My Stereo (and Thoughts on Equipment)

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

The following came 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?

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, limited by only those colorations we don’t know how to rid ourselves of. Here are some thoughts on what we went through in order to achieve our current level of fidelity:

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

Having done all that work over the course of decades, we feel we are in a good position to offer our readers:

Audio Advice

A lot of the basics about our Hot Stampers can be found at the top of every page under:

Start Here

Our customers tend to be very enthusiastic about our Hot Stampers, as you can see by the letters they write us:

Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

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

Hearing Is Believing

Best, TP (more…)

Letter of the Week – “Oh my god can I hear what I am missing on all of the other nonsense.”

More Hot Stamper Pressings of Albums with Stevie Nicks Performing

More Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

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 Bella Donna 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.

I noted:

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

He added:

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

I replied:

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.

TP

(more…)

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto / Misty – Stick with the Real Japanese Pressings

More of Our Best Audiophile Recordings with Actual Audiophile Quality Sound

This is a highly recommended Three Blind Mice LP. We don’t like most Three Blind Mice albums, or jazz played by practically anyone who is not American. (Ever played Jazz at the Pawnshop? If so, did you enjoy your nap?)

But we like the music of Yamamoto well enough to recommend some of it. Midnight Sugar might actually be his most enjoyable album of them all.

The Heavy Vinyl versions are not as good, although the 45 RPM pressing probably comes the closest to the real Japanese pressing we review here. Anything pressed at RTI is rarely better than second rate and should be avoided if at all possible.

We almost never like records Made In Japan that were not recorded in Japan. There are of course a few exceptions.

This was the first Three Blind Mice recording I ever heard, over 20 [now close to 40] years ago. A fellow audiophile who went on to become sort of an audio guru for me (George Louis) played me this recording 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 were making back then to get the sound of that record right, and that put me on, to quote Cat Stevens, ”the road to find out.” (more…)

Bose Salutes the Sound Of Mercury Records (Along with Some Audio Lessons I Learned Long Ago)

This 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…)

Audio Cults – My Stereo from the ’70s and the Cult I Was In

A bit of a strange coincidence occurred not long ago. I found an old commentary describing the speakers I used to own, part of a discussion explaining why I have never wanted to settle for small speakers.

At the same time I saw a fellow on Audiogon was selling the electrostatic tweeter array for the very same speaker I owned, the RTR 280DR. Let me tell you, it really took me back; I haven’t seen a pair in over twenty years. 

Here is the story from the old listing talking about the RTRs, sparked by a discussion of Demo Discs.

Fooled Again

I was duped into buying my first real audiophile speaker, Infinity Monitors, when the clever salesman played Sheffield’s S9 through them. I desperately wanted them then and there. It was only later when I got home with them 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…)

Critical Listening Vs. Listening for Enjoyment

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

(Developing critical thinking skills when it comes to records and equipment is important too but that is not the focus of today’s commentary.)

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 insufferable bore.

If this sounds arrogant and elitist, so be it. Heavy Vinyl records are fine for some people, but for about the last fifteen years we’ve set a higher standard for ourselves and our customers. Holding our records to that higher standard allows us to price our Hot Stamper pressings commensurate with their superior sound and please the hell out of the people who buy them.

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 that many audiophiles, can we? We talked about our approach to audio in a commentary we wrote decades ago:

We have put literally thousands of hours into our system and room in order to extract the maximum amount of information, musical and otherwise, from the records we play, or as close to the maximum as we can manage. Ours is as big and open as any system in an 18 by 20 by 8 room I’ve ever heard.

It’s also as free from colorations of any kind as we can possibly make it. We want to hear the record in its naked form; not the way we want it to sound, but the way it actually does sound. That way, when you get it home and play it yourself, it should sound very much like we described it.

If too much of the sound we hear is what our stereo is doing, not what the record is doing, how can we know what it will sound like on your system? We try to be as truthful and as critical as we can when describing the records we sell. Too much coloration in the system makes those tasks much more difficult, if not a practical impossibility.

(more…)

Letter of the Week – “… going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in …”

This week’s letter comes from our good friend Franklin who was having some serious sound problems that were driving him crazy after moving his speakers from the long wall (not a good idea) to the short one (much better as a rule).

He already had one pair of Hallographs, which had helped his room problems quite a bit. We rely on three pair, and the second and third pair were a big improvement over the first, so we recommended another to Franklin, which, by the sound of this letter, seems to have worked miracles!

Hello Mr. Port,

Just to let you know what you already know about this LP. When I first received this ($500) LP and listened to it, I thought I had really messed up.

I didn’t hear all the nuances you described. I just put it away and forgot about it. What a BUMMER!!!!! But I decided to try it again after placing the new pair of Hallos. I moved them all over the place. I even have the floor marked all over with painter’s masking tape to remind me where the best spots are for the Hallos. Floor really looks funny.

Sometimes when you make a change, it seems to be better for some LPs but not others. But when a change impacts all the LPs positively, you know you are in the game. I am going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in. I will tweak some more but for now I’ll just enjoy.

Regards,
Franklin

Franklin,

Thanks so much for your letter. When your system is cookin’ and you’re hearing all your records sound better than ever, that’s when audio is FUN. You had to do a lot of work to get there and the good sound you are able to enjoy now is your reward.

It’s amazing to me how little audiophiles are interested in actually making their stereos sound better. You reap what you sew in this hobby. Mediocre sound is easy; good sound is very very hard — that’s why I so rarely hear anything outside of my own system that strikes me as any good. Most audiophiles haven’t worked very hard on their stereos and they have the sound to prove it.

We write a lot about the ENERGY and POWER found on the best pressings of some recordings; the BS&T record we sent you is a perfect example. It’s the kind of recording with so much going on that it is guaranteed to bring practically any stereo system to its knees. When a record such as this gets loud, all the problems of your stereo become impossible to ignore. (One reason The Turn Up Your Volume Test is such a great test; the louder the problem, the harder it is to ignore.)

Turn Down the Volume, or Solve the Problem?

Rather than simply turn down the volume, why not solve the problem? That’s what the Hallographs help you to do. All that energy that’s bouncing around your room is causing huge amounts of distortion.

If you’re like most audiophiles it’s one of the main reasons you can’t play your system loud. The sound will become strident, edgy and sour; the soundstage will lose its shape and collapse into a chaotic mess; the bass definition will go out the window, turn bloated and get up into the midrange where it had no business being .

These are mostly room problems. No matter how good your equipment is, these problems attend to most listening rooms. Concert halls aren’t twenty feet wide, but there sure are a lot of listening rooms that size, and smaller, which means room reflections are sending the sound waves crashing into each other all over the place. (more…)

Arrogant and Elitist Skeptics – They’re the Worst!

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, worthwhile 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, Japanese pressings) or junk music (direct to discs by artists nobody ever heard of). 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, but because it just doesn’t sound very good to us.

I Confess

Here is the article. I confess I have read through quickly, almost skimming it, because I have heard plenty on the subject of  tubes versus transistors. This is my fifth decade in audio and I know where I stand on the subject. I offer it as edification for those who might be interested.

Our Approach

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.

Developing critical thinking skills when it comes to records and equipment is not a bad idea either.

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. Holding our records to that higher standard allows us to price our records commensurate with their superior sound and please the hell out of the people who buy them.

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 that many audiophiles, can we?

(more…)

Good Audio Advice and Critical Listening Skills

More on the Subject of Developing Your Critical Listening Skills

More Unsolicited Audio Advice

[This is an updated version of a commentary written in 2009.]

The latest Mapleshade catalog (Spring 09) has, along with hundreds of recommendations, this little piece of audio advice that caught my eye:

For much improved bass and huge soundstage, put your listening chair or sofa right against the wall behind you. Move your speakers in to 5’ in front of you and 7’ or more apart. No room treatments will yield this much bass improvement.

I literally had to read through it a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. But every time I read it, it still said the same thing, so I know I can’t have been dreaming. This is crazy talk. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Well, it’s not all crazy. There is actually a factually true statement at the end of that paragraph. Yes, it is true that no room treatments will yield as much bass as sitting up against a wall. But why stop there? Bass, regardless of its source, immediately seeks out the corners of the room. That’s where the most bass will always be: where the room boundaries are. If you want to hear the maximum amount of bass your speakers are producing, put your head in the corner of the room down at the floor, where three boundaries intersect. Like the sound now? Getting enough bass are ya?

Along the same lines, for a “huge soundstage” try putting one speaker at one end of the room and the other speaker at the opposite end. Why stop at seven feet? My listening room is twenty feet deep; I can get a soundstage that’s twenty feet across without any problem at all.

I would just have to be dumb enough to think that doing such a thing would be a good idea.

Fellow audiophiles and music lovers, it is not. Let’s talk about why.

Room Reflections

The closer you are to anything that the sound coming from your speakers can bounce off of, right before or right after it reaches your ears, the worse the sound. You want to be as far away from everything as you can be, and this includes not only the back wall of your listening room, but the heads of other persons who may be listening with you. This is easily demonstrated. Have a friend or loved one sit next to you and listen critically to some music you know well. Now have that person leave the room. The sound will always get better (unless something else is very wrong). I have done this experiment many, many times and it only comes out one way: fewer near reflections, better sound.

This is why we have three pair of Hallographs in our listening room. They help control room reflections. Reflections are the main cause of bad sound in most listening rooms. The louder you play your stereo, the worse the reflections get and the more they screw up the sound.

We like to play our stereo very loud — much of the music we love demands it — and we simply could not turn up the volume the way we do without effective room treatments. Your first pair of Hallographs, even just “roughed in,” not tuned precisely the way they can be, will immediately allow you to play your stereo louder than you could before you installed them. (Since the first pair reflect the sound waves directly back to the listener, Hallographs do actually increase the sound level at the listening position, adding energy and dynamics.)

This is a good thing. It’s a clear sign they work.

Sitting Close

Sitting close to the speakers eliminates much of the effect of room reflections. So does wearing headphones. I have never liked either approach to listening; both seem very unnatural to me. And sitting too close is a bad idea from my experience. Now, I can only speak for the sound of large dynamic multi-driver speakers, since those are the only kinds of speakers I’ve owned for the last thirty-odd years. (more…)

What Recordings Are Audiophile Writers Writing About Now I Wonder?

More Pop and Jazz Vocal Albums Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Female Vocal Albums

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.

(more…)