FAQ

Beware of Fooling Yourself with Pseudo Shootouts

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We encourage any audiophile who wants to improve the quality of his record collection to start doing his own shootouts. Freeing up an afternoon to sit down with a pile of cleaned copies of a favorite LP (you won’t make it through any other kind) and playing them one after another is by far the best way to learn about records and pressing variations. Doing your own shootout will also help you see just how much work it is. Be sure to take extensive notes.

Shootouts are a great deal of work if you do them right. If you have just a few pressings on hand and don’t bother to clean them carefully, or follow rigorous testing protocols, that kind of shootout anyone can do. We would not consider that a real shootout. (Art Dudley illustrates this approach, but you could pick any reviewer you like — none of them have ever undertaken a shootout worthy of the name to our knowledge.)

With only a few records to play you probably won’t learn much of value and, worse, you are unlikely to find a top copy, although you may be tempted to convince yourself that you have. As Richard Feynman so famously remarked, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – How Can I Find My Own Hot Stampers?

More Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

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

There are four basic steps you must take, and you have to do right by each of the four if you are going to be successful at discovering and evaluating your own Hot Stampers. 

We discuss every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this blog. 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 and carefully and above all scientifically than most audiophiles and record collectors we’ve met apparently think is necessary. Don’t be one of those guys. Do it right and get the results that are simply not possible with any other approach.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stamper Shootouts

The work of finding these very special pressings is made up of these four parts.

  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.

This Approach Will Help You Find Better Sounding Records

There is a clear benefit to doing it this way, and it’s something you should consider when tweaking your system too.

Lately we have achieved the best 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.

Tweaking your system should proceed along the same lines. Using the above process, get to know some specific attributes of a recording inside and out. Then and only then is it time to tweak, when your system is at its best and the blood is pumping through your ears. If your experience is anything like ours, the results you achieve using this approach will be much more reliable over the long term.

We still end up undoing many initially promising tweaks the next day, usually when some record we know well doesn’t sound the way it should. But you learn nothing unless you try, so we keep at it, and so should you. Some of the spaghetti will stick to the wall eventually, and when it does it produces one of the best highs in all of audio.

Of course it’s always a good idea to confirm whatever changes you’ve made with other records you know well. In audio, as in life, it’s easy to be wrong. 

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A Frequently Asked Question – Are Hot Stampers just original pressings?

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They certainly can be, but quite often they are not, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to any serious record collector, and definitely not to any member of our listening crew. Reissues come out on top in our record shootouts fairly regularly.   

Yes, most of the time the original will beat the reissue, but most of the time is far from always, and since we have to play a big pile of copies anyway (and always with the person doing the sound grading kept in the dark about the pressing being auditioned), why not evaluate both the originals and the reissues at the same time, on the merits and not on any of our prejudices?

But this discussion bypasses an important question: What IS an original? Is a record with a 1A stamper an original and a record with a 1B stamper not an original, or slightly less original? Is every copy on the original label an original, and only the copies with the later labels reissues?

To be honest, attempting to lay down strict rules about what constitutes an original is best understood as a fool’s errand, an audiophile parlor game of little use in the real world of records, and one we never cared to play even when we didn’t know how pointless it would turn out to be.

To be blunt about it, we are not the least bit interested in how original a pressing may or may not be. On this site we are only interested in one thing, the answer to the question: Which copy of the record sounds the best? (Also: In what way? So I guess that’s really two things we are interested in.) The rest of it we leave to our record collecting brethren.

Records that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Reissue Pressings with Hot Stampers


FURTHER READING

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)  (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – What Exactly Are Hot Stamper Pressings?

More Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

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The easiest and shortest version of the answer would be something like “Hot Stampers are pressings that sound dramatically better than the average pressing of a given album.

My good friend Robert Pincus coined the term more thirty years ago. We were both fans of the second Blood, Sweat and Tears album, a record that normally does not sound very good, and when he would find a great sounding copy of an album like B, S &T, he would sell it to me as a Hot Stamper. It was a favorite album and I wanted to hear it sound its best.

Even back then we knew there were a lot of different stampers for that record — it sold millions of copies and was Number One for 15 weeks in 1969 — but there was one set of stampers we had discovered that seemed to be head and shoulders better than all the others. Side one was 1AA and side two was IAJ. Nothing we played could beat a copy of the record with those stampers.

More Than Just the Right Stampers

After we’d found more and more 1AA/ IAJ copies — see the picture below of more than 40 laid out on the floor — it became obvious that some copies with the right stampers sounded better than other copies with those same stampers.

We realized that a Hot Stamper not only had to have the right numbers in the dead wax, but it had to have been pressed properly on good vinyl.

All of which meant that you actually had to play each copy of the record in order to know how good it sounded.

There were no shortcuts. There were no rules of thumb. Every copy was unique and there was no way around that painfully inconvenient fact.

Thirty Years Go By

For the next thirty years we were constantly innovating in order to improve our record testing. We went through hundreds of refinements, coming up with better equipment, better tweaks and room treatments, better cleaning technologies and fluids, better testing protocols, better anything and everything that would bring out the best sound in our records. Our one goal was to make the critical evaluation of multiple copies of the same album as accurate as possible. Whatever system our customer might use to play our record – tubes or transistors, big speakers or small, screens or dynamic drivers — our pressing would be so much better in every way that no matter the system, the Hot Stamper he bought from us would have sound that was dramatically superior to anything he had ever heard.

Technology Played a Big Part in Our Success

It was indeed a slow process, and a frustrating one. Lots of technological advancements were needed in order to make our Hot Stamper shootouts repeatable, practical and scalable, and those advancements took decades to come about. When I got started in audio in the ’70s, there were no stand-alone phono stages, or modern cabling and power cords, or vibration controlling platforms for turntables and equipment. No tonearms with extremely delicate adjustments. No modern record cleaning machines and fluids. Not much in the way of innovative room treatments. A lot of things had to change in order for us to reproduce records at the level we needed to, and we pursued every one of them as far as money and time allowed.

Our first official Hot Stamper offering came along in 2004. We had a killer British pressing of Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat which we had awarded our highest grade, the equivalent of A+ (White Hot). Having done the shootout, I wrote up the review myself. At the end I said, “Five hundred dollars is a lot for one record, but having played it head to head against a dozen others, I can tell you that this copy is superior to every copy I have ever heard. It’s absolutely worth every penny of the five hundred bucks we are charging for it. If no one wants to pay that, fine, no problem, I will put the record in my own collection and thrill to its amazing sound for the rest of my life.”

As you can imagine, it sold immediately. That told us that the demand was there. To provide the supply, we eventually ended up needing about eight of us working in concert. It takes a crew of people to find a big batch of vintage LPs of the same title, clean them, do the Hot Stamper shootout, then check the playing surfaces on each side from start to finish, and finally describe the sound of each individual record on the website to the best of our ability.

How to Find Your Own

Yes, we like to tell our customers exactly how to go about finding their own Hot Stampers, how to clean them, how to do shootouts with scientific rigor, and all the rest. But to be brutally honest, if you actually try to do it right, it’s just a crazy amount of work. Virtually no sane person would have the time and energy required to devote to it in order to be successful.

However, since it’s the only proven way to find the best sounding records, to us we think it’s worth it. And that is what you are paying for when you buy a Hot Stamper — all the work that very few audiophiles are willing to put in. (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – How can your records possibly be worth these prices?

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We freely admit that we paid south of thirty bucks each at local stores for many of the records on our site. We pay what the stores charge, and most good rock records are priced from ten to thirty bucks these days.

Unfortunately for us, the price we paid for the records you see on the site is only a small part of the cost of the finished “product.” The reality of our business is that it costs almost as much to find a Carly Simon or Gino Vannelli Hot Stamper that sells for a hundred dollars as it does to find a Neil Young or Yes Hot Stamper that sells for five times that.

With eight to ten full-time people on staff, the listening crew constantly playing one title after another, the scores of listings going up on the site daily, all-day shopping trips to local stores, internet searches for the rarest titles, and the weekly mailers going out to our customers — all of this and more runs in excess of a thousand dollars a day. The cost of the records — the “raw material” of our business — is rarely as much as the labor it takes to find, clean and play them.

Finding good clean vinyl these days can be a real chore. Someone has to drive to a record store, dig through the bins for hour upon hour searching for good pressings, or, more likely, pressings that look like they might be good, have them all cleaned, file them away and then wait anywhere from three months to three years for the pile of copies on the storeroom shelf to get big enough to do a proper shootout. (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – How come you guys don’t like Half-Speed Mastered Records?

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That’s an easy one. We’ve played them by the hundreds over the years, and we’ve found that as our ability to play records improved (better equipment, table setup, tweaks, room treatments, electricity and the like), the worse they sounded, with very few exceptions.

The most serious fault of the typical Half-Speed Mastered LP is not incorrect tonality or poor bass definition, although you will have a hard time finding one that doesn’t suffer from both.

It’s Dead As A Doornail sound, plain and simple.

And most Heavy Vinyl pressings coming down the pike these days are as guilty of this sin as their audiophile forerunners from the ’70s and ’80s. The average Heavy Vinyl LP I throw on my turntable sounds like it’s playing in another room. What audiophile in his right mind could possibly find that quality appealing?

But there are scores of companies turning out this crap. Somebody must be buying it.

Some Relevant Commentaries

A Technological Fix for a Non-Existent Problem

How to Make All Your Records Sound Like Mobile Fidelity Pressings – For Free!

A Half-Speed that Actually Beats Most Originals

Adding 10k Was a Dumb Idea, But They Did It Anyway

Half-Speed Stamper Variations Are Real

Another Classic Album Ruined

Where Did All the Musical Information Go?

Why Is This Album So Compressed?

Why Is This Album So Spitty?

This Beatles’ Albums Are Consistently Spittier on Mobile Fidelity – Why Is That?

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A Frequently Asked Question – Are all Hot Stampers exceptionally good sounding records?

More Straight Answers to Your Hot Stamper Questions

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Not necessarily. What makes a Hot Stamper hot is reasonably good sound. At the very least a Hot Stamper should sound quite a bit better than any other pressing you have heard.

Not every album was well-recorded; the records made from those recordings will display most of the limitations that are baked into the master tape. A good engineer can fix an awful lot of problems in mastering, but, to mix a few metaphors, making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear is rarely if ever going to be in the cards.

Records are graded on a curve.

In our shootouts we must compare apples to other apples; there is no other practical way to do it. We find the best sounding pressings we can out of the pile of audition copies we have available to us. We’re confident that the record we call a Hot Stamper will beat any pressing you have ever heard, or that you currently own, and if it doesn’t you get your money back.

We also guarantee that no half-speed mastered record or Heavy Vinyl LP sounds as good as any of the Hot Stampers we offer. We’ve played too many of these so-called audiophile pressings to worry about them being competitive with the records on our site.

It is our strongly held conviction that the better your system gets, the worse — or at the very least the more artificial, veiled, ambiance-challenged, frequency-limited and uninvolving — those records will sound. (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – “How would you describe the sound signature of your evaluation equipment?”

Someone wrote the following to us recently:

  Hey Tom, 

I am trying to make sense of the information on your site and the asking prices for these ‘hot stampers’. In order to better understand how you assess sound quality, can you let me know what equipment you use for this purpose (what turntable, arm, cartridge, amps, speakers)? How would you describe the sound signature of your evaluation equipment?

Thanks for your help,

Bas

Bas,

Thanks for contacting us. We wrote a commentary about it, linked here:

Our Playback System – And Why You Shouldn’t Care

As for our sound signature, we’ve labored mightily over the last forty years to build the biggest, most dynamic, most powerful system that has only the colorations we don’t know how to rid ourselves of. Some thoughts on that process:

Our System Just Loves Certain Records – Why Do You Suppose That Is?

A lot of the basics about our Hot Stampers can be found here:

About Us

Our customers tend to be very enthusiastic about our Hot Stampers:

We Get Letters

Any questions, feel free to write me.  Of course, writing is one thing, but

Hearing Is Believing

Best, TP (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – What if I like the copy I already own as much as the Hot Stamper I bought?

More Straight Answers to Your Hot Stamper Questions

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You get your money back, no questions asked.  

Even if you actually like our copy better than yours, but don’t think the difference in sound quality justifies the price, the same policy applies: you get your money back. If you simply don’t like the music or have issues with the recording itself, you get your money back. If the record plays noisier for you than it did for us, you get your money back.

Part of the fun of having auditioned so many records over the course of so many years is that we’ve run into scores of amazingly well recorded albums, albums that most audiophiles don’t know well or may have never even heard of. (more…)

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

More Straight Answers to Your Hot Stamper Questions

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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. With 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. 

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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