*Our Record Overview – The Good

The Who – Quadrophenia – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

On the best copies the energy factor is OFF THE CHARTS. The highs are silky sweet, the bottom end is meaty, the drums are punchy and the vocals are present and tonally correct. The piano has real weight, the synths float breathily in the air, and there’s wonderful three-dimensional depth to the soundfield. 

There’s a POWER to the sound that the average copy only hints at. The crashing guitar chords that are the hallmark of The Who Sound often lack the weight of the real thing; they don’t punch you in the gut the way Townsend no doubt wanted them to.

Moon’s drums need to blast away like cannons. This is the quintessential Who sound. Everybody who’s ever seen them live knows it. I saw them back in the day when Moon was still behind his kit and it’s a sound I’ll never forget. 

Most copies don’t have nearly this much Tubey Magic — you aren’t going to believe all the richness, sweetness, and warmth here. The clarity and transparency are superb in their own right, and the impressive dynamic range really allows this copy to communicate the explosive energy of The Who at their peak.. (more…)

Cat Stevens – Catch Bull At Four Magic Stampers

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  • With two shootout winning Triple Plus (A+++) sides, this early UK pressing is As Good As It Gets!
  • Bigger, more dynamic, more lively, more present and just plain more EXCITING than anything we heard – that’s why it won our shootout  
  • This one can show you the sweeter, tubier Midrange Magic that we is the hallmark of all the best Cat Stevens’ recordings
  • Many of Cat’s best songs are here – Can’t Keep It In, Angelsea, 18th Avenue, Freezing Steel and more
  • “Celebrated and adored for his sanguine lyrics and irresistible hooks, Cat Stevens was one of the rare singer-songwriters capable of composing genuinely optimistic songs that didn’t leave a sappy residue in listeners’ ears.”

The Magic Stampers

As is sometimes the case, there is one and only one set of stamper numbers that consistently wins our Catch Bull At Four shootouts. We stumbled upon an out-of-this-world copy of the right pressing about two years ago, a copy took the recording to a level we had no idea could even be possible. (We were going to give it Four Pluses, and probably should have, but cooler heads prevailed.)

Since then we have had many copies come in, but none that could compete with the Magic Stamper pressings. And the best part of this story is that, no, the best stampers are not 1U, or 2U, or even 3U. In other words they are far from the stampers found on the earliest pressings. That’s one reason it took us so long to discover them, because they are much less commonly found than pressings with the earlier stampers. By the time these later pressings were mastered, pressed and released, the album’s biggest selling days were over. For all we know this cutting may have been done just to keep the record in print, possibly undertaken many years after its initial release.

Who knows? Who cares? What difference does it make?

Well, it does serve to make a point near and dear to our hearts: that the idea (and operational premise of most record collectors) that the Original Is Always Better is just a load of bunk. It might be and it might not be. If you want better sounding records you had better open your mind to the idea that some reissues have the potential to sound better than even the best original pressing of the album.

Of course this is nothing but bad news for the average audiophile collector, who simply does not have the time or money to go through the hassle of buying, cleaning and playing every damn pressing he can get his hands on.

But good news for us, because we do.

What do the best Hot Stamper pressings of Catch Bull At Four give you?

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • 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 so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also 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 instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

This copy has the kind of sound we look for in a top quality Cat Stevens record: immediacy in the vocals (so many copies are veiled and distant); natural tonal balance (most copies are either bright or dark; ones with the right balance are the exception, not the rule); good solid weight (so the piano and toms sound full and powerful); spaciousness (the best copies have studio ambience like you would not believe); and last but not least, TRANSPARENCY, the effect of being able to see INTO the soundfield all the way to the back, where there is plenty going on in this remarkably sophisticated studio recording.

Huge Size and Space

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus and maybe a bit better is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of later pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful originals.

If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.

Track Commentary

The Track Listing tab above will take you to an extensive song by song breakdown for each side, with plenty of What to Listen For (WTLF) advice.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Sitting

This track often sounds a bit flat and midrangy, and it sounds that way on most domestic pressings and the “wrong” imports.

The best imports and domestic pressings are the only ones with the sweeter, tubier Midrange Magic that we’ve come to associate with the best Cat Stevens recordings.

Boy With a Moon & Star on His Head

Another very difficult track to get to sound right. The better copies have such amazingly transparent sound you can’t help feeling as though you really are in the presence of live human beings. You get the sense of actual fingers — in this case the fingers of Cat’s stalwart accompanist Alun Davies — plucking the strings of his Spanish guitar.

Angelsea

This is one of the best sounding tracks on the album, right up there with Cat’s most well recorded big productions such as Tuesday’s Dead, Changes IV, Where Do The Children Play and Hard Headed Woman. On Hot Stamper copies this is a Demo Track that’s hard to beat.

The midrange magic of the acoustic guitars is off the scale. Some of Catch Bull At Four has the magic and some of it does not, unlike Tea and Teaser, which are magical all the way through.

Silent Sunlight
Can’t Keep It In

On the best copies this track is as Huge and Powerful as anything the man ever recorded. It’s another one of the best sounding tracks on the album. On our top copies this is a Demo Track that’s hard to beat.

The midrange magic of the acoustic guitars is off the scale. Some of Catch Bull At Four has the magic and some of it does not, unlike Tea and Teaser, which are magical all the way through.

Side Two

18th Avenue

This track is a great test for side two. The strings should sound silky yet also have nice texture to them. Without proper mastering, the kind that results in midrange clarity and extension on the top, they’ll never sound right.

There’s also a lot going on with the percussion on this track; you’ll need a dynamic copy to really get the full effect. If you have the kind of speaker that can really move some air you are in for a treat with this one.

Freezing Steel

Another great test for side two. The huge drums and chorus at the end of the song are going to be tough to get right if you’re playing the album at the good and loud levels we do.

Again, you’ll need a dynamic copy with plenty of solid deep bass to get the full effect. If you have big speakers that can really move air this track might just rock your world.

O Caritas
Sweet Scarlet
Ruins

Rolling Stone Review

Catch Bull is impeccably produced. Its musical contents are like those of Teaser and the Firecat—simple, short-phrased melodies and spare and vibrant arrangements. There are, however, notable differences between Catch Bull and its predecessor. The instrumental repertoire has been widened somewhat: three cuts make minimal use of a synthesizer, and on four cuts Cat plays piano.

…Happily, the greatest difference between Teaser and Catch Bull lies in the lyric themes of the songs. Though some of the lyrics retain Cat’s fanciful imagery— word poems so dreamily obscure as to defy interpretation—he shows a new emotional directness, especially on side two, the albums “down” side. This is reflected in Cat’s singing, which becomes more assured and more emotive with each album.

Stephen Holden
Rolling Stone Magazine
November 23, 1972

Amazon Review

Celebrated and adored for his sanguine lyrics and irresistible hooks, Cat Stevens was one of the rare singer-songwriters capable of composing genuinely optimistic songs that didn’t leave a sappy residue in listeners’ ears.

However, even a cursory listen to 1972’s Catch Bull at Four proves that the Cat had seen darkness, too, and that those darker elements had become more pronounced than they’d been in the past. His vocal style shifts from the cool croon that made Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat top sellers to a harsher, almost growling delivery.

The album’s standouts–the wistful reverie “Sitting” and the delightfully infectious “Can’t Keep It In”–are resolute in lyric and melody. Rambling, mystical odes such as “The Boy with a Moon & Star on His Head,” “Angelsea,” and “Sweet Scarlet” offer quaintly romantic imagery and lavishly undulating melodies.

But it’s the mercurial dynamics and driving melody of “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)” and the bitter conviction of “Ruins” that give the album a backbone and a sense of balance. — Sally Weinbach

Audio Progress

Many copies were gritty, some were congested in the louder sections, some never got big, some were thin and lacking the lovely analog richness of the best — we heard plenty of copies whose faults were obvious when played against two top sides such as these.

Speaking of congestion, it had previously been our experience that every copy of the record had at least some congestion in the loudest parts, typically the later parts of songs where Cat is singing at the top of his lungs, the acoustic guitars are strumming like crazy, and big drums are pounding away are jumping out of both speakers.

The best import and domestic copies in our shootout this time around managed to reproduce all these elements cleanly, on a larger soundstage, with dynamically more energy, sonic firepower the likes of which we have never heard on this album before.

Progress

Of course the reason I hadn’t heard the congestion and the dryness and hardness in the recording is that two things changed. One, we found better copies of the record to play — probably, can’t say for sure, but let’s assume we did, and, Two, we’ve made lots of improvements to the stereo since the last time we did the shootout.

You have to get around to doing regular shootouts for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any way at all. Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they might be or when they might have occurred, were incontrovertible. The album was now playing at a much, much higher level.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the possibility, indeed the importance, of taking full advantage of the Revolutions in Audio of the last ten or twenty years.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s natural to blame sonic shortcomings on the recording; everyone does it including us.

But in this case We Was Wrong. The congestion and flatness we’d gotten used to are no longer a problem on the best copies. We’ve worked diligently on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get Catch Bull At Four to play at a much higher level than we could before.

This is why we keep experimenting, keep tweaking and keep searching for the best sounding pressings, and why we encourage you to do the same.

Steely Dan – The Parker’s Band Saxophone Battle Listening Exercise

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Parker’s Band — another in our series of Home Audio Exercises

Take three or four Pretzel Logic pressings, clean them up and just play the saxophone battle we discuss below. You won’t find any two copies that get those saxes to sound the same. We had twenty and no two sounded the same to us. 

By far the TOUGHEST test on side two is the saxophone battle at the end of the song. If you’ve got a badly mastered or pressed copy it’s sure to be an unmitigated sonic DISASTER: aggressive, hard, shrill, sour, irritating — pick whatever adjective makes you wince, because wincing is exactly what you will find yourself doing with the typical ABC or MCA LP on your table.

You need a copy with an extended top end to allow the harmonics of the saxes to be reproduced correctly. This is the only way they will sound balanced. Otherwise you will be left with a honky upper midrange aggressiveness that will no doubt be doing its level best to tear your head off. If the pressing in question has any added grit or grain, and they almost all do, you are in for even more trouble. Only the sweetest, most tonally correct, grain-free, full-bandwidth copies will let you dig those battling bopish saxes.

Ah, and it’s so good when they do.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Brubeck And Rushing

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

This Minty looking Columbia Six Eye Demo LP has SUPERB SOUND and some of the quietest Six Eye vinyl I’ve ever heard. If you’re a fan of either Dave Brubeck or Jimmy Rushing you can’t do better than this album. The sound is as close to perfection as I can imagine.

Neil Young’s Guitar Masterpiece – Danger Bird

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Listen to the way Danger Bird opens. Each instrument, one by one, slowly, deliberately, one could almost say haltingly, feeds into the mix, until the churning guitars give way to Neil’s spare vocal — fatalistic, doomed, already resigned to some fate he barely understands. 

Even though the song has just begun, you sense that Neil feels a weight and a darkness bearing down on him, that it’s ongoing, that it’s already started, that somehow you’re coming into it in the middle, well after the weight of it has begun to crush and perhaps even kill him. He knows the story of Danger Bird all too well.

It’s as powerful and intense a piece of music as any I have ever experienced; sublime in its simplicity, transcendental in effect. You feel yourself swept along, an out of body experience that you can’t control. When Neil launches into the first of many guitar solos the sense of journeying or exploring with him the imaginary musical world he is creating is palpable. He doesn’t seem to know where it will lead and neither do you. There is no structure to reassure you, no end in sight, only the succession of notes that play from moment to moment, first tensing, then relaxing; cresting, then falling away.

Music has the power to take you out of the world you know and place you in a world of its own making. How it can do that nobody knows. Whatever Neil tapped into to make it happen on Danger Bird, he succeeded completely. If you’re in the right frame of mind, in the right environment, with everything working audio-wise, a minute into this song you will no longer be sitting in your comfy audio chair. You won’t know where you are, which is exactly where you should be.

The Power Of Live Music

To accomplish this feat the sound has to be right. This is always the rub. If you’re an audiophile these transcendent experiences tend to be prompted by exceptionally well-recorded music, the kind of recordings that let you forget you’re listening to a recording at all.

So many records call attention to their shortcomings so quickly that the transcendental effect never takes hold or is quickly dissipated after the first few minutes. This is not the case with the best Hot Stamper copies of the best recordings. They create a truly out-of-body experience from first note to last.

A Big Speaker Record

Let’s face it, this is a Big Speaker Record. It requires a pair of speakers that can move air with authority below 250 cycles and play at loud levels. If you don’t own speakers that can do that, this record will never really sound the way it should.

It demands to be played loud. It won’t come to life the way the producers, engineers and artists involved intended it to if you play it at moderate levels.

Ray Brown / Milt Jackson

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

This Minty Verve LP with the old style paste-on back cover sounds great! Big sounding ’60s jazz with lively arrangements from Oliver Nelson and Jimmy Heath. Clark Terry’s trumpet and flugelhorn contributions play a major role in the festivities. This is cool, swinging ’60’s jazz at its best! 

A lot of Verve records from this era are poorly mastered, but this one sounds just right to us.

A 4 1/2 Star Album in the All Music Guide!

George Benson – Breezin’ – Our Shootout Winner from 2012

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

Excellent sound for George Benson’s 1976 classic Breezin’! This copy should blow the doors off your old copy or any MoFi pressing — guaranteed. It’s got all the elements this smooth masterpiece needs to come to life today, almost 40 years later if you can believe it. There’s tons of energy, strong presence, excellent bass and a huge soundfield with real depth. You can hear right into the music, something just not possible on most copies out there.   

This album features the huge hit “This Masquerade” and lots of other strong material as well. Benson is at the top of his game, with blazing guitar lines accompanied by his scat vocals at many times. No one else ever did music like this so well again, in our humble opinion.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Breezin’ 
This Masquerade 
Six to Four

Side Two

Affirmation 
So This Is Love? 
Lady

AMG Review

All of a sudden, George Benson became a pop superstar with this album, thanks to its least representative track. Most of Breezin’ is a softer-focused variation of Benson’s R&B/jazz-flavored CTI work, his guitar as assured and fluid as ever with Claus Ogerman providing the suave orchestral backdrops and his crack then-working band (including Ronnie Foster on keyboards and sparkplug Phil Upchurch on rhythm guitar) pumping up the funk element. Yet it is the sole vocal track (his first in many years), Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” — where George unveiled his new trademark, scatting along with a single-string guitar solo — that reached number ten on the pop singles chart and drove the album all the way to number one on the pop (!) LP chart.

Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Phil Urso – Picture Of Heath – A Killer Copy from 2005

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Jazz Hall of Fame

This is an exceptionally nice original Pacific Jazz Black Label Mono LP with SUPERB SOUND. Pure Pleasure just did a 180g reissue of this album, but the real thing is THE REAL THING! This copy has the PRESENCE, the DYNAMICS and the LIFE of real jazz. I can’t think of a more fun west coast jazz session that sounds as good outside of the best Contemporary records. This one gets a top recommendation. 

Bryan Ferry – The Bride Stripped Bare – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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

It’s been years since I last played this album, and I’m happy, ecstatic even, to report that it sounds far better than I remember it sounding. In the old days I recall it as somewhat dry, flat and transistory. Now it’s BIG and BOLD, revealing a band that’s on fire in the studio. 

This White Hot side two had by far the most energy of any side we played, showing us just what a monster rocker this album can be when it’s mastered and pressed right. The reviews were mixed when the album was released in 1978 but time has been kind to it — after hearing the killer copies I would rank it up at the top with the best of Ferry’s and Roxy’s work.

The first three tracks are uptempo barn burners sure to get you out of any funk you may find yourself in, day or night.

With a sonic grade of A++ side one was nearly as good! The Tubey Magic on this side is much more pronounced than it is on side two, which has more of a clean, spacious sound, a better mix to be sure.

We were a bit surprised to find that the domestic copies we played were clearly better sounding than the UK imports. It may be counterintuitive but these are the kinds of things you find out when doing shootouts. We have little use for intuitions (UK recording, UK pressing) and rules of thumb (original equals better). Hard data — the kind you get from actually playing the records — trumps them all.

AGAIG Side Two

This side two has it all: the kind of transparency that allows you to hear into the soundfield like never before; presence and immediacy in Ferry’s breathy, emotional vocals; air and ambience around all the instruments; and especially Rick Marotta’s super-punchy drums, so high up in the mix. That front and center snare is the sound we love here at Better Records!

This side one also had REAL ENERGY and dynamics not found on other pressings. With dynamics AND the warmth and richness found here, we’re pretty sure this copy can’t be beat. (more…)

Red Mitchell Quartet – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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

TWO SUPERB SIDES on quiet vinyl. This stunning copy of this Better Records fave has some of the best upright bass sound we’ve heard; it’s welll-defined with texture and weight. It’s also unbelievable dynamic and lively. The clarity and transparency are mindblowing here. We went crazy over the huge soundfield on this copy — wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and then some.

We love the sound of Contemporary Records — it’s our favorite jazz label by a long shot. Roy DuNann always seemed to get The Real Sound out of the sessions he recorded — amazingly realistic drum sound; full-bodied, breathy horns; lots of top end extension; deep, note-like bass; weighty piano, studio ambience, three-dimensionality, and on and on.

The Sound of the Best Copies

Let’s face it: many reissues of this 1957 recording — this pressing is on the yellow ’70s label — have a veiled, dull quality to their sound. When they don’t, man, they can really beat the pants off even the best originals.

We get Black Label original Contemporary pressings in all the time, but few of them are mastered right and most never make it to the site. Some are pure muck. Some have bass so bloated that it’s hard to believe anyone would ever take that kind of sound seriously.

Don’t buy into that record collecting slash audiophile canard that Original Equals Better. That’s bullshit. Records don’t work that way, and anyone with two good ears, two good speakers and a decent-sized record collection should have learned that lesson a long time ago. The fact that a minority of audiophiles and record collectors actually do understand these things is a sad commentary on the state of reproduction in the home. But that’s another story for another day. (more…)