Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

After You’ve Played 100 Copies of the Album, What’s Left to Learn?

bloodchildMore of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Child Is Father to the Man

A common misconception of many of those visiting the site for the first time is that we think we know it all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We definitely do not know it all. We learn something new about records with practically every shootout.

Case in point: the record you do NOT see pictured above. (The record we recently learned something new about — this, after having played scores and scores of copies over the years — will remain a secret for the time being. At least until we find another one.)

In 2013 we played a red label Columbia reissue of a famous ’60s rock record (again, not shown) that had the best side two we have ever heard. Up to that point no copy other than the 360 original had ever won a shootout, and we’ve done plenty. Lo and behold here was a reissue that put them all to shame.

I’m still in shock from the experience to tell you the truth, but what a blast it was to hear it!

The recording, which I first played more than 40 years ago at the tender age of 16, was now bigger, less murky and more energetic than ever before. Had you asked me, I would have confidently told you not to waste your time with the second pressing, to stick to the 360’s on that title, and I would have been wrong wrong wrong.

How Wrong?

But wait a minute. The 360 original will probably beat 49 out of 50 red label reissue copies on side two, and the best 360 original could not be beaten on side one by any other pressing. When you stop to think about it, we weren’t very wrong at all.

Let’s just say our understanding was incomplete. This is why we prefer to offer actual physical records rather than just advice, although it’s clear for all to see that we happily do both, and, moreover, we certainly feel qualified — as qualified as anyone can be — to offer opinions since our opinions are virtually always backed up by experimental data.

Sometimes we guess about the sound quality of some titles, usually when we just can’t be bothered to order a copy up and take the time to audition it. So many labels today produce such consistently second- and third-rate pressings, can you blame us for not wanting to hear where the latest one went wrong? 

Ultimately what makes our case is the quality of the records we sell. And I’m glad to report that we don’t get many complaints, even at these prices. (Some of our customers seem to think they got their money’s worth, and who are we to argue?)

Avoiding Mistakes

Keep in mind that the only way you can never be wrong about your records is simply not to play them. If you have better equipment than you did, say, five years ago, try playing some of your MoFi’s, 180 gram LPs, Japanese pressings, 45 RPM remasters and the like. You might be in for quite a shock.

It’s all good — until the needle hits the groove. Then you might find yourself in need of actual Better Records, not the ones you thought were better.

How Do We Do It?

There are more than 2000 Hot Stamper reviews on this blog. Do you know how we learned so much about so many records?

Simple. We ran thousands and thousands of record experiments under carefully controlled conditions, and we continue to run scores of them week in and week out to this very day.

If you want to learn about records, we recommend you do the same. You won’t be able to do more than one or two a week, but one or two a week is better than none, which is how many the average audiophile manages to do.

When it comes to finding the best sounding records ever made, our advice is simple.

Play them the right way and pay attention to what they are trying to teach you. You will learn more this way than any other.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

How Can I Recognize What I Should Be Listening For on a Given Album?

Should We Follow George Martin’s Expert Advice?

More of the Music of The Beatles

More Reviews and Commentaries for Let It Be

One of our good customers had this to say about the new Revolver pressing and The Beatles in mono:

Hey Tom,

I think the Revolver new thing doesn’t sound terrible. It’s just what you’re comparing it with. Most people are going off original pressings maybe and the acclaimed mono and stereo box stuff that came out in the last 10 years. IF you don’t try one of those Harry Moss records or a 1970s pressing, you probably think the new Revolver is fine or even good. That’s my theory. Who knows.

And as far as mono vs. stereo… you know the answer to this but I’m not sure. Were those earliest records meant to be mono or recorded as if they would be put out as mono and later records – maybe Rubber Soul on – meant to be stereo? I don’t know the answer to that. But maybe that’s why people are so loyal to mono. They feel like “this is how it was meant to be heard by the artist.”

George Martin was very clear about that, the first two albums for sure and really, the first four are, for him, better heard in mono than stereo.

I disagree. I think George heard the playback on studio monitors stuck on a wall five feet from his head. Who cares what that sounds like?  Nobody who isn’t mixing a record would ever listen to music that way, certainly not in this day and age.

More importantly, who are you going to believe, your lying ears or George Martin?

This is so fundamental to understanding everything to do with audio and records.

Richard Feynman summed it up beautifully: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Watch the Let It Be documentary put out by Peter Jackson, the last part where they play the album back for everyone.

With four monitor speakers lined up left to right and shoved up against a wall.

This is how they listened to the album in order to approve Glyn Johns’ mix and the takes he chose to use?

How can anyone take any of it seriously?

TP


Beatles, Beatles, Beatles

The Beatles in Mono – Why No Hot Stampers?

Please Please Me – Which Is More 3-Dimensional, Mono or Twin Track?

Customers Really Seem to Love Our Beatles Hot Stampers

What Are the Best Stampers for Led Zeppelin’s Albums?

More of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Led Zeppelin

As if we would tell you!

This is a reworked excerpt from a much longer piece entitled Record Collecting for Audiophiles – The Limits of Expert Advice

In it we discussed the various stampers for some of Led Zeppelin’s albums and what role they play in our Hot Stamper shootouts.

Please to enjoy.

There is no way to know whether a record is any good without playing it, early stamper, late stamper or any other stamper. First pressings (A, 1A, A1) don’t always win shootouts. If they did we would simply buy only first pressings with those early stampers and only sell copies with those early stampers, since they are the best.

But this ignores the inconvenient fact that a great many other things go into the production of a record that have nothing to do with how early the stamper is.

A single copy of an album with stampers numbered (or lettered) A, when compared to B, when compared to C, has no definitive meaning for stampers A, B, C, or any others, because of the tremendous variation in the sound of all the pressings with A, B,C and other stampers.

Example Number One

There is a hot stamper for a certain Zep album that always wins the shootouts, [redacted].

It beats the hell out of the early stampers, A and B. In fact, we don’t even go after A and B anymore because they are expensive and rarely sound good enough to recoup our investment of all the time and money we would spend buying, cleaning and auditioning them in a shootout.

A and B can be good, but why pay top dollar for them when they have never been any better than “good?”

We’re looking for “great” so that we can charge a premium price for them. This accomplishes three things that are obviously extremely important to any business:

  1. It pleases the hell out of our customers.
  2. It pays the bills.
  3. And it lets us pay our staff good wages and bonuses for their hard work, skill and knowledge.

A good staff is essential to any business. No business can be successful without a highly skilled staff that does the work from day to day.

It is hard to imagine that any other retail record business could possibly have a staff with more than a small fraction of the talent of ours. The key members responsible for shootouts know something that few (if any) audiophiles on the face of the earth can rightfully claim to know: the sound of thousands upon thousands of pressings.

Most of our staff of ten has been with us for a very long time. They now run the business since I have retired and they are doing an amazing job. Without them there would be no Hot Stampers.

Back to Zeppelin

As we say, on a certain title, A and B can be good. Some of the hottest stampers for other Zeps, the stampers that win shootouts, are D, E and F.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t buy A, B and C on those titles because they can still be pretty good, say Two Pluses. When you’ve played these kinds of records by the dozens over the course of twenty odd years you learn things empirically that no one who hasn’t done this kind of work can know.

That is why we do things the way we do them: because it works. Customers are very happy these days, and what could be more important than that?

The trick is to listen to plenty of copies of the same title, the more the better. That’s when you hear how different they all sound.

If anyone was doing this kind of thing in a serious way twenty years ago when I started (with the exception of my friend, Robert Pincus, who coined the term “Hot Stampers” in the first place), I have yet to find any evidence of it.

And no one is really doing it at scale other than us. Because it’s expensive, hard and time consuming.

Some of our customers have done the work. They’ve undertaken their own multi-pressing shootouts, and kudos to them for rolling up their sleeves and doing what the vast majority of audiophiles cannot be bothered to do.

That’s how we learned everything we know about records, and anyone who follows our approach will learn more from doing their own shootouts, for themselves, on their own time, on their own stereos, than they will from all the reviews, all the blogs and all the youtube channels combined.

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Art Pepper – Which Is Better: Phil DeLancie Digital or George Horn Analog?

More of the Music of Art Pepper

More Jazz Recordings featuring the Saxophone

We’ve wanted to do Art Pepper Today for more than a decade, but the original Galaxy pressings were just too thick and dark to earn anything approaching a top sonic grade. Thirty years ago on a very different system I had one and liked it a lot, but there was no way I could get past the opaque sound I was now hearing on the more than half-dozen originals piled in front of me.

So, almost in desperation we tried an OJC reissue from the ’90s. You know, the ones that all the audiophiles on the web will tell you to steer clear of because it has been mastered by Phil DeLancie and might be sourced from digital tapes.

Or digitally remastered, or somehow was infected with something digital somehow.

Well, immediately the sound opened up dramatically, with presence, space, clarity and top end extension we simply could not hear on the originals. Moreover, the good news was that the richness and solidity of the originals was every bit as good. Some of the originals were less murky and veiled than others, so we culled the worst of them for trade and put the rest into the shootout with all the OJCs we could get our hands on.

Now, it’s indisputable that Phil DeLancie is credited on the jacket, but I see George Horn‘s writing in the dead wax of the actual record, so I really have no way of knowing whether Mr Delancie in fact had anything to do with the copies I was auditioning. They don’t sound digital to me, they’re just like other good George Horn-mastered records I’ve heard from this period.

And of course we here at Better Records never put much stock in what record jackets say; the commentary on the jackets rarely has much to do with the sound of the records inside them in our experience.

And, one more surprise awaited us as we were plowing through our pile of copies.

When we got to side two we found that the sound of the Galaxy originals was often competitive with the best of the OJCs. Which means that there’s a good probability that some of the original pressings I tossed for having bad sound on side one had very good, perhaps even shootout winning sound, on side two.

This is a lesson I hope to take to heart in the future. I know very well that the sound of side one is independent of side two, but somehow in this case I let my prejudice against the first side color my thinking about the second.

Of all the people who should know better…

Brahms / Violin Concerto – Is the 1s Pressing Always the Best?

Hot Stamper Pressings that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Records We’ve Reviewed that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

This early Shaded Dog pressing of a 1958 recording has surprisingly good sound on side two. On the second side the sound opens up and is very sweet, with the violin becoming much more present and clear. The whole of side two is transparent with an extended top. Usually the earliest Living Stereo titles suffer from a lack of top end extension, but not this one.

Maybe the 1s is also that way. For some reason audiophiles tend to think that the earliest cuttings are the best, but that’s just another Record Myth in our experience, easily refuted if you’ve played hundreds of these Living Stereo pressings and noted which stampers sound the best and which do not.

The 1s pressings do not win all that many shootouts around here.

Less than half the time, probably closer to a quarter or a third.

Of course, to avoid being biased, the person listening to the record doesn’t know the stamper numbers, and that may help explain why the 1s loses so often.

If you are interested in finding the best sounding pressings, you have to approach the problem scientifically, and that means running Record Experiments.

Practically everything you read on this blog we learned through experimentation.

When we experimented with the Classic Records pressing of LSC 1903, we were none too pleased with what we heard. Our review is reproduced below.

The Classic reissue of LSC 1903 was a disaster: shrill, smeary and unmusical.

(In a recent commentary we went into some detail about Bernie Grundman’s shortcomings as a mastering engineer for those of you who might be less familiar with his more recent work. He was great in the ’70s, but the work he did in the ’90s leaves a lot to be desired.)

The best Heifetz records on Classic were, if memory serves, LSC 2734 (Glazunov), LSC 2603 (Bruch) and LSC 2769 (Rozsa). They aren’t nearly as offensive as the others. If you can pick one up for ten or twenty bucks, you might get your money’s worth depending, I suppose, on how critically you listen to your classical records and how revealing your system is.

My guess is that the CDs are probably better sounding. That’s probably the first place to go, considering Classic’s track record and the fact that CDs are cheap now because nobody wants them anymore. 

If you must have Heifetz’s 1958 performance, our advice is to buy the CD.

We know for a fact that the Living Stereo CD of Reiner’s Scheherazade is dramatically better than the awful Classic Records pressing of it, TAS Super Disc Listing or no TAS Super Disc Listing.

As you may know, Classic is a label which we found very hard to like right from the beginning. We like them even less now. They may have gone out of business but their bad records are still plentiful on ebay and you can actually still buy some their leftover crap right from the world’s biggest retailer of bad sounding audiophile records, Acoustic Sounds.

If you don’t care how bad your records sound, Chad Kassem is your man.


Where Can I Find Your Hot Stamper Beatles Pressings in Mono?

Hot Stamper Pressings of Rubber Soul

Reviews and Commentaries for Rubber Soul

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

I notice you don’t mention whether the Beatles recordings are stereo or mono. The rubber soul that just arrived is stereo. I’m guessing that the one I reordered is also stereo.

Do you guys stock the mono versions? Do you say on the site when something is mono. Let me know, as I like mono versions too.

I was close with Geoff Emerick and he always stressed to me that they spent tons of time on the mono mixes and not much on the stereos (up through Revolver). So let me know if/when you have mono for Rubber Soul and Revolver and perhaps I can snatch them up.

Brian

Brian,

All our records are stereo unless we specifically mention otherwise, as are our Beatles records.

We never sell Beatles records in mono, ever. Here is a little something I wrote about it:

Revolver in Disgraceful Mono

They spent time on the mono mixes because getting the levels right for all the elements in a recording is ten times harder than deciding whether an instrument or voice should be placed in the left, middle or right of the soundstage.

And they didn’t even do the stereo mixes right some of the time, IMHO.

But wall to wall beats all stacked up in the middle any day of the week in my book.

If you like mono Beatles records you will have to do your own shootouts, sorry!

Best, TP

  Hey Tom, 

Very interesting info on the Mono Beatles. I’ve never had the opportunity to play any early stereo pressings against the monos. Thanks for the opinion. I looked over the versions of the Beatles albums I bought that you are replacing for me and I noticed that they are 4th or 5th pressings.

Do you find that era better than first or second pressings (in general) or is it just a price and condition thing. Just curious. I’m new to higher end collecting and looking for an expert opinion (which clearly you are!). I’m excited to hear the better versions you’re sending me.

Brian

Brian,

Some of the best pressings, but not all the best pressings, were cut by Harry Moss in the ’70s, on much better transistor mastering equipment than they had in the ’60s, and that is part of the reason why some of them sound so much better than most of the earlier pressings. (The same thing happened at Columbia for Kind of Blue and a small number of other albums.)

But plenty of what Moss cut does not sound good, so searching out his versions may be helpful but not as helpful as most audiophiles and record collectors would like to believe it is.

It’s what scientists and historians refer to as “the illusion of knowledge.” It prevents you from understanding what is really going on with records.

This accounts for virtually every internet thread and every comments section that audiophiles can be found on. These are people who think they know a lot more than they do, and therefore have no need to find out more, because they already know it.

A Mr Dunning and a Mr Kruger wrote about it here, and it should be well worth your time to read.

Best, TP

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The “Not-So-Golden-Age” of RCA, Mercury, London and Others

Well Recorded Classical Albums – The Core Collection

Hot Stamper Pressings of Classical Albums from The Core Collection

We ran into a number of copies of this title that had what we like to call that “Old Record Sound,” which is surprisingly common on even the most revered Golden Age labels, RCA included.

No top, no real bottom, congested climaxes and a general shrillness to the sound — we’ve played Living Stereos by the dozens that have these shortcomings and many more.

Some audiophiles may be impressed by the average Shaded Dog pressing, but I can assure you that we here at Better Records are decidedly not of that persuasion.

Something in the range of ten to fifteen per cent of the major label Golden Age recordings we play will eventually make it to the site. The vast majority just don’t sound all that good to us. (Many have second- and third-rate performances and those get tossed without ever making it to a shootout.)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Liebestraum / Composed By – Franz Liszt
Gayne Ballet Suite: Lullaby / Composed By – Khachaturian
Moonglow And The Theme From “Picnic”
Dancing Through The Years

Side Two

Jalousie / Composed By – Gade
Fantasia On “Greensleeves” / arr. Vaughan Williams
Hernando’s Hideaway / Written-By – Jerry Ross, Richard Adler
The Bohemian Girl: Overture / Composed By – Balfe

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Oliver Nelson and RVG – Mastering Better than the Master?

More Music and Arrangements by Oliver Nelson

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills in Audio

The sound of this Shootout Winning reissue is tonally correct, Tubey Magical and above all natural. The timbre of each and every instrument is right and it doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it. So high-resolution too. If you love ’50s and ’60s jazz you cannot go wrong here.

For those record lovers who still cling to the idea that the originals are better, this pressing will hopefully set you straight.

Yes, we can all agree that Rudy Van Gelder recorded it, brilliantly as a matter of fact. Shouldn’t he be the most natural choice to transfer the tape to disc, knowing, as we must assume he does, exactly what to fix and what to leave alone in the mix?

Maybe he should be; it’s a point worth arguing.

But ideas such as this are only of value once they have been tested empirically and found to be true.

We tested this very proposition in our recent shootout, as well as in previous ones of course. It is our contention, based on the experience of hearing quite a number of copies over the years, that Rudy did not cut the original record as well as he should have. For those of you who would like to know who did, we proudly offer this copy to make the case.

Three words say it all: Hearing is believing.

(And if you own any modern Heavy Vinyl reissue we would love for you to be able to appreciate all the musical information that you’ve been missing when playing it. I remember the one from the ’90s on Impulse being nothing special, and the Speakers Corner pressing in the 2000s if memory serves was passable at best.) (more…)

Cat Stevens Wants to Know How You Like Your Congas: Light, Medium or Heavy?

More of the Music of Cat Stevens

More Reviews and Commentaries for Teaser and the Firecat

During the shootout for this record a while back [the late 2000s would be my guess], we made a very important discovery, a seemingly obvious one but one that nevertheless had eluded us for the past twenty plus years (so how obvious could it have been?). It became clear, for the first time, what accounts for the wide disparity in ENERGY and DRIVE from one copy to the next. We can sum it up for you in one five letter word, and that word is conga.

The congas are what drive the high-energy songs, songs like Tuesday’s Dead and Changes IV.

Here is how we stumbled upon their critically important contribution.

We were listening to one of the better copies during a recent shootout. The first track on side one, The Wind, was especially gorgeous; Cat and his acoustic guitar were right there in the room with us. The transparency, tonal neutrality, presence and all the rest were just superb. Then came time to move to the other test track on side one, which is Changes IV, one of the higher energy songs we like to play.

But the energy we expected to hear was nowhere to be found. The powerful rhythmic drive of the best copies of the album just wasn’t happening. The more we listened the more it became clear that the congas were not doing what they normally do. The midbass to lower midrange area of the LP lacked energy, weight and power, and this prevented the song from coming to LIFE the way the truly Hot Stampers can and do.

Big Speakers

For twenty years, Tuesday’s Dead has been one of my favorite tracks for demonstrating what The Big Speaker Sound is all about.

Now I think I better understand why. Big speakers are the only way to reproduce the physical size and tremendous energy of the congas (and other drums of course) that play such a big part in driving the rhythmic energy of the song.

In my experience no six inch woofer — or seven, or eight, or ten even — gets the sound of the conga right, from bottom to top, drum to skin. No screen can do it either. It’s simply a sound that large dynamic drivers reproduce well and other speaker designs do not reproduce so well.

Since this is one of my favorite records of all time, a true Desert Island Disc, I would never want to be without a pair of big speakers to play it, because those are the kinds of speakers that play it well.

Bob Dylan – Leave It Dry, Or Add Some Reverb?

More of the Music of Bob Dylan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Bob Dylan

The noisy (aren’t they all?) mono copy we keep around as a reference presents Dylan and his guitar in a starkly immediate, clear and unprocessed way. The stereo version of the album is simply that sound with some light stereo reverb added.

More than anything else, on some tracks the mono pressing sounds like a demo.

It’s as if the engineers threw up a mic or two, set the EQ for flat and proceeded to roll tape. This is a good sound for what it is, but it has a tendency toward dryness, perhaps not on all of the tracks but clearly on some. Certainly the first track on side one can have that drier sound.

What the stereo reverb does is fill out the sound of Dylan’s voice respectfully.

The engineers of the late ’50 and ’60s had a tendency to drown their singers in heavy reverb, as anyone who’s ever played an old Tony Bennett or Dean Martin album knows all too well.

But a little reverb actually benefits the vocals of our young Mr. Dylan on The Times They Are A-Changin’, and there is an easy way to test that proposition. When you hit the mono button on your preamp or phono stage, the reverb disappears, leaving the vocal more clear and more present, but also more dry and thin. You may like it better that way. Obviously, to some degree this is a matter of taste.

The nice thing about this stereo copy, assuming you have a mono switch in your system (which you should; they’re very handy), is that you have the option of hearing it both ways and deciding for yourself which approach you find more involving and enjoyable — if not necessarily truthful.

We suspect your preference will be both listener- and system-dependent. Isn’t it better to have the option and be able to make that determination for yourself?

To see our current selection of Hot Stamper pressings that we think sound better in mono, click here.

To see our current selection of Hot Stamper pressings that we think sound better in stereo, click here.

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