Record Playing and Setup Advice

Holst / The Planets – Proper VTA Adjustment Is Critical

More of the music of Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

More VTA Advice

Accurate VTA adjustment for classical records is critical to their proper reproduction. If you do not have an arm that allows you to easily adjust its VTA, then you will just have to do it the hard way (which normally means loosening a set screw and moving the arm up and down until you get lucky with the right height).

Yes, it may be time consuming, it may even be a major pain in the ass, but there is no question in my mind that you will hear a dramatic improvement in the sound of your classical records once you have learned to precisely adjust the VTA for each and every one of them. We heard the improvement on this record, and do pretty much on all the classical LPs we play. All records really.

VTA is not a corner you should be cutting. Its careful adjustment is critical. Of course, so are anti-skate, azimuth and tracking weight. The links below have a fair amount of advice on turntable setup which might be worth checking out.

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

New to the Blog? Start Here

We’ve recently begun to include an info sheet with our Hot Stamper pressings which 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. 

Warm Up

Warm up your stereo for at least a half hour before doing any critical listening. A full hour is even better. Make sure you have the volume raised; the speaker drivers need to be moving actively so as to loosen them up and get them in the mood to sound their best.

All Hot Stamper pressings have been thoroughly cleaned by us and there is no need to clean them again, at least not for quite a while. (After a dozen or so plays it might be a good time to think about another cleaning, especially if fingerprints or dust are visible or audible. When in doubt clean the record.)

Since many of the record cleaning fluids on the market today actually make records lose fidelity, we encourage you to clean your records only with the one fluid we recommend: The Walker Enzyme Cleaning system.

If you must clean our Hot Stamper pressings with a fluid we do not recommend, our advice would be to listen carefully to the record before recleaning, then again after cleaning, to make sure there is no loss of sound quality. If there is a loss of fidelity we would then strongly advise you to switch to the Walker fluids.

Records that have been properly cleaned actually sound even better after a few plays. After a good cleaning, playing the record helps plow more grunge out of the grooves and also helps the stylus tip to seat itself deeper into the center of the groove.

Every Hot Stamper pressing sold by us has been played through at least once on both sides. Another play or two (or three or four) on your part will help the record sound even better.

Unplug

Turn off, or better yet, UNPLUG as many electrical devices as you can (appliances, microwaves, air conditioning, lights, etc.) to feed your stereo the best electricity available to you.

We cannot stress this too strongly.

Start with a Familiar Recording

Start your listening session with a record you are familiar with to ensure your stereo is performing at a high level. We all have bad stereo days. There’s no sense in judging a record — especially if it’s a new Hot Stamper pressing — on a system that’s not performing up to par.

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Reversed Polarity on Bang Baaroom and Harp

schorymusic

Percussion Recordings with Hot Stampers Available Now

Living Stereo Titles Available Now

Music for Bang Baaroom and Harp is yet another one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity on some copies.

Are audiophile reviewers or audiophiles in general listening critically to records like this? I wonder; I could not find word one about any polarity issues with this title, and yet we’ve played four or five copies with reversed polarity on side two. How come nobody is hearing it, apart from us?

We leave you, dear reader, to answer that question for yourself.

Harry Pearson put this record on his TAS List of Super Discs, and rightfully so. It certainly can be a Super Disc, but only when you have the right pressing. It’s a real treat to hear such a crazy assortment of percussion instruments with this kind of amazingly clear, high-resolution sound!

This is one of the Demo Discs on the TAS List which truly deserves its status when, and only when, you have the right copy (read: Hot Stamper).


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to the Fundamentals

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Blood, Sweat and Tears – What to Do If a Record Changes Its Sound

More of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Blood, Sweat and Tears

This commentary was written around 2010 if memory serves.

Our last big shootout was back in early 2008. Since we never tire of discussing the Revolutionary Changes in Audio that have occurred over the last quite eventful year (really more like five quite eventful years) , we here provide you with yet another link to that commentary.

Suffice to say, this record, like most good records, got a whole lot better. (Some records do not, but that’s another story for another day. If your audiophile pressings start to sound funny, you are probably on solid ground. They sure sound funny to us.) 

What We Learned This Time Around

All the best qualities of the best copies stayed the same; this is to be expected.

If records you have known well, over a very long period of time, suddenly start to sound different*, you can be pretty sure that you’ve made an audiophile error in your system somewhere.

You need to find it and figure out how to fix it as quickly as possible, although as a rule this process can turn out to be very time consuming and difficult.

The first place I would look is to any changes you might have made in your wiring, whether speaker, interconnect or power cord. Robert Brook has done some work in this area that may be of interest to you.

It has been my experience that audiophile wire is where most of the unnatural sound in audiophile systems comes from.

*Other records that took on a whole new sound can be found here. No audiophile should want anything to do with them.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Making Audio Progress

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Set-up Discs, Part Two – Dialing in the Anti-Skate

More of the music of Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

More Turntable Setup Advice

More Advice on Adjusting Anti-skate

I once adjusted my anti-skate while playing this very album, at the time dialing it in to a “T”. Over the years I’ve found that the best test for fine anti-skate adjustment is massed strings, and not just at the end of a side but right at the beginning too.

When you have all the rosiny texture, the high-end harmonic extension, the least shrillness and the widest and deepest staging, you are there, assuming that tracking weight, azimuth and VTA are correct as well.

Four variables to mess with is admittedly a bitch, but having the right record to test with is absolutely critical as well. Maybe we should call it five variables.

And if I only had one record to bring to someone’s house in order to evaluate their equipment, this would certainly be a top choice. If you can make this record sound the way it should, your stereo is cookin’. If you are having problems, this record will show them to you in short order. (more…)

Sergio Mendes And Brasil ’66 / Stillness – (Reversed Phase Copy)

More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Stillness Is a Record We’ve Discovered with (Potentially) Excellent Sound

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

This was a SEALED copy of Stillness, one of my favorite records of all time. Side two of this album is possibly THE MOST MAGICAL side of an album I’ve ever played. I don’t know of any other record like it. It seems to be in a class of its own. It’s my current favorite test disc as well [or was at the time anyway]. All tweaks and equipment changes and room treatments must pass the Stillness test. To fail to make this record sound better is to fail completely. The production is so dense, and so difficult to reproduce properly, that only recently have I begun to hear just how good this record can sound. 

There is still plenty to discover locked in these grooves, and I enthusiastically accept the challenge to find all the sounds that Sergio created in the studio, encoded in this vintage vinyl record all those years ago.

The sound is AMAZING. But only on one condition. You must REVERSE YOUR ABSOLUTE PHASE! I discovered today (1/25/05) this fact and I owe Robert Pincus a debt of gratitude for suggesting it. These stampers have always sounded bright, upper midrangy and aggressive, with congested loud passages and thin bass. I just assumed that it was because of bad mastering. Bad mastering is the rule, not the exception, around here. I play badly mastered records all day long, searching for the exceptional pressings that for reasons unexplained succeeded in capturing the magic of the music in their grooves.

Reversing the absolute phase on this record today was a REVELATION. There before me was all the ambience, openness, sweetness, silkiness and warmth I had come to expect from the Hot Stampers. For the first time, these stampers showed their true colors.

But you need a special key to unlock the magic. You must either switch the positive and negative at the speaker, the amp, or at the head shell leads (which is what I do), or you must have a switch that inverts phase on your preamp. If you can’t do any of those, or are unwilling to do any of those, this is not the record for you.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Making Audio Progress 

Lincoln Mayorga, Pianist – Reverse Your Polarity!

Hot Stamper Pressings of Direct-to-Disc Recordings

Reviews and Commentaries for Direct to Disc Recordings

This IMMACULATE Sheffield Direct-to-Disc LP with Very Little Sign Of Play (VLSOP) is one of the best Sheffields. Lincoln Mayorga is an accomplished classical pianist: this is arguably his best work. (I had a chance to see him perform at a recital of Chopin’s works early in 2010 and he played superbly — for close to two hours without the aid of sheet music I might add.) 

You might want to try reversing the phase when playing this LP; it definitely helps the sound, a subject we discuss below.

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

Reversing the absolute phase on this record recently was quite interesting. The sound of the piano itself was already very good. With the phase reversed what really changed with the sense of space surrounding it, which immediately became much more palpable. The piano, though tonally similar to the way it sounded with the phase left alone, came to life more — more solid and punchy and percussive.

How do you change the absolute phase you ask? You must either switch the positive and negative at the speaker, the amp, or at the head shell leads, or you must have a switch that inverts phase on your preamp or phono stage. (The EAR 324p we use has just such a switch and let me tell you, it comes in very handy in situations like these.) If you can’t do any of those, or are unwilling to do any of those, this record will still sound good. It just won’t sound as good.

Dave Grusin / Discovered Again! – Relax, Stare into the Middle Distance and Listen to the Players as a Group

Hot Stamper Direct-to-Discs Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for More Direct to Disc Recordings

Many years ago we had discussed the polarity issues associated with this record:

According to the liner notes, this album has its polarity reversed. They tell you straight out to reverse the positive and negative at the speaker terminals for the best “transient response and spatial clarity.”

That out of phase quality is as plain as the nose on your face when you know what to listen for. There’s an unpleasant hardness and hollowness to the midrange, a lack of depth, and an off-putting opaque quality to the sound. The top gets dull and the bass gets weird and wonky.

With our EAR 324p phono stage, the click of a button reverses the polarity. I can’t tell you how handy it is to have such a tool at your disposal. Checking the polarity for Discovered Again couldn’t have been easier.

But get this: most side ones are NOT out of polarity. How about them apples! We could not have been more shocked. Here is the most famous reversed polarity audiophile recording in the history of the world, and it turns out most copies are not reversed on side one at all.

Latest Findings

I did not do the shootout for the album, but I wanted to check on the polarity just to hear it for myself. I must admit I had to go back and forth a number of times, using my favorite song on the album and an old Demo track from back in my earliest days in audio, the mid- to late-’70s: Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow.

Harvey Mason’s super punchy drum playing catches your attention right off the back. A tambourine comes along in the left channel at some point. Lots of bass. Rit’s guitar in the right channel and Grusin’s keyboards in the center fill out the soundstage. The ensemble is on fire.

Evaluating the sonic differences of the individual instruments in and out of polarity had me confused. A typical conundrum: Should the tambourine be smoother with more body, or brighter with more harmonic overtones? Which is right? Who can say definitively?

It was only after about fifteen minutes of playing the album, switching the polarity back and forth, that the penny dropped.

Focussed on an individual instrument, I could hear it just fine both ways. But then I noticed that with the polarity reversed the group got vague. The images seemed blurrier, less defined. If I relaxed and just stared into the middle distance and let the music flow, the band seemed to be more jumbled up and messy.

That was the key. The obvious change when the polarity was wrong was a loss of image specificity. Flipping the record over to side two and using my new “lens” to hear the difference with the polarity changed, it was obvious when the polarity was right or wrong.

I have experimented with polarity on scores of records. Certain effects on certain records are unmistakable. But these effects seem to vary a great deal from title to title. Grusin’s brilliant direct to disc recording initially had me at a loss. With a little experimentation, the improvement in the sound with the correct polarity became evident over time, as it always seems to do. Thank god I didn’t have to change speaker leads the way I used to in the old days. (more…)

Helplessly Hoping to Get the VTA Right

More Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

More Commentaries and Letters for So Far

This listing from 2005 (!) contains commentary about VTA adjustment using the track Helplessly Hoping from a Hot Stamper pressing of CSN’s So Far. It would not be long before we went with the much more accurate and revealing 17D, which took us to another level, documented here.

Helplessly Hoping is a wonderful song that has a lot of energy in the midrange and upper midrange which is difficult to get right. Just today (4/25/05) I was playing around with VTA, having recently installed a new Dynavector DV-20x on my playgrading table (a real sweetheart, by the way), and this song showed me EXACTLY how to get the VTA right.

VTA is all about balance. The reason this song is so good for adjusting VTA is that the guitar at the opening is a little smooth and the harmony vocals that come in after the intro can be a little bright. Finding the balance between these two elements is key to getting the VTA adjusted properly.

When the arm is too far down in the back, the guitar at the opening will lose its transparency and become dull and thick. Too high in the back and the vocals sound thin and shrill, especially when the boys all really push their harmony. The slightest change in VTA will noticeably affect that balance and allow you to tune it in just right.

To be successful, however, there are also other conditions that need to be met. The system has to be sounding right, which in my world means good electricity, so make sure you do this in the evening or on a weekend when the electricity is better.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you need a good pressing of this song, and those don’t grow on trees. The vast majority of CSN’s first album and the vast majority of So Far’s are junk. Trying to get them to sound right is impossible, because they weren’t mastered right in the first place. But if you’re one of the lucky few who has a good pressing of Helplessly Hoping, try tweaking your VTA adjustment and see if you aren’t able to dial it in even better than before.

Since the Classic heavy vinyl version is also excellent, it too can be used to set VTA. But of course you are setting VTA for a thicker record, which means you will need to note where the setting is for thick and thin vinyl respectively and make sure that the VTA is correct for each.

As good as the Classic Record is, the guitar at the opening of Helplessly Hoping tells you everything you need to know about what’s missing. The guitar on the Hot Stamper domestic copies has a transparency that cannot be found on Classic’s version. The Classic gets the tonal balance right, but their guitar doesn’t have the subtlety and harmonic resolution of the real thing.

(I’m laboring here to avoid the word detail, since many audiophiles like bright, phony sound because of all the wonderful “detail”. The MOFI guys and the CD guys often fall into this trap. Get the sound tonally balanced first, then see how much detail you have left. Detail is not the end-all and be-all of audio. Those who think it is usually have systems that make my head hurt.)

But most people will never know what they’re missing on Helplessly Hoping, because they will never have an amazing sounding copy of this song. The hot copies are just too rare.


Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular – Our Favorite Record for Cartridge Setup

More Albums by Bob and Ray

More Living Stereo Recordings

More Albums that We Are Obsessed With

Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular just happens to be our favorite Test Disc, eclipsing all others in the areas of naturalness and difficulty of reproduction. Any tweak or new room treatment — we seem to do them almost weekly these days — has to pass one test and one test only — the Bob and Ray Test. 

This record has the power to help you get to the next level in audio like no other. Six words hold the key to better sound: The Song of the Volga Boatman.

For the purpose of mounting new carts, our favorite track is The Song of the Volga Boatman on Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular (LSP 1773). It’s by far the most difficult track we know of to get to sound right.

There are about twenty places in the music that we use as tests, and the right setting is the one that gets the most of them to sound their best. With every change some of the twenty will sound better and some will sound worse. Recognizing when the sound is the biggest, clearest, and most balanced from top to bottom is a skill that has taken me twenty years to acquire.

It’s a lot harder than it looks. The longer you have been in audio the more complicated it seems, which may be counterintuitive but comports well with our day-to-day experience very well.

All our room treatments and tweaks must pass The Bob and Ray Test as well. It’s the one record we have relied on more than any other over the course of the last year or two.

Presenting as it does a huge studio full of brass players, no record we know of is more dynamic or more natural sounding — when the system is working right. When it’s not working right the first thirty seconds is all it takes to show you the trouble you are in.

If you don’t have a record like that in your collection, you need to find one.

It will be invaluable in the long run. The copy we have is so good (White Hot, the best we have ever played), and so important to our operation here, that it would not be for sale at any (well, almost any) price.

The Bob and Ray Trombone / Trumpet Test

One of the key tests on Bob and Ray that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the duet between the trombone and the trumpet about half way through The Song of the Volga Boatman. I have never heard a small speaker reproduce a trombone properly, and when tweaking the system, when the trombone has more of the heft and solidity of the real instrument, that is a tweak we want to pursue. The trumpet interweaving with it in the right rear corner of the studio tests the transients and high frequency harmonics in the same section. With any change to the stereo, both of those instruments are going to sound better. For a change to be positive they must both sound better. (more…)