Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bob and Ray Trombone / Trumpet Test

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

Tubes Versus Transistors – Some Background from Skeptoid

Below you will find a link to a reasonably fair and balanced look at the battle between transistors and tubes from Brian Dunning’s skeptoid website, daily reading for those of us who favor a skeptical approach to life (and especially this hobby).

Thirty plus years ago, when I started my little record business, I knew that most records marketed to audiophiles offered junk sound (half-speed masters) or junk music (direct to discs). As our playback has improved, fewer and fewer of these “specialty” pressings have survived the test of time, a subject we write about endlessly on our site and here on this blog.

For the longest time our motto has been “Records for Audiophiles, Not Audiophile Records,” and we see no reason to change it.  If anything, the current spate of manufacturers of Heavy Vinyl pressings are making records that get worse sounding by the day. Many of the most egregious offenders can be found here.

More commentaries about Heavy Vinyl can be found here. We are not fans of the stuff, not because it’s our competition. It just doesn’t sound very good.

In order to do the work we do, our approach to audio has to be fundamentally different from that of the audiophile listening for enjoyment. Critical listening and listening for enjoyment go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing.

The first — developing and applying your critical listening skills — allows you to achieve good audio and find the best pressings of the music you love.

Once you have a good stereo and a good record to play on it, your enjoyment of recorded music should increase dramatically.

A great sounding record on a killer system is a thrill.

A Heavy Vinyl mediocrity, played back on what passes for so many audiophile systems these days — regardless of cost — is, to these ears, an intolerable bore.

If this sounds arrogant and elitist, so be it. We set a higher standard, and price our records commensurate with their superior sound.  For those who appreciate the difference, and have resources sufficient to afford them, the cost is reasonable. If it were not we would have gone out of business years ago.

Hot Stampers are not cheap. If the price could not be justified by the better sound quality and quieter surfaces, who in his right mind would buy them? We can’t really be fooling so many audiophiles, can we?

Our approach to equipment and records is explained in more detail below, in a listing centered around an early pressing of a Ted Heath Big Band album from the Fifties that knocked our socks off.  The right record at loud levels on Big Speakers can do that.

 

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We went wild recently over a marvelous copy of the Ted Heath record you see pictured. Talk about Tubey Magic, the liquidity of the sound was positively uncanny. This was vintage analog at its best, so full-bodied and relaxed you’ll wonder how it ever came to be that anyone seriously contemplated trying to improve upon it.

This is our kind of sound. It’s also important to keep in mind that our stereo seemed to love the record. (Stereos do that.) Let’s talk about why that might be the case.

Our system is fast, accurate and uncolored. We like to think of our speakers as the audiophile equivalent of studio monitors, showing us exactly what is on the record, with nothing added and (hopefully) nothing taken away. (more…)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – “I’ve listened to it numerous times and it just does not have that sound stage I was expecting.”

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A customer recently contacted us after making his first purchase and being disappointed with the White Hot Stamper pressing we had sent him.

Hi,

Wondered who I can talk to about this record that I purchased. I’ve listened to it numerous times and it just does not have that sound stage I was expecting.

I am not looking for a refund. In fact, I refuse a refund. However, I would appreciate the opportunity to speak to someone about the factors that make this a “White Hot Pressing.”

I’m sure you need to understand what amplifier, speakers, setting, etc. I am using. Without Going into the details, I have a McIntosh amplifier and Focal 936 speakers. I know how much of a difference equipment makes in the sound of a record.

I love to hear amazing records, some of which I have in original pressings I purchased when they were released and can truly feel it when there is something special about the record. This one does not seem to have it to me, but I am interested in finding and purchasing one from you that gives that amazing feeling.

Please let me know if there is someone I can speak to about finding that record.

Thank you,
Sanjay

I replied with an overwhelming amount of information (and opinions!) designed to help Sanjay understand more about records, as follows:

Sanjay,

Tom here. Let me see if I can help.

The first thing I would need to know is what version of the album do you have that you think sounds better, or, if not better, comparable?

[He had no other pressing, not surprising as our White Hot copies are almost impossible to beat.]

Assuming you don’t have a better copy — we would be very surprised if you did — we would say that it’s likely there are two factors at play:

White Hot does not mean amazing Demo Disc sound. It means the best sound we can find for this recording, relative to the others we play. In other words, the best there is within the limitations of the recording.

We can’t fix the recording, we can only find you the best available pressing. If you were expecting more, something along the lines of Dark Side of the Moon, then I understand your disappointment.

For the band’s first album, we wrote:

It’s unlikely you will be demonstrating your system with this record, but you may find yourself enjoying the hell out of it for what it is — an early example of Roots Rock that still holds up today.

For Green River we wrote:

Green River isn’t ever going to be a knockout demo disc, but a copy like this allows you to enjoy the music as it was recorded. Most copies are so dull, grainy and lifeless that someone would have to wake you at the end of a side!

We have a section for great sounding recordings, it’s this one:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=top100

There are no CCR records in this section and never will be.

The second point I would make is that some records are much more difficult to reproduce than others, and require the right equipment to do them justice.   In the listing for your record, under one of the tabs, you can find all of this.

The story of our recent shootouts is what real Progress in Audio is all about.

Many copies were gritty, some were congested in the louder sections, some never got big, some were thin and lacking the lovely analog richness of the best — we heard plenty of copies whose faults were obvious when played against two top sides such as these. The best copies no longer to seem to have the problems we used to hear all the time.

Of course the reason I hadn’t heard the congestion and grittiness in the recording is that two things changed. One, we found better copies of the record to play — probably, can’t say for sure, but let’s assume we did, and, Two, we’ve made lots of improvements to the stereo since the last time we did the shootout.

You have to get around to doing regular shootouts for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any distance at all. Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they might be or when they might have occurred, were incontrovertible. The album was now playing at a much, much higher level.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the possibility, indeed the importance, of taking full advantage of the Revolutions in Audio of the last ten or twenty years.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s natural to blame sonic shortcomings on the recording; everyone does it, including us.

But in this case We Was Wrong. The congestion and distortion we’d gotten used to are no longer a problem on the best copies. We’ve worked diligently on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get these vintage Creedence records to play at a much higher level than we could before.

This is why we keep experimenting, keep tweaking and keep searching for the best sounding pressings, and why we encourage you to do the same.

A word of caution: Unless your system is firing on all cylinders, even our hottest Hot Stamper copies — the Super Hot and White Hot pressings with the biggest, most dynamic, clearest, and least distorted sound — can have problems . Your system should be thoroughly warmed up, your electricity should be clean and cooking, you’ve got to be using the right room treatments, and we also highly recommend using a demagnetizer such as the Walker Talisman on the record, your cables (power, interconnect and speaker) as well as the individual drivers of your speakers.

This is a record that’s going to demand a lot from the listener, and we want to make sure that you feel you’re up to the challenge. If you don’t mind putting in a little hard work, here’s a record that will reward your time and effort many times over, and probably teach you a thing or two about tweaking your gear in the process (especially your VTA adjustment, just to pick an obvious area most audiophiles neglect).

High-Ranking

This recording ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale. Do not attempt to play it using any but the best equipment.

It took a long time to get to the point where we could clean the record properly, twenty years or so, and about the same amount of time to get the stereo to the level it needed to be, involving, you guessed it, many of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio we tout so obsessively. It’s not easy to find a pressing with the low end whomp factor, midrange energy and overall dynamic power that this music needs, and it takes one helluva stereo to play one too.

If you have the kind of big system that a record like this demands, when you drop the needle on the best of our Hot Stamper pressings, you are going to hear some amazing sound .

{He sent me a picture of the speaker he uses, the Focal 936. It has 3 6.5 inch woofers.]

I would not want to play a CCR record with the speaker you have. It is doubtful it can move enough air to get the weight of the music right.

We discuss our system and why a CCR record would sound right on our big speakers here:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=stereo

On my blog I have a section for:

RECORDS THAT SOUND BEST ON BIG SPEAKERS AT LOUD LEVELS

https://ontherecord.co/category/records-that-sound-best-this-way/records-that-sound-best-on-big-speakers-at-loud-levels/

with 300+ entries at this point, including all the CCR albums.

This is a lot to digest, but after 40 years of audio experience and record collecting, I have learned a few things, and the above information is my attempt to help others with what I have learned:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=expert

Please take the time to read all the information I have sent, as well as as much of the following as you can, probably best spread out over the course of a few weeks:

https://www.better-records.com/dept.aspx?dept_id=14-006-016

If you would like specific recommendations about records you are interested in that we think would sound good on your stereo, we are happy to point you in the right direction.

Best, TP

(more…)

Chicago and The Hottest Stampers – Are You a Thrillseeker Too?

 

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When it comes to sound, I’m a Thrillseeker. I want to hear it LOUDER and BETTER, with more ENERGY and EXCITEMENT, and the reason I spent so many hundreds, even thousands, of hours working on my stereo is that that kind of sound doesn’t happen by accident. You have to work your ass off to get it. And spend a lot of money. And dig through a lot of dusty record bins buying LPs until you find one that sounds the way you want it to.

I don’t play records to drink wine and smoke cigars. I play records to ROCK. Whether the music is rock, jazz or classical, I want to feel the power of the music just as you would feel it at the live event. To me that means big speakers and loud levels. We played Chicago VII as loud as we could… (more…)

Dopey Record Theories – Putting Bad Ideas to the Test

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Below we discuss some record theories that seem to be making the rounds these days.

It started with a stunning White Hot Stamper 2-pack that just went up on the site..

I implored the eventual purchaser to note that side two of record one has Joni sounding thin, hard and veiled. If you look at the stampers you can see it’s obviously cut by the same guy (no names please!), and we’re pretty sure both sides were stamped out at the same time of day since it’s impossible to do it any other way. What accounts for the amazing sound of one side and the mediocre sound of its reverse?

If your theory cannot account for these huge differences in sound, your theory is hopelessly, fundamentally flawed. Need we bother to note the rather important, one might even say all-important, fact that it has no practical value in the first place: how is anyone to know at what specific time of day a record was pressed? Or how many copies had come off the stamper ahead of it?

Can anything be more ridiculous than the ad hoc, evidence-free theory of some audiophile record collector desperately searching for a reason to explain why records — even the sides of the same record — sound so different from one another? (more…)

Building a World Class Record Collection… One Customer’s Story

Dear Tom,

I want to thank you once again…

Quite a few years ago now I contacted you and talked about this concept called “hot stampers”…It ended up both saving me a lot of misdirection and foolishly trying to rebuild my vinyl collection with new vinyl re-releases often called “audiophile” and “half-speed” issues.

After a few confirmations of what you said I quickly sold all those copies and began building a real world class collection of vinyl “original” hot stamper level records. A good number cam from your business and I also made a hobby of trying to do what you do in finding “hot stampers”. Fortunately Philadelphia has a reasonable number of used record stores but unfortunately, as you well know, this is a rigorous and costly endeavor…..but it can be rewarding at times and at other times requires that I rely on you.

So today I’m snowed in here so I fired up the rig and decided to do some small scale shoot outs and find the true great copies from my already culled collection. Put on several Hall and Oates and focused on “She’s Gone”… one was just clearly dynamic, clear and present…..then put on several Dire Straits “Love over Gold” and ended up with 3 killer copies (such a good lp).. I then put on about 5 copies of Phil Collins “Face Value” with “If Leaving Me is Hard”….What a great love song….and narrowed it to 2.

Yes my rig is really awesome for close up intimate listening at any level. It is something I have worked on for decades to become resolving, dynamic, harmonic, dimensional, transparent, and involving. I can listen loud and close without distortion. When I suddenly find that “hot stamper” Phil Collins is in the room where I hear his voice articulate and rich with background singers just as good and the band perfectly balanced to his vocal. And it is then I think of your contribution to all of this and want to tell you.

So that is what I am doing. I know what three pluses means…..I can’t afford many of them as I would assume some wealthy customers can but I really appreciate them and their unfortunate rarity….. and I appreciate all the work you have done to make this possible, (more…)

Hot Stamper Shootouts – The Four Pillars of Success

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Finding Hot Stampers is all about doing shootouts for as many copies of the same title as you can get your hands on. There are basically four steps in this process and you have to achieve success with each of the four if you are going to be any good at discovering and evaluating your own Hot Stampers. 

We discuss each and every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this very site. Although none of it will come as news to anyone who has spent much time reading our stuff, we cobbled together this commentary to help formalize the process and hopefully make it easier to understand and follow.

If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the pressing you have in your collection, but the actual recording it was made from — you have to do some work, and you have to do it much more thoroughly than most audiophiles and record collectors think is necessary.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stampers

That work is made up of these four steps.

1.) You must have a sufficient number of copies to play in order to find at least one “hot” one.

2.) You must be able to clean your copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.

3.) You must be able to reproduce your copies faithfully.

4.) You must be able to evaluate them critically. (more…)

Elton John’s Caribou Is Usually Noisy and Sounds Bad – Why Is That?

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There’s a good reason you’ve practically never seen this album for sale on our site. In fact there are quite a number of good reasons.

The first one is bad vinyl — most DJM pressings of Caribou are just too noisy to sell. They can look perfectly mint and play noisy as hell; it’s not abuse, it’s bad vinyl. (Empty Sky is the same way; out and out bad vinyl, full of noise, grit and grain.)

The second problem is bad sound. Whether it’s bad mastering or bad vinyl incapable of holding onto good mastering, no one can say. Since so many copies were pressed of this monster Number One album (topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic), perhaps they pressed a few too many after the stampers were worn out.

Or pulled too many stampers off the mother.

Or made too many stampers from the father.

Or used crap vinyl right from the start.

Of course there’s not an iota of evidence to back up any of these assertions, but I just thought I would throw it out there as a topic for speculation. (Have you noticed how much audiophiles and audiophile reviewers love to talk about things that they have no empirical evidence for one way or the other? Very little of that sort of thing can be found on our site. We like to stick to the sound of the records we’ve played and leave most of the “reasoning” about the sound to others.)

Making Mistakes and Other Advice from Better Records

A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes. Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

“Making a different mistake every day is not only acceptable, it is the definition of progress.”
~Robert Brault

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and most cogently in this commentary from way back in 2005.

We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one as critically as you can.
(more…)

Led Zeppelin II – Gee, I Seem to Have No Trouble At All Playing This Record

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We all know the famous story by now. Robert Ludwig’s “Hot Mix” (a complete misnomer, mostly propagated by those with an apparently poor understanding of what goes into the sound of a record – the mix never changed, only the mastering) of Zep II was causing the needle to jump the groove when Ahmet Ertegun’s daughter tried to play it on her cheap turntable, so they recut the record with more compression and cut the bass.

Our Triplanar Mark 6 / Dynavector 17d III combination seems to play the original just fine. Amazingly well in fact.

Here’s a question for all the Heavy Vinyl fans in the world: name all the Heavy Vinyl records that sound as good or better than RL’s cutting of Zep II.

Modern engineers tell us they can cut records better now than ever before, with all the bass and dynamics that previous engineers were forced to limit for the cheap tables and carts of the past.

So where are these so-called New and Improved records, the ones with more bass and dynamics?

I have yet to hear one. Perhaps someone can point me in the right direction.

Send your list to tom@better-records.com