Five Star Albums

Thoughts on Smear (and the Smear-Prone Components that Makes Audio Progress Difficult)

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Hot Stampers of Miles’s Albums Available Now

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Listen to the trumpet at the start of Freddie Freeloader. Most copies do not clearly convey the transient information of Miles’ horn, causing it to have an easily recognizable quality we talk about all the time on the site: smear.

No two pressings will have precisely the same amount of smear on his trumpet, so look for the least smeary copy that does everything else right too.

Meaning simply that smear is important, but not all-important.

More recordings that are good for testing smear.

If you click on the above link, you will see that we regularly talk about smeary pianos, smeary brass, smeary violins and smeary Classic Records classical reissues. Nobody else seems particularly bothered by smear as far as we can tell, and one of our many theories about the stereo shortcomings of reviewers and audiophiles in general is that their systems are fairly smeary, so a little extra smear is mostly inaudible to them.

I had a smeary system for my first twenty or more years in audio, so I know whereof I speak.

And of course I was just as clueless as everybody else.

We’ve worked very hard over the last twenty years or so to make sure our system has a practically undetectable amount of smear. Any smear we hear on a record means that the smear is on the record. It is not the product of shortcomings in our playback system.

And almost any system that uses vintage tubes — whatever their pros and cons, however much you may like the sound they produce — will have some smear.

We got rid of our tube equipment a long time ago, and having done so, the smear it added to the sound of the records we were playing at that time was dramatically reduced.

About a hundred other tweaks and improvements got rid of the rest. As I say, it took about twenty years.

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The Mahavishnu Orchestra – The Inner Mounting Flame

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  • A KILLER copy with Double Plus (A++) or BETTER sound from the first note to the last – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • The band’s debut is a true Jazz/Rock Fusion Demo Disc with the Big Sound we love here at Better Records
  • This album was recorded in 1971, only a year after Bitches Brew single-handedly created the genre of Jazz Fusion itself
  • 5 Stars “…a furious, high-energy, yet rigorously conceived meeting of virtuosos that, for all intents and purposes, defined the fusion of jazz and rock…”

This is the first album by the band, recorded only a year after Bitches Brew single-handedly created the genre of Jazz Fusion itself. Or is it better described as an album of Prog Rock without the vocals? Remember, King Crimson had a violinist and not a whole lot of singing too.

Whatever it is, mostly what this music wants to do is rock. And on this copy it rocks like you will not believe. The louder you play it the better it sounds.

The best copies had huge amounts of bottom end weight as well as rich, Tubey Magical grungy guitar tone. Once you’ve heard it sound that way, on the copies without both you’ll notice that the sound falls flat pretty quickly.

It’s hard to think of another record that rocks as hard, and it’s not even a real rock record! We find ourselves playing albums like Zep II and Back in Black for hour after hour, with dozens of copies to get through, and we do it on a regular basis. If anybody knows Big Rock Sound, it’s us. But can we really say that those albums rock any harder than this one (more…)

Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home

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  • With two nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sides, this copy is close to the BEST we have ever heard, right up there with our Shootout Winner
  • These early pressings can be killer when you find one like this – they’re clearly more lively, more transparent, and richer, with dramatically more immediacy in the midrange so that Dylan’s voice is front and center and in the room with you
  • You would be hard pressed to find a copy that sounds this good and plays this quietly
  • 5 stars: “With Bringing It All Back Home, he exploded the boundaries, producing an album of boundless imagination and skill. And it’s not just that he went electric, either, rocking hard on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” and “Outlaw Blues”; it’s that he’s exploding with imagination throughout the record.”

NOTE: There is a mark that plays haflway through track five about eight times at a moderate level.

You may be aware that it is hard to find a 360 Columbia Stereo pressing from 1965 that plays any quieter!

It’s tough to find copies of this album that give you all the tubey richness and warmth that this music needs to sound its best. Too many copies seem to be EQ’d to put the vocals way up front, an approach that renders Dylan’s voice hard and edgy. Copies like that sound impressive at first blush (“Wow, he’s really IN THE ROOM!”) but become fatiguing in short order. When you get a copy like this one that’s smooth, relaxed and natural, the music sounds so good that you forget about the sound and just get lost in the music.

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Janis Joplin – Pearl

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  • Richer, clearer and more tonally correct, with more energy and presence, all qualities that help to bring this music to life
  • Janis’s vocals sound right on the money here – smooth enough to let you crank this one up good and loud without the sound getting hard and edgy
  • 5 stars: “Janis Joplin’s second masterpiece (after Cheap Thrills), Pearl was designed as a showcase for her powerhouse vocals, stripping down the arrangements that had often previously cluttered her music or threatened to drown her out.”

Vintage covers for this album are hard to find in clean shape. Most of them will have at least some amount of ringwear, seam wear and edge wear. We guarantee that the cover we supply with this Hot Stamper is at least VG, and it will probably be VG+. If you are picky about your covers please let us know in advance so that we can be sure we have a nice cover for you.

Both sides are noticeably sweeter and more open up top than the average copy. Most everything that we look for in a Hot Stamper Pearl is happening on this copy: presence to the vocals; weight to the piano; texture and definition to the bass; a Tubey Magical midrange; freedom from grit and grain and so forth.

It’s not a perfect record — no copy of Pearl will ever be — but it’s better in all the ways that make the music really work. That’s what a Hot Stamper is all about!

None of this is to say that you’ll put this one on your top shelf with your Ajas and your Tea for the Tillermans, but this copy has the kind of sound you’d never guess was possible listening to the average copy. (more…)

Led Zeppelin / Houses of the Holy – Listening in Depth

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You really get an understanding of just how much of a production genius Jimmy Page was when you listen to a copy of Houses with the kind of resolution and transparency found on our best copies.

To take just one example, listen to how clearly the multi-tracked guitars can be heard in the different layers and areas of the soundstage. On some songs you will have no trouble picking out three, four and even more guitars playing, each with its own unique character. The clarity of the better copies allows you to recognize — perhaps for the first time — the special contribution each makes to the finished song.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

The Song Remains the Same
The Rain Song

Check out the guitars — the sound should be warm, sweet and delicate. There are some dead quiet passages in this song that are almost always going to have some surface noise. Most copies start out a bit noisy but almost always get quieter as the music goes along.

Over the Hills and Far Away

This is a great test track for side one. It starts with lovely acoustic guitars before the Monster Zep Rock Chords come crashing in. If both parts of the song sound correct and balanced, you more than likely have a winner. And the bigger the dynamic contrast between the parts the better.

Turn your volume up good and high in order to get the full effect, then stand back and let the boys have at it.

The Crunge (more…)

Turntable Testing Using Court and Spark and a Yellow Pad

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

Hot Stamper Pressings of Court and Spark Available Now

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There are loud vocal choruses on many tracks, and more often than not at their loudest they sound like they are either breaking up or threatening to do so. I always assumed it was compressor or board overload, which is easily heard on Down to You. On the best copies there is no breakup — the voices get loud and stay clean throughout.

This assumes that your equipment is up to the job. The loudest choruses are a tough test for any system.

Setup Advice

If you have one of our hottest Hot Stampers, try adjusting your setup – VTA, Tracking Weight, Azimuth, Anti-Skate (especially! Audiophiles often overlook this one, at their peril) — and note how cleanly the loudest passages play using various combinations of settings.

Keep a yellow pad handy and write everything down step by step as you make your changes, along with what differences you hear in the sound.

You will learn more about sound from this exercise than you can from practically any other. Even shootouts won’t teach you what you can learn from variations in your table setup.

And once you have your setup dialed in better, you will find that your shootouts go a lot smoother than they used to. (more…)

Blondie – Parallel Lines

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Reviews and Commentaries for Parallel Lines

  • With a Triple Plus (A+++) Shootout Winning side one and a Double Plus (A++) side two, this copy had some of the best sound we have ever heard for Parallel Lines
  • The energy and enthusiasm of the band on this Retro Power Pop Classic really comes through here, and that’s not a claim you can make about very many copies
  • There’s not a bad song to be found anywhere, and lots of great ones: One Way Or Another, Heart Of Glass, Hanging On The Telephone, etc.
  • 5 stars: “Blondie’s best album,” which is actually a bit of an understatement – it’s by far their best album

All the Blondie magic you could ever want is in these grooves. The truly powerful sound of this Power Pop Classic really comes through on this bad boy — and that’s simply not a claim you could make about too many copies out there in record land, which tend to be flat, opaque and compressed. Not so here. This one just plain ROCKS.

Can this kind of music get any better? This album is a MASTERPIECE of Pure Pop, ranking right up there with The Cars first album. I can’t think of many albums from the era with the perfect blend of writing, production and musicianship under the guidance of producer Mike Chapman (The Knack) Blondie achieved with Parallel Lines.

As expected, if you clean and play enough copies of a standard domestic major label album such as Parallel Lines eventually you will stumble upon The One, and boy did we ever. The very best copies in our recent shootout were OFF THE CHARTS with presence, breathy vocals, and punchy drums. On top of that they were positively swimming in studio ambience, with every instrument occupying its own space in the mix and surrounded by air. (more…)

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Further Out

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Reviews and Commentaries for Time Further Out

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  • You’ll find KILLER Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound from start to finish on this original 6 Eye Stereo Pressing
  • These sides are incredibly tubey – rich, full-bodied and warm – yet clear, lively and dynamic
  • This copy demonstrates the big-as-life Fred Plaut Columbia Sound at its best – better even than Time Out(!)
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The selections, which range in time signatures from 5/4 to 9/8, are handled with apparent ease (or at least not too much difficulty) by pianist Brubeck, altoist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright, and drummer Joe Morello on this near-classic.”

Time Further Out is consistently more varied and, dare we say, more musically interesting than Time Out.

If you want to hear big drums in a big room these Brubeck recordings will show you that sound better than practically any record we know of. These vintage recordings are full-bodied, spacious, three-dimensional, rich, sweet and warm in the best tradition of an All Tube Analog recording. (more…)

James Taylor / Sweet Baby James

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Reviews and Commentaries for Sweet Baby James

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  • This STUNNING copy of Sweet Baby James boasts Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too, especially for this album
  • All that lovely echo is a dead giveaway that this pressing has resolution far beyond that of the others you may have heard (and of course the Rhino Heavy Vinyl)
  • Top 100, inarguably a Masterpiece – Fire and Rain and Suite for 20 G (one of JT’s All Time Best) are killer here
  • 5 stars: “Sweet Baby James launched not only Taylor’s career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early ’70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others…”

Vocal reproduction is key to the best sounding copies of Sweet Baby James, as it is on so many Singer Songwriter albums from the era.

To find a copy where Taylor’s vocals are front and center — which is exactly where they should be — but still rich, sweet, tonally correct and Tubey Magical is no mean feat. Only the best copies manage to pull it off.

Out of the dozen or more Green Label early pressings we play every year, relatively few have the full complement of midrange magic we know the best copies can have. As a rule of thumb, the hotter the stamper, the better the vocal reproduction on that copy.

Hot Stamper sound is rarely about the details of a given recording. In the case of this album, more than anything else a Hot Stamper must succeed at recreating a solid, palpable, real James Taylor singing live in your listening room. The better copies have an uncanny way of doing just that. (more…)

Jackson Browne / Late for the Sky – Lovin’ That Rich, Smooth Asylum Sound

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  • This outstanding pressing of Browne’s third album boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • This one was bigger and bolder, with more Tubey Magical richness on Jackson’s voice, than most of what we played
  • We love the rich, smooth, natural sound that Asylum was known for, and this copy has a healthy dose of each of those qualities
  • It’s getting harder and harder to find these in good condition these days – the man has a lot of fans, and they prefer to hear him on vinyl
  • 5 stars from AMG and Rolling Stone calls it the “quintessential Browne album,” saying the “… open-ended poetry achieves power from the nearly religious intensity that accumulates around the central motifs; its fervor is underscored by the sparest and hardest production to be found on any Browne album yet… as well as by his impassioned, oracular singing style.”

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