Making Audio Progress

It’s not easy — nothing is in fact harder. However, if your approach to audio is clear-headed and evidence-based — in other words, scientific — progress is not only possible, it is virtually guaranteed.

Most of the listings compiled here describe lessons we’ve learned from from playing so many records over the years. If you play lots of records, while listening to them critically, some of them will teach you things about audio that you cannot learn any other way.

Practically all of our audio philosophy derives from the simple act of trying to get our system to play the greatest recordings of all time with the highest fidelity possible. Every record is a challenge, and every defeat an opportunity to learn something, to see where we may have gone wrong, in order to know more than we did before.

The right vintage pressings have the potential to sound dramatically better than the mostly-mediocre records being made today. If you have made good audio progress in this hobby, this is an obvious truism.

If you doubt any of the above, we hope that the work you take on based on the advice in these commentaries will help get your system to another level, a level where there can be no doubt.

Massenet – Pros, Cons and a Milestone of Audio Progress

More of the music of Jules Massenet (1842—1912)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Jules Massenet (1842—1912)

About ten years ago we reviewed a copy of the album that had a sub-optimal side two, a side two that suffered from screechy string tone.

Since that time we’ve made a number of improvements to our cleaning regimen and playback system, and the result has been that our last couple of shootouts went off without a hitch, showing us string tone that was virtually free of screechiness. (The Greensleeves reissues never had much of a screechy strings problem as they tended to be mastered on the smooth side. They are more forgiving of second-rate playback in that respect, but they can also never win shootouts with that overly smooth sound.) [1]

Problem solved! The records were fine, we just couldn’t play them back then as well as we can now.

In 2012, ten years ago, I had been selling records to audiophiles professionally for 25 years. I had owned a State of the Art system for 37 years.

But I knew I still had plenty to learn, and I kept at it.

After a decade’s worth of tweaking and tuning, the strings of this recording started to sound the way Stuart Eltham and his fellow engineers undoubtedly wanted them to.

This is how you chart your audio progress, by challenging yourself with difficult to reproduce recordings and building on the improvements you continue to make as the years and decades go by.

If you’re in the market for records that can show you that there is still plenty of work left to be done in this crazy audio hobby we’ve all chosen, we have scores of them on the Better Records site.

If we can get them to sound better, so can you.

[1] Our latest preoccupation here on the blog is to point out as often as we can that the Modern Heavy Vinyl remastered pressing is too often just too damn smooth.

The remastered box sets of The Beatles (see: Pepper, Sgt.., etc.) are the poster boys for making records sound more “analog” by boosting the bass and smoothing the treble, like your old ’70s system used to do. (Those of you who were in the hobby back then know exactly the sound I am talking about. For those who would like to know more, we wrote this overview.)

The Beatles records that we sell as Hot Stampers have nothing in common with that absurdly artificial approach. Mid-Fi systems may benefit from more bass and less top end, but Hi-Fi systems worthy of the name will not, hence our distaste for this kind of EQ overreach. More example of overly smooth modern records can be found here, with more to be added as time permits.


Our Review from 2012

This is a record that clearly belongs on a Super Disc list. If Harry hadn’t already put it there we certainly would have.

We would love to compile a Super Disc list of our own, but unless you have just the right copy of whatever title you find on the list, you may not have anything like Super Disc sound quality, so why a list at all? It creates more problems for audiophiles than it solves. [We have since changed our minds about Super Disc lists.]

Both sides of this TAS List disc contain audiophile Must Own Demonstration pieces, full of Tubey Magic, powerful dynamics, real depth, lifelike ambience, and uncannily accurate instrumental timbres, especially from the woodwinds. Add explosive dynamics and deep bass and you have yourself a genuine audiophile recording.

The sound is so rich you will not believe you are listening to an EMI. If more EMI records sounded like this we would be putting them on the site left and right. Unfortunately, in our experience the majority are thin, shrill and vague. Not so here.

Side One – Le Cid

A+++, so much bigger and livelier than the other copies we played. Huge size and scope, with an extended top, good texture to the strings, and lower strings that are rich and rosiny in the best tradition of vintage Deccas and RCAs.

As it stands it is clearly a Demo Disc of real power. It’s smooth and natural, which means you can really turn it up if you want that front row center seat.

Side Two – Scenes Pittoresques / The Last Sleep of the Virgin

A+ to A++, good, just clearly not as good as this amazing side one. It’s big, rich and spacious — 3-D in fact — but the string tone is not as warm and textured as it should be.

Which means it has some of that typically screechy EMI String Sound one often hears on their recordings.

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Our System Just Loves Certain Records – Why Do You Suppose That Is?

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Ted Heath

More Records that Are Good for Testing Tonality and Timbre

The highest fidelity vintage recordings are truly amazing if you can play them right. That’s a big if.

In fact, it may just be the biggest if in all of audio.

Be that as it may. What do we love about vintage pressings like the Ted Heath disc you see pictured?

The timbre of the instruments is hi-fi in the best sense of the word.

The unique sound of every instrument is being reproduced with remarkable fidelity on this old record.

That’s what we mean by “hi-fi,” not the kind of Audiophile Phony BS sound that passes for hi-fidelity on some records.

Older audiophile records, typically those made by Mobile Fidelity in the ’70s and ’80s, suffered from a common group of problems on practically every record they released:

A boosted top, a bloated bottom, and a sucked-out midrange.

Nowadays that phony sound is no longer in vogue. A new, but equally phony sound has taken its place.

What seems to be in vogue these days, judging by the Heavy Vinyl Reissue pressings we’ve played over the last few years, is a very different sound, with a very different suite of shortcomings.

These newer records, with few exceptions, tend to be compressedthickdullopaque, veiled, recessed and lacking in ambience.

These are currently the hallmarks of the Heavy Vinyl LP. Whether made by Speakers Corner, DCC, AP or any other label, starting at some point in the mid-’90s, the sound these labels apparently preferred had an infuriating tonal balance problem we noted in practically every record we played — sound that was just too damn smooth.

The phony boosted highs of the bad old days are gone, replaced by the phony rolled off highs of today.

(Bernie Grundman cut hundreds of records for Classic Records starting in the ’90s, and it’s clear he chose to go a different way, but his way turned out to be every bit as problematical.)

Are the audiophiles who buy these new, super-smooth records any better off?

The ones with bright, phony systems probably are.

As we have been saying for years, first you need to have reasonably good sound. Then you can buy records that actually are good.

Last Question

How do we know we are right about the tonality issues of these modern remasterings?

Stay tuned for part two of this commentary.

The Ideal System for an Exceptionally Well Recorded Album

It’s clear our stereo loves this record. Let’s talk about why that might be the case.

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Turntable Tweaking Advice – Try This at Home, It Worked for Us

More Advice on Setting Your Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA)

Hot Stamper Pressings of Revolver Available Now

This commentary was written around 2010 or so.

The Mapleshade website has a piece of audio advice that caught the eye of one our customers, who sent me the excerpt below.  

Like most advice, especially Audio Advice, we find that some of it accords well with our own experience and some of it clearly does not. The relationship of good to bad is hard to determine without making a more careful study, but let’s just say that there is plenty of both and leave it at that. That being the case, we thought it would be of service to our customers to break it down in more detail, separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

Here is the complete quote:

To get first rate sound and to get your money’s worth from any expensive cartridge, you MUST meticulously adjust VTA or tracking force every 3-4 months — that’s because stylus suspensions always sag with use. This lowers VTA and seriously kills dynamics and treble sparkle. Lots of people misinterpret this as a worn-out cartridge, an expensive error. Instead, raise VTA or lighten tracking force until your test record’s treble sounds too harsh, then drop VTA or lighten tracking force a hair. Your test record must not be thicker or thinner than the bulk of your record collection. Adjusting tracking force yields slightly better sonic results and longer cartridge life than adjusting VTA — and adjusting tracking force on most arms is WAY easier than adjusting VTA.

The basic idea here is that your cartridge sags over time, causing the VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) to change, which results in less dynamics and “treble sparkle.”

(By the way, this is a term you will encounter on this blog as a criticism. Treble should never “sparkle,” but we get the point. We make fun of the sparkly sound Mobile Fidelity records are famous for, a sound which bugs the hell out of us, but which does not seem to bother some audiophiles. We assume their speakers or systems lack top end and need a bit of a boost up there. Our Townshend Super Tweeters allow us to hear all the top end there is on the records we play, unboosted, thank you very much.)

So, with this idea in mind, after doing a serious shootout with Revolver and hearing a Triple Plus side one with amazing bass and energy, we decided to reduce the tracking weight on our Triplanar arm a tiny, tiny, practically non-existent amount, something in the range of 1/100th of a gram perhaps (we do not use gauges of any kind for setup as they cannot be trusted. They have all proven to be much too crude relative to what our ears tell us).

Taxman

Cueing up Taxman, we immediately we’re knocked out by the amazing bass line that came jumping out of the left speaker. It was bigger and punchier than we had ever heard it! Wow — who knew? I thought it was amazing before. Hell, it was amazing before, the best I had ever heard it, all of ten minutes ago. (more…)

Supertramp and 1977 Ears – There’s No Going Back

supereveni_1506_1x

More of the Music of Supertramp

Reviews and Commentaries for Even in the Quietest Moments

I grew up on this album. The first Supertramp album I ever bought was Crime of the Century on Mobile Fidelity. (Every audiophile bought that one; MoFi sold over a hundred thousand of them. And why not? The sound was killer on the systems of the day. Lots of slam down low, lots of extra top up high, just what the Old School Stereos of the day, like mine, needed.)

Crisis? What Crisis?, followed in 1975. It was the Supertramp album that sent me over the top. I played that album relentlessly. Before long Art Rock was my thing. Roxy Music, 10cc, Eno, Crack the Sky, ELO, Bowie – it’s all I wanted to listen to back then.

A year and a half later EITQM followed in 1977. It too became a staple of my musical diet. Man I played that record till the grooves were worn smooth.

I thought the sound was killer at the time, too. Crisis was a demo disc at my house and this was right up there with it. Now the obvious question is, did I have a good sounding copy, or did my stereo not reveal to me the shortcomings of my LP? Or maybe my ears were not well enough trained to hear what was wrong.

Those of you who have been doing this for a long time know the answer: any or all of the above, probably all, and nobody can know just how much of each.

And there is no way to find out because you are not that person anymore.

Your 1977 Ears… and Mine

Even if you could recreate your old stereo and room, and find your original copy, there’s one thing you can’t do, and that’s listen to it with your 1977 ears. Every time you play a record and listen to it critically, your ears get better at their job. If you do a lot of critical listening your ears should be very good by now. You no doubt listen for things you never listened for before. This is simply the way it works. You don’t really have to try that hard to get better, it happens quite naturally.

So now the half speed sucks when it used to sound good. (Such is the case with practically all audiophile records; the better you get at listening, the worse they tend to sound.)

And now, with your better stereo and better ears, when you drop the needle on some copy you picked up of Even in the Quietest Moments, expecting to hear the glorious sound you remember from your youth, it’s a huge letdown — so grainy, thin, and edgy, with blurry bass.

On top of that the whole sordid mess is stuck somewhere back behind the speakers, like the sound you hear from an old cassette.

It’s not the record you remember, that’s for sure.

The Good News

The good news is that ten years later and more copies than we care to remember we think we’ve got EITQM’s ticket. We now know which stampers have the potential to sound good as well as the ones to avoid. Finding the right stampers (which are not the original ones for those of you who know what the original stampers for A&M records are) has been a positive boon.

Once we figured them out we were in a much better position to hear just how well recorded the album is. Now we know beyond all doubt that this recording — the first without Ken Scott producing and engineering for this iteration of the band — is of the highest quality, in league with the best. Until recently we would never have made such a bold statement. Now it’s nothing less than obvious.

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Mapleshade Thinks Female Vocals Are Good for Turntable Setup

Years ago, in a section on their site, Mapleshade recommended a female vocal for turntable setup and mentioned Blue by name.

How much deep punchy bass is there on Blue? Barely a trace in the piano, that’s it. Blue is a good record for testing some sonic qualities, not at all good for testing others.

Our advice: do not limit yourself to a female vocal recording when setting up your turntable.

We use Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular because it is BIG. How big is Blue? How big can it get? How big is it supposed to be? (We asked that very question about a Heart album we liked to test with years ago. As you can imagine, it is an impossible question to answer when one has only a single copy of the album.)

Blue is simply not a good test for size, power, weight or energy.

These things are very important to us — we talk about them in almost every Hot Stamper listing we write — and if you are not the kind of audiophile BS record lover whose collection is full of Sarah McLachlan and Patricia Barber “vinyls,” they should be every bit as important to you as they are to us.

They are what make music fun and exciting. Don’t you want your music to be fun and exciting? We sure do. It’s practically a three word definition for the kinds of records we sell.

For this same reason, female vocals should not be used exclusively when judging turntables either.

Cheap turntables — you know the kind — with no real energy, solidity or weight, can still do a very good job reproducing female vocals.

Not so good on Revolver, Back in Black, 88 Basie Street, Scheherazade or anything else on this list.

But if you have your speakers too far apart like this guy, a good female vocal would be just the thing to show you the error of your ways.

Regarding speakers, Blue is the kind of record they are going to want to play you at an audio store to demonstrate how good their small speakers can sound.

Small speakers may be able to play Blue, but they can’t play most of the records we love.


The KEF speakers you see pictured to the left retail for $8,999.

Yes, you read that right.

Roughly 2% of my record collection might play just fine on them. Perhaps less than 2%. Either way, I don’t want to find out.

If you are in the market for better speakers, here is some Speaker Advice you might find useful.


FURTHER READING

Robert Brook has some advice for those who would like to learn more about analog setup, and you can find it here.

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A Loaded Seismic Sink and the Remarkable Benefits of Testing and Tuning

One of our good customers, Robert Brook, writes a blog which he calls A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

Below is a link to the review he has written for one of our favorite ways to improve the sound of any stereo, the Townshend Seismic Sink.

LOADING the TOWNSHEND SEISMIC PLATTER Brings Your SYSTEM TO LIFE!

A few years back I discovered something wonderful about the Seismic Sink I was using under my turntable to control vibration. (In our experience, vibration control is one of the most important Revolutionary Changes in Audio of the last twenty years or so.)

We sell the Seismic Sink and this is what I wrote to a customer who recently bought one:

Play your most complex test discs, the ones that are hardest to get to sound right. Classical is the toughest test if you have some, but Pet Sounds is tough too. [I knew he was a fan and had a good copy of the album.]

Listen to one or two for a good while, at least 20-30 minutes, to know exactly what you are hearing on the tracks you know to play.

Put the sink under the table. (You can also put it under your receiver, that works great too.)

Then play those tracks again.

Go back and forth a few times.

It should be pretty obvious what is going on.

Then read Robert Brook’s post.

Here is a very special tip.

The sound changes depending on how the seismic sink is “loaded.”

This means two things:

Where the weight is on the sink.

For my receiver I have it all the way to the front of the sink. Sounds clearly better that way.

For the table, I have it weighted down with thin but heavy steel plates, about one quarter inch thick, about 4 inches by 8 inches. You can get them at Home Depot and the like.

This may be too advanced for your system and your skills [not an insult, he knows he is new to the game], but any amount of weight changes the sound, so you keep adding weights until you get to the top of the hill and start heading down.

Sounds easy enough, takes a lot of critical listening to pull it off, but this is how your ears get good at hearing small changes.

Good luck. We are here to help, now that I am retired and do almost nothing but write on my blog. (more…)

Audiophile Wire Testing with Jethro Tull and His Friend Aqualung

More of the Music of Jethro Tull

Reviews and Commentaries for Aqualung

… who seems to have a rather nasty bronchial condition…

[This commentary is from 2008 or so I’m guessing. Still holds up though.]

Like Heart’s Little Queen album, Aqualung presents us with a Demo Disc / Test Disc that really puts a stereo through its paces, assuming it’s the kind of stereo that’s designed to play an album like Aqualung.

Not many audiophile systems I’ve run across over the years were capable of reproducing the Big Rock Sound this album requires, but perhaps you have one and would like to use the album to test some of your tweaks and components. I used it to show me how bad sounding some of the audiophile wire I was testing really was.

Here’s what I wrote:

A quick note about some wire testing I was doing a while back. My favorite wire testing record at the time (2007)? None other than Aqualung!

Part One

Here’s why: Big Whomp Factor. Take the whomp out of Aqualung and the music simply doesn’t work, at all. To rock you need whomp, and much of Aqualung wants to rock.

Part Two

But not all of it. Some of it is quite pretty, so you must make sure to preserve the breathy flutes and recorders, and the delicate harmonics in the strummed acoustic guitar parts. That’s more or less the job of the top end; the whomp is the bottom end’s job. There’s no real mystery to either of those sonic elements.

Part Three

But the third and most important quality Aqualung has that makes it an ideal test disc is the honky midrange it has in places, especially in the “singing through a telephone” break in the middle of the title track. Why is this important?

Simply because many audiophile wires lean out the lower midrange and boost the upper midrange, which adds “clarity” and “detail” to the sound. (Detail can be a trap, something we discuss here.)

It’s not always easy to tell that that’s what’s really happening if you play the typical audiophile test record (whatever that may be. I don’t use them but I suspect there might be others that do.) On Aqualung that extra boost in the voice is positively ruinous. It already has a little problem there, so if that problem gets worse, it’s easy to spot.

Phony Audiophile Sound

The phony “presence” of most audiophile wire is exactly what Aqualung helps to guard against, because Aqualung doesn’t need any more presence.

It needs rich, full-bodied, punchy sound, with plenty of weight from 250 Hz on down. These are qualities found in few audiophile interconnects or speaker wires in my experience.

Come to think of it, none of the audiophile wires I’ve tried in the last two or three years [this was 15 years ago] would pass the Aqualung test. (I used different recordings before the recent discovery of the Hot Stamper Aqualung, but the recordings I used all showed up the same problems in wire after wire.)

Wire shootouts are very frustrating. Most wires do wonderful things in some part of the frequency spectrum — that’s why their inventors and proponents love them so much. They are often highly resolving and amazingly transparent.

But what they give with one hand they take away with the other — leaning out the sound, transforming rock records that used to really rock into rock records that kinda rock. When that happens I put them in their fancy boxes and ship them back from whence they came.

An Invitation

Here’s an idea. Next time you want to test some audiophile wire, invite your non-audiophile friends over to hear Aqualung with the new wires. My guess is they’re less likely to be fooled by the wire’s tricks than we audiophiles would be. They’ll know when the music works and when it doesn’t; you’ll be able to see it on their faces.

It’s easy to lose sight of what this hobby is all about when the money and the egos and the “new improved technologies” all get mixed up with the sound.

Fortunately Aqualung doesn’t care about all that crap. That’s why he’s a good guy to keep around.

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Ambrosia – Recent Revolutions in Audio Can Make a Huge Difference on Familiar Recordings

This White Hot Stamper Ambrosia LP from some years ago had the kind of sound you would never expect to find in the grooves of this album. It was a THRILL to hear it, especially at the volumes at which we were playing the record.

The transparency and openness were off the charts, and unmatched by any other copy in our shootout. We’re big fans of this band here at Better Records — we love their take on complex, big production arty rock.

It’s also yet another example of the value of taking part in the myriad revolutions in audio.

If you never want your prized but sonically-challenged records to sound any better than they do right now, this minute, don’t bother to learn how to clean them better, play them back better or improve the acoustics of your room.

No one can make you do any of those things. The only reason you might have for doing them is so that you can enjoy more of your favorite music with much better sound. 

Is that a good enough reason? If you’re on this site I’m guessing it is.

That’s the reason we do it. We want records like this one, which didn’t start sounding good until about 2005, and now sound MUCH better than I ever thought they could, to keep getting better and better. Why shouldn’t they? Because some people think we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns in audio? Those people do not know what they are talking about.

(There is a reference to racing cars in the WAPO article[1] which is pure poppycock, or at least those of us who have been in audio for a long time know it is. Lap times are not a good analogy. We need to be thinking about immersive experiences being ten times more immersive for a hundred times as many recordings as was possible when I started.)

And these improvements we talk about so much have allowed us to enjoy records we could never fully enjoy before because they never really sounded all that good to us.

Now they do, and they will keep getting better, as more and more developments come along in all areas of analog reproduction.

Some reviewers think they know when records are not well recorded

Music Does the Driving

As a newbie audiophile, I went out of my way to acquire any piece of equipment that could make my favorite records from the ’70s (the decade of my formative music-buying years) sound better than whatever gear I currently owned.

It’s the challenging recordings by Ambrosia, as well as scores of other pop and rock artists like them, that drove my pursuit of higher quality audio, starting all the way back in high school.

Because the love of your favorite music is the only driving force in audio that can possibly work if you want to have world class sound.

The Real Test for Audiophiles

And here I am — here we are — still at it, forty years later, because the music still sounds fresh and original, and the pressings that we find get better and better with each passing year.

That kind of progress is proof that we’re doing it right. It’s a good test for any audiophile. If you are actively and seriously pursuing this hobby, perhaps as many as nine out of ten non-audiophile pressings in your collection should sound better with each passing year.

As your stereo improves, not to mention your critical listening skills, the shortcomings of some will be revealed, but for the most part, with continual refinements and improvements to your system, room and (especially) cleaning techniques, vintage pressings of your favorite albums should get better sounding with each passing year.

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Making Mistakes and Finding Better Sounding Records

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

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.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” 

Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies

When I think of the 20 odd years (early ’70s to early ’90s) I wasted trying to figure out how audio works before I had much in the way of critical listening skills, it brings to mind that old Faces’ song, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

Learning how to do shootouts for your favorite albums is without a doubt 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 carefully and critically as possible.

We do not recommend devoting much time to reading about them in magazines or on forums.

We also would dissuade the serious record collector from paying much attention to what the most sought after or most expensive pressings are. Records have market prices based on a host of factors that mostly have nothing to do with sound quality.

And don’t think you can “logically” predict which pressings should sound the best and then just go about acquiring them.

None of these methods are likely to produce good results.

Making mistakes will though. And the more you make, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to recognize and pursue good records. It also makes it easy to part with your bad ones. The latter group we hope will include the majority of your holdings of Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered Recordings. At best those should be seen as placeholders. They’ll do until something better comes along. And considering how mediocre so many newly remastered records are, “something better’ should not be hard to find.

And the better developed your critical listening skills become, the less likely “they’ll do” at all. They’ll just get put on a shelf. It has been our experience that good records get played and bad records don’t.


FURTHER READING

More of the Music of David Crosby

More of the Music of Stephen Stills

More of the Music of Graham Nash

More of the Music of Neil Young

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Little Feat / Waiting For Columbus – We Broke Through in 2017

Little Feat Albums with Hot Stampers

Little Feat Albums We’ve Reviewed

More Breakthrough Pressing Discoveries

A classic case of Live and Learn

In 2009 we had this to say about a Hot Stamper pressing we listed:

This German import pressing of Waiting for Columbus is much better sounding than the typical Mastering Lab-mastered copy.

This German pressing is similar to one that came from my own personal collection, accidentally discovered way back in the early ’80s as I recall. It KILLED my domestic original, and got some things right that even my treasured Mobile Fidelity pressing couldn’t. We have been meaning to do a shootout for this album for at least the last five years, but kept running into the fact that in a head to head shootout the right MoFi pressing — sloppy bass and all — was hard to beat.

This is no longer the case, courtesy of that same old laundry list you have no doubt seen on the site countless times: better equipment, tweaks, record cleaning, room treatments, etcetera, etcetera. Now the shortcomings of the MoFi are clear for all to see, and the strengths of the best non-half-speed mastered pressings are too, which simply means that playing the MoFi now is an excruciating experience.

All I can hear is what it does wrong. I was so much happier with it when I didn’t know better.

That same laundry list continued to pay big dividends, and right around 2017 or so the best original domestic Mastering Lab copies started to sound much more right to us than the German ones.  The German pressings can be good, but the TML pressings are the only ones we expect to win shootouts from now on.

But who knows? We could find something even better down the road. That’s what shootouts are for. (more…)