Making Audio Progress

It’s not easy — nothing is in fact harder, but it can be done. Here are some ideas.

Steely Dan – A Killer Can’t Buy a Thrill (and Some Lessons We Learned)

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

During our shootouts, when we drop the needle on a copy and don’t hear that “Hot Stamper” sound, we toss that one and move on to the next. The difference between a truly Hot Stamper and most copies is so obvious that we rarely waste time on the pressings that clearly don’t have any real magic in their grooves.

Like we’ve said after some of our other Steely Dan Hot Stamper shootouts, you would never imagine how good this album can sound after playing the average copy, which is grainy, compressed and dead as the proverbial doornail. It’s positively criminal the way this well-recorded music sounds on the typical LP.

And how can you possibly be expected to appreciate the music when you can’t hear it right? The reason we audiophiles go through the trouble of owning and tweaking our temperamental equipment is we know how hard it is to appreciate good music through bad sound. Bad sound is a barrier to understanding and enjoyment, to us audiophiles anyway.

We Was Wrong About the Sound

Years ago – starting with our first shootout in 2007 for the album as a matter of fact – we had put this warning in our listings:

One thing to note: this isn’t Aja, Pretzel Logic or Gaucho (their three best sounding recordings). We doubt you’ll be using a copy of Can’t Buy A Thrill to demo your stereo.

We happily admit now that we got Can’t Buy a Thrill wrong. It’s actually a very good sounding record – rich, smooth, natural, with an especially unprocessed quality.

In that sense it is superior to most of their catalog; better than Countdown to Ecstasy, Katy Lied, Royal Scam and maybe even Gaucho. You could easily use the album to demo your stereo. (more…)

Who Can’t Hear Differences in Sound from Side to Side on Most Records?

rimskscheh_2446More of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Our Favorite Performance of Scheherazade – Ansermet with the Suisse Romande

Both the Chesky [1] and Classic reissue pressings of LSC 2446 are just plain terrible. Embarrassingly the latter is found on the TAS List.

There is a newly remastered 33 RPM pressing of the album garnering rave reviews in the audiophile press. We didn’t like it either. It fails the violin test that we wrote about here.

Please note that in many of the reviews for the new pressing, the original vinyl used for comparison is a Shaded Dog pressing. In our experience almost no Shaded Dog pressings are competitive with the later White Dog pressings, and many of them are just plain awful, as we have noted previously on the site.

rimskscheh_chesky

The “original is better” premise of most reviewers renders the work they do practically worthless, at least to those of us who take the time to play a wide variety of pressings and judge them on the merits of their sound, not the color of their labels.

Missing the Obvious

The RCA White Dog with the best side two in our shootout had a very unmusical side one. Since reviewers virtually never discuss the sonic differences between the two (or more) sides of the albums they audition, how critically can they be listening? Under the circumstances how can we take anything they have to say about the sound of the record seriously?

The sound is obviously different from side to side on most of the records we play, often dramatically so (as in the case of Scheherazade), yet audiophile reviewers practically never seem to notice these obvious, common, unmistakable differences in sound, the kind that we discuss in every listing on the site. If they can’t hear the clear differences in sound from side to side, doesn’t that call into question their abilities at the most basic level?

Heavy Vinyl

For us it is this glaring obtuseness that best explains the modern audiophile reviewer’s infatuation with Heavy Vinyl. Poor reproduction or poor listening skills, it could be one or the other; most likely it’s some combination of the two (they clearly do go hand in hand, no surprise there). We can never be sure exactly where the fault lies. But do we really need to concern ourselves with the reasons for their striking lack of competence?

One final note of honesty. Even as recently as the early 2000s we were still somewhat enamored with many of the better Heavy Vinyl pressings (not many of the Living Stereo reissues I hasten to point out). If we had never made the progress we’ve worked so hard to make over the course of the last ten or fifteen years perhaps we would find more merit in the reissues these reviewers prefer.

We’ll never know of course; that’s a bell that can be unrung. We did the work, we can’t undo it, and the system that resulted from it is merciless in revealing the truth — that these newer pressings are second-rate at best and much more often than not third-rate and worse.

Setting higher standards — no, being able to set higher standards — in our minds is a clear mark of progress. We know that many of our customers feel the same way.

[1] Chesky proudly touted their approach to mastering as simply making a flat transfer from the original RCA tapes. If you know much about records, you know these tapes were never supposed to be transferred without EQ and such, whatever interventions were deemed necessary by those who do this sort of work for a living.

Flat transferring the tapes is an idea that holds great appeal to the kind of hubristic and clueless audiophiles who think they know something real mastering engineers must have missed. This guy comes to mind, but there are no doubt plenty of others out there in Audiophile Record Land just like him, and plenty to buy the awful sounding records he’s made.


FURTHER READING

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Heavy Vinyl Commentaries and Reviews

Nirvana – Live and Learn

Reviews and Commentaries for Nirvana

More on the Subject of Bad Audiophile Record Collector Thinking

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

Hey Tom, 

I have purchased about 85 LPs from you in the past 10 years, many of the various types of hot stampers. I was looking at an 11/18/06 article of yours, which said you would verify if my Nirvana/Nevermind LP “is the good one” if I would send you the runout information of side 2.

Well here it is: A339124425S2 320. Hoping you could help me with this. Thanks!

Kind Regards,

Alex 

Alex,

That is not the pressing we like anymore I’m afraid. That’s the old import pressing we used to like, but now we know that those pressings can be very good but they won’t win a shootout against the right domestic original LP. We have no info about that stamper still around either, sorry!

TP

That’s a drag as this is the exact pressing that I purchased from you on 11/18/06 due to an article where you said the following: “The perfect recording, the best of it’s kind, ever. The bass is perfect, the guitars are perfect. The vocals are perfect. Now how in the world could that be you ask?! This import is the first and only version that sounds the way it should: Perfect”. What is the deal here, have things changed so dramatically since then.. Your comments please.

Regards,

Alex

Alex,

It would be great to always be right about which are the best sounding records, but that is simply not possible. We discover new and better pressings for famous albums all the time, once every month or two on average I would say, which means that since 2006 we have found newer, better pressings than our former reference pressings at least a hundred times.

We write about it here under the heading Live and Learn.

An excerpt: (more…)

Sinatra At The Sands on Dahlquist DQ-10s – My Neophyte Audiophile Mind Is Blown

More of the Music of Frank Sinatra

Making Audio Progress

Back in the early ’70s this was actually the album that first introduced me to honest-to-goodness “audiophile” sound.  

I was at my local stereo store listening to speakers one day, and the salesman made a comment that the speakers we were listening to (the old Infinity Monitors with the Walsh tweeter) sounded “boxy.” I confessed to him that I didn’t actually know what that meant or what it would sound like if it weren’t boxy. 

So he hooked up a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10s and put Sinatra at the Sands on. I was amazed at how the sound just floated in the room, free from the speakers, presenting an image that was as wide and deep as the showroom we were in. That speaker may have many flaws, but boxiness is definitely not one of them.

This description is pretty close to what I thought I heard all those years ago

The presence and immediacy here are staggering. Turn it up and Frank is right between your speakers, putting on the performance of a lifetime. Very few records out there offer the kind of realistic, lifelike sound you get from this pressing.

This vintage stereo LP also has the MIDRANGE MAGIC that’s missing from the later reissues. As good as some of them can be, this one is dramatically more real sounding. It gives you the sense that Frank Sinatra is right in front of you.

He’s no longer a recording — he’s a living, breathing person. We call that “the breath of life,” and this record has it in spades. His voice is so rich, sweet, and free of any artificiality, you immediately find yourself lost in the music, because there’s no “sound” to distract you.

Or so I thought at the time.

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Rickie Lee Jones – Good Demo Disc / Bad Test Disc

More of the Music of Rickie Lee Jones

Reviews and Commentaries for Rickie Lee Jones’ First Album

RLJ’s first album is what we would consider a Good Demo Disc but a Bad Test Disc.

Meaning that this record can sound good on really crappy stereos — which explains why it is so often heard at stereo stores and at shows, where really crappy stereos are unusually plentiful.

But it’s not what the System Doctor ordered if the goal is to work out some problem or fault with the reproduction of all your other recordings. In other words, records like this can be misleading. 

Of course, all records have that quality to one degree or another, which is why you need to use a basket of recordings to make judgments about equipment.

Don’t rely on any given recording to be The Truth. None of them are.

Wait a minute. Perhaps I spoke too soon. (more…)

Got Nice Equipment? It’s a Good First Step, but Only a First Step

stereooldNew to the Blog? Start Here

Nice Equipment Is Only the First Step on the Long Long Road to Good Sound

The audio magazines that their reviewers write for are purveyors of what we consider to be one of the most pernicious falsehoods in all of audio — that buying more expensive equipment is the key to better sound. (Note that is is a falsehood, not a lie; they probably actually believe it.)

From the audiophile rags’ point of view, this makes perfect sense. They extoll the virtues of one piece of sexy hardware after another on page after page of their glossy magazines. The ten bucks a year you pony up to subscribe doesn’t even cover the cost of all that pretty paper. They make their real money by selling advertising to equipment manufacturers, who in turn advertise equipment they want you to buy. What are all the glossy pages of these magazines devoted to? The fawning and credulous discussion of the sexy equipment being advertised.

See how that works? It ain’t rocket science. These magazines have a vested interest in convincing you that the Newer and More Expensive the equipment you own, the better will be the sound in your home.

Wrongheaded Thinking

It’s easily demonstrated how wrongheaded this way of thinking is. If you’ve been in audio for any length of time at all, you know that one bad interconnect can ruin the sound of a stereo. We’ve all been there. All it takes is one little wire — the wrong wire in the wrong place — to make all that expensive equipment sound like shit.

Or a bad room. Or the speakers on the wrong wall. Or VTA too high. Or too low. Or a mismatch between the arm and cartridge. Or a mismatch between the speaker and amp. Or about 68 million other things, any one of which can turn the sound of all that sexy equipment into musically unpleasant dreck.

Suffering Through the Sound

Maybe you haven’t been there but I sure have. I’ve been hearing mega-buck crappy-sounding stereos my whole life, in every showroom in Los Angeles, at every Stereophile show I attended (thankfully I no longer have a need to go to them) and homes throughout the Southland. It’s not news to me that these high-dollar systems rarely sound good. It may come as a surprise to those who prize megabuck equipment, but I’ve suffered through more than my share of bad sound at the hands of gearheads with more money that audio sense.

Why do you think we talk so much on the site about Doing It Yourself? Testing yourself, challenging yourself, trying new things, adjusting this and changing that and seeing what works in your room with your records (which hopefully you bought from us so that we can all be sure they actually sound good).

Because there’s no other way to do it. We want you to have good sound at home so that you can appreciate the good sounding records we sell and continue spending your hard-earned money with us. If your stereo ain’t workin’ right, Hot Stampers won’t fix it. They can help, but they aren’t the solution. You are.

Necessary But Not Sufficient

Good equipment is an important part of proper music reproduction in the home, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

My rule of thumb is that 20% of the sound you hear is the equipment you bought and 80% of the sound comes from what you did with it: how you set it up, what you’ve done to treat your room, how good your electricity is and all the rest. It’s all over the site: here is the best place to see the broad contours of our argument.

These are the kinds of issues we deal with every day. How the stereo is sounding is CRUCIAL to our being able to do our job evaluating various pressings of recordings. We take every aspect of record reproduction very seriously. It’s what pays the bills around here, and we have plenty of bills to pay, so we make sure we are doing everything in our power to insure that the sound is absolutely the best it can be. At these prices it had better be.

On more than one occasion we’ve stopped in the middle of a shootout because the electricity had gone bad and caused the sound to go bad along with it. If you can’t hear the records at their best you’re just wasting your time trying to find Hot Stampers. By definition Hot Stampers have to sound great, and that means the stereo has to be capable of sounding great for us to find them.

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Seventies EMI Classical LPs and Vintage Tube Playback

More of the music of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

More on the Subject of Tubes in Audio

What to listen for on this album?

That’s easy: The all-too-common ’70s EMI harshness and shrillness.

We could never understand why audiophiles revered EMI the way they did back in the ’70s. Harry Pearson loved many of their recordings, but I sure didn’t. 

To this day, some of the records on the TAS List seem to me better suited to the Old School Audio Systems of the ’60s and ’70s than the modern systems of today. These kinds of records used to sound good on those older systems, and I should know, I had an Old School stereo and some of the records I used to think sounded good back in the day don’t sound too good to me anymore. For a more complete list of those records, not just the ones on the TAS List, click here.

I chalk it up — as I do most of the mistaken judgments audiophiles so often make about the sound of the records they play, my own judgments included — to five basic problem areas that create havoc when attempting to reproduce recorded music in the home:

  1. equipment shortcomings,
  2. poor setups,
  3. bad electricity,
  4. bad rooms, and
  5. poor record cleaning

As for equipment shortcomings, if you had vintage tube equipment back in the ’70s such as McIntosh, Marantz, etc. — I myself had an Audio Research SP3-A1 and a D-75a, later a D-76a — the flaws heard on most copies of this record wouldn’t be nearly as offensive as they are to those of us playing them on the much more revealing systems that exist today.

Today’s modern systems, painstakingly set up and tweaked through trial and error, in heavily treated rooms, using only records that have been subjected to the most advanced cleaning technologies — these are what make it possible to know what your records really sound like. 

The more revealing, more accurate systems of today are in fact what make it possible for us to find Hot Stamper pressings.

We used to not do our job nearly as well, and we talk about it in our Live and Learn section.

You, of course, have the option of hearing our records any way you like. They should sound amazing on your system and in your room, and we stand behind that claim with a 100% Money Back Guarantee. The cleaning and evaluation of the sound has been done.  The record is correct. All you need to do is play it back properly.

Not everyone can do that, and we do get returns from time to time of records we are pretty sure would be hard to beat. When we hear that someone’s Mobile Fidelity pressings sound better to them, we know there is nothing we can do but give such a person his money back. See one through five above.

However

With each improvement you make in your system, the kinds of high quality pressings we sell — we call them Hot Stampers — will continue to reveal the better sound that was always in their grooves.

This is not true for the Modern Heavy Vinyl reissue. The better a system gets, the more the faults of those pressings come to light.  This sad story is one that is all too common among our customers.


FURTHER READING

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

(more…)

Steely Dan on Japanese Vinyl – If You Are Serious About Audio, You Cop to Your Mistakes

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Katy Lied

And to think I used to swear by this pressing — specifically the 2000 Yen reissue, not the 1500 Yen original, which I never liked very much — another example of just how wrong one can be.

We happily admit to our mistakes because we know that all this audio stuff and especially the search for Hot Stampers is a matter of trial and error.

We do the trials; we run the experiments,

That’s the only way to avoid the kinds of errors most audiophiles make when it comes to finding the best sounding records.

Being skeptical of every claim you have not tested for yourself is key to getting good results from this kind of work.

Of course, being human we can’t help but make our share of mistakes. The difference is that we learn from them. We report the facts to the best of our ability every time out. 

Every record gets a chance to show us what it’s made of, regardless of where it was made, who made it or why they made it. 

If we used to like it and now we don’t, that’s what you will read in our commentary. Our obligation is to only one person: you, the listener. (Even better: you, the customer. Buy something already and see what you have been missing.)

On every shootout we do now, if the notes are more than six months old, we toss them out. They mean nothing. Things have changed, radically, and that’s the way it should be.

With each passing year you should be hearing more of everything in your favorite LPs.

That’s the thrill of this hobby — those silly old records just keep getting better. I wish someone could figure out how to make digital get better. They’ve had forty years and it still leaves me wanting more. You too I’m guessing.

Jethro Tull – A MoFi Disaster (But Some Folks Refuse to Believe It)

More of the Music of Jethro Tull

Reviews and Commentaries for Aqualung

Sonic Grade: D

[This commentary was written about fifteen years ago, perhaps more.]

We noted in our Hot Stamper review for Aqualung that the MoFi is a disaster, with the murky bloated DCC even worse. (We didn’t like the Classic either. We’re hard to please when it comes to Aqualung it seems.) 

But we used to like the MoFi and DCC just fine. What could possibly have changed?

It’s a long story, and a pretty long commentary, which we have excerpted from a customer’s letter, along with our reply. Note that we have edited our original commentary and his letter for the sake of brevity. Now the letter:

To: Tom Port,

As far as “Aqualung” is concerned, I have a Mobile Fidelity issue of this album which sounds great and being pressed on some of the best vinyl in the world by people who are known for their meticulous care with records, I don’t think that there would be much difference at all in the quality of different MoFi pressings of this or any of their records.

The key phrase here is “I don’t think that there would be much difference at all…”. You see, this is not something to think about, this is something to test. Thinking got this gentleman nowhere; testing might have had the opposite effect.

How About Abbey Road?

And speaking of MoFis all sounding the same, we had a MoFi that we called “the Killer MFSL Abbey Road of All Time” which sold for $500. Our average copy is about $75. Which one do you think sounded better? And how can there be that big of a difference in the sound of one MoFi relative to another?

Don’t ask me; we just play them and price them according to the sound. Those big questions I defer to Joe. He thinks he has the answers.

Old Hot Stampers

There were no Hot Stampers thirty years ago. This is a process that has been evolving over the course of many years, but for all practical purposes Hot Stampers as much more than a concept didn’t exist until sometime in the ’90s.

With continual improvements in our equipment, room acoustics, electrical quality, cleaning techniques and last but not least, listening skills, our audio world has turned completely upside down. 180 gram? Half-Speed Masters? Don’t make me laugh. We can beat that junk with one arm tied behind our back. It’s like taking candy from a baby.

Twenty Five Years Is a Lifetime in Audio

As for the MoFi being better than a record he used to have, ouch. Does Joe ever upgrade his equipment? Does anything ever change? I never liked the original domestic Aqualungs either, but as my stereo got better, my views changed one hundred and eighty degrees. The site is full of commentary to that effect for records too numerous to mention.

The MoFi is a forty year old record. If you’re using a forty year old system to play it, you might not notice all its faults. A stereo like that is so antiquated it can actually succeed in hiding them. But any decent modern system should make the shortcomings of that pressing woefully obvious and unbearable.

Joe, buddy, time for some new equipment. Toss that Technics and start hearing what’s really on your records. (On second thought, considering Joe’s approach to record collecting, that may not be such a good idea. Not to worry. Read below; Joe is totally on board with not doing anything.)

I’ve spent many years and good money obtaining the records in my collection. I don’t need to spend lots more replacing them with “hot stampers.”

Joe, you don’t need to replace your Aqualung or any other record you own with another copy. You don’t need to do anything, especially if you think it’s impossible for any pressing to sound better than the one you have. That seems to be the proposition you have put forth — you have the best, and that’s all there is to it. You “think” nothing can be better, therefore nothing can be better.

We, on the other hand, learn new things about records and equipment all the time; it’s what makes the hobby fun. The site is devoted to the idea that what we thought was true yesterday may not be true today.

Doing the Work

I may come across as a Know-It-All, but Know-It-Alls can’t learn anything, and I learn new things about records with every shootout. I can’t say I learn much from other audiophiles; a bit here and there.

Mainly I learn what I learn by doing the work that nobody else seems to want to do: playing scores of records against each other until the winners show their true colors.

Conducting rigorously controlled experiments with thousands of records has taught us everything we know. (Perhaps it would be better to say everything we think we know; we could be wrong. It happens a lot.) 

It’s a lot of work but how else can it be done? By thinking about which pressing should sound the best? Now do you see how silly that sounds?

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Joe Jackson – Get Rid of Grit and Grain The Right Way

More Records that Are Good for Testing Grit and Grain

More Records that Are Difficult to Reproduce

Jumpin’ Jive is one of the clearest examples of an album where it is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to make sure your stereo is running on good electricity before you make any attempt to play it. This is the kind of recording — bright, full of energy — that will bring most stereo systems to their knees. Of course, when you play a good copy and it really sounds good, it’s a record that rewards all the time and effort you’ve put into your system.

So much of the aggressiveness, grit and grain that we hear in immediate, high-energy recordings such as this are really the fault of the electricity feeding the stereo, not the fault primarily of the record or even the equipment used to play it.

Now it should be noted that this recording has a ton of high frequency information that will be difficult to reproduce on most systems. If you leave a lot of appliances and electronic devices plugged in around the house when you listen to your stereo, you can forget ever hearing this record right. The grit and grunge caused by polluted electricity will make this record practically unlistenable, at the levels we listen at anyway. (At lower levels most of the garbage is masked, one reason no doubt that audiophiles rarely turn their stereos up to anything approaching live levels.) 

So do as we do: unplug everything you can get your hands on before you sit down to listen. Make sure your tubes (if you have tube equipment) are nice and warm too.

Power Conditioning

We are not big fans of power conditioners for the most part. We think most of them do more harm than good. Loss of energy and dynamics are the key shortcomings of practically all of the units we’ve tested. If you have not tested your conditioners lately, try playing some lively, large-scale music without them in the system. You may notice quite a difference.

Or you may not — perhaps yours work right. Nobody can make that judgment but you, so it’s important to test these things regularly and carefully and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t buy into the hype; test and retest for yourself.

Our philosophy: Better to unplug devices and prevent their bad effects in advance rather than try to filter them out of the electrical system after the damage has been done.