Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Thoughts on Becoming an Expert Listener

More Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

This commentary was written around 2006, about two years after we started to put Hot Stampers on our website. Most of these kinds of commentaries from our old site can now be found on the blog you are reading. Here is an early one that got the ball rolling.

For years we’ve been writing commentaries about the sound of specific records we’ve auditioned in order to put them up for sale. 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 were doing right, and how we were able to recognize those qualities.

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 blog, 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?

Finally, after years of scratching my head over this conundrum, Scientific American has come to the rescue with an article by Philip E. Ross in the August 2006 issue entitled The Expert Mind. Its subtitle explains:

Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.

The studies have a number of significant findings which go a long way toward explaining the expertise, or lack of it, in listeners. It concludes that experts are made, not born, which means that virtually anyone can acquire the skills to become an expert listener.

But more importantly, the efforts required to reach that expert level explain why many audiophiles have not managed to acquire the necessary skills.

These studies show that two requirements must be met. The first is ten years of hard work. This means full time — not weekends, not a few hours after work to relax, but full time: forty, fifty, sixty hours a week, for years and years.

That amount of effort for that amount of time is “necessary but not sufficient,” as the logicians like to say. You can play golf all day every day and never become a scratch golfer. If you want to play at that level you have to work at it. You have to challenge yourself to play better, by whatever means necessary. You must actively approach the game with the intention to improve, not passively approach the game with the goal of enjoyment. That fundamental difference in attitude and effort results in very different skill levels over time.

As you can probably guess by now, I started to see something of myself in these findings. I’ve been listening critically to records full time for well over a decade, close to two at this point [now three and counting]. And many others who work here do the same — play lots of records and listen to them critically.

Let’s face it, we don’t play records all day because we want to. We play them because we have to. It’s how we make our living. Life would be a lot easier if we could just be one of those record dealers who throws a title up on his site with a visual grade and a high price. We can’t do that. Audiophiles come to us for superior sounding pressings, and there’s only one way to find those — by playing the records.

What’s more, you have to compare any given pressing to others you may have on hand, to see what it’s doing right and wrong, where its strengths and weaknesses lay. It’s a lot of work. This is how we’ve learned about records. We can’t imagine any other way of doing it.

After reading this article, I went back through some of my audio commentary and found this little gem from 2005.

A good record is an education for me too. This is not only how I’ve managed to learn about the pressing in question; it’s the same process that allows me to make improvements in the sound of the stereo. It’s learning how to identify what is right and what is wrong with the sound of any pressing — the same process that helps me recognize whether any change to the stereo makes it sound better or worse, and to try and figure out by how much and in what way.

And the best part is, like the practice of any skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I do it all day, every day. Not because I’m noble or dedicated. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s the most fun part of this job. Discovering great sounding recordings is a THRILL. It’s what this hobby is all about — music that sounds better than you ever thought it could.

The study corroborated what we already knew to be true. Improving your Critical Listening Skills requires the expenditure of effort, and lots of it.

The second finding of the study was corroborated in the next few paragraphs, wherein I exhorted the reader to challenge himself, to test his skills using records he already owns:

Of course, as I’ve stated elsewhere on the site, you learn almost nothing from the same record played back on the same equipment. What you must do is learn to listen for differences in the sound, and differences only come about as the result of a change. You have to CHANGE something in the system to develop these critical listening skills.

How about this example: the difference in sound between any two sides of a record. The only change there involves flipping the record over. No new equipment, no tweaks, no shootouts with dozens of alternate pressings. Just flip the record. Almost no record has the same sound on both sides, not the records we sell anyway. Where else have you ever read such a thing? Nowhere else, at least to my knowledge. Because not enough audiophiles and almost no record dealers make the effort to listen critically.

If you can’t hear the difference on at least some of your records, it has to be one or both of the following. Either your system is not good enough to resolve these differences, which is sometimes the case, or, much more likely, you simply haven’t trained your ears to listen for them. Not listening for pleasure. Listening like it’s a job. Critically. Analytically. Try to listen for one quality by itself. Listen for grain, or top end extension, or bass dynamics — anything, the list is endless. Focus in on that single quality, recognize it, appreciate it, then flip the record over and judge that quality for side two.

Although we make plenty of mistakes, we think of ourselves as experts when it comes to evaluating the sound of records and stereo equipment. (Experts make mistakes; they just make fewer of them.) The studies alluded to above make it clear that anyone can.

But the practical consequences of these findings are that few audiophiles can ever hope to achieve expert critical listening skills. It takes too much time and it takes too much work. Most people are in this hobby for fun. They already have a job. They don’t need another one.

Perhaps there’s another, better way to look at it. Most people are not going to become scratch golfers, but they can still get better at the game. There is a balance to be achieved between working hard to improve your skills and having fun at the same time.

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To Better Understand Records, Consider These Three Ideas

We think sitting down to play a Hot Stamper pressing is the best way to appreciate its superior sound, in the same way that hearing a great sounding LP played back on a top quality audio system is the best way to appreciate the superiority of analog.

To expand on the basics discussed in our FAQ, consider checking out the three commentaries linked below:

Are There General Rules for Acquiring Records with the Highest Quality Sound?

Sometimes Progress Means a Record Sounds Worse Than It Used To

The Uses and Abuses of Rules of Thumb

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The Recordings Won’t Change, So Other Things Have To

More of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Letters and Commentaries for Led Zeppelin IV

It’s amazing how many records that used to sound bad now sound pretty darn good. The blog is full of commentaries about them. Here’s a good one.

Every one of them is proof that comments about recordings are of limited value.

The recordings don’t change. Our ability to find, clean and play the pressings made from them does, and that’s what the Hot Stamper Revolution is all about.

You have a choice. You can choose to take the standard audiophile approach, which is to buy the record that is supposed to be the best pressing and consider the case closed.

You did the right thing, you played by the rules. You bought the pressing you were told to buy, the one you read the reviews about, the one on the list, the one they said was made from the master tape, the one supposedly pressed on the best vinyl, and on and on.

Cross that title off and move on to the next, right?

When — sometimes if but usually when — the sound of the record doesn’t live up to the hype surrounding it, you merely accept the fact that the recording itself must be at fault. Prepare to allot a fair amount of time to complaining about such an unfortunate state of affairs. “If only they had recorded the album better…” you say to yourself as you toddle off to bed, ending your listening session prematurely, fatigued and frustrated with a record that — for some reason — doesn’t sound as good as you remember.

We did it too, more times than I care to admit.

Try It Our Way

Or you can adopt our approach and hear those very same albums sound dramatically better than you ever thought possible. Better than you remember. It happens all the time here at Better Records and it can happen at your house too. Just follow the yellow brick– uh, scratch that, just follow these four steps.

Our approach has the added benefit of freeing up time that would normally be spent bitching about the bad sound of most recordings. This in turn makes more time available for pleasurable listening to the Hot Stamper pressing you discovered on your own or the one we found for you. (It’s the same process whether you do it yourself or we do it for you.)

You also probably won’t feel the need to go on silly audiophile forums to argue the merits of this or that pressing. You will already own the pressing that settles the argument.

Keep in mind that your pressing only settles the argument for you — nobody else will believe it.

And why should they? They have never heard your copy. It would take quite a leap of faith on their part to believe that your copy sounds so much better than the one they own, when the one they own looks just like the one you own. It might even have the same catalog number, the same label, maybe even the same stampers.

But this is precisely what Hot Stampers are all about. Records may look the same but they most assuredly do not sound the same.

It may be a dead horse, but we see no reason to stop beating it: “Explaining doesn’t work. Only hearing works.”

What We Offer

Unfortunately most of what is important in audio you have to learn to do for yourself.

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A Frequently Asked Question – What makes you guys think you know it all?

xxxMore Straight Answers to Your Hot Stamper Questions

We definitely don’t know it all. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. If we knew it all we couldn’t learn anything from the piles and piles of records we listen to every day.

On practically every shootout we learn something new about our favorite records. That, more than anything else, is what makes the kind of tedious, time-consuming, mentally exhausting work we do fun. 

The stuff we were wrong about, and there has been plenty, you can find right here on the blog, often under the heading Live and Learn.

It should be said that most audiophiles, at least the ones I know well, do not have the patience to critically analyze ten different copies of the same record for hours on end. For me (and everybody else who sits in the listening chair), it’s all in a day’s work.

I learned to critically listen for extended periods of time back in the early ’80s. I got heavily into — obsessed with might be more accurate — tweaking my table setup, system components, wires, vibration controlling devices and the like.

Listening for differences in interconnects and listening for differences in pressings calls upon precisely the same set of skills. If you can do it all day, if you actually like tweaking and analyzing the sound of your stereo for hours and hours, you will undoubtedly end up with a much better sounding system, as well as one helluva high quality collection of records (not to mention very finely honed listening skills).

Here’s a good way to chart your progress.

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Master Tape? Yeah, Right

mastertapebox

Thinking Critically About Records

Let me ask you one question. If so many of the current labels making 180 gram reissues are using the real master tapes — the real two-track stereo masters, not dubs, not cutting masters, not high-resolution digital copies, but the real thing — then why do so many of their records sound so bad?

If you’re honest you’ll say “I Don’t Know…” because, and here I want you to trust me on this, you don’t know. I don’t know either. Nobody does.

Records are mysterious. Their mysteries are many and deep. If you don’t know that you clearly haven’t spent much time with them, or don’t have a very revealing stereo, or don’t listen critically, or something else, who knows what.

They’re mysterious. That’s just a fact.

There is no shortage of records that say “Made From the Original Master Tapes” that simply aren’t. I know this dirty little secret for a fact. I would never say which ones those are for one simple reason: it would make it seem as though others must be, when in fact we have little evidence that very many of them are.

We want them to be — I’m all for it — but how can we know if they are or not? Face it: we can’t.

We must make do — heaven forbid — with actually opening up our own ears and engaging the sound of whichever Heavy Vinyl Reissue we may find spinning on our turntable.  Judging the quality of the sound — no doubt imperfectly — coming out of the speakers.

Good Luck

If you want to believe the press releases (made from Ian Anderson’s secret master tape!), the hype, the liner notes, the reviews and all the rest of it, that’s your business. Good luck with that approach; you’re going to need it. When you reach the dead end that surely awaits you, come see us. After 35 years in the record business there is a good chance we will still be around.

Our approach, on the other hand, revolves around cleaning and playing as many records as we can get our hands on, and then judging them on their merits and nothing but their merits, calling them as we see them as best we can, without fear or favor.

Our judgments may turn out to be wrong. Tomorrow we may find a better sounding pressing than the one we sell you today. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

We don’t know it all and we’ve never pretended that we did. All knowledge is provisional. We may not be the smartest guys in the room, but we’re sure as hell smart enough to know that much.

If somehow we did know it all, there would not be a hundred entries in our Live and Learn section. We regularly learn from our mistakes and we hope you do too.

But we learn things from the records we play not by reading about them, but by playing them. Our experiments, conducted using the shootout process we’ve painstakingly developed and refined over the course of the last twenty years, produces all the data we need: the winners, the losers, and the ranking for all the records in-between.

We’ve learned to ignore everything but the sound of the records we’ve actually played on our reference system.

What, of value, could anyone possibly tell us about a record that we’ve heard for ourselves? The question answers itself.

This approach allows us to have a unique, and, to our way of thinking, uniquely valuable service to offer the discriminating audiophile. When you’re tired of wasting your time and money on the ubiquitous mediocrities that populate the major audiophile dealers’ sites and take up far too much space in your local record store, let us show you just how much more real handpicked-for-top-quality-recordings can do for your musical enjoyment.

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Tell Us More About “Hot Stampers”

More Straight Answers to Your Hot Stamper Questions

Many of the basic questions concerning Hot Stampers, including our grading system, 2-packs, coupons, the mailing list, as well as more general ordering and payment information, can be found in our FAQ.

We recommend that you read it before continuing on with this one. The links below deals specifically with the kinds of issues that potential customers, as well as skeptics and forum posters (god bless ’em!), have raised with us over the years.

We think sitting down to play a Hot Stamper pressing is the best way to appreciate its superior sound, in the same way that hearing a vintage LP played back on a top quality audio system is the best way to appreciate the superiority of analog.

To expand on the basics discussed in the FAQ above, you might want to check out some of these next:

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Three Stages of Truth

spock

All truth passes through three stages.

First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident.

Arthur Schopenhauer


Here’s a blast from the past that may shed some light on the philosophical insight above.

I had an interesting conversation with one of our good customers a while back. He had  recently been chatting with some of his audiophile buddies about Hot Stampers. Let’s just say they weren’t buying any of it. This is more or less how he related the conversation to me over the phone (which started out as an email, most of which is reproduced below).

First he told me how much he has been enjoying his Hot Stampers, then we talked about his audiophile buds.

The Hot Stampers have been phenomenal as always. No matter how many records I buy, none can hold a candle to anything in my Hot Stamper collection.

A couple of my friends happen to be longtime audiophiles. As still a relative beginner to the world of audiophiles, I had hoped that these audio vets would be fans of Better Records, if not regular customers.

Instead they seemed to be incredulous at the thought of Hot Stampers — even though they had never heard one!! Admittedly, they have more years of experience in this endeavor, but I thought, hey, at least I am willing to give a great sounding record a try, right? Perhaps over the course of many years, people believe they have it all figured out. {More on that subject here.]

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How Much Better Sounding Is a Stradavarius?

A Primer on How to Get to the Truth (Which Works for Records Too)

A skeptical take on an old claim, using the Gold Standard of Double Blind Testing.

We evaluate records using something like double blind testing in the record shootouts we do five days a week. It’s what makes us unique in the world of record dealers and collectors. We allow the records to speak for themselves.

With the evaluation process we use, there can be no influence or bias from the reviewer’s preconceived notion of what pressing should sound best, because the person sitting in the listening chair does not have any way to know which pressing is actually playing.

This is not quite true for audiophile pressings, since the VTA must be adjusted for their thicker vinyl. The way such evaluations are done is simple enough however. We play a top quality Hot Stamper pressing, typically one that received a grade of White Hot (A+++), check the notes for what the test tracks are and what to listen for, and then proceed to test the Heavy Vinyl pressing on those same tracks, listening for those same qualities.

It rarely takes more than a few minutes to recognize the faults of the average audiophile pressing.

When played head to head against an exceptional vintage LP, the audiophile pressing’s shortcomings become all too obvious. Again and again, the audiophile pretender is found to be at best a second- or  third-rate imitation of the real thing, if not downright awful.

How the sound of the modern remastered mediocrity has managed to impress so many self-identified audiophiles is shocking to those of us who have been working to get the best sound from our records for a very long time, developing both our systems and our critical listening skills over the decades.

In defense of these surprisingly easily-impressed audiophiles, I should point out that even we were fooled twenty years ago by many of the Heavy Vinyl records produced around that time, such as those on the DCC label and some by Speakers Corner, Cisco and others. It took twenty years to get to where we are now, taking advantage of much better equipment, better cleaning technologies, better room treatments, and the like, most of which did not even exist in 2000.

A turning point came in 2007 with the Rhino pressing of Blue, a record that made us ask, “Why are we selling records that we would not want to own or listen to ourselves?”

In closing, there is one fact that cannot be stressed enough, which may seem like a tautology but is nevertheless axiomatic for us:

Doing record shootouts, more than anything else, has allowed us to raise our critical listening skills to the level needed to do proper shootouts. It’s how we became expert listeners.

Without that process, one which we painstakingly developed over the course of the last twenty-five years, we could not possibly do the work we have set out for ourselves: to find the best sounding pressings of the most important music ever pressed on vinyl.

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Bread – Notes on the Shortcomings of a Hot Stamper

See all of our Bread albums in stock

Radio Friendly Pure Pop Albums Available Now

Back in the 2000s, we felt we owed our Hot Stamper customers a more complete picture of the good and bad qualities we heard in our shootout for practically every record we played.

The idea was that the buyer could listen along for what the record was doing well and what it might not be doing so well. If you noticed that the top end was a little soft, well, that’s what we might have heard too. We would put that shortcoming, and any others we thought worth mentioning, right there in the listing.

Over the years, in order to avoid having to write every listing from scratch, we streamlined the process and dropped the criticisms.

Below you can see a typical example of an older listing. This is how we used to recognize when a record was Super Hot as opposed to White Hot.

This commentary on the famous recording of The Firebird with Dorati discusses the same issues in more depth.

Side One

A++, with good balance and lots of rockin’ energy. It’s transparent — just listen to how clear the drums are on the first track. It’s a bit dry and doesn’t have all the top end extension of the best, so Super Hot is a fair grade we think.

Side Two

A++! Big and clear, yet rich, open, and Tubey Magical without being compressed or thick. None of the smear that plagues the average copy either. Could use more top end to help the harmonics on the percussion and guitars, but this is still a STRONG A++ side.


FURTHER READING

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to the Fundamentals

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

Hall and Oates and Mobile Fidelity – A Counterfactual Approach to Remastering

More of the Music of Hall and Oates

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Hall and Oates

We here present a set of ideas about remastering that Mobile Fidelity could have used to guide themselves when cutting their version of Hall and Oates’ masterpiece, Abandoned Luncheonette.

This is what they could have done when it came time to produce an audiophile pressing of Abandoned Luncheonette, an album originally released in 1973.

By the time Mobile Fidelity released their version of the album in 1980, the record was already a Super Saver bargain re-issue, something of minimal quality offered at a bargain price and produced solely for the purpose of  keeping record store bins stocked with back catalog.

There is nothing wrong with a record like that. And the Super Saver version may even have some merit. But imagine for a moment that it does not.

Why Abandoned Luncheonette?

Now imagine that Mobile Fidelity knows, or at least believes, two things.

One, the album is a masterpiece that belongs in any right-thinking audiophile’s collection, and two, the current version does not sound very good. The wise men at MoFi recognize that an opportunity to do some good for the audiophile community and make a buck at the same time has presented itself.

Audiophiles may not know it, but they are in need of a good sounding copy of this brilliant album, and they deserve one that sounds every bit as good as the shockingly good sounding originals (like the ones we sell).

In addition, we at MoFi can go Atlantic’s original one better. We can actually press the album on quiet vinyl.

Next, Mobile Fidelity greenlights this project and gets a real Master Tape from Atlantic. (There are many tapes that masquerade as masters and aren’t any such thing, but let’s assume for the moment that Mobile Fidelity did get a real tape.)

They would also need a nice batch of original pressings, which in our opinion are the best, and would easily be recognized as being the best sounding by anyone playing the album on good equipment. The best originals are lively, rich and smooth, befitting an expensive, high quality studio recording from the era.

So instead of Mobile Fidelity trying to create a new sound for this album, they could have taken a different approach. They could’ve just said to themselves: let’s make a copy of the record that sounds as good as the original, and because we can press it on expensive, high-quality Japanese vinyl, we can justify selling it at a premium price to audiophiles looking for the best sound and quiet vinyl.

They could then cut a number of reference lacquers trying to re-create the best qualities of the originals, and then test those lacquers up against the best originals, in something that might be called a “shootout” long before the term was commonly used bu audiophiles of our persuasion.

The Counterfactual Part

This is what they could have done. That’s why we are calling this commentary a counterfactual.

They did something else entirely.

They tried to make the record sound better than any of the copies they had at hand. They tried to fix the sound. In trying to fix the sound, they made it worse because they simply were not capable of recognizing how right the good originals were.

They must have thought them dull, because the Brain Trust at Mobile Fidelity boosted the hell out of the upper midrange and top end. (Using the concept of reverse engineering, I assume their playback equipment was dull, a fairly safe assumption considering how many Mobile Fidelity records are bright enough to peel the paint.)

They Were on a Mission

They of course would never have been able to get the bass right, because half speed mastering always causes problems down low.

But they could have made the record tonally correct, and fairly transparent in the midrange, and then could have pressed that sound onto state-of-the-art Japanese vinyl.

But none of these things interested Mobile Fidelity at the time. They were hell-bent on making everything they touched better. In the process, practically everything they touched got worse, as anyone with good equipment and two properly working ears who has ever played a large selection of their records can attest.

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