My Stereo (and Thoughts on Equipment)

Our Playback System – And Why You Shouldn’t Care

Below you will find a list of most of the equipment we currently use to carry out our pressing evaluations, our “Hot Stamper shootouts.”

Of course the old 80/20 Rule comes into play here — 80% (probably more like 90 or 95%, truth be told) of the sound is what you do with your audio system, 20% (or 10 or 5%) of the sound is the result of the components you own.

We like to say it’s not about the audio you have, it’s about the audio you do: how you set up your system, what you’ve done to treat your room, how good your electricity is and all the rest of it.

Our VPI Aries (original, not the latest model) with Super Platter (no longer made) and TTWeights Carbon Fiber Platter (a big upgrade) / VPI Synchronous Drive System (as of 2016 now sitting on a Townshend Seismic Sink) Triplanar Tonearm / Dynavector 17d3 / Aurios (no longer made), which sit on a Townshend Seismic Sink (another big upgrade, contact me if interested) / EAR 324P and the hundreds of hours we’ve spent setting up and tweaking this beast is at the heart of everything we do around here.

Mix in extensive room treatments, aided inestimably by three pairs of Hallographs (as we like to say, there is no practically no Hi-Fi without them), more than thirty years of experience and endless hours of experimentation and you have a system that can separate the winners from the losers like nobody’s business.

Exactly like nobody’s business, because nobody does it in this business but us. Having heard hundreds of systems over the years, it’s an open question as to whether anyone else could do what we do. (more…)

The VPI Super Platter and Our Testing Methodologies

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We love it! It’s a big step up over the acrylic platter, which makes records sound more like CDs, kind of thin, vague, edgy. The original TNT type Aries platter is a very similar design to the Super Platter, and so when I got my super platter it was obviously better after the first five seconds of play but not dramatically better. On a customer’s TNT with the acrylic platter it was huge.

The bigger and more powerful the stereo the bigger will be the difference, because it has to do with weight and heft and solidness and those sorts of issues, the kind that so many modern audiophiles ignore. (The CD guys don’t even know what those things are because CDs never have those qualities!)

According to VPI:

This is the most advanced platter VPI has ever made, and it is compatible with the VPI Periphery ring. Made from an acrylic/stainless/acrylic sandwich (just like the HRX chassis) and weighing in at 25 pounds, this is a big bad platter upgrade. It has better bass performance, is ultra quiet and has more stability, great slam and power.

The Super Platter will fit the HW-19 series, all Aries, all Scouts, Scoutmasters and SuperScoutmasters. It’ll even fit all the previous 20 years of TNTs. It just doesn’t fit the HRX because that model has a larger diameter bearing assembly and its own optional super platter.


That’s what VPI says, but what do we have to say about it?

It has been our experience that VPI upgrades tend to be actual sonic improvements over the earlier versions of their equipment, unlike so much of what passes for “better” audio in the land of Hi-Fi, which is often just different and in many cases actually worse.

These are the kind of upgrades we love to do, and the reason is no doubt obvious to all you audiophiles out there. Pop the new platter on and thirty seconds later you can hear the difference. Not sure about the change? Don’t like it? Thirty seconds later you can have your old platter spinning to see exactly what happened to the sound.

It’s the kind of testing we do here all day long with Hot Stamper and other pressings. Take ten copies of any title and play them, making notes as to their strengths and weaknesses. Assign each one am overall sonic grade. Think numbers 2 and 7 are the best of the bunch on side one, but not quite sure which of the two is better? No problem. Take one of them, throw it back on the table, listen for a minute, then pop on the other. That kind of head-to-head shootout is the easiest, most accurate way to find out which record really has the Hot Stamper Magic and which one only appears to.

Not sure if your new turntable or cartridge does everything better than your old one? That’s a tough test. It’s practically impossible to quickly set up the old table or mount up the old cartridge for a head to head. Unless something in the sound is just plain driving you crazy you’re not likely to want to go through the hassle of setting up the old system, and who can blame you — it’s a pain in the ass.

One of the reasons I had never upgraded from my original Aries is that after years and years and scores and scores of hours of tweaking the damn thing, the sound was so right I didn’t want to mess with it. Any new table would be starting from scratch and I just couldn’t bear the thought. I’ve set up a number of TNTs and new Aries 3 tables and to my ear they could not better what I was already hearing, for one simple reason — they hadn’t been tweaked yet. (And none of them had my Triplanar arm, which is pretty hard to beat with a JMW.)

Bottom Line — we love the new Super Platter and recommend everyone who owns the acrylic platter replace it immediately. If you are looking to buy a VPI table you can save hundreds of dollars by ordering it with the Super Platter installed. You will be glad you did.


And one more thing: Aurios (more…)

Cat Stevens Asks How Do You Like Your Congas: Light, Medium or Heavy?

 

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During the shootout for this record a while back we made a very important discovery, a seemingly obvious one but one that nevertheless had eluded us for the past twenty plus years (so how obvious could it have been?). It became clear, for the first time, what accounts for the wide disparity in ENERGY and DRIVE from one copy to the next. We can sum it up for you in one five letter word, and that word is conga.

The congas are what drive the high-energy songs, songs like Tuesday’s Dead and Changes IV. Here is how we stumbled upon their critically important contribution.

We were listening to one of the better copies during a recent shootout. The first track on side one, The Wind, was especially gorgeous; Cat and his acoustic guitar were right there in the room with us. The transparency, tonal neutrality, presence and all the rest were just superb. Then came time to move to the other test track on side one, which is Changes IV, one of the higher energy songs we like to play.

But the energy we expected to hear was nowhere to be found. The powerful rhythmic drive of the best copies of the album just wasn’t happening. The more we listened the more it became clear that the congas were not doing what they normally do. The midbass to lower midrange area of the LP lacked energy, weight and power, and this prevented the song from coming to LIFE the way the truly Hot Stampers can and do.

Big Speakers

For twenty years Tuesday’s Dead has been one of my favorite tracks for demonstrating what The Big Speaker Sound is all about. Now I think I better understand why. Big speakers are the only way to reproduce the physical size and tremendous energy of the congas (and other drums of course) that play such a big part in driving the rhythmic energy of the song.

In my experience no six inch woofer — or seven, or eight, or ten even — gets the sound of the conga right, from bottom to top, drum to skin. No screen can do it either. It’s simply a sound that large dynamic drivers reproduce well and other speaker designs do not reproduce so well.

Since this is one of my favorite records of all time, a true Desert Island Disc, I would never want to be without a pair of big speakers to play it, because those are the kinds of speakers that play it well. (more…)

Tubes Versus Transistors – Some Background from Skeptoid

Below you will find a link to a reasonably fair and balanced look at the battle between transistors and tubes from Brian Dunning’s skeptoid website, daily reading for those of us who favor a skeptical approach to life (and especially this hobby).

Thirty plus years ago, when I started my little record business, I knew that most records marketed to audiophiles offered junk sound (half-speed masters) or junk music (direct to discs). As our playback has improved, fewer and fewer of these “specialty” pressings have survived the test of time, a subject we write about endlessly on our site and here on this blog.

For the longest time our motto has been “Records for Audiophiles, Not Audiophile Records,” and we see no reason to change it.  If anything, the current spate of manufacturers of Heavy Vinyl pressings are making records that get worse sounding by the day. Many of the most egregious offenders can be found here.

More commentaries about Heavy Vinyl can be found here. We are not fans of the stuff, not because it’s our competition. It just doesn’t sound very good.

In order to do the work we do, our approach to audio has to be fundamentally different from that of the audiophile who listens for enjoyment. Critical listening and listening for enjoyment go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing.

The first — developing and applying your critical listening skills — allows you to achieve good audio and find the best pressings of the music you love.

Once you have a good stereo and a good record to play on it, your enjoyment of recorded music should increase dramatically.

A great sounding record on a killer system is a thrill.

A Heavy Vinyl mediocrity, played back on what passes for so many audiophile systems these days — regardless of cost — is, to these ears, an intolerable bore.

If this sounds arrogant and elitist, so be it. We set a higher standard, and price our records commensurate with their superior sound.  For those who appreciate the difference, and have resources sufficient to afford them, the cost is reasonable. If it were not we would have gone out of business years ago.

Hot Stampers are not cheap. If the price could not be justified by the better sound quality and quieter surfaces, who in his right mind would buy them? We can’t really be fooling so many audiophiles, can we?

Our approach to equipment and records is explained in more detail below, in a listing centered around an early pressing of a Ted Heath Big Band album from the Fifties that knocked our socks off.  The right record at loud levels on Big Speakers can do that.

 

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We went wild recently over a marvelous copy of the Ted Heath record you see pictured. Talk about Tubey Magic, the liquidity of the sound was positively uncanny. This was vintage analog at its best, so full-bodied and relaxed you’ll wonder how it ever came to be that anyone seriously contemplated trying to improve upon it.

This is our kind of sound. It’s also important to keep in mind that our stereo seemed to love the record. (Stereos do that.) Let’s talk about why that might be the case.

Our system is fast, accurate and uncolored. We like to think of our speakers as the audiophile equivalent of studio monitors, showing us exactly what is on the record, with nothing added and (hopefully) nothing taken away. (more…)

Revolutionary Changes in Audio – What Works for Us Can Work for You

 

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This listing, like the stereo itself (mine and yours), is a work in progress. Please check back for the commentary we expect to be adding in the future. 

Our reason for having this kind of commentary on a site ostensibly devoted to the selling of records is simple: the better your stereo sounds, the better our records sound, and, more importantly, the bigger the difference between our records and the copies you already own. Also those LPs recommended by “audiophile” record dealers, which tend to be on Heavy Vinyl, at 45 RPM, half-speed mastered or, even worse, Japanese pressed. We have no interest in any of them. Why? On our system they rarely sound better than second-rate.

More on The Stereo

We love our modified Legacy Focus speakers, even more now that they have much improved high frequency extension courtesy of Townshend Super Tweeters. Our preamp and amp are vintage and low power; the Focus can play quite loudly with the thirty watts our amp puts out. We are big fans of Low Power (but not single ended) and are not the least bit happy with the current trend toward high-power amps, whether tube or transistor. (This trend started in the early ’70s with the Phase Linear 400 amp and has only gotten more out of hand with each passing year.)

We tried higher power amps to do the shootouts for Nirvana, AC/DC and their ilk but gave up fairly quickly. Using those amps involves major trade-offs; trade-offs whose costs rarely exceed their benefits. With more power comes less Tubey Magic, sweetness, transparency, three-dimensionality and that wonderful relaxed quality which gives the music its flow and sense of ease.

High power amps do none of these things well, but most speakers today are terribly inefficient and require their use, a choice most audiophiles do not even know they are making when they buy them. I made that mistake myself many years ago. Live and learn.

Most of our wiring — interconnect, phono and power cord — is custom.

Having said that, this commentary is all about why you shouldn’t care a whit about the equipment we use. 

A Fun and Easy Test for Abbey Road: MoFi Versus Apple

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Abbey Road

There is a relatively simple test you can use to find out if you have a good Mobile Fidelity pressing of Abbey Road. Yes, as shocking as it may seem, they actually do exist, we’ve played them, but they are few and far between (and never as good as the best Brits).

The test involves doing a little shootout of the song Golden Slumbers between whatever MoFi pressing you have and whatever British Parlophone pressing you have. If you don’t have both LPs this shootout will be difficult to do. The idea is to compare aspects of the sound of both pressings head to head, which should shed light on which one of them is more natural and which is more hi-fi-ish sounding.

The Golden Slumbers Test

I’ve come to realize that this is a Key Track for side two, because what it shows you is whether the midrange of your pressing — or your system — is correct. At the beginning Paul’s voice is naked, front and center, before the strings come in. Most Mobile Fidelity pressings, as good as they can be, are not tonally correct in the middle of the midrange. The middle of the voice is a little sucked out and the top of the voice is a little boosted. It’s really hard to notice this fact unless one plays a good British pressing side by side with the MoFi. Then the typical MoFi EQ anomaly become obvious. It may add some texture to the strings, but the song is not about the strings. (more…)

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.
(more…)

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 the business of selling records to audiophiles.

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

They were not 99.60% perfect by any stretch of the imagination. To this day they are the most Tubey Magical, most colored and inaccurate amp I have ever heard in my life, and I have heard more than my share.

If this is your idea of good sound, you are wasting your time reading this blog. Get better equipment, learn to listen to it critically, and then come back so that you can discover for yourself that what you are reading here is true.