Advice – What to Listen For in General

Becoming an Expert Listener – Challenging Yourself Can Really Pay Off

 

xxx

This commentary was written around 2006, right about the time we were starting to put Hot Stampers on our web site.

Scientific American joins forces with Better Records (or is it the other way around?) to share a few ideas, which turn out to have much in common. 

For years we’ve been writing commentaries about the sound of specific records we’ve auditioned in order to put them up for sale on the site. By now there are literally hundreds of pages of commentary in which we’ve tried to explain, often in great detail, exactly what we listened for and exactly what we heard when playing these pressings. We’ve tried to be as clear as possible about precisely which qualities separate the better sounding LPs from their competitors — what they do right, and how you can recognize sound that is right .

More Shootout Advice

As we’ve gained a better understanding of records and their playback, we’ve made every effort to share with our readers what we’ve learned. Although the vast majority of these records sold long ago, almost all of the commentary remains available on the site, to act as a resource for the audiophile who owns or might want to consider buying a copy of the record discussed.

Over the years, one thing has continued to bother me (I almost wrote “vex me”) about this hobby and those who pursue it. I’m frankly still shocked at how unskilled most listeners are. How else to explain all the bad sounding 180 gram pressings so many audiophiles embrace?

Add to the above bad half-speeds, bad Japanese pressings, bad Classic Records, bad 45s and all the rest, and you have a lot of bad sounding records that people don’t seem to have noticed sound bad. How can that be? (more…)

We Was Wrong About The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (Circa 1985-90)

beatlmagic_wrong_1407595879

 

This is a VERY old and somewhat embarrassing commentary about how We Was Wrong

This German pressing has dramatically different sound than that found on other Hot Stamper pressings of MMT we’ve had on the site. I used to be convinced that its sound was clearly superior to the regular German MMT LPs.

Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s this was the pressing that I was certain blew them all out of the water.

We know better now. We call this version the “Too Hot” Stamper pressing — the upper mids and top end are much too boosted to be enjoyable on top quality equipment.

It does have some positive qualities though. It has substantially deeper bass than any other version; in fact, it has some of the deepest bass you will ever hear on a pop recording. It can literally rattle the room when Paul goes down deep on Baby You’re A Rich Man.

It also uses a slightly different mix on some tracks and is mastered differently in terms of levels. The level change is most obvious at the beginning of Strawberry Fields, where it starts out very quietly and gets louder after a short while, unlike all other versions which start out pretty much at the same level. The effect is pleasing, you can even say powerful, but probably not what The Beatles intended, as no other copy I’ve ever heard utilizes the same quiet opening. An unknown mastering engineer made the choice, probably because he didn’t like all the tape hiss at the opening when few instruments were playing loud enough to mask it.

With this mix the record is now more of a hi-fi spectacular — great for demonstrations but not the last word in natural sound.

Side One Is Actually In Phase (Usually) and You Read It Here First (Probably)

xxxxx

A distinguished member of the Better Records Jazz Hall of Fame.

According to the liner notes, this Dave Grusin album has reversed absolute phase. They tell you to switch the positive and negative at the speaker for the best transient response and spatial clarity. But get this: most side ones are NOT in reversed phase.

That out of phase quality is as plain as the nose on your face when you know what to listen for. There’s an unpleasant hardness and hollowness to the midrange, a lack of depth, and an off-putting opaque quality to the sound.

With our EAR 324p Phono Stage, the click of a button reverses phase, also known as polarity. I can’t tell you how handy it is to have such a tool at your disposal. Checking the phase for Discovered Again couldn’t have been easier.

An Amazing Discovery

But get this: most side ones are NOT reversed phase. (All the side twos we played were however.) How about them apples! We could not have been more shocked. Here is the most famous out of phase audiophile recording in the history of the world, and it turns out most copies are not out of phase at all!

(more…)

Listening in Depth to Crosby Stills & Nash – with Bonus CD Advice

crosbcrosb_new

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album.

Although millions of copies of this album were sold, so few were mastered and pressed well, and so many mastered and pressed poorly, that few copies actually make it to the site as Hot Stampers. We wish that were not the case — we love the album — but the copies we know to have the potential for Hot Stamper sound are just not sitting around in the record bins these days.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on the Joe Gastwirt-mastered CD. It couldn’t be any more awful. (His Deja Vu is just as bad.)

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes

What’s magical about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Their voices of course. It’s not a trick question. They revolutionized rock music with their genius for harmony. Any good pressing must sound correct on their voices or it has no value whatsoever. A CSN record with bad midrange reproduction — like most of them — is a worthless record.
(more…)

How Exactly Is This an Audiophile Record?

 

Linda-Ronstadt-Whats-New-419854

 

Linda Ronstadt – What’s New

Not having played this record in more than a decade, it’s interesting to hear this Mobile Fidelity pressing with much better equipment than was previous available to me. The first thing I noticed was the amazing transparency of the recording, no doubt the reason audiophiles have always liked it.

Next on the list, and a bit of a surprise, is the correct tonality — this record is tonally right on the money, something Mobile Fidelity rarely achieves. This MoFi was mastered by Jack Hunt, not Stan Ricker, which may explain why the top end is more correct than usual.

Third and last is George Massenburg’s approach to this recording, which, to be charitable, is not to my liking. Let’s just say he prefers a certain artificiality to his sound that does little for me.

Of course, not all audiophiles will agree with me about this. Some audiophiles actually like this kind of sound. They like the sound of Graceland. They like the sound of The Well. They like the sound of Patricia Barber’s albums. They like a lot of recordings I don’t like.

When I speak highly of a recording or pressing, my prejudices and preferences are spelled out for all to see. There should be little doubt that the sound of this album is not to my taste, but for those of you who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will probably like.

Today’s Half-Speed Mastered Mess Is Meddle on Mobile Fidelity

xxx

Sonic Grade: D

A Hall of Shame pressing and another MoFi LP debunked.

Same problems as the MoFi Thick As a Brick: The MoFi is TRANSPARENT and OPEN, and the top end will be lush and extended. If you prize clarity, this is the one!

But if you prize clarity at the expense of everything else, you are seriously missing the boat on Meddle (and of course Thick As A Brick too). The MoFi is all mids and highs with almost nothing going on below.

This is a rock record, but without bass and dynamics the MoFi pressing can’t rock, so what exactly is it good for?

Ridiculously Phony and Compressed Sound – The Beatles White Album on MoFi

beatlwhitemfslSonic Grade: D

Another MoFi LP debunked.

The last time I played a copy of the MoFi I could not believe how ridiculously phony and compressed it was. And to think I used to like their version when it came out back in the ’80s!

A good example: on Yer Blues, the MFSL pressing positively wreaks havoc with all the added bass and top end The Beatles put on this track. The MoFi version is already too bright, and has sloppy bass to start with, so the result on this track is way too much BAD bass and way too much BAD spitty 10k-boosted treble, unlike the good imports, which have way too much GOOD bass and treble.

Yer Blues ROCKS! Listen to the big jam at the end of the song, where John’s vocal mic is turned off but his performance is still caught by a room or overheard mic. They obviously did this on purpose, killing his vocal track so that the “leaked” vocal could be heard.

Those crazy Beatles! It’s more than just a cool “effect”. It actually seems to kick the energy and power of the song up a notch. It’s clearly an accident, but an accident that works. I rather doubt George Martin approved. That kind of “throw the rule book out” approach is what makes Beatles recordings so fascinating, and The White Album the most fascinating of them all.

The EQ for this song is also a good example of something The Beatles were experimenting with, as detailed in their recording sessions and interviews with the engineers. They were pushing the boundaries of normal EQ, of how much bass and treble a track could have. This track has seriously boosted bass, way too much, but somehow it works!
(more…)

Mozart / Quintet – Piano + Winds & Trio

xxxxx

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your chamber music recordings.

This is a handy record for VTA setup as well. Listen for fullness and solidity, especially in the piano, although a rich, full sounding clarinet is a joy here as well. 

Some of the copies lacked the weight and solidity to balance out the qualities of transparency and clarity. The resulting sound is less natural, with the kind of forced detail that CDs do so well, and live music never does. There is a balance to be found.

The right VTA will be critical in this regard. When you have all the space; the clearest, most extended harmonics; AND good weight and richness in the lower registers of the piano, you are where you need to be (keeping in mind that it can always get better if you have the patience and drive to tweak further).  (more…)

Graham Nash’s Wild Tales and Their Mysteries Many and Deep

nash_wildt_wtlf_1216229467

 

What hurts so many pressings of this album is a lifeless, compressed quality and a lack of presence. Were the stampers a bit worn for those copies, or was it bad vinyl that couldn’t hold the energy of the stamper, or perhaps some stampers just weren’t cut right — these are mysteries, and they are mysteries that will always be mysteries, if for no other reason than that the number of production variables hopelessly intertwined at the moment of creation can never be teased apart no matter how hard one thinks about them. As we like to say at every turn, thinking is really not much help with regard to finding better sounding records.

Not surprisingly, we’ve found that cleaning them and playing them seems to work the best. They work the best because nothing else works at all.

What More Can You Ask For

What happens when you clean and play a bunch of copies? You come to recognize what the best ones are doing what the average ones aren’t. And the effect of that understanding on this particular title was simply to recognize the nature of this project, that these are a great bunch of well-crafted songs played with energy and enthusiasm by a very talented group of top flight musicians, totally in sync with each other. This is what they were trying to do, and really, what more do you want?
(more…)

Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive – What to Listen For

More Peter Frampton

More Frampton Comes Alive

xxxxx
xxxxx

Another in the long list of recordings that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

What to listen for you ask? Dynamic, soaring guitar solos! On the best copies the guitar solos are the loudest parts of some songs, which, as everyone who’s ever been to a rock concert knows, is exactly what happens in live rock music.

Not many live albums are mixed to allow the guitar solos to rock the way these do. Since Frampton is one of my favorite players, hearing his solos get loud on this album is nothing less than a thrill.

It’s hard to turn up the volume on most copies — they tend to get aggressive in a hurry — but that simply doesn’t happen on our hottest Hot Stampers. They sound right when they’re loud.

It’s ridiculously hard to find good sound for this record. Most copies are thin, dry and transistory. And it’s time consuming to clean and play as many copies of this double album as it takes to find enough Hot Stampers to make the endeavor worthwhile. When this album doesn’t have the goods it’s just not very fun.



Further Reading
(more…)