Record Collecting for Audiophiles – The Fundamentals

Ideas and methods for finding the best sounding pressings of your favorite music.

Making Mistakes and Finding Better Sounding Records

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes.

Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” 

Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies

When I think of the 20 odd years (early ’70s to early ’90s) I wasted trying to figure out how audio works before I had much in the way of critical listening skills, it brings to mind that old Faces’ song, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

Learning how to do shootouts for your favorite albums is without a doubt the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and most cogently in this commentary from way back in 2005.

We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one as carefully and critically as possible.

We do not recommend devoting much time to reading about them in magazines or on forums.

We also would dissuade the serious record collector from paying much attention to what the most sought after or most expensive pressings are. Records have market prices based on a host of factors that mostly have nothing to do with sound quality.

And don’t think you can “logically” predict which pressings should sound the best and then just go about acquiring them.

None of these methods are likely to produce good results.

Making mistakes will though. And the more you make, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to recognize and pursue good records. It also makes it easy to part with your bad ones. The latter group we hope will include the majority of your holdings of Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered Recordings. At best those should be seen as placeholders. They’ll do until something better comes along. And considering how mediocre so many newly remastered records are, “something better’ should not be hard to find.

And the better developed your critical listening skills become, the less likely “they’ll do” at all. They’ll just get put on a shelf. It has been our experience that good records get played and bad records don’t.


FURTHER READING

More of the Music of David Crosby

More of the Music of Stephen Stills

More of the Music of Graham Nash

More of the Music of Neil Young

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Two Approaches to Finding Better Records, One of Which Actually Works

New to the Blog? Start Here

More on the Subject of Thinking Critically About Records

If you want to believe the press releases, the hype, the liner notes, the reviews (which are rarely more than the worst kind of malpractice in our opinion) and all the rest of it, that’s your business.

Good luck with that approach; you’re going to need it. When you reach the dead end that surely awaits you, come see us. After 35 years in the record business there is a good chance we will still be around.

Our approach, on the other hand, revolves around cleaning and playing as many records as we can get our hands on, and then judging them on their merits and nothing but their merits, calling them as we see them as best we can, without fear or favor.

Our judgments may turn out to be wrong. Tomorrow we may find a better sounding pressing than the one we sell you today. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

We don’t know it all and we’ve never pretended that we did. All knowledge is provisional. We may not be the smartest guys in the room, but we’re sure as hell smart enough to know that much.

If somehow we did know it all, there would not be a hundred entries in our Live and Learn section.

We regularly learn from our mistakes and we hope you do too.

But we learn things from the records we play not by reading about them, but by playing them. Our experiments, conducted using the shootout process we’ve painstakingly developed and refined over the course of the last twenty years, produces all the data we need: the winners, the losers, and the ranking for all the records in-between.

We’ve learned to ignore everything but the sound of the records we’ve actually played on our reference system.

What, of value, could anyone possibly tell us about a record that we’ve heard for ourselves? The question answers itself.

This approach allows us to have a unique, and, to our way of thinking, uniquely valuable service to offer the discriminating audiophile. When you’re tired of wasting your time and money on the ubiquitous mediocrities that populate the major audiophile dealers’ sites and take up far too much space in your local record store, let us show you just how much more real handpicked-for-top-quality-recordings can do for your musical enjoyment.

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Answers to Some of Your Hot Stamper Questions

The Beatles in Mono, Our Grading System, Our Cleaning System and More

We discuss a number of issues with our letter writer, the kinds of questions we often get, so here are some of the answers we often give out.

  • While Prices for Many Records Have Trended Down, Others Have Gone Up
  • The Beatles in Mono
  • Our White Hot Triple Plus Grade
  • Why Our Stereo Is Good at Its Job, and
  • Record Cleaning

  Hey Tom, 

First off, I got to say, congratulations on a great concept. Also, congrats on having the balls to charge what these albums are worth.

Thanks. Like any business, we charge what the market will bear, and it seems people are willing to pay a lot for these records, although less for some than they used to — some of our records now sell for half or even less than what we were getting two or three or five years ago.

That said, the top copies have held their prices pretty well over the years and often gone up substantially. It’s the second tier and third tier titles and the Super Hots that have really fallen in price. That’s where the real “bargains” are these days. (more…)

The Limits of Expert Advice

More of the Music of Neil Young

Reviews and Commentaries for Zuma

Richard Feynman gave a series of lectures concerning the workings of the scientific method. Here is an excerpt from one of them that I would like you to keep in mind as you read the discussion below.

“Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is … If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Back in 2015 a mastering engineer by the name of Phil Brown contacted me in reference to a Hot Stamper pressing of Neil Young’s Zuma he had seen in our mailer. (Apologies in advance for not giving out the stamper numbers; we frown on that sort of thing around here.) He wrote:

  Hey Tom,   

I see it’s a featured disc in the newsletter. I’m curious what the matrix numbers are since I mastered it. (more…)

Letter of the Week – Thank you for getting me off the “original pressings are the best” gerbil wheel

Hot Stamper Pressings that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Records We’ve Reviewed that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

One of our good customers had this to say about some records he purchased locally, not even from us! (Bolding has been added by us.)

By the way, have I thanked you yet for getting me off the “original pressings are the best” gerbil wheel? I’ve now got a stack of two-fers that I paid $15 apiece for that sound fantastic.

Yup, the very same records that Fremer ridiculed you for selling. [1]

I can buy a copy of an original pressing of Saxophone Colossus [2] for $300 on discogs with absolutely no notes on how the music sounds and no return policy. Or, I can get it for $15 in a twofer at my neighborhood shop, and I can’t imagine it sounding better. Folks just aren’t buying records for the way they sound. It’s nuts.

Tom, you’re like a consultant. It’s almost like I pay you for your knowledge and guidance by buying records from you, but you’re giving information away for free to anybody willing to listen.

In another letter Aaron added this thought after posting on the Hoffman forum and watching the LP 45 guy video:

What a learning experience the last couple of days have been for me. I am just really surprised how little interest in evidence and objectivity my co-hobbyists have proven to have. I know we are in a very anti-objective time right now, but it’s actually almost scary how pervasive it seems to be.

For my own journey into vinyl, a tremendous amount of exploration, experimentation, and tinkering have been essential. I can’t imagine going about it any other way. I’ve begun to wonder what on earth all these other chaps are doing. I mean, does vinyl even sound better than digital on their rigs?? If you don’t try stuff out, you’ll never make progress.

Anyway, looking for open-mindedness, curiosity, and balance in this discussion is futile.

It’s time now for me to stop trying to talk some sense into these people. They are coming at this from such a different place than I am.

Geoff, I’m glad that you touched a nerve that clearly this hobby needed to reckon with.

Tom, I’m glad more people are now aware of you and what you offer now. It’s frustrating to me (although I know you’ve been here a million times previously) that the self-appointed tastemakers in this hobby aren’t even willing to risk challenging their preconceptions. They keep folks in the dark, for reasons I would consider disingenuous.

I just hope that some of the ordinary people listening in are curious enough to give better records a try. The rest of them can just linger in their bubbles of complacency and mutual admiration.

Aaron

Aaron,

Glad I was able to help you get off the gerbil wheel!

As for Two-fers, some are great, including the one that has Lush Life, and some are terrible. Such is the nature of records.

Remastering is not a dirty word when you know how to do it right. Lots of good records were remastered in the ’70s. Think of all the Contemporary titles that came out in the decade before Fantasy bought the label and put all their best titles out as OJCs. Lots of Sheffield Lab Mastering marks in the dead wax, and Sheffield Labs was recutting some great records back in those days.

They don’t sound much like the records being made today, not to these ears anyway, but the typical audiophile who posts on forums — assuming that actually is the typical audiophile — seems to think the opposite is true. We would love to help them see the light, but as you say, that is just not something they are interested in seeing. More’s the pity.

[1] Fremer played a poorly mastered copy and judged the sound to be inferior. We know better than to try to sell the poorly mastered pressings like the one he played. We couldn’t if we tried. They would never make it through the shootout and therefore would never qualify as a Hot Stamper pressing. Hot Stampers of Lush Life are really good sounding pressings! Just as a reality check, we charge a lot of money for our top copies ($500+) and not a single one has ever been returned.

Everybody makes mistakes, but small sample sizes increase the frequency of mistakes by orders of magnitude, especially a sample size as small as 1. When you’re a one-man band, you simply do not have the resources to clean and play enough copies of an album in order to make accurate judgments about the sound.

Which is why he should stick to Heavy Vinyl reviews. You get one in, you give it a spin and you tell everybody how great it is. The advertisers like it, your readers like it, the labels like it, and everybody is happy as a clam.

When troublemakers like us come along, we upset that one-hand-washes-the-other arrangement, and then everybody gets real upset real fast. Nobody wants that. They want to keep selling Heavy Vinyl because that is what can be produced, in volume, at a reasonable cost, distributed widely and, most importantly, priced affordably. Win win win win win. So much winning!

If you want something better sounding, from us, it will cost you dearly. It will be every bit as good as we say, but it will not be cheap and it will not be collectible. The vast majority of record loving audiophiles — like the LP 45 Man — like collecting records. 95+% I would venture to guess.

The five per cent that are left are unlikely to want to spend their life savings on our pricey, uncollectible pressings. That leaves our potential pool of customers at less than one per cent of all the record loving audiophiles who want better sound and can afford it. Subtract the number of them who don’t like me personally — seems like a lot! — and you have a very small cohort of customers to draw from.

But big enough to keep our business going and food on the table for ten dedicated. music loving men and women. Nobody is getting rich, even at these prices, but we’re making a living and providing a service which some people really appreciate.

[2] We have not liked Saxophone Colossus on the Two-fer for many years. It was very dubby on the copies we played, so we gave up. Let us know what pressing you have so we can check it against our notes.

And if you can find an original Saxophone Colossus in clean shape for $300, you should jump on it. I have seen them sell for ten times that. And, just for everyone’s information, we have never sold a Hot Stamper for that price, although it is surely coming, inflation being what it is these days.

Compromised Recordings Versus Purist Recordings – If It’s About the Music, the Choice Is Clear

More of the Music of The Doobie Brothers

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of The Doobie Brothers

[This commentary is from circa 2010]

A while back one of our good customers wrote to tell us how much he liked his Century Direct to Disc recording of the Glenn Miller big band, one of the few really amazing sounding direct discs that contains music actually worth listening to. Which brought me to the subject of Hot Stampers. 

Hot Stamper pressings are almost always going to be studio multi-track recordings, not live Direct to Discs. They will invariably suffer many compromises compared to the purist approach of an audiophile label trying to eliminate sources of distortion in the pursuit of the highest fidelity.

But when they do that, they almost always FAIL. How many Direct Discs sound like that Glenn Miller? A dozen at most. The vast majority are just plain AWFUL. I know, I’ve played practically every one ever made. For more than a decade that was my job.

Thankfully that is no longer the case, although we do have a handful of direct discs that we still shootout, such as The Three, Glenn Miller, Straight from the Heart and the odd Sheffield.

Compromised Recordings

What we do play is those very special, albeit COMPROMISED, mass-produced pressings. The right Londons and Shaded Dogs. Columbia and Contemporary jazz. Brewer and Shipley. Sergio Mendes. The Beatles. The Doobie Brothers for Pete’s sake!

Why? Because those pressings actually communicate the MUSIC. They allow you to forget about the recording and just LISTEN. You can’t do that very often with the CD of the album. You can’t even do it with most of the vinyl pressings you run into. You certainly can’t do it with the vast majority of 180 gram LPs being made today, not in our experience anyway.

You have to have the right pressing. That’s what a Hot Stamper is: It’s the Right Pressing.

It’s the one that really lets the music come through, regardless of whatever compromises were made along the way.

Doobies – We Make an Exception

Good example: What Once Were Vices…, a Hot Stamper that had never made it to the site [at the time but since has]. A very good customer saw I had an unpriced copy up and wanted to know what it sounded like, how quiet it was and how much it would cost. Normally I just can’t take the time to do the work necessary to answer those questions, to really understand the sound of an unfamiliar title (especially in this case, not being a fan of early era Doobies). It typically requires cleaning and playing lots of copies and listening to them critically, trying to find the tracks that tell the story of the sound. This is very time consuming, as I’m sure you can imagine. But we have to do it; it’s our bread and butter here at Better Records. We just can’t do it NOW, because there are dozens of other albums we’re in the middle of investigating and adding a 25th causes me to be even testier than I usually am.

But for some reason in this case I made an exception to that policy. I guess I was curious about the album, one I hadn’t played in twenty years. The grooves looked good. It was very clean. Already Disc Doctored. Why not throw it on the table?

So I did, and it must have been a good stereo day, the electricity must have been cooking, because it sounded FABULOUS. Much better than I expected. Just right in fact.

So now I had to know how other copies would sound. Maybe they’re all good. Playback technology has come a long way in the last twenty years; maybe the Doobies were making great records all along and we just couldn’t play them until now.

Alas, none of the other copies sounded like this one. (The Japanese pressing I had put away for a rainy day shootout got about ten seconds of play time before I recognized it had a bad case of spitty, grainy, Japanese pressing sound. It went right in the trade pile.)

The good one had LIFE. The others sounded fairly dead in comparison. Probably made from a sub-generation EQ’d dub, which is what would be used to master most copies. Sad but true.

Enjoyment

What did I hear on this hot copy? The usual things we talk about around here. I won’t bore you by repeating them. More importantly, much more importantly, is the fact that I found myself really ENJOYING the music. Really liking the SONGS. Singing along, (off key of course). Thinking, “Hey, these old Doobie Brothers are pretty talented! This is a good album. I’m really getting into this.” (It even motivated me to do a survey of their other releases to see if there were more undiscovered gems sitting on my shelf. Watch for future listings.)

And this is precisely my point. The right LP will communicate the music so well that you’ll forget about the stereo, you’ll forget about the recording, you’ll just find yourself enjoying the music. The majority of LPs won’t let you do that, audiophile labels included. It all comes down to two words: Musical Satisfaction.

Living and Breathing

The best classical recordings of the ’50s and ’60s, compromised in every imaginable way, are sonically and musically head and shoulders above virtually anything that came after them. The music lives and breathes on those old LPs. Playing them, you find yourself in the Living Presence of the musicians. You become lost in their performance. Whatever the limitations of the medium, such limitations seem to fade quickly from consciousness. What remains is the rapture of the purely musical experience.

That’s what happens when a good record meets a good turntable. And that includes a good Doobie Brothers record.

We live for records like these. It’s the reason we all get up in the morning and come to work, to find and play good records. It’s what this site is all about — offering the audiophile music lover recordings that provide real musical satisfaction.

It’s hard work — so hard nobody else seems to want to do it — but the payoff makes it all worthwhile. To us anyway. Hope you feel the same. Based on our testimonials I’m glad to see that many of you do.

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What Are Some Good General Rules for Acquiring Records with the Highest Quality Sound?

More of the Music of Thelonious Monk

Jazz Albums with Hot Stampers Available Now

The Riverside pressings we’ve auditioned of both The Thelonious Monk Orchestra – At Town Hall and Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two – At The Blackhawk were just awful sounding.

The OJC reissues of both albums from the ’80s, although better, were not overflowing with the rich, natural, relaxed sound we were looking for either.

Ah, but a few years back (2015, maybe?) we happened to drop the needle on one of these good Milestone Two-Fers. Here was the sound we were looking for and had had so little luck finding before.

Which prompts the question that should be on the mind of every audiophile: What are the rules for collecting records with the best sound quality?

The answer, of course, is that there are no such rules and never will be.

There is only trial and error. Our full-time staff has been running trials — we call them shootouts and needle drops — for more than twenty years now, with far more errors than successes. Such is the nature of records.

It may be a tautology to note that the average record has mediocre sound, but it nevertheless pays to keep that rather inconvenient fact in mind.

Even worse, if you make the mistake of pinning your hopes on a current Heavy Vinyl reissue — and you happen to be a member of that blessed minority of audiophiles with top quality equipment; a dedicated, heavily-treated room; decades of experience; reasonably high standards and two well-trained ears — your disappointment is almost guaranteed.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Thelonious Monk

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Tchaikovsky / Symphony No. 4 in Living Stereo – What Does It Sound Like Now?

The Music of Tchaikovsky Available Now

Album Reviews of the Music of Tchaikovsky

Years ago we wrote:

This is a 1s/5s Shaded Dog. TAS List (or at least it used to be). Probably the reason HP likes this LP so much is that it has a very wide soundstage. It also has good solid weight. A little soft on top, but that comes with the territory.

This is a very old review, probably from about 15 years ago. I don’t think I could recommend this record today. It probably belongs on this list, but I cannot truthfully say that it does one way or another. As I recall, the copies I’ve played more recently were not impressive.

If I played it today, would I find it to be as bad as this Living Stereo pressing? Who knows? That experiment has not been run.

Classic Records remastered a version of the album in 1995. In another listing we mentioned that Classic had the habit of  equalizing their classical records to make them all but intolerable on a modern hi-fidelity system:

Classic, as is their wont, boosted the upper midrange, and that, coupled with their transistory mastering equipment, makes the strings brighter, grainier and yet somehow lacking in texture and sheen compared to the originals (a clear sign of a low-res cutting chain).

Once you recognize that quality in the sound of a record it’s hard to ignore, and I hear it on practically every Classic Record I play. This commentary has more on the subject.

RCA is more famous for its string tone than anything else. If the strings on the Classic Records LPs don’t bother you, you can save yourself a lot of money by not buying vintage RCA pressings, and get a lot quieter vinyl to boot.

Here are some other records that are good for testing string tone and texture.

Another label you are no doubt familiar with used to make ridiculously bright classical records. Here is one of their worst.

If you would like to see other records with string tone we found to be too bright, click here.

Some Advice

We much prefer Mravinsky’s performances of the later symphonies, but good sounding copies of his records are just too hard to find, and may in fact not be findable, so we have never actually done a shootout for any of them.

The Shootout Video Is Here!

Geoff Edgers’ Washington Post article “The Search for the Perfect Sound,” in which he talks to lots of audiophiles and music lovers about his personal journey into the world of audiophile equipment and records, is now active on their website.

NEWSFLASH! This is currently the most popular story/video on the WAPO website! Number One with a bullet, baby. [Alas, no longer.]

Don’t miss the video below of yours truly doing a shootout for Tapestry.

It’s actually not a real shootout. For Tapestry we would typically play 8-10 early pressings and grade them for sound. This was more of a test, to see if I could spot the Hot Stamper among the pretenders, more What’s My Line than a shootout.

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Brahms / Violin Concerto – Is the 1s Pressing Always the Best?

Hot Stamper Pressings that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Records We’ve Reviewed that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

This early Shaded Dog pressing of a 1958 recording has surprisingly good sound on side two. On the second side the sound opens up and is very sweet, with the violin becoming much more present and clear. The whole of side two is transparent with an extended top. Usually the earliest Living Stereo titles suffer from a lack of top end extension, but not this one.

Maybe the 1s is also that way. For some reason audiophiles tend to think that the earliest cuttings are the best, but that’s just another Record Myth in our experience, easily refuted if you’ve played hundreds of these Living Stereo pressings and noted which stampers sound the best and which do not.

The 1s pressings do not win all that many shootouts around here.

Less than half the time, probably closer to a quarter or a third.

Of course, to avoid being biased, the person listening to the record doesn’t know the stamper numbers, and that may help explain why the 1s loses so often.

If you are interested in finding the best sounding pressings, you have to approach the problem scientifically, and that means running Record Experiments.

Practically everything you read on this blog we learned through experimentation.

When we experimented with the Classic Records pressing of LSC 1903, we were none too pleased with what we heard. Our review is reproduced below.

The Classic reissue of LSC 1903 was a disaster: shrill, smeary and unmusical.

(In a recent commentary we went into some detail about Bernie Grundman’s shortcomings as a mastering engineer for those of you who might be less familiar with his more recent work. He was great in the ’70s, but the work he did in the ’90s leaves a lot to be desired.)

The best Heifetz records on Classic were, if memory serves, LSC 2734 (Glazunov), LSC 2603 (Bruch) and LSC 2769 (Rozsa). They aren’t nearly as offensive as the others. If you can pick one up for ten or twenty bucks, you might get your money’s worth depending, I suppose, on how critically you listen to your classical records and how revealing your system is.

My guess is that the CDs are probably better sounding. That’s probably the first place to go, considering Classic’s track record and the fact that CDs are cheap now because nobody wants them anymore. 

If you must have Heifetz’s 1958 performance, our advice is to buy the CD.

We know for a fact that the Living Stereo CD of Reiner’s Scheherazade is dramatically better than the awful Classic Records pressing of it, TAS Super Disc Listing or no TAS Super Disc Listing.

As you may know, Classic is a label which we found very hard to like right from the beginning. We like them even less now. They may have gone out of business but their bad records are still plentiful on ebay and you can actually still buy some their leftover crap right from the world’s biggest retailer of bad sounding audiophile records, Acoustic Sounds.

If you don’t care how bad your records sound, Chad Kassem is your man.