Labels With Shortcomings – Speakers Corner – Rock, Pop, Vocals, etc.

Stevie Wonder on Heavy Vinyl – Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

More of the Music of Stevie Wonder

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

This commentary was written more than ten years ago. I’ve just gone to this reviewer’s website to make sure the quote below is accurate, and everything you need to see is still up and as misguided as ever.

Some audiophiles never learn, and a great deal of this blog is devoted to helping audiophiles avoid the errors this reviewer and others like him have been making for decades. In the mid-90s I wrote my first commentary about the awful audiophile records this person had raved about in a review printed in one of the audiophile rags. In the years since it seems that nothing has changed. Bad sounding audiophile pressings make up the bulk of this person’s favorable reviews to this day.

How it is possible to spend so much time doing something yet learn so little in the process? It is frankly beyond me.

I put the question to you again:

Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

How on Earth could anyone possibly know such a thing?

Some background. Years ago our first Hot Stamper shootout for Songs in the Key of Life had us enthusiastically singing its praises:

HOT STAMPERS DISCOVERED for one of the funkiest and most consistent double albums of all time! It’s beyond difficult to find great sounding Stevie Wonder vinyl, but here’s a copy that proves it’s possible if you try hard enough. So many copies are terrible in so many different ways — we should know, we played them. And just to be clear, this copy is far from perfect as well, but it did more things right in more places than we ever expected it would or could. And that means it showed us a great sounding Stevie Wonder record we never knew existed.

But a well known reviewer says it’s a bad recording. Does he know something we don’t?

Not exactly. The fact is he doesn’t know something we do, something he, like anybody else, could have found out had he simply done more homework than he was willing to do. (We call them shootouts, but homework is certainly a serviceable and in some ways even more accurate description: it’s work and you do it at home.)

All it takes is one good copy to falsify the assertion this fellow makes. We in fact found more than one. But I’m quite sure we do things very differently at Better Records than they do at any reviewer’s digs, including this reviewer’s basement lair.

As you may know, a few years back he got in a bit of a dust-up over his initially negative review (since revised, a story in itself) of the Speakers Corner pressing of the album. We found it refreshing for this reviewer to be making critical comments about an in-print heavy vinyl reissue, but he eventually warmed somewhat to the sound of the record after hearing from the mastering engineer. We honestly don’t care all that much about any of it, but we couldn’t help but notice this paragraph in his review:

As with many productions of the era, there was a noticeable decrease in sound quality on this album compared to earlier Wonder releases, though no doubt the engineers thought they were making better sound here with “more”: more compression, more use of effects, more tracks and newer, more complex boards, but what was really happening was less transparency, diminished dynamics, narrower and flatter soundstages and especially less extension. This production sounds closed in, distant and listless. Bass lacks real thrust and extension and there’s little shimmer from the cymbals. “Boxy” is the operative adjective.

Really? I wonder how many different pressings this fellow evaluated before reaching his conclusions. He certainly couldn’t have heard one that sounded like the one we played. All four sides were transparent and dynamic, and I’d certainly never characterize any of them as flat, distant, listless or closed in.

And boxy? Not a chance. And we certainly have no trouble recognizing boxy sound when we hear it.

I will concede that many copies of this record would benefit from more extension up top, but that still leaves this person with a batting average low enough to have him surfing the pine on just about any softball team he cared to join.

Our Hot Stamper Copy From Way Back Proves It

Sides one and four both earned very good grades. The sound is richer, sweeter, and fuller than what we heard elsewhere. Many copies we played had a phony hi-fi quality that drove us crazy, but the sound here is exceedingly natural. We also heard a ton of copies that added a nasty bite to Stevie’s vocal; I’m pleased to say that’s not an issue here. Both of these sides are positively brimming with energy, so don’t let anyone tell you that the production is listless. It might sound that way on a typical copy, but not even close on this one.

Sides two and three are darn good as well. Side two could stand to be a bit more open and side three could use a little more top end, but they’re still miles ahead of the sound on most copies out there.

Both sides have excellent presence and lovely texture to the vocals.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stampers

This reviewer and anyone else who thinks this is not a well-recorded album is making one or more of the following mistakes:

1.) Not playing enough copies to find a good one.
2.) Not cleaning the copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.
3.) Not playing them back properly.
4.) Not listening to them critically.

To find and appreciate Hot Stampers you have to do all four. We discuss each and every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this very site. None of this should come as news to anyone by now.

If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the small number of pressings you might have at your disposal, but the actual recording that they are made from — you have to do your homework, and you have to do it much more thoroughly than most audiophiles (including the one quoted) seem to think is necessary.

Wrong? Welcome to the Club

He keeps coming up with the wrong answer, but so would we if we couldn’t find enough copies, clean them right, play them right, or listen critically to them on an accurate, highly-resolving stereo.

And here’s how we know that the above statement is true. 

We used to not do it this way, and we were pretty much in agreement with this fellow about the sound of the album.

We would have described the sound using terms not that different from the ones he used.

Through most of the 80s and 90s, I too was a one-man band, and I was wrong about a great many recordings, for reasons blindingly obvious to me now.

I simply did not have the resources to clean and play enough copies of a given album to make accurate judgments about their sound. Small sample sizes dramatically increase the probability of a misjudgment being made, especially when you are working with sample sizes of one or two. You need five copies at a minimum, and ten is better.

And that assumes you are playing copies with potential for top quality sound, which on this title would mean no Japanese pressings, no imports from other countries, and no later reissues. None of those would ever have a chance of winning a shootout.

So you would need to plan on having five or ten good vintage pressings to clean and play. (67, however, is way too many. Three days is a long time to play the same album, no matter how good an album it is.)

How It Used to Be

It’s an open question as to whether we could have played Songs in the Key of Life properly ten years ago. I have my doubts. But the good news in audio is that things change. It’s amazing how many records that used to sound bad now sound pretty darn good. The blog is full of commentaries about them. Every one of them is proof that comments about recordings are of limited value.

The recordings don’t change. Our ability to find, clean and play the pressings made from them does, and that’s what the Hot Stamper Revolution is all about.

You have a choice. You can choose to go with this reviewer’s approach, which is in fact the approach that most audiophiles tend to use. Then it’s simply a matter of accepting that many “recordings” don’t live up to your standards. Prepare to allot a fair amount of time to complaining about such an unfortunate state of affairs.

Follow Us

Or you can follow our approach and hear those very same albums sound much better than you ever thought possible. This has the added benefit of freeing up time that would normally be spent bitching about the bad sound of some album, which in turn makes more time available for pleasurable listening to the actual record you got from us.

You also probably won’t feel the need to go on audiophile forums to argue the merits of this or that pressing. You will already own the pressing that settles the argument.

Keep in mind that your pressing only settles the argument for you; nobody else will believe it. And why should they? They have never heard your copy. It would take quite a leap of faith to believe that your copy sounds so much better than the one they own, when the one they own looks just like it. But this is precisely what Hot Stampers are all about. Records may look the same but if your equipment is any good they sure don’t sound the same.

What We Offer

Unfortunately we can’t do it all for you. Most of what is important in audio you have to learn to do for yourself. We can find you the best sounding pressings; that’s the easy part. Figuring out how to play them, and learning how to critically listen to them, well, that’s a fair bit harder. That part takes a lifetime. At least.

This hobby is supposed to be fun; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But if you enjoy doing it at least some of the time, and you make a good effort, and devote the proper resources to it, you will no doubt take enormous pleasure from it.

You won’t be bitching about the sound of Songs in the Key of Life like most audiophiles and those who write for them. You will instead be enjoying the sound of Songs in the Key of Life like those of us here at Better Records.

And One More Thing

Speakers Corner says they make all their records from original master tapes. No one should believe them without proof, especially since proof would be so easy to supply. Put a picture of the master tape boxes on your website for all to see. When they show you those pictures, then you can believe it. Until then I would be highly skeptical. Labels lie about these things all the time, and I see no reason to believe Speakers Corner is any more careful with the truth than the other companies producing reissues.


If You Can’t Make a Good Record, Why Make Any Record At All?

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Can’t Buy A Thrill

This has to be one of the worst sounding versions ever pressed.

You think the average ABC or MCA pressing is opaque, flat and lifeless, not to mention compromised at both ends of the frequency spectrum?

You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

As bad as the typical copy of this album is, the Speakers Corner Heavy Vinyl is even worse, with not a single redeeming quality to its credit.

If this is what passes for an Audiophile Record these days, and it is, it’s just one more nail in the coffin for Heavy Vinyl.

But that’s not the half of it.

Go to Acoustic Sounds’ website and read all the positive customer reviews — they love it! Is there any heavy vinyl pressing on the planet that a sizable contingent of audiophiles won’t say something nice about, no matter how bad it sounds? I can’t think of one.

To sum up, this record is nothing less than an affront to analog itself. I guarantee you the CD is better, if you get a good one. I own four or five and the best of them has far more musical energy than this thick, dull, opaque and boring piece of audiophile analog trash.

It was probably made from a digital copy of the master, or more likely a digital copy of an analog dub of the master — three generations, that’s sure what it sounds like — but that’s no excuse.

If you can’t make a good record, don’t make any record at all. Shelve the project. The audiophile vinyl world is drowning in bad sounding pressings; we don’t need any more, thank you very much.

Sarah Vaughan / Sassy on Speakers Corner Vinyl

Hot Stamper Pressings of Pop and Jazz Vocal Albums Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Sarah Vaughan

Sonic Grade: F

An Audiophile Hall of Shame pressing, recorded in 1956 and remastered, badly, in 1999.

The Speakers Corner version of this record is awful. It’s bright and GRAINY.

If you want a good Sarah Vaughan record, try the album just called Sarah Vaughan that Speakers Corner put out in 2004. 

Sergio Mendes / Look Around – The Speakers Corner Pressing Had Us Fooled

More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Sonic Grade: C

We were very impressed with the Speakers Corner pressing of this album when it came out on Heavy Vinyl in 2001. We simply could not find a vintage pressing that could beat it. I actually took it over to a good customer’s house so that he could hear how much better the album sounded on Heavy Vinyl when played head to head with whatever vintage pressing he might have.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I Could Not Have Been More Wrong. His copy smoked mine right from the get-go. I wiped the egg off my face, wrote down the stamper numbers for his copy, and proceeded to get hold of some good early pressings so that I could hear the album sound as good as his copy did.

Eventually — eventually in this case being at least five years and maybe more —  we felt we had this album’s number and knew which pressings tended to have the goods and which ones didn’t. All that was left was to do the shootout so that we could actually be sure, or sure enough, keeping in mind that all knowledge about records is provisional.

The Speakers Corner pressing is decent, not bad, but by no stretch of the imagination would it ever be able to compete with any Hot Stamper pressing found on our site.

Most pressings of this album are grainy, shrill, thin, veiled, smeary and full of compressor distortion in the louder parts.

This is hardly a recipe for audiophile listening pleasure.

But there are good sounding pressings. You must have to work to find them.


Child Is Father to the Man on Speakers Corner – What The Hell Were They Thinking?

More of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Blood, Sweat and Tears

Sonic Grade: F

An Audiophile Hall of Shame pressing and a Heavy Vinyl Disaster if there ever was one (and oh yes, there are plenty).

When this record came out back in 2007, we auditioned one and were dumbfounded at the quality of the sound. We noted:

This is the worst sounding Heavy Vinyl Reissue LP I have heard in longer than I can remember.

To make a record sound this bad you have to work at it. What the hell were they thinking?

Any audiophile record dealer that would sell you this record should be run out of town on a rail.

Of course that will never happen, because every last one of them (present company excluded) will carry it, of that you can be sure.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, out comes a record like this to prove that no matter how negative you are about the quality of audiophile record production these days, things can always get worse, and they have.

Is it the worst version of the album ever made? Hard to imagine it would have much competition in that regard.


Two Reviews of Child Is Father to the Man – Fremer Vs. Better Records

More of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Audiophile Reviewers – Who Needs ‘Em!

In 2010 MF reviewed both the Sundazed and Speakers Corner Heavy Vinyl pressings of the album.

I think his review is mistaken on a number of counts, and mostly unhelpful. The commentary below will discuss his errors in detail, in the hopes that you, dear reader, will not make the same mistakes yourself. 

He talks about his history with the album for a while, and then notes:

Anyway, the original “360 Sound” edition of this record sounds fantastic. It’s a high quality Columbia studio recording, with vivid harmonics, impressive transparency and dynamics, shimmering highs and tight extended bass. The soundstage is expansive and the images tightly presented. I’m not sure it can get much better than the original given how well-pressed Columbia records were in those days, especially if you have a clean original.

We, however, seem to hold precisely the opposite view. I quote from our review:

Why did it take us so long [to do a Hot Stamper shootout]? Let me ask you this: have you ever played this album? The average copy of this record is a sonic MESS. Even the best copies have problems.

We then go on to discuss in detail what most copies do wrong and what to listen for in order to find a copy that gets it right. (More on that later.)

Shortcomings? What Shortcomings?

Fremer continues:

There are two reissues of this. One is from Sundazed and there’s a far more expensive one from Speakers Corner…

The Speakers Corner reissue, which uses the wrong label art is pressed at Pallas and consequently it’s quieter and better finished overall. However, the Sundazed copy I got was very well finished and reasonably quiet, but not as quiet.

On the other hand the Speakers Corner version was somewhat more hyped up at the frequency extremes and cut somewhat hotter, but not objectionably so. The Sundazed sounds somewhat closer to the original overall, so for half the price, you do the math!

“Somewhat hyped up”? We liked it a whole lot less than Mr. Fremer apparently did. Early last year I gave it a big fat F for failure, writing at the time:

This is the worst sounding Heavy Vinyl Reissue LP I have heard in longer than I can remember. To make a record sound this bad you have to work at it.

What the hell were they thinking? Any audiophile record dealer that would sell you this record should be run out of town on a rail. Of course that won’t happen, because every last one of them (present company excluded) will be carrying it, of that you can be sure.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, out comes a record like this to prove that it can. I look forward to Fremer’s rave review.


Ella Fitzgerald & Count Basie – An Import in 2004 Killed the Speakers Corner Reissue

More of the Music of Count Basie

More of the Music of Ella Fitzgerald

And back in 2004 that actually surprised us!

This review was written in 2004. We had never heard a clean, domestic original copy up to that time, mostly because they were always in such poor condition. Eventually we did, figured out how to clean it, and never looked back.

You might consider this a Wake Up Call. By 2007 we were awake enough to stop buying Heavy Vinyl to sell. The better our system became, the less competitive those modern remasters sounded. It was yet another Milestone Event in the history of Better Records. Please to enjoy our commentary.

This early British import (similar to the one you see on the left) KILLS the Speakers Corner 180 gram reissue.

I still like their version, but this is what it should have sounded like: tonally much fuller and richer. The 180 gram copy suffers from the standard reissue MO — brighter is not necessarily better, and definitely not when you have a big band and a vocalist, as is the case here.

I’ve never heard this album sound better and I doubt that it really can sound much better than this. This copy makes me want to turn it up as loud as the stereo will go and let those wonderful Quincy Jones arrangements come to life. (more…)

Joe Cocker – With a Little Help From My Friends on Speakers Corner

More of the Music of Joe Cocker

Sonic Grade: B

One of the better Speakers Corner Rock and Pop releases. We haven’t played a copy of this record in years, but back in the day we liked it, so let’s call it a “B” with the caveat that the older the review, the more likely we are to have changed our minds. Not sure if we would still agree with what we wrote back in the ’90s when this record came out, but here it is anyway.

“Speakers corner knocks one out of the park with this wonderful reissue! Those conga drums and the back-up singers sound so much better than I remember them! If you’re going to own one Joe Cocker album make it this one. It’s a man-size serving of English Soul.”

Elvis Presley – Good Sounding on Speakers Corner Heavy Vinyl?

More of the Music of Elvis Presley

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Elvis Presley

Speakers Corner did this album in 2003. I liked it and recommended it at the time.

I rather doubt I would care for it these days. I have much less tolerance now than I did back then for the vague imaging, lack of ambience and overall lifeless quality their records invariably suffer from.

Of the handful of Elvis albums to ever make it to the site, this is clearly the critics’ favorite, and one listen will tell you why. This is the album that single-handedly revived Elvis’ fortunes, setting the stage for his record-breaking series of shows in Las Vegas doing pretty much the type of music he had recorded for it. The next year he would go on tour for the first time since 1957(!).

Other Pressings

As you can imagine, this album changed everything for Elvis. I first heard it the way I heard so many albums back in the late ’70s and early ’80s: on the Mobile Fidelity pressing. I was an audiophile record collector in 1981 and if MoFi was impressed enough with the sound and the music to remaster the album and offer it to their dedicated fans, of which I was clearly one, then who was I to say no to music I had never heard?

Soon enough I would learn my lesson about MoFi’s A&R department. The MoFi release of Supersax Plays Bird, a record that had virtually nothing going for it, was the last time I would ever put much stock in their opinion again. It’s audiophile collector BS, a record that might have been played once or twice and then quickly filed (numerically!) with other Mobile Fidelity records to complete the series. What will these audiophile labels do if big pharma ever comes up with a cure for obsessive/compulsive disorders, the kind that cause collectors to have to complete their collections?

As it turns out, they did a pretty good job on the Elvis album, not that I would have any way to know — back then it would not even have occurred to me to buy a standard RCA pressing and compare it to my half-speed-mastered, pressed-in-Japan, double-the-price-of-a-regular disc LP.

A decade or thereabouts later it would be obvious to me that MoFi had fooled around with the sound and that the right (heavy accent on the word “right”) real RCA pressing would be more correct and more natural (but probably not as quiet of course, but advances in cleaning technology fixed most of that and left MoFi in the dust).


Sergio Mendes / Look Around – Speakers Corner Reviewed

More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

A textbook case of Live and Learn.

Sonic Grade: C

We were fairly impressed with the Speakers Corner pressing of this album when it came out on Heavy Vinyl in 2001.

Since then we have learned a thing or two. Their version is decent, not bad, but by no stretch of the imagination can it compete with any Hot Stamper pressing found on our site.

As you may have noticed, we here at Better Records are HUGE Sergio Mendes fans. Nowhere else in the world of music can you find the wonderfully diverse thrills that this group offers. We go CRAZY for the breathy multi-tracked female vocals and their layers of harmonies, the brilliant percussion, and, let us never forget, the critically important piano work and arrangements of Sergio himself. (more…)