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.
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, hitting multiple stores every week.)
A tenet of conservatism is that we must all accommodate ourselves to living in the world that exists, not the world we might want to pretend exists, or the world we would like to exist.
The laws of physics are laws, not theories, not recommendations, and they operate independently of how convenient any of us may find them.
It follows from this — if you will allow me to make the case — that not everybody with a stereo can play Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings properly, and some people cannot play Tarzan at all. (See below.)
There is a fellow, rl1856, who made some comments on Robert Brook’s blog, addressing the Tone Poets pressings of RVG’s recordings vis-a-vis vintage pressings that RVG mastered. (Bolding has been added by me.)
An original RVG 1st or 2nd pressing has a visceral, “edge of the seat” feeling that is missing in the TP [Tone Poets] and BN [Blue Note] Classic reissues. The RVG has a tighter stereo spread, and is voiced so that the listener feels they are very close to the musicians. The TP and Classic remasters have a more distant perspective. The soundstage is wider, but the added apparent distance between musician and listener significantly reduces the impact of the music. OTOH, the reissues have greater extension at frequency extremes, and reproduce more micro detail than original pressings. We know that RVG used a surprising amount of EQ when mastering his LPs back in the day. So we need to ask ourselves, what do we want ? A better version of what we are familiar with, including EQ compromises, or a more accurate representation of what was actually captured on the master tape in RVG’s studio ? The answers may be mutually exclusive.
My system: Linn LP12 ITTOK LVII, SoundSmith Denon 103D, Audio Research SP10MKIII, Luxman MA 88 monoblocks, or Triode TRV 845PSE, or Mac 240, KEF LS50. Resolving enough to easily hear differences in LP quality.
When someone reveals that their equipment is simply not capable of reproducing the sound of live music, we can safely ignore whatever opinions they have offered about the records being discussed.
It should be obvious that they have played them with unacceptably low levels of fidelity.
Let’s Talk About the Real World
The science behind my argument is as follows.
Acoustic instruments make sounds by moving air, whether in the studio or the concert hall.
Speakers replicate the sound of those instruments in your listening room by the same process. They move air.
Big dynamic speakers are good at moving air in a listening room, and small ones are not.
Therefore, speakers that do not move enough air are failing fundamentally to reproduce the sound of instruments with a high degree of fidelity.
On a hot day you can fan yourself with an album jacket or you can fan yourself with a guitar pick. One moves enough air to cool you off, the other does not, no matter how hard you try. (See: physics, laws of, above.)
Box speakers with five inch drivers may move enough air in the home listening environment, especially in smaller rooms, to play music with enough fidelity to make it enjoyable.
What they cannot do is move enough air to play music that sounds like live music.
The right pressings (we admit that this phrase is doing a lot of heavy lifting here) of Rudy Van Gelder’s better recordings do a remarkable job, in this writer’s view, of reproducing the feeling one gets from listening to live music.
If the speakers you own fail to reproduce that sound, the kind of big, lively sound some of us have spent a lifetime pursuing, how can your judgment be of any value to those of us who own large speakers, in dedicated rooms, designed to reproduce music at live levels?
Colorblind people rarely make good art critics. They know better than to talk about the colors they can’t see.
Some actors who want to play Tarzan are simply not equipped to play Tarzan. They may be foolish enough to audition, but no one could possibly be foolish enough to give them the part. (See video below.)
A Poor Guide
Some speakers give an incomplete picture of what the record is getting right and what it is getting wrong. Due to the laws of physics mentioned above, speakers with “woofers” that are 5.25 inches in diameter can be safely placed in this category.
No recording of a jazz group with a bass player can be reproduced properly using a five inch woofer.
Rudy recorded many jazz groups, and few of them did not have someone playing bass.
If you have that kind of ‘incomplete” speaker, regardless of how much you may like what it does well in other ways, the first step in the long road to better sound is to recognize that it is preventing you from appreciating a great deal of what makes Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings powerful.
Little speakers are not powerful. To be powerful, a speaker has to move air well, and that is one thing, among many, that small speakers cannot do.
They also do not do a good job in my experience of capturing frequency extremes, especially at the low end, which makes this fellow’s comment that “the reissues have greater extension at frequency extremes” rather absurd. His speaker goes down to 80hz. I looked it up. There are two full octaves of bass below 80hz. I guess those aren’t important. (When audiophiles tell you some aspect of the reproduction of music is “not important,” this should be seen as nothing more than motivated reasoning. You don’t want to be that guy either.)
Something I’ve never taken the time to write about on this blog is the correct sizing of instruments.
Some speakers — typically those with smaller drivers — create images of instruments that are too small, smaller than you would picture them if you were sitting in the audience. Other speakers — typically screens of one kind or another — produce larger-than-life images of instruments and vocalists. In the ’70s, I heard a lot of screens and full-range electrostats — these come to mind, and there were plenty of others like them, Magneplanars and the like — and the images never seemed right-sized or real enough to be taken seriously. I opted for a big dynamic system and never heard anything that would give me a reason to switch.
Yes, he may think that his system is “Resolving enough to easily hear differences in LP quality.”
But what about all the differences his system does not allow him to hear? Failing to recognize the shortcomings of a stereo system doesn’t make them go away.
When you close your eyes while listening to a system that looks like this (I found this one randomly on the web), do you feel that you’re in the presence of live musicians?
Of course you don’t. How could you?
But when I listen to the system seen below (that’s me at the table) turned up good and loud, that is precisely the sound I get from the hottest of the Hot Stamper pressings I play. Here is one example from not that long ago. I could easily describe hundreds of others, many of which are unforgettable.
The remarkable White Hot stamper pressings we discuss on this blog were made from the greatest recordings ever put on tape, and that group includes a fair number that were engineered by RVG.
Rudy Is the Man
Of the many hundreds of jazz albums we have listened to critically over the past thirty plus years, our pick for The Best Sounding Jazz Record of them all has Rudy’s name in the credits. Even better, it’s a reissue from the ’70s, because the originals, at least the ones we’ve played, don’t sound remotely as good as the right reissues.
We didn’t read that on a forum, or a website, or in a magazine. We heard it with our own two ears.
It’s the kind of thing that an obsessively-tuned full-range system, set up in a heavily-tweaked, dedicated room, can reveal about just how remarkably different various pressings of recordings can sound. These differences are often obscured by the manifold shortcomings of smaller, more limited systems, the ones most audiophiles own.
That’s why some audiophiles believe what they read from self-described experts about master tapes and mastering approaches and all the rest. Their systems can’t show them how mistaken all this talk really is.
To convince others that you know something about “a more accurate representation of what was actually captured on the master tape,” as if that could be known by someone with no access to the master tape and speakers you could fit in a backpack, is the height of self-deception. It’s the worst kind of pretentious knowledge.
We’ve learned that the only way to truly understand records is by ignoring what everybody says and just play as many different pressings as you can in blinded, carefully controlled experiments. The data derived from these experiments should inform your opinions, not the other way around.
If you really want to make the case for your expertise in record reviewing, it’s never a good idea to claim that the laws of physics don’t apply to you. It’s the kind of thing that upsets irredeemably skeptical types such as me, who then spend all afternoon writing longwinded commentaries about the things that misinformed audiophiles believe.
Never Played One
To be clear, we have never played a Tone Poets record. We’ve played many titles mastered by Kevin Gray, and we know that he is credited with mastering some records for the label. Without exception we find that his remastered records leave a lot to be desired. You can find many of them in our Hall of Shame. Anyone defending his work to me has some heavy lifting to do.
A couple of titles we will be doing shootouts for soon will include the Tone Poets pressings, and you will be able to read all about them right here on the blog.
Until then, allow us to leave you with a few things to think about.
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
(Incidenttally, 2007 turns out to have been a Milestone Year for us here at Better Records.)
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?
We’ve been asking ourselves these very same questions for years. No amount of cleaning seemed to be able to bring out the sweetness and Tubey Magical qualities we heard in the rest of The Beatles catalog. There was a gritty, opaque flatness to copy after copy of Revolver that wouldn’t go away no matter what we did.
Little by little over the course of the last year things began to change.
We came up with a number of much more sophisticated and advanced cleaning techniques (which we talk about here).
The ruler-flat, super-clean and clear Dynavector 17d replaced the more forgiving, less accurate 20x.
The EAR 324 we acquired at the beginning of 2007 was a BIG step up over the 834p in terms of resolution and freedom from distortion and coloration.
And the third pair of Hallographs had much the same effect, taking out the room distortions that compromise transparency and three-dimensionality.
A big studio opened up between the speakers that had only been hinted at on Revolver in the past.
With the implementation of a number of other seemingly insignificant tweaks, each of which made a subtle but recognizable improvement, the cumulative effect of all of the above was now clearly making a difference. The combination of so many improvements was nothing less than dramatic. Revolver was finally coming to life.
For those of you who still cling to the idea that the originals are better, this Hot Stamper pressing of the album should be just the ticket to 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.
And if you own any modern Heavy Vinyl reissue, we would love for you to have the chance to appreciate all the musical information that you’ve been missing all these years. 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 as well.
For Barbra Streisand’s early albums, the original pressings on the 360 label just have to be better, right?
Not in this case. It’s just another rule of thumb, one that will sometimes lead you astray if what you are trying to find are not just good sounding pressings of albums, but the best sounding pressings of albums.
Same with reissue versus original. Nice rule of thumb but only if you have enough copies of the title to know that you’re not just assuming the original is better. You actually have the data — gathered from the other LPs you have played — to back it up.
The best of the 360 pressings in our shootout did well, just not as well.
A classic case of Compared to What? Who knew the recording would sound better on the Red Label Columbia reissue pressing from the ’70s? Certainly not us, not until we had done the shootout.
This is why we do shootouts, and why you must do them too, if owning the highest quality pressings is important to you.
Our good later label pressings had all the richness and Tubey Magic of the 360s — one really couldn’t tell which pressing was on the turntable by the sound — but had a bit more space, clarity and freedom from artificiality.
Watch your levels because she really gets loud on some of this material. The best copies, such as this side one, hold up. The lesser copies get congested, shrill and crude at their loudest, and of course get marked down dramatically when that happens.
Side two as very rich and smooth, yet clear and breathy – this is the right sound for ol’ Babs. The first track has tons of Tubey Magical reverb – check it out!(more…)
Our Hot Stamper commentary from a long-ago shootout we’d carried out for the wonderful Helen Humes album Songs I Like to Sing discusses the sonic characteristics we find most commonly associated with the various Contemporary labels.
This Contemporary Black Label Original LP has that classic tube-mastered sound — warmer, smoother, and sweeter than the later pressings, with more breath of life. Overall the sound is well-balanced and tonally correct from top to bottom, which is rare for a black label Contemporary, as they are usually dull and bass-heavy.
We won’t buy them locally anymore unless they can be returned. I’ve got a box full of Contemporarys with bloated bass and no top end that I don’t know what to do with.
Like most mediocre-to-bad sounding records around here, they just sit in a box taking up space. All of our time and effort goes into putting good pressings on the site and in the mailings. It’s hard to get motivated to do anything with the leftovers. We paid plenty for them, so we don’t want to give them away, but they don’t sound good, so most of our customers won’t buy them.
What to do, what to do? Ebay I guess, but that’s a long way down the road. It’s too much fun doing listings for good records these days to want to stop now. The average record is just average, and nothing is ever going to change that!
We shot this out against a variety of later pressings. The Black Label copies have a bit of echo added to the vocals and have the attributes listed above — warmth, sweetness, presence, and immediacy. The later pressings offer superior clarity and resolution. I wouldn’t say one is necessarily better than the other; it’s really more a matter of taste.
We used to think the early Limelight pressing shown here was so amazing sounding that finding better sound for this recording would simply be impossible, but the original Mercury showed us just how wrong we were – the right Mercury pressing takes the recording to another level, one we never imagined it could reach. (In our experience records do that from time to time. We’ve written about some of the ones we’ve played here.)
Here is a small excerpt from our most recent commentary for the album:
The best copies recreate a live studio space the size of which you will not believe (assuming your room can do a good job of recreating their room). (Here are some of the other recordings we’ve auditioned with exceptional amounts of size and space.
The sound 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 large group jazz you cannot go wrong here. Mingus was a genius and the original music on this record is just one more album supporting the undeniability of that fact.
More evidence, if any were needed, that the three most important words in the world of audio are Compared to What?
No matter how good a particular copy of a record may sound to you, when you clean and play enough of them you will almost always find one that’s better, and often surprisingly better.
You must keep testing all the reissues you can find, and you must keep testing all the originals you can find.
Shootouts are the only way to find these kinds of very special records. That’s why you must do them.
Nothing else works. If you’re not doing shootouts (or buying the winners of shootouts from us), you simply don’t have top quality copies in your collection, except in the rare instances where you just got lucky. In the world of records luck can only take you so far. The rest of the journey requires effort.
Here is the story of my first encounter with an amazing sounding copy of Zep II back in 1995 or thereabouts.
I had a friend who had come into possession of a White Label Demo pressing of the album and wanted to trade it in to me for the Mobile Fidelity pressing that I had played for him once or twice over the years, and which we both thought was The King on that album.
To my shock and dismay, his stupid American copy KILLED the MoFi. It TROUNCED it in every way. The bass was deeper and punchier. Everything was more dynamic. The vocals were more natural and correct sounding. The highs were sweeter and more extended. The whole pressing was just full of life in a way that the Mobile Fidelity wasn’t.
The Mobile Fidelity didn’t sound Bad. It sounded Not As Good. More importantly, in comparison with the good domestic copy, in many ways it now sounded wrong.
Let me tell you, it was a watershed moment in my growth as a record collector. I had long ago discovered that many MoFi’s weren’t all they were cracked up to be. But this was a MoFi I liked. And it had killed the other copies I’d heard in the past.
So I learned something very important that day. I learned that hearing a better pressing is by far the best way to appreciate what’s wrong with the pressing you think sounds right.
In this case, I used to like a very bad pressing, the Mobile Fidelity, but I really could not tell what was wrong with it because I had nothing better to compare it to.  (And I had never developed much in the way of critical listening skills.)
More evidence, if any were needed, that the three most important words in the world of audio are Compared to What?
Needless to say, the trade didn’t go through: he kept his copy and I was stuck with mine. But I knew what to look for. I knew what the numbers were in the dead wax. And I started hunting them down.
Music for Bang Baaroom and Harp is yet another one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarityon some copies. This happened many years ago, and as you can see from the commentary we wrote back then, it came as quite a shock to us at the time.
Are audiophile reviewers or audiophiles in general listening critically to records like this? I wonder; I could not find word one about any polarity issues with this title, and yet we’ve played four or five copies with reversed polarity on side two. How come nobody is hearing it, apart from us?
We leave you, dear reader, to answer that question for yourself.
This listing has the latest information on the stamper numbers to avoid.
More stamper and pressing information can be found here.
Excerpts from Our Commentary, Circa 2010
Reversing the absolute phase on this record today was a REVELATION. There before me was all the ambience, openness, sweetness, silkiness and warmth I had come to expect from the best pressings of this longtime member of HP’s TAS List of Super Discs, a record that really is a Super Disc when you hear a good one, and this is a very very good one indeed, on side two anyway.
You need a special key to unlock the magic of a pressing such as this. You must either switch the positive and negative at the speaker, the amp, or at the head shell leads, or you must have a switch that inverts phase on your preamp or phono stage. (The EAR 324p we use has just such a switch and let me tell you, it comes in very handy in situations like these.) If you can’t do any of those, or are unwilling to do any of those, this is not the record for you.
What You Hear
What do you hear when you switch the polarity on side two? The top end comes back! This album was sounding very dull and closed in, not usually the sign of reversed phase. Not having a lot of tools in our toolbox to try, we just took a chance and flipped the phase. Wow! Now the top end sounding amazingly extended and open. Practically everything else got better too.
Are all copies reversed polarity? Definitely not. I know I’ve played amazing side twos that had to have been in correct polarity. If you have a copy of the album and it lacks top end extension, try reversing the polarity, you may be in for quite a shock.
Harry Pearson put this record on his TAS List of Super Discs, and rightfully so. It certainly can be a Super Disc, but only when you have the right pressing. It’s a real treat to hear such a crazy assortment of percussion instruments with this kind of amazingly clear, high-resolution sound!
This is one of the Demo Discs on the TAS List which truly deserves its status when — and only when — you have the right copy. Finding one with correct polarity is a start.
This commentary describes some observations we were able to make after doing a shootout a few years back.
Even though all the original Pink Label pressings are mastered by the great Robert Ludwig, they have a marked tendency to be dull, thick and opaque. Other records we’ve played with these same shortcomings can be found by clicking on the links below.
On too many original pressings, the sound is too smooth.
Starting at some point in the mid-’90s, many Heavy Vinyl pressings started to have the same shortcoming, one that we find insufferable to this day: they are just too damn smooth.
The best copies, however, have the top end and the transparency to let you hear all the guitar harmonics, surrounded by the large acoustic of the studio.
This time around we discovered something new: one specific stamper that seemed to be the only one with the potential for an extended top end. This special stamper did not always fare well; some copies with it were mediocre. We have always found this to be the way with the “right” stampers; they often let us down and sometimes they really let us down hard.
But this stamper, when it was right, had an extension on the top that no other copy could match. The Robert Ludwig mastered Band second albums are the same way. Most have no top but boy, when they do, the magic you hear is phenomenal.