My Stereo (and Thoughts on Equipment)

Trying to Get at the Truth of The Four Seasons with Transistors

A classic case of Live and Learn

Tubes in Audio

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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 to bring out the rosiny texture of bowed stringed instruments. We have in fact changed our minds completely with respect to that unquestioned belief.

Our transistor equipment — and by ours we mean the unnamed 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, almost all of which in my experience is not very good — 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 correctly 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. 

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What Recordings Are Audiophile Writers Writing About Now I Wonder?

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In the early seventies, when I was first becoming seriously interested in audiophile-quality equipment, this was a well-known 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. At a tender age I acquired 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 behemoths, a record that has never and will never be broken I suspect.

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 that they are still 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.

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Hi-Fi Beats My-Fi If You Are At All Serious about Audio

Our Stereo

More Commentaries and Advice on Equipment

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, 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 prefer 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, a vintage Living Stereo record would not sound as good as it should. 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…)

Gino Vannelli and The Amazing Audio Research SP3A-1 Tube Preamp

Making Audio Progress 

Unsolicited Audio Advice

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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 in the hope that higher quality playback would allow the album to sound even bigger and more exciting.

It was pretty damn big and exciting already, but I wanted more. 

Right around that time I got my first audiophile tube preamp, the Audio Research SP3A-1, which replaced a Crown IC-150. As you can imagine, especially if you know the IC-150 at all well, playing this album through that state-of-the-art tube preamp was a revelation.

From then on there was no looking back. I started spending all my money on better and better equipment and more and more records. That was forty plus years ago and I haven’t stopped yet.

This is also the kind of recording that caused me to pursue Big Stereo Systems driving Big Speakers. You need a lot of piston area to bring the dynamics of this recording to life, and to get the size of all the instruments to match their real life counterparts.

For that you need big speakers in big cabinets, the kind I’ve been listening to for more than forty years. (My last small speaker was given the boot around 1974 or so.) To tell you the truth, the Big Sound is the only sound that I can enjoy. Anything less is just not for me. (more…)

A Frequently Asked Question – “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 (more…)

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…)