*Experimenting with Records

Your Shootout Questions Answered – Part Two

More of the Music of The Rolling Stones

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Robert Brook wrote to me recently with some questions about shootouts.

I answered most of them in Part One of this commentary. Here are the questions he posed that remain to be answered.

[I]f you put a shootout together of [redacted stamper] pressings and whatever else you like, does every copy in the shootout grade at least A++ / A++? Are the right stampers that reliable?

I guess I’ve always assumed that even if you put together a shootout with this or any other title, and even if you only include pressings that have won or placed high in the past, at least a couple of them would end up graded no higher than A+ or A+ to A++.

And if that is correct, wouldn’t it be worth buying more UK TML’s to see if any emerge that could win a shootout?

With Revolver, for instance, why not just do shootouts with [the best stampers] if those are the ones that win the shootouts? Why even bother with [later pressings]?


First Question

If I may paraphrase, you’re asking, “do the right stampers always get good grades?”

Yes, almost always. It’s rare for any original Sticky Fingers with the right stampers to earn less than a 2+ grade on either side.

This was not always the case. In the early 2000s, we tried and failed more than once to do a shootout for Sticky Fingers. We just could not get the records clean enough. They were noisy and distorted. (Yes, some of the congestion and distortion you hear on old records is simply grunge in the grooves.)

In 2007 we discovered the Walker Record Cleaning System and started using it in combination with a much more sophisticated machine, the Odyssey. As we refined our cleaning techniques, records like Sticky Fingers got a lot quieter and a lot better sounding. Our first shootout occurred soon thereafter.

I still have the ratings for some of those older shootouts saved on a spreadsheet. Even as late as 2016, there were copies with sides that earned grades of 1+ and 1.5+. That would never happen now.

We’ve made so many improvements to our playback system and room that you might say that “no copy gets left behind.” The wrong stampers, sure, they can disappoint. But it’s been a long time since the right ones did.

In those years, we were just catching on to the fact that blaming the record for the sonic problems we might be hearing was a loser’s game. The better our system got, the fewer problems the records we played seemed to have, a subject we discussed in this commentary for Led Zeppelin IV:

Some Led Zeppelin II’s with RL in the dead wax earn grades of 2+, and those are very disappointing grades considering how much we pay for those copies, often over $1000 and sometimes close to $1500. But an RL-mastered pressing earning less than 2+ is just not in the cards. Sure, an uncleaned one could easily grade out to that, or worse. One that was improperly cleaned could even sound terrible. We’ve had records cleaned by so-called experts that made them sound like CDs. I guess that’s the sound they were going for: quiet and unmusical.

Second Question

With Revolver, for instance, why not just do shootouts with [redacted numbers] if those are the ones that win the shootouts? Why even bother with [later pressings]?

The stampers that tend to win shootouts are hard to find. With only the “right” stampers, it might take us 18 to 24 months to find enough clean copies with which to do a shootout. These days we do Revolver twice a year, at least, and this makes our customers happy, because everybody deserves a chance to own a killer copy of Revolver.

As for the others, there are many reasons we bother with pressings we know can’t win a shootout. As I said in Part One, if the Mastering Lab-cut copies were plentiful and cheap, we would probably put some of them in shootouts. If enough earned good grades, 2+ let’s say, then the time and effort to clean and play them might very well be justified. If too many earned grades of 1.5+, that would not be the case. We would be wasting time better spent on pressings we know to have more potential, a classic case of opportunity costs.

Our customers expect to be knocked out by the sound of our Hot Stamper pressings, and 1.5+ records are rarely going to result in a knockout.

Now in the case of Revolver, some of the UK pressings that will never win a shootout can still earn 2+ most of the time. They are also cheap to find and usually are in very clean condition.

One More Reason

We like to put them in shootouts for the obvious reasons — cheap, plentiful, quiet — as well as one other reason which we only came to appreciate over a much longer period of time.

If I were to play nothing but the one or two stampers that always win shootouts, how would I know what the average UK vintage pressing sounds like? How would I know what the typical audiophile is hearing on his copy of Revolver, even if he’s knowledgable enough to stick with vintage Parlophone pressings?

We need “good, not great” copies to create a baseline, and to show us where the difficult passages may be on any given track.

What does the guitar solo on Taxman sound like most of the time?

How harsh is She Said, She Said as a rule?

We need to know these things and dozens of others.

One of the things White Hot Shootout Winning pressings do is solve all the problems heard on the other copies.

If you don’t hear the other copies, you might mistakenly assume that they have no real problems, or few anyway. Playing the second- and third-rate pressings is what allows you to hear what makes them second- and third-rate.

Once we know the aspects of the mix they have struggled to reproduce correctly, we then compare them to our top copies. This shows us exactly what makes the top copies first-rate. They’re the ones that get everything — or nearly everything — right.

Robert, the records we sent you to play in your Revolver shootout had all been cleaned, and they all graded at least 1.5+. They were all at least very good sounding.

We could have sent you some real dogs to play, just so that you could see how bad some copies of Revolver can sound.

Any of the Heavy Vinyl pressings, in stereo or mono, would have served the purpose. Any original with -1 stampers, in stereo or mono, would have made clear to you that it’s easy to screw up the mastering of Revolver. We could have sent you the MoFi pressing from 1983. We could have sent you some German pressings, or Japanese pressings, or domestic pressings.

Those other pressings would have helped you grade the good UK copies you played on a more realistic scale.

We played all those other kinds of copies years ago and have never felt the need to revisit them. That’s why we didn’t have a wider selection of pressings to send you. We had only the ones we knew to be good, and that’s what you played and that’s why so many got such good grades.

I hope this answers your questions. If any others occur to you, feel free to write and I will do my best to respond to them.

Best, TP

Further Reading

Your Shootout Questions Answered

More of the Music of The Rolling Stones

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Robert Brook wrote to me recently with some questions.

Hi Tom,

I read your recent post about Sticky Fingers and the European TML reissues you included in shootouts.

It raised a question for me that I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while now.

The fact that the UK TML earned an A+ to A++ grade and that, with just a one copy sample, you wouldn’t consider that pressing to have shootout winning potential, suggests to me that the US pressings you favor will grade at A++ or higher.

In other words, if you put a shootout together of [redacted stamper] pressings and whatever else you like, does every copy in the shootout grade at least A++ / A++? Are the right stampers that reliable?

I guess I’ve always assumed that even if you put together a shootout with this or any other title, and even if you only include pressings that have won or placed high in the past, at least a couple of them would end up graded no higher than A+ or A+ to A++.

And if that is correct, wouldn’t it be worth buying more UK TML’s to see if any emerge that could win a shootout?

With Revolver, for instance, why not just do shootouts with [redacted numbers] if those are the ones that win the shootouts? Why even bother with [later pressings]?


All good questions! I could go on for days with this kind of inside baseball stuff. I’ve been living it full time for more than twenty years, and it obviously interests you because you are actually trying to hone your shootout skills and figure out how many of what pressings you need to get one going, etc., etc.

Not many others are doing what you are doing in a serious way, so how helpful anyone will find this information is hard to know. Under the circumstances, I should have kept my answers shorter rather than longer but I could not resist going into more detail than might have been advisable. Feel free to skim if you like.

Why not put more TML pressings into shootouts?

If they had pressed plenty of them and they’d ended up sitting in record bins all over town for twenty bucks a pop, we could get a bunch in and see if we could figure which stampers, if any, are able to reach the Super Hot stamper level.

Instead, they are expensive imports that cost as much or more than the copies that we buy with shootout winning stampers. Some audiophiles mistakenly think that they are much better sounding than we they actually are, an error in judgment which has a number of knock-on effects.

One, it raises the prices for these pressings far beyond what they would otherwise be if only these individuals were able to clean and play them the way we do.

The best early domestic pressings of the album are night and day better sounding.

If you think The Mastering Lab pressings are competitive with the right originals, you could not possibly have heard one of our shootout winning pressings. There is no contest. Why would we waste any money on them?

Two, we don’t carry water for these audiophile record reviewers. They think they know a lot more than they do. They clearly have no idea how to do the work that it takes to find the best sounding pressings.

We do not respect the opinions of those who have little understanding of records and their pressing variations. The faulty conclusions they invariably arrrive at lack evidentiary support because they don’t know how to do what we do and can’t be bothered to learn.

Amazing Originals

Regardless of what these folks believe, by now we’ve heard dozens and dozens of amazing originals. This made us extremely skeptical that any other mastering house could compete with the right original’s sound. It was just too good.

We’re not always correct about these things. We were dead wrong about a couple of famous Pink Floyd albums from the “wrong” country that we’d heard good things about. They have been winning shootouts for many years now. Live and learn.

In this case we simply did our due diligence. We got a couple of candidates in, cleaned them up and played them, so that we could know what we were talking about, with evidence to back up what we say. Beyond that we quickly lost interest.

And, finally, shootouts are tedious and difficult. They require a great deal of mental concentration, which quickly becomes fatiguing and is often frustrating.

However, great sounding records are a positive thrill to play. The more potentially great sounding copies there are in a shootout, the more fun that shootout is likely to be.

Playing too many mediocre copies bogs down and drags out the proceedings, and the TML pressings of Sticky Fingers are not much better than mediocre. They may impress some audiophiles — this is not hard to do, audiophiles in general seem to us much too easily impressed — but after playing scores of copies over the last twenty years, we’re pretty sure we know Sticky Fingers about as well as anyone can know it.

The Evolution of Generalities

The right stampers on the right UK Island labels always win the shootouts for our two most popular Cat Stevens titles, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat.

Although the domestic copies are cut by Lee Hulko, on the same lathe, from the same tape, they may do well, but they never win shootouts up against the best UK pressings.

In 2006 we had an incomplete understanding of the album. We didn’t know it at the time, but we still had a lot more R&D to do. Dozens of shootouts later, using blind testing, the exact same stampers win each and every shootout we do.

If using scientific methods gives you predictable results, you must be on to something that is fundamentally true of reality.

For this reason, we don’t do shootouts for these two titles until we have acquired a preponderance of clean UK copies with the right stampers. Sure, we put other pressings in the shootout to fill out the numbers, but we must have a sufficient number of pressings with shootout winning potential, and not too many of those without it, before we would want to get a shootout going.

One Stamper Rule

There are scores of records that we play that have one specific set of stampers that always win.

Fragile is one. We cannot do the shootout for Fragile until we find enough clean copies with precisely the right stampers. (And no, they’re not A. If you think they’re A, you have never bought one of White Hot shootout winners. They are never A.)

There was a three year period (2017 to 2020) in which we didn’t do a shootout for Deja Vu because we simply could not find enough copies in clean condition with the right stampers. Knowing the right stampers doesn’t do you any good if you can’t track them down.

Kind of Blue is a shootout we would never do without a least a few clean 6-Eye Stereo pressings, as well as some 360s and the one stamper on the 70s Red Label that we like (which is the hardest of all of them to find). We don’t do Kind of Blue nearly as often as we would like because none of the pressings we need for our shootouts is all that common in audiophile playing condition.

Our last shootout for John Barleycorn took place in 2019. We finally managed to do it again just this week. Yes, it takes four years to find enough of the right stampers to do some titles, Barleycorn among them.

Do the right stampers always get good grades?


Where Can I Find Your Hot Stamper Beatles Pressings in Mono?

Hot Stamper Pressings of Rubber Soul

Reviews and Commentaries for Rubber Soul

One of our good customers had a question about our Hot Stampers recently:

I notice you don’t mention whether the Beatles recordings are stereo or mono. The rubber soul that just arrived is stereo. I’m guessing that the one I reordered is also stereo.

Do you guys stock the mono versions? Do you say on the site when something is mono. Let me know, as I like mono versions too.

I was close with Geoff Emerick and he always stressed to me that they spent tons of time on the mono mixes and not much on the stereos (up through Revolver). So let me know if/when you have mono for Rubber Soul and Revolver and perhaps I can snatch them up.



All our records are stereo unless we specifically mention otherwise, as are our Beatles records.

We never sell Beatles records in mono, ever. Here is a little something I wrote about it: Revolver in Disgraceful Mono

They spent time on the mono mixes because getting the levels right for all the elements in a recording is ten times harder than deciding whether an instrument or voice should be placed in the left, middle or right of the soundstage.

And they didn’t even do the stereo mixes right some of the time, IMHO.

But wall to wall beats all stacked up in the middle any day of the week in my book.

If you like mono Beatles records you will have to do your own shootouts, sorry!

Best, TP

  Hey Tom, 

Very interesting info on the Mono Beatles. I’ve never had the opportunity to play any early stereo pressings against the monos. Thanks for the opinion. I looked over the versions of the Beatles albums I bought that you are replacing for me and I noticed that they are 4th or 5th pressings.

Do you find that era better than first or second pressings (in general) or is it just a price and condition thing. Just curious. I’m new to higher end collecting and looking for an expert opinion (which clearly you are!). I’m excited to hear the better versions you’re sending me.



Some of the best pressings, but not all the best pressings, were cut by Harry Moss in the ’70s, on much better transistor mastering equipment than they had in the ’60s, and that is part of the reason why some of them sound so much better than most of the earlier pressings.

But plenty of what Moss cut does not sound good, so searching out his versions may be helpful but not as helpful as most audiophiles and record collectors would like to believe it is.

It’s what scientists and historians refer to as “the illusion of knowledge.” It prevents you from understanding what is really going on with records.

This accounts for the posts on virtually every internet thread and every comments section where audiophiles can be found. These are people who think they know a lot more than they do, and therefore have no need to do the work it takes to find out more, because they already know it.

A Mr Dunning and a Mr Kruger wrote about it here, and it should be well worth your time to read.

Best, TP


We Get Letters – Do the “Wrong Stampers” Sometimes Win Shootouts?

mendestill_depth_1102533608More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Soren has some questions about shootouts and our White Hot Stamper pressing of Stillness. His questions are indented, our answers are not.


Does it ever bug you to realize, maybe one or two years down the road and with (as Tom mentions) better playback/cleaning technology, that stampers which you dismissed in a shootout turn out to win the next one, meaning that you could have let many possible hot stampers go?


We talk about that a bit here:

But being bugged by it does no good. It is a reality that must be accepted.

Because we know how easy it is to be wrong, or, more precisely, to not know everything we would like to know, we never stop doing Research and Development for the titles we sell.

We tell people all the time, go play your heavy vinyls and half-speeds that you haven’t played recently. If you’ve made improvements to your system, they will often start to show themselves to be not as good sounding as you remember, and that means you are making progress.

I was actually reaching out to you to inquire whether the super hot Sergio Mendes Stillness that I bought from you a couple of years ago is the version with the phase reversed on side 2?

I ask because I don’t recall a phase issue on this specific title was ever mentioned on your site back when I bought it (i would have remembered, I think) so maybe you only found out recently?

Side 1 on the record sounds better to me than side 2. The matrix on this side 2 ends in “M3”.

Both M2 and M3 are in correct polarity. M3 used to win shootouts by the way. For the longest time, at least ten years, I thought M3 was the ultimate side two.

Having done many, many shootouts since then, along with making many changes to everything involving the cleaning and playing of records, we believe Super Hot (2+) is about the highest grade any M stamper can earn.

The fact that you like an M2 pressing better than the Hot Stamper you bought from us is not a polarity issue. It is most probably a system-dependent issue.

Your stereo is different from ours. Our stereo probably would prefer the M3 we sent you, and your stereo likes the M2 you have. It’s really not much more complicated than that.

Finally concerning this magic Stillness white hot stamper (and don’t worry, I am not going to ask you which one it is because you wouldn’t tell me, and you shouldn’t, because it’s a trade secret that you worked hard for and besides I am probably better off with my own super hot copy where I don’t have to bother about that phase issue on side 2).

But out of curiosity: Has this “magic” stamper/pressing turned out to be great on other Sergio Mendes records also (and thereby defied your previous knowledge and caused you to evaluate your game on those titles also), or was it simply a magical one-off revelation with Stilness?

Part of the reason we were wrong about Stillness is that the best copies broke the rule we tend to use about stampers for A&M albums. In this case, the “wrong” stampers turned out to be the best! The stampers we tend to like for most A&M records, the “right stampers,” are not the ones that currently win shootouts.

But that’s what shootouts are for, so that we take our biases and previous judgments out of the search and just go with what actually does sound the best.

How beautiful actually, that the “wrong” stampers turned out to be the best on this one title. Records are nice that way. You must always keep on your toes. Thank you for taking the time to answer my three questions.

Best regards,


Staying on your toes is indeed the name of the game when it comes to records. With every change to your system, the record you used to like the best could turn out to be second-rate compared to the record you used to think was second-rate but is now first-rate.

This, of course, drives most audiophiles crazy, so they ignore or downplay the possibility.

Being in the shootout business means we have no way to avoid these realities, which is why it is so easy for us to accept them.

The amateurs and professionals alike who review records for audiophiles want there to be clear-cut answers for every album they write about. Uncertainty and trade-offs upset them no end.

We recognized twenty years ago that the empirical pursuit of record knowledge, practiced scientifically, must be fundamentally Incomplete, Imperfect, and Provisional, and that is never going to change no matter how upsetting anyone may find it.

Thanks very much for writing.


Stevie Wonder on Heavy Vinyl – Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

More of the Music of Stevie Wonder

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

This commentary was written more than ten years ago. I’ve just gone to this reviewer’s website to make sure the quote below is accurate, and everything you need to see is still up and as misguided as ever.

Some audiophiles never learn, and a great deal of this blog is devoted to helping audiophiles avoid the errors this reviewer and others like him have been making for decades. In the mid-90s I wrote my first commentary about the awful audiophile records this person had raved about in a review printed in one of the audiophile rags. In the years since it seems that nothing has changed. Bad sounding audiophile pressings make up the bulk of this person’s favorable reviews to this day.

How it is possible to spend so much time doing something yet learn so little in the process? It is frankly beyond me.

I put the question to you again:

Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

How on Earth could anyone possibly know such a thing?

Some background. Years ago our first Hot Stamper shootout for Songs in the Key of Life had us enthusiastically singing its praises:

HOT STAMPERS DISCOVERED for one of the funkiest and most consistent double albums of all time! It’s beyond difficult to find great sounding Stevie Wonder vinyl, but here’s a copy that proves it’s possible if you try hard enough. So many copies are terrible in so many different ways — we should know, we played them. And just to be clear, this copy is far from perfect as well, but it did more things right in more places than we ever expected it would or could. And that means it showed us a great sounding Stevie Wonder record we never knew existed.

But a well known reviewer says it’s a bad recording. Does he know something we don’t?

Not exactly. The fact is he doesn’t know something we do, something he, like anybody else, could have found out had he simply done more homework than he was willing to do. (We call them shootouts, but homework is certainly a serviceable and in some ways even more accurate description: it’s work and you do it at home.)

All it takes is one good copy to falsify the assertion this fellow makes. We in fact found more than one. But I’m quite sure we do things very differently at Better Records than they do at any reviewer’s digs, including this reviewer’s basement lair.

As you may know, a few years back he got in a bit of a dust-up over his initially negative review (since revised, a story in itself) of the Speakers Corner pressing of the album. We found it refreshing for this reviewer to be making critical comments about an in-print heavy vinyl reissue, but he eventually warmed somewhat to the sound of the record after hearing from the mastering engineer. We honestly don’t care all that much about any of it, but we couldn’t help but notice this paragraph in his review:

As with many productions of the era, there was a noticeable decrease in sound quality on this album compared to earlier Wonder releases, though no doubt the engineers thought they were making better sound here with “more”: more compression, more use of effects, more tracks and newer, more complex boards, but what was really happening was less transparency, diminished dynamics, narrower and flatter soundstages and especially less extension. This production sounds closed in, distant and listless. Bass lacks real thrust and extension and there’s little shimmer from the cymbals. “Boxy” is the operative adjective.

Really? I wonder how many different pressings this fellow evaluated before reaching his conclusions. He certainly couldn’t have heard one that sounded like the one we played. All four sides were transparent and dynamic, and I’d certainly never characterize any of them as flat, distant, listless or closed in.

And boxy? Not a chance. And we certainly have no trouble recognizing boxy sound when we hear it.

I will concede that many copies of this record would benefit from more extension up top, but that still leaves this person with a batting average low enough to have him surfing the pine on just about any softball team he cared to join.

Our Hot Stamper Copy From Way Back Proves It

Sides one and four both earned very good grades. The sound is richer, sweeter, and fuller than what we heard elsewhere. Many copies we played had a phony hi-fi quality that drove us crazy, but the sound here is exceedingly natural. We also heard a ton of copies that added a nasty bite to Stevie’s vocal; I’m pleased to say that’s not an issue here. Both of these sides are positively brimming with energy, so don’t let anyone tell you that the production is listless. It might sound that way on a typical copy, but not even close on this one.

Sides two and three are darn good as well. Side two could stand to be a bit more open and side three could use a little more top end, but they’re still miles ahead of the sound on most copies out there.

Both sides have excellent presence and lovely texture to the vocals.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stampers

This reviewer and anyone else who thinks this is not a well-recorded album is making one or more of the following mistakes:

1.) Not playing enough copies to find a good one.
2.) Not cleaning the copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.
3.) Not playing them back properly.
4.) Not listening to them critically.

To find and appreciate Hot Stampers you have to do all four. We discuss each and every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this very site. None of this should come as news to anyone by now.

If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the small number of pressings you might have at your disposal, but the actual recording that they are made from — you have to do your homework, and you have to do it much more thoroughly than most audiophiles (including the one quoted) seem to think is necessary.

Wrong? Welcome to the Club

He keeps coming up with the wrong answer, but so would we if we couldn’t find enough copies, clean them right, play them right, or listen critically to them on an accurate, highly-resolving stereo.

And here’s how we know that the above statement is true. 

We used to not do it this way, and we were pretty much in agreement with this fellow about the sound of the album.

We would have described the sound using terms not that different from the ones he used.

Through most of the 80s and 90s, I too was a one-man band, and I was wrong about a great many recordings, for reasons blindingly obvious to me now.

I simply did not have the resources to clean and play enough copies of a given album to make accurate judgments about their sound. Small sample sizes dramatically increase the probability of a misjudgment being made, especially when you are working with sample sizes of one or two. You need five copies at a minimum, and ten is better.

And that assumes you are playing copies with potential for top quality sound, which on this title would mean no Japanese pressings, no imports from other countries, and no later reissues. None of those would ever have a chance of winning a shootout.

So you would need to plan on having five or ten good vintage pressings to clean and play. (67, however, is way too many. Three days is a long time to play the same album, no matter how good an album it is.)

How It Used to Be

It’s an open question as to whether we could have played Songs in the Key of Life properly ten years ago. I have my doubts. But the good news in audio is that things change. It’s amazing how many records that used to sound bad now sound pretty darn good. The blog is full of commentaries about them. Every one of them is proof that comments about recordings are of limited value.

The recordings don’t change. Our ability to find, clean and play the pressings made from them does, and that’s what the Hot Stamper Revolution is all about.

You have a choice. You can choose to go with this reviewer’s approach, which is in fact the approach that most audiophiles tend to use. Then it’s simply a matter of accepting that many “recordings” don’t live up to your standards. Prepare to allot a fair amount of time to complaining about such an unfortunate state of affairs.

Follow Us

Or you can follow our approach and hear those very same albums sound much better than you ever thought possible. This has the added benefit of freeing up time that would normally be spent bitching about the bad sound of some album, which in turn makes more time available for pleasurable listening to the actual record you got from us.

You also probably won’t feel the need to go on audiophile forums to argue the merits of this or that pressing. You will already own the pressing that settles the argument.

Keep in mind that your pressing only settles the argument for you; nobody else will believe it. And why should they? They have never heard your copy. It would take quite a leap of faith to believe that your copy sounds so much better than the one they own, when the one they own looks just like it. But this is precisely what Hot Stampers are all about. Records may look the same but if your equipment is any good they sure don’t sound the same.

What We Offer

Unfortunately we can’t do it all for you. Most of what is important in audio you have to learn to do for yourself. We can find you the best sounding pressings; that’s the easy part. Figuring out how to play them, and learning how to critically listen to them, well, that’s a fair bit harder. That part takes a lifetime. At least.

This hobby is supposed to be fun; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But if you enjoy doing it at least some of the time, and you make a good effort, and devote the proper resources to it, you will no doubt take enormous pleasure from it.

You won’t be bitching about the sound of Songs in the Key of Life like most audiophiles and those who write for them. You will instead be enjoying the sound of Songs in the Key of Life like those of us here at Better Records.

And One More Thing

Speakers Corner says they make all their records from original master tapes. No one should believe them without proof, especially since proof would be so easy to supply. Put a picture of the master tape boxes on your website for all to see. When they show you those pictures, then you can believe it. Until then I would be highly skeptical. Labels lie about these things all the time, and I see no reason to believe Speakers Corner is any more careful with the truth than the other companies producing reissues.


To Find the Most Elusive Hot Stamper Records, “Press On!”

ambrosiasomewhereMore of the Music of Ambrosia

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Ambrosia

“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 had 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…)

The Rolling Stones – Valuable Lessons We Learned in 2011 and 2016

More of the Music of The Rolling Stones

More Lessons Learned from Record Experiments 

Presenting a classic case of Live and Learn.

We would agree with very little of what we had to say about Goat’s Head Soup as a recording when we wrote about it back in 2011 — and for the previous 35+ years since I first played a domestic original. (Turns out the imports are no good either.)

Having done a big shootout for the album in 2016, we now know that there most certainly are great sounding pressings to be found, because we found some. We broke through.

The data are in, and now we know just how wrong we were.

In our defense, let me just ask one question: Did anybody else know this record was well recorded? I can find no evidence to support anyone having ever taken such a contrarian position.

But we’re taking that position now. All it takes is one great sounding copy to show you the error of your ways, and we had more than one.

Here’s what we had to say back in 2011. After having played dozens of copies and never hearing the record sound more than passable, can you blame us?


Cat Stevens Wants to Know How You Like Your Congas: Light, Medium or Heavy?

More of the Music of Cat Stevens

More Reviews and Commentaries for Teaser and the Firecat

During the shootout for this record a while back [the late 2000s would be my guess], 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.

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 only kinds of speakers that can play it well.

The sound of the congas on many of the records we audition is a good test for some of the most important qualities we listen for: energy, rhythmic drive, presence and weight.

Congas, Drums and Pianos

Congas, like drums and pianos, are good for testing records. If these instruments get lost in the mix, or sound smeary or thin, it’s usually fairly easy to hear those problems if you are listening for them. Most of what you will read on this blog is dedicated to helping you do that.

The richness of analog is where much of its appeal lies. Lean congas and pianos are what you often get with CDs.

All three of these instruments are also exceptionally good for helping you to choose what kind of speakers to buy.

Teaser and the Firecat checks off a few of our favorite boxes:

Chicago II – 360 Original or Red Label Reissue?

More of the Music of Chicago

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Chicago

Both can be good. I did the shootout and often tried to guess the label for the copy I was hearing, for fun more than anything else. I have to admit that my batting average was not much better than chance. 

The 360s tend to be a little fuller and smearier, but plenty of red label copies sound that way and some 360s don’t, so trying to match the sound to the label was even more pointless than usual.

When comparing pressings in a shootout it’s too late for the label to have any predictive value.

We’ve already bought the records, cleaned them up and now just want to know what they actually sound like — not which ones might be the best, but which ones are the best.

The time for guessing games has passed. Of course, if we do actually figure out what the right stampers are, this helps us next time around.

What Stampers Mean

Stampers mean something, but sometimes, as is the case here, they don’t mean much. (If you don’t know that by now you probably haven’t done that many big shootouts on your own. Can’t blame you — without lots of helpers in the cleaning and needle-dropping departments, they’d be an even bigger pain than they already are. Even with three people involved it can still take almost all day, and that’s if you just happen to have ten or fifteen copies handy. It took us about two years to find that many, hitting multiple stores every week.)


Tone Poets and One Legged Tarzans

Making Audio Progress 

More Unsolicited Audio Advice

A tenet of conservatism is that we must all accommodate ourselves to living in the world that exists, not the world we might want to pretend exists, or the world we would like to exist.

The laws of physics are laws, not theories, not recommendations, and they operate independently of how convenient any of us may find them.

It follows from this — if you will allow me to make the case — that not everybody with a stereo can play Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings properly, and some people cannot play Tarzan at all. (See below.)

There is a fellow, rl1856, who made some comments on Robert Brook’s blog, addressing the Tone Poets pressings of RVG’s recordings vis-a-vis vintage pressings that RVG mastered. (Bolding has been added by me.)

rl1856 writes:

An original RVG 1st or 2nd pressing has a visceral, “edge of the seat” feeling that is missing in the TP [Tone Poets] and BN [Blue Note] Classic reissues. The RVG has a tighter stereo spread, and is voiced so that the listener feels they are very close to the musicians. The TP and Classic remasters have a more distant perspective. The soundstage is wider, but the added apparent distance between musician and listener significantly reduces the impact of the music. OTOH, the reissues have greater extension at frequency extremes, and reproduce more micro detail than original pressings. We know that RVG used a surprising amount of EQ when mastering his LPs back in the day. So we need to ask ourselves, what do we want ? A better version of what we are familiar with, including EQ compromises, or a more accurate representation of what was actually captured on the master tape in RVG’s studio ? The answers may be mutually exclusive.

My system: Linn LP12 ITTOK LVII, SoundSmith Denon 103D, Audio Research SP10MKIII, Luxman MA 88 monoblocks, or Triode TRV 845PSE, or Mac 240, KEF LS50. Resolving enough to easily hear differences in LP quality.

When someone reveals that their equipment is simply not capable of reproducing the sound of live music, we can safely ignore whatever opinions they have offered about the records being discussed.

It should be obvious that they have played them with unacceptably low levels of fidelity.

Let’s Talk About the Real World

The science behind my argument is as follows.

Acoustic instruments make sounds by moving air, whether in the studio or the concert hall.

Speakers replicate the sound of those instruments in your listening room by the same process. They move air.

Big dynamic speakers are good at moving air in a listening room, and small ones are not.

Therefore, speakers that do not move enough air are failing fundamentally to reproduce the sound of recorded instruments with fidelity.

On a hot day you can fan yourself with an album jacket or you can fan yourself with a guitar pick. One moves enough air to cool you off, the other does not, no matter how hard you try. (See: physics, laws of, above.)

Box speakers with five inch drivers may move enough air in the home listening environment, especially in smaller rooms, to play music with enough fidelity to make it enjoyable.

What they cannot do is move enough air to play music that sounds anything like live music.

The right pressings (we admit that this phrase is doing a lot of heavy lifting here) of Rudy Van Gelder’s better recordings do a remarkable job, in this writer’s view, of reproducing the feeling one gets from listening to live music.

If the speakers you own fail to reproduce that sound — the kind of big, lively sound some of us have spent a lifetime pursuing — how can your judgment be of any value to those of us who own large speakers in dedicated rooms, all working together to reproduce music at live levels?

Colorblind people rarely make good art critics. They know better than to talk about the colors they can’t see.

Some actors who want to play Tarzan are simply not equipped to play Tarzan. They may be foolish enough to audition, but no one could possibly be foolish enough to give them the part. (See video below.)

A Poor Guide

Some speakers give an incomplete picture of what the record is getting right and what it is getting wrong. Due to the laws of physics mentioned above, speakers with “woofers” that are 5.25 inches in diameter can be safely placed in this category.

No recording of a jazz group with a bass player can be reproduced properly using a five inch woofer.

Rudy recorded many jazz groups, and few of them did not have someone playing bass.

If you have that kind of ‘incomplete” speaker, regardless of how much you may like what it does well in other respects, the first step in the long road to better sound is to recognize that it is preventing you from appreciating a great deal of what makes Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings the powerful listening experiences they most certainly are.

Little speakers are not powerful. To be powerful, a speaker has to move air well, and that is one thing, among many, that small speakers cannot do.

They also do not do a good job in my experience of capturing frequency extremes, especially at the low end, which makes this fellow’s comment that “the reissues have greater extension at frequency extremes” rather absurd. His speaker goes down to 80hz. I looked it up. There are two full octaves of bass below 80hz. I guess those aren’t important. (When audiophiles tell you some aspect of the reproduction of music is “not important,” this should be seen as nothing more than motivated reasoning. You don’t want to be that guy either.)

Something I’ve never taken the time to write about on this blog is the correct sizing of instruments.

Some speakers — typically those with smaller drivers — create images of instruments that are too small, smaller than you would picture them if you were sitting in the audience. Other speakers — typically screens of one kind or another — produce larger-than-life images of instruments and vocalists. In the ’70s, I heard a lot of screens and full-range electrostats — these come to mind, and there were plenty of others like them, Magneplanars and the like — and the images never seemed right-sized or real enough to be taken seriously. I opted for a big dynamic system and never heard anything that would give me a reason to switch.

Yes, he may think that his system is “Resolving enough to easily hear differences in LP quality.”

But what about all the differences his system does not allow him to hear? Failing to recognize the shortcomings of a stereo system doesn’t make them go away.

When you close your eyes while listening to a system that looks like this (I found this one randomly on the web), do you feel that you’re in the presence of live musicians?

Of course you don’t. How could you?

But when I listen to the system seen below (that’s me at the table) turned up good and loud, that is precisely the sound I get from the hottest of the Hot Stamper pressings I play. Here is one example from not that long ago. I could easily describe hundreds of others, many of which are unforgettable.

Some of our customers have written to us that they got the same feeling we did, the sense of being in the presence of live musicians.

The remarkable White Hot stamper pressings we discuss on this blog were made from the greatest recordings ever put on tape, and that group includes a fair number that were engineered by RVG.

Rudy Is the Man

Of the many hundreds of jazz albums we have listened to critically over the past thirty plus years, our pick for The Best Sounding Jazz Record of them all has Rudy’s name in the credits. Even better, it’s a reissue from the ’70s, because the originals, at least the ones we’ve played, don’t sound remotely as good as the right reissues.

We didn’t read that on a forum, or a website, or in a magazine. We heard it with our own two ears.

It’s the kind of thing that an obsessively-tuned full-range system, set up in a heavily-tweaked, dedicated room, can reveal about just how remarkably different various pressings of recordings can sound. These differences are often obscured by the manifold shortcomings of smaller, more limited systems, the ones most audiophiles own.

That’s why some audiophiles believe what they read from self-described experts about master tapes and mastering approaches and all the rest. Their systems can’t show them how mistaken all this talk really is.

To convince others that you know something about “a more accurate representation of what was actually captured on the master tape,” as if that could be known by someone with no access to the master tape and speakers you could fit in a backpack, is the height of self-deception. It’s the worst kind of pretend knowledge.

We’ve learned that the only way to understand records is by ignoring what everybody says and just play as many different pressings as possible in blinded, carefully controlled experiments. The data derived from these experiments should inform your opinions, not the other way around.

If you really want to make the case for your expertise in record reviewing, it’s never a good idea to claim that the laws of physics don’t apply to you. It’s the kind of thing that upsets irredeemably skeptical types such as me, who then spend all afternoon writing longwinded commentaries about the things that misinformed audiophiles believe.

Never Played One

To be clear, we have never played a Tone Poets record. We’ve played many titles mastered by Kevin Gray, and we know that he is credited with mastering some records for the label. Without exception we find that his remastered records leave a lot to be desired. You can find many of them in our Hall of Shame. Anyone defending his work to me has some heavy lifting to do.

A couple of titles we will be doing shootouts for soon will include the Tone Poets pressings, and you will be able to read all about them right here on the blog.

Until then, allow us to leave you with a few things to think about.