Making Audio Progress

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

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 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 same qualities.

It rarely takes more than a few minutes to recognize the 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 proper shootouts. It’s how we became expert listeners.

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 pressings of the most important music ever pressed on vinyl.

To learn more about how to conduct your own shootouts and gain the critical listening skills that come from them, click here.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Hot Stamper Customer Reviews

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to the Fundamentals

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Making Audio Progress 

Advances in Playback Technology Are More Than Blind Faith

More of the Music of Eric Clapton

More of the Music of Steve Winwood

Reviews and Commentaries for Blind Faith’s Debut

In a 2007 commentary for the Hot Stamper pressing of Blind Faith we noted that:

When it finally all comes together for such a famously compromised recording, it’s nothing less than a THRILL. More than anything else, the sound is RIGHT. Like Layla or Surrealistic Pillow, this is no demo disc by any stretch of the imagination, but that should hardly keep us from enjoying the music. And now we have the record that lets us do it.

The Playback Technology Umbrella

Why did it take so long? Why does it sound good now, after decades of problems? For the same reason that so many great records are only now revealing their true potential: advances in playback technology.

Audio has finally reached the point where the magic in Blind Faith’s grooves is ready to be set free.

What exactly are we referring to? Why, all the stuff we talk about endlessly around here. These are the things that really do make a difference. They change the fundamentals. They break down the barriers.

You know the drill. Things like better cleaning techniques, top quality front end equipment, Aurios, better electricity, Hallographs and other room treatments, amazing phono stages like the EAR 324p, power cables; the list goes on and on. If you want records like Blind Faith to sound good, we don’t think it can be done without bringing to bear all of these advanced technologies to the problem at hand, the problem at hand being a recording with its full share of problems and then some.

Without these improvements, why wouldn’t Blind Faith sound as dull and distorted as it always has? The best pressings were made more than thirty years ago; they’re no different. What has to change is how you clean and play those pressings.

The Good News

The good news is that the technologies we recommend really do work. Now Blind Faith, the record, can do what it never could before: sound so good you can find yourself totally lost in the music. The best copies, played back properly, make you oblivious to the album’s sonic problems because, for the most part, they really weren’t the album’s problems, they were, to some extent, your problems.

They were mostly post-groove; you just didn’t know it. This is how audio works. The site is full of commentary discussing these issues. Rest assured that no matter how good you think your stereo sounds now, it can get better if you want it to, and that’s good news if you’re a fan of albums like Blind Faith.

Of course, let us not forget the old Garbage In, Garbage Out rule. You must have a good pressing if you want this album to sound good, and that’s precisely where we and our famous Hot Stamper Pressings come in.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Record Playback Advice 

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Boz Scaggs – Just Lucky I Guess

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Boz Scaggs

More Entries in Our Record Collecting for Audiophiles Section 

This commentary was written many years ago. It concerns a subject which does not get nearly enough discussion in the audiophile community: the subject of luck in audio and records.

I was very lucky many years ago when I bought some exceptionally good pressings of albums that went on to become personal favorites at the time and have remained so ever since.

No skill was involved, no knowledge, just dumb luck. Perhaps you will agree with me that much of life seems to work that way. Please to enjoy.

Silk Degrees

Most copies SEVERELY lack presence and top end. Dull, thick, opaque sound is far too common on Silk Degrees, which may account for some audiophiles finding the half-speed preferable. 

Despite all the bad sound I found for this album, I kept buying copies of this record in the hopes that someday I would find one that sounded good. I remember playing this record when it came out in ’76 and thinking that it sounded very good. So how is it that all the copies I’m playing sound so bad, or at the very least, wrong?

Well, the answer to that question is not too complicated. When you get the right pressing, the sound is excellent.

I must have had a good one 30+ years ago, and that’s why I liked the sound. The exact same thing happened to me with both Deja Vu and Ambrosia’s first album.

The copy I had picked up at random when I bought the album just happened to have very good stampers. (Keeping in mind that we don’t like to call a record Hot until it has gone through the shootout process, a subject we discuss in more depth here.

When you consider that Hot Stampers for both of those records are pretty unusual, I would say I was very lucky to get good sounding copies of those two masterpieces while everyone around me was buying crap.

To be clear, when I was buying these records, and even as late as when I wrote this commentary, I had much less revealing equipment and much lower standards. To my chagrin, the longer I have spent in this hobby, the more I have come to recognize that the two go together, and explain, more than any other single reason — although lots of other things are involved — the audiophile preference for badly remastered pressings.

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How Can Anybody Not Hear What’s Wrong with Old Records Like These?

beatlrubbeoriginalRecord Collecting – A Guide to the Fundamentals

More of the Music of Beatles

Reviews and Commentaries for Rubber Soul

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the kinds of sonic differences among pressings we describe, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified Audio Expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom.

A reviewer we all know well is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment: (more…)

Where Cheap Turntables Fall Flat – The Music of Franz Liszt

More Classical and Orchestral Music

Best Orchestral Performances with Top Quality Sound

Classical music is unquestionably the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge set-up. The Liszt recording you see pictured is a superb choice for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like.

One of the reasons $10,000+ front ends exist is to play large scale, complex, difficult-to-reproduce music such as Liszt’s two piano concertos. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you choose to, it would surely be the kind of record that can show you the sound your tens of thousands of dollars has paid for.

It has been my experience that cheap tables more often than not collapse completely under the weight of a mighty record such as this.
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Dave Brubeck / Time Out – We Happily Admit the Originals Are (Potentially) the Best Sounding

More of the Music of Dave Brubeck

Reviews and Commentaries for Time Out

Time Out is Yet Another Record We Have Been Obsessed with for a Very Long Time

This time around [2014] no other copy of Time Out could touch our good Six Eye Stereo pressings. They were simply in a league of their own.

If you’ve been with us for a long time you may remember that this was not always the case. We used to really like some 360s as I recall, as well as the original mono pressing. This time around, not so much. 

This time around most everything is different. Allow us to explain.

1. Our stereo is different; we’ve made quite a number of changes to it since our last big shootout for Time Out a few years back. We are strong proponents of Making Audio Progress.

2. We’re different; we have better (I would hope) listening skills. In fact I’m sure we listen for different qualities in a recording than we might have years ago.

3. Even more importantly, we don’t have the same pile of pressings we had years ago. They’re gone, replaced by a new batch. This new batch had some killer original pressings, some good 360s, and not much to speak of on the later labels. This comes under the heading of Moderately Helpful Title Specific Advice.

With a different batch we might have found a great sounding 360 pressing; we have to believe they exist, and we certainly can’t say that our best copy here could not have been bettered in some way. That would be foolish; anything can be bettered.

The next time we run this experiment, the results could be different.

[Update from 2021: we have run the experiment a number of times in the five yeas since this commentary was written, and the best Six Eye in the shootout has not been beaten yet. Yet.]

For us, in 2014 (and probably through 2015), this is it. This is the right sound. (more…)

Some Stereo Systems Make It Difficult to Find the Best Pressings

Decca and London Hot Stamper Pressings Available Now

Many London and Decca pressings lack weight down low, which thins out the sound and washes out the lower strings.

On some sides of some copies the strings are dry, lacking Tubey Magic. This is decidedly not our sound, although it can easily be heard on many London pressings, the kind we’ve played by the hundreds over the years.

If you have a rich sounding cartridge, perhaps with that little dip in the upper midrange that so many moving coils have these days, you will not notice this tonality issue nearly as much as we do.

Our 17Dx is ruler flat and quite unforgiving in this regard. It makes our shootouts much easier, but brings out the flaws in all but the best pressings, exactly the job we require it to do.

Here are some other records that are good for testing string tone and texture.

If you have vintage equipment, you never have to worry about the strings on your London orchestral recordings being overly dry sounding.

You haven’t solved the problem, obviously.  You’ve just made it much more difficult — impossible even — to hear what is really on your records.

Some audiophiles have gone down this road and may not even realize what road they are on, or where it leads. It is a dead end, assuming you want to make progress in this hobby. If you want to find Better Records, you need equipment that can distinguish good records from bad ones.

Vintage tube equipment is good for many things, but helping you find the best sounding records is not one of them.

A rack full of equipment such as the one shown here — I suspect it is full of transistors but it really doesn’t matter whether it is or isn’t — is very good at eliminating the subtleties and nuances that distinguish the best records from the second- and third-rate ones.

If you have this kind of electronic firepower, Heavy Vinyl pressings and Half-Speed Mastered LPs don’t sound nearly as irritating as they do to those of us without the kind of electronic overkill shown here. In my experience, this much hardware can’t help but get between you and the music you are playing.

This guy is the poster child for mistaking a rack of expensive components for the kind of equipment that can tell him how bad some records are, the Mobile Fidelity Kind of Blue in this case, which is very bad indeed. (Review coming, someday!)

We assume our customers can hear it — our good customer Conrad had no problem appreciating its shortcomings — but we are pretty sure our customers can recognize a good record from a bad one, otherwise they would not see the value in Hot Stampers, right?

But the blue lights look awesome, the stuff costs a fortune, and for those with better eyes than ears, it’s impressive as hell.

Good equipment is necessary but far from sufficient to get good sound, a subject we discuss here and at some length throughout the blog in our commentaries about audio equipment.

Why Are Some Common Subjects Concerning the Sound of Recordings Not More Widely Discussed?

Can we really be hearing all these characteristics of recordings that nobody else seems to be hearing? A few examples:

If audiophiles and audiophile reviewers are hearing these things on the records they review, in magazines and audiophile forums, why aren’t they discussing them? (Of course, they may in fact be discussing the hell out of them. I rarely read anything they write. But I don’t think they are discussing these things much. If they are, and you read them, please shoot me a link so that I can take part in the discussion.)

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Letter of the Week – “… going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in …”

This week’s letter comes from our good friend Franklin who was having some serious sound problems that were driving him crazy after moving his speakers from the long wall (not a good idea) to the short one (much better as a rule).

He already had one pair of Hallographs, which had helped his room problems quite a bit. We rely on three pair, and the second and third pair were a big improvement over the first, so we recommended another to Franklin, which, by the sound of this letter, seems to have worked miracles!

Hello Mr. Port,

Just to let you know what you already know about this LP. When I first received this ($500) LP and listened to it, I thought I had really messed up.

I didn’t hear all the nuances you described. I just put it away and forgot about it. What a BUMMER!!!!! But I decided to try it again after placing the new pair of Hallos. I moved them all over the place. I even have the floor marked all over with painter’s masking tape to remind me where the best spots are for the Hallos. Floor really looks funny.

Sometimes when you make a change, it seems to be better for some LPs but not others. But when a change impacts all the LPs positively, you know you are in the game. I am going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in. I will tweak some more but for now I’ll just enjoy.

Regards,
Franklin

Franklin,

Thanks so much for your letter. When your system is cookin’ and you’re hearing all your records sound better than ever, that’s when audio is FUN. You had to do a lot of work to get there and the good sound you are able to enjoy now is your reward.

It’s amazing to me how little audiophiles are interested in actually making their stereos sound better. You reap what you sew in this hobby. Mediocre sound is easy; good sound is very very hard — that’s why I so rarely hear anything outside of my own system that strikes me as any good. Most audiophiles haven’t worked very hard on their stereos and they have the sound to prove it.

We write a lot about the ENERGY and POWER found on the best pressings of some recordings; the BS&T record we sent you is a perfect example. It’s the kind of recording with so much going on that it is guaranteed to bring practically any stereo system to its knees. When a record such as this gets loud, all the problems of your stereo become impossible to ignore. (One reason The Turn Up Your Volume Test is such a great test; the louder the problem, the harder it is to ignore.)

Turn Down the Volume, or Solve the Problem?

Rather than simply turn down the volume, why not solve the problem? That’s what the Hallographs help you to do. All that energy that’s bouncing around your room is causing huge amounts of distortion.

If you’re like most audiophiles it’s one of the main reasons you can’t play your system loud. The sound will become strident, edgy and sour; the soundstage will lose its shape and collapse into a chaotic mess; the bass definition will go out the window, turn bloated and get up into the midrange where it had no business being .

These are mostly room problems. No matter how good your equipment is, these problems attend to most listening rooms. Concert halls aren’t twenty feet wide, but there sure are a lot of listening rooms that size, and smaller, which means room reflections are sending the sound waves crashing into each other all over the place. (more…)

What We Listen For: The Spirit and Enthusiasm of the Musicians

A Milestone Event in the History of Better Records

Hot Stamper Pressings of Revolver Available Now

The discussion below, brought about by a Hot Stamper shootout we conducted for Revolver quite a number of years ago (2007!), touches on many issues near and dear to us here at Better Records.

Some of the things we learned about Revolver all those years ago are important to our Hot Stamper shootouts to this very day, including, but not limited to:

Pressing variations,

System upgrades,

Dead wax secrets,

and the quality we prize most in a recording: LIFE, or, if you prefer, Energy.

Click Here to Read More about Records that Are Good for Testing Energy

At the end of the commentary we of course take the opportunity to bash the MoFi pressing of the album, a regular feature of our Beatles Hot Stamper shootouts. We’re not saying the MoFi Beatles records are bad; in the overall scheme of things they are mostly pretty decent. What we are saying is that, with our help, you can do a helluva lot better.

Our help doesn’t come cheap, as anyone on our mailing list will tell you. You may have to pay a lot, but we think you get what you pay for, and we gladly back up that claim with a 100% money back guarantee for every Hot Stamper pressing we sell.

The Story of Revolver, Dateline October 2007

White Hot Stampers for Revolver are finally HERE! Let the celebrations begin! Seriously, this is a very special day for us here at Better Records. The Toughest Nut to Crack in the Beatles’ catalog has officially been cracked. Yowza!

Presenting the first TRULY AWESOME copy of Revolver to ever make it to the site. There’s a good reason why Hot Stamper shootouts for practically every other Beatles album have already been done, most of them many times over, and it is simply this: finding good sounding copies of Revolver is almost IMPOSSIBLE. The typical British Parlophone or Apple pressing, as well as every German, Japanese and domestic LP we’ve played in the last year or two just plain sucked. Where was the analog magic we heard in the albums before and after, the rapturously wonderful sound that’s all over our Hot Stamper Rubber Souls and Sgt. Peppers? How could Revolver go so horribly off the rails for no apparent reason? (more…)

Diminishing Returns in Audio? Sez Who?

The idea that we have reached the point of diminishing returns in audio is nothing but an old and pernicious Myth

Many, if not most, audiophiles are barely getting started. They just don’t know it. If they work really hard on their systems for the next five or ten years, they will eventually, slowly, with the passage of time come to realize how little they knew back in 2021.

If they don’t work hard — and let’s be honest, most won’t — they will never see but a tiny fraction of the progress that is possible. Those of us who have done the work know just how much is possible, and no one who has not done the work could possibly begin to understand what we are on about.

You rarely learn much from experiments you haven’t run. Of course, by not doing anything you get to keep all your evidence-free opinions and half-baked theories, so why rock your own boat and make any effort to prove yourself wrong? We talk about the subject of audiophile ignorance here. And we talk about how often we have been wrong here.


[This commentary was written in 2005 or thereabouts. It’s still true though!]

I often read this comment in audio magazines regarding the piece of equipment under review, as if to say that we are so close to audio perfection that a gain of a few percent is the most we can hope for from this or that new megabuck amp or speaker. In my experience the exact opposite is true. 

There are HUGE improvements to be made on a regular basis, even without spending all that much money (keeping in mind that this is not exactly a poor man’s hobby).

If you are actively involved in seeking out better equipment, trying new things, and tweaking the hell out of your system as much as time and patience permit, I think an improvement of 10-25% per year in perceived sound quality is not an unreasonable expectation. (more…)