Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Building a World Class Record Collection… One Customer’s Story

Dear Tom,

I want to thank you once again…

Quite a few years ago now I contacted you and talked about this concept called “hot stampers”…It ended up both saving me a lot of misdirection and foolishly trying to rebuild my vinyl collection with new vinyl re-releases often called “audiophile” and “half-speed” issues.

After a few confirmations of what you said I quickly sold all those copies and began building a real world class collection of vinyl “original” hot stamper level records. A good number cam from your business and I also made a hobby of trying to do what you do in finding “hot stampers”. Fortunately Philadelphia has a reasonable number of used record stores but unfortunately, as you well know, this is a rigorous and costly endeavor…..but it can be rewarding at times and at other times requires that I rely on you.

So today I’m snowed in here so I fired up the rig and decided to do some small scale shoot outs and find the true great copies from my already culled collection. Put on several Hall and Oates and focused on “She’s Gone”… one was just clearly dynamic, clear and present…..then put on several Dire Straits “Love over Gold” and ended up with 3 killer copies (such a good lp).. I then put on about 5 copies of Phil Collins “Face Value” with “If Leaving Me is Hard”….What a great love song….and narrowed it to 2.

Yes my rig is really awesome for close up intimate listening at any level. It is something I have worked on for decades to become resolving, dynamic, harmonic, dimensional, transparent, and involving. I can listen loud and close without distortion. When I suddenly find that “hot stamper” Phil Collins is in the room where I hear his voice articulate and rich with background singers just as good and the band perfectly balanced to his vocal. And it is then I think of your contribution to all of this and want to tell you.

So that is what I am doing. I know what three pluses means…..I can’t afford many of them as I would assume some wealthy customers can but I really appreciate them and their unfortunate rarity….. and I appreciate all the work you have done to make this possible, (more…)

Hot Stamper Shootouts – The Four Pillars of Success

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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…)

Elton John’s Caribou Is Usually Noisy and Sounds Bad – Why Is That?

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There’s a good reason you’ve practically never seen this album for sale on our site. In fact there are quite a number of good reasons.

The first one is bad vinyl — most DJM pressings of Caribou are just too noisy to sell. They can look perfectly mint and play noisy as hell; it’s not abuse, it’s bad vinyl. (Empty Sky is the same way; out and out bad vinyl, full of noise, grit and grain.)

The second problem is bad sound. Whether it’s bad mastering or bad vinyl incapable of holding onto good mastering, no one can say. Since so many copies were pressed of this monster Number One album (topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic), perhaps they pressed a few too many after the stampers were worn out.

Or pulled too many stampers off the mother.

Or made too many stampers from the father.

Or used crap vinyl right from the start.

Of course there’s not an iota of evidence to back up any of these assertions, but I just thought I would throw it out there as a topic for speculation. (Have you noticed how much audiophiles and audiophile reviewers love to talk about things that they have no empirical evidence for one way or the other? Very little of that sort of thing can be found on our site. We like to stick to the sound of the records we’ve played and leave most of the “reasoning” about the sound to others.)

Making Mistakes and Other Advice from Better Records

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.

“Making a different mistake every day is not only acceptable, it is the definition of progress.”
~Robert Brault

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.
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Led Zeppelin II – Gee, I Seem to Have No Trouble At All Playing This Record

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We all know the famous story by now. Robert Ludwig’s “Hot Mix” (a complete misnomer, mostly propagated by those with an apparently poor understanding of what goes into the sound of a record – the mix never changed, only the mastering) of Zep II was causing the needle to jump the groove when Ahmet Ertegun’s daughter tried to play it on her cheap turntable, so they recut the record with more compression and cut the bass.

Our Triplanar Mark 6 / Dynavector 17d III combination seems to play the original just fine. Amazingly well in fact.

Here’s a question for all the Heavy Vinyl fans in the world: name all the Heavy Vinyl records that sound as good or better than RL’s cutting of Zep II.

Modern engineers tell us they can cut records better now than ever before, with all the bass and dynamics that previous engineers were forced to limit for the cheap tables and carts of the past.

So where are these so-called New and Improved records, the ones with more bass and dynamics?

I have yet to hear one. Perhaps someone can point me in the right direction.

Send your list to tom@better-records.com

Becoming an Expert Listener – Challenging Yourself Can Really Pay Off

 

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This commentary was written around 2006, right about the time we were starting to put Hot Stampers on our web site.

Scientific American joins forces with Better Records (or is it the other way around?) to share a few ideas, which turn out to have much in common. 

For years we’ve been writing commentaries about the sound of specific records we’ve auditioned in order to put them up for sale on the site. By now there are literally hundreds of pages of commentary in which we’ve tried to explain, often in great detail, exactly what we listened for and exactly what we heard when playing these pressings. We’ve tried to be as clear as possible about precisely which qualities separate the better sounding LPs from their competitors — what they do right, and how you can recognize sound that is right .

More Shootout Advice

As we’ve gained a better understanding of records and their playback, we’ve made every effort to share with our readers what we’ve learned. Although the vast majority of these records sold long ago, almost all of the commentary remains available on the site, to act as a resource for the audiophile who owns or might want to consider buying a copy of the record discussed.

Over the years, one thing has continued to bother me (I almost wrote “vex me”) about this hobby and those who pursue it. I’m frankly still shocked at how unskilled most listeners are. How else to explain all the bad sounding 180 gram pressings so many audiophiles embrace?

Add to the above bad half-speeds, bad Japanese pressings, bad Classic Records, bad 45s and all the rest, and you have a lot of bad sounding records that people don’t seem to have noticed sound bad. How can that be? (more…)

Building a Good Sounding Record Collection – Hot Stampers Versus Collector Pressings

I defy anyone who has not made a lifelong study of pressing variations to tell me what even a fraction of the records pictured here might sound like from an audiophile point of view. 

No chance the owner knows either.
 

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Anyone can amass a collection of records — one this big, ten times its size or one-tenth its size, the process is the same. You just buy whatever you like and organize them whichever way you find most suitable.

There is no limit to the kinds of records one might collect: originals, imports, audiophile pressings, picture discs, the TAS List – you name it, you can collect it.

There are literally millions of records for sale around the world on any given day. They’re not hard to find, and being so common, collecting them is easy. A single collection for sale as of this writing contains more than 3 million records. That works out to a thousand records each for three thousand collectors. Do you really have time to play more than a thousand records? That’s a different record every day for close to three years!
(more…)

Nirvana / Nevermind – Live and Learn

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

Hey Tom, 

I have purchased about 85 LPs from you in the past 10 years, many of the various types of hot stampers. I was looking at an 11/18/06 article of yours, which said you would verify if my Nirvana/Nevermind LP “is the good one” if I would send you the runout information of side 2. Well here it is: A339124425S2 320. Hoping you could help me wit this. Thanks!

Kind Regards,

Alex 

Alex,

That is not the pressing we like anymore I’m afraid. The imports can be good but they can’t win a shootout. We have no info about that stamper still around either, sorry!

TP

That’s a drag as this is the exact pressing that I purchased from you on 11/18/06 due to an article where you said the following: “The perfect recording, the best of it’s kind, ever. The bass is perfect, the guitars are perfect. The vocals are perfect. Now how in the world could that be you ask?! This import is the first and only version that sounds the way it should: Perfect”. What is the deal here, have things changed so dramatically since then.. Your comments please.

Regards,

Alex

Alex,

It would be great to always be right about which are the best sounding records, but that is simply not possible. We discover new and better pressings for famous albums all the time, once every month or two on average I would say, which means that since 2006 we have found newer, better pressings than our former reference pressings at least a hundred times.

We write about it here:

We Was Wrong

An excerpt: (more…)

Letter of the Week – Real Aja Vs. Cisco Aja

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

Hey Tom,   

It’s amusing that even Golden Ears who have the attention of large readerships can miss and misunderstand so much. You don’t have to understand the technical why of the variability of LPs to appreciate just how profound the audible differences can be from stamper to stamper. Even in acknowledging that differences are present, they do not seem to appreciate the extreme degree of the variation in sound among LPs from different stampers.

As so many of us have learned from you, a “hot stamper” LP is simply in a whole different league in sound quality. A good sound system is necessary to realize just how big that difference is and the more optimized that system is the better.

Beyond the audible reality and the technical issues, it is the subject of value that is not understood or appreciated. The ability to simply find a nice playable copy of a vintage LP is a major task. So many LPs have suffered the gouging of what must have been a rusty nail used as a stylus as well as all the other sins that can be wreaked on the plastic disc. Then the incredible task of assembling enough different copies to be able to do the “shoot-out” would seem impossible.

I have, as many now may have tried, done a simple “shoot-out” of a few copies of a favorite LP. Among those I have always found the “better” of the bunch. Now and then and just by luck (since the statistics of not having enough samples was not working in my favor) I have found what must indeed be a “hot stamper). And WOW …..what a difference!

The number of times this has occurred fits on less than one hand yet when you hear an LP that has been mixed and mastered really well and then “transferred” with care and quality via an excellent stamper, there is an epiphany. Suddenly you hear what you often refer to as “master tape” sound. As I have said before, this is really a sad statement about the quality and consistency of record production throughout its history.

The “Audiophile” Half-Speed thing only piles it on top of this with the way mastering at half speed seems to extract the dynamic life and frequency response from an album in contrast to a standard copy. The logical intention that mastering at half speed would allow the cutting lathe tool to have “more time” to lay down more of the music signal just never really worked. You would think the “Golden Ears” that developed this idea would have compared the result with real-time cutting speed (not brain surgery). I never wanted all this to be the way it is and didn’t even know it until I stumbled upon Better Records one day. But it is the way it is!

There seems to be a focus on the “wear” of the stamper as the primary cause of differences in the quality of the vinyl LP. My sense is that there is much variation over time in the production of stampers regarding the audio mastering and transfer in tonal balance and especially in the degree of compression used for a specific stamper that can destroy the “life and transparency” of the sound. This has nothing to do with stamper wear or physical variation but can vary from stamper to stamper over the duration of being in print and production and in some cases, never get transferred correctly.

I purchased the new Cisco Steely Dan “Aja” album hoping it would deliver perhaps even greater sound than the original and the hype regarding the remix quality, heavy virgin vinyl, etc, etc. certainly suggested that. After playing a few very smooth and quiet bands I put on my excellent vintage copy of Aja that proceeded to destroy the Cisco. The life, dynamics and transparency were in a totally different and superb league above. I very carefully returned my now even more precious copy to its sleeve. A few dealers that sell reissues like Aja will sometimes admit this but they certainly don’t want the world to know it. (more…)

A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers: The More Mistakes the Better, Part Three

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“The essence of success is that it is never necessary to think of a new idea oneself. It is far better to wait until somebody else does it, and then to copy him in every detail, except his mistakes.” ~Aubrey Menen

Indeed, if only that were practical. Our approach to Hot Stampers and How to Find Them is certainly a revolutionary new idea, and undoubtedly the only way of discovering records with superior sound quality.

But even if we were to publish all of our secrets, the stamper numbers and labels and countries of origin of all the best pressings we’ve ever played, every last one, that would still not be the answer, for the simple reason that no two records sound the same.

As long as that’s true, either we have to play a pile of records to find the best sounding ones, or you do. There is no other way to do it.

But at the very least, with commentaries such as this one, we hope we can be helpful in pointing the analog record lover in the right direction. Follow us. What we do can work for anyone — anyone who’s willing to make mistakes that is.