Record Collecting for Audiophiles – The Fundamentals

Ideas and methods for finding the best sounding pressings of your favorite music.

The Rolling Stones – Mono or Reprocessed Stereo?

More of the Music of The Rolling Stones

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

On this London LP, even though it states clearly on the cover that the record is electronically re-processed into stereo, the songs we heard on side one were in dead mono.

So much for believing what you read on album covers.

This Sonny Rollins pressing of Tenor Madness says it too has been remastered into stereo, but you would have a hard time hearing any left-right information coming from your speakers. On headphones, maybe, but speakers? Unlikely.

Even when a record has been been reprocessed from mono into stereo, it can still sound very good. Not the best, mind you, but good enough to easily wipe the floor with anything pressed by any audiophile label that we’ve ever heard of, and we’ve heard pretty much all of them.


Mono, Stereo, Reprocessed Stereo, We’ve Played Them All!

Mono or Stereo? Both Can Be Good

Mono or Stereo? Stick with Mono

Mono or Stereo? Stick with Stereo

Mono Reprocessed into Stereo – Good and Bad

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The Asylum Sound We Love – Great in the Seventies, Gone by the Eighties

Hot Stamper Pressings on the Asylum Label

Reviews and Commentaries for Records on the Asylum Label

Superb engineering by Greg Ladanyi (Toto 4, The Pretender, El Rayo-X, demo discs one and all).

If you know the “Asylum Sound” — think of the Tubey Magical Analog of The Eagles’ first album and you won’t be far off — you can be sure the best copies of All This and Heaven Too have plenty of it.

Rarely do we run into recordings from the mid- to late-’70s with richer, fuller sound. The bass on the best copies is always huge and note-like.

In the ’80s, the engineer for this very record, Greg Ladanyi, would produce solo albums for the likes of Don Henley with no bass.

How this came to be I cannot begin to understand, but record after record that we play from that decade is bright and thin like a transistor radio. This is the main reason why you see so few of them on the site.

But Andrew Gold’s albums from the later ’70s are amazingly rich and tubey. That sound apparently never went out of style with him, and it definitely never went out of style with us.

In fact, albums with those sonic qualities make up the bulk of our offerings, from The Beatles to The Eagles, Pink Floyd to Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel to Graham Nash.

In our world, the more “modern” something sounds, the lower its grade will more than likely be.

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Making Mistakes and Other Advice from Better Records

New to the Blog? Start Here

Advice on Making More Mistakes

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills. We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one, as critically as you can.

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes. Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

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

If you have twenty copies of Bridge of Sighs, and most of them are British, you are definitely going to find a Hot Stamper pressing or two, assuming you clean them right and listen to them critically.

Keep in mind that having British pressings in your shootout is absolutely crucial to your success, because those are the only ones that ever win our shootouts, for obvious reasons: they’re made from the master tapes.

The domestic pressings are made from dubs, and yes, I suppose you could shootout twenty of those, but you would only be trying to find the best second-rate pressing of the album out of your twenty, since practically any British pressing will beat even the best domestic pressing.


Records that are made from sub-generation tapes, dubbed from the masters, tend to have what we like to call “dubby sound.” They will usually be too smooth, veiled, small, smeary, opaque, congested, flat, lifeless and recessed.

Most of the above shortcomings are the ones we regularly hear on the Modern Heavy Vinyl Pressing. We suspect that many of them are made from copy tapes –some digital, some analog — but whether they are or aren’t is immaterial.

The bulk of them simply do not sound very good when compared to the vintage pressings we offer.

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Beware of Fooling Yourself with Pseudo Shootouts

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

How Can I Recognize What I Should Be Listening For on a Given Album?

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 their manifold 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 – a woefully inadequate sample size — 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 famously remarked, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” (more…)

Joni Mitchell – Play The Game, Not the Album

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Reviews and Commentaries for Blue

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises, one we created all the way back in 2007. If you want to learn more about doing your own shootouts, this listing has lots of good advice on how to go about it.

In 2007, a Milestone Year for us here at Better Records, we mentioned to our customers that we would not be carrying the new 180 gram Rhino pressing of Blue. We noted:

Since Kevin and Steve are friends of mine I won’t belabor its shortcomings. Let’s just say I think you can do better.

Down the road when we’ve had a chance to do a shootout amongst all our best copies, we will be offering something more to our liking. I recommend instead — and this is coming from a die-hard LP guy, someone who disconnected his home CD player over two years ago and only plays the damn things in the car — that you pick yourself up a nice used copy of the gold CD Hoffman mastered for DCC. It’s wonderful.

Some people are already upset with us over this decision, actually going so far as to question our motives, if not our sanity. Without a doubt we feel this will end up being the single most controversial stance we’ve ever taken. I predict that a great number of audiophiles are going to get really upset over our criticism of this new pressing. We are going to get emails like crazy asking us to explain what on earth could possibly be wrong with such a wonderful sounding LP. The writers of these emails will no doubt extoll its virtues relative to the other pressings they may have heard, and, finding no other reasonable explanation, these writers will feel impelled to question both the quality of our playback equipment and — yes, it’s true — even our ability to recognize a good record when it’s spinning right on our very own turntable.

Some of these individuals may actually be our customers. Obviously we don’t want our customers to be upset with us. We would much prefer to be honest and forthright; after all, it’s the hallmark of our operation. We’re the guys in this dodgy business that pride ourselves on giving it to you straight. Letting the chips fall where they may. Criticizing the hell out of the naked emperors who write for the audiophile rags. Imploring you to listen critically for yourself and not to buy into the hype.

Not the Same Old Same Old

We’re those guys, the ones dedicated to finding you truly Better Records, not just the same old crap that other people want you to think are better records: the 180 gram remasters and Japanese pressings and References and Cheskys and TAS List titles and Stan Ricker half-speeds and Fragiles and For Dukes and Dafos’s and Morph the Cats, etc., etc., etc.

Screw all that crap. We sell it but we sure don’t think you should be buying it. [Not anymore, obviously.]

We’re those guys, never ones to shy away from controversy, especially if it actually fulfills some purpose, like getting you away from audiophile garbage and into some real music with honest-to-goodness high-fidelity sound.

Just Asking for Trouble

But does criticizing and refusing to carry Blue really do anybody any good? Aren’t we just asking for trouble? Wouldn’t it be easier for us to just take your twenty five bucks and say that the new Blue is better than the average domestic copy and leave it at that, the less said the better? Who needs the headaches?

Think of all the emails that will come flooding in because of our anti-Blue stance. People will want answers. They will consider it our duty to explain the contrarian position we have adopted. It won’t be good enough to just say we think you can do better. Do better how? Exactly what will get better when we do better? Exactly what’s not good enough about the one I already bought? And if you can’t tell us what’s wrong with this one, how will we know how to go about finding a copy that you think communicates the musical values of Blue better?

Oh dear. Yes, I see your point. It is a bit of a problem, no question about it.

Not to worry. In the best can-do American spirit, we’re going to turn these vexing lemon-flavored questions into satisfying and edifying audiophile lemonade. We’re going to build strong bodies twelve ways, just you watch.

You Call That Fun?

How you say? Easy. We’re going to do it with the new and exciting Joni Mitchell Blue Game. It’s fun for the whole family! (Actually it’s not. Your family will want nothing to do with it, and even most audiophiles are not going to want to play. But it’s such a goofy-sounding turn of phrase we had to leave it in.)

Instead of us telling you what’s right and wrong with the new Blue, you’re going to tell us. Doesn’t that sound like fun? No? No matter, we can come back to it later.

You may have noticed that there is a great deal of commentary on the site about what we listen for, what we like, how to become a better listener, how to tweak your system, how we do these laborious shootouts to find you Hot Stampers, and on and on, ad infinitum and for some people ad nauseum. “We do the work so you don’t have to,” right? Well in this game, you do the work so we don’t have to. Now that’s what we call a fun game!

The game basically involves you doing for Blue what we do for three or four different titles each and every week [now that number is three or four per day!]: Hot Stamper shootouts. It’s our bread and butter. It’s our claim to fame. We spend more time doing these crazy comparisons than everything else we do around here combined. They’re time-consuming and exhausting, but they’re also fun. Discovering amazing pressings of your favorite music is fun. Since our shootouts almost always involve our favorite albums (we get to pick them, so why pick anything else?), we get to hear pretty much nothing but our favorite music played over and over. On top of that we usually get to hear it sound better than we ever thought it could.

And then you get to buy the record and you get to hear it sound better than you ever thought it could. See why we spend so much time on these shootouts? Because everybody wins. We love ’em and you love ’em. (As an added benefit they also build strong bodies twelve ways.)

So how do you play?

It’s easy. And fun! (Actually, that may not be true for many of you. A fairly sizable contingent of the audiophile public likes to flip the old system on, crack open a beer and throw on a favorite record or two for a relaxing evening of musical decompression. All that tweaky stuff and intensive listening is for the birds. If you’re one of those guys, you might as well stop reading right now.

This game is not about relaxing. This game is about learning to hear better, the end result of which (we hope) will be a better understanding of records and audio, and the added enjoyment that follows from that understanding. If audio ignorance is bliss in your world, okay by me. If, on the other hand, you find that the more you know about this hobby the more you actually enjoy doing it, and the more you get out of it, then this is the perfect game for you. This game is designed to sharpen your listening skills, and we can all use our listening skills sharpened.

Playing the Joni Mitchell Blue Game is pretty much like doing one of our shootouts, but on a smaller scale. Although we might play twenty or thirty copies of a record to find the handful that will make it to the site, we don’t expect you to. Cleaning and playing that many copies of a single album would be a job, and I’m guessing you already have a job and don’t need another one.

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Stealers Wheel – British A&M Vinyl Versus Domestic A&M Vinyl

More of the Music of Gerry Rafferty

More Hot Stamper Pressings Only Offered on Import LP

Like so many British bands on the A&M label, when it came time to master the album for the domestic market, the people in charge (whoever they may have been) took the easy way out and simply ordered up a dub of the master tape to cut the album.

Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum, The Police (often but not always), Fairport Convention, my beloved Squeeze and too many others to think about all had their records ruined by sub-generation masters.

But our Hot Stamper pressings are always British-pressed vinyl from the real master tapes, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Engineering

The legendary Geoff Emerick engineered (along with John Mills) at Apple Studio, which explains why the sound is so good on these import pressings. The album went on to receive the European Edison Award for recording excellence, whatever that is).

Our standard boilerplate for these kinds of records follows:

Tubey Magic Is Key

This original British pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

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Making Mistakes and Finding Better Sounding Records

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes.

Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” 

Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies

When I think of the 20 odd years (early ’70s to early ’90s) I wasted trying to figure out how audio works before I had much in the way of critical listening skills, it brings to mind that old Faces’ song, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

Learning how to do shootouts for your favorite albums is without a doubt the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and most cogently in this commentary from way back in 2005.

We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one as carefully and critically as possible.

We do not recommend devoting much time to reading about them in magazines or on forums.

We also would dissuade the serious record collector from paying much attention to what the most sought after or most expensive pressings are. Records have market prices based on a host of factors that mostly have nothing to do with sound quality.

And don’t think you can “logically” predict which pressings should sound the best and then just go about acquiring them.

None of these methods are likely to produce good results.

Making mistakes will though. And the more you make, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to recognize and pursue good records. It also makes it easy to part with your bad ones. The latter group we hope will include the majority of your holdings of Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered Recordings. At best those should be seen as placeholders. They’ll do until something better comes along. And considering how mediocre so many newly remastered records are, “something better’ should not be hard to find.

And the better developed your critical listening skills become, the less likely “they’ll do” at all. They’ll just get put on a shelf. It has been our experience that good records get played and bad records don’t.


FURTHER READING

More of the Music of David Crosby

More of the Music of Stephen Stills

More of the Music of Graham Nash

More of the Music of Neil Young

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Two Approaches to Finding Better Records, One of Which Actually Works

New to the Blog? Start Here

More on the Subject of Thinking Critically About Records

If you want to believe the press releases, the hype, the liner notes, the reviews (which are rarely more than the worst kind of malpractice in our opinion) and all the rest of it, that’s your business.

Good luck with that approach; you’re going to need it. When you reach the dead end that surely awaits you, come see us. After 35 years in the record business there is a good chance we will still be around.

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

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

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

If somehow we did know it all, there would not be a hundred entries in our Live and Learn section.

We regularly learn from our mistakes and we hope you do too.

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

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

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

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

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Answers to Some of Your Hot Stamper Questions

The Beatles in Mono, Our Grading System, Our Cleaning System and More

We discuss a number of issues with our letter writer, the kinds of questions we often get, so here are some of the answers we often give out.

  • While Prices for Many Records Have Trended Down, Others Have Gone Up
  • The Beatles in Mono
  • Our White Hot Triple Plus Grade
  • Why Our Stereo Is Good at Its Job, and
  • Record Cleaning

  Hey Tom, 

First off, I got to say, congratulations on a great concept. Also, congrats on having the balls to charge what these albums are worth.

Thanks. Like any business, we charge what the market will bear, and it seems people are willing to pay a lot for these records, although less for some than they used to — some of our records now sell for half or even less than what we were getting two or three or five years ago.

That said, the top copies have held their prices pretty well over the years and often gone up substantially. It’s the second tier and third tier titles and the Super Hots that have really fallen in price. That’s where the real “bargains” are these days. (more…)

Neil Young and the Limits of Expert Advice

More of the Music of Neil Young

Reviews and Commentaries for Zuma

Richard Feynman gave a series of lectures concerning the workings of the scientific method. Here is an excerpt from one of them that I would like you to keep in mind as you read the discussion below.

“Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is … If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Back in 2015 a mastering engineer by the name of Phil Brown contacted me in reference to a Hot Stamper pressing of Neil Young’s Zuma he had seen in our mailer. (Apologies in advance for not giving out the stamper numbers; we frown on that sort of thing around here.) He wrote:

  Hey Tom,   

I see it’s a featured disc in the newsletter. I’m curious what the matrix numbers are since I mastered it. (more…)