Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to Understanding The Fundamentals

Advice on how to find the best sounding pressings of your favorite music.

Boz Scaggs – Just Lucky I Guess

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Boz Scaggs

More Entries in Our Record Collecting for Audiophiles Section 

This commentary was written many years ago. It concerns a subject which does not get nearly enough discussion in the audiophile community: the subject of luck in audio and records.

I was very lucky many years ago when I bought some exceptionally good pressings of albums that went on to become personal favorites at the time and have remained so ever since.

No skill was involved, no knowledge, just dumb luck. Perhaps you will agree with me that much of life seems to work that way. Please to enjoy.

Silk Degrees

Most copies SEVERELY lack presence and top end. Dull, thick, opaque sound is far too common on Silk Degrees, which may account for some audiophiles finding the half-speed preferable. 

Despite all the bad sound I found for this album, I kept buying copies of this record in the hopes that someday I would find one that sounded good. I remember playing this record when it came out in ’76 and thinking that it sounded very good. So how is it that all the copies I’m playing sound so bad, or at the very least, wrong?

Well, the answer to that question is not too complicated. When you get the right pressing, the sound is excellent.

I must have had a good one 30+ years ago, and that’s why I liked the sound. The exact same thing happened to me with both Deja Vu and Ambrosia’s first album.

The copy I had picked up at random when I bought the album just happened to have very good stampers. (Keeping in mind that we don’t like to call a record Hot until it has gone through the shootout process, a subject we discuss in more depth here.

When you consider that Hot Stampers for both of those records are pretty unusual, I would say I was very lucky to get good sounding copies of those two masterpieces while everyone around me was buying crap.

To be clear, when I was buying these records, and even as late as when I wrote this commentary, I had much less revealing equipment and much lower standards. To my chagrin, the longer I have spent in this hobby, the more I have come to recognize that the two go together, and explain, more than any other single reason — although lots of other things are involved — the audiophile preference for badly remastered pressings.

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How Can Anybody Not Hear What’s Wrong with Old Records Like These?

beatlrubbeoriginalRecord Collecting – A Guide to the Fundamentals

More of the Music of Beatles

Reviews and Commentaries for Rubber Soul

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the kinds of sonic differences among pressings we describe, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified Audio Expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom.

A reviewer we all know well is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment: (more…)

Which One’s Pink? – And What Do All Those Numbers Mean?

An erstwhile customer wrote to us a while back asking a question about Dark Side of the Moon: “What is the FULL stamper matrix for this record… all the way around the dead wax?”

I replied that we never give out stamper numbers for the records we sell. The only way to find out the stampers for our records is to buy them.

He then countered with this bit of information:

Well, ok. I don’t understand the logic, but it’s your show.

Floyd stampers are probably the most uniquely well documented stampers on [a site that no longer exists] that they’re pretty much common knowledge. If I understand your logic, a first pressing may not be a “Hot Stamper” while a 3rd, 4th or 5th might be. Just a function of the stars aligning when that record is pressed. So what’s the diff?

I would think this would be pretty obvious. If we say pressing X is the best, this is information that you cannot get anywhere else, certainly not on the site you linked to. The day that such a site tells you which stampers sound the best is the day that such a site will have any value to those who are not collecting for the sake of collecting, but actually want to find pressings with the best sound to play

The information on that site has absolutely no value to me, or to any of my Hot Stamper customers, of that I can assure you. [It no longer exists by the way.]

If you told me what the stampers were and it was a first pressing and /or issue, it would enhance the marketability of that particular record and I would be more inclined to buy it…not that I would sell it, but just knowing it was a first press would have more value to me.

Why would you want a first pressing if it didn’t sound as good? Or, if a later pressing sounded better, why would that make any difference in your desire to buy it? Isn’t the idea to get good sound?

If you buy records principally to collect original pressings, you will end up with one awful sounding collection of records, that I can tell you without fear of contradiction.

On the other hand, if you want the best sounding pressings, we are the only record sellers on the planet who can consistently find them for you. This is precisely the service we are able offer, unique in the world as far as we know. 

Anyone can sell originals. Only we can sell the best sound. (Others could of course, but none of them have ever bothered to try, so the result is the same.) Finding the best sound is far more difficult and far more rewarding to both the seller and the buyer, as any of our customers will tell you.

I guess the only problem for the “collector” who cares about sound as well as rarity is that your “Hot Stampers” aren’t “certified” in any way. That is, if I went to re-sell a Hot Stamper I bought from you, no one else would know it to be different from any other pressing of the same record. Ever thought about coding your records so that individual record had some kind of verifiable marking that it was a certain level of “hot stamper”???

We do have a customer who makes us fill out hot stamper certificates, but they are really of little value for resell in the real world.

Records aren’t to sell, they are to play and enjoy.

Btw, I collect for sound first, but “collectability / rarity” is up there too. My stone mint MFSL Muddy Waters Folk Singer #0005 / 5000 might fetch a couple more bucks on ebay than number 4999 say, right? I know, 4999 might sound better, but hey, a lot of people don’t have the equipment to tell the difference.

[This is where I got a little fed up and a little testy, or maybe I should say testier than usual.]

Since that is an AWFUL sounding pressing, I hope your equipment is able to tell you what is wrong with its sound. Mobile Fidelity is one of the worst labels in the history of the world; surely you don’t buy their lousy sounding records to play them? Collect them all you want, it’s your money, but who in his right mind thinks they sound any good? There are tons of commentaries on the site detailing their deficiencies. Please take the time to read them.

The fastest way to improve your record collection is to get rid of all your audiophile pressings, since only one out of every ten or twenty is even passable. If your stereo isn’t showing you how wrong the sound of those records is, it’s time to make some serious changes.

Best, 
TP


FURTHER READING

The collector game cannot really be played with Hot Stampers. If anything they are just the opposite of a collectible, due to the fact they have practically no established or verifiable value. Their value is purely subjective; they exist only to provide listening pleasure for their owner. No other concerns have any real bearing on their worth.

I can understand why a record collector would be confused by this notion of subjective and limited value.

Collecting records is mostly about buying, selling and owning various kinds of records, and the ones that are worth the most money are typically considered the coolest ones to collect.

Who wants to collect worthless records?

Collecting records is not primarily about playing music; this seems to be a less important aspect of collecting. (I’ve known record collectors who didn’t even own a turntable!)

So all those funny numbers in the dead wax and on the label and the spine of the cover are just numbers, man.

They don’t mean anything to me (other than helping us recognize the best pressings) and they shouldn’t mean anything to you — that is, if you care about the sound of your music. If you want to collect a record because it has one set of numbers in the dead wax or the label or on the cover rather than another set of numbers, that’s your business. I guess that’s what most record collectors do. I, for one, want no part of it. I just want good sounding records. They can have any numbers they want.

To be clear, we here at Better Records very much want copies of the records we sell with the right stampers, the stampers that win shootouts, because that makes our job a lot easier.

As listeners, we don’t care about the numbers and neither should anyone else who is serious about listening, not collecting.

The Elephant in the Room

One more afterthought, which may sound like a cheap shot but still needs to be said, because, from my point of view, it is clearly the elephant in the room and very probably the underlying cause of this man’s troubles. If Muddy Waters on MoFi is your idea of a good sounding album, you have plenty of work ahead of you.

You need one or all of the following three things:

  1. better quality playback,
  2. a better room,
  3. or better-trained ears.

Without some or all of those, Hot Stampers are going to remain very much a mystery.

The Opposite of a Hot Stamper

It’s easy to be a collector; you just collect stuff. To get your stereo and room to sound right, and to be able to recognize when they do, that is very very hard. I’ve been at it for thirty-five plus years and I still work at it and try to learn new things every day. I know there’s a long way to go.

Until you get your stereo, room and ears working, collecting good sounding records is all but impossible. You will very likely waste a fortune on “Collector Quality Pressings:” the kind with Collector Value and very little else. These records are the opposite of Hot Stamper pressings: All their value is tied up in their Music and Sound, which is where we think it should be.

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Tom Port Discusses Robert Brook’s Recent Shootout for Abraxas

More of the Music of Santana

One of our good customers has started writing a blog which he calls

A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

If you are new to the audio game, and even if you aren’t, we think you will find much of value there. (If you already think you know it all, his blog will be of little use, but of course neither will mine. You already know it all!)

This link will take you to a comparison Robert Brook carried out between some pressings of Abraxas: his own and a Hot Stamper pressing he borrowed from a friend.

I wrote to him about a few issues I had with his commentary.

Dear Robert,

Of course we love it when one of our records gives you the experience you had.

But their are some fine points to keep in mind so that we present our approach as correctly as possible with no hype.

I would not say you can’t hack a hot stamper.

I would say it is very hard.

You could say something like: “Tom says his superior cleaning techniques make it hard to compete with him. If you have a copy with the same stampers as his, his will sound better most of the time simply because the right cleaning noticeably improves the sound’

Which means that you need a different stamper to beat mine, the stamper of the record that won our shootout, not the one that came in at 2+!

Anyone can do it is our motto.

It’s hard is also our motto. (We have a lot of mottos.)

We only beat your other copies on one side, so imagine if the copy you heard did not have that one great side? That is something to think about!

And all the work you’ve done on your stereo is a key part of hearing Santana, a story we tell often ourselves.

Working on the stereo and working on the collection go hand in hand, you lived it and you know it is the only way it can work.

And now records that you thought were just fine, your copies, are unlistenable. This also is key to my experience.

You recommend doing more shootouts. I would add to your comments that you plan on buying more copies of Abraxas even though you already have some. Buy them when you see them.

And if, after a while, you haven’t found the one that does it, you can buy one from me that will do it.

Your point about the WHS and NWHS is a good one. Hard to beat. Not impossible, but so difficult as to make the effort hardly worth it.

We have no magical powers. We just have a staff of ten and forty years of experience. We can be wrong, but it does not happen very often, and if it does you get your money back.


FURTHER READING

We’ve written quite a bit about Abraxas, and you can find plenty of our Reviews and Commentaries for the album on this very blog.

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Joni Mitchell’s Debut and the Commitment Issues We All Must Face

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Joni Mitchell

This commentary about a very special 2-pack was written close to ten years ago. We think it’s every bit as true today as it was then.

The long and the short of it is simply this Axiom of Record Collecting:

There are no easy answers and there are no quick fixes.

Once you realize that, you will then be free to build a truly wonderful sounding record collection and stereo system.

Our commentary begins:

It took two records to make this White Hot Stamper 2-pack, with INCREDIBLE A+++ SOUND FROM START TO FINISH. The result? One of the best sounding, if not THE best sounding copy to ever hit the site. If you’re a Joni fan this is one of her strongest records, and one that definitely belongs in your collection. If you own any other pressing we’re confident that this copy will positively blow your mind.

These two sides have the kind of sound quality you probably never imagined would be possible — but it is! We played it, we heard it for ourselves, and now we offer it to you, the Joni Mitchell (nee Roberta Joan Anderson) fans of the world.

I’ve been trying to get this album to sound good for more years than I care to remember. If you own a copy you know what I’m talking about — the sound is typically drenched in echo, with Joni sounding like she’s standing at the back of a cave. Harmonically-challenged acoustic guitars. Vocals with no breathy texture (much like practically all the heavy vinyl reissues we’ve suffered through over the course of the last decade or two).

In its own way, it’s every bit the challenge that Blue is, just reversed. Blue tends to be bright, shrill, thin and harsh.

Song to a Seagull is usually dark, veiled, smeary and dull.

What’s an audiophile to do?

Simple. Commit the resources. Find more copies of the record, clean them and play them. Upgrade your system with some of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio that have come along in the last ten years. The recording may have its faults — you’ll get no argument from us about that, we just finished playing a big pile of copies so we are intimately aware of just how problematical the recording can be — but what holds it back from sounding musical, and in its own way, magical, is often the reproduction part of the equation.

We couldn’t get the album to sound right for ten years. Now we can. Something changed, and it wasn’t us simply lowering our standards. The magic in the grooves of the best copies has to have been there all along. It was up to us to figure out how to get the muck out of the vinyl with better cleaning technologies, then get the stereo to unlock and reveal the wonderful music in those nearly forty-year-old grooves.

And we did. The result is an album whose best copies are warm, sweet and rich, with breathy full-bodied vocals, clear guitar transients and a solid-sounding piano. These, as well as the other instruments captured in these grooves, are beautifully arrayed on a three-dimensional, wide and deep soundstage.

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The Vintage Sound of The Genius After Hours

charlgeniusMore of the Music of Ray Charles

Yet Another Record We’ve Discovered with (Potentially) Excellent Sound

Proof positive that there is nothing wrong with remastering vintage recordings if you know what you’re doing. These sessions from 1956 (left off of an album that Allmusic liked a whole lot less than this one) were remastered in 1985 and the sound — on the better copies mind you — is correct from top to bottom.

The highest compliment I can pay a copy such as this is that it doesn’t sound like a modern record. It sounds like a very high quality mono jazz record from the ’50s or ’60s. Unlike modern recuts it doesn’t sound EQ’d in any way. It doesn’t lack ambience the way modern records do. It sounds musical and natural the way modern records almost never do.

If not for the fairly quiet vinyl you would never know it’s not a vintage record. The only originals we had to play against it were too noisy and worn to evaluate critically. They sounded full, but dark and dull and somewhat opaque (hey, there’s that modern remastered sound we’ve all been hearing for years!).

And although it is obviously a budget reissue, it sure doesn’t sound cheap to these ears.

Tender Loving Care?

Was it remastered with great care, or did the engineer just thread up the tape on a high-quality, properly calibrated deck and say “Nice, sounds good, let her rip.”? Either explanation works for me, because I really don’t care who made the record or how much work they put into it. In the case of The Genius After Hours it seems they found the real master tape and just did their job right, the way mastering engineers — well, some of them anyway — had been doing for decades.

A scant ten years later Bernie Grundman, a true Hall of Famer, started cutting for Classic Records and ruined practically every tape handed to him.

Our explanation? We don’t have one! We played the records and reported our findings. We sold the ones we thought sounded good to us and didn’t bother with the rest.

Just like we’re doing now. The biggest difference here is that we are evaluating a single copy, with these specific qualities, and guaranteeing that you either love it or you get your money back.

Something to Keep in Mind

The first copy of the album I got my hands on and needle-dropped blew me away with its big, clear, solid mono sound. Close to a year later when we had enough copies to do this shootout, sure enough it won. That rarely happens — in a big pile of records there’s almost always something better than whatever we’ve heard — but it happened this time.

Imagine if I had played one of the bad sounding or noisy ones to start with. It’s unlikely I would have been motivated to pursue the title and consequently the shootout we just did would never have happened. Lucky for us all that that first copy was so good.

Side One

Big and clear with a very solid piano and all its harmonic overtones. What piano recording from 1956 sounds like this? None that I know of. And it’s Ray Charles at the keys!

Side Two

The exceptionally dynamic brass that comes jumping out of the soundfield is nonetheless warm and full – what a great sound!

There’s much more space here than on most copies, making it sound less mono.

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Brewer & Shipley – Do All the Robert Ludwig Mastered Copies Have Hot Stampers?

More of the Music of Brewer and Shipley

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Brewer and Shipley

Even though all the original Pink Label pressings are mastered by Robert Ludwig, they have a marked tendency to be dull, thick and opaque. The sound is just too smooth.

The best copies, however, have the top end and the transparency to let you hear all the guitar harmonics, surrounded by the large acoustic of the studio.

This time around we discovered something new: one specific stamper that seemed to be the only one with the potential for an extended top end. This special stamper did not always fare well; some copies with it were mediocre. We have always found this to be the way with the “right” stampers; they often let us down and sometimes they really let us down hard.

But this stamper, when it was right, had an extension on the top that no other copy could match. (The Robert Ludwig mastered Band second albums are the same way. Most have no top but boy, when they do, the magic you hear is phenomenal.) (more…)

The 20 to 1 Ratio for Finding Your Personal Favorites

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently (and one that is still on its way to him):

Hey Tom, 

So I go on YouTube to refresh my memory and listen and James Taylor, that could be good, Toto, what a feel good album, brings back memories, Wish You Were Here, already have a pretty good copy, Sinatra-Basie, what’s that?

So I go to YouTube and first track HOLY CRAP! You know it’s good when you’re throwing a sound stage off your lap-top! Basie orchestra, perfect. Frank comes in swinging and man that guy was so freaking cool, people today have no idea how unbelievably cool he was, and so like 20 seconds if that I am SOLD!!!😂😂😂

Francis A and Edward K was a fave for years. You turned me onto Mel Torme Swings Schubert Alley. Fabulous voice. What I love most of all though is the sense of live flowing swinging music of FA&EK and with Basie. Gets me even off the laptop!

You know, there’s two kinds of audiophiles, the ones who want a vast array of new music, and the ones who are happy with only a small amount of high quality music.

I am definitely in the second group. Love new music but when it comes to what I will sit and listen, very hard to please. When I do find something new though, man do I ever appreciate it. Got a good feeling about Sinatra-Basie. Thanks!

I replied:

One quick note: I would not be happy with a “small amount” of new music, but I am very happy with a “smaller amount.” Quality over quantity, right? Mediocre records don’t get played — that’s at least one of the many reasons that so many audiophile pressings still remain in pristine condition decades after their production.

I like to say that you have to buy twenty albums to find the one you will fall in love with, and without those other 19 you will never discover the one.

There is no way to predict any of this music stuff. Or sound stuff. You have to experience it, and to experience it you have to spend the time and you definitely have to spend some money.

The work we do in pursuing this hobby is supposed to be fun, and most of the time it is, but it is definitely work to buy hundreds of records and set aside the time to play them. I’ve been doing it since I was about 17; I can still remember the converted house of a record store I used to shop at in Leucadia right off the coast highway here in California.

I bought Loggins and Messina’s first album there the year it came out, 1971, because I was already a big Poco fan and Buffalo Springfield fan and Jim Messina was in both bands. Bought Frampton’s Wind of Change from the same store the next year. Not even sure why I bought that one. I don’t think I knew who Peter Frampton was and I certainly had no idea who Humble Pie were.

Both became favorites and have been played hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times in the intervening five decades. (We have a section for these kinds of records which can be found here.)

I needed to buy two or three thousand records to find my top one or two hundred, the records, like our writer here, that I play over and over and never tire of.

It never made any sense to me to accumulate lots of records just to own lots of records, the way this guy did.

Knowing just how much work it takes to dig deeply into the music and the sound of any album makes owning this kind of big collection a sure sign of a superficial approach to both the music and the sound.

It’s easy to buy lots of records. Getting to know them in a serious way is a great deal harder, and a great deal more rewarding if you are serious about sound.

For those of you who insist on doing things a different way, we wish you good luck.

Best, TP

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A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers – Making Mistakes, Part One

mistakes_stevensx20Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to the Fundamentals

Want to Get Better at Audio and Record Collecting?

Try Making More Mistakes

I was reading an article on the web recently when I came across an old joke Red Skelton used to tell:

All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner.

Now if you’re like me and you play, think and write (hopefully in that order) about records all day, everything sooner or later relates back to records, even a modestly amusing old joke such as the one above.

Making mistakes is fundamental to learning about records, especially if you, like us, believe that most of the received wisdom handed down to record lovers of all kinds is more likely to be wrong than right.

If you don’t believe that to be true, then it’s high time you really started making mistakes.
 
And the faster you make them, the more you will learn the truths (uncountable in number) about records.

And those truths will set you free.

Think about it: perhaps as many as a third of the Hot Stamper pressings on our website are what would commonly be understood to be the “wrong” pressings — or, worse, records that are not supposed to sound good at all. 

Reissues of Dark Side from the wrong country? ’60s and ’70s Living Stereo reissue pressings? Original Jazz Classics from the ’80s? Beatles records reissued in the ’70s, in stereo no less! Can we be serious?

Yes, we are indeed quite serious. We believe by now we know most of the best pressings, the ones with potentially the best sound, for most of the records we regularly shootout. Over the course of decades we’ve tried bad sounding copy after bad sounding copy of practically every title we do. We know which ones to avoid, which betters the odds of finding good sounding pressings. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

We’ve played all the copies that are supposed to be the best, and we’ve also played the ones that aren’t supposed to be any good — late reissues, or records pressed in the “wrong” country; or cut by the “wrong” mastering engineer; or found on the second, third, or fourth labels, all wrong, don’t you even know that much?! — and against all odds we’ve kept our minds and our ears open.

Whatever pressing sounds the best, sounds the best. Whether it’s the “right” pressing according to orthodox record collecting wisdom carries no weight whatsoever with us, and never will — because that way of thinking doesn’t produce good results.

All the Answers?

Please don’t think we’re trying to say we have all the answers. We most certainly do not. We find pressings that beat our old favorites on a regular basis — not every day, but often enough to make trying long shots an important part of our business.


Yes, there was a time when we actually had this many Tea for the Tillerman’s in stock ready to shootout.

Those were the days!

mistakes_stevensx20


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

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Dopey Record Theories – Putting Bad Ideas to the Test

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

Below we discuss some record theories that seem to be making the rounds these days.

It started with a stunning White Hot Stamper 2-pack that had just gone up on the site..

I implored the eventual purchaser to note that side two of record one has Joni sounding thin, hard and veiled. If you look at the stampers you can see it’s obviously cut by the same guy (no names please!), and we’re pretty sure both sides were stamped out at the same time of day since it’s impossible to do it any other way.

What accounts for the amazing sound of one side and the mediocre sound of its reverse?

If your theory cannot account for these huge differences in sound, your theory is fundamentally flawed. 

Can anything be more ridiculous than the ad hoc, evidence-free theories of some audiophile record collectors desperately searching for a reason to explain why records — even the two sides of the same record — sound so different from one another?

The old adage “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” couldn’t be more apt. If you want to know if a pudding tastes good, a list of its ingredients, the temperature it was cooked at, and the name of the person stirring it on the stove is surely of limited value. To know the taste one need only take a bite.

If you want to know the sound of a record, playing it is the best way to find out, preferably against other pressings, under carefully controlled conditions, on good equipment, while listening critically and taking notes.

The alternative is to… Scratch that. There is no alternative. Nothing else will ever work. In the world of records there are no explanatory theories of any value, just as there are no record gurus with all the answers. There are only methods that will help you find the best pressings and methods that will not.

The good news is that these methods are explained in detail on this very site, free of charge.

We’ve made it clear to anyone who’s interested in doing so how to go about finding better sounding LPs. Once you see the positive results our methods produce, we suspect you will no longer be wasting time theorizing about records.

You will have learned something about them, at least about some of them, and that hard-won knowledge is the only kind with any real value.

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