Making Audio Progress

It can be done. Here are some ideas.

Sometimes the Most Fundamental Questions in Audio Are Simply Overlooked

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This commentary is about two things — knowing the kind of music you like, and getting the kind of sound you want.

If you believe what you read on the various sites where audiophiles freely dispense advice about everything under the sun regarding music, recordings and equipment, you are asking for trouble and you are surely going to get it. You will encounter an endless supply of half-truths, untruths and just plain nonsense, more often than not defended tooth and nail by those with typing skills but not much enthusiasm for the tedium of tweaking and critical listening. 

What kind of equipment are these people using? How deep is their experience in audio? Truth be told, I was pretty misguided myself during the first ten (or twenty, gulp) years I spent in audio, reading the magazines (I still have my Stereophiles and Absolute Sounds from the ’70s in boxes in the garage), traipsing from stereo store to stereo store, trying to figure out what constituted Good Sound so that I could manage to get my own equipment to produce something like the best I heard.

Most of the time what I heard made me want nothing to do with that kind of sound.

Questions

I sympathize with those who have trouble making sense of this hobby. It can be very confusing, especially to the neophyte. It takes a long time (with plenty of effort and money expended along the way) to be able to answer some of the most fundamental (and most often overlooked) questions in audio:

1) What kind of music do you like?

2) What kind of sound do you prefer?

Armed with answers to the above two, the next question to be asked is:

3) What equipment will best be able to give you the sound you prefer on the music you like, within the limits of your budget, room, Wife Acceptance Factor, etc.

If you haven’t been doing this audio stuff for at least ten years you probably don’t know the answers to those last two questions. In other words, you still have a lot to learn. (I know people who have been doing it for far longer than that and still don’t have a clue.) I may not have all the answers, but after being in audio for more than thirty years, about half of that full-time (full-time being sixty to seventy-plus hours a week), I can say without embarrassment that I have some of them. And for the most part I got them the old-fashioned way: I earned them.

Do You Like Rock Music?

Then make sure you buy speakers that can play rock music.

Don’t buy screens, panels or little boxes with subs.

They may be cheap, they may have pretty good Wife Acceptance Factor, but they do a piss-poor job of playing rock music, so do yourself a favor and avoid them. Rock needs dynamic drivers, the more the better and the bigger the better. There is no substitute for piston power when you want to rock.

When you walk into your audio showroom and for your budget they show you a little two-way box with a six or eight or even ten inch woofer, walk out and go somewhere else. Find another way. That speaker won’t play the music you love, not properly anyway. It cannot do the job you need it to do, and that makes it mostly a waste of money.

Teach Yourself

So how do you learn about all this stuff?

Audio friends and fellow travelers can be very helpful. You might also get some tips and ideas from magazines and websites.

But ultimately it’s up to you to teach yourself. Much of the commentary on the site has to do with the real nuts and bolts of the recordings we review — exactly what to listen for, precisely which sonic strengths and weaknesses can be found in which songs, and the like. This is what we listened for, it’s how we separated the wheat from the chaff, and we offer it on the site as a guide to help you recreate the very same magic on your own stereo in your own home.

There are scores of pages of this kind of commentary throughout the site. We even created a special section for some of it, called Audio and Playback Advice with another group of links to Home Audio Exercises.

Why Do We Bother?

What other record dealer on the planet would bother? But we do it for a reason. We charge a lot of money for our best LPs. We want to help you understand and appreciate what makes our pressings special, so that when you buy them, you do so secure in the knowledge that the price will be more than justified by the quality of the sound when you get it home. Ultimately the records must speak for themselves. If we are going to charge hundreds and hundreds of dollars for fairly common rock records like After the Gold Rush or Rumours, those records better deliver, and deliver in a big way.

Tears For Fears – The Seeds Of Love – A Near Perfect Pop Masterpiece

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The band’s MAGNUM OPUS, a Colossus of Production to rival the greatest Prog, Psych and Art Rock recordings of all time. (Whew!)

When it comes to Genre Busting Rock I put this album right up at the top of the heap, along with several other landmark albums from the Seventies: Roxy Music’s first, The Original Soundtrack, Crime of the Century, Ambrosia’s first two releases, The Yes Album, Fragile, Dark Side of the Moon and a handful of others.

The Seeds Of Love is clearly the band’s masterpiece, and being able to hear it on a White Hot Stamper pressing is nothing short of a THRILL.

I have a long history with this style of Popular Music, stretching all the way back to the early ’70s. I grew up on Bowie, Roxy Music, 10cc, Eno, The Talking Heads, Ambrosia, Peter Gabriel, Supertramp, Yes, Zappa and others, individuals and bands that wanted to play rock music but felt shackled by the constraints of the conventional pop song. Nothing on Sowing the Seeds of Love fits the description of a Conventional Pop Song.

Which albums by The Beatles break all the rules? Side two of Abbey Road and the whole of The White Album, which is why both are Desert Island Discs for me. Can’t get enough of either one.

The Discovery of a Lifetime

When I discovered these arty rock bands in my early twenties I quickly became obsessed with them and remain so to this day.

My equipment was forced to evolve in order to be able to play the scores of challenging recordings issued by these groups and others in the ’70s. These albums informed not only my taste in music but the actual stereo I play that music on. I’ve had large dynamic speakers for the last four decades precisely because they do such a good job of bringing to life huge and powerful recordings such as these.

Tears For Fears on this and their previous album continue that tradition of big-as-life and just-as-difficult-to-reproduce records. God bless ’em for it. (more…)

Stravinsky / The Firebird / Dorati – A Mediocre Mercury Golden Import

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A mediocre reissue from Philips, bad enough to qualify for our Hall of Shame.

This is some truly dead as a doornail sound, sound which is not remotely competitive with the real Mercury pressings we’ve played lately. The FR pressings of the recording can be phenomenally good.  Even the later M2 pressings from Philips can be excellent. There is a commentary on this blog about them. Look under Dorati or Stravinsky.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s I actually used to like some of the Golden Import pressings.  That was a long time go, and thankfully our playback system is quite a bit more revealing than the one I had back in those days.

After playing literally tens of thousands of records since then, my critical listening skills are better too.

Now when I play these imports, they sound veiled, overly smooth, smeary and compressed, not too different from the average Philips pressing, which of course is what they are. They’re all pressed by Philips from the Mercury tapes.

Sadly, not much of the Mercury Living Presence sound has survived.

They’re good for audiophiles who care more about quiet surfaces than good sound.  We are firmly staked to the opposite side of that trade-off. Quiet vinyl means nothing if the sound is poor.

Our advice: Don’t waste your money.

Traveling Back in Time with Cat Stevens on Mobile Fidelity…

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to Hear It on Vintage Equipment

Our good customer Roger wrote us a letter years ago about his MoFi TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN, in which he remarked, “Sometimes I wish I kept my old crappy stereo to see if I could now tell what it was that made these audiophile pressings so attractive then.”

It got me to thinking. Yes, that would be fun, and better yet, it could be done. There are actually plenty of those Old School systems still around. Just look at what many of the forum posters — god bless ’em — are running. They’ve got some awesome ’70s Japanese turntables, some Monster Cable and some vintage tube gear and speakers going all the way back to the ’50s.

With this stuff you could in effect travel back in time, virtually erasing all the audio progress of the last 30 years. Then you could hear your MoFi Tea for the Tillerman sound the way it used to when you could actually stand to be in the same room with it.
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Nirvana / Nevermind – Live and Learn

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 wit this. Thanks!

Kind Regards,

Alex 

Alex,

That is not the pressing we like anymore I’m afraid. The imports can be good but they can’t win a shootout. 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:

We Was Wrong

An excerpt: (more…)

The Four Seasons – Tubes Versus Transistors

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In 2007 we did a shootout for this album and noted the following:

For those with better tube gear, the string tone on this record is sublime, with that rosin-on-the-bow quality that tubes seem to bring out in a way virtually nothing else can, at least in my experience.

Our experience since 2007 has changed our view concerning the magical power of tubes relative to transistors to bring out the rosiny texture of bowed stringed instruments. We have in fact changed our minds completely with respect to that common belief.

Our transistor equipment — and by ours we mean the mysterious low-powered ’70s integrated amp we use, mated with the EAR 324P phono, making no claims whatsoever for any other transistor equipment of any kind — is dramatically faster, more transparent, dynamic and resolving than any tube equipment we have ever heard.

It is, simply put, much more TRUTHFUL. It is precisely this quality that is hardest to find in all of audio. It is also the one quality of our system that, more than any other, allows us to do our job accurately and efficiently.

Our equipment lets us hear the sound of the record being played, uncolored and unadorned. It also has the added benefit of sounding to us more like live music. 

Yes, we know, we haven’t heard every piece of tube gear in the world. There may indeed be something out there with even more of the qualities we recognize in live music than we are currently capable of reproducing with our transistor equipment.

We remain open-minded as always, but intensely skeptical — a combination that has certainly served us well over the 33 years we have been in the business of selling records to audiophiles.

Yes, for a while I actually owned a pair of Mac 30 amps from circa 1954!

They were not 99.60% perfect by any stretch of the imagination. To this day they are the most Tubey Magical, most colored and inaccurate amp I have ever heard in my life, and I have heard more than my share.

If this is your idea of good sound, you are wasting your time reading this blog. Get better equipment, learn to listen to it critically, and then come back so that you can discover for yourself that what you are reading here is true.

How Much Better Sounding Is a Stradavarius? A Primer on How to Get to the Truth (Which Works for Records Too)

A skeptical take on an old claim, using the Gold Standard of Double Blind Testing.

We evaluate records using something like double blind testing in the proprietary record shootouts we do five days a week. It’s what makes us unique in the world of record dealers and collectors. We allow the records to speak for themselves.

With the evaluation process we use, there can be no influence or bias from the reviewer’s preconceived notion of what pressing should sound best, because the person sitting in the listening chair does not have any way to know which pressing is actually playing.

This is not quite true for audiophile pressings, since the VTA must be adjusted for their thicker vinyl. The way such evaluations are done is simple enough however. We play a top quality Hot Stamper pressing, typically one that received a grade of White Hot (A+++), check the notes for what the test tracks are and what to listen for, and then proceed to test the Heavy Vinyl pressing on those same tracks, listening for those qualities.

It rarely takes more than a few minutes to recognize the myriad faults of the average audiophile pressing.  When played head to head against an exceptional vintage LP, the audiophile pressing’s shortcomings become all too obvious. Again and again, the audiophile pretender is found to be at best a second- or  third-rate imitation of the real thing, if not downright awful.

How the sound of the modern remastered mediocrity has managed to impress so many self-identified audiophiles is shocking to those of us who have been working to get the best sound from our records for a very long time, developing both our systems and our critical listening skills over the decades.

In defense of these surprisingly easily-impressed audiophiles, I should point out that even we were fooled twenty years ago by many of the Heavy Vinyl records produced around that time, such as those on the DCC label and some by Speakers Corner, Cisco and others. It took twenty years to get to where we are now, taking advantage of much better equipment, better cleaning technologies, better room treatments, and the like, most of which did not even exist in 2000.

A turning point came in 2007 with the Rhino pressing of Blue, a record that made us ask, “Why are we selling records that we would not want to own or listen to ourselves?”

In closing, there is one fact that cannot be stressed enough, which may seem like a tautology but is nevertheless axiomatic for us: Doing record shootouts, more than anything else, has allowed us to raise our critical listening skills to the level needed to do record shootouts properly.

Without that process, one which we painstakingly developed over the course of the last twenty-five years, we could not possibly do the work we have set out for ourselves: to find the best sounding versions of the most important music ever pressed on vinyl.

Little Feat – Waiting For Columbus – We Was Wrong in 2009

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We used to think that:

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 would be 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…)

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto – Misty – Reviewed in 2010

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This is a Factory Sealed 33 RPM Three Blind Mice 180g LP which comes highly recommended! This was the first Three Blind Mice recording I ever heard, over 20 years ago. A fellow audiophile who went on to become sort of an audio guru for me (George Louis) played me this record to demonstrate his stereo. It had to be the most dynamic piano recording I had ever heard in my life. 

Yamamoto likes to tinkle the keys very softly, and then really pound them. And the Three Blind Mice engineers were able to capture both the quiet tinkling because of the Japanese vinyl, and the full-on pounding because of the audiophile recording equipment they used. It was an ear-opening experience.

Over the course of the next year or two, I sold off my Fulton Premiers and my Audio Research Electronics, because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get Misty to sound like it did at George’s house. I realized that it takes better equipment than those companies ever produced to get the sound of that record right, and that put me on, to quote Cat Stevens, ”the road to find out’.’ (more…)

Paul McCartney – Unplugged – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.  

WHITE HOT STAMPERS and QUIET VINYL on BOTH SIDES make this the best copy of McCartney’s Unplugged to ever hit the site! We just finished a huge shootout for this Better Records favorite and this pressing really blew us away, clearly the best sounding on both sides out of a big stack of copies. The sound is rich, full-bodied and amazingly present, with the kind of jumpin’-out-of-the-speakers sound that you only get on the best pressings.

This copy will put you front and center for the acoustic Paul McCartney concert of your dreams!

In the final round of shootouts on both sides, this copy showed itself as clearly superior in terms of transparency and three-dimensionality, as well as having the most rock solid bottom end. To sum it up, my notes read “so real”, which is exactly what makes this copy THE one to have. This is Paul and his mates LIVE in your listening room like you have never heard them before!

This copy, more so than any of the others, gave us the feeling that we were right there in the audience for the taping of this amazing performance. It made other copies sound like records — good records, but records nonetheless. This one has the IMMEDIACY of a live show, one which just happened to be fronted by one of the greatest performers in the history of popular music, Sir Paul McCartney.

What Hot Stampers Give You For This Album

On the best copies, the sound is warmer, richer, and sweeter, or in a word, more ANALOG sounding. You get more extension up top, more weight down low, and more transparency in the midrange. It’s surprising how veiled and two-dimensional so many copies are, considering this is a live recording with not a lot of processing after the fact. (more…)