We Get Letters

Letter of the Week – “Today, sitting at home, I felt like I was at a concert.”

More of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently. The bolding has been added by us.)

Hi Tom,

I finally had a chance to listen to the Super Hot of Beethoven’s 5th I bought from you last month.

Tom, I am feeling really grateful to you. With your guidance, and your records, I have something I simply assumed I could never have – a stereo that can do full justice to orchestral music.

I picked this record, along with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, as my first foray into full orchestral music on my reworked stereo assembled following your recommendations – Dynavector cartridge, EAR phono stage, Legacy speakers.

Today, sitting at home, I felt like I was at a concert.

This is saying something. I had come to believe this was just not possible. I still remember the sound and the feeling of hearing Beethoven’s 5th performed by the SF Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, about 20 years ago. Seeing it performed for the first time, I was struck by what a small number of musicians the piece calls for. Nobody needed a score, MTT didn’t hold a baton – the whole performance just had a sense of mastery, control, and passion for the music. The sound from that relatively small orchestra was overwhelming. It is this sound I’ve been longing to hear at home. Today, I heard it.

About four years ago I had the opportunity to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play Tchaikovsky’s 5th from a really good seat. Hearing orchestral music performed unamplified in a venue with good acoustics has always led me to believe that it’s not possible to create that on a stereo.

I had come to believe that all stereos distort. When live orchestral music gets loud, it coheres. The sound of a symphony at full volume is just something no stereo or recording can provide. Or so I thought. I figured it was just one of the realities of musical reproduction.

Second, I assumed a full sound field just isn’t possible from a pair of speakers. When you’re a few rows back from an orchestra in a great hall, the entire space is filled, smoothly and cohesively. It makes you realize there’s always an empty space between two speakers. One of those things that you don’t even notice until it’s gone.

Today, listening to this record of Solti performing Beethoven’s 5th overturned both of those beliefs for me. When it got loud, the music hung together with no hint of distortion. Also, the sound field has the most cohesion and depth of anything I’ve heard so far on my Legacys. Most important though is the tone of the instruments on this record. The strings were distinct and differentiated.

The mastery of the performance from the Vienna Philharmonic is just breathtaking. I’m simply so grateful this performance is captured on record, and glad that I have a phenomenal copy of it. This music demands all of your focus. Even if I only listen to it a handful of times, I will be glad to be able to do so.

And, this record is “only” a super hot! I can’t wait to see what a white hot stamper of orchestral music is going to sound like on this stereo. Also, I haven’t played with azimuth or VTA at all, or even broken in the Dynavector yet. It will be wonderful to see if this cartridge can reveal even more.

So, thank you, Tom. I now have something I’ve always wanted, that I assumed I could never attain – the ability to hear orchestral music at home, the way I know it can sound in person.

Aaron

Aaron,

This is great news, a milestone to mark your success, musically and sonically.

With the right equipment playing the right record, the suspension of disbelief is not only possible, it’s practically guaranteed. Once the sound achieves escape velocity, assuming the music is of the highest caliber, it isn’t long before your critical listening faculties shut down and the music starts to live and breathe from moment to moment just as it would in the concert hall.

You experienced it for yourself. You were finally able to prove your theory false by having an experience that showed you how wrong your thinking was.

But it took better equipment and better records than you previously had access to, and this is key.

How many audiophiles have equipment that can do what yours did? How many have pressings of such quality? My guess is not many.

The theories of such audiophiles, very much like your old theories, are based on faulty data, the data that comes from inadequate systems, bad electricity, bad rooms and second-tier recordings. Think of all the audiophiles that own Heavy Vinyl pressings, or CDs, or stream digitally, or who knows what else. Will they ever have the experience you had? Will they ever agree with you about the quality of the sound of orchestral music you’ve achieved?

More than likely they will just assume you don’t know what you are talking about. They deny the experience you had because they’ve never had it themselves.

I wrote to you about classical music before you bought the two records you talk about above. When I told you I could play classical music at home at live levels with amazing fidelity to the live event, you were skeptical to say the least. Oh ye of little faith! Now you see where I was coming from. Experience is a great teacher.

Recently you’ve acquired some top quality equipment, equipment that has made the appreciation of classical music on vintage vinyl possible for you for the first time in your life.

I discovered most of the equipment I currently own — the same stuff I recommended to you — a good twenty or more years ago, and have been tweaking and tuning and experimenting regularly with it for all of that time, to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of hours.

Why did I put so much time and effort into my stereo? Well, for one thing, I got paid to do it.

For another thing, I like doing it because I like to hear my favorite music sound better.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

Letter of the Week – “I immediately noticed an improvement in lower end presence with the white hot stamper.”

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

It’s been a good day of listening! Something about this copy of Late for the Sky is bugging me. Jackson’s voice just doesn’t seem as natural sounding as in the other albums I have. Wondering if the white hot stamper you have might be a better choice? Thinking this album (more his voice) should sound as good as the other two I bought ? If you think the white hot stamper would be a better choice should I just order it then send this one back?

Thanks again for your help!

Rob

Rob,

It is always a good idea to hear the best copy against whatever you have, even when you have a hot stamper. It’s unlikely to fix the problem you hear with the voice — not sure what those might be, the recording is what it is and if they wanted the voice to sound the way it does, we just accept it as a choice they made, grading on a curve and all that — but it is possible you might like it better, even a lot better. 

Go ahead and order it, you have nothing to lose and plenty to gain. Hang on to your old copy for now so you can play the two against each other.

TP

Tom,

I am so glad you recommended taking a listen to the Late for Sky white hot stamper and compare to the super hot stamper I have. I immediately noticed an improvement in lower end presence with the white hot stamper. Jackson’s vocal sounded more full and natural as well.

Another thing I noticed was that not all tracks are created equal as you pointed out. Side 1 seemed big, open and more like the other Jackson Browne LPs I own.

Side 2 was a very different story. Some of the tracks seemed more closed in and less engaging. So, instead of criticizing a pressing for not sounding right, I have realized that the recording itself is most likely at fault (it is what it is).

I would not have known this without listening to the best copies. Another invaluable lesson learned!

Will send Late for the Sky back as it is not really something I really want to listen to repeatedly compared to my other Jackson Browne albums. Till the next time!

Thanks again

Rob

Rob,

When you can hear a number of copies — the more the better — played directly against each other, it’s amazing what you can learn about the sound of an album. You experienced it, and you seem to have learned a lot.

Now you know something 99% of the audiophiles in the world, even those that are Jackson Browne fans, don’t know.

Such is the nature of records. They are happy to teach you something if you will simply take the time to listen to them.

Thanks for your letter.

(more…)

Letter of the Week – “The differences between all the copies was even far more obvious the second time I did the shootout.”

More of the Music of Dire Straits

Reviews and Commentaries for Dire Straits’ Debut

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently. (Bolding added by us.)

Hey Tom, 

I’ve got to admit that I was skeptical when I purchased your Hot Stamper Dire Straits album. I told my brother I just paid $400 CAD (shipping and duties included) for a used record. Of course he thought I was nuts! I have an original Mercury copy that I bought in 1978 plus an audiophile copy mastered by Bernie Grundman from the original analogue tapes and plated and pressed at Pallas, Germany.

I finally got the chance to do the shootout between all copies. The original totally sounded like shit. It was bright sounding, noisy and lacked bottom end and dynamics. The Grundman mastered copy was much quieter, it was much smoother and more dynamic but it didn’t sound great. When I put on the Hot Stamper, within a few notes I knew it was far superior. It was far more dynamic as if I turned up the volume. It was also quiet and far more transparent but had that great bottom end.

My brother came to visit me a few days ago and I did the shootout between all the copies again. The differences between all the copies was even far more obvious the second time I did the shootout. I can tell you that my brother doesn’t think I’m nuts any more. I hope I can purchase more albums from you in the future.

Tasi

Tasi,

We love it when our customers take the time and make the effort to do their own shootouts, especially when we win, which is what happens about 99% of the time.

It is not the least bit unusual for our customers to take another listen and become more aware of the superior sound of the Hot Stamper pressings the second time around.

When we do lose a shootout, we promptly refund the buyer’s money and wish him or her a nice day.

What do we do with the record, assuming the customer had no problem with its playing condition?

We put it right back up on the site to sell to the next customer who orders it. In only two or three cases that I can recall did it ever come back to us again. Two or three out of thousand and thousands of Hot Stampers sold. Not bad.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

What It Took to Find Hot Stamper Pressings of Two Very Tough Titles

More of the Music of Talking Heads

More of the Music of David Bowie

Hey Tom, 

Just got my Super Hot Stampers of Remain In Light and Station To Station. I was very much looking forward to the arrival of these LPs… I was not disappointed. Verily, I was completely floored!

First, my apologies. I have been reading your website for over two years, gleaning information to help me find Hot Stampers, or at least good sounding records. I had not made a purchase until this past week. I was starting to feel guilty; you have given me so much great direction and guidance over these years, and I had not supported you in the proper way.

So I made a modest purchase of these two records, to assuage my guilt and support your efforts. You will be getting much more business from this satisfied customer.

I have Remain In Light on LP, CD and even the FLAC file release. My new Hot Stamper truly puts these recordings to shame. No, really, TO SHAME! If this ever gets on the Better Records Testimonials: “People let me tell you…it’s sent a chill up and down my spine…”!

I really can’t believe how well balanced the sound is: great bottom end, mids are pronounced and the shrillness is GONE! No smear anymore! Breathtaking.

My copy of Station to Station is just as wonderful.

I’ve been convinced of “Hot Stamper” recording for quite some time now, thanks to Tom and the BR crew; I’ve found some great recordings after conducting my own modest shoot-outs. Found some real gems. But the best results that I have ever got, and there are only a few, have now been easily matched and outstripped by my first BR purchase!

Rob

Rob,

Thanks for your enthusiastic letter! We’re on the same page. I get excited when I hear my favorite music sound better than I ever expected it would too. (more…)

Letter of the Week – “Just curious as to why you never point out a Bob Ludwig “RL” pressing?”

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

I am an avid vinyl cat and have been all of my life. I am super curious about your vinyl. I have a pretty good ear myself for top-shelf LP’s but I am just curious as to why you never point out a Bob Ludwig “RL” pressing? Or maybe you have and I just have not noticed?

Thanks so much for a response and much respect for what you are doing and selling…

Dana

Dana, we explained it here, in a little commentary we like to call The Book of Hot Stampers.

We give out little in the way of stamper numbers, no information about cutting engineers as a rule, although we do break that rule from time to time. Here is an excerpt of a listing for Rock of Ages from way back when:

What We Thought We Knew

In 2006 we put up a copy with with what we implied were Hot Stampers (before we were using the term consistently) on at least one side:

Side One sounds tonally right on the money! This is as good as it gets… Robert Ludwig mastered all of the originals of these albums, but some of them have bad vinyl and don’t sound correct.

I only played side one of the album, so I can’t speak for the other sides, but what I heard was sound about as good as I think this album can have.

There are some truths along with some half-truths in the above comments, and let’s just say we would be quite a bit more careful in our language were we writing about that copy today.

One side is no indication whatsoever as to the quality of the other three, and without the kind of cleaning technologies we have available to us today, I wouldn’t want to make a “definitive” sonic assessment for any of them.

When you play uncleaned or poorly cleaned records you’re hearing a lot of garbage that has nothing to do with the sound of the actual vinyl. (Note that we are joking above: there is no such thing as a definitive sonic assessment of a record, from us or anybody else.)

Ludwig cut many bad sounding records. Roxy Music Avalon original domestic pressings are RL. They’re made from dubs and sound like it.  Same with Dire Straits’ Alchemy.

Some RL Houses of the Holy sound amazing and some only decent. It’s the nature of the beast. (more…)

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…)

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…)

Letter of the Week – “The most remarkable drums I’ve ever heard, especially on side two.”

More of the Music of Santana

Reviews and Commentaries for Abraxas

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

[The Abraxas White Hot Stamper] is a monster. Practically tore down the walls. The most remarkable drums I’ve ever heard, especially on side two. The sound is completely circumambient, completely enveloping, but always musical with lovely harmonics even when blasting in the tuttis.

The Mobile Fidelity, which I own, is an attenuated portraiture of the real thing. I will soon be dropping it off at the local Salvation Army store.

Phil

Phil,

Quick question: Did you buy your MoFi before or after I put it in my Hall of Shame?

And wrote this review of it?

MoFi Manages to Disgrace Itself Even Further

See what happens when you don’t read my blog? You end up with crappy remastered records like the ones Mobile Fidelity has been spewing out for more than forty years.

Some forum posters take us to task for criticizing the old MoFi that everybody knows made lousy records, not the new MoFi, which they believe makes good sounding records.

If this is the pride of the new MoFi, and it seems to be, I will leave it to those who post on forums to defend it. I certainly am not up to the task.

(more…)

Letter of the Week – Thank you for getting me off the “original pressings are the best” gerbil wheel

Hot Stamper Pressings that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Records We’ve Reviewed that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

One of our good customers had this to say about some records he purchased locally, not even from us! (Bolding has been added by us.)

By the way, have I thanked you yet for getting me off the “original pressings are the best” gerbil wheel? I’ve now got a stack of two-fers that I paid $15 apiece for that sound fantastic.

Yup, the very same records that Fremer ridiculed you for selling. [1]

I can buy a copy of an original pressing of Saxophone Colossus [2] for $300 on discogs with absolutely no notes on how the music sounds and no return policy. Or, I can get it for $15 in a twofer at my neighborhood shop, and I can’t imagine it sounding better. Folks just aren’t buying records for the way they sound. It’s nuts.

Tom, you’re like a consultant. It’s almost like I pay you for your knowledge and guidance by buying records from you, but you’re giving information away for free to anybody willing to listen.

In another letter Aaron added this thought after posting on the Hoffman forum and watching the LP 45 guy video:

What a learning experience the last couple of days have been for me. I am just really surprised how little interest in evidence and objectivity my co-hobbyists have proven to have. I know we are in a very anti-objective time right now, but it’s actually almost scary how pervasive it seems to be.

For my own journey into vinyl, a tremendous amount of exploration, experimentation, and tinkering have been essential. I can’t imagine going about it any other way. I’ve begun to wonder what on earth all these other chaps are doing. I mean, does vinyl even sound better than digital on their rigs?? If you don’t try stuff out, you’ll never make progress.

Anyway, looking for open-mindedness, curiosity, and balance in this discussion is futile.

It’s time now for me to stop trying to talk some sense into these people. They are coming at this from such a different place than I am.

Geoff, I’m glad that you touched a nerve that clearly this hobby needed to reckon with.

Tom, I’m glad more people are now aware of you and what you offer now. It’s frustrating to me (although I know you’ve been here a million times previously) that the self-appointed tastemakers in this hobby aren’t even willing to risk challenging their preconceptions. They keep folks in the dark, for reasons I would consider disingenuous.

I just hope that some of the ordinary people listening in are curious enough to give better records a try. The rest of them can just linger in their bubbles of complacency and mutual admiration.

Aaron

Aaron,

Glad I was able to help you get off the gerbil wheel!

As for Two-fers, some are great, including the one that has Lush Life, and some are terrible. Such is the nature of records.

Remastering is not a dirty word when you know how to do it right. Lots of good records were remastered in the ’70s. Think of all the Contemporary titles that came out in the decade before Fantasy bought the label and put all their best titles out as OJCs. Lots of Sheffield Lab Mastering marks in the dead wax, and Sheffield Labs was recutting some great records back in those days.

They don’t sound much like the records being made today, not to these ears anyway, but the typical audiophile who posts on forums — assuming that actually is the typical audiophile — seems to think the opposite is true. We would love to help them see the light, but as you say, that is just not something they are interested in seeing. More’s the pity.

[1] Fremer played a poorly mastered copy and judged the sound to be inferior. We know better than to try to sell the poorly mastered pressings like the one he played. We couldn’t if we tried. They would never make it through the shootout and therefore would never qualify as a Hot Stamper pressing. Hot Stampers of Lush Life are really good sounding pressings! Just as a reality check, we charge a lot of money for our top copies ($500+) and not a single one has ever been returned.

Everybody makes mistakes, but small sample sizes increase the frequency of mistakes by orders of magnitude, especially a sample size as small as 1. When you’re a one-man band, you simply do not have the resources to clean and play enough copies of an album in order to make accurate judgments about the sound.

Which is why he should stick to Heavy Vinyl reviews. You get one in, you give it a spin and you tell everybody how great it is. The advertisers like it, your readers like it, the labels like it, and everybody is happy as a clam.

When troublemakers like us come along, we upset that one-hand-washes-the-other arrangement, and then everybody gets real upset real fast. Nobody wants that. They want to keep selling Heavy Vinyl because that is what can be produced, in volume, at a reasonable cost, distributed widely and, most importantly, priced affordably. Win win win win win. So much winning!

If you want something better sounding, from us, it will cost you dearly. It will be every bit as good as we say, but it will not be cheap and it will not be collectible. The vast majority of record loving audiophiles — like the LP 45 Man — like collecting records. 95+% I would venture to guess.

The five per cent that are left are unlikely to want to spend their life savings on our pricey, uncollectible pressings. That leaves our potential pool of customers at less than one per cent of all the record loving audiophiles who want better sound and can afford it. Subtract the number of them who don’t like me personally — seems like a lot! — and you have a very small cohort of customers to draw from.

But big enough to keep our business going and food on the table for ten dedicated. music loving men and women. Nobody is getting rich, even at these prices, but we’re making a living and providing a service which some people really appreciate.

[2] We have not liked Saxophone Colossus on the Two-fer for many years. It was very dubby on the copies we played, so we gave up. Let us know what pressing you have so we can check it against our notes.

And if you can find an original Saxophone Colossus in clean shape for $300, you should jump on it. I have seen them sell for ten times that. And, just for everyone’s information, we have never sold a Hot Stamper for that price, although it is surely coming, inflation being what it is these days.