Advice – What to Listen For – Transparency Vs Opacity

Talking Heads / More Songs About Buildings and Food – What to Listen For

More Talking Heads

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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 the album.

With Our Love turned out to be one of our favorite tests for side one. The picking of the rhythmic guitar in the intro told us just about everything we needed to know about smear, veiling and resolution. On most copies the instrument is simply blurry, the notes mashed together. When you’ve got a copy with its transients intact, resolving properly and clearly right there in front of you, you have the makings of a Hot Stamper side one.

My other test track for side one was Warning Signs. This is a great track for evaluating transparency and bass. On the average copy you’d never know how much ambience exists around the drums. Hint: it’s a lot.

Our favorite copies have a fair amount of WHOMP down low, giving the bass guitar that rich, beefy sound that we’re simply crazy for here at Better Records. Once you’ve heard a copy with well-defined, note-like bass, nothing less will do.

Artists Only

A great test track for side two is Artists Only. The guitars in the intro section are almost unbearable to listen to on most copies. I recognize that I am somewhat sensitive to harsh high frequencies, but I’m literally in pain when I listen to an overly compressed, overly midrangy copy. There’s got to be a better way! (more…)

Doc Watson / Home Again – Another Dog from Cisco Records

More Doc Watson

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Folks, if you made the mistake of buying the Cisco Heavy Vinyl reissue of this album that came out in the early 2000s, you are in for treat if you are able to grab one of our Hot Stamper pressings.

Instead of Doc and his band mates playing from behind a thick curtain at the back of your sound room, they can now be heard where they should have been all along: front and center between your speakers!

The difference between a truly outstanding vintage pressing and a modern mockery of analog could not be more striking.

We never got around to putting the Cisco pressing in our Hall of Shame (300+ strong!). There are just not enough hours in the day…

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XTC – English Settlement – What to Listen For

More Demo Discs for Bass

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For Big Production Rock Albums like English Settlement there are some obvious problem areas that are often heard on at least one or two sides of practically any copy of this four sided album.  

With so many heavily-produced instruments crammed into the soundfield, if the overall sound is at all veiled, recessed or smeared — problems common to 90+% of the records we play in our shootouts — the mix quickly becomes opaque, forcing the listener to work too hard to separate out the elements of interest.

Exhaustion, especially on this album, soon follows.

Transparency, clarity and presence are key. Note that none of the British copies we played was thin and anemic. (The domestic copies are made from dubs and can’t begin to compete.) Almost all had plenty of tubey magic and bottom end, so thankfully that was almost never a problem. They did however tend to lack top end extension and transparency, and many were overly compressed. The sides that had sound that jumped out of the speakers, with driving rhythmic energy, worked the best for us. They really brought this complex music to life and allowed us to make sense of it. This is yet another definition of a Hot Stamper — it’s the copy that lets the music work as music. (more…)

Tchaikovsky / Piano Concerto #1 / Richter/ Karajan

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  • Incredible Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it on both sides and reasonably quiet DG vinyl make this one powerful Demo Disc set
  • Without a doubt some of THE BEST SOUND we have ever heard for this recording!
  • The huge space of a real concert hall seemingly transported right into your listening room
  • Richter is magnificent – our favorite performance of the Tchaikovsky First bar none

This reasonably quiet White Hot Stamper DG pressing has without a doubt some of THE BEST SOUND we have ever heard for this recording! Dynamically, Powerfully Hot, with the huge space of a real concert hall seemingly transported right into your listening room. With this copy, all you need do is close your eyes and your speakers will disappear, replaced by Karajan and the VSO at the height of their glorious powers.

On both sides the piano is weighty, solid and powerful. Once the needle has dropped you will quickly forget about the sound and simply find yourself in the presence of some of the greatest musicians of their generation.

Audio Myths Exploded

Yes, both the originals and the reissues can be good on this record. Don’t buy into that audiophile canard that “original equals better.”

Two Stunning Sides

Really, really BIG and really, really CLEAR like no other copy we played. It’s nothing less than phenomenal! Lively, present and real, with sweet strings and a big bottom end.

The piano is clearly present and solid. The heavy compression of most copies is much less of a problem here; the levels stay correct right through to the big finish (which is really really big).

If you have the transparency in your system to be able to hear it (we didn’t even three years ago), listen for how clearly both the left and right hand can be heard at the piano. It’s shocking how big and clear these sides are, yet still as rich and as solid as any we played. That’s what we call White Hot Stamper sound.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

The pizzicato playing of the strings early in the piece are a great test. Transients, transparency and spaciousness will vary dramatically in these three areas on every pressing you play. This one excelled in every one of these areas. A true Demo Disc.

THE Tchaicovsky First Piano Concerto Recording

Since this is our favorite performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto of all time. Even the copies with minor shortcomings in the sound are so good that we quickly find ourselves ignoring them and being lost instead in the performance. (more…)

Bizet-Shchedrin / Carmen Ballet Suite / Rozhdestvensky

More of the music of Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

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  • Unbelievable Shootout Winning Demo Disc quality sound on side one – this Triple Plus (A+++) side had more energy and snap than practically any we played
  • Side two was not especially good, but that’s really not a problem since side one has by far the better music – it’s where the most exciting, most percussive movements can be found
  • To be honest, the copy I owned for years still had a pristine side two, mostly because I never bothered to play it much
  • When you come to the end of side one you will not be wanting more – you will have heard everything that’s good about this remarkable composition
  • This gloriously exciting and fun music belongs in any audiophile’s collection

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Rod Stewart – Never A Dull Moment

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  • With incredible Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sonic grades on both sides, this copy gets the heart of Rod’s Brit rock right like no other we played – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Extremely well-recorded, full of great songs, Rod Stewart was on top of the world when he followed up the brilliant Every Picture Tells a Story with this album in 1972
  • The music comes alive on this vintage pressing, assuming you have your volume up good and loud
  • 5 stars in AMG, and simply “… a masterful record … He never got quite this good ever again.”

Listen to the percussion on Angel — you can really hear all the transients and the sound of the drum skins. The meaty guitar in the left channel sounds mind-blowingly good. The bass is deep and well-defined, and the sound of the drums is awesome in every way. Who has a better drum sound than Rod Stewart on his two best albums?

Along with Every Picture Tells A Story this is one of the two Must Own Rod Stewart albums. Practically every song here is a classic, with not a dog in the bunch. Rod Stewart did what few artists have ever managed to do: release his two best albums back to back.

And this, not to put too fine a point on it, is clearly the way to hear it. (more…)

James Taylor aka Mud Slide Slim – Is He in a Booth or Isn’t He?

More James Taylor

More Mud Slide Slim

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Midrange Presence is tough to come by on Mud Slide; most of the time JT’s voice is recessed, dark, veiled and has a slightly hollow quality. To find a copy where his vocals are front and center — which of course is exactly where they should be — but still rich, sweet and tonally correct is no mean feat. Only the best copies manage to pull it off. Out of the dozens of copies we played in our most recent shootout few had the midrange we were looking for and knew existed. 

One thing we noticed this time around was that for some tracks James’ vocals are recorded in a booth and for others they are not. Listen to the first track — there is no ambience, no room around his voice whatsoever. He’s in a padded booth, and they sure padded the hell out of it. Now play Long Ago and Far Away on side two. No booth! Lots of studio space around the vocal. MUCH more natural acoustic.

We don’t have the luxury of playing every track on both sides for these shootouts. We pick two or three songs that have specific qualities we know to look for and play them on every copy. (Shootouts like this almost always involve at least a dozen pressings, sometimes more, and it’s impossible to keep them all straight with more copies than that.)

So here’s a potentially fun exercise — assuming you find this sort of thing fun — that we thought about doing but just don’t have the time to devote to at present, with so many other shootouts waiting in the wings. Take your own copy, assuming you have at least a decent one, and play each track listening for only one thing: does James sound like he is in a booth, or does he sound like he is in an open space in the studio? If you have the typical original WB pressing you will probably not be able to get very far and will be quickly tempted to give up, the frustration of a murky midrange being more than most of us audiophiles can bear.

But maybe you have a good copy; the possibility certainly exists. And if you find much success with this exercise we encourage you to drop us a line, we will be more than happy to print it. (more…)

Another Audio Myth Exploded – Large Tulips, Small Tulips – What Do Tulips Have to Do with Anything?

Here are more records with the potential to sound better
on certain reissue pressings compared to the originals

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The Large Tulip early pressings are the best on this record, right?

Nope. It’s just another Record Myth, as explained in the commentary for our recent Hot Stamper 2-pack. That pair of pressings was all the proof we required to back up our contention that either label can be the best on this classic DG recording. Original is better? Again, not so much. Original can be better fits more with our experience.

To pull off this kind of Mind Boggling sound from start to finish we combined an amazing side one on the Large Tulips label with an amazing side two on the Small Tulips label. And what a finish — side two earned a grade of A+++, being a full step above even our hottest other side two, and we played a lot of copies, more than a dozen in fact. (more…)

The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!

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  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER on both sides of this Decca UK pressing – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • With rock and roll energy and you-are-there presence, turn this one up good and loud and you will find yourself at the Stones concert of a lifetime
  • The live performances of Sympathy For The Devil, Midnight Rambler, and Honky Tonk Woman are MAGICAL from these shows – the Stones in 1970 were taking their music to a whole new level
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Recorded during their American tour in late 1969, and centered around live versions of material from the Beggars Banquet-Let It Bleed era… Often acclaimed as one of the top live rock albums of all time…

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Tchaikovsky / Piano Concerto #1 / Richter/ Karajan – Our First Shootout Winner, 2008

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This fairly quiet Large Tulips early DG pressing in the heavy cardboard outer sleeve has THE BEST SOUND we have ever heard for this recording! Believe me, they don’t all sound like this! This copy is airy and sweet; just listen to the flutes — you can really hear the air moving through them. There is still some congestion in the loudest passages, but that’s unfortunately not something we can do anything about. Since it’s on every copy we’ve ever played we just have to assume it’s part of the recording.

Of the twenty or so clean copies we’ve auditioned over the last year or two, this one is clearly in a league of its own, with a price to match.

THE Tchaicovsky First

Since this is the best performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto of all time, the minor shortcomings in the sound are easy to overlook. The piano sounds solid and full bodied. I don’t know of another performance of this work that gets the sound of the piano better. You can really hear the percussive quality of the instrument. It’s amazing how many piano recordings have poorly mic’ed pianos. They’re either too distant, lack proper reproduction of the lower registers, or somehow smear the pounding of the keys into a blurry mess. The piano sound is what first impressed me when a friend of mine brought the record over for me to hear. Of course I bought it on the spot.

And the texture of the strings is out of this world — you won’t find a DG that gets with better string tone, and 99% of them are worse. This record does not sound like your typical DG: hard, shrill, and sour. DG made good records in the ’50s and ’60s and then proceeded to fall apart, like most labels did. This is one of their finest recordings. It proves that at one time they knew what they were doing.

This recording really only has one shortcoming, which is that in some sections, when it gets loud, it tends to be a bit congested. Other places are very dynamic. I’m guessing somebody dialed in too much compression in those spots, but who’s to say? (more…)