Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Presence

The Eagles / The Long Run – The True Test for Side One

More of the Music of The Eagles

More Records that Are Good for Testing Grit and Grain

Most copies have a smeary, veiled, stuck-in-the-speaker quality that makes for some painful listening. Cardboard drums. Non-existent ambience. No energy. (Unless you get one of the hard, edgy, thin ones — we’re not sure which is worse.)

This one is a whole different story, with the kind of big, punchy, full-bodied sound this music absolutely demands.

What’s Bill Szymczyk’s problem anyway, you might ask. Can’t the guy record an album any better than this after being in the studio for all these years?

Yes he can. Don’t make the mistake of judging his work by the typical bad pressing of it, the kind that Elektra was churning out by the millions back in the day.

Believe me, the master tape must be AWESOME if the sound of some of the records we played is any indication (which of course it is).

What We Listen For on The Long Run

Less grit – smoother and sweeter sound, something that is not easy to come by on The Long Run.

A bigger presentation – more size, more space, more room for all the instruments and voices to occupy. The bigger the speakers you have to play this record the better.

More bass and tighter bass. This is fundamentally a pure rock record. It needs weight down low to rock the way Bill Szymczyk wanted it to.

Present, breathy vocals. A veiled midrange is the rule, not the exception.

Good top-end extension to reproduce the harmonics of the instruments and details of the recording including the studio ambience.

Last but not least, balance. All the elements from top to bottom should be heard in harmony with each other. Take our word for it, assuming you haven’t played a pile of these yourself, balance is not that easy to find.

Our best copies will have it though, of that there is no doubt.

The True Test for Side One

Want to know if you have a good side one on your copy? Here’s an easy test. Timothy B Schmit’s vocal on I Can’t Tell You Why rarely sounds right. Most of the time he’s muffled, pretty far back in the soundstage, and the booth he’s in has practically no ambience. On the good copies, he’s not exactly jumping out of the speakers, but he’s clear, focused, and his voice is breathy and full of emotional subtleties that make the song the heartbreaking powerhouse it is.

This is why you need a Hot Stamper. Most copies don’t let you FEEL the song.

And the rest of the band is cookin’ here as well. From the big, full-bodied bass to the fat, punchy snare, this side is doing practically everything we want it to.

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Bryan Ferry / Boys And Girls – Key Tracks for Critical Listening

More of the Music of Bryan Ferry

More Albums with Key Tracks for Critical Listening

The song Valentine, the second track on side two, is a key test for that side. Note how processed Ferry’s vocals are. On even the best copies they will sound somewhat bright. The test is the background singers: they should sound tonally correct and silky sweet.

If Ferry sounds correct, they will sound dull, and so will the rest of the side. That processed sound on his vocal is on the tape. Trying to “fix” it will ruin everything.

You can be pretty sure that whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing has been made for this album that they tried to fix the hell out of it. Doubtless the result is not a pretty one. It rarely is.

On the top copies the lead on the very next track, Stone Woman, is tonally right on the money. These two tracks, two of the best on the album, together make it easy to know if your copy is correct in the midrange.

Track two: background vocals.

Track three: lead vocal.

What could be easier?

Key Listening Test for Both Sides

The quality of the percussion is critical to much of the music here. There’s tons of it on Boys and Girls, even more than on its predecessor Avalon, and unless you have plenty of top end, presence and transparency, all that percussion can’t work its magic to drive this rhythmic music.

How About the British Pressings?

Bryan Ferry is British, as is bandmate David Gilmour and the recording and producing team headed by the amazing Rhett Davies. And yes, the recording was done at many studios, most of them overseas.

But the album is mixed by Bob Clearmountain at The Power Station and mastered by Robert Ludwig at Masterdisk, and that means the master tape was right here in America when it came time to get the sound of the tape onto vinyl.

The British pressings are made from dubs and sound like it.

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A Fun and Easy Test for Abbey Road: MoFi Versus Apple

More of the Music of The Beatles

Reviews and Commentaries for Abbey Road

There is a relatively simple test you can use to find out if you have a good Mobile Fidelity pressing of Abbey Road. Yes, as shocking as it may seem, they actually do exist, we’ve played them, but they are few and far between (and never as good as the best Brits).

The test involves doing a little shootout of the song Golden Slumbers between whatever MoFi pressing you have and whatever British Parlophone pressing you have. If you don’t have both LPs this shootout will be difficult to do. The idea is to compare aspects of the sound of both pressings head to head, which should shed light on which one of them is more natural and which is more hi-fi-ish sounding.

The Golden Slumbers Test

I’ve come to realize that this is a Key Track for side two, because what it shows you is whether the midrange of your pressing — or your system — is correct.

At the beginning Paul’s voice is naked, front and center, before the strings come in. Most Mobile Fidelity pressings, as good as they may be in other areas, are not tonally correct in the middle of the midrange.

The middle of the voice is a little sucked out and the top of the voice is a little boosted.

It’s really hard to notice this fact unless one plays a good British pressing side by side with the MoFi.

Then the typical MoFi EQ anomaly become obvious. It may add some texture to the strings, but the song is not about the strings.

Having heard a number of audiophile systems (especially recently) that have trouble getting this part of the spectrum right, it would not be surprising that many of you do not find the typical MoFi objectionable, and may even prefer it to the good British copies. The point I’m belaboring here is that when it’s right, it’s RIGHT and everything else becomes more obviously wrong, even if only slightly wrong.

The Heart of the Midrange

For a while in my record reviewing system many years ago I had a relatively cheap Grado moving magnet cartridge. The midrange of that cartridge is still some of the best midrange reproduction I have ever heard. It was completely free of any “audiophile” sound. It was real in a way that took me by surprise. I played Abbey Road with that cartridge in the system and heard The Beatles sound EXACTLY the way I wanted them to sound.

Exactly the way I think they SHOULD sound, in my mind’s ear. Playing the very same record on much more expensive front ends, with much more expensive moving coils, was disappointing at that time. It’s easy to lose sight of the heart of the music when the equipment dazzles us by doing so many other things well.

Good moving coils are amazingly spacious, refined, sweet, extended, three-dimensional and all that other good stuff.

But they don’t always get the heart of the music right. And it’s good to hear something that may be more crude but at the same time more correct in order to bring our listening journey back to a truer course.

Alternative Sound

I think that people who listen to CDs exclusively — One Format listeners as I like to call them — suffer greatly from a lack of an alternative or comparison sound. It’s easy to get used to the “CD sound” and forget that all that digital garbage doesn’t really belong in music. Records have their own problems, but their problems don’t give me a headache the way the problems of CDs do.


FURTHER READING on the subject of Half-Speed Mastering

If you are buying remastered LPs, take the advice of some of our customers and stop throwing your money away on Heavy Vinyl Pressings and Half-Speed Masters.

People have been known to ask us:

How come you guys don’t like Half-Speed Mastered records?

At the very least let us send you a Hot Stamper pressing — of any album you choose — that can show you what is wrong with your copy. And if for some reason you disagree that our record sounds better than yours, we will happily give you all your money back and wish you the best.

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Peter, Paul & Mary – Gold Versus Green

More Peter, Paul and Mary

More Folk Rock

In previous shootouts we felt strongly that the best Gold Label copies had the lock on Tubey Magic, while the best Green Label pressings could be counted on to offer superior clarity.

That was quite a few years ago, and as we never tire of saying, things have changed.

Now the Gold Label pressings have the ideal combination of Tubey Magic and clarity.

In fact, based on our recent shootout we would state categorically that the best originals are clearly better in every way, with the most vocal presence, the most harmonic resolution, the most space, the most warmth and intimacy, the most natural string tone on both the guitars and bass — in sum, the most of everything that allows a Hot Stamper vintage LP to be the most sublime musical experience available to any audiophile fortunate enough to own it.

Steve Hoffman’s famous phrase is key here: we want to hear The Breath Of Life. If these three gifted singers don’t sound like living, breathing human beings standing across from you — left, right and center — toss your copy and buy this one, because that’s exactly what they sound like here.

The TUBEY MAGIC of the midrange is practically off the scale. Until you hear it like this you really can’t even imagine it. It’s a bit shocking to hear each and every nuance of their singing reproduced so faithfully, sounding so much like live music.

This is high-rez ’60s style; not phony and forced like so much of what passes for audiophile sound these days, but relaxed and real, as if the recording were doing its best to get out of the way of the music, not call attention to itself. This, to us, is the goal, the prize we must constantly strive to keep our eyes on. Find the music, leave the rest.

The Mids Are Key

Peter, Paul & Mary records live and die by the quality of their midrange. These are not big-budget, high-concept multi-track recordings. They’re simple, innocent folk songs featuring exquisite vocal harmonies, with straightforward guitar and double bass accompaniment (and a few more instruments thrown in for good measure at this later stage of the game).

If Peter, Paul and Mary’s voices aren’t silky sweet and delicate, while at the same time full-bodied and present, let’s face it, you might as well start looking for another record to play.

The best copies convey the surprisingly moving artistry, taste and energy of the group’s performance in the studio all those years ago. When Peter, Paul and Mary start to sing good and loud on some of these tracks, not only can you really hear them belting it out, you FEEL it too. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt – The Middle of the Midrange Is Key

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

More Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Tonality

Here’s what we learned when doing our recent shootout: many copies sounded like they were half-speed mastered. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a lot of things. In this case, these half-speed sounding ones had a little something phony added to the top of Linda’s voice, they had a little bit of suckout right in the middle of the midrange, the middle of her voice, and they had an overall diffuse, vague quality, with sound that lacked the SOLIDITY we heard on the best pressings. 

These hi-fi-ish qualities that we heard on so many copies reminded us of the audiophile sound we decry at every turn. We’ve played literally hundreds and hundreds of MoFi’s and other half-speed mastered records over the course of the last twenty years, and one thing we know well is THAT SOUND.

But think about it. What if you only had one copy of the album — why would you have more than one anyway? — and it had that Half-Speed Sound? You’d simply assume the recording had those qualities, assuming you could even recognize them in the first place. (Let’s face it, most audiophiles can’t, or all these companies that use this approach to mastering would have gone out of business and stayed out of business, and their out of print records would sell for peanuts, not the collector prices they bring on ebay and audiophile web sites.) (more…)

Metallica / Ride The Lightning (45 RPM) – MoFi Debunked

Sonic Grade: F

This review is for the 2008 Warner Brothers 45 RPM 180g Double LP Half-Speed Mastered by Mobile Fidelity from the original analog master tapes.

Compressed, sucked-out mids, no deep bass and muddy mid-bass, the mastering of this album is an absolute disaster on every level. If you want to know how clueless the average audiophile is, a quick Google search will bring up plenty of positive comments from listeners and reviewers alike. 

Here are some other records that are good for testing the faults of this awful sounding release.

Records that Are Good for Testing Bass Definition 

Records that Are Good for Testing Compression 

Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Presence 


FURTHER READING

Here are some of our reviews and commentaries concerning the many Heavy Vinyl pressings we’ve played over the years, well over 200 at this stage of the game. Feel free to pick your poison.

Heavy Vinyl Commentaries

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Neil Diamond / Stones – His Best Sounding Studio Album?

More of the Music of Neil Diamond

More Singer Songwriter Albums

I can’t say for sure that this is the best sounding Neil Diamond album, we haven’t been through all of them yet, but it’s certainly the best sounding album of his that we’ve critically auditioned in large numbers. Good luck finding another copy of Stones out in the bins that deliver top quality sonics the likes of these — we went through a TON of copies and not many held our interest.

Problems to Watch For

Some of the more common problems we ran into during our shootouts were slightly veiled, slightly smeary sound, with not all the top end extension that the best copies showed us.

You can easily hear that smear on the guitar transients. Usually they’re a tad blunted and the guitar harmonics don’t ring the way they should.

Smeary, veiled, top end-challenged pressings were regularly produced over the years. They are the rule, not the exception.

Good cleaning techniques can help, but bad vinyl and worn stampers limit the encoding of the highs, and bad mastering or the use of sub-generation tapes both can work plenty of mischief on their own.

Engineering

On the Hot Stamper copies that do have sweet and rich ANALOG sound, credit naturally belongs with Neil’s go-to engineer, ARMIN STEINER. He was one of the engineers on Spirit’s first album (a truly phenomenal recording from 1968), assisted on Ram, recorded some of the best sounding, most Tubey Magical Chart-Topping Pop Rock for Bread in the early ’70s, and, if that’s not enough, has more than a hundred other engineering credits. He’s also the reason that Hot August Night is one of the best sounding live albums ever recorded.

When you find his name in the credits there’s at least a chance, and probably a pretty good one, that the sound will be excellent. You need the right pressing of course, but the potential for good sound should be your working hypothesis at that point. Now, all it takes is some serious digging in the bins, cleaning, and listening to determine if you’ve lucked into a “diamond in the rough.”

Doc Watson – I Have to Admit: This Cisco Pressing Had Me Vexed

More of the Music of Doc Watson

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Doc Watson

Folks, if you made the mistake of buying the Cisco Heavy Vinyl reissue of this album, and you manage to grab one of our Hot Stamper pressings, you are really in for a treat.

I have to confess that when this record came out in 2003 I had a hard time coming to grips with what was wrong with it. I knew I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. I wasn’t sure what it was doing wrong. It seemed tonally correct and natural sounding. Why didn’t I like it?

It wasn’t phony up top with sloppy bass like a MoFi. It wasn’t hard and transistory like so many Classic Records of the day.

I didn’t know the record so I had nothing to judge it by. But there was definitely something lacking in the sound that had me confused.

Eventually I figured it out. Looking back on it now, the problems with the Cisco I could not identify were these:

  • The Cisco lacks presence. It puts Doc Watson further back than he should be, assuming that he is where he should be on the good vintage pressings, which sound right to me, some better, some worse of course. Moving him back in the sound field does him no favors.
  • The Cisco lacks intimacy, which is key to the best pressings. The shootout winners remove all the veils and put you in the presence of the living, breathing Doc Watson. The Cisco adds veils and takes the intimacy right out of the record.
  • The Cisco lacks transparency. It frustrates your efforts to hear into the recording.
  • Doc is in a studio, surrounded by the air and ambience that would naturally be found there. The Cisco is airless and ambience-free, with Doc performing in a heavily damped booth of some kind. At least that’s what it sounds like.
  • And the last thing you notice is the lovely guitar harmonics on the originals and early reissues, harmonics that are attenuated and dulled on the Cisco.

As my stereo got better and better, and my critical listening skills improved in tandem, it became more and more obvious to me what was wrong with the Cisco. When we play modern Heavy Vinyl pressings these days, especially albums we know well, it usually doesn’t take us two minutes to hear what they are getting wrong.

We go back and forth between the new pressing and one of our Hot Stampers a few times, make some notes, and proceed to put the review up on the blog, and maybe mention it in our listings for the album. A half hour or an hour is the most it takes these days. Like I say, these records are obviously doing some things poorly, and these failings are easy to spot if you know the album well, a little harder, but not that much harder, if you don’t.

MoFi Review Coming

The 45 RPM two disc version of Dire Straits’ first album MoFi cut at half speed not long ago is a disaster of epic proportions. There will be a video of me and my assistant Sunshine playing the record against some wonderful UK pressings and describing just how badly the brain trust at MoFi ruined the album.

It will be a while before it comes out, but until then you might want to do some searches for reviews, professional and otherwise, of their half-speed mastered recut. I have not seen anyone tear it to shreds, but I fully plan on doing so as soon as the video comes out.

I mention on this blog that Cisco’s releases (as well as DCC’s) had to fight their way through Kevin Gray’s opaque, airless, low-resolution cutting system. We discuss that subject on the blog in more depth here.


We only got around to putting the Cisco pressing in our Hall of Shame recently. There are just not enough hours in the day…

Having done this for so long, we understand and appreciate that rich, full, solid, tubey sound is key to the presentation of this primarily vocal music. We rate these qualities higher than others we might be listening for (e.g., bass definition, soundstage, depth, etc.).

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 Doc Watson singing live in your listening room. The better copies have an uncanny way of doing just that.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but less than one out of 100 new records do, if our experience with the hundreds we’ve played over the years can serve as a guide.


Here are some reviews and commentaries concerning the many Heavy Vinyl pressings we’ve played over the years, well over 200 at this stage of the game. Feel free to pick your poison.

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Paul McCartney / Unplugged – Testing for Life-Size Images and Living Presence

More of the Music of Paul McCartney

More of the Music of The Beatles

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises. (This is one of our earliest ones, from all the way back in 2006!)

On the song Blackbird Paul moves the microphone, scraping it along the floor, which causes a huge wave of bass to envelop the room. I was over at one of my customer’s houses a while ago, doing some testing with electronics and tweaks, and I remember distinctly that the microphone stand was shrunken and lean sounding in a way I had never heard before. Now this customer, whose system was in the $100K range, had no idea what that microphone stand could really do. I did, because I’ve been hearing it do it for years.

Some speakers can’t move enough air down low to reproduce that sound. And some speakers, usually those with woofers under 12 inches, shrink the size of images. These are many things to test for for in a given system, dozens and dozens in fact, but two of the important ones are these: if it doesn’t have a solid foundation (read: a big bottom end), and it doesn’t have correctly-sized images for the instruments, that’s a system that is failing in fundamentally important ways.  (more…)

Foreigner – What’s Good About the Sound of Their Albums?

More of the Music of Foreigner

More Rock Classics

As I’m sure you know, there is a Mobile Fidelity Half-Speed Mastered version of this album currently in print, and an older one from the days when their records were pressed in Japan (#1-052).

We haven’t played the latter in years. As I recall it was as lifeless and sucked-out in the midrange as most of the other MoFis of that period, notably The Doors (#051) and Trick of the Tail (#062).

What’s key to the sound of Foreigner’s records?

Obviously, the big one would have to be ENERGY, a subject we have discussed at length here on the site.

Next would be punchy BASS, followed by clear, PRESENT vocals.

Those would be the big three.

But those are qualities that are almost never found on Half-Speed Mastered Records!

The remastering of those records usually leaves them lifeless and compressed, with sloppy bass and recessed vocals.

For some reason, audiophiles — including the audiophiles who produce them — like that sound.

We do not. In fact we can’t stand it. Which is why we will not be auditioning MoFi’s remastered pressing. If you are feeling adventurous (and have $30 to throw away) and want to do the shootout for yourself, please let us know how it went.

The sound of the best pressings were jumping out of our speakers. Have you ever heard a Half-Speed do that?

Almost never, and we’ve played them by the hundreds.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

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