Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

David Bowie / Heroes – It Took Ages to Break the Sound Barrier (Because the Conventional Wisdom Turned Out to Be So Wrong))

Our intuition that the British originals would sound the best turned out to be incorrect.

In the audiophile record collecting world, intuitions have a bad track record, but more than a few audiophiles — many of whom are addicted to sharing their “record knowledge” on audiophile forums — seem to be unaware of this fact.

Taking a page from one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, we’ve opted to use a more scientific approach to discovering the best sounding record pressings, and we encourage you to do likewise. 

We pioneered the evidence-based approach to finding the best sounding pressings, and, like all good scientists, we shared it with everyone. Some in the audiophile community have taken it to heart, but most have chosen to put their faith in reviewers, forum posters, common sense and logic. None of these produce consistently good results, but those who use these methods are loathe to doubt them and only rarely if ever learn the error of their ways.

Once a decision has been made and a specific pressing acquired, you could call it door number three I suppose, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias immediately kick in to justify the result, and soon enough the game is over. The prize has been won. It’s the best prize ever. It does everything right, everything you hoped for.

Behind door number three was not the best sounding copy of the record. You don’t have the best sounding pressing (well, you might, but if you did it would be entirely the result of chance, since you carried out no experiments), but as long as you think you do, and, like most audiophiles, you play records only for yourself, and purely for enjoyment, you have no way of  discovering where on the spectrum of worst to best your choice would sit. As long as you think you have the best, you have the best. How could there ever be any evidence offered to the contrary?

Making an effort to prove yourself wrong is surely the key to making progress in this hobby. Nothing will do more to improve the quality of your record collection, of that we are convinced.

More David Bowie

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

This discussion, brought about by a Hot Stamper shootout we conducted for Revolver many years ago (2007!), touches on many issues near and dear to us here at Better Records: pressing variations, system upgrades, dead wax secrets, and the quality we prize most in a recording: LIFE, or, if you prefer, energy.

More 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…)

Good Audio Advice and Critical Listening Skills

[This is an updated version of a commentary written in 2009.]

The latest Mapleshade catalog (Spring 09) has, along with hundreds of recommendations, this little piece of audio advice that caught my eye:

For much improved bass and huge soundstage, put your listening chair or sofa right against the wall behind you. Move your speakers in to 5’ in front of you and 7’ or more apart. No room treatments will yield this much bass improvement.

I literally had to read through it a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. But every time I read it, it still said the same thing, so I know I can’t have been dreaming. This is crazy talk. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Well, it’s not all crazy. There is actually a factually true statement at the end of that paragraph. Yes, it is true that no room treatments will yield as much bass as sitting up against a wall. But why stop there? Bass, regardless of its source, immediately seeks out the corners of the room. That’s where the most bass will always be: where the room boundaries are. If you want to hear the maximum amount of bass your speakers are producing, put your head in the corner of the room down at the floor, where three boundaries intersect. Like the sound now? Getting enough bass are ya?

Along the same lines, for a “huge soundstage” try putting one speaker at one end of the room and the other speaker at the opposite end. Why stop at seven feet? My listening room is twenty feet deep; I can get a soundstage that’s twenty feet across without any problem at all.

I would just have to be dumb enough to think that doing such a thing would be a good idea.

Fellow audiophiles and music lovers, it is not. Let’s talk about why.

Room Reflections

The closer you are to anything that the sound coming from your speakers can bounce off of, right before or right after it reaches your ears, the worse the sound. You want to be as far away from everything as you can be, and this includes not only the back wall of your listening room, but the heads of other persons who may be listening with you. This is easily demonstrated. Have a friend or loved one sit next to you and listen critically to some music you know well. Now have that person leave the room. The sound will always get better (unless something else is very wrong). I have done this experiment many, many times and it only comes out one way: fewer near reflections, better sound.

This is why we have three pair of Hallographs in our listening room. They help control room reflections. Reflections are the main cause of bad sound in most listening rooms. The louder you play your stereo, the worse the reflections get and the more they screw up the sound.

We like to play our stereo very loud — much of the music we love demands it — and we simply could not turn up the volume the way we do without effective room treatments. Your first pair of Hallographs, even just “roughed in,” not tuned precisely the way they can be, will immediately allow you to play your stereo louder than you could before you installed them. (Since the first pair reflect the sound waves directly back to the listener, Hallographs do actually increase the sound level at the listening position, adding energy and dynamics.)

This is a good thing. It’s a clear sign they work.

Sitting Close

Sitting close to the speakers eliminates much of the effect of room reflections. So does wearing headphones. I have never liked either approach to listening; both seem very unnatural to me. And sitting too close is a bad idea from my experience. Now, I can only speak for the sound of large dynamic multi-driver speakers, since those are the only kinds of speakers I’ve owned for the last thirty-odd years. (more…)

Chicago II – 360 Original or Red Label Reissue?

Both can be good. I did the shootout and often tried to guess the label for the copy I was hearing, for fun more than anything else. I have to admit that my batting average was not much better than chance. 

The 360s tend to be a little fuller and smearier, but plenty of red label copies sound that way and some 360s don’t, so trying to match the sound to the label was even more pointless than usual.

When comparing pressings in a shootout it’s too late for the label to have any predictive value. We’ve already bought the records, cleaned them up and now just want to know what they actually sound like — not which ones might be the best, but which ones are the best.

The time for guessing games has passed. Of course, if we do actually figure out what the right stampers are, this helps us next time around. (more…)

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

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. 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.

Heavy Vinyl?

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.

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. 

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.

Hot Stamper Pressings with Jascha Heifetz Performing

Hot Stamper Pressings Featuring the Violin

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Graham Nash’s Wild Tales and Their Mysteries Many and Deep

More Graham Nash

nash_wildt_wtlf_1216229467

What hurts so many pressings of this album is a lifeless, compressed quality and a lack of presence. Were the stampers a bit worn for those copies, or was it bad vinyl that couldn’t hold the energy of the stamper, or perhaps some stampers just weren’t cut right — these are mysteries, and they are mysteries that will always be mysteries, if for no other reason than that the number of production variables hopelessly intertwined at the moment of creation can never be teased apart no matter how hard one thinks about them. As we like to say at every turn, thinking is really not much help with regard to finding better sounding records.

Not surprisingly, we’ve found that cleaning them and playing them seems to work the best. They work the best because nothing else works at all.

What More Can You Ask For

What happens when you clean and play a bunch of copies? You come to recognize what the best ones are doing what the average ones aren’t. And the effect of that understanding on this particular title was simply to recognize the nature of this project, that these are a great bunch of well-crafted songs played with energy and enthusiasm by a very talented group of top flight musicians, totally in sync with each other. This is what they were trying to do, and really, what more do you want?
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The Rolling Stones / Goats Head Soup – A Valuable Lesson We Learned in 2011

More of The Rolling Stones

More Lessons Learned from Record Experiments 

This is a classic case of Live and Learn.

We would agree with very little of what we had to say about Goat’s Head Soup as a recording when we wrote about it back in 2011 — and for the previous 35+ years since I first played a domestic original.

Having done a big shootout for the album in 2016, we now know that there most certainly are great sounding pressings to be found, because we found some. The data are in, and now we know just how wrong we were. In our defense, let me just ask one question: Did anybody else know this record was well recorded? I can find no evidence to support anyone having ever taken such a contrarian position.

But we’re taking that position now. All it takes is one great sounding copy to show you the error of your ways, and we had more than one. (more…)

Bob Dylan / The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Mono Versus Stereo

More 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? (more…)

Chicago II – Why Does Side Four Tend to Be the Best Sounding Side?

There is one, and really only one, major problem with the sound of this album — too many overdubs, meaning too many generations of tape on too many instruments. There are easily three and four generations of tape on some of the tracks, probably more, all causing compression and a loss of transient information. When the drums sound like cardboard boxes being hit with wet noodles it’s because they recorded them early on and then bounced their tracks down to another track and then bounced that track down to another track until what’s left sounds like an cassette tape you made of a song playing on the radio. Yes, it’s that bad.

Best Evidence?

Side four. Side four is on most copies almost always the best sounding side. It’s also the side with the simplest arrangements, which means it probably has the fewest overdubs. The second track on side four is an obvious example. It’s mostly just bass, drums, flute, vocal and guitar, sonic elements which would more or less fit on the eight tracks of their eight track machine.

Listen to how real and immediate the sound is. You don’t hear that sound on the rest of the album because the rest of the album has multiple horn overdubs, multiple vocal overdubs and all kinds of percussion overdubs everywhere you look. Foreigner used 48 tracks to record Dirty White Boy. Chicago had eight to record their much more complex arrangements. The result? They found themselves running out of tracks over and over again, resulting in reductions and further reductions, piling losses upon losses. This album is the poster boy for bad planning in the studio.

Not So Fast

Or is it? To our surprise we actually did manage to find at least one amazing side for each of the four sides of the album. Of course almost none of the hot sides mated with any of the others, meaning that the only way to get a complete album was to have at least two copies from which to play the best sides.

Meaning that bad pressing quality and bad mastering quality had to have been the principle cause of the mediocre sound of many of the copies we played. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that the stampers found on the best copies are sometimes the stampers found on the worst.

What Stampers Mean

Stampers mean something, but sometimes, as is the case here, they don’t mean much. (If you don’t know that by now you probably haven’t done that many big shootouts on your own. Can’t blame you — without lots of helpers in the cleaning and needle-dropping departments they’d be an even bigger pain than they already are. Even with three people involved it can still take almost all day, and that’s if you just happen to have ten or fifteen copies handy. It took us about two years to find that many, shopping at multiple stores weekly.)

More Chicago

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Building a Store of Knowledge, One Record at a Time

We recently ran across the commentary below in a reply to a Hot Stamper testimonial for Honky Cat. Based on our own experience, we give a quick and dirty primer on how one can build up one’s knowledge of records, stampers, labels, pressing variations and the like. 

We don’t really give out much in the way of specific information about any of those things; we just tell you how it can be done. It’s your job to go out and do it. It’s simple; just follow our lead. How tough can it be?

How We Find Them

Phil wondered how we could find such an amazing sounding record, which in this case is a rhetorical question. Phil knows exactly how we find them, because he shops at the same L.A. stores we do and finds a few himself — the only way it can be done, the old-fashioned way. We buy them, clean them and play them, just like Phil does.

The difference these days is one of scale. With seven or eight people finding, cleaning and playing records every day, we can probably shootout forty or fifty or even a hundred times as many records as any single person working by himself could. And to find the raw material (LPs, what else?) it helps immensely if you live in a major city like L.A., where records, even high-quality ones, are still abundant, if not ubiquitous.

After a shootout one of my favorite things to do is to jot down the stampers for the hottest copies. I then head right out to my favorite record stores to search through the bins and — even better — the overstock underneath. So many times I’ve thrilled to the purchase of an album with exactly the right stampers that very day, a copy that I would never have known to buy had we not just done the shootout.

Streamlining the Process

This is how record knowledge builds: one LP at a time. To that end we’ve streamlined the system of finding Hot Stampers, turning the process into a rough kind of science and devoting well over a hundred manhours a week to the effort. It’s time-consuming and expensive, but every week we find Hot Stamper copies of great albums that MURDER the competition, in the process often dramatically changing our expectations of how good that music can sound. (more…)