Advice – What to Listen For on Classical Records

Tweaking and Tuning Are Essential to Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Improving your critical listening skills is what allows you to make Audio Progress and collect better sounding records.

Since we play all kinds of records, all day, practically every day as part of our regular shootout regimen, tweaking and tuning are much easier for us to do than they would be for most audiophiles. As I have told many in this hobby over the years, if you don’t do the work, the only person who doesn’t get to hear better sound is you. I can come home to my good sounding stereo — I’ve put in the work — but you’re stuck listening to all the problems you haven’t solved, right?

Learning How to Listen

There’s no problem with an untweaked stereo or an untreated room as long as you don’t mind mediocre sound. If you actually want good sound, you have to learn how to tweak your stereo and you have to learn how to treat your room. Neither one can be ignored. You have to learn how to do both.

And doing both is what teaches you how to listen, which is a skill that’s very hard to acquire any other way. This explains why so many audiophiles have such poor listening skills. They simply never developed them because they never needed them. Think about it: Listening to music for enjoyment requires the exercise of no skills whatsoever.

Such is obviously not the case with tweaking. Tweaking your system requires that you listen carefully and critically in order to make the fine judgments that are essential to making progress. Progress in audio from tweaking often occurs in small, almost imperceptible increments.

Being so subtle, these changes force you as a listener to concentrate, to focus your attention, to bring to bear all your critical listening skills.

Naturally, these skills, like any skills, having been exercised, start to improve, and continue to improve as you continue to exercise them.

Going About It

Everybody knows that practicing and challenging yourself will make you better at whatever you are trying to do. But where have you ever seen those concepts applied to bettering your own audio skills (other than on this web site)? Just how would you go about challenging yourself as an audiophile?

Easy.

Tweaking and experimenting with room treatments is one sure way.

Playing ten copies of the same album back to back and making notes about the sound of each side is another.

Adjusting the turntable sixty six different ways and seeing what the effect is on scores of different records works too.

All these things taught me a lot.

No amount of reading or advice was remotely as helpful as just getting down and messing around with anything and everything in my listening room.

As Van Morrison said: “No guru, no method, no teacher.”

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Debussy / Iberia on Classic Records – What, Specifically, Are Its Shortcomings?

The Music of Claude Debussy Available Now

Album Reviews of the music of Claude Debussy

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Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame pressing and another Classic Records LP debunked.

The Classic of LSC 2222 is all but unlistenable on a highly resolving, properly set-up hi-fidelity system.

The opacity, transient smear and loss of harmonic information and ambience found on Classic’s pressing was enough to drive us right up the wall. Who can sit through a record that sounds like that? Way back in 1994, long before we had anything like the system we do now, we were finding fault with the “Classic Records Sound” and said as much in our catalogs.

With each passing year — 26 and counting — we like that sound less.  The Classic may be on Harry’s TAS list — sad but true — but that certainly has no bearing on the fact that it’s not a very good record.

MORE RECORDS GOOD FOR JUDGING THESE QUALITIES

Ambience, Size and Space

Smear

String Tone and Texture

Transparency Vs Opacity

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Bernie Grundman’s Work for Classic Records in Four Words: Hard, Sour, Colored and Crude

More Balalaika Favorites

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Oh, and airless. Make that five words.

It’s been quite a while since I played the Classic pressing, but I remember it as unpleasantly hard and sour. Many of the later Mercury reissues pressed by Columbia had some of that sound, so I was already familiar with it when their pressing came out in 1998 as part of the just-plain-awful Mercury series they released.

I suspect I would hear it that way today. Bernie Grundman could cut the bass, the dynamics, and the energy onto the record.

Everything else was worse 99% of the time.

The fast transients of the plucked strings of the Balalaikas was just way beyond the ability of his colored and crude cutting system. Harmonic extension and midrange delicacy were qualities that practically no Classic Records Heavy Vinyl pressing could claim to have.

Or, to be precise, they claimed to have them, and whether audiophiles really believed they did or not, Classic Records sure fooled a lot of them and the reviewers that write the facile and reductive superficialities that pass for audio journalism.

The better your stereo gets the worse those records sound, and they continue to fall further and further behind with each passing year.

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London Orchestral Records from the ’70s and the Problem of Opacity

More Records that Are a Good Test for Transparency

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The average copy of this 1976 recording has that dry, multi-miked modern sound that the ’70s ushered in for many of the major labels, notably London and RCA. How many Solti records are not ridiculously thick and opaque? One out of ten? If that. We’re extremely wary of records produced in the ’70s; we’ve been burned too many times.

And to tell you the truth we are not all that thrilled with most of what passes for good sound on Mehta‘s London output either. If you have a high-resolution system, these recordings, like those on Classic Heavy Vinyl we constantly criticize, leave a lot to be desired.

Opacity is a real dealbreaker for us. Most of the classical records we play from later eras simply do not have the transparency essential to transporting us from our listening room into the concerto hall.

One thing you can say about live classical music, it is never opaque. Just the opposite. No recording in our experience — our experience being thousands upon thousand of them — can ever be remotely as transparent as live music.

If you have any doubts, next time you come home from the concert hall take a moment to put on a favorite recording of the same music. You may be in for quite a shock.

Decca and London Hot Stamper Pressings Available Now

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Compromised Recordings and the Rapture of the Purely Musical Experience

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

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The best classical recordings of the ’50s and ’60s like the one you see pictured above were compromised in every imaginable way. Yet somehow they manage to be sonically and musically head and shoulders above virtually anything that has come after them, now that we can play them on the high quality equipment of today.

The music lives and breathes on those old LPs. Playing them you find yourself in the Living Presence of the musicians. You become lost in their performances. Whatever the limitations of the medium, they seem to fade quickly from consciousness. What remains is the rapture of the musical experience.

That’s what happens when a good record meets a good turntable.

We live for records like these. It’s the reason we all get up in the morning and come to work, to find and play good records. It’s what this site is all about — offering the audiophile music lover recordings that provide real musical satisfaction. It’s hard work — so hard nobody else seems to want to do it — but the payoff makes it all worthwhile. To us anyway. Hope you feel the same.

The One Out of Ten Rule

If you have too many classical records taking up too much space and need to winnow them down to a more manageable size, pick a composer and play half a dozen of his works. Most classical records display an irredeemable mediocrity right from the start; it doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it.

If you’re after the best sound, it’s the rare record that will have it, which makes clearing shelf space a lot easier than you might imagine. If you keep more than one out of ten you’re probably setting the bar too low if our experience is any guide.


FURTHER READING

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

Well Recorded Classical Albums – The Core Collection

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Elgar / Enigma Variations in Living Stereo – Sometimes Tubey Magic Comes at a Price

Living Stereo Orchestral Titles Available Now

200+ Reviews of Living Stereo Records

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This famous Shaded Dog, containing two superb performances by Monteux and the LSO, has many of the Golden Age strengths and weaknesses we know well here at Better Records, having played literally hundreds upon hundreds of these vintage pressings over the last twenty years or so. 

The wonderful sounding tube compressors that were used back in the day result in quieter passages that are positively swimming in ambience and low-level orchestral detail. Tube compression is often a large part of what we mean when we use the term Tubey Magic.

If you want to know what Zero Tubey Magic sounds like, play some Telarcs or Reference Recordings from the ’70s and ’80s. Or a modern digital recording on CD.

But all that sweet and rich Tubey Magic comes at a price when it’s time for the orchestra to get loud. It either can’t, or the louder passages simply distort from compressor overload. Fortunately on this copy the orchestra does not distort, it simply never gets as loud as it would in a real concert hall, clearly the lesser and more preferable of the two evils. (more…)

Set-up Discs, Part Two – Dialing in the Anti-Skate

More of the music of Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

More Turntable Setup Advice

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I once adjusted my anti-skate while playing this very album, at the time dialing it in to a “T”. Over the years I’ve found that the best test for fine anti-skate adjustment is massed strings, and not just at the end of a side but right at the beginning too.

When you have all the rosiny texture, the high-end harmonic extension, the least shrillness and the widest and deepest staging, you are there, assuming that tracking weight, azimuth and VTA are correct as well.

Four variables to mess with is admittedly a bitch, but having the right record to test with is absolutely critical as well. Maybe we should call it five variables.

And if I only had one record to bring to someone’s house in order to evaluate their equipment, this would certainly be a top choice. If you can make this record sound the way it should, your stereo is cookin’. If you are having problems, this record will show them to you in short order. (more…)

Finlandia – Striving for Orchestral Clarity with Decca and Failing with RCA

More of the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

More of the music of Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

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The original RCA Living Stereo pressings we played in our 2014 shootout were not competitive with the best Deccas and London reissues.

Is the original the best way to go?

In our experience with Finlandia, not so much.

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The record you see above is yet another wonderful example of what the much-lauded Decca recording engineers were able to capture on analog tape all those years ago. The 1961 master has been transferred brilliantly using “modern” cutting equipment (from the early-’70s, not the low-rez junk they’re forced to make do with these days), giving you, the listener, sound that only the best of both worlds can offer.
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Tchaikovsky / Swan Lake / Fistoulari – Our Favorite Recording of the Highlights

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

More Imported Pressings on Decca and London

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Kenneth Wilkinson engineered this album for Decca in 1961.

It’s as wide, deep, and three-dimensional as any, which is, of course, all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

Highlights of the recording include huge amounts of bass; a clear snare at the back of the hall (a good test of transparency of the record and of your system and room); full-bodied horns and strings which never become blary or shrill; and of course huge amounts of space.

This is the kind of record that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage. They cannot begin to sound the way this record sounds. (Before you put them in storage or on Ebay please play them against this pressing so that you can be confident in your decision to rid yourself of their mediocrity.)

Quality record production is a lost art, and it’s been lost for a very long time.

In my notes I remarked that when the music is quiet the sound is so spacious, clear, and sweet it will have you thinking you are sitting in the concert hall. One thing live classical music does much better than any recording in my experience is that it gets very, very quiet, yet stays clear and spacious. None of the thousands of classical recordings I have heard to date reproduce that quality completely, but this one gets awfully darn close.

Note that the big finale at the end of side two is loud and HUGE on this album. There is a touch of compressor overload, but no actual inner groove distortion. At first we thought the former may have indeed been the latter because we had a copy or two with chewed-up inner grooves.

This one plays clean to the end, and boy does it get loud and powerful at the climax of the work.

All the qualities we look for in a classical recording are found here:

  • lovely string tone and texture,
  • rich bass,
  • a big hall,
  • no smear,
  • lovely transparency

How many classical records have all these qualities? One out of a hundred? (more…)

Bruch & Mozart / Violin Concertos – Were We Wrong?

More Recordings Featuring the Violin

Living Stereo Orchestral Titles Available Now

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Many years ago we wrote the following review for LSC 2472:

Superb sound. The violin is wonderful on both sides. The Mozart is absolutely gorgeous; the best I’ve ever heard it.

The orchestra on the Bruch side gets a little congested in the louder passages, which is typical for records of this era.

Laredo plays these pieces beautifully. The Bruch is an especially romantic work and his violin sings sweetly and with deep emotion throughout. The Mozart is more spritely and he plays it with the light touch it requires. You will have a hard time finding a better violin concerto record. This ranks with the best of them.

More recently we got in a nice 1S/1S pressing that sounded thick and dark, even after a good cleaning.

Were we wrong years ago? Hard to say. That copy from many years ago is gone.

Three things we always keep in mind when a pressing doesn’t sound like we remember it did, or think it should:

  1. Our standards are quite a bit higher now, having spent decades critically listening to vintage classical pressings by the hundreds.
  2. Our stereo is dramatically more revealing and more accurate than it used to be.
  3. Since no two records sound the same, maybe the one from long ago actually did sound as good as we thought at the time.

All things considered, the consensus would now be that LSC 2472 is very unlikely to be as good a record as we used to think it was.

A classic case of Live and Learn and also a case of Progress in Audio, probably.

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