Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

What We Listen For – The Basics

What Makes This Enya Pressing a Hot Stamper?

More Advice on How to Find Your Own Hot Stampers

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,
  • size,
  • space,
  • Tubey Magic,

and on down through the list.

When we can get all, or almost all, of the qualities above to come together on any given side, we provisionally award it a grade of “contender.”

Once we’ve been through all our copies on one side, we then play the best of the best against each other and arrive at a winner for that side.

Repeat the process for the other side and the shootout is officially over. All that’s left is to see how the sides matched up.

It may not be rocket science, but it is a science of a kind, one with strict protocols that we’ve developed over the course of many years to insure that the results we arrive at are as accurate as we can make them.

The result of all our work speaks for itself. We guarantee you have never heard this music — really, any music — sound better than it does on one of our Hot Stamper pressings, or your money back.


Hot Stampers and Occam’s Razor

Skeptical Thinking Is Key to Finding Better Sound

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide

This is an excerpt from a commentary I wrote many years ago in reply to a letter writer who thought our records were ridiculously overpriced.

When people ask us how our records can possibly be worth the prices we charge, this is our answer.

As a skeptic, I require evidence for what I believe in order to believe it. Although it’s certainly possible that our customers are willing to pay our admittedly high prices on nothing more than our say so, I see no evidence that this is the case. All things being equal, I think they must really like our records. They tell us so all the time, and they keep buying them week after week, so if they really are just fooling themselves, they apparently can’t stop doing it.

Occam’s Razor

The scientist’s and skeptic’s best friend, Occam’s razor, comes into play here. It holds that “the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible.” It’s often paraphrased as “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” In other words, when multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions…”

Why assume people who buy expensive records are crazy? Why assume that the records they buy aren’t every bit as good as advertised, if not better? Why assume that the “other resources available for buying music” are even remotely as good, absent any evidence?

People assumed that the CD was going to be a cheap and easy source for their music, and look where that got them.

Assumptions? Us?

I could go on for days about assumptions. We try very hard to make as few as we have to around here. We bend over backwards to let the pressings speak for themselves. Most of the time when we’re doing our shootouts we have no idea what pressing is on the table. All we have to go on is the sound.

It may be relative — everything is — but people seem to be able to replicate our findings in their own homes pretty well. Well enough anyway. When they write to us, they really don’t sound all that crazy. In fact they seem fairly rational to us.

More than anything they seem to be enthusiastic about the great sound they’re finally hearing on a favorite album of theirs, courtesy of Better Records. After having played the records ourselves, we don’t think it’s the least bit crazy to believe them.

The assumptions we really do take issue with are these:

  • Carefully remastered records pressed on heavy vinyl and marketed to audiophiles typically sound better than vintage mass-produced records sold to the public at large.
  • Original pressings always sound better than later pressings.
  • Records that look the same should sound the same.
  • Buying audiophile pressings guarantees better sound.
  • Buying audiophile equipment guarantees better sound.

I could go on for days about assumptions or theories that are easily disproved. All you need to do is play a representative sample of the records in question and listen to them critically using a blinded approach. (We call them shootouts.)

If you want to find out whether something about records is true or not, then find out.

Don’t guess and don’t assume. Get the evidence.

There are many commentaries on this blog that will help anyone to improve the way he thinks about records. I implore the reader to make use of them.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Why You Won’t Hear What You Don’t Want to Hear

More Entries in Our Critical Thinking Series

It’s because of a well documented cognitive error known as Confirmation Bias.

Wikipedia sums it up this way:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias cannot be eliminated entirely, but it can be managed, for example, by education and training in critical thinking skills.

But hold on just a minute: What about us? Aren’t we as susceptible to this particular critical thinking error as anyone else?

Of course we are. But that’s where our famous Hot Stamper Shootouts come in. They are the only way we manage to (almost) always stay on the straight and narrow.

By regularly revisiting the same records over and over again under blind testing conditions, playing the best recently acquired copies against our reference pressings, and doing so sometimes more than once a year, we make sure our results are as correct as they can possibly be.

We’ve discussed this issue in depth on our site. The commentary below gets at most of it:

After doing our first shootout for this album a few years back, I can honestly say I had never heard this music sound remotely as good as it did on the best Hot Stamper pressings we played. More importantly, from an audiophile point of view, I can honestly say that I never imagined it could sound as good as I was hearing it. The sound was just OUT OF THIS WORLD.

It’s why we link the Revolutionary Changes in Audio commentary to so many of our Hot Stamper listings. The changes we discuss are precisely what make it possible for any audiophile (this means you) to hear better sound than they ever imagined on all their favorite albums.

All you have to do is do all the stuff we do.

Let’s Face Facts

Hot Stampers simply do not exist for most audiophiles.

Most audiophiles don’t have the system (power, equipment, room, tweaks) to bring them to life.

Or the listening skills to recognize a Hot Stamper pressing were they to encounter one.

The most damning evidence? Most analog-oriented audiophiles are quite happy with the sound of Heavy Vinyl pressings, the kind of BS Vinyl that we regularly trash around here. Those records set a decidedly low standard for sound quality, to our ears anyway, so if the typical audiophile is happy with them, what does that tell you about his audio chain and his critical listening skills?

Rock Your Own Boat

Our Hot Stampers will of course still sound quite a bit better on even a run-of-the-mill audiophile system than any Heavy Vinyl pressing you care to name, but if you’re happy with a $30 reissue, what’s your incentive to spend five or ten or twenty times that amount, based on nothing more than my say-so? Even with a 100% Money Back Guarantee, why rock your own boat?

On the site we take great pains to make it clear that there are many ways that an audiophile — even a novice — can prove to himself that what we say about pressing variations is true, using records he already owns. You don’t have to spend a dime to discover the reality underlying the concept of Hot Stampers.

So-Called Skeptics

But perhaps you may have noticed, as I have, that most audio skeptics do not go out of their way to prove themselves wrong. And a little something psychologists and cognitive scientists call Confirmation Bias practically guarantees that you can’t hear something you don’t want to hear.

Which is all well and good. At Better Records we don’t let that slow us down. Instead we happily go about our business Turning Skeptics Into Believers (one record at a time of course), taking a few moments out to debunk the hell out of practically any audiophile LP we run into, for sport if for no other reason.

(They’re usually so bad it’s actually fun to hear how screwy they sound when played back correctly. Who knows — on a ’70s-era Technics turntable running into a Japanese receiver they might sound great. When we buy old audiophile collections that’s the sort of table we find collecting dust along with the vinyl. Might be just the system you need to get them to sound their “best.”)

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“I think it’s a safe bet to say that you have more satisfied customers than industry peers.”

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

One of our good customers had this to say about all the Hot Stampers he has purchased from us over the last year or so (bold added by us):

Dear Tom,

You don’t seem to have too many friends in the vinyl industry. I think it’s a safe bet to say that you have more satisfied customers than industry peers.

I checked my purchase history, and bought my first hot stamper just over a year ago. I can’t believe it’s been that short a time. I have 12 of your records, and I’ve returned 5 to you. Every one of them is a gem in my collection. In my collection of a couple thousand or so, I have other records that sound as good as the ones I bought from you, but not these particular titles, and maybe 5% of my collection sounds to me like a record I might have gotten from you.

I’m appreciative of the records you’ve sold me, and considering a few other things, I am saving money as a customer of yours, compared to my previous buying habits. First of all, the opportunity to return records that I feel are not worth the price I paid (for whatever reason) ensures that my collection of hot stampers itself only includes records that I feel were worth the price I paid. Especially when you consider “spins per dollar,” I’m getting more value out of the hot stampers than the rest of the collection. ($40 on a record I’ll play once or twice, versus $600 on a record I’ll play dozens of times.) But also, it’s the other things I’ve learned from you and your blog. How to listen to records. How good vinyl can sound, when you really do it right. How to clean records.

But, the most important thing I’ve learned from you is how to build a great stereo for vinyl.

I followed your advice to a T, because each new step I took in the direction you recommended yielded clear dividends. I now have an EAR 324 phono stage, a low-powered vintage amp (Sansui 7500, recommended on TheBrokenRecord), and high-sensitivity vintage speakers – Legacy Signature 3’s. I top them off with Townshend SuperTweeters. I get clarity, fullness, soundstage depth, and what was most elusive on my previous setup (McIntosh, B&W), I now get vocals to die for.

One must work up to hot stampers. I get that, but it’s kind of a shame. Ten years ago, when I got back into vinyl, I didn’t think I’d ever buy a $600 record, let alone actively peruse listings of them every Wednesday evening. But, had I started off following your advice on how to build a stereo, and had I started off with your records, I’d have spent less money by now, and built a satisfying stereo and vinyl collection a lot sooner, and for far less expenditure overall.

I’m writing this to you today because I’ve found myself in the really unexpected position of defending you in a few settings where common sense and open-mindedness should not have made those defenses necessary. This was on a YouTube livestream earlier today [linked below for those of you who have a couple of hours to waste], and on a forum thread that’s unfolded over the last couple of weeks [which might actually be worth reading].

Tom, you’ve made yourself into a polarizing figure by stating your views unambiguously. And because people don’t like the way you say things, they won’t even try your records. Everybody can agree on the fundamentals – that not all records sound the same. That older records can often sound better than modern re-presses of them. That it’s worth it to pay more for records that have been play-tested.

And yet, those people swear they won’t buy your records. When you criticize somebody else’s records, I’ll venture a bet you hurt your own business more than theirs. And yet, you keep doing it.

Despite how much people love to complain about you, many of your records are sold before I’ve even made up my mind whether or not I want to buy them. I guess there’s a lot of us who aren’t turned away by your rhetoric, and I know we’re better off for it.

Aaron

Aaron,

Thanks for the kind words. Glad to know that, even at our prices, you recognize the value of the records you bought from us. What difference does it make that some people do not like me, or the records we sell, or the prices we charge?

You bought the records, you heard the sound. Are you going to believe your lying ears or the words of the soi-disant audiophiles who have never played one of our records but somehow figure they know more about them than you do. Welcome to the internet!

I think the audiophile community has a lot in common with the LP 45 guy, who, incidentally, has more than thirty three thousand youtube subscribers. To be painfully blunt, this man seems to me to be stoned, lazy, and above all, unserious. I am guessing his followers are too.

Geoff kept trying to find out why he wouldn’t want to try a record if it sounded better.

I think I know why.

Because it’s not about the sound of my records. It’s not about the sound of any records.

It’s about being in the audiophile club and having everybody agree with you about how great it is to be in the audiophile club.

I can’t have anything to do with that way of thinking. Music is too important to let these idiots run it into the ground with their awful remastered pressings.

Some people follow their own path and like to speak their mind. Picture a much less smart Elon Musk, accent on the much. You can’t shut him up either. He doesn’t want to join your club. He doesn’t want to play in your sandbox. He makes a product which you are free to accept or reject on the merits. Did anybody ever say “I would never buy a Tesla, that Elon Musk is a jerk.”?

Maybe. But why have respect for people that do not deserve your respect. They certainly haven’t earned it. They are owed the courtesy that we all are, nothing more. I assure you my mail order bride would back me up on this. (If she didn’t you could ask me if I have stopped beating her.)

Fremer says I say bad things about industry professionals who are doing great work, the Bernie Grundmans and the Kevin Grays of the world. The effrontery of this Tom Port guy and his Hot Peppers!

Geoff was called a liar by Fremer, and Geoff called him out on it. Fremer did not seem to have a good answer. What would a good answer sound like? I cannot imagine. Fremer wanted an apology. Geoff’s editor at The Washington Post said we do not apologize for saying things in our paper that are factually true. No apology will be forthcoming. And who do you think you are anyway?

I am frequently referred to in the video below as a “peripheral character” in the record world. Guilty as charged. What else could I be? Our records are expensive.

LP 45 guy doesn’t seem to get that play grading the records is only a small part of the process, representing maybe 1 or 2% of the cost of the finished product. They are expensive for lots of reasons, mostly having to do with the cost of the raw materials – also known as exceptionally clean vintage vinyl LPs – and the cost of the staff it takes to clean them (another 1-2%) and play them and critique them and sell them and ship them.

We spend a lot of money and a lot of our time finding out things out about records. What different pressings sound like. Others can’t be bothered, even — maybe even especially — those with youtube channels.

Aaron, you have returned five records. Some people on the internet say we made, or might make, it hard to get their money back if they were unsatisfied with the sound. Did you have problem? If you did there are many forums to post on and get the truth out.

Seriously, if someone thinks they would have a hard time getting a refund from a company clearly offering a 100% money back guarantee, that person really needs to call his credit card company and ask them what would happen if we said “no refund, pal.”

He might have to hold the phone while waiting for the laughter to die down. It’s absurd to think we don’t give customers their money back. The credit card companies would not hesitate to take it out of our account and give it back to them without asking us twice. They don’t need us, we need them.

Fremer thinks most folks can’t be bothered to pack up our record and send it back, and that’s why they keep a record that they are not happy with. Can he really believe that? At our prices? This is what passes for an argument against doing business with us in his world? Somebody needs to leave his batcave and get some fresh air.

If you would like to see our two biggest critics make their best case against Hot Pokers, however harebrained and specious their criticisms happen to be (really, it’s something to see, assuming you can get through it), please to enjoy the video below.

And kindly send Geoff Edgers, care of The Washington Post, your condolences. He had to listen to these two gasbags abuse him for two hours. As the adult in the room, he tried his best to understand them and see things from their point of view, which is more than I would have done.

We are not interested in points of view of any kind.

We are only interested in knowing the answer to one question: do your records sound any good?

I am still waiting to play the Analogue Productions pressing that has what I would consider to be good sound. Everyone assumes there must be some, but when folks put forth the names of the actual records they think I should like, some of which can be found here, I have to disagree with them.

And more to the point, I can send you a record that can show you why their record is not as good as you think it is.

If negative opinions about the sound of some of the Heavy Vinyl pressings we’ve reviewed offend you, please go back to your youtube videos and leave those of us who are serious about records to pursue the hobby in peace. We like records. We just don’t like your records.

If you have played one of our records, I am interested in your opinion, pro, con or otherwise. Email me at tom@better-records.com.

If you have not played one of our records, I am not at all interested in your opinion. I can’t be any clearer than that.

Aaron, if you are still reading, thanks very much for your letter and your support.

TP

P.S.

The records Aaron has bought and kept are pictured above. There are many more of course, but man, those are some great albums and I suspect that he would agree with us that the copies we sent him are worth every penny of what he paid.

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Hot Stamper Note Taking – Here Is What You Need to Know

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

Finding Hot Stampers is all about doing shootouts for as many different pressings of the same title as you can lay your hands on.

Lately we have achieved better results by going about it like this:

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album at key moments of your choosing.

Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that others do not do as well, using a specific passage of music — the acoustic guitar John beats the hell out of on Norwegian Wood just to take one example — it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing reproduces that passage.

The process is simple enough. First you go deep into the sound. There you find something special, something you can’t find on most copies. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

Admittedly, to clean and play enough copies to get to that point may take all day, but you will have gained experience and knowledge that you cannot come by any other way. If you do it right and do it enough it has the power to change everything you will ever achieve in audio.

The kind of notes I take can be seen below. 4×6 Post-its work great for this purpose, using one per side. We go through thousands of them every year. Without specific notes on your records about exactly what you heard as you played them, you cannot possibly keep track of which pressings have the qualities you were listening for, and in what amounts.  Extensive notes like the ones you see below are a must.

Below you will find more readable copies of the notes.

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Better Record’s Record Collecting Axiom Number One

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – The Fundamentals

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

In an old commentary for a shootout we did for Carole King’s Tapestry album, we took shots at both the CBS Half-Speed Mastered Audiophile pressing and the Classic Heavy Vinyl Audiophile pressing, noting that both fell far short of the standard set by the Hot Stamper copies we had been playing (and enjoying the hell out of) for years.

axiom-definition-screenshotThis finding (and scores of others just like it) prompted us to promulgate the first two axioms of audiophile record collecting.

Better Records Record Collecting Axiom Number One

The better your stereo gets, the fewer Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered pressings you will choose to play, or own for that matter.

This assumes a fact not in evidence: that audiophiles get rid of their bad sounding records.

It has been my experience that the reverse is actually more often the case. Most audiophiles seem to like to hang on to their audiophile pressings, even the bad sounding ones. Why they do this I cannot for the life of me understand.

To me a bad sounding audiophile record is a record that has no business being played and should either be tossed or sold, with any proceeds from the sale applied to the purchase of good records — you know, like the ones found on this site.

Click here to read Better Record’s Record Collecting Axiom Number Two.

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Warning: Hot Stampers May Cause Cognitive Dissonance

Check out the article that Wired wrote about Better Records and our pursuit of 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 on top quality equipment.

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 decide you don’t like it, we will cover the shipping cost both ways and refund 100% of the money you paid.

With a guarantee like that, wouldn’t it be more absurd to conclude, as so many have done, that what we say about records cannot possibly be true? All without even a hint of empirical evidence to support the idea?

The Real Risk

Of course, the real risk in taking a chance on a Hot Stamper is not financial, since we are covering all the costs.

The real risk is that you might end up proving to yourself that the ideas you have about records are mistaken.

Carefully cleaned and evaluated old records can indeed sound dramatically better than the ones they are making these days. We can actually prove it. You just need to let us send you the proof.

Now wait just a gosh darn minute, Mister Hot Stampers, I hear you saying to yourself.

I own so many of these new records! I’m a smart guy. I’m no dummy. How could I have been so easily taken in? Why did I believe them when they told me these new records were the best? You know, the labels that make them and the reviewers who review them and the forum posters who rave about them. Everybody. I thought we all agreed about this!

It’s not right that your Hot Stamper pressings turn all of what I know to be true on its head. Yes, your records are clearly better, but now I feel I was duped when I bought all these other pressings. I feel like a fool and I don’t like that feeling.

You can see how easy it would be for this turn of events to result in some serious cognitive dissonance, the kind that everyone — even me — does everything in their power to avoid. (Most of it is subconscious and automatic anyway, so you don’t really have to do anything, truth be told.)

The Right Choice Is Clear

Therefore the easiest choice, the smartest choice, the choice practically every audiophile makes (never mind the general public, they couldn’t care less), is to come up with some reasons why our records cannot possibly be as good sounding as we say.

That’s the ticket. This whole Hot Stamper thing makes no sense. It’s not possible. Your customers are wrong. They are deluding themselves. You guys are the ones who are suffering from cognitive bias, not me. You hear what you want to hear on these old records and you ignore what’s good about the new ones.

I’m pretty sure that must be what’s going on. How can everybody else be wrong and somehow you get to be right? That’s really absurd. You should be ashamed of yourself for ripping off gullible audiophiles who are too stupid to realize that what you are selling is the worst kind of snake oil. Either that or false hope. You’re cynically preying on those who have more money than sense and laughing all the way to the bank. That’s on you. There’s a sucker born every minute, and that’s why you will never run out of customers. Hah!

Fair enough. Well said. You figured out this whole thing must be a scam. Awesome. Good job.

As a bonus, you’ve just saved yourself a huge amount of work and avoided a lot of mental anguish. You proved yourself right without lifting a finger. (Well, you did some typing, so I guess that counts as lifting a finger. But it sure was easier than playing a record and critically listening to it. That stuff is hard.)


Now that all that Hot Stamper stuff is out of the way, please allow me to point you toward the one book that explains all the bad thinking we humans constantly engage in, this one.

In my experience, no other book explains more about audio and the audiophiles who pursue it, myself included. I guarantee that if you read this book you will never be the same. It is that eye-opening.

Kind of like playing your first Hot Stamper. Nothing is ever the same again. Even if it is a scam.

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Neil Young / Harvest – How Does the Heavy Vinyl Pressing Sound?

More of the Music of Neil Young

Reviews and Commentaries for Harvest

How does the heavy vinyl sound? We have no idea, never played one.

Actually, we do have an idea. Although we’ve never auditioned the heavy vinyl pressing of Harvest, we have played the newly remastered After the Gold Rush. We concluded that this is a reissue series that holds very little appeal for us as audiophiles. Some excerpts from our review for ATGR follow.

We know what the good pressings of the album sound like, we play them regularly, and this newly remastered vinyl is missing almost everything that makes the album essential to any Right Thinking Music Lover’s collection.

We can summarize the sound of this awful record in one word: boring. Since some of you may want to know more than that we’ll be happy to break it down for you a bit further.

What It Does Right

It’s tonally correct.

Can’t think of anything else…

What It Does Wrong

Where to begin?

It has no real space or ambience. When you play this record it sounds as if they must have recorded it in a heavily padded studio. Somehow the originals of After the Gold Rush, like most of Neil’s classic albums from the era, are clear, open and spacious.

Cleverly the engineers responsible for this audiophile remastering have managed to reproduce the sound of a dead studio on a record that wasn’t recorded in one.

In addition, the record never gets loud. The good pressings get very loud. They rock, they’re overflowing with energy.

And, lastly, there’s no real weight to the bottom end. The Whomp Factor on this new pressing is practically non-existent. The low end of the originals is huge, deep and powerful.

The Bottom Line

This new Heavy Vinyl pressing is boring beyond all understanding. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for it. If Neil Young actually had anything to do with it he should be ashamed of himself.

If you want a good copy of the album we have them on the site from time to time. If you can’t afford our Hot Stampers, please don’t waste your money on this one. I have an old CD from 30 years ago, and it is dramatically better than this LP.

Pass / Fail

We think the Heavy Vinyl pressing of After the Gold Rush is so awful that whatever supporters it may have — and there are surely some who have spoken well of it on audiophile forums somewhere, having seen the most ridiculously bad audiophile records touted again and again — are failing utterly in this hobby in one or both of the following ways.

They either cannot reproduce its shortcomings, or, having reproduced them, they have failed to recognize them.

Either one spells trouble. One or both should act as a wake up call of the most pressing kind. We explain what we mean by this kind of failure in more detail here:

Some records are so wrong, or are so lacking in qualities that are crucial to the reproduction of Hi-Fidelity sound — qualities typically found in abundance on the right vintage pressings — that the supporters of these records are failing fundamentally to judge them correctly. We call these records Pass-Fail.

Tea for the Tillerman on the new 45 may be substandard in almost every way, but it is not a Pass-Fail pressing. It lacks one thing above all others, Tubey Magic, so if your system has an abundance of that quality, the way many vintage tube systems do, the new pressing may be quite listenable and enjoyable. Those whose systems can play the record and not notice this important shortcoming are not exactly failing. They most likely have a system that is heavily colored and not very revealing, but it is not a system that is necessarily hopeless or unmusical.

A system that can play the MoFi of Aja without revealing to the listener how wrong it is must necessarily be at another level of bad entirely. A stereo of such poor quality is clearly a failure, what else could it be?

My system in the ’80s played the MoFi Aja just fine. Looking back on it now, I realize my system was doing more wrong than right. (Having very poorly-developed critical listening skills played a big part in my apparent satisfaction with both the MoFi pressing and the sound of my stereo in general.)

Today’s incarnation of that awful MoFi is the Cisco pressing, and yes, some folks are as clueless these days as I was in 1982.

Like all Self-Taught Audiophiles, I had a lousy teacher. I didn’t know it at the time — how could I? — but I had a very long way to go.

Some of the lessons I learned along the way, lessons you may find helpful in your own personal audio journey, can be found here.

The dramatic audio progress we’ve made in our 35 years in the record business, playing and selling thousands of audiophile quality vinyl LPs, is what has allowed us to recognize just how second- and third-rate most Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered pressings really are.

Head to head with a good vintage LP — those you see pictured below, for example — they are simply not competitive. We think the new Harvest is unlikely to be worth our time, but if you have a copy of the album and like the sound of it, please send it to us so that we can hear it for ourselves We will put it up against the amazing sounding vintage pressings we offer and report our findings, whatever they turn out to be.

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

_1400755003Some Moderately Helpful Title Specific Advice

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

I received this email a while back:

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 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 knowing 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.

Trade Secrets

First off, when we discover hot stampers, they become the equivalent of trade secrets — we never reveal them to anyone. Over the last twenty five years of collecting we have bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of records and spent tens of thousands of hours of our time deciphering those arcane little squiggles in the dead wax that correlate, however imperfectly, with both the good records and the bad ones. Why would we want to give that hard-earned information away? It’s priceless, to us anyway.

Today’s Fact Is Tomorrow’s Error

Secondly, and every bit as importantly, they change, and frequently. We find new and better pressings all the time. This very subject is discussed in the commentary for David Crosby’s first album. we note in our review that we used to like a different stamper. Now, with better equipment and better ears, we prefer a new one. And tomorrow we might like still another!

The Best Sound

As we see it, our job is to get you the best sounding records we can find. That’s how we would like to think we make our living. Knowing the right stampers helps us do it, but that is only part of the process. The right stampers only sound right some of the time. The vinyl plays a big part in the sound, and we’re not talking about condition here, we’re talking about the quality of the vinyl compound itself. This unpleasant fact is the bane of our existence. So many potentially great records that we buy just don’t sound the way we know they should, even after an expensive and time-consuming cleaning.

No one can know precisely why some pressings come up short. But the ears know. Playing records is the only reliable test we’ve discovered to date. Imperfectly reliable to be sure, but markedly more reliable than any other.

Right Stampers, Wrong Sound

We could rattle off all sorts of stamper numbers that should sound amazing. We have hundreds of them memorized, so that when we go to a record store we know what to buy and what to avoid. But the LP you find on your own with the “right” stamper numbers might sound dreadful, or no better than mediocre. Naturally, you would conclude we were to blame for recommending such a bad pressing. But our copy and your copy, both with the same stampers, don’t sound the same. In fact, if our experience is any guide, they can never sound the same. Similar maybe, virtually identical even, but like two snowflakes or two grains of sand on the beach, not truly identical. And, based on our experience, often not even all that close.

So, with all that in mind, we have decided to take a different approach to the task of helping you acquire the best sounding LPs. We find them for you, clean them up, play them, and make sure they sound good before you buy them. This way, we do all the work, and you get to spend more time listening to good records and less time finding, cleaning and evaluating bad ones.

More Power to You

Of course, if you want to do the work yourself, more power to you. Let’s be clear: There is absolutely nothing we do in a shootout that you can’t do yourself. All it takes is time and money. LOTS of time and LOTS of money. I personally have been at it for thirty-five years. These days I would guess we drop the needle on at least a few hundred records a week. Sometimes we spend hours and hours playing piles of copies of an album and get nowhere. Other times we find a Hot Stamper that is too noisy to sell. It’s a lot of work to do it right, and we don’t want to do it unless we can do it right. It’s easy to be wrong, and we hate being wrong when it comes to the sound of records.

Hey, Maybe You Should Write It

Maybe after you have cleaned and played thousands and thousands of records you will want to write a book about the best sounding pressings you have discovered. We would love to read it. We’re all for the sharing of knowledge. Until then, we’re going to stick with our approach. A glance at our Testimonials page tells us our approach is meeting with favor. We have some very satisfied customers.

To me there is nothing more thrilling in audio than hearing a favorite, familiar recording sound better than I ever thought it could. If that’s the kind of thrill you are looking for, I recommend you visit the site as often as you can. Something of interest is sure to pop up. It can’t be found in a book. It can only be found — to the best of my knowledge — at Better Records.

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Thoughts on Becoming an Expert Listener

More Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

More on the Subject of Developing Your Critical Listening Skills

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 one of the early ones 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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