Labels We Love – Warners

Van Morrison – Into The Music

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One of Our Favorite Titles from 1979

  • Boasting two superb Double Plus (A++) sides, this copy is guaranteed to blow the doors off any other Into the Music you’ve heard – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Wonderfully spacious and three-dimensional, as well as relaxed and full-bodied – a noticeable step up over many of the other copies we played
  • 4 1/2 stars: “In a sense, this is the definitive post-classic-era Morrison, since it summarizes all of his attributes while showcasing each at a peak. Musically, this is a little harder and rootsier than its two predecessors, but only a little; this is still remarkably relaxed music, where the charm is in its ease of delivery and compositions.”

Not a lot of casual Van fans are familiar with this album, but after a big shootout we were left very impressed with the sound of the best pressings and the quality of the music throughout. Morrison’s catalog after the early ’70s leaves plenty to be desired, but this one is a real return to form.

If you need a new Van Morrison album in your life and you want it with excellent Hot Stamper sound, give this one a spin — we think you’ll be as impressed as we were. In fact, we guarantee it… or your money back. (more…)

James Taylor – Gorilla

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More of Our Favorite Pure Pop Recordings

  • Soulful JT at his best, an underappreciated album by the man who single-handedly created a new genre of music
  • “Mexico,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Was A Fool To Care” are standouts – but, honestly, there simply are no weak tracks to be found on either side
  • Rolling Stone notes, “With Gorilla, Taylor is well on his way to staking out new ground. What he’s hit upon is the unlikely mating of his familiar low-keyed, acoustic guitar-dominated style with L.A. harmony rock and the sweet, sexy school of rhythm and blues.”
  • We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” with an accent on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life. Gorilla is a good example of a record audiophiles may not know well but might just benefit from getting to know better
  • If I were to compile a list of Must Own Rock and Pop Albums from 1975, this album would definitely be on it

This is soft rock at its best, made up primarily of love songs, and helped immensely by the harmonically-gifted backing vocals of Graham Nash and David Crosby.

To be honest, the recording of Gorilla itself cannot compete with the likes of Sweet Baby James or JT, both of which are Top 100 Titles. It can be a good sounding record, not a great one, certainly not in the same league as those two.


Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna

Albums with Stevie Nicks Performing

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  • With KILLER Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it throughout, this vintage pressing could not be beat – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Both of these sides are punchy, big and clear, with plenty of hard rockin’ energy – exactly what you would expect from the team of Shelly Yakus and Jimmy Iovine
  • Two of her biggest hits are here (and they still hold up): “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Leather and Lace”
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Equally engaging are less exposed tracks like the haunting “After the Glitter Fades.” Hit producer Jimmy Iovine wisely avoids over-producing, and keeps things sounding organic on this striking debut.”
  • If you’re a Stevie Nicks or post-1974 Fleetwood Mac fan, this title from 1981 is surely a Must Own
  • We think this is the Stevie’s best sounding album. Roughly 150 other listings for the Best Sounding Album by an Artist or Group can be found here.

It’s easy to hear what the good pressings are doing. They’re big and rich, never thin nor harsh. They open up on the top end and go down deeper on the bottom. They’re smooth and full-bodied in the midrange. Stevie’s vocals are breathy and present. The energy of her performance drives the music the way you want it to.

In short, the better copies demonstrate the sound one could expect on a good Tom Petty album. Nothing surprising there; this album, like Petty’s, was produced and engineered by the same team, Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yakus. They’ve made some great records together, Damn the Torpedoes being the best of the bunch for sonics.

Bella Donna may not reach those exalted heights, but it’s still quite good, especially for 1981. As the decade wore on things went south very quickly, sonically and musically, so we must be thankful that this record came out early in the decade and not much later.


Back in the Day, Blue Was Just Too Tough a Nut to Crack

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Reviews and Commentaries for Blue

This commentary was written in 2006 or thereabouts.

I must tell you about a Blue shootout I tried to do at a friend’s house. The system he owns has some nice equipment in it (the EAR 864, a $4200 tube preamp, for one) and can sound very good — if not wonderful — on certain program material.

But it’s the kind of audiophile system that is easily overwhelmed by difficult to reproduce material. On my copy of Blue his stereo was a complete disaster: grainy, shrill, thin, flat, harsh, compressed, unmusical, no real extension at either end; in short, no magic, tubey or otherwise.

My copy of Blue, which had earlier in the day sounded so good at my house, now sounded so bad at his that I could hardly recognize it as the same LP.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Of course it was the same LP, and by the time I got home the pieces of the puzzle had all fallen into place. It takes a very special stereo to overcome the shortcomings of even the best domestic pressings of Blue in order to reveal the beauty of this music.

The new one isn’t better. It’s just easier to play on the average audiophile system.

Do you have one of those? Most audiophiles do; that’s what being average means. If you’ve been in this hobby for less than five years it’s almost certain you do. I would say a decade of serious dedication to home audio would be the minimum needed to acquire the knowledge and skill to build a truly hi-fidelity system.

Figure twenty grand minimum as a budget.

It can be done for less but only if you have the skills to make it work, and those skills are hard to come by. They can’t be bought, which is why so many megabuck systems sound so unbelievably bad.

And if you’ve only budgeted a modest amount of money toward your system, it stands to reason that you’ve probably only budgeted a modest amount of time and effort into improving the quality of its playback.

In 2005 We Gave Up

Hey, I’m living proof of how hard it is. In 2005 I gave up on Blue, remember? You can read about it here.

I didn’t have the equipment or the room I would have needed to crack that nut. That was in 2005, but it was before we had our EAR 324P (acquired in 2007), before we had discovered the Walker Record Cleaning System (2007, again), before we had all of our room treatments, and before we had made about fifty other changes to the system.

Here I was playing records all day every day, tweaking my stereo like crazy, trying all kinds of new equipment all the time, and even I found it hard to make much headway with Blue.

So don’t feel bad if your copy of Blue on domestic vinyl sounds terrible at your house. It sounds terrible almost everywhere. It used to sound terrible here. Most copies aren’t any good to begin with, and most stereos aren’t up to playing the few copies that are any good. Our stereo can play Blue beautifully now, but it took a lot of effort and a fair amount of money.

And now the new version sound positively sick in comparison.

So-Called Great Stereos

Audiophiles generally think they have great sounding stereos. I haven’t met too many that didn’t.

But most of these so-called great sounding stereos utterly fall apart when confronted with Difficult to Reproduce material played at anything above a whisper. Those are precisely the kind of albums we love to crank up good and loud here at Better Records, albums like Ambrosia, Fragile, Sticky Fingers, and on and on.

Got a Tough Nut like Blue? We say bring it on.

If your stereo is up to it, a good domestic copy of Blue will kill the new 180 gram reissue.

Donald Fagen / The Nightfly

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

  • With two outstanding sides, this early pressing is guaranteed to be a huge improvement over anything you’ve heard
  • Punchy and high-resolution, check out the cymbals and muted guitar on “I.G.Y.” — they sound Right On The Money here
  • The sound may be too heavily processed and glossy for some, but we find that on the best copies that sound works about as well as any for this album
  • 4 1/2 stars: “A portrait of the artist as a young man, The Nightfly is a wonderfully evocative reminiscence of Kennedy-era American life; in the liner notes, Donald Fagen describes the songs as representative of the kinds of fantasies he entertained as an adolescent during the late ’50s/early ’60s, and he conveys the tenor of the times with some of his most personal and least obtuse material to date.”

Energetic and present, this copy is on a completely different level than most pressings. We just finished a big shootout for Donald Fagen’s solo effort from 1982 (just two years after Gaucho and the end of Steely Dan) and we gotta tell you, there are a lot of weak-sounding copies out there. We should know; we played them.

We’ve been picking copies up for more than a year in the hopes that we’d have some killer Hot Stamper copies to offer, but most of them left us cold. Flat, edgy and bright, like a bad copy of Graceland, only a fraction had the kind of magic we find on the better Steely Dan albums.

Both sides here are incredibly clear and high-rez compared to most pressings, with none of the veiled, smeary quality we hear so often. The vocals are breathy, the bass is clear and the whole thing is open and spacious.

How Analog Is It?

The ones we like the best will tend to be the ones that sound the most Analog. The more they sound like the average pressing — in other words, the more CD-like they sound — the lower the sonic grade. Many will not have even one Hot Stamper side and will end up in the trade-in pile.

The best copies sound the way the best copies of most Classic Rock records sound: tonally correct, rich, clear, sweet, smooth, open, present, lively, big, spacious, Tubey Magical, with breathy vocals and little to no spit, grit, grain or grunge.

That’s the sound of analog, and the best copies of The Nightfly have that sound.


Ry Cooder – A Great Recording of Stringed Instruments

More of the Music of Ry Cooder

Hot Stamper Pressings of Roots Rock Albums Available Now

Much like our best copies of Jazz, this pressing really conveys the live-in-the-studio performance qualities of the music. This is a tight ensemble working at the top of their game, no surprise there; Ry surrounds himself with nothing but the best.

Absolutely crucial to this album is the sound of the various stringed instruments. Over the course of the two sides you’ll be treated to many different styles of guitar — electric, slack-key, Hawaiian, bottleneck, steel, and acoustic — plus mandolin, mandola, tiple, and more. You’ll need an open and spacious copy with superb transparency and clarity to fully appreciate the lovely and unusual sounds of these instruments.

Like we’ve said about Ry Cooder’s Jazz, rounding up a panoply of relatively exotic instruments for an album doesn’t make it especially noteworthy. Thankfully, it’s obvious that Ry Cooder’s up to a lot more than that. Using an ensemble of seriously talented musicians, as well as studio engineers who really understand how to capture these instruments, Cooder again succeeds in giving the audiophile public a full course spread of lovely and uncommon sounds.

What to Listen For

What typically separates the killer copies from the merely good ones are three qualities that we often look for in the records we play: transparency, speed, and lack of smear.

Transparency allows you to hear into the recording, reproducing the ambience and subtle musical cues and details that high-resolution analog is known for.

Note that most Heavy Vinyl pressings being produced these days seem to be quite Transparency Challenged. Lots of important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate regular pressings — is simply nowhere to be found.

Lack of smear is also important, especially on a recording with so many plucked instruments. The speed and clarity of the transients, the sense that fingers are pulling on strings, strings that are ringing with tonally correct harmonics, is what makes these Ry Cooder records so much fun to play.

The best copies really get that sound right, in the same way that the best copies of Cat Stevens’ records get the sound of stringed instruments right.

No two pieces of electronics will get this record to sound the same, and some will fail miserably. If vintage tube gear is your idea of good sound, this record may help you to better understand where its shortcomings lie.

These Are Some of the Qualities We’re Listening For in Our Ry Cooder Shootouts

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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Reviews and Commentaries for Blue

  • For the first time this year, we here present a killer copy of Blue, with superb sound and reasonably quiet vinyl
  • With two Double Plus (A++) or BETTER sides, we guarantee you’ve never heard Joni’s 1971 masterpiece sound this good
  • Full-bodied and balanced with the kind of smooth musicality that’s not always easy to find for Blue
  • A Better Records Top 100 title that belongs in any audiophile music collection worthy of the name
  • 5 stars: “Sad, spare, and beautiful, Blue is the quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album. Forthright and poetic, Joni Mitchell’s songs are raw nerves, tales of love and loss (two words with relative meaning here) etched with stunning complexity…”
  • Everything changed for us in 2007 with the release of the Hoffman/Gray-mastered Rhino pressing of Blue, a record that made us ask ourselves, “Why are we selling records that we would not want to own or listen to ourselves?”
  • It was truly a kicked-in-the-head-by-a-mule moment for all of us here at Better Records, and I am glad to say one kick was all it took to get the rocks out of my head

The best copies bring out the breathy quality to Joni’s voice, and she never sounds strained. They are sweet and open, with good bass foundation and transparency throughout the frequency range.

The best pressings (and our better playback equipment) have revealed nuances to this recording — and of course the performances of all the players along with it — that made us fall in love with the music all over again. Of all the tough nuts to crack, this was the toughest, yet somehow copies emerged from our shootouts that made it easy to appreciate the sonic merits of Blue and ignore its shortcomings.

Hot Stampers have a way of doing that. You forget it’s a record; it’s now just Music. The right record and the right playback will bring this music to life in a way that you cannot imagine until you hear it. That is our guarantee on Blue — better than you ever thought possible or your money back.


Ry Cooder – Into the Purple Valley

More Ry Cooder

  • A vintage Reprise pressing of Ry Cooder’s 1972 release boasting KILLER Tubey Magical Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) Master Tape sound or close to it on both sides – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Side two was Tonally Right On The Money from top to bottom and from start to finish – it’s got the kind of presence and energy needed to bring these old songs to life
  • All of the elements you could ask for from this kind of music are here: superb clarity; amazing richness and warmth; serious energy and immediacy; texture to the vocals and so on
  • It’s pretty cool to hear these old Dust Bowl-era numbers by greats like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly performed by top musicians and recorded on quality equipment by one of the All Time Great engineers, Lee Herschberg
  • 4 1/2 stars: “‘Phenomenal’ is the descriptive word to describe his playing, whether it is on guitar, Hawaiian ‘slack key’ guitar, mandolin, or the more arcane instruments he has found. This is a must for those who love instrumental virtuosity, authentic reworkings of an era, or just plain good music.”
  • If you’re a Ry Cooder fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1972 is clearly one of his best, and one of his best sounding

We’ve become pretty big Ry Cooder fans here at Better Records, and an amazing pressing like this one will show you exactly why. We played a big stack of these this week, and you’re going to have a very difficult time finding a copy that can keep up with this one!

Most of the copies we played were overly clean sounding, lacking in the richness and warmth that are critical to the enjoyment of top quality analog. Not this one though — it’s got plenty of Tubey Magic, with the kind of sound that keeps guys like you and me digging in bins and spinning dusty old records instead of going digital.

There’s A Good Reason Audiophiles Love Ry

Ry’s music holds special appeal to us audiophiles, as he’s always throwing instruments into the mix that you hardly ever hear on your standard rock album. I wish I could tell you everything he plays on this album, but I’d just be guessing if I tried. (Wikipedia credits him for guitar, bass, and mandolin, but I’d bet my bottom dollar there’s more to it than that.)

This I can tell you — when the man picks up an instrument, he can sure play the heck out of it, and it’s an audiophile’s treat to hear how naturally he incorporates these sounds into his songs.

I’m not personally familiar with Fitz Maclean’s original version of “F.D.R. In Trinidad,” but I can’t imagine there’s a recording of it that sounds nearly as good as Ry’s version here.


Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms

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Reviews and Commentaries for Brothers in Arms

  • A vintage pressing that was doing just about everything right, with both sides earning seriously good Double Plus (A++) grades – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Tonally correct from start to finish, with a solid bottom and fairly natural vocals (for this particular recording of course), HERE is the sound they were going for in the studio
  • After doing a comparison between our top copy and the Chris Bellman 45 RPM remaster, at very loud levels mind you, I now have much more respect for this recording than ever before – it’s truly a Demo Disc on the right Robert-Ludwig-mastered copy
  • Drop the needle on “So Far Away” – it’s airy, open, and spacious, yet still rich and full-bodied
  • 4 stars: “One of their most focused and accomplished albums … Dire Straits had never been so concise or pop-oriented, and it wore well on them.”
  • We admit that the sound may be too processed and lacking in Tubey Magic for some
  • When it comes to Tubey Magic, there simply is none — that’s not the sound Neil Dorfsman, the engineer who won the Grammy for this very album, was going for
  • We find that the best properly-mastered, properly-pressed copies, when playing at good loud levels on our system, gave us sound that was wall to wall, floor to ceiling, glorious, powerful and exciting, just not Tubey Magical

Fully extended from top to bottom with a wide-open soundstage, this is the sound you need for this music. There’s plenty of richness and fullness here as well — traits that are really crucial to getting the most out of a mid-’80s recording like this.

The bottom end on “So Far Away” really delivers the goods — it’s punchy and meaty with healthy amounts of tight, deep bass.


Seals & Crofts’ Folky Rock – What to Listen For

More of the Music of Seals and Crofts

Hot Stamper Pressings of Folk Rock Albums Available Now

In our recent shootout, all our best copies had very similar numbers and letters in the dead wax, which doesn’t happen all that often but does from time to time.

This album does not have a single set of stampers that always win, but it does have a set of very similar stampers that always win. All of the best stampers can only be found on the Green Label original pressings, if that’s any help.

What We’re Listening For On Summer Breeze

Here are some of the things we specifically listen for in a vintage Folk Rock record. Our hottest Hot Stamper copies are simply doing more of these things better than the other copies we played in our shootout. The best copies have:

  • Greater immediacy in the vocals (most copies are veiled and distant to some degree).
  • Natural tonal balance (many copies are at least slightly brighter or darker than ideal; those with the right balance are the exception, not the rule).
  • Good solid weight (so the bass sounds full and powerful).
  • Spaciousness (the best copies have wonderful studio ambience and space).
  • Tubey Magic (without which you might as well be playing a CD).
  • And last but not least, transparency, the quality of being able to see into the studio, where there is plenty of musical information to be revealed in this sometimes simple, sometimes complex and sophisticated recording.

Further Reading

If you would like to run your own tests on the Folk Rock records you own, we make that easy. Here are some other titles that are good for testing these qualities, many with specific advice on what to listen for.