose systems can reproduce it.

And this is truly a top performance by Fistoulari and the Royal Philharmonic. I know of none better. For music and sound this is the one!

Turntable Tweaking Works Its Magic Once Again “I’m sitting in shock!”

 Hi Tom,

Just wanted to give you a big thank you for the commentary on turntable tweaking. I constantly learn important advice on the audiophile subject from your website. I check it everyday.

Lately I have been thinking my audio sound was lacking. It didn’t sound as good as I remember it. After reading the turntable tweaking advice I reset up the tonearm. VTF, VTA, and azimuth. I have “magic” in my sound now.

Listened to some Neil Young, [Ten Years After] A Space in Time. Very Tubey.

Listened to my Miles Davis Kind of Blue. It sounded better than I ever heard it. I’m sitting in shock!

The killer was Chicago 2. I love 25-6-to 4 so I was blown away and normally I’m not interested in the rest of that side of the album but I sat through the rest of it and was enthralled by the vocals. Memories of Love is one track I was never interested in but it sounded so good I loved it. When you want to listen to every record in your collection you know you’ve done something right.

Anyway I want you to know we audiophiles appreciate the time you take to put up your advice and commentaries. I just got a huge upgrade and it didn’t cost me a cent. Only some time and I learned a little more.

Thanks a bunch, 
Steve E.

Steve,

You are more than welcome!

More Letters


FURTHER READING

Record Playback Advice 

My Stereo (and Thoughts on Equipment)

Making Audio Progress 

Unsolicited Audio Advice

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Harry Belafonte / Belafonte at Carnegie Hall – Wrong About Harry Again?

More Harry Belafonte

Live and Learn, Right?

  • This early Black Label RCA pressing boasts stunning Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it on all four sides
  • A very large group of musicians will transport themselves directly into your listening room, Harry included, all backing him live on the stage in real time and in ANALOG
  • The palpable presence and performance energy of the man himself are really something to hear, and a copy this good lets you REALLY hear it
  • Harry Pearson made his reputation bringing this kind of amazing recording to the attention of the audiophile public, and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude
  • This is one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity.
  • 5 stars: “The granddaddy of all live albums, this double-LP set captures the excitement of a Harry Belafonte concert at the height of his popularity.”

NEWSFLASH:

We’ve long known that some copies of the album are mastered with the polarity reversed. This is one of those copies.

But the crazy news we have today is that this copy of the records sound just fine without adjusting the system polarity, better than any other copy we played.

It sounds a bit better with your polarity reversed, but it is still our Shootout Winner even with the polarity wrong.

I would never have believed that to be the case in the past, but my theory is that the new studio we built has reduced distortions and problems to such a degree that polarity issues are less of a problem now than they might have been in the past.

As I say, it’s just a theory, and as time goes on we will revisit this idea with other recordings that we know to have polarity issues, and we’ll be sure to let you know what we find. (more…)

Turntable Testing Using Court and Spark and a Yellow Pad

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

Hot Stamper Pressings of Court and Spark Available Now

xxx

There are loud vocal choruses on many tracks, and more often than not at their loudest they sound like they are either breaking up or threatening to do so. I always assumed it was compressor or board overload, which is easily heard on Down to You. On the best copies there is no breakup — the voices get loud and stay clean throughout.

This assumes that your equipment is up to the job. The loudest choruses are a tough test for any system.

Setup Advice

If you have one of our hottest Hot Stampers, try adjusting your setup – VTA, Tracking Weight, Azimuth, Anti-Skate (especially! Audiophiles often overlook this one, at their peril) — and note how cleanly the loudest passages play using various combinations of settings.

Keep a yellow pad handy and write everything down step by step as you make your changes, along with what differences you hear in the sound.

You will learn more about sound from this exercise than you can from practically any other. Even shootouts won’t teach you what you can learn from variations in your table setup.

And once you have your setup dialed in better, you will find that your shootouts go a lot smoother than they used to. (more…)

Turntable Set Up Guide Part 2: Dialing In Tracking Force By Ear

One of our good customers has a blog which he calls

A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

Below you will find a link to an article about turntable setup. I would have loved to write something along these lines myself, but never found the time to do so. Robert Brook took the job upon himself and has explained many aspects of it well, so if you would like to learn more about turntable setup, I encourage you to visit his blog and read more about it.

I do have some ideas of my own which I hope to be able to write about soon, but for now, check out what Robert has to say.

Turntable Set Up Guide Part 2: Dialing In Tracking Force By Ear