Listening in General

Maybe the Best Sounding Album Emerick Ever Recorded

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Bridge of Sighs

We’ve been wandering around in the dark for more than a decade with Bridge of Sighs — that is, until we found a clean early UK Chrysalis pressing. Now we know just how good this album can sound, and that means ASTOUNDINGLY good. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any Geoff Emerick album that sounds as big and clear as this one. The three dimensional space is really something else on the better UK copies.

There is a substantial amount of Tubey Magic and liquidity on the tape, recalling the kind of hi-rez vintage analog sound that makes the luminous A Space in Time such a mind-expanding experience. Recorded a few years earlier, both albums have the kind of High Production Value sound that we go crazy for here at Better Records. You can find many of our favorites in our Rock and Pop Top 100, and if we can find more of this title, it will surely be on the list as well.

No domestic pressing could touch our better British imports I’m sorry to say, and I’m sorry to say it because finding the right Brit copies in good condition is going to be a very expensive proposition going forward. I expect I shall be paying much too much to get a fairly high percentage of noisy, heavily played old records shipped to me. But that’s the business we’re in.

Fortunately for our Rock Guitar loving customers, when the sound and the music are this good, it’s more than worth all the effort and expense.

Size and Space

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center. (more…)

Is The Pink Label The Hot Ticket?

Yet another album we are clearly obsessed with

Click on the link below to pull up the many reviews and commentaries we’ve written, as well as Hot Stamper copies that are currently available on the site.

Stand Up

 

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Well, it certainly can be, but sometimes it isn’t, and failing to appreciate that possibility is a classic case of misundertanding a crucially important fact or two about records. Audiophile analog devotees would do well to keep these facts in mind, especially considering the prices original British pressings are fetching these days.

Simply put: Since no two records sound alike, it follow that the right label doesn’t guarantee the right sound. A recent shootout illustrated both of these truths.

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Dire Straits – Piano and Snare

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

Telegraph Road does something on this copy that you won’t hear on one out of twenty pressings: It ROCKS. It’s got ENERGY and DRIVE.

Listen to how hard Allan Clark bangs on the piano on side one — he’s pounding that piano with all his might. No other copy managed to get the piano to pop the way it does here, clear and solid. Wow, who knew? Maybe this is the reason HP put the record on the TAS Super Disc List. (I rather doubt he’s ever heard a copy this good but who’s to say?)

More Dire Straits

Best test for side two?

The snare drum on Industrial Disease. Play five copies of the album and listen for how much snap there is to the snare on each of them. It will be obvious which ones get the transient attack right and which ones don’t. (If none of them do try five more copies!)

One Way To Know

This modern album (1982) can sound surprisingly good on the right pressing. On most copies the highs are grainy and harsh, not exactly the kind of sound that inspires you to turn your system up good and loud and get really involved in the music. I’m happy to report that both sides here have no such problem – they rock and they sound great loud.

We pick up every clean copy we see of this album, domestic or import, because we know from experience just how good the best pressings can sound. What do the best copies have? REAL dynamics for one. And with those dynamics you need rock solid bass. Otherwise the loud portions simply become irritating. A lack of grain is always nice — many of the pressings we played were gritty or grainy. Other copies that were quite good in most ways lacked immediacy and we took serious points off for that.

The best copies of Love Over Gold are far more natural than the average pressing you might come across, and that’s a recognizable quality we can listen for and weight in our grading accordingly. It’s essential to the sound of the better pressings, which means in our shootouts it’s worth a lot of points. Otherwise you might as well be playing the CD.

If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in their presence in the studio, this is the record for you. If you exclusively play modern repressings of original recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but new records do not, practically not ever.

What is lost in these newly remastered recordings? Lots of things, but the most obvious and bothersome is TRANSPARENCY.

Modern records are just so damn opaque. We can’t stand that sound. It drives us crazy. Important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate regular pressings — is simply nowhere to be found. That audiophiles as a group — including those that pass themselves off as champions of analog in the audio press — do not notice these failings does not speak well for either their equipment or their critical listening skills.

It is our contention that no one alive today is capable of making records that sound as good as the vintage ones we sell.

Once you hear this Hot Stamper pressing, those 180 gram records you own may never sound right to you again. They sure don’t sound right to us, but we are in the enviable position of being able to play the best properly-cleaned older pressings (reissues included) side by side with the newer ones. This allows the faults of the current reissues to become much more recognizable, to the point of actually being quite obvious. When you can hear the different pressings that way, head to head, there really is no comparison.


Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below.

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.

Frank Zappa Big Band Jazz Fusion Masterpiece

Waka/Jawaka

 

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  • This copy is an absolute KNOCKOUT, with Triple Plus (A+++) sound on both sides
  • A Top 100 Title, and deservedly so: the sound is HUGE – big, rich, punchy, lively and clear
  • The size and power of a big band, Zappa style, with White Hot Stamper sound? There is (almost*) nothing like it
  • Rolling Stone raved that it’s “…some of the best material he’s done in years.”

See all of our Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention albums in stock

(*Other than The Grand Wazoo, which can have sound every bit as good but is not the equal of Waka/Jawaka musically.)

What an incredible album. I know of no other music like it in the world. It’s not big band, it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s a unique amalgamation of all three with an overlay of some of Zappa’s idiosyncratic compositional predilections (say that three times fast) thrown in for good measure.

In our opinion it’s nothing less than Zappa’s MASTERPIECE, the summation of his talents, and a record that belongs in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection. (We say that about a lot of records audiophiles don’t know well, but we’ve been doing it for most of our 27 years in this business and don’t see much reason to stop now.)

The Secret

Most copies, especially the WB brown label reissues, are dull and smeary with not much in the way of top end extension, failing pretty miserably at getting this music to come to life. This copy gets as much of what we like about the sound to actually come through the speakers as any copy we have ever played, and that makes it a very special copy indeed.

Not long ago we discovered the secret to separating the men from the boys on side one. On the lively, punchy, dynamic copies — which are of course the best ones — you can follow the drumming at the beginning of ‘Big Swifty’ note for note: every beat, every kick of the kick drum, every fill, every roll — it’s all there to be heard and appreciated. If that track on this copy doesn’t make you a huge fan of Aynsley Dunbar, I can’t imagine what would. The guy had a gift.

Big Swifty!

The 17-plus-minute-long Big Swifty is a suite in which each section slowly, almost imperceptibly blends into the next, so that you find yourself in a completely new and different section without knowing how you got there — that is, until you go back and play the album and listen for just those transistions, which is what makes it worth playing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.

Big Swifty is a jazz suite with amazingly innovative work by Sal Marquez on trumpet. He single-handedly turns this music into a work of GENIUS. I can’t imagine a more talented player. Zappa on guitar is excellent as well. Aynsley Dunbar plays his ass off, only falling short when it comes time to do his drum solo on Waka/Jawaka. The interplay of each of these rock musicians is in the tradition of great jazz artists.

And since the drumming throughout this record is so crucial to the music itself, a copy that really gets that right is one that gets everything right.

A Desert Island Disc

What more can I say? If you love Zappa you need this record. If you want to expand your musical horizons and hear big band like you’ve never heard it before, this is the record for you. I’ve listened to this album literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. It gets better every time I play it.

Blue Labels and Reissues

By the way, the Blue Label originals are quite a bit better than the later Warner Brother reissues. I would avoid any reissues for Zappa’s albums; we’ve never heard a good one. And that includes the Classic Records reissue of Hot Rats.

Good Records, Bad Records

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The only copy of this album that we’ve ever played was awful sounding. Do they all sound as bad as this copy? Surely not, but are any of them better than mediocre? It’s impossible to know. Are we going to buy another? Probably not.

Here’s Saint-Saens / Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”) on an outstanding pressing:
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If we have one on the site it can be found here:

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

The legendary Stuart Eltham engineered this recording for EMI in 1973. You may know his work better from a longtime audiophile TAS List favorite, Massenet’s Le Cid (1971), again with Fremaux conducting the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

I had the opportunity to hear the work performed by a university orchestra (California Lutheran Symphony) years back and enjoyed it immensely. I was sitting about ten feet from the woodwind section; it’s a glorious sound from that close, I can tell you that.

Of course no pair of stereo speakers can hope to compete with a full scale pipe organ. The sound was, in a word, immense.

I’d like to think that this record affords the listener something close to that sound, but who am I kidding? No recording can even come close to capturing the sound of a live orchestra. The sound of this very record may be immersive and completely involving, allowing you to forget you’re even listening to a record at all, but the live event is an experience on another level. For rock and jazz, not so much. For orchestral music there is simply no comparison.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

Rich, rosiny, Tubey Magical strings. The copies that did the best in our shootout always had the best string tone, the most richness and the highest resolution.

Deep bass for the organ is key. Many copies were a bit bass-shy and that cost them a lot of points.

Transparency, depth and space are essential to the recreation of that “you are there” feeling, and the best copies had plenty of all three.

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus is as quiet as any of the top sounding Greensleeve pressings played. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of the Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t sound good.

Strangers In The Night

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Frank Sinatra

Man, this record has more TUBEY MAGIC than any Sinatra record I can remember playing.

Find me a Sinatra CD, any Sinatra CD, that sounds like this and I will eat it.

If you want to know what the best sounding Sinatra records sound like, this is your chance. Folks, in my opinion it simply does not get any better than a killer Hot Stamper pressing of Strangers In The Night.

These originals are the only way to go for ’60s Sinatra, but finding them in good shape on quiet vinyl is no picnic and only a few of them actually sound the way we want them to. It’s a real treat to be in the presence of the Chairman Of The Board, in his prime, working his magic — but only an exceptional copy like this one has the power to put him right in the room with you.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

The Tubey Magic on this copy has to be heard to be believed! I cannot recall hearing a richer, smoother, tubier Frank Sinatra album in all my born days.

Weighty brass is key to the sound. Any leanness or thinness in the brass is instantly heard as a Sinatra without the full weight and richness to his voice. This is the sound of most of the reissues, the main reason we stopped buying them years ago. Having played so many amazing original stereo pressings for this shootout we don’t think that will change anytime soon either. There simply is no substitute.

Full, Rich, Breathy, Present vocals are obviously critically important as well. This copy delivers some of the best we heard.

On this copy the orchestra and band are putting out plenty of low end, reaching down well into whomp land. It’s a thrill to hear to hear that sound on these swinging arrangements coming out of my speakers.

And of course the copies that rich and tubey but also big, clear and open did the best in our shootout.

We Love the Music Too

The famous title track is from a different session and does not sound as good as the rest of the album, so skip right to Summer Wind — now that’s Sinatra at his nice and easy best, with sound to match.

Personnel

Frank Sinatra – vocals
Nelson Riddle – arranger, conductor
Glen Campbell – guitar
Leon Russell – piano
Arranger: Ernie Freeman (Track 1)
The Nelson Riddle Orchestra

Lee Herschberg, Engineer Extraordinaire

One of the top guys at Warners and Reprise, Lee engineered this album as well as a great many others for Sinatra. You’ll find Herschberg’s name in the credits of many of the best albums by Ry Cooder, The Doobie Brothers and Gordon Lightfoot, titles we know to have excellent sound on the best copies — not to mention an album most audiophiles know all too well, Rickie Lee Jones’ debut. His pop and rock engineering credits run for pages.

The most amazing jazz piano trio recording we know of is on the list of his credits as well: The Three (Shelly Manne, Ray Brown and Joe Sample), as well as most of the other Direct to Disc recordings released on Eastwind.

The album that gets my vote for Herschberg’s Pop Engineering Masterpiece would have to be Michael McDonald’s If That’s What It Takes. On the best copies the sound is out of this world.

 

Today’s Heavy Vinyl Mediocrity Is… Fandango

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More ZZ Top

Warner Brothers remastered Fandango in 2008, so we took some domestic pressings and put them up against their Heavy Vinyl LP. The results were mixed; most of our originals pressings were lackluster, many were noisy, and we just weren’t hearing anything with the sound we thought deserved to be called a Hot Stamper.

We shelved the project for another day. In the interim we kept buying domestic pressings — originals and reissues — in the hopes that something good would come our way.

Fast forward four years. It’s 2015. We drop the needle on a random pressing and finally — finally — hear a copy that rocks like we knew a ZZ Top album should. With that LP as a benchmark we got a shootout up and running and the result is the record you see here.

How did the WB remaster fare once we had some truly Hot Stamper pressings to play it against?

Not well. It’s tonally correct, with a real top and bottom, something that a substantial number of copies cannot claim to be.

But the sound is stuck behind the speakers, veiled, and sorely lacking in energy and excitement. The transparency is of course compromised on all these new reissues, and without transparency and resolution much of the audience participation on the first side is lost. I won’t say the new pressing is boring. Let’s just say it’s a lot more boring than it should be.

Check out our Heavy Vinyl Rock and Jazz Scorecard to read all about the latest winners and losers.


NOTES FROM A RECENT HOT STAMPER

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, lacking presence and immediacy.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

 

 

Which Album by The Who Has the Best Sound?

Tommy

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We Think It’s This One

I don’t know of another Who album with such consistently good sound — song to song, not copy to copy, of course. Just about every song on here can sound wonderful on the right pressing. If you’re lucky enough to get a Hot Stamper copy, you’re going to be blown away by the Tubey Magical Guitars, the rock-solid bottom end, the jumpin’-out-of-the-speakers presence and dynamics, and the silky vocals and top end. Usually the best we can give you for The Who is “Big and Rockin,” but on Tommy, we can give you ’60s analog magic like you will rarely hear in the decades to follow.

Acoustic guitar reproduction is key to this recording, and on the best copies the harmonic coherency, the richness, the body and the phenomenal amounts of Tubey Magic can be heard in every strum.

What do high grades give you for this album? Silky, sweet vocals; huge weight to the bottom end; “you are there” immediacy; BIG drums, off the charts rock and roll energy, and shocking clarity and transparency.

No other Who album has all these things in such abundance.

The Tubey Magic Top Ten

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The Pretenders – Get Close

pretegetcl_wtlf_1461687961What to Listen For

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

The best copies have superb extension up top, which allows the grit and edge on the vocals to almost entirely disappear. Some of it is there on the tape for a reason — that’s partly the sound they were going for, this is after all a Bob Clearmountain mix and a Jimmy Iovine production — but bad mastering and pressing adds plenty of grit to the average copy, enough to ruin it in fact.

You can test for that edgy quality on side one very easily using the jangly guitar harmonics and breathy vocals of My Baby. If the harmonic information is clear and extending naturally, in a big space, you are more than likely hearing a top quality copy.

Size Matters

Take it from us, it is the rare pressing that manages to get rid of the harshness and congestion that plague so many copies.

Look for a copy that opens up the soundstage — the wider, deeper and taller the soundstage the better the sound — as long as the tonal balance stays right.

When you hear a copy sound like this one, relatively rich and sweet, the minor shortcomings of the recording no longer seem to interfere with your enjoyment of the music. Like a properly tweaked stereo, a good record lets you forget all that audio stuff and just listen to the music as music. Here at Better Records we — like our customers — think that’s what it’s all about.

And we know that only the top copies will let you do that, something that not everyone in the audiophile community fully appreciates to this day. We’re doing what we can to change that way of thinking, but progress is, as you may well imagine, slow.

Get Close has long been a personal favorite of mine. Side one starts off with a bang with the song My Baby, one of the best tracks this band ever recorded. Of course at this point it’s hard to call The Pretenders a band as it is pretty much Chrissie Hynde’s show. She continues to mature as a songwriter, and the arrangments and production value are excellent as well, with heavy hitters such as Steve Lillywhite, Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine involved.

The Domestic LP and CD

The domestic LP is pretty awful, and the domestic CD is even worse, practically unlistenable in fact. I have one in my car; only the judicious use of the treble control, steeply downwards, makes the sound even tolerable.

But the album rocks — it’s great driving music.

More Pretenders

 

Rock of the Westies — Rockin’ Like No Other

john_rocko_rocks_1267812441Another in the long list of Great Albums That You Probably Don’t Know. This record is SHOCKINGLY better than I remember from years back. It’s a knockout, with a great bunch of Elton rockers that still hold up forty years later. It’s much more like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road than it is the two albums that preceded it, Caribou and Captain Fantastic. To these ears it’s a return to form after two misfires.

Caribou is just not a good album on any level; my grade for it would be something in the D range. Captain Fantastic is decent, something along the lines of a B minus: third tier, worth a listen from time to time but not a Must Own by any stretch.

Contrast those two with Rock of the Westies, which clearly deserves to be considered a Must Own, right behind Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, at the bottom of the top tier or atop the second and well ahead of Madman Across the Water and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

And there is simply nothing to come later that can touch any of these Classics from Elton’s prime period, 1970 to 1975.

This music has ENERGY like no other Elton John record we know of; in that sense it has much in common with GYBR, a real rocker in its own right (although practically every song on that album is a bit longer than it should be, succumbing to the perils of the Double Disc: too much time to fill).

We had a blast playing this one good and loud, which is how it was clearly meant to be heard.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

The best sides rock like crazy with serious size and energy. Also, the better copies don’t get too congested in the choruses, a problem we often come across.

Audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them do not seem to be listening for these sonic qualities, the kind — size, energy, dynamics, freedom from congestion — that are very difficult to reproduce (at the loud levels we prefer) and vary dramatically from record to record.

These are what separate the men from the boys, the Hot Stampers from the Nice Sounding Records.

Size

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

More Elton John