My Stereo (and Thoughts on Equipment)

Letter of the Week – “How would you describe the sound signature of your evaluation equipment?”

Someone wrote the following to us recently:

  Hey Tom, 

I am trying to make sense of the information on your site and the asking prices for these ‘hot stampers’. In order to better understand how you assess sound quality, can you let me know what equipment you use for this purpose (what turntable, arm, cartridge, amps, speakers)? How would you describe the sound signature of your evaluation equipment?

Thanks for your help,

Bas

Bas,

Thanks for contacting us. We wrote a commentary about it, linked here:

Our Playback System – And Why You Shouldn’t Care

As for our sound signature, we’ve labored mightily over the last forty years to build the biggest, most dynamic, most powerful system that has only the colorations we don’t know how to rid ourselves of. Some thoughts on that process:

Our System Just Loves Certain Records – Why Do You Suppose That Is?

A lot of the basics about our Hot Stampers can be found here:

About Us

Our customers tend to be very enthusiastic about our Hot Stampers:

We Get Letters

Any questions, feel free to write me.  Of course, writing is one thing, but

Hearing Is Believing

Best, TP


FURTHER READING

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Our System Just Loves Certain Records – Why Do You Suppose That Is?

More Ted Heath

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The Highest Fidelity Recordings Are Truly Amazing If You Can Play Them Right

That’s a big if. It’s in fact the biggest if in all of audio.

What do we love about vintage pressings like the one you see pictured above? The timbre of the instruments is Hi-Fi in the best sense of the word. The unique sound of every instrument is reproduced with remarkable fidelity. That’s what we at Better Records mean by “Hi-Fi,” not the kind of Audiophile Phony BS Sound that passes for Hi-Fidelity these days. There’s no boosted top, there’s no bloated bottom, there’s no sucked-out midrange. This is Hi-Fidelity for those who recognize The Real Thing when they hear it.

Tubey Magic

The best copies of Swings in High Stereo have a lot in common with the other Decca and Living Stereo titles we’ve listed over the years, albums by the likes of Henry Mancini, Esquivel, Dick Schory, Edmundo Ros, Prez Prado and a handful of others. Talk about making your speakers disappear, these records will do it!

An album like this is all about Tubey Magical Stereoscopic presentation. For us audiophiles both the sound and the music here are enchanting. If you’re looking to demonstrate just how good 1958 All Tube Analog sound can be, a killer Hot Stamper copy may be just the record for you.

The best copies are super spacious, sweet and positively dripping with ambience. Talk about Tubey Magic, the liquidity of the sound here is positively uncanny. This is 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 it.

This IS the sound of Tubey Magic. No recordings will ever be made like this again, and no CD will ever capture what is in the grooves of this record. Someday there may well be a CD of this album, but those of us in possession of a working turntable could care less.

The Ideal System for an Exceptionally Well Recorded Album

It’s clear our stereo loves this record. 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, nothing added, and nothing taken away.

When we play a modern record, it should sound modern. When we play a vintage Tubey Magical Living Stereo pressing, we want to hear all the Tubey Magic, but we don’t want to hear more Tubey Magic than what is actually on the record. We don’t want to do what some audiophiles like to do, which is to make all their records sound the way they like all their records to sound.

They do that by having their system add in all their favorite colorations. We call that “My-Fi”, not “Hi-Fi”, and we’re having none of it.

If our system were more colored, slower and tubier, this record would not sound as good as it does. It’s already got plenty of richness, warmth, sweetness and Tubey Magic.

To take an obvious example, playing the average dry and grainy Joe Walsh record on our system is a fairly unpleasant experience. Some added warmth and richness, with maybe some upper-midrange suckout thrown in for good measure, would make it much more enjoyable. But then how would we know which Joe Walsh pressings aren’t too dry and grainy for our customers to enjoy?

We discussed some of these issues in another commentary: (more…)

Unsolicited Audio Advice – Small Speakers and Some Audio Lessons I Learned Over the Last 40+ Years

Do not believe a word you hear in this video. You probably shouldn’t even watch it.

Small speakers are incapable of providing lifelike musical reproduction in the home.

You will never feel you are in the presence of live musicians with a system like this. Real acoustic instruments move lots of air, that’s why we can hear them all the way at the back of the concert hall. Little speakers, unlike big speakers, do a very poor job of moving air. Screen speakers are not quite as bad as small speakers like the ones you see above, but they suffer from the same limitation: they can’t move much air.

I’ve never had speakers this small (or screens), but I’ve heard many systems with little speakers on stands, with and without subs, and all of them without exception left a great deal to be desired. When I find myself in a room with such systems I listen for a few moments for curiosity’s sake more than anything else just to hear what they might be doing better or worse, and then I get the hell out before I become to irritated.

If you get talked into buying a system like this — novice audiophiles constantly get talked into buying bad stereo systems in every audio salon in the world — you will have a hard time getting very far in audio, and will probably just end up stuck at this unacceptably low level. So don’t do it!

This system may represent a floor, a good entry point for the budding enthusiast, but it is also a ceiling in the sense that it will keep you from making any real progress in the hobby. Which would be a shame. I have dedicated more than 45 years of my life to audio and have no intention of abandoning it. On the contrary, I get better at it all the time.

Can you imagine hooking up a turntable to these little boxes? Why bother? Everything that’s good about analog would be inaudible on this system, and that right there is all the reason you should not go this route.

And to show you how clueless this set-up is, the two towers of record shelving behind and to the outside of the speakers are in the worst possible place you could ever put them. Nothing should go there (unless you have Hallographs). Keep the rear corners behind the speakers mostly empty unless you know what you are doing. This guy clearly does not.

Some of my old audio history:

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. (more…)

The Amazing Audio Research SP3A-1 Tube Preamp – A Giant Leap Forward for Me, Circa 1976

A stereo blast from the past.

In the commentary below I talk about buying the amazing Audio Research SP3A-1 and what a difference it made in the quality of my system’s reproduction. You could call my old Crown system BTM (Before Tubey Magic) and my new Audio Research-based system WTM (With Tubey Magic) is you wanted to be cute about it.

We talk a lot about Tubey Magic on the site and on this blog. This preamp is the very definition of it.

I was running Crown gear at the time, the DC-300 amp and the IC-150 preamp, so you can imagine that this tube preamp was a real game changer for me. The improvement in the sound was far greater than I ever imagined.

(Now we provide the same effect to the audiophiles of the world through our Hot Stamper pressings. Better sound than you can imagine. It’s practically a credo.)

As an ignorant, credulous audiophile with far-too-little experience in the world of audio, I soon found myself in one audio cult after another. Eventually I had sharpened my critical listening skills to the point where I could hear for myself what was better and what was worse, but it took more than twenty more years to do it. (You may be able to get there faster than I did, but don’t bet the farm on it.)

Recently I came across an old picture of me at the control center to my system, dating from the late ’70s or thereabouts. Sure enough there’s the ARC preamp. Brings back fond memories to this day!  But I sure wouldn’t want to go back to that sound. The changes to my stereo systems from that day to the present would number in the many, many hundreds.

OUR PREVIOUS COMMENTARY

Storm at Sunup used to be my favorite Gino Vannelli album. I played it all the time back in the ’70s. It was one of a handful of recordings that made me want to pursue audiophile equipment with the hope that higher quality playback would allow the album to sound even bigger and more exciting. (more…)

Our Playback System – And Why You Shouldn’t Care

More Commentaries and Advice on Equipment

Below you will find a list of most of the equipment we have been using over the years to carry out our Hot Stamper pressing evaluations, or “shootouts” as we like to call them.

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, no longer made) / VPI Synchronous Drive System (as of 2016 now sitting on a Townshend Seismic Sink) Triplanar Tonearm / Dynavector 17d3 [now 17dx] / 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…)

Talisman Testimonial – … Damn! And to think I doubted you …

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Tom,

I’m in receipt of the Talisman and have tried it on numerous CDs, LPs and DVDs… damn! And to think I doubted you. A truly serious upgrade without spending serious money. A sheen has been removed from the top and I can hear farther into the recording than ever before, whatever the format. It definitely benefits LP playback more, at least on my system (a Linn rig). Mids are more palpable and instruments play more to their natural voice.

I’m a member of the St. Louis Symphony and recordings that I have participated in sound more like the sound I hear when I’m in the midst of my colleagues on stage at Powell Hall. Thanks for your help.

Tom D.

Tom,

O ye of little faith… Seriously, could you ever be without it now? And the private email I sent you explaining how to get even more out of the device surely meant an even greater improvement in the sound of your system. The kind of change you describe — for a couple hundred bucks! — is practically unheard of nowadays, but of course you heard it, I heard it, everybody hears it. The only people who don’t hear it are the people who are so skeptical that they cannot allow themselves the opportunity to hear it.

This is the kind of thinking that I rather unkindly refer to as Stone Age Audio. If you don’t believe audio has made huge strides in recent years, you simply haven’t taken advantage of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio we talk about on the site. Talisman? Magic Pillow? Hallographs? These things can’t work!

Of course it’s easy to say that if you’ve never heard them, not so easy once you have. If you’re happy with the sound of your stereo, don’t really see the need to make it sound any better, hey, you sure don’t need any of these products.

If, however, you, like us, are THRILLED with the fact that the sound of your favorite recordings is constantly improving, then you need to have a little faith in your friends here at Better Records. We talk the talk because we walk the walk, five days a week and twice on Sunday. My [old] annual tweaking budget is easily in the multi-hundreds of hours; that’s what it takes to make improvements of the kind that we have implemented over the years. With a system like mine, nine out of ten things I try don’t work. It’s that tenth one that makes it all worthwhile.

For our customers, however, we make it so easy. The devices we recommend are guaranteed to work or your money back. They do not require hours of tedious tweaking and listening in search of an appreciable change (that might never materialize). The equipment and sound improving devices we recommend make a DRAMATIC and OBVIOUS change right from the get go.

The only people who don’t know that are the ones who haven’t tried them. Perhaps with a little more faith… (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…)

Robert Pincus Reviews Cartridges with Rising Top Ends (+5db at 20kz, Ouch!)

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This kind of explains why all the Lyras sound the way they do. It’s the same thing with Clear Audio. You buy them to get that “sound.”

Sure, they do some great things. Speed often comes with a rising top end, and there’s no dip in the lower highs, which I like.

This kind of response works wonders on old Living Stereo Chet Atkins and Mancini LPs. They’re soft on top!

Don’t play your old Heifetz LPs with one of these.

Robert Pincus

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. (more…)