Record Playing Advice

Sometimes the Most Fundamental Questions in Audio Are Simply Overlooked

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This commentary is about two things — knowing the kind of music you like, and getting the kind of sound you want.

If you believe what you read on the various sites where audiophiles freely dispense advice about everything under the sun regarding music, recordings and equipment, you are asking for trouble and you are surely going to get it. You will encounter an endless supply of half-truths, untruths and just plain nonsense, more often than not defended tooth and nail by those with typing skills but not much enthusiasm for the tedium of tweaking and critical listening. 

What kind of equipment are these people using? How deep is their experience in audio? Truth be told, I was pretty misguided myself during the first ten (or twenty, gulp) years I spent in audio, reading the magazines (I still have my Stereophiles and Absolute Sounds from the ’70s in boxes in the garage), traipsing from stereo store to stereo store, trying to figure out what constituted Good Sound so that I could manage to get my own equipment to produce something like the best I heard.

Most of the time what I heard made me want nothing to do with that kind of sound.

Questions

I sympathize with those who have trouble making sense of this hobby. It can be very confusing, especially to the neophyte. It takes a long time (with plenty of effort and money expended along the way) to be able to answer some of the most fundamental (and most often overlooked) questions in audio:

1) What kind of music do you like?

2) What kind of sound do you prefer?

Armed with answers to the above two, the next question to be asked is:

3) What equipment will best be able to give you the sound you prefer on the music you like, within the limits of your budget, room, Wife Acceptance Factor, etc.

If you haven’t been doing this audio stuff for at least ten years you probably don’t know the answers to those last two questions. In other words, you still have a lot to learn. (I know people who have been doing it for far longer than that and still don’t have a clue.) I may not have all the answers, but after being in audio for more than thirty years, about half of that full-time (full-time being sixty to seventy-plus hours a week), I can say without embarrassment that I have some of them. And for the most part I got them the old-fashioned way: I earned them.

Do You Like Rock Music?

Then make sure you buy speakers that can play rock music.

Don’t buy screens, panels or little boxes with subs.

They may be cheap, they may have pretty good Wife Acceptance Factor, but they do a piss-poor job of playing rock music, so do yourself a favor and avoid them. Rock needs dynamic drivers, the more the better and the bigger the better. There is no substitute for piston power when you want to rock.

When you walk into your audio showroom and for your budget they show you a little two-way box with a six or eight or even ten inch woofer, walk out and go somewhere else. Find another way. That speaker won’t play the music you love, not properly anyway. It cannot do the job you need it to do, and that makes it mostly a waste of money.

Teach Yourself

So how do you learn about all this stuff?

Audio friends and fellow travelers can be very helpful. You might also get some tips and ideas from magazines and websites.

But ultimately it’s up to you to teach yourself. Much of the commentary on the site has to do with the real nuts and bolts of the recordings we review — exactly what to listen for, precisely which sonic strengths and weaknesses can be found in which songs, and the like. This is what we listened for, it’s how we separated the wheat from the chaff, and we offer it on the site as a guide to help you recreate the very same magic on your own stereo in your own home.

There are scores of pages of this kind of commentary throughout the site. We even created a special section for some of it, called Audio and Playback Advice with another group of links to Home Audio Exercises.

Why Do We Bother?

What other record dealer on the planet would bother? But we do it for a reason. We charge a lot of money for our best LPs. We want to help you understand and appreciate what makes our pressings special, so that when you buy them, you do so secure in the knowledge that the price will be more than justified by the quality of the sound when you get it home. Ultimately the records must speak for themselves. If we are going to charge hundreds and hundreds of dollars for fairly common rock records like After the Gold Rush or Rumours, those records better deliver, and deliver in a big way.

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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Paganini / Violin Concertos 1 & 2 / Menuhin – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

More of the music of Niccolò Paganini

Violin Concerto 1 & 2 / Menuhin

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

Another remarkable Demo Disc from the Golden Age of recording, in this case 1961, with the benefit of more modern mastering from the ’70s, a combination that works wonders on this title, as you will hear from both of these White Hot sides.

The sound is so transparent, undistorted, three-dimensional and REAL, without any sacrifice in solidity, richness or Tubey Magic, that we knew we had our shootout winner with this copy.

It simply could not be beat: no other copy excelled in so many areas of reproduction whilst striking the ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. (more…)

10cc – Deceptive Bends – A Tough Test for Sibilance

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More Deceptive Bends

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you go about critically evaluating your copies of Deceptive Bends.

On side two the tonal balance is especially critical. Any boost to the top end will cause the vocals on the second track to SPIT LIKE CRAZY. This is a good test for how well your cartridge and arm are doing their jobs. 

Sibilance is a bitch. The best pressings, with the most extension up top and the least amount of aggressive grit and grain mixed in with the music, played using the highest quality properly set up front ends, will keep siblilance to a minimum.

VTA, tracking weight, azimuth and anti-skate adjustments are critical to reducing the spit in your records. (more…)

Joni Mitchell – Blue – Rhino / Warners Reviewed

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More Blue

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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.

Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace – A Bit of Experimentation with VTA Can Really Pay Off

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More Amazing Grace

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This is a handy record for VTA setup, a subject we discuss at length below.

On the better copies Aretha’s vocals are as dynamic as any you will ever hear, and unlike all the records she did with Tom Dowd, her voice never breaks up on this record. If you have big speakers that can play at loud levels, with the right volume level you can really get Aretha to belt it out like nothing you have ever heard. 

Like most modern churches, the kind that have upholstered pews and lots of carpeting, the natural reverberation of the sound isn’t as pronounced as it would be were the recording taking place in a 16th century cathedral. (more…)

Grieg / Peer Gynt / Fjeldstad / LSO – Speakers Corner Reviewed / VTA Advice

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Sonic Grade: C+

The Fjeldstad has long been one of our favorite performances of Peer Gynt here at Better Records. 

This record is handy for VTA set-up as well, a subject discussed below in our listing from 2010.

The sound is excellent for a modern reissue*, but in the loudest sections the orchestra can get to be a bit much, taking on a somewhat harsh quality. (The quieter passages are superb: sweet and spacious.)

So I adjusted the VTA a bit to see what would happen, and was surprised to find that even the slightest change in VTA caused the strings to lose practically all their rosiny texture and become unbearably smeared.

This is precisely why it’s a good heavy vinyl recording for setting up your turntable. If you can get the strings to play with reasonably good texture on this record you probably have your VTA set correctly. (more…)

Brahms, Handel, Chopin – Lincoln Mayorga, Pianist – Reverse Your Polarity!

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More Direct to Disc recordings

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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 another 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.

Helplessly Hoping to Get the VTA Right

More Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

More VTA Adjustment

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This listing from 2005 (!) contains commentary about VTA adjustment using the track Helplessly Hoping from a Hot Stamper pressing of CSN’s So Far. 

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. (more…)

VTA Adjustment on Crosby Stills and Nash – Using the Classic Records Heavy Vinyl LP

More Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

More VTA Adjustment

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This listing contains commentary about VTA adjustment for 200 gram vinyl, using the CSN track Helplessly Hoping. 

Helplessly Hoping is a wonderful song with plenty of energy in the midrange and upper midrange area 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. (more…)