Difficult to Reproduce Recordings

Bruce Springsteen – Born In The U.S.A. – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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EXCELLENT SOUND and QUIET VINYL for BOTH SIDES of this ’80s classic from The Boss. Side one, at A+++, was the best we heard in our entire shootout! It’s tough to find great sounding copies of this album — or any Springsteen album for that matter — but this one is a HUGE step up, with the kind of clarity and fullness the typical pressing barely hints at.

We’re not the world’s biggest Springsteen fans here at Better Records (as you may have gathered by now) but when this sound is this good we can certainly get down and rock with The Boss.

So many copies left us cold with a flat, dry sound. If you’re bored by the first chorus of the title song, that’s a bad sign, and that was exactly our experience with most of the pressings that hit the table. When we threw this one on, things changed considerably. Bruce was really screaming, the drums were really pounding, and before we knew it we were really rockin’ out and enjoying the music.

Side one gives you a very strong bottom end with more PUNCH than we found anywhere else. The top end is open and extended with a silky quality — dramatically better than the gritty, grainy, edgy sound we heard up top on copy after copy. The vocals sound wonderful with plenty of presence and texture, and the soundfield has some actual depth. Many copies we played had a slightly smeary quality, but not this one — the clarity is superb and you can clearly hear transients on just about all the instruments. The transparency and energy go far beyond what you could hope to hear on a typical copy.

Side two is very good as well but not quite as exceptional. The bottom end has lots of weight and there’s good energy all around, but the vocals could use a little more presence. Our ultimate sides also opened up a bit more, but I think you’ll find this side a step up over whatever you’ve been playing up to now. Drop the needle on Dancing In The Dark for some of the best sound on the side. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt / Heart Like A Wheel – Truly a Country Rock Masterpiece

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  • With Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them, this copy was giving us KILLER sound for Linda Ronstadt’s Best Album
  • Both sides here are rich, full-bodied and warm, with harmonically rich guitars and real immediacy to Linda’s heartfelt vocals
  • A Must Own Classic, the best album Ms Ronstadt ever made, and a True Country Rock Masterpiece virtually without peer
  • 5 stars: “What really makes HLAW a breakthrough is the inventive arrangements that producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt, and the studio musicians have developed. …[they] help turn Heart Like a Wheel into a veritable catalog of Californian soft rock, and it stands as a landmark of ’70s mainstream pop/rock.”

I’ve been playing HLAW since the year it came out, roughly 46 years by my calculation, and I can tell you it is no easy task to find this kind of smooth, sweet, analog sound on the album. Folks, we heard it for ourselves: the Heart Like A Wheel magic is here on practically every song.

Pay special attention to Andrew Gold’s Abbey Road-ish guitars heard throughout the album. He is all over this record, playing piano, guitar, percussion and singing in the background. If anybody deserves credit besides Linda for the success of HLAW, it’s Andrew Gold.

A key test on either side was to listen to all the multi-tracked guitars and see how easy it was to separate each of them out in the mix. Most of the time they are just one big jangly blur. The best copies let you hear how many guitars there are and what each of them is doing. (more…)

Yes, We’re Getting Awfully Close To The Edge…

Are Your Planets Aligned?

A word of caution: Even our Hottest Stamper copies can sound problematical unless your system is firing on all cylinders. Your electricity has got to be cooking, you’ve got to be using the right room treatments, and ideally you should be using a demagnetizer such as the Talisman on the record itself, your cables (power, interconnect and speaker) as well as the individual drivers of your speakers.

This is a record that’s going to demand a lot from the listener, and we want to make sure that you’re up to the challenge. If you don’t mind putting in a little hard work, here’s a record that will reward you many times over, and probably teach you a thing or two about tweaking your gear in the process.

We’d started and abandoned this shootout multiple times in the previous decade; the typical sounding copy was just too painful to listen to, and the better pressings weren’t doing what we had hoped they would. Where was the Tubey Magical analog sound with the HUGE whomp factor that we’d been hearing on the best copies of Fragile and The Yes Album? We just could not find that sound on Close to the Edge.

As futile as our previous attempts were, we decided in 2008 that we would take another stab at it. After all, there had been quite a few changes around here that had the stereo working really well —  the addition of the Odyssey Record Cleaning Machine and Walker Enzyme solution to our cleaning process, the Talisman Magnetic Optimizer, the third pair of Hallographs we added years back, tons of smaller tweaks, and a few other tricks that we’re going to have to leave hidden up our sleeves for now.

The Planets Align

Think about it: This is a highly COMPLEX recording, with HUGE organs, light-speed changes, lots of multi-tracking, and what amounts to an OVERLOAD of musical information. Can you imagine how irritating that would sound on a third-rate copy? We didn’t have to imagine it — we lived through it! (more…)

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV

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  • A stunning copy that is absolutely guaranteed to rock your world like no other – QUADRUPLE Plus (A++++) on side one and Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) on side two 
  • Insane Rock and Roll ENERGY like nothing you have ever heard – the sound is exceptionally full-bodied, smooth and solid, making it possible to get the volume up good and high where it belongs
  • So many immortal rockers on one album: Black Dog, Rock & Roll, Stairway, When the Levee Breaks, and more, sounding better than you’ve ever heard them
  • 5 stars: “Encompassing heavy metal, folk, pure rock & roll, and blues, Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album is a monolithic record, defining not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of ’70s hard rock.”

*Stairway to Heaven has the usual ticky intro.

Please note: we award the Four Plus (A++++) grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale shown above. We rarely find records with this kind of sound, just a few times a year at most — this is the only one on the site at this time.

Side one shows up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear it you will know why we gave it that fourth plus!

It is a positive THRILL to hear this record rock the way it was meant to. If you have big speakers and the power to drive them, your neighbors are going to be very upset with you when you play this copy at the listening levels it was meant to be heard.

You better be ready to rock because this copy has the ENERGY and WHOMP that will make you want to. Zep IV demands loud volumes, but practically any copy will punish you harshly if you try to play it at anything even approaching live levels. I never met John Bonham, and it’s probably too late now, but I imagine he would feel seriously disrespected if he found out people were playing his music at the polite listening levels audiophiles seem to prefer. The term “hi-fidelity” loses its meaning if the instruments are playing at impossibly low levels. If the instruments could never be heard that way live, where is the fidelity? (more…)

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 – Ye-Me-Le

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  • Insanely good Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it on both sides of this fun Brasil ’66 album
  • The overall sound here is incredibly rich and full-bodied with tons of energy and a very natural, musical sound
  • Norwegian Wood, Wichita Lineman and Easy to Be Hard are among the great songs that have the potential to sound amazing
  • We’re huge Sergio Mendes fans here and it’s a thrill to hear copies like this bring his music to life

The first three tracks on side 1 are the best reason to own this album, especially the first two (Wichita Lineman and Norwegian Wood), which are as good as anything the group ever did. As I’m a big fan, that’s high praise!

The average LP of this album is terrible. Shrill, aggressive sound is the norm, but compression and overly smooth (read; thick and dull) sound are also problems commonly found on Ye-Me-Le. There’s also a noticeable “strained” quality to the loud vocal passages on almost every copy; only the best are free of it. (more…)

Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular – Our Favorite Record for Cartridge Setup

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Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular just happens to be our favorite Test Disc, eclipsing all others in the areas of naturalness and difficulty of reproduction. Any tweak or new room treatment — we seem to do them almost weekly these days — has to pass one test and one test only — the Bob and Ray Test. 

This record has the power to help you get to the next level in audio like no other. Six words hold the key to better sound: The Song of the Volga Boatman.

For the purpose of mounting new carts, our favorite track is The Song of the Volga Boatman on Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular (LSP 1773). It’s by far the most difficult record we know of to get to sound right.

There are about twenty places in the music that we use as tests, and the right setting is the one that gets the most of them to sound their best. With every change some of the twenty will sound better and some will sound worse. Recognizing when the sound is the biggest, clearest, and most balanced from top to bottom is a skill that has taken me twenty years to acquire.

It’s a lot harder than it looks. The longer you have been in audio the more complicated it seems, which may be counterintuitive but comports well with our day-to-day experience very well.

All our room treatments and tweaks must pass The Bob and Ray Test as well. It’s the one record we have relied on more than any other over the course of the last year or two.

Presenting as it does a huge studio full of brass players, no record we know of is more dynamic or more natural sounding — when the system is working right. When it’s not working right the first thirty seconds is all it takes to show you the trouble you are in.

If you don’t have a record like that in your collection you need to find one.

It will be invaluable in the long run. The copy we have is so good (White Hot, the best we have ever played), and so important to our operation here, that it would not be for sale at any (well, almost any) price.

The Bob and Ray Trombone / Trumpet Test

One of the key tests on Bob and Ray that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the duet between the trombone and the trumpet about half way through The Song of the Volga Boatman. I have never heard a small speaker reproduce a trombone properly, and when tweaking the system, when the trombone has more of the heft and solidity of the real instrument, that is a tweak we want to pursue. The trumpet interweaving with it in the right rear corner of the studio tests the transients and high frequency harmonics in the same section. With any change to the stereo, both of those instruments are going to sound better. For a change to be positive they must both sound better. (more…)

Ambrosia and Its Elusive Hot Stamper Pressings – “Press On!”

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Sage Advice from Calvin Coolidge

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”Calvin Coolidge

If you substitute “finding Hot Stamper pressings” for the words “the human race” you will surely appreciate the point of this commentary.

Our story today revolves around the first Hot Stamper listing we have ever done for Ambrosia’s second — and second best — album. It took us a long time to find the right pressing. Do you, or any of the other audiophiles you know, keep buying the same album over and over again year after year in hopes of finding a better sounding copy? We do — have been for more than twenty years as a matter of fact — and here’s why.

Around 2007 I stumbled upon the Hot Stampers for this record — purely by accident of course, there’s almost no other way to do it — and was shocked — shocked — to actually hear INTO the soundfield of the recording for the first time in my life, this after having played copy after frustratingly opaque copy for roughly thirty years.

Yes, the stereo got better and that helped a lot. Everything else we talk about helped too. But ultimately it came down to this: I had to find the right copy of the record. Without the right record it doesn’t matter how good your stereo is, you still won’t have good sound. Either the playback source has it or it doesn’t.

It’s not what’s on the master tape that matters; it’s what’s on the record. (more…)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – “I’ve listened to it numerous times and it just does not have that sound stage I was expecting.”

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A customer recently contacted us after making his first purchase and being disappointed with the White Hot Stamper pressing we had sent him.

Hi,

Wondered who I can talk to about this record that I purchased. I’ve listened to it numerous times and it just does not have that sound stage I was expecting.

I am not looking for a refund. In fact, I refuse a refund. However, I would appreciate the opportunity to speak to someone about the factors that make this a “White Hot Pressing.”

I’m sure you need to understand what amplifier, speakers, setting, etc. I am using. Without Going into the details, I have a McIntosh amplifier and Focal 936 speakers. I know how much of a difference equipment makes in the sound of a record.

I love to hear amazing records, some of which I have in original pressings I purchased when they were released and can truly feel it when there is something special about the record. This one does not seem to have it to me, but I am interested in finding and purchasing one from you that gives that amazing feeling.

Please let me know if there is someone I can speak to about finding that record.

Thank you,
Sanjay

I replied with an overwhelming amount of information (and opinions!) designed to help Sanjay understand more about records, as follows:

Sanjay,

Tom here. Let me see if I can help.

The first thing I would need to know is what version of the album do you have that you think sounds better, or, if not better, comparable?

[He had no other pressing, not surprising as our White Hot copies are almost impossible to beat.]

Assuming you don’t have a better copy — we would be very surprised if you did — we would say that it’s likely there are two factors at play:

White Hot does not mean amazing Demo Disc sound. It means the best sound we can find for this recording, relative to the others we play. In other words, the best there is within the limitations of the recording.

We can’t fix the recording, we can only find you the best available pressing. If you were expecting more, something along the lines of Dark Side of the Moon, then I understand your disappointment.

For the band’s first album, we wrote:

It’s unlikely you will be demonstrating your system with this record, but you may find yourself enjoying the hell out of it for what it is — an early example of Roots Rock that still holds up today.

For Green River we wrote:

Green River isn’t ever going to be a knockout demo disc, but a copy like this allows you to enjoy the music as it was recorded. Most copies are so dull, grainy and lifeless that someone would have to wake you at the end of a side!

We have a section for great sounding recordings, it’s this one:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=top100

There are no CCR records in this section and never will be.

The second point I would make is that some records are much more difficult to reproduce than others, and require the right equipment to do them justice.   In the listing for your record, under one of the tabs, you can find all of this.

The story of our recent shootouts is what real Progress in Audio is all about.

Many copies were gritty, some were congested in the louder sections, some never got big, some were thin and lacking the lovely analog richness of the best — we heard plenty of copies whose faults were obvious when played against two top sides such as these. The best copies no longer to seem to have the problems we used to hear all the time.

Of course the reason I hadn’t heard the congestion and grittiness in the recording is that two things changed. One, we found better copies of the record to play — probably, can’t say for sure, but let’s assume we did, and, Two, we’ve made lots of improvements to the stereo since the last time we did the shootout.

You have to get around to doing regular shootouts for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any distance at all. Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they might be or when they might have occurred, were incontrovertible. The album was now playing at a much, much higher level.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the possibility, indeed the importance, of taking full advantage of the Revolutions in Audio of the last ten or twenty years.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s natural to blame sonic shortcomings on the recording; everyone does it, including us.

But in this case We Was Wrong. The congestion and distortion we’d gotten used to are no longer a problem on the best copies. We’ve worked diligently on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get these vintage Creedence records to play at a much higher level than we could before.

This is why we keep experimenting, keep tweaking and keep searching for the best sounding pressings, and why we encourage you to do the same.

A word of caution: Unless your system is firing on all cylinders, even our hottest Hot Stamper copies — the Super Hot and White Hot pressings with the biggest, most dynamic, clearest, and least distorted sound — can have problems . Your system should be thoroughly warmed up, your electricity should be clean and cooking, you’ve got to be using the right room treatments, and we also highly recommend using a demagnetizer such as the Walker Talisman on the record, your cables (power, interconnect and speaker) as well as the individual drivers of your speakers.

This is a record that’s going to demand a lot from the listener, and we want to make sure that you feel you’re up to the challenge. If you don’t mind putting in a little hard work, here’s a record that will reward your time and effort many times over, and probably teach you a thing or two about tweaking your gear in the process (especially your VTA adjustment, just to pick an obvious area most audiophiles neglect).

High-Ranking

This recording ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale. Do not attempt to play it using any but the best equipment.

It took a long time to get to the point where we could clean the record properly, twenty years or so, and about the same amount of time to get the stereo to the level it needed to be, involving, you guessed it, many of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio we tout so obsessively. It’s not easy to find a pressing with the low end whomp factor, midrange energy and overall dynamic power that this music needs, and it takes one helluva stereo to play one too.

If you have the kind of big system that a record like this demands, when you drop the needle on the best of our Hot Stamper pressings, you are going to hear some amazing sound .

{He sent me a picture of the speaker he uses, the Focal 936. It has 3 6.5 inch woofers.]

I would not want to play a CCR record with the speaker you have. It is doubtful it can move enough air to get the weight of the music right.

We discuss our system and why a CCR record would sound right on our big speakers here:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=stereo

On my blog I have a section for:

RECORDS THAT SOUND BEST ON BIG SPEAKERS AT LOUD LEVELS

https://ontherecord.co/category/records-that-sound-best-this-way/records-that-sound-best-on-big-speakers-at-loud-levels/

with 300+ entries at this point, including all the CCR albums.

This is a lot to digest, but after 40 years of audio experience and record collecting, I have learned a few things, and the above information is my attempt to help others with what I have learned:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=expert

Please take the time to read all the information I have sent, as well as as much of the following as you can, probably best spread out over the course of a few weeks:

https://www.better-records.com/dept.aspx?dept_id=14-006-016

If you would like specific recommendations about records you are interested in that we think would sound good on your stereo, we are happy to point you in the right direction.

Best, TP

(more…)

Prokofiev & Rachmaninoff / Piano Concertos / Janis / Kondrashin

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  • This pressing has Beyond White Hot Stamper (A++++) sound on side one – sound that must be experienced to be believed! – backed with stunning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the second side – exceptionally quiet vinyl too 
  • The finest Prokofiev No. 3 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 – these performances by Janis are legendary, and with phenomenal sonics like these, this combination of sound and performance is all but unmatched in our experience
  • So big, so, rich, so transparent, so dynamic and full of life, we guarantee you have never heard a better piano concerto record in your life
  • Compare the weight of the piano on the two sides to see why the grades are so different

Please note: we award the Four Plus (A++++) grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale shown above. We rarely find records with this kind of sound, just a few times a year at most — this is the only one on the site at this time.

Side one shows up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear this copy you will know why we gave it that fourth plus!

This is an exceptionally quiet early Mercury Plum label stereo pressing of two of Byron Janis’s most famous performances (along with the Rachmaninoff 3rd, which is every bit as good). It’s a longtime member of the TAS Super Disc list.

The recording is explosively dynamic and on this copy, the sound was positively jumping out of the speakers. In addition, the brass and strings are full-bodied and rich, with practically no stridency, an unusual feat the Mercury engineers seem to have accomplished while in Russia.

Big, rich sound can sometimes present problems for piano recordings. You want to hear the percussive qualities of the instrument, but few copies pull off that trick without sounding thin. This one showed us a piano that was both clear and full-bodied.

With huge amounts of hall space, weight and energy, this is DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND by any standard. Once the needle has dropped you will quickly forget about the sound and simply find yourself in the presence of some of the greatest musicians of their generation captured on some of the greatest analog recordings of all time. (more…)

Bizet-Shchedrin / Carmen Ballet Suite / Rozhdestvensky – Our 4+ Shootout Winner from 2019

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame

Unbelievable Shootout Winning Demo Disc quality sound throughout — QUADRUPLE PLUS (A++++) on the first side and Triple Plus (A+++) on the second. Side one has by far the better music – it’s where the most exciting, most percussive movements can be found – and this pressing, with Beyond White Hot sound for that side, is guaranteed to be bigger and more lively than you ever imagined (because that’s how we felt about it, hence the fourth plus).

Please note: we award the Four Plus (A++++) grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale shown above. We rarely find records with this kind of sound, just a few times a year at most — this is the only one on the site at this time.

Both sides show up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear this copy you will know why we gave side one that fourth plus!

This Angle Melodiya pressing of Bizet’s Carmen, rearranged by Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin for strings and 47 percussion instruments, has two incredible sides. Demo Quality Sound barely begins to do it justice. If you have the system to play it, this copy is a KNOCKOUT.

But boy is it a difficult record to reproduce. You better have everything working right when you play this one — it’s guaranteed to bring practically any audiophile system to its knees. Speed, resolving power and freedom from distortion are what this record needs to sound its best. Is your system up to it? There’s only one way to find out.

And if you have any peaky audiophile wire or equipment in your system, the kind that is full of detail but calls attention to itself, you are in big trouble with a record like this. More than anything this is a record that rewards your system’s neutrality. (more…)