Advice – Understanding Records

For Pete’s Sake, What’s Wrong With Blue? – Thoughts on “The Definitive Vinyl” Version

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In 2007 a customer took issue with our summary rejection of the new Blue.

Tom, 

I find it curious you are not carrying the new Joni Mitchell Blue vinyl issue. Even to the point of saying you can do better… for 25 bucks? After clicking on the LP cover and reading the comments from over the years it makes me wonder what your agenda really is. I paid $250 for a wonderful WLP and this Rhino issue smokes it, even as good as it is. I even have a Cd cut from this mastering session off the analog FLAT, not Dolby tapes and this vinyl even beats it…. of course just my opinion.

I have listened on $100,000 systems, all the way down to portable units, solid state and tube and there is no denying this is the definitive vinyl version….. and again for 25.00. What a bargain.

Maybe all you did was look at that Rhino sticker and think back to the Grateful Dead records they did a few years ago (horrible) and just assumed this wasn’t up to Better Records standards.

Thanks for reading. I enjoy your e mails and store….

Tom

Tom,

We don’t review records based on their labels or stickers. And of course we never assume anything about the sound of a record. We talk about this stuff all the time. Here’s a relevant quote:

My approach to reviewing records is pure skepticism: a record sounds good if it sounds good, regardless of how it was made, who made it, or why. I’ve heard lots of expensive so-called audiophile equipment do a pretty poor job of making music over the years, the owners of which had an armful of reasons for why the sound should be truly awe-inspiring. But it just wasn’t. Most fancy gold faceplates are nothing but lipstick on a pig in my opinion.

I heard Blue poorly reproduced at a friend’s house, and this is probably the best explanation for this letter writer’s inability to understand our position on Blue.

And paying $250 for a White Label Demo that apparently doesn’t sound good is the height of audiophile collector foolishness. That money should have gone for better equipment or room treatments or tweaks, something, anything, to make this guy’s stereo and room work better than they do.

Actually this brings up a good point. If I had to choose one record that separates the men from the boys, the stereos that really work from the phony, lifeless audiophile systems you might read about in the magazines or hear at an audio show, Blue would be a darn good choice.

The problem there is that you have to be one serious record collector to have a great copy of Blue. But good pressings are out there, if you can clean and play them properly. This is why we created the Blue Game. It can be done, and we can help you get there, but most of the work has to be done by you.

Naturally we are happy to do the shootouts for you and charge you the pretty penny the winners command, but for those of you who want to find out what’s wrong with the new Blue and don’t want to buy a Hot Stamper from us, there is a third way: Blue, The Game.

Letter of the Week – Maiden Voyage

Maiden Voyage

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently: 

Hey Tom,   

I have to commend you once again. I have never heard Maiden Voyage like this before. The transparency on this copy is superb! I gave up listening to my reissue a while back. It had a heavy veil hanging over it that was obvious. Yet as the listener I yearned to hear past it because the music itself is so wonderful. Thanks for digging up this treasure. It will bring many hours of enjoyment now and in the future.

Records are a tangible investment for the listener. When you find a great copy you hang on to it because it engages you. It moves you in a real sense. A collector who collects for value of first issue is a collector too. However they collect as one would coins, stamps or baseball cards. The value is attributed to what is perceived not what is experienced. I do not slam anyone for this. If joy is found in this manner then, so be it.

I collect records to enjoy the music and if that means digging thru a number of pressings to find the best one or paying the bucks from someone like Better Records, so be it. If a reissue is better than an earlier pressing I will hold on to the re issue. This is a rarity but does happen. I can think of at least 20 LPs I have that I still favor the reissue over all others. Both collectors are valid. They simply have different goals in mind.

Thanks
Mark

Mark, thank you for your letter. We actually have a commentary about this very subject, entitled Collecting for the Sake of Collecting — Records Versus Hot Stampers, which we have reproduced below.

It discusses why Record Collecting as it is commonly understood is not something in which we can muster much interest these days, although we used to, and is certainly not something we recommend to our customers, “as it is commonly understood” being key to our point here.

Anyone can collect records: originals, imports, audiophile pressings, picture discs, the TAS List, what have you. There are literally millions of records for sale at any given time. (A single collection for sale as of this writing contains more than 3 million records.)

Some people see them as an investment. We do not. We think audiophile-oriented music lovers should pursue good sounding records for the purpose of playing them and enjoying them, understanding that the better their records sound the more enjoyable they will be. Collecting records primarily to build a record collection that can be sold at a profit in the future should be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Most of the following was written in response to a customer who wanted to know how original our Hot Stamper pressings were since he preferred to collect first pressings — which were also worth more money should he decide to sell them at a later date. We asked:

Why would you want a first pressing if it didn’t sound as good? Or, if a later pressing sounded better, why would that make any difference in your desire to buy it? Isn’t the idea to get good sound?

An Awful Collection

If you buy records principally to collect original pressings, you will end up with one awful sounding collection of records, that I can tell you without fear of contradiction. On the other hand, if you want the best sounding pressings, we are the only record sellers on the planet who can consistently find them for you. This is precisely the service we offer, unique in the world as far as we know. Hence the name Better Records. (more…)

London Orchestral Records from the ’70s – And the Problem of Opacity

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Another in our ongoing series of Random Thoughts on issues concerning records.

The average copy of this 1976 recording has that dry, multi-miked modern sound that the ’70s ushered in for many of the major labels, notably London and RCA. How many Solti records are not ridiculously thick and opaque? One out of ten? If that. We’re very wary of records recorded in the ’70s; we’ve been burned too many times.

And to tell you the truth we are not all that thrilled with most of what passes for good sound on Mehta’s London output either. If you have a high-resolution system these recordings, like those on Classic Heavy Vinyl we constantly criticize, leave a lot to be desired.

Opacity is a real dealbreaker for us. Most of the classical records we play from later eras simply do not have the transparency that’s essential to suspending one’s disbelief.

One thing you can say about live classical music, it is never opaque. Just the opposite. No recording in our experience — our experience being thousands upon thousand of them — can ever be remotely as transparent as live music.

If you have any doubts, next time you come home from the concert hall take a moment to put on a favorite recording of the same music. You may be in for quite a shock. (more…)

Why Own a Turntable if You’re Going to Play Mediocrities Like These?

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This commentary was posted in 2007 and amended later with the statement that we would no longer be ordering new heavy vinyl titles starting in 2010. By 2011 we had eliminated them completely from our site. If you bought any Heavy Vinyl pressing from us, ever, now is the time to get rid of it and hear what a Hot Stamper can do for your musical enjoyment. 


Three of the Top Five sellers this week (8/22/07) at Acoustic Sounds are records we found hard to like: AjaAqualung and Blue. Can you really defend the expense and hassle of analog LP playback with records that sound as mediocre as this Rhino pressing of Blue? 

Why own a turntable if you’re going to play records like these? I have boxes of CDs that sound more musically involving and I don’t even bother to play those. Why would I take the time to throw on some 180 gram record that sounds worse than a good CD? (more…)

The Who By Numbers – More Bass or More Detail, Which Is Right?

More The Who

More Who By Numbers

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Who by Numbers.

With Doug Sax mastering from the real tape, you get a Rock Solid Bottom End like you will not believe. Talk about punchy, well-defined and deep, man, this record has BASS that you sure don’t hear too often on rock records. 

And it’s not just bass that separates the Men from the Boys, or the Real Thing from the Classic Reissue for that matter. It’s WEIGHT, fullness, the part of the frequency range from the lower midrange to the upper bass, that area that spans roughly 150 to 600 cycles. It’s what makes Daltry’s voice sound full and rich, not thin and modern. It’s what makes the drums solid and fat the way Johns intended. The good copies of Who’s Next and Quadrophenia have plenty of muscle in this area, and so do the imports we played.

But not the Classic. Oh no, so much of what gives Who By Numbers its Classic Rock sound has been equalized right out of the Heavy Vinyl reissue by Chris Bellman at BG’s mastering house. Some have said the originals are warmer but not as detailed. I would have to agree, but that misses the point entirely: take out the warmth — the fullness that makes the original pressings sound so right — and you of course hear more detail, as the detail region is no longer masked by all the stuff going on below it. Want to hear detail? Disconnect your woofers — you’ll hear plenty of detail all right! (more…)

Passion Flower Is Better Than For Duke

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This is one of the all time great Pablo sleepers.

Why is no one else writing about records like these? The music is wonderful and the sound is top drawer on the best copies. If you’ve tried and failed with other Pablo Zoot Sims records, fear not: this title is one of the best we have ever played, musically and sonically.
(more…)

Cat Stevens Albums – Lee Hulko Cut Them All – Good, Bad and Otherwise

More Cat Stevens

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Is the Pink Label Island original pressing THE way to go? That’s what Harry Pearson — not to mention most audiophile record dealers — would have you believe.

But it’s just not true. And that’s good news for you, Dear (Record Loving Audiophile) Reader.

HOT STAMPER COMMENTARY FROM JOHN BARLEYCORN

Since that’s a Lee Hulko cutting just like Tea here, the same insights, if you can call them that, apply. Here’s what we wrote: (more…)

Delibes / Coppelia / Ansermet – A Superb Mono Pressing

More of the music of Leo Delibes (1836-1891) 

More Coppelia / Ansermet 

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

[This is a very old commentary so take it for what it’s worth.]

DEMO QUALITY SOUND for this early London Mono pressing. 

Side one of this record sounds incredible! The sound is absolutely top notch. Check out the brass — it has the solid weight of the real thing.

This is the kind of record that the mono cartridge owners of the world worship. And for good reason. But you don’t need to have a mono cartridge to hear how good — in fact, how much BETTER — this copy sounds than the stereo pressing.

I found out about mono classical records one day when I got a mono copy of The Power Of The Orchestra, VCS 2659. It sounded better than any stereo recording of that work I had ever heard. All the instruments were so much more solid sounding, so palpable, so free from distortion, that it made me recognize for the first time what the mono record lovers of the world were talking about. That was ten years ago. Since then many high end mono cartridges have come on the market, specifically to bring out that sound. (more…)

Audiophilia 101 – What Kind of Audio Fool Was I?

More commentaries on Record Collecting

Audiophilia 101

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Today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making as a budding audiophile more than thirty years ago. Heavy Viny, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each with a track record progressively more dismal than the next? 

Our Story Begins

One Man Dog has long been a favorite James Taylor album of mine. It didn’t catch on too well with the general public when it came out but it caught on just fine with me. I used to play it all the time. As a budding but misguided audiophile back in the early ’70s, I foolishly bought the import pressing at my local record store, The Wherehouse, assuming it would sound better and be pressed on quieter vinyl. The latter may have been true, probably was true, but the former sure wasn’t. Turns out even the average domestic original is far better sounding, but how was I to know?

Compare and Contrast? What For?

Back in those days it would never have occurred to me to buy more than one copy of a record and do a head to head comparison to see which one would sound better. I approached the subject Platonically, not scientifically: the record that should sound better would of course sound better, so why waste time testing?

Later on in the decade a label by the name of Mobile Fidelity would come along claiming to actually make better sounding pressings than the ones the major labels put out, and — cluelessly — I bought into that nonsense too. (To be fair, sometimes they did — Touch, Waiting for Columbus and American Beauty come to mind, but my god, Katy Lied, Year of the Cat and Sundown have to be three of the worst sounding records I’ve ever played in my life.) (more…)

Crosby, Stills and Nash – CSN – You Do the Best You Can with What You’ve Got to Work With

More Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on what you should be listening for when critically evaluating your copy (or ours) of the album. 

CSN chose the Albert brothers to engineer this album. Their most famous album is Layla. Ever heard a great sounding Layla? Me neither. Can you hear the sound of Layla in your head? That’s more or less what this album sounds like. There are better and worse Layla’s — we’ve done the shootout many times — just as there are better and worse CSNs.

The problem with the sound cannot be “fixed” in the mastering, and here’s how we know: on either side some songs have the breath of life and some don’t. That’s a recording problem.

It sounds like too many generations of tape were used on songs like Shadow Captain and Dark Star among others

But Just a Song Before I Go on side two can sound wonderful: rich, sweet, present and surrounded by lovely studio ambience.

So we listen for the qualities of a specific song that help us pinpoint what the best do well and the rest do poorly and grade them accordingly, on the curve. (more…)