Lessons Learned from Record Shootouts

Steely Dan / Katy Lied on Japanese Vinyl – If You Are Serious About Audio, You Cop to Your Mistakes

And to think I used to swear by this pressing — specifically the 2000 Yen reissue, not the 1500 Yen original — another example of just how Wrong one can be.

We happily admit to our mistakes because we know that all this audio stuff and especially the search for Hot Stampers is a matter of trial and error. We do the trials; that’s how we avoid the kinds of errors most audiophiles and audiophile record dealers make when it comes to finding the best sounding records. Of course, being human we can’t help but make our share of mistakes. The difference is that we learn from them. We report the facts to the best of our ability every time out.  (more…)

David Bowie – Heroes

Dear Reader,

We have just recently moved our record business to our new Shopify store. None of the links to the old site will work anymore. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to be able to rectify the situation soon. For now please check out Better Records, Mach II, home of the ultimate vinyl pressing, the White Hot Stamper.

Tom Port – Better Records

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  • An outstanding copy of Heroes with solid Double Plus (A++) sound from first note to last
  • This import is ALIVE with musical energy and Tubey Magical Analog sound the likes of which you may never have experienced
  • Until we discovered these amazing British reissues, we had no idea the album could sound as good as it does here
  • 5 stars: “Repeating the formula of Low’s half-vocal/half-instrumental structure, Heroes develops and strengthens the sonic innovations David Bowie and Brian Eno explored on their first collaboration. The vocal songs are fuller, boasting harder rhythms and deeper layers of sound.”

It has taken us years to get this shootout going. The reason for the long delay is simple. The domestic pressings we had on hand to play were not exactly thrilling us and even the best of them are no better than acceptable, and not likely to win a shootout.

Even worse, our intuition that the British originals would sound the best also turned out to be incorrect. (In the audiophile record collecting world intuitions have a bad track record, but more than a few audiophiles — many of whom seem to be addicted to sharing their “record knowledge” on audiophile forums — seem to be unaware of this unassailably true fact.) The original UK Orange Label pressings did not sound especially good to us, so we kept looking.

Over the course of the last few years, during which time we investigated every different pressing we could get our hands on, finally some good sounding copies of the album came our way. And they were not originals. The lucky owner of this copy will be one of the few to know what label the record is on, and in what country it was pressed.

OK, I suppose we can afford to be a bit more charitable than that. Here goes: the one thing we’re pretty clear on from our efforts to date is that our best Hot Stamper offerings are sure to be pressed in the UK.

If you have a copy of this groundbreaking album and were never impressed with the sound of it, we have a potential solution to your predicament — depending on our inventory — a Hot Stamper pressing. It will show you the kind of sound you never knew could exist on Heroes. (more…)

This Is Not a Cheap Hobby If You Want to Do It Right

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Rick sent us a letter recently after having played his first Hot Stamper, the first record he ever bought from us. At $300 it wasn’t exactly cheap, but the best things in life never are, and certainly there is little in the world of audio that’s cheap and of much value.

This is not a cheap hobby if you want to do it right, and even tons of money doesn’t guarantee you will get good sound. It’s far more complicated than that. To quote Winston Churchill, it takes “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Churchill went on to say “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs… Victory, however long and hard the road may be…”

Now, he wasn’t talking about audio, but he could have been, and I certainly am. It takes the serious commitment of resources — money and labor — to get the sound you want. That is the victory I am talking about.

On our Hot Stamper McCartney album, Rick no doubt heard the sound he was looking for — and then some — judging by his letter.

Hi Tom!

Well, I knew you guys were serious upon receiving the LP in 4 layers of wrapping and padding but when I put the disc on I was pretty stunned. Virtually everything was popping and so musical and rich sounding. Nothing like the 3 other pressings I’ve had of this recording in the past, the last of which I actually sailed out the window after 2 minutes of playing.

Every Night just sounds incredible, especially when he drops the bass an octave. And Maybe I’m Amazed gave me goosebumps for the first time since I bought it the week it came out. Also heard something on that track I never did (or could hear) before. During the guitar solo there’s a single high pitched vocal kind of buried in the background. Almost sounds like a mistake, making me think it could be Linda and Paul did what he could. Pretty wild.

My only very slight criticism is there is some surface noise but this is very overshadowed by all the positives. Overall it is superb. Can I give you guys a short list of LPs I’m looking for?

Thanks so much!

Best
Rick M.

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Brewer & Shipley – Tarkio – Do All the Robert Ludwig Mastered Copies Have Hot Stampers?

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Even though all the original Pink Label pressings are mastered by Robert Ludwig, they have a marked tendency to be dull, thick and opaque. The sound is just too smooth. The best copies however have the top end and the transparency to let you hear all the guitar and vocal harmonics, surrounded by the large acoustic of the studio.

This time around we discovered something new: one specific stamper that seemed to be the only one with the potential for an extended top end. This special stamper did not always fare well; some copies with it were mediocre. We have always found this to be the way with the “right” stampers; they often let us down and sometimes they really let us down hard.

But this stamper, when it was right, had an extension on the top that no other copy could match. (The Robert Ludwig mastered Band second albums are the same way. Most have no top but boy, when they do, the magic you hear is phenomenal.) (more…)

After You’ve Played 100 Copies of the Album, What’s Left to Learn?

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A common misconception of many of those visiting the site for the first time is that we think we know it all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We definitely do not know it all. We learn something new about records with practically every shootout.

Case in point: the record you do NOT see pictured above. (The record we recently learned something new about — this, after having played scores and scores of copies over the years — will remain a secret for the time being. At least until we find another one.)

In 2013 we played a red label Columbia reissue of a famous ’60s rock record (again, not shown) that had the best side two we have ever heard. Up to that point no copy other than the 360 original had ever won a shootout, and we’ve done plenty. Lo and behold here was a reissue that put them all to shame.
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This Is the Kind of Thing You Notice When You Play Scores of Copies of the Same Album

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If you have a copy or two laying around, there is a very good chance that side two will be noticeably thinner and brighter than side one. That has been our experience anyway, and we’ve been playing batches of this album for well over a decade. To find a copy with a rich side two is rare indeed.

Most copies lack the top end extension that makes the sound sweet, opens it up and puts air around every instrument. It makes the high hat silky, not spitty or gritty. It lets you hear all the harmonics of the guitars and mandolins that feature so prominently in the mixes.

If you’re looking for a big production pop record that jumps out of your speakers, is full of TUBEY MAGIC, and has consistently good music, look no further.

Until I picked up one of these nice originals I had no idea how amazing the record could sound. For an early ’70s multi-track pop recording it’s about as good as it gets. It’s rich, sweet, open, natural, smooth most of the time — in short, it’s got all the stuff audiophiles like you and me LOVE. (more…)

Ambrosia / Life Beyond L.A. – WW, LW, JW? Which Stampers Sound the Best?

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There’s a unique story behind this title, which goes something like this. I recount it because it’s a classic and hopefully instructive case of Live and Learn.

In 2005 we acquired more than a dozen sealed copies. Knowing that no two of them would sound the same we decided to crack them open, clean them up and play them.

All three of the major stamper prefixes for Warners were represented in the various matrix numbers: WW, JW and LW. As we started to play them it quickly became clear that most copies of this record just do not sound good. The typical copy is hard, midrangy, opaque, dull and sour.

Only one of those prefixes — WW, JW, LW — actually has any hope of sounding good, and surprisingly it’s not the one I would normally expect it to be. Live and learn.

Live and learn indeed. This time those stampers did not sound nearly as good as others, another good reason why there will never be a Book of Hot Stampers, not one written by us anyway.

Like we’ve said in the past, if you think the world is in need of such a book, please do us all a favor and write one. We’ll sit back and take potshots at it. There is no chance in the world it won’t be full of misinformation. Hell, if we wrote it would be full of mistakes too, and we think we know as much about stampers as anybody in the world, and probably more. I ask you, under what circumstances would anyone be in a position to know more than we do? (more…)

Black, Green, Yellow… Which Color Sounds the Best?

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Our Hot Stamper commentary from a recent shootout we had done for the wonderful Helen Humes album Songs I Like to Sing discusses the sonic characteristics we find most commonly associated with the various Contemporary.

This Contemporary Black Label Original LP has that classic tube-mastered sound — warmer, smoother, and sweeter than the later pressings, with more breath of life. Overall the sound is well-balanced and tonally correct from top to bottom, which is rare for a black label Contemporary, as they are usually dull and bass-heavy.

We won’t buy them locally anymore unless they can be returned. I’ve got a box full of Contemporarys with bloated bass and no top end that I don’t know what to do with.

Like most mediocre-to-bad sounding records around here, they just sit in a box taking up space. All of our time and effort goes into putting good pressings on the site and in the mailings. It’s hard to get motivated to do anything with the leftovers. We paid plenty for them, so we don’t want to give them away, but they don’t sound good, so most of our customers won’t buy them. What to do, what to do? Ebay I guess, but that’s a long way down the road. It’s too much fun doing listings for good records these days to want to stop now. The average record is just average, and nothing is ever going to change that!

We shot this out against a variety of later pressings. The Black Label copies have a bit of echo added to the vocals and have the attributes listed above — warmth, sweetness, presence, and immediacy. The later pressings offer superior clarity and resolution. I wouldn’t say one is necessarily better than the other; it’s really more a matter of taste. (more…)

Cat Stevens Asks How Do You Like Your Congas: Light, Medium or Heavy?

 

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During the shootout for this record a while back we made a very important discovery, a seemingly obvious one but one that nevertheless had eluded us for the past twenty plus years (so how obvious could it have been?). It became clear, for the first time, what accounts for the wide disparity in ENERGY and DRIVE from one copy to the next. We can sum it up for you in one five letter word, and that word is conga.

The congas are what drive the high-energy songs, songs like Tuesday’s Dead and Changes IV. Here is how we stumbled upon their critically important contribution.

We were listening to one of the better copies during a recent shootout. The first track on side one, The Wind, was especially gorgeous; Cat and his acoustic guitar were right there in the room with us. The transparency, tonal neutrality, presence and all the rest were just superb. Then came time to move to the other test track on side one, which is Changes IV, one of the higher energy songs we like to play.

But the energy we expected to hear was nowhere to be found. The powerful rhythmic drive of the best copies of the album just wasn’t happening. The more we listened the more it became clear that the congas were not doing what they normally do. The midbass to lower midrange area of the LP lacked energy, weight and power, and this prevented the song from coming to LIFE the way the truly Hot Stampers can and do.

Big Speakers

For twenty years Tuesday’s Dead has been one of my favorite tracks for demonstrating what The Big Speaker Sound is all about. Now I think I better understand why. Big speakers are the only way to reproduce the physical size and tremendous energy of the congas (and other drums of course) that play such a big part in driving the rhythmic energy of the song.

In my experience no six inch woofer — or seven, or eight, or ten even — gets the sound of the conga right, from bottom to top, drum to skin. No screen can do it either. It’s simply a sound that large dynamic drivers reproduce well and other speaker designs do not reproduce so well.

Since this is one of my favorite records of all time, a true Desert Island Disc, I would never want to be without a pair of big speakers to play it, because those are the kinds of speakers that play it well. (more…)

Ambrosia and Its Elusive Hot Stamper Pressings – “Press On!”

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Sage Advice from Calvin Coolidge

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”Calvin Coolidge

If you substitute “finding Hot Stamper pressings” for the words “the human race” you will surely appreciate the point of this commentary.

Our story today revolves around the first Hot Stamper listing we have ever done for Ambrosia’s second — and second best — album. It took us a long time to find the right pressing. Do you, or any of the other audiophiles you know, keep buying the same album over and over again year after year in hopes of finding a better sounding copy? We do — have been for more than twenty years as a matter of fact — and here’s why.

Around 2007 I stumbled upon the Hot Stampers for this record — purely by accident of course, there’s almost no other way to do it — and was shocked — shocked — to actually hear INTO the soundfield of the recording for the first time in my life, this after having played copy after frustratingly opaque copy for roughly thirty years.

Yes, the stereo got better and that helped a lot. Everything else we talk about helped too. But ultimately it came down to this: I had to find the right copy of the record. Without the right record it doesn’t matter how good your stereo is, you still won’t have good sound. Either the playback source has it or it doesn’t.

It’s not what’s on the master tape that matters; it’s what’s on the record. (more…)