Records that Are Good for Testing Transparency

Stravinsky / The Rite of Spring – Boy, Was We Ever Wrong

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Stravinsky

This is a VERY old and somewhat embarrassing commentary providing the evidence for just how Wrong We Were about the sound of Solti’s 1974 recording for Decca.

Here is what we had to say about the album in 2008:

This is an amazing recording, DEMO QUALITY SOUND, far better than the Decca heavy vinyl reissue that came out in the 2000s. [That part is no doubt true.]

This record is extremely dynamic; full of ambience; tonally correct; with tons of deep bass. Because it’s a more modern recording, it doesn’t have the Tubey Magic of some Golden Age originals, but it compensates for that shortcoming by being less distorted and “clean.” Some people may consider that more accurate. To be honest with you, I don’t know if that is in fact the case.

However, this record should not disappoint sonically and the performance is every bit as exciting and powerful as any you will find. The Chicago Symphony has the orchestral chops to make a work of this complexity sound effortless.

Skip forward to the present, roughly ten years later. We had three or four copies on hand to audition when we surveyed the work a couple of years ago in preparation for a big shootout.

The Solti did not make the cut. It was not even in the ballpark.

Our reasons are laid out in the post-it note you see to the left. We had three or four copies and even the best one still had the shortcomings you see listed, just to a lesser degree. (For more on the subject of opacity on record, click here and here.)

So in the eleven or twelve years from the time we played a pile of copies in 2008, to 2020 or thereabouts when we auditioned a new batch, this recording seems to have gotten a lot worse.

But that’s not what happened. We’re under no illusions now that the album did not always have these sonic shortcomings, shortcomings that existed from the day copies came off the presses in England, some with London labels, others with Decca labels.

We simply did not have the cleaning system or the playback system capable of showing us what was wrong with their sound, and how much better other recordings were than they were.

And Harry Pearson was fooled as well. The Decca (SXL 6691) is on the TAS List to this day. Other records that have no business being on anything called a Super Disc List can be found here. Our list of Demonstration Quality Orchestral Recordings can be found here.

You may be aware that Speakers Corner remastered this recording  in the ’90s. We carried it and recommended it highly back in the day when we offered those kinds of records. At some point, 2007 to be exact, we wised up. We asked ourselves why we were selling mediocre records instead of Better Records. Since we didn’t have a good answer, we stopped ordering them and proceeded to sell off our remaining stock.

In 2008 I had been seriously involved with the audio hobby for more than 30 years. I had been an audiophile record dealer for more than twenty.

I thought I knew what good sound was.

Clearly I had a lot to learn.

This is, once again, what progress in audio in all about. As your stereo improves, some records should get better, some should get worse. It’s the nature of the game for those of us who constantly strive to improve the quality of our cleaning and playback. We keep at it, as we have been for close to

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Willie Nelson – Another Good Demo Disc / Bad Test Disc

More of the Music of Willie Nelson

More Pop and Jazz Vocal Recordings

Much like Stardust, a Hot Stamper pressing of this record is a real treat for the audiophile, no matter where they may be on the audio scale.

The transparency and in-the-room presence on the best copies will be nothing less than astonishing.

It’s what we like to call a Great Demo Disc / Bad Test Disc.

Even if your system isn’t all that good, or isn’t performing at its best, a killer copy of this record will still sound both musical and musically involving.

On the other hand, if you’ve spent the time and energy to really get your stereo cooking, you’re going to be in for some seriously good Tubey Magical vocal reproduction.

If you are looking for a challenge, we have a whole section of records that are difficult to reproduce. If you can play these albums good and loud, you can probably play anything.

Without a Song is not on that list. It will sound good on practically any system, which is why it is not a good test disc.

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Carole King – Tapestry

More Carole King

Reviews and Commentaries for Tapestry

  • This vintage Ode pressing boasts outstanding grades from start to finish
  • Big, full-bodied and Tubey Magical, yet still clean, clear and open – finally, the dark veil obscuring the sound of most copies has been lifted
  • This album is clearly Carole’s masterpiece – it’s loaded with great songs, and they all sound solid and correct here, two qualities which are critically important to the sound of the album
  • 5 stars: “…an intensely emotional record, the songs confessional and direct; in its time it connected with listeners like few records before it, and it remains an illuminating experience decades later. A remarkably expressive and intimate record, it’s a work of consummate craftsmanship.”

Audiophile sound is not easy to find on Tapestry. As we’ve been saying for twenty years, most copies are either dull and murky or edgy and thin, and on half the ones that do sound good, the vinyl is noisy.

On a copy like this, though, the sound gets out of the way and lets you focus on the MUSIC — and make no mistake, the music on this album is as good as it gets from Carole King.

We went nuts for this album during our big shootout. Since most of the time we’re playing testosterone-fueled, raging classic rock, it was a nice change of pace for us — and certainly easier on our poor eardrums. Our man JT makes an appearance playing acoustic guitar on a number of tracks, most notably You’ve Got A Friend, and his pals Russ Kunkel and Danny Korstchmar turn up too, with Kootch handling most of the electric guitar duties.

Carole returned the favor, playing the piano and singing on Taylor’s wonderful but underappreciated Mud Slide Slim album.

What’s surprising, if you haven’t played this album in a while, is how good non-hit tracks like “Home Again” can be. But there aren’t many of those non-hits on this album, and that’s a good thing; almost every song was a hit or received a lot of radio play. The quality of the material is that good.

What We’re Listening For on Tapestry

Transparency and Richness

One quality that we had no trouble recognizing on the better copies was transparency. The more transparent copies made it possible to hear through the mix to Carole’s piano, which is usually placed toward the back of the mix. There it serves to underpin the music, playing more of a supporting role than a leading one, very unlike the piano on a Joni Mitchell album for example.

The best copies let you easily follow Carole’s playing all the way through every song, from start to finish, no matter how quiet her part or how far back in the mix she may be placed.

If the pressing has a thinner sound (here are some examples of thin sounding records), obviously it becomes easier to pick up on the percussive nature of the instrument and “see” it more clearly. However, a thin piano tone on this album is the kiss of death. The best copies allow you to hear the full range of notes — including those played with the left hand — and for that, you need both richness and transparency.

This is a tricky balancing act; rarely in our experience do any two copies find precisely the same balance throughout an entire side.

Tough Sledding with Tapestry

There’s a reason you don’t see Tapestry Hot Stampers on the site very often. Folks, take it from us, even in Mint Minus Minus condition it ain’t that easy to find them. People loved Tapestry — it was Number One on the Billboard 200 for fifteen straight weeks, which is still the record for a female solo artist, and charted for more than 300(!).

It’s a classic and it got played to death. Furthermore, the Ode vinyl the originals were pressed on was never all that quiet to begin with. We probably look at twenty or thirty for every one we find that’s not scratched or worn out. So this exceptional copy, with no scratches that play and no groove damage to speak of, is nearly unheard of. Sound-wise, our copies will trounce any copy you’ve ever heard, or your money back.

The Reissues Won’t Get You There

The CBS Half Speed is ridiculously bright — can you imagine a worse way to present this intimate music?

Bernie Grundman’s heavy vinyl pressing isn’t terrible, but it isn’t all that musical and never really comes to life. We dropped the needle on it for a few moments and were bored to tears.

Quite a number of our customers have written us about our Hot Stamper pressings of Tapestry, and their letters can be found here.

The Washington Post article that Geoff Edgers wrote includes a video of a little shootout we did for Tapestry, using, without my knowledge, the MoFi, a Hot Stamper and a regular reissue of the album. In the video you see me describe the sound for the first go around, more of a warmup than a real shootout.

When we went back and played each of the pressings again, the differences were much more pronounced. The MoFi still sounded like a CD, the current Columbia reissue was still no better than passable, and the Hot Stamper became even better sounding than it had been earlier, with sound the other two could not begin to offer. You can see that it took me a few minutes to get deep into the sound, but once I was there, it turned out to no contest. The Hot Stamper showed us just how good Tapestry could sound.

This customer, along with a number of others, talks about a similar experience he had with one of our Hot Stamper pressings.

A real shootout, like the one that produced this very copy, would have involved 6-10 early domestic pressings, since those are the only ones that sound good to us these days.

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What to Listen For on English Settlement

Hot Stamper Art Rock Albums Available Now

More Demo Discs for Bass

For Big Production Rock Albums like English Settlement there are some obvious problem areas that are often heard on at least one or two sides of practically any copy of this four sided album.  

With so many heavily-produced instruments crammed into the soundfield, if the overall sound is at all veiled, recessed or smeared — problems common to 90+% of the records we play in our shootouts — the mix quickly becomes opaque, forcing the listener to work too hard to separate out the elements of musical interest.

Exhaustion, especially on this album, soon follows.

Transparency, clarity and presence are key.

Note that none of the British copies we played was thin and anemic. The domestic copies are made from dubs and can’t begin to compete.

Almost all had plenty of Tubey Magic and bottom end, so thankfully that was almost never a problem.

They did however tend to lack top end extension and transparency, and many were overly compressed. There is plenty of tube compression being used in both the mixing and mastering, but most of the time it is working its magic to keep the bass big, punchy and loud. 

Zeppelin Too

Robert Ludwig used humungous amounts of tube compression on this album, and we’re glad he did. All that massive compression is at least partly responsible for it being one of the Ten Best Sounding Rock Records Ever Made.

The sides that had sound that jumped out of the speakers, with driving rhythmic energy, worked the best for us. They really brought this complex music to life and allowed us to make sense of it. This is yet another definition of a Hot Stamper — it’s the copy that lets the music work as music. (more…)

Detail on Crosby, Stills and Nash – Holy Grail or Audio Trap?

More of the Music of Crosby, Stills and Nash

Reviews and Commentaries for Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Debut

More Crosby / More Stills / More Nash

Detail may be the Holy Grail to some audiophiles, but detail can be a trap we all too easily fall into if we are not careful.

Tonal balance is the key. Without it no judgments about detail have any real value. 

One example: As good as the Classic Heavy Vinyl pressing is, the guitar at the opening of Helplessly Hoping tells you everything you need to know about what’s missing. The guitar on the better Hot Stamper domestic copies has a transparency and harmonic integrity that cannot be found on Classic’s version.

The Classic gets the tonal balance right, but their guitar doesn’t have the subtlety and harmonic resolution of the real thing.

I’m laboring here to avoid the word detail, since many audiophiles like bright, phony sounding records because of all their wonderful “detail.” Patricia Barber’s albums come to mind.

The MoFi guys and the CD guys often fall into this trap.

Get the sound tonally balanced first, then see how much detail you have left.

Detail is not the end-all and be-all of audio. Those who think it is usually have systems that make my head hurt.

But most people will never know what they’re missing on Helplessly Hoping, because they will never have an amazing sounding copy of this album. The hot copies are just too rare.


THIS RECORD IS GOOD FOR TESTING

Midrange Congestion 

Midrange Presence 

Midrange Tonality

Transparency 

Tubey Magical Acoustic Guitars 

Stevie Wonder’s Second Masterpiece

More of the Music of Stevie Wonder

Hot Stamper Pressings of Soul Masterpieces Available Now

Over the course of the last year or two, for the first time in my life I’ve really gotten to know the album well, having found a CD at a local store to play in the car. I’ve listened to Fulfillingness’ First Finale scores of times and now see that is some of the best work Stevie Wonder ever did, right up there with Innervisions and miles ahead of any other Stevie Wonder album.

To my mind the best songs on the album are the quieter, more heartfelt and emotional ones, not the rockers or funky workouts. My personal favorites on side one are: Smile Please. Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away, Too Shy to Say and Creepin’, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are all the songs that weren’t hits.

On side two the two slowest songs are the ones I now like best: It Ain’t No Use & They Won’t Go When I Go (famously and brilliantly covered by George Michael on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in 1990).

If you take one of our Hot Stampers home see if you don’t find something very special about the tracks I have noted above.

Balance

Our original pressings have the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back.

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 new records do not, ever.

What is lost in these newly remastered recordings?

Lots of things, but the most obvious and bothersome is transparency.

And that also turns out to be the main issue with Fulfillingness. Many copies are thick and opaque.

Finding the right balance between Tubey Magical Richness and Transparency is the trick, and we think our best copies strike that balance as well as it can be struck.

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Sibelius / Finlandia / Mackerras – Reviewed in 2015

More of the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

More Classical ‘Sleeper” Recordings We’ve Discovered with Demo Disc Sound

A shocking Stereo Treasury sleeper with a superb Shaded-Dog-beating side one. Side one is nearly White Hot – it’s exceptionally transparent and dynamic. Real Demo Disc sound and music on side one – spectacular works played with feeling.

This is yet another wonderful example of what the much-lauded Decca recording engineers were able to capture on analog tape all those years ago. The 1960 master has been transferred brilliantly using “modern” cutting equipment (from 1970, not the low-rez junk they’re forced to make do with these days), giving you, the listener, sound that only the best of both worlds can offer.

Side One

More spacious than practically any other copy we heard thanks to an extended, correct top end.

This side was also very dynamic, and it gets loud in the right way, never harsh or screechy.

Correct from top to bottom, and there are not many records we can say that about. So natural in every way.

The brass is HUGE and POWERFUL on this side. Not many recordings capture the brass this well. (Ansermet on London comes to mind of course but many of his performances leave much to be desired. Here Mackerras is on top of his game with performances that are definitive.)

The brass is big and clear and weighty, just the way it should be, as that is precisely the sound you hear in the concert hall, especially that part about being clear: live music is more than anything else completely clear. We should all strive for that sound in our reproduction of orchestral music.

Side Two

Good clarity and top extension, with full-bodied, textured strings. Gets a little hot at its loudest but manages to stay under control and enjoyable throughout.

The opening track on side two, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, is one of my favorite pieces of orchestral music. Mackerras and the London Proms make it magical.

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Airto / Fingers – Top End Extension Is Key to the Best Pressings

airtofinge_

More of the Music of Airto

Hot Stamper Pressings of Jazz Fusion Albums Available Now

The best copies have the highs that are missing from so many of the CTI originals. When you play them against most copies, there is an extension to the top end that you won’t hear elsewhere. Since this album is heavy on percussion, that difference is critical.

The HARMONICS of the percussion are critically important to the music. When they go missing, it’s as if the music seems to slow down, a strange effect but a fairly common one with rhythmically dense arrangements such as these. Some of the energy of the music is lost. 

With an extended top end the sound is SWEET, not HARSH. Believe us when we tell you, the last thing you want is a harsh sounding pressing of a Rudy Van Gelder recording. (Not unless you have a dull, dull, deadly dull system. Those “Old School Stereos” are practically the only way one can tolerate some of his early recordings.)

With so many high frequency transients and such complex arrangements, this is a record that must be mastered (and pressed) with great skill or the result is going to be trouble. RVG, who both recorded and mastered the album, has a penchant for over-cutting records and being heavy handed when it comes to his favorite studio tricks, often to the detriment of instrumental fidelity. When his approach works, the resulting recordings are wonderful. When he gets too carried away with his “sound,” look out.

This is without a doubt The Best Album Airto ever made. On top of that, this copy really has the kind of sound we look for, with an open, fully extended top end that gives all the elements of this complex music room to breathe.

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Bob and Ray – This Buck Dance Had Highs Like No Other

More Albums by Bob and Ray

More Living Stereo Recordings

[This review is probably about ten years old.]

It’s been nearly two years but the waiting is over — we’ve found another copy of the famous Bob and Ray on Living Stereo with DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND! Without a doubt this is the best sound I have ever heard for side one of this album. The sound here is so amazing I’m willing to go out on a limb and make the following recklessly bold statement. Buck Dance on this pressing has the most extended, natural and harmonically correct high frequencies I have ever heard from my speakers (or anyone else’s for that matter). 

And the crazy thing about it is, when played against an actual original pressing of Music for Bang, Baa-room and Harp, this copy, which one would assume is made from a dub, SOUNDS FAR BETTER.

Now of course we don’t have ten copies (or even two copies) of LSP 1866 which would allow us to find one with an even better Buck Dance than the one heard here on Bob and Ray, which means we cannot be definitive in any way about the disparity in sound between the two albums.

We can only judge the records we have in hand, not the ones we might have heard years ago or — even worse — speculate about the sound of records we have not actually played, recently or otherwise.

So we will stick to the facts, and the facts of this side one are that it is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING sounding.

But not perfect. We had three Bob and Rays and one of them was a bit more transparent. One of the them had more deep bass. (That first crack of thunder on side one is an obvious test for bottom end; it can really rattle the room on the right copy.)

So let’s be fair and say that overall this copy earns a grade of A++, having two shortcomings, but that Buck Dance earns a grade of A+++, having NO shortcomings!

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Listening in Depth to Little Queen

More of the Music of Heart

Reviews and Commentaries for Little Queen

More Albums with Key Tracks for Critical Listening

This is a recording that I credit with making me a better audiophile. When I first heard a killer Hot Stamper pressing played back through the EAR 324P phono stage at a friend’s house, I immediately called the distributor and ordered one. Compared to the 834P I had been using, the 324P simply took the recording to a level I had no idea existed.

Once I had reached that level, I set about using the album for tweaking and testing, and learned a lot doing it. Along with a substantial number of other records I have come across in my forty plus years as a hobbyist and audiophile record dealer, Little Queen is one that has surely helped me to become a better listener. [1]

Side One

Barracuda

One of the little tricks I used toward the end of my marathon Little Queen tweaking session from many years ago (which lasted more than six hours one Saturday evening, leaving me euphoric but exhausted) was to listen to the ending of Barracuda. Some of the big guitar chords at the end of the song are louder than others, and the more the differences in level among them can be heard, the better the stereo and the room must be at exposing these micro-dynamic changes.

You can’t make the guitarist play some of the notes at the end louder than others, you can only reveal the fact that he indeed must have. This is what is meant by Hi-Fidelity, the higher the better.

Love Alive

This is as good as it gets for Heart. They really rock on this track — the sound of the drums and the guitars are perfection. This may sound heretical, but I would put Love Alive right up there with some of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes. It ROCKS. The band is on fire; give them their due. The rhythm section on the early Heart albums is Top Notch and then some. Maybe not Bonham and Jones Quality but pretty darn good in their own right.

The beginning section has so many subtle details (such as the autoharp and tabla) that simply disappear on a run-of-the-mill system. On the best copies the autoharp sounds rich and chimey and the tabla has a fair amount of low end extension. All this gets lost in the sauce if you’re listening to the average copy, or the average stereo.

This was precisely the kind of information that my 834p had been keeping from me and my 324p was now revealing. the memory of that afternoon, circa 2005 — an audio milestone if there ever was one — is etched in my mind to this day


[1] The albums listed here not only informed my taste in music, but helped guide the progress of the stereo equipment I use to play that music on. I’ve had large scale dynamic speakers for close to five decades, precisely in order to play demanding recordings such as these, the music I fell in love with as a budding audiophile in my twenties. (And sometimes even earlier, as in the case of The Beatles. I still have my 45 of She Loves You, which I bought at the tender age of 10 in 1964, my first record purchased using my own money. The record itself may be cracked, but the picture sleeve, worn as it is after some early abuse, is priceless.)

There is no question that the artists that recorded these albums, in concert with their remarkably talented producers and engineers, sweated every detail of these exceptional recordings. Year after year, we have done everything we could think of to get these recordings to sound their best. We know how good they can sound on systems that have what it takes to play them.

The more tweaking and tuning you do — on your system, room and electricity — the more progress you will make in this hobby, and the bigger and bolder these recordings will come to sound. They are the most difficult-to-reproduce albums we know of, the ones that can help you make real, demonstrable progress in this hobby.

Again and again it was meeting the challenge of reproducing recordings such as these that allowed us to get to the next level, and they can do the same for you.


FURTHER READING

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