Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

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?

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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…)

Stevie Wonder / Songs in the Key of Life on Heavy Vinyl – Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

More Stevie Wonder

Hot Stamper Pressings of Songs in the Key of Life Available Now

[This commentary was written more than ten years ago. I just went to this reviewer’s website to make sure the quote below was accurate, and everything you need to see is still up and as misguided as ever.]

I will ask the question again: Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

How on Earth could anyone possibly know such a thing?

Some background. Years ago our first ever Hot Stamper shootout for Songs in the Key of Life had us enthusiastically singing its praises:

HOT STAMPERS DISCOVERED for one of the funkiest and most consistent double albums of all time! It’s beyond difficult to find great sounding Stevie Wonder vinyl, but here’s a copy that proves it’s possible if you try hard enough. So many copies are terrible in so many different ways — we should know, we played them. And just to be clear, this copy is far from perfect as well, but it did more things right in more places than we ever expected it would or could. And that means it showed us a great sounding Stevie Wonder record we never knew existed.

But a noted reviewer says it’s a bad recording. Does he know something we don’t?

Not exactly. The fact is he doesn’t know something we do, something he, like anybody else, could have found out had he simply done his homework. (We call them shootouts, but homework is certainly a serviceable and in some ways even more accurate description: it’s work and you do it at home.)

All it takes is one good copy to falsify the assertion this fellow makes. We in fact found more than one. But I’m quite sure we do things very differently at Better Records than they do at any reviewer’s digs. (more…)

Hot Stampers and Good Sounding Records Are Not the Same Thing

They are barely even related. Here’s why.

A good customer wrote to us recently to say that he was not happy with the Stevie Ray Vaughan White Hot Stamper pressings we had sent him.

Tom,

I also have a couple more returns for you: SRV Couldn’t Stand the Weather and SRV Soul to Soul. While these are good, they’re just not quite up to White Hot Stamper quality like some of the other records clearly are.

I took the opportunity to reply at length. The most interesting part is at the top if you don’t want to read the whole thing.

Dear Sir,

You appear to be conflating two concepts, Hot Stampers and Good Recordings. They are not the same thing. They are barely even related.

Hot Stampers are especially good sounding pressings of specific albums that we found through shootouts.

The recordings of these albums may be better or worse than others you are familiar with. That has nothing to do with how hot the stampers are of the pressings we sell.

It works this way: if you had a hundred copies of The Dark Side of the Moon, the median pressing– the one that would have ranked number 50 out of 100 — would sound substantially better than either of those two SRV albums.

Pink Floyd: amazing recording. 

SRV: good, not great recording.

We would never sell an average pressing of DSOTM. We only sell the best sounding versions of it.

We would never sell the average version of any SRV album. We only sell the best sounding versions of them.

But no SRV album is ever going to sound like a good Dark Side of the Moon! (more…)

What We Listen For – The Basics

What Makes This Enya Pressing a Hot Stamper?

Specifically, what are the criteria by which a record like this should be judged?

Pretty much the ones we discuss in most of our Hot Stamper listings:

  • energy,
  • vocal presence,
  • frequency extension (on both ends),
  • transparency,
  • harmonic textures (freedom from smear is key),
  • rhythmic drive,
  • tonal correctness,
  • fullness,
  • space,
  • Tubey Magic,

And on and on down through the list. (more…)

Hot Stamper Shootouts – The Four Pillars of Success

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

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Finding Hot Stampers is all about doing shootouts for as many copies of the same title as you can get your hands on. There are basically four steps in this process and you have to achieve success with each of the four if you are going to be any good at discovering and evaluating your own Hot Stampers. 

We discuss each and every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this very site. Although none of it will come as news to anyone who has spent much time reading our stuff, we cobbled together this commentary to help formalize the process and hopefully make it easier to understand and follow.

If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the pressing you have in your collection, but the actual recording it was made from — you have to do some work, and you have to do it much more thoroughly than most audiophiles and record collectors think is necessary.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stampers

That work is made up of these four steps.

1.) You must have a sufficient number of copies to play in order to find at least one “hot” one.

2.) You must be able to clean your copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.

3.) You must be able to reproduce your copies faithfully.

4.) You must be able to evaluate them critically. (more…)

Is the Average Record Really Worthless? – We Do the Math (So You Don’t Have To)

More Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Blood, Sweat and Tears

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What follows is an excerpt from a much older letter in which the writer made the case, as best he could, that spending lots of money on records is foolish when for a dollar one can buy a perfectly good record at a thrift store and get exactly the same music and decent enough sound.

We think this is silly and, with a few rough calculations, a heavy dose of self-promotion and not a little bullying, we set out to prove that the average record is worthless. Prepare to confront our sophistic logic. (Yes, we are well aware that our reasoning is specious, but it’s no more specious than anybody else’s reasoning about records, so there.)

Jason, our letter writer, points out this fact:

Your records are a poor value in terms of investment. Until you convince the whole LP community that your HOT-STAMPER choices are the pinnacle of sound a buyer will never be able to re-sell B S & T for $300. Even if they swear it is the best sounding copy in the world.

We replied as follows:

If records are about money, then buying them at a thrift store for a buck apiece and getting something halfway decent makes perfect sense. As the Brits say, “that’s value for money.” If we sell you a Hot Stamper for, say, $500, can it really be five hundred times better? (more…)

Identical Stampers + New Vinyl = Different Sound?

nirvanever
The dirty little secret of the audiophile record biz is that the purveyors of these pressings cannot possibly know with any certainty what the sound quality of any sealed record they sell is.

They turn a blind eye to the fact that some copies are simply not going to measure up to the sound of the review copy that they auditioned and described.

This is a good reason not to sell sealed records, which, of course we don’t. But that’s because we’ve done the experiments and found out the things they cannot be bothered to learn.

But wait a minute. Even that’s giving audiophile record dealers far too much credit.  Only a small fraction actually review the records they sell. Most cut and paste a review from the manufacturer and let it go at that. And the few that do write reviews are often so far off the mark that they might as well be talking about another pressing entirely.
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