Labels We Love – RCA

David Bowie – Let’s Dance

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Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series.

With Let’s Dance the name of the game is ENERGY, and boy does this copy have it! Both sides have the deep, punchy bass and sweet, extended highs that Bowie’s music needs to come ALIVE. With that big bass and smooth top end this is one record you can turn up GOOD and LOUD without fear of fatique. On a big pair of dynamic speakers you will really get your money’s worth from the best Hot Stamper pressings. 

Compression? No Thank You!

Most copies we came across during our extensive shootout were painfully compressed and thin. Sure, they could convey some of the enormous energy of this recording, but the highs always ended up being brittle and edgy. Subsequently the vocals would lose presence and the whole operation turned smeary. When this happens, tracks like “Modern Love” turn the joy of the music into boredom and even outright misery.

But the good ones boggle the mind, they practically defy understanding. How did they get that much punchy note-like bass onto a piece of vinyl, not to mention all those silky sweet highs? (more…)

Takemitsu – Percussions in Colors – Reviewed in 2010

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame

Superb sound!

“Rare 1978 audiophile limited edition Japanese lp with Sumire Yoshihara on percussion performing experimental works. The Ichiyanagi work has a unique graphical score and allows the performer to select different classes of percussion. Takemitsu’s piece is based on a work of art in the form of a book made for the composer by Italian artist Bruno Munari. Takemitsu’s score consists of this book and an accompanying set of musical instructions on how to interpret its abstract collages and designs. Includes extensive notes inside the gatefold cover.” (more…)

Henry Mancini – A Warm Shade of Ivory – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame

With THE BEST side one we have ever played, backed with a side two that’s very nearly as good, this is a very special copy indeed! This copy was getting everything right on side one. Wide and deep stage, smooth but textured strings, background vocalists who take breaths, room around the piano, clear attack, it’s all here. 

Harry Pearson put this record on his TAS List of Super Discs. More about that later.

As for the sound of this copy, warm is right. This is some of the smoothest, most natural sound we’ve heard on a Mancini record. Listen to the cello on side 1, track 4, to hear the kind of tubey magic we rave about on old records. Those of you with good tube equipment (and/or the right transistor equipment, truth be told) know how rich and sonorous bowed string instruments can sound — this is a perfect example of it. Those with with more transistory sound in their systems will not be able to fully appreciate the lovely sonority, but if you take this record to a place that has top quality equipment, whether it be a friend’s house or a stereo store, you will undoubtedly hear what I mean. It’s a sound you can’t forget, and it’s all but disappeared from modern recordings and modern (read: heavy vinyl) pressings.

Classic Records, now thankfully defunct, has been producing records for fifteen years that are almost completely devoid of the tubey magic we’re talking about. Records like this show you precisely what the Classic pressings are getting wrong — if your stereo can reproduce the difference. (more…)

Vivaldi / The Four Seasons / Hayakawa (2 LPs) (45 RPM)

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Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame pressing.

This RCA Direct-to-Disc 45 RPM Double LP has awful sound, with hard and shrill string tone. This is why we dislike Japanese pressings as a rule — they sound like this audiophile piece of junk.

Annie Lennox – Diva

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  • This vintage import offers outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER for both sides of this Annie Lennox classic from 1992
  • Dramatically bigger, richer, smoother, more transparent and just more ANALOG sounding than any other copy you’ve heard, guaranteed or your money back
  • “State-of-the-art soul pop, Annie Lennox’s solo debut is sonically gorgeous…” – Rolling Stone
  • “Diva glides with a rich, feminine dignity that stands tall in pop history.” – Slant

By 1992 records like this were only released on import vinyl and typically went out of print soon after they started their descent down the pop charts. I used to sell them back in the day and supplies were extremely limited and unpredictable. And once they were gone they were virtually never reissued. All of those factors conspire to make the cost of acquiring the mintiest pressings from overseas fairly high, and of course the main reason you have never seen the album on our site before.

Be that as it may, we have this copy available and it is not only wonderful sounding but the music is every bit as good as I remember it. (more…)

David Bowie – David Live – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

More David Bowie

More David Live

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

The best copies have Live Rock and Roll Energy like you will not believe. The band is ON FIRE. These are the A List players of the day and they gell like a band that’s been together for years. The sonic treats include multiple horn players (David Sanborn KILLS on almost every track, and the baritone sax and oboe are rendered beautifully ) and multiple percussionists, all-male chorus background vocals, the seering fuzzed-out guitar leads of Earl Slick, piano and Mellotron by Mike Garson, the amazing Herbie Flowers on bass — the list goes on.

Why the critics don’t give this album the respect it so obviously deserves is completely beyond me.

One of the two GREATEST LIVE ROCK AND ROLL RECORDS ever made. The other top live album is of course Waiting For Columbus, and the two have much in common. Most importantly, the songs played live on both albums are CONSISTENTLY better than their studio versions. (This is especially true on the Little Feat album. Little Feat was not a studio band and their live arrangements (with the Tower of Power horns!) just murder the studio ones.)

But back to David Live. Have you ever heard a good sounding Diamond Dogs? But David Live is FULL of great sounding material from the album. 1984 is much better here than on the original album. Rebel Rebel, Sweet Thing and Rock & Roll With Me also come alive in performance. They rock!

Bad Pressings, or Were They?

Like the Crime of the Century listing we did today, this album has been tried and tried, coming up short over and over again. I’m a big fan so no matter how many times we failed we just kept at it. All we were hearing was grain, grit, and surface noise — we could not get the sound we were looking for on even the best Robert Ludwig original pressings, and the British pressings were even worse, with smeary, drab, dub-tape sound. But thank goodness things change. As we wrote for COTC:

Things Have Changed

As we never tire of saying, in audio THINGS CHANGE. With better cleaning technologies, better playback, better all the other stuff we talk about on the site, records that used to be practically impossible to get to sound right can suddenly — if years of hard work and experimentation can be considered “sudden” — start to come alive and show us the MAGIC that’s been locked away for all this time inside their grooves.

Who can say what allowed David Live to take its rightful place among the best recorded live concert albums in the world? It’s there now and we are glad it is.

AGAIG Side One! The Blanket Has Been Lifted.

This side is AS GOOD AS IT GETS! I have been listening to this record for more years than I care to think about and let me tell you this copy is KILLER! No other copy had a side one that was more clean and clear, more open up top, or more rich. It’s EVERYTHING YOU WANT on this album. The top end is sweet and extended; gone is the grit and grunge of the past. (Where it went I don’t know or care.)

This was the most transparent side one we heard in our shootout. You hear the sound bouncing off the back wall of the Philadelphia Theatre and hear crowd noises and off-mike band members that you never heard before. With all the rock and roll WHOMP, vocal textures, and you-are-there presence, this side handily took Top Honors.

Side Two

With this side you are getting 3-D sound — it’s wall-to-wall! The sweetness of Bowie’s voice really sets this one apart. All of the vocals — lead and background — are breathy and present. There is plenty of extension on both ends here as well. It was very close to the best we heard.

Side Three

This side was really hard to beat. It is breathy and textured with highs that extend beautifully. The bass is well defined and tight; you can follow every note. Whoever cut this bad boy cut it very clean; there’s no grit and the clean cutting results in separation of the instruments that is truly superb. Everyone is arrayed three dimensionally on the stage, not an easy effect to achieve on a live recording. But here it is.

Side Four

This A Double Plus side four has amazing transparency; the soundstage is wide and clear. The vocals are breathy and warm with a nice silky top. It doesn’t have all of the whomp of the best, but the mids and highs are correct and the energy is really lively.


Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below.

Click on this link to find more records and commentary about the low end whomp factor we discuss above.

Transparency, the other side of the Tubey Magical Richness coin, is key to the better pressings of this album as well as many of our other favorite demo discs.

This is another example of a record that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

Here are more records that will help you avoid listening for phony detail when evaluating equipment or tweaking your system.

The most important advice on the site can be found under the heading The Four Pillars of Success.

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and directly address in this commentary from way back in 2005.

Here are more entries in our ongoing Shootout Advice series.

Vivaldi, The Beatles – Bad Direct Disc Music & Sound (Which Used to Happen All the Time in the ’70s)

More of the music of Antonio Vivaldi

Vivaldi Ensemble / Vivaldi, The Beatles

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Sonic Grade: F

An awful Direct to Disc recording. The bad sound and pointless music — this is the kind of crap we audiophiles used to put up with back in the ’70s before we had much of a clue — means that it clearly belongs in only one place on our site: the Hall of Shame

Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow – Our Shootout Winner from 2009

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Surrealistic Pillow

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock Hall of Fame.

An OFF THE CHARTS side one with more tubey magic than you probably ever imagined! We always have fun playing a great copy of the psychedelic ’60s masterpiece, because the sound gives you so many of the qualities we love about good ol’ analog. No one’s recording albums any more with this kind of richness, sweetness, and warmth, that’s for sure! Drop the needle on My Best Friend or Today to hear that trippy Sixties San Francisco sound at its best. 

I don’t know how many more Hot Stamper copies we’ll be able to dig up, as these are getting harder and harder to come by — not to mention more expensive. Decent looking original pressings sell for good money these days, and not too many of them sound all that good. Add in the groove damage and surface noise that plague most of them, and you can see why it’s hard for us to continue picking them up and hoping for the best.

It’s An Uphill Battle Every Time

This album is an exceedingly difficult nut to crack — no matter how many copies we have, no matter how much information we have to work with. Play the typical copy and you’ll likely run for cover — we heard played copies that were aggressive, shrill, lifeless, dull, thick, veiled, bass-shy — you name it, we heard it. Not only that, but as a rule these early pressings are BEAT TO DEATH. Finding a copy that sounds any good and plays Mint Minus Minus or better is a real challenge.

But we didn’t give up. We knew that the best pressings of this album have tubey magic in spades. Undaunted, we kept up the search and eventually found some OUT OF THIS WORLD Hot Stamper copies.

Almost every pressing you’ll ever find suffers from at least a bit of harmonic distortion — some MUCH worse than others. We were convinced at one point that it was on the tapes, but after playing these super clean copies, we now know that not to be the case. (more…)

Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow – We Found a Good Sounding Orange Label Pressing

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Surrealistic Pillow

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This QUIET orange label (!) pressing has surprisingly good sound, some of the best sound we have ever heard for that more-often-than-not dismal second label in fact. It actually beat a few of our black label originals, with more tubey magic and less distortion and harshness than we expect from these later pressings.  (more…)

David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust – Our Shootout Winning Copy from 2011

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More Ziggy Stardust

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

Is this one of the Greatest Rock Albums of All Time? Unquestionably. It’s the pinnacle of Glam Rock. Every track is superb; not a moment is less than stellar from beginning to end.

Is it Bowie’s Masterpiece? Absolutely. No other Bowie record ranks higher in my book. No other Bowie record would command a similar price, regardless of its sonic merits.

Is it amazingly well recorded? You better believe it. This is not just Bowie’s masterpiece; it’s Ken Scott’s as well. For BIG, BOLD, wall to wall, floor to ceiling sound, look no further.

Ken Scott engineered this record and he did his usual amazingly good job. The guitars may not sound “real”, they way they actually do in real life, but they sure sound GOOD! Lots of rich, sweet tubey magic, the sound we love here at Better Records. (more…)