My Stereo (and Thoughts on Equipment)

Led Zeppelin II – Gee, I Seem to Have No Trouble At All Playing This Record

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We all know the famous story by now. Robert Ludwig’s “Hot Mix” (a complete misnomer, mostly propagated by those with an apparently poor understanding of what goes into the sound of a record – the mix never changed, only the mastering) of Zep II was causing the needle to jump the groove when Ahmet Ertegun’s daughter tried to play it on her cheap turntable, so they recut the record with more compression and cut the bass.

Our Triplanar Mark 6 / Dynavector 17d III combination seems to play the original just fine. Amazingly well in fact.

Here’s a question for all the Heavy Vinyl fans in the world: name all the Heavy Vinyl records that sound as good or better than RL’s cutting of Zep II.

Modern engineers tell us they can cut records better now than ever before, with all the bass and dynamics that previous engineers were forced to limit for the cheap tables and carts of the past.

So where are these so-called New and Improved records, the ones with more bass and dynamics?

I have yet to hear one. Perhaps someone can point me in the right direction.

Send your list to tom@better-records.com

Traveling Back in Time with Cat Stevens on Mobile Fidelity…

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to Hear It on Vintage Equipment

Our good customer Roger wrote us a letter years ago about his MoFi TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN, in which he remarked, “Sometimes I wish I kept my old crappy stereo to see if I could now tell what it was that made these audiophile pressings so attractive then.”

It got me to thinking. Yes, that would be fun, and better yet, it could be done. There are actually plenty of those Old School systems still around. Just look at what many of the forum posters — god bless ’em — are running. They’ve got some awesome ’70s Japanese turntables, some Monster Cable and some vintage tube gear and speakers going all the way back to the ’50s.

With this stuff you could in effect travel back in time, virtually erasing all the audio progress of the last 30 years. Then you could hear your MoFi Tea for the Tillerman sound the way it used to when you could actually stand to be in the same room with it.
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Bose Salutes the Sound Of Mercury Records (Along with Some Audio Lessons Learned Long Ago)

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This Factory Sealed Bose / Mercury Demonstration LP is autographed by none other than Amar G. Bose. The autograph reads “To EMI, with regards and best wishes, Amar G. Bose.”

Bose may not have ever made very good speakers, but they sure knew good recordings when they heard them. This LP has excerpts from some of the top Mercury titles, including music by Copland (El Salon Mexico), Kodaly (Hary Janos Suite), Mussorgsky/ Ravel (Pictures At An Exhibition), and Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian Easter Overture).I played one of these Bose records years ago and was surprised at how good it sounded. The transfers of the Mercury tapes were excellent! I guess that makes sense — if you want to show off your speakers you better use a well-mastered record for the demonstration.

I was duped into buying my first real audiophile speaker, Infinity Monitors, when the clever salesman played Sheffield’s S9 through them. I bought them on the spot. It was only later when I got home that none of my other records sounded as good, or even good for that matter. That was my first exposure to a Direct to Disc recording. To this day I can still picture the room the Infinity’s were playing in; it really was a watershed moment in my audiophile life.

And of course I couldn’t wait to get rid of them once I heard them in my own system with my own records. I quickly traded them in for a pair of RTR 280DR’s. Now that was a great speaker! 15 panel RTR Electrostatic unit for the highs; lots of woofers and mids and even a piezo tweeter for the rest. More than 5 feet tall and well over 100 pounds each, that speaker ROCKED.

This was the mid-’70s, 40+ years ago, and I am proud to say I have never owned a “small” speaker since. I’ve heard a lot of them — some good, most of them not so good — but that’s a sound I personally could never live with. Especially if you are trying to play large orchestral works like those found on this LP. Small speakers just can’t move enough air to bring this music to life in any way that gives meaning to the term Hi-Fidelity. (more…)

The Four Seasons – Tubes Versus Transistors

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In 2007 we did a shootout for this album and noted the following:

For those with better tube gear, the string tone on this record is sublime, with that rosin-on-the-bow quality that tubes seem to bring out in a way virtually nothing else can, at least in my experience.

Our experience since 2007 has changed our view concerning the magical power of tubes relative to transistors to bring out the rosiny texture of bowed stringed instruments. We have in fact changed our minds completely with respect to that common belief.

Our transistor equipment — and by ours we mean the mysterious low-powered ’70s integrated amp we use, mated with the EAR 324P phono, making no claims whatsoever for any other transistor equipment of any kind — is dramatically faster, more transparent, dynamic and resolving than any tube equipment we have ever heard.

It is, simply put, much more TRUTHFUL. It is precisely this quality that is hardest to find in all of audio. It is also the one quality of our system that, more than any other, allows us to do our job accurately and efficiently.

Our equipment lets us hear the sound of the record being played, uncolored and unadorned. It also has the added benefit of sounding to us more like live music. 

Yes, we know, we haven’t heard every piece of tube gear in the world. There may indeed be something out there with even more of the qualities we recognize in live music than we are currently capable of reproducing with our transistor equipment.

We remain open-minded as always, but intensely skeptical — a combination that has certainly served us well over the 33 years we have been in business selling records.

Yes, for a while I actually owned a pari of Mac 30 amps from circa 1954!

They were not 99.% perfect by any stretch of the imagination. They were the most Tubey Magical, most colored amp I ever heard in my life, and I have heard my share.

Letter of the Week – I have a handful of White Hots and oh my god can I hear what I am missing on all of the other nonsense

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently: 

  Hey Tom,   

Well one thing I know for sure is the record matters A LOT. I have a handful of White Hots and oh my god can I hear what I am missing on all of the other nonsense. Even my Super Hots beat all of my other average stuff.

For example, my White Hot of Belladona is so far over the top of sounding like she is heard in the room that it’s scary. Same with my Bob Marley and Tom Petty. But in guessing they could be even better. I’m gonna update my cartridge and phono amp soon.

The problem with audio systems is that you are always flying blind, never knowing what you are missing until you hear it. Again, more evidence to support the success of mediocre Heavy Vinyl!

TP

I relate to that. It’s like our race cars. It’s maddening to get into someone else’s race car…

That analogy works better if the other race car in question has a flat tire or two and the owner of it cannot even tell that it does.

Which explains perfectly why there is such a thing as Heavy Vinyl!

TP

Now that makes more sense! I don’t think my systems have any flat tires, but I’m definitely trying to make it better.

Do you have any experience with Sound-Smith?

Only second hand, friends of friends had some rebuilds done that they say did not work out for them well, but I have no idea what I would have thought of the sound because I just can’t listen to other people’s stereos anymore. Too many faults and colorations, makes my head want to explode. (more…)

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto – Misty – Reviewed in 2010

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This is a Factory Sealed 33 RPM Three Blind Mice 180g LP which comes highly recommended! This was the first Three Blind Mice recording I ever heard, over 20 years ago. A fellow audiophile who went on to become sort of an audio guru for me (George Louis) played me this record to demonstrate his stereo. It had to be the most dynamic piano recording I had ever heard in my life. 

Yamamoto likes to tinkle the keys very softly, and then really pound them. And the Three Blind Mice engineers were able to capture both the quiet tinkling because of the Japanese vinyl, and the full-on pounding because of the audiophile recording equipment they used. It was an ear-opening experience.

Over the course of the next year or two, I sold off my Fulton Premiers and my Audio Research Electronics, because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get Misty to sound like it did at George’s house. I realized that it takes better equipment than those companies ever produced to get the sound of that record right, and that put me on, to quote Cat Stevens, ”the road to find out’.’ (more…)

Gino Vannelli – Storm At Sunup – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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

This White Hot Stamper side one was CLEARLY the best sound we heard in our ENTIRE shootout. No other copy had any side that sounded as BIG and BOLD as this. It’s richer and fuller, and that’s a big deal on Storm at Sunup, which is almost always pure midrange — no bottom, no top, just midrange. Until we played this copy I wasn’t sure there was EVER going to be any bass or top end. Thank goodness this side one came along, otherwise we would have been tempted to junk the whole project. (more…)

’70s EMI Classical LPs and Vintage Tube Playback

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What to listen for on this album? That’s easy: The all-too-common ’70s EMI harshness and shrillness. We could never understand why audiophiles revered EMI as a label the way they did back the day. I chalk it up — as I do most of the mistaken judgments audiophiles tend to make about the sound of records, my own judgments included — to the limitations of the equipment we were using, bad setups, bad rooms and poor record cleaning. 

If you had vintage tube equipment back in the ’70s — McIntosh, Marantz, etc. (I myself had an Audio Research SP3-A1 and a D-75a, later a D-76a) — the flaws heard on most copies of this record wouldn’t be nearly as offensive as they are to those of us playing them on the much more revealing systems that are possible today.

Working in unfathomably complicated and unpredictable combination, today’s modern systems, painstakingly set up and tweaked through trial and error, in heavily treated rooms, using only records that have been subjected to the most advanced cleaning technologies — these are what make it possible to know what your records really sound like. 

These are what make it possible for us to do our job. You, of course, have the option of hearing our records any way you like on your system and in your room. The cleaning and evaluation of the sound has been done.  The record will be yours to enjoy for as long as you live. (more…)

Carmen McRae – The Great American Songbook

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  • Carmen McRae’s superb live double album from 1972 arrives on the site with stunning Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on FOUR sides
  • Everything sounds immediate and unprocessed – no other copy in our shootout had this kind of natural, analog sound, putting a living, breathing Carmen McRae right between your speakers
  • Recorded at Dante’s Jazz Club right here in Los Angeles, the lively banter between songs reveals the lady’s charm and wit
  • 5 stars: “Joined by pianist Rowles, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Chuck Domanico, and drummer Chuck Flores, McRae had what was at the time a rare opportunity to record a live, spontaneous, jazz-oriented set. She sounds quite enthusiastic about both her accompaniment and the strong repertoire…'”

In the early seventies, when I was first becoming seriously interested in audiophile-quality equipment, this was a famous Demo Disc at some high-end audio salons. (Five years later I would have speakers larger and more expensive in real dollars than the speakers I now own, Stereophile’s cost-no-object, state-of-the-art speaker system from the mid-’70s, the Fulton J. I was the youngest person ever to own a pair of the behemoth of its day.

The other monster speaker from that time was the Infinity Servo-Static 1A, which I auditioned before buying the Fultons. During the audition the electrostatic drivers kept blowing if the level got up too high, so that was the end of that. Who wants a speaker that can’t play at realistic sound levels?)

Of course, many of you may never have heard of Carmen McRae’s The Great American Songbook album, because the heyday for this record was probably 30-40 years ago, back when the audiophile magazines were actually writing about exceptionally natural, realistic recordings such as this one. I don’t know what they write about now; I stopped reading them years ago. But I doubt very much they are writing about recordings of this quality.

What’s striking about this album is how immediate and unprocessed everything sounds. It really gives you the feeling of being at a live show in a club. It helps that the performance was captured directly onto analog tape with minimal miking. Michael Cuscuna was the remix supervisor, by the way.

These vintage Atlantic pressings have the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are listening live at Donte’s, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage 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 maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What the best sides of The Great American Songbook have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1972
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the club

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

Copies with rich lower mids and nice extension up top did the best in our shootout, assuming they weren’t veiled or smeary of course. So many things can go wrong on a record! We know, we’ve heard them all.

Top end extension is critical to the sound of the best copies. Lots of old records (and new ones) have no real top end; consequently, the studio or stage will be missing much of its natural air and space, and instruments will lack their full complement of harmonic information.

Tube smear is common to most vintage pressings and this is no exception. The copies that tend to do the best in a shootout will have the least (or none), yet are full-bodied, tubey and rich.

What We’re Listening For on The Great American Songbook

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness common to most LPs.
  • Tight, note-like bass with clear fingering — which ties in with good transient information, as well as the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the players.
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, way behind the speakers. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would have put them.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

The Players

Carmen McRae – vocals, piano on “If the Moon Turns Green” and “Mr Ugly”
Jimmy Rowles – piano
Joe Pass – guitar
Chuck Domanico – double bass
Chuck Flores – drums

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Satin Doll
At Long Last Love
If The Moon Turns Green
Day By Day
What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life

Side Two

Easy Living
The Days Of Wine And Roses
It’s Impossible
Sunday

Side Three

A Song For You
I Cried For You
Behind The Face
The Ballad Of Thelonious Monk
There’s No Such Thing As Love

Side Four

They Long To Be Close To You
Three Little Words
Mr. Ugly
It’s Like Reaching For The Moon I Thought About You

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

On this popular two-LP set, singer Carmen McRae interprets songs by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Michel Legrand, Warren & Dubin, Henry Mancini, and Jimmy Van Heusen, among others, but it is her rendition of a humorous Jimmy Rowles novelty (“The Ballad of Thelonious Monk”) that is best remembered.

Joined by pianist Rowles, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Chuck Domanico, and drummer Chuck Flores, McRae had what was at the time a rare opportunity to record a live, spontaneous, jazz-oriented set. She sounds quite enthusiastic about both her accompaniment and the strong repertoire, which includes “At Long Last Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Sunday,” “I Cried for You,” and “I Thought About You.”

Peter Frampton – Frampton – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

More Peter Frampton

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

This is a shootout we’d been trying to do for years, but the copies we’d been playing off and on hadn’t been especially cooperative, and onto the back burner our plans would go. Maybe next year…

A bit of background: Both his first solo album and this, his fourth, were recorded by the well-known engineer Chris Kimsey, who famously worked with the Stones and others too numerous to mention. To say that the sound of his albums varies considerably would be the understatement of the year. The first album (British only, fyi) is rich, sweet, and Tubey Magical as practically anything you’ve ever heard (as well as overly tube compressed, its biggest fault).

Sonically this album tends to be none of those things. However, if you play enough copies you are sure to run into at least some that sound right.

I unashamedly confess to being a huge Frampton fan to this very day. His first album, Wind of Change, has been a Desert Island Disc for me ever since I picked up my first copy while still in high school in 1972. I’m a Big Production Rock Guy, as you may have guessed from looking at the records we rave about the most, and Frampton’s first album is a classic of Big Production Rock, in the style of Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon, Songs for Beginners and fifty others I could name. Make that a hundred others. Or two hundred. (more…)