Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Thought for the Day – Getting Older and Losing Patience

I’ve observed an interesting development in the world of record collecting, one that seems to be true for both myself and many of my customers.

As I’ve gotten older I find I have more money, which allows me to buy higher quality goods of all kinds, especially records. At the same time I seem to have much less tolerance of mediocrity, as well as less patience with the hassle of having to do  too much work to find a record that’s truly exceptional, one that actually will reward the time and effort it takes to sit down and listen to it all the way through.

As a consequence, if I’m going to play a record, I’m going to make sure it’s a good one, and I don’t want to have to play five or ten copies to find the one with the magic.

We actually do play five or ten copies of every record  because it’s our business, but I sure don’t have the patience to go through all that for my own personal listening the way I used to twenty years ago. Of course, that’s precisely what taught me what I know about records today, and how I learned to find the one with the magic, but it sure would be hard to start all over again at this age (I’m 66). (more…)

1A, or Is 1B Better? – Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

More Simon and Garfunkel

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Before we go any further, I have a question: Why are we guessing?

I received an email recently from a customer who had gone to great pains to do his own shootout for a record; in the end he came up short, with not a lot to show for his time and effort. It had this bit tucked in toward the end:

Some of [Better Records’] Hot Stampers are very dear in price and most often due to the fact that there are so few copies in near mint condition. I hate to think of all the great Hot Stampers that have ended up in piles on the floor night after night with beer, Coke, and seeds being ground into them.

Can you imagine all the 1A 1B or even 2A 2B masters that ended up this way or were just played to death with a stylus that would be better used as a nail than to play a record!

As it so happens, shortly thereafter I found myself on Michael Fremer’s old website of all places, where I saw something eerily similar in his review for the (no doubt awful) Sundazed vinyl. I quote below the relevant paragraphs.

So how does this Sundazed reissue hold up next to an original 1A Columbia pressing that I bought new when it originally was released (it still has the Sam Goody “C” Valley Stream sticker on it, with the $2.49 markdown written in pen)? Well, for one thing, when people say records wear out, I don’t know what they are talking about! Since it was first released more than forty years ago, I’ve played this record a hundred times at least, in Ithaca in my fraternity house, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Hackensack and now and it still sounds fantastic. It’s quiet, it’s detailed, it’s three-dimensional and it still has extended, clean high frequencies.

No reissue could possibly touch an original 1A pressing of just about any Columbia title and that goes for this reissue, which is very good, but not as open, spacious, wideband, transparent and “tubey” as the original.

He later goes on to give this piece of advice:

If you can find a clean, reasonably priced used original 1A pressing, it’s definitely going to sound better, but if you can’t, this reissue sounds very good and you’ll not know what you’re missing.

The entire review can be found on his site for those who care to read it. If, as MF seems to believe, you won’t know what you’re missing on the Sundazed LP, you need to find yourself another hobby. If it’s anything like most of their cardboardy crap, it’s missing more than it’s finding. (more…)

Stevie Nicks – Speculate Shmeculate

Albums with Stevie Nicks Performing

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Another in our ongoing series of Random Thoughts on issues concerning music and recordings. 

The sound of the typical copy can best be summed up in three words: thin, hard and bright. When the sound is thin or hard or bright the fun factor of this mainstream drops to zero. Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and Leather And Lace both sound great on the radio, why not on Warners vinyl? We can’t blame Sheffield Labs, the original cutting house: all the copies we played — good, bad and otherwise — were originals and mastered by them.

Could it be the vinyl? It could. It could be a lot of things, but speculating about them doesn’t really get us or you anywhere, so I’m going to stop doing it and just say we played a big pile of records and heard a lot of unpleasant sound. If you have the record you probably know what I mean. (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. (more…)

Ansermet’s Scheherazade – Yes, Sometimes There Is Only One Set of Magic Stampers

More Scheherazade

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In 2015 we wrote:

There are certain stampers that seem to have a consistently brighter-than-it-should-be top end. They are tolerable most of the time, but the real magic can only be found on the copies that have a correct or even slightly duller top. Live classical music is never “bright” the way recordings of it so often are.

It’s rarely “rich” and “romantic” the way many vintage recordings are — even those we rave about — but that’s another story for another day.

We recently did the shootout again, and now with a much more clear, accurate upper midrange and an even more extended top end, the stampers that we used to find “brighter than they should be” are now just too damn bright, period.

We was wrong and we don’t mind admitting it.

Which leaves one and only one stamper that can win a shootout. Another stamper we like well enough to offer to our discriminating customers, but after that it is all downhill, and steeply.

Of course the right stampers are the hardest ones to find too. All of which explains why you rarely see a copy of the album for sale on our site.

Reviews and Commentaries for the music of Rimsky-Korsakov

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

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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?

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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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Making Mistakes – Advice from Better Records

More Lessons Learned from Record Experiments

A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes. Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”  Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies

When I think of the 20 odd years (early ’70s to early ’90s) I wasted trying to figure out how audio works before I had learned to develop critical listening skills, it brings to mind that old Faces’ song, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and most cogently in this commentary from way back in 2005.

We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one as critically as you can.

We do not recommend devoting much time to reading about them in magazines or on forums.

We also would dissuade the serious record collector from paying much attention to what the most sought after or most expensive pressings are. Records have market prices based on a host of factors that mostly have nothing to do with sound quality.

And don’t think you can “logically” predict which pressings should sound the best and then just go about acquiring them.

None of these methods are likely to produce good results.

Making mistakes will though. And the more you make, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to recognize and pursue good records. It also makes it easy to part with your bad ones. The latter group we hope will include the majority of your holdings of Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered Recordings. At best those should be seen as placeholders. They’ll do until something better comes along.

Sgt. Pepper on Heavy Vinyl – The Reviewers from 1982 Blow It Again

Hot Stampers of Sgt. Peppers in Stock Now

Letters and Commentaries for Sgt. Peppers

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You might agree with some reviewers that EMI’s engineers did a pretty good job with the new Pepper. In the March 2013 issue of Stereophile, Art Dudley weighed in, finding little to fault on this title but being less impressed with most of the others in the new box set. His reference disc? The MoFi UHQR!

Oh, and he also has some old mono pressings and a domestic Let It Be. Now there’s a man who knows his Beatles. Fanatical? Who can blame him? We’re talkin’ The Beatles for Chrissake!

When I read the reviews by writers such as these I often get the sense that I must’ve fallen through some sort of Audio Time Warp and landed back in 1982. How is it that our so-called experts evince so little understanding of how records are made, how variable the pressings can be, and, more importantly, how absolutely crucial it is to understand and implement rigorous protocols when attempting to carry out comparisons among pressings.

Critically comparing LPs is difficult and time-consuming. It requires highly developed listening skills. I didn’t know how to do it in 1982. I see no evidence that the audiophile reviewers of today are much better at it these days than I was in 1982.

What does one well-known reviewer have to say, keeping in mind that he’s using his original British pressing for comparison? I quote at length — without prejudice so to speak — so there can be no misunderstanding. (more…)

Letter of the Week – Fleetwood Mac – How We Go About Our Shootouts and Lots More Where That Came From

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

Hey Tom, 

  Sorry to say I will be returning this White Hot Stamper. Did a lot of
  research before ordering, understand and fully appreciate what you’re
  doing, seriously sad to not be keeping it. Pretty obviously you are
  crazy dedicated to this so wanted to fully explain why. Especially
  since there’s still good odds I would like to try again.

  First let me say it was quite the experience unpacking and seeing a
  cover still in its original shrink wrap. Probably quite a few would
  consider that alone worth the price. I never even slipped it out of
  the excellent plastic sleeve you shipped it in, that’s how much
  instant respect I have for the unbelievably unlikely existence of this
  thing. It truly is amazing. I bought it for the music not the cover,
  but still….

  The reason I will be returning this is Side 1. Monday Morning was a
  disappointment, but I really think we are kind of at the mercy of the
  master here. Warm Ways is a whole lot better, and yes quite a bit
  better than my copy, with a fair bit more inner detail and palpable
  presence but overall not much more than I have got from some good 45
  or heavy vinyl pressings.

  Just so you know, yes I do follow all your suggestions. Warm up,
  demagnetize, anti-static, all of that and more. Have a demagnetizer
  much more effective than the Talisman. Been doing all this stuff over
  20 years now. Because I hear and appreciate. Cables elevated off the
  floor. Every wire from the breaker to the speaker been cryo’d. Yes I
  pulled the wire out of the house, drove it down to Cryo One, had them
  do it all.

  Part of the problem. I hear how much better Side 1 is, it goes into
  that frame of reference. For over $300 it needs to be at least as
  great an improvement over my copy as I can get from warm-up,
  demagnetize, etc. Its not.

  Well your rating did say Side 2 was a bit better. Frankly, I think you
  could stand to correct that. Side 2 is a whole lot better. Right from
  the first track its just way more lively, present, dynamic, punchy,
  you name it. Not sure why you say Say You Love Me is “rich and sweet
  and tubey” probably that is one of the stock phrases you use
  throughout the site because this track offers, relative to the others
  on this side, less of this.

  Which brings me to Landslide, and World Turning. These two tracks
  totally deserve all the most glowing Better Records accolades! Simply
  superb sonics. Better even in some ways than my MoFi 45 of Brothers in
  Arms. Now this is what I was hoping for! The spellbinding sound of
  these two tracks is almost enough to make me forget Side 1.

  Almost. And its not like the rest of Side 2 is bad. Honestly, when it
  gets to this level (of pressing quality) you can hear so deeply what’s
  going on it becomes inescapable we are at a level where we are at the
  mercy of the mastering engineer. Or if not him then someone even
  further along up the recording chain. You know what I mean. I know you
  know what I mean. Because, in reading one of your glowing reviews was
  the comment, basically, “but get real, its Springsteen.” Because for
  whatever reason he could never be bothered to turn out a good recording.

  So I know. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It might
  very well be no copy of Fleetwood Mac ever pressed gonna have a Side 1
  that sounds as good all the way across as this Side 2. But I figure if
  anyone would know that it would be you.

  And that’s kind of where I am. The copy I have right now is worth to
  me only a fraction of the price. If the whole thing sounded like Side
  2 though, then I would be a happy camper. The price would still be
  dear, but worth it. Find me a copy like that, same price, don’t bother
  posting it, its sold. Or credit this one down a whole lot. I’d prefer
  the first option. If it even exists.

  Sorry for the email. Guy like you I would love to get on the phone.
  Which with my schedule, no chance until Wed or Thurs, and I didn’t
  want to wait. But I still would like to talk. You know the records and
  now you know a little about me. Maybe you can help me find the few
  select copies I just can’t live without. I got the feeling if anyone
  can, its you.

  Best regards,

  Chuck M.

Chuck,

A few quick thoughts:

Since every stereo plays every record differently, it’s hard to know why
our copy did not sound as good to you as it did to us. When it comes
back I will personally play it against our 3+ ref copy and see how it
holds up.

2.5+ means it came in second in the shootout. Maybe it didn’t deserve
that grade, I will find out!

The other issue is a much more subtle one. We play all the side ones
against all the other side ones, so comparing side one to side two is
something we would never do, it’s apples and oranges in a way, many side
ones of albums simply do not sound as good as their side twos, and vice
versa, and we note that in some of our listings.

We could honestly say that about a great many records if we took the
time to do it.

On F Mac’s self-titled album I am not aware that that is the case, but
it could be!

We play tracks one and four on side one to test with. They are the
hardest tracks to get right in our experience.

Monday Morning has huge amounts of bass and a slightly gritty vocal, so
it’s very difficult to get that song to sound right and easy to spot
when it does sound right.

Warm Ways is a piece of cake and sounds at the very least “good” most of
the time, so it’s not much of a test for us, although richness,
intimacy, space and transparency are obviously better on this track on
the better copies.

Anyway, I will check it out when it comes back and hopefully get back to
you before too long.

Thanks for taking the time to write.

Best, TP

Tom,

Had Fleetwood Mac all packed to send back, couldn’t quite do it. Last
night I pulled it out for a second listen. This time, instead of going
head to head with my other copy I had a more normal listening session of
playing increasingly good SQ records. I have a pretty good memory for
these things which is probably what was bugging me and keeping me from
sending it back. Sure enough, listening again you can clearly hear much
deeper into the recording than probably anything else I have. This is by
far the most I’ve ever paid for any one record, I was actually nervous
handling it, probably just psyched myself out. Plus, and this is still
sinking in, this is a very unusual and highly specialized niche item
we’re talking about. Much as I’d wish for a copy where both sides sound
as good as Side 2 on this one does, I can tell by now you wouldn’t be
selling that one for the same price anyway! (more…)