Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Record Collecting 101: Forget Your Theories, Just Get the Data

Hot Stampers make more sense once one has a better understanding of statistical distributions.

Why statistics you ask? Simple. We can’t tell what a record is going to sound like until we play it. For all practical purposes we are buying them randomly and “measuring” them to see where they fall on a curve. We may be measuring them using a turntable and registering the data aurally, but it’s still very much measurement and it’s still very much data that we are recording (with a healthy amount of interpretation of the data involved, but that’s what we get paid to do, right?).

Many of these ideas were addressed in the shootout we did many years ago for BS&T’s second album. We played a large number of copies (the data), we found a few amazing ones (the outliers), and we tried to determine how many copies it really takes to find those records that sound so amazing they defy not only conventional wisdom, but understanding itself.

We don’t know what causes some copies to sound so good. We know them when we hear them and that’s pretty much all we can say we really know. Everything else is speculation and guesswork.

We have data. What we don’t have is a theory that explains that data.

And it simply won’t do to ignore the data because we can’t explain it. Hot Stamper Deniers are those members of the audiophile community who, when faced with something they don’t want to be true, simply manufacture reasons why it can’t or shouldn’t be true. That’s not science. It’s anti-science.

Practicing science means following the data wherever it leads. The truth can only be found in the record’s grooves and nowhere else.  If you don’t understand record collecting as a science, you won’t do it right and you certainly won’t achieve much success.

The above is an excerpt from a much longer commentary written about the subject, entitled Outliers & Out-of-This-World Sound. Click on the link to gain a better understanding of one of the most important properties records have: unpredictability.

This commentary has more on the subject on the processes involved in the making of records: A Random Walk Through Heavy Vinyl.

And if you think that some manufacturers can get around this reality, we discuss that subject in a commentary called Strict Quality Control? We Put That Proposition to the Test

We will leave you once again with wisdom from one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Richard Feynman. Here he summarizes The Scientific Method in a Nutshell for the benefit of mankind, especially us record collectors and audiophiles.

More Entries in Our Critical Thinking Series

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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…)

Frames of Reference, Carefully Conducted Shootouts and Critical Listening

More Lessons Learned from Record Experiments

Hot Stamper Decca and London Pressings Available Now

The sound we were hearing on this copy during a recent shootout was both rich and sweet, with easily recognized, unerringly correct timbres for all seven of the instruments heard in the work. The legendary 1959 Decca Tree microphone setup had worked its magic once again. And, as good as it was, we were surprised to discover that side two was actually even better! The sound was more spacious and more transparent. We asked ourselves, how is this even possible? Hard to believe but side two had the sound that was TRULY Hard To Fault.

Faults in Focus

This is precisely what careful shootouts and critical listening are all about.

If you like Heavy Vinyl, what exactly is your frame of reference? How many good early pressings could you possibly own, and how were they cleaned?

Without the best pressings around to compare, Heavy Vinyl can sound fine. It’s only when you have something better that its faults come into focus.

We, of course, have something much, much better, and we like to call them Hot Stampers! (more…)

Baskets of Recordings and Facets of Reproduction

You need to use a basket of roughly five to ten recordings to test your equipment, tweaks, room, cleaning regimen and the like.

Don’t rely on any given recording to be The Truth. None of them are.

To illustrate this idea, imagine your stereo as a huge diamond. Every recording you play is showing you a different facet of that diamond, a different characteristic of your system’s reproduction.

Audiophile X will play a record and say it has bad bass. His bass is excellent on other recordings, so this record, which seems to have bad bass, must be at fault.

Audiophile Y plays the same record and says it has good bass. Assuming the record has good bass for a moment, what in fact is happening in Audiophile X’s system is that most facets of his bass are good, but some facet of his bass is bad, and this record is showing him some shortcoming in his bass reproduction that his other records are not showing him. 

If Audiophile X makes some changes to his stereo, and the record in question now has better bass, and, importantly, other records still sound as good or better than they used to, then some measure of success will have been achieved, and another step forward will have been taken in that very long and often frustrating journey we are all on.

The diamond has many flaws. We find them and fix them as we go about the business of tweaking and tuning, which has the added benefit of improving your critical listening skills.

To help you improve your stereo, room, electricity and the like, we have scores of records that are good for testing a wide variety of different aspects of audio reproduction. If you like a challenge, and own some of these records, preferably Hot Stamper pressings you bought from us (because we know those have the right sound), we invite you to have at ’em.

RECORDS THAT ARE GOOD FOR TESTING

Records that Are Good for Testing Ambience, Size and Space 

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The Science of Hot Stampers – Incomplete, Imperfect, and (Gulp!) Provisional

We have a section on the website you may have seen called We Was Wrong. This section is devoted to discussing the records we think we got, uh, wrong.

Oh yes, it’s true. But it’s not really a problem for us here at Better Records. We see no need to cover up our mistakes. The process of learning involves recognizing and correcting previous errors. Approached scientifically, all knowledge — in any field, not just record collecting or music reproduction — is incomplete, imperfect, and must be considered provisional.

What seems true today might easily be proven false tomorrow. If you haven’t found that out for yourself firsthand yet, one thing’s for sure, you haven’t been in this hobby for very long.

We’re so used to the conventional wisdom being wrong, and having our own previous findings overturned by new ones, that we gladly go out of our way in listing after listing to point out just how wrong we were. (And of course why we think we are correct now.)

A common misperception among those visiting the site is that we think we know it all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We learn something new about records with every shootout.

Each time we go back and play a 180 gram or half-speed mastered LP we used to like (or dislike), we gain a better understanding of its true nature. (The bulk of those “audiophile” pressings seem to get worse and worse over time, a subject that has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere on the site.)

Record cleaning gets better, front ends get better, electronics get better, tweaks get better — everything in your audio system should be improving on a regular basis, allowing you to more correctly identify the strengths and weaknesses of every record you play. (I almost forgot: your ears get better too!)

If that’s not happening, you’re not doing it right. (more…)

The Book of Hot Stampers – We’d Love to Read It!

I received this email a while ago (a very long while ago as a matter of fact):

Hi Tom,

Could you please recommend a book which would give the stamper numbers associated with the different pressings of a particular record.

Let me take this opportunity to give a more comprehensive answer, since the concept of Hot Stampers is not especially well understood by the audiophile community outside of our admittedly rather small customer base. Only those who have spent a great deal of time reading the reviews and commentary on the site are likely to understand the importance of stampers. This is partly my fault, as this issue of stamper variability and quality is spread out all over the place, exactly where, no one really knows.

First of All, There Is No Such Book

I regret to say there is no such book and probably never will be. To my knowledge we are the only guys on the planet selling records who seem to know much about the subject. In fact, we pioneered the very concept, starting about fifteen years ago.

Back in the early ’90s I complained that the TAS Super Disc List didn’t list the “correct” stampers: the stampers (or matrix numbers if you prefer) being the individual markings associated with the actual pressing HP was calling a Super Disc. Without those stampers almost any pressing one might acquire would be different from the one on the list, and quite possibly inferior (or superior; in any event, different sounding).

The catalog number or label — practically all that could be gleaned from his writings — serves as a very poor guide in this respect. Occasionally one might read a review which mentioned stampers, but any such mentions were few and infrequent. To do much good they would have had to be much more systematic, and that never happened (mostly because the reviewers making these pronouncements were of course not very systematic and never pretended to be).

So, since we do not have the time or the intention to write such a book, and no one else to my knowledge has the necessary expertise, one will probably never be written. There are at least two good reasons for not even attempting such an endeavor, however. One is selfish, one is not. (more…)

Strict Quality Control? We Put That Proposition to the Test

Yet Another Important Lesson We Learned from Record Experiments bellcurve500Part one of this commentary concerns the random nature of record making processes. It can be found here.

A number of years ago we had the opportunity to crack open two brand new sealed copies of a recently remastered Heavy Vinyl pressing. We were told that with this record every effort was made to produce the highest quality product and to maintain the highest quality control throughout the production process, such that every copy produced, from first to last, would be more or less identical. Not just in terms of surfaces, but sound quality too.

To accomplish this feat the producer used the real master tape (we were told), had a well known mastering engineer do the mastering at a highly-regarded studio, then had a well-known audiophile pressing plant in Germany make the record, using the highest quality vinyl compounds available, in presses that meet the highest standards in the industry, operated by highly skilled professionals.

Long before any stamper could possibly be worn out it would be replaced. All the metal mothers and stampers would be made in a way designed to eliminate any possible variation. One and only one complete run would be made; if another was needed at some later date the whole process would have to be started over from scratch using the same strict quality controls.

No corners would be cut, nothing would be left to chance. Each one of the finished records would reflect the exceptional efforts brought to bear at every stage in the process. Every copy would be quiet, the sound would be of the highest audiophile quality, and, more to the point, every copy — from number 001 all the way to number 7,500 — would sound as good as any other.

Our Experience

As you might suspect, our opinion as to the possibility of these results being achievable is that they are not.

Bear in mind that this is an opinion supported by the playing of thousands and thousands of records, including sometimes more than a hundred of the same title, and having them all sound different to some degree.

So we proceeded to test the proposition that by exercising maximal control over all the known variables of record production, using the most exacting standards at each and every step, two copies of the same record, chosen at random, would sound the same.

We picked a song, cued it up and listened to it for a minute or so. Then we put the other copy on our table, cued up the same track and let it rip.

Falsified in Fifteen Seconds

Immediately the sound was different and, importantly, quite a bit better. The first big cymbal splash was brighter and more life-like, with more extended high frequencies. The bass was better too: deeper, as well as more solid and easier to follow. All of this was evident within the first fifteen seconds of playing the second copy. So much for controlling the variables.

The random variability inherent in the record making process cannot be overcome by best practices and high standards. The process is complex, not well understood, and surely stochastic; some parts of it can be controlled but not all the parts of it can be controlled, which means that the finished product will have some unavoidable element of randomness.

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Answers to Some of Your Hot Stamper Questions – The Beatles in Mono, Our Grading System, Our Cleaning System and More

We discuss a number of issues with our letter writer, the kinds of question we get often, so here are some answers.

  • How Prices for Many Records Have Trended Down, Others Have Gone Up
  • The Beatles in Mono,
  • Our White Hot Triple Plus Grade,
  • Our Stereo and Why It’s Good at Its Job, and
  • Record Cleaning

One of our (now) good customers had some questions about our Hot Stampers. Here are our answers.

  Hey Tom, 

First off, I got to say, congratulations on a great concept. Also, congrats on having the balls to charge what these albums are worth.

Thanks. Like any business, we charge what the market will bear, and it seems people are willing to pay a lot for these records, although less for some than they used to — some of our records now sell for half or even less than what we were getting two or three or five years ago. That said, the top copies have held their prices pretty well over the years and often gone up substantially. It’s the second tier and third tier titles and the Super Hots that have really fallen in price. That’s where the real “bargains” are these days. (more…)

Warning: Hot Stampers May Cause Cognitive Dissonance

 

Check out the article that Wired wrote about Better Records and Hot Stampers.

If you have time, go to the comments section and read any of the 300 or more postings claiming that the very idea of Hot Stampers is absurd, not to mention the atavistic, borderline fetishistic attachment to vinyl that these self-described “lovers of sound” engage in, and don’t forget how ridiculously expensive the equipment they own must be, making a real trifecta of audiophile insanity.

As if you didn’t know already!

But all of this is true only under one condition: that you have never played one of our Hot Stamper pressings.

Once you have played one, even the most skeptical audiophile often finds himself becoming as fetishistic about old records as we are, and have been for fifty years.

We sure get a lot of Letters from folks who seem to like our old records. Can there really be that much Kool-Aid to go around? Can one sip really change your life?

Good news: there exists a way to find out.

If you live in America and you try one of our Hot Stamper pressings and you then decide you don’t like it, we will cover the shipping cost both ways, and refund 100% of the money you paid. (more…)

Diminishing Returns in Audio? Sez Who?


Diminishing returns? Sez who? In our opinion, it’s another Old and Pernicious Myth.

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…)