Records that Are Good for Testing Correct Tonality and Timbre

The Biggest “If” in All of Audio

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Ted Heath

More Records that Are Good for Testing Tonality and Timbre

The best of the best vintage recordings are truly amazing if you can play them right. That’s a big if.

In fact, it may just be the biggest if in all of audio.

But that is not our story for today. Our story today concerns the relationship between more accurate timbre and higher fidelity.

What do we love about vintage pressings like the Ted Heath disc you see pictured above?

The timbre of the instruments is hi-fi in the best sense of the word.

The unique sound of every instrument is being reproduced with remarkable fidelity on this old record.

That’s what we mean by “hi-fi,” not the kind of Audiophile Sound that passes for hi-fidelity on some records.

Older audiophile records, typically those made by Mobile Fidelity in the ’70s and ’80s, suffered from a common group of problems heard on practically every record they released:

A boosted top, a bloated bottom, and a sucked-out midrange.

Nowadays that kind of low fidelity sound is no longer in vogue.

A new, equally low fidelity sound has taken its place.

What seems to be in vogue these days, judging by the Heavy Vinyl Reissue pressings we’ve played in recent years, is a very different sound from that described above, with a different but no less irritating suite of shortcomings.

These new records, with few exceptions, tend to be compressedthickdullopaque, veiled, recessed and badly lacking in ambience.

Such are the current hallmarks of the Heavy Vinyl LP. Whether made by Speakers Corner, DCC, Analogue Productions or any other label, starting at some point in the mid-’90s, the sound these labels apparently preferred had a problem we heard in practically every infuriatingly unbalanced record we played: sound that was just too damn smooth.

The phony boosted highs of the bad old days are gone, replaced by the phony rolled off highs of today.

(The exception: Bernie Grundman. Bernie cut hundreds of records for Classic Records starting in the ’90s, and it’s clear he chose a different path, but his path turned out to be every bid as problematical. And Mobile Fidelity no longer makes bright records with ill-defined, bloated bass. Now they make overly smooth records with ill-defined, bloated bass.)

Are the audiophiles buying these new, unnaturally smooth records any better off?

The ones with bright, phony systems probably are. Everybody else is getting taken to the cleaners. Ripped off. Sold a bill of goods. Etc. Etc. (There are scores of terms for this activity because there have always been companies and individuals who were happy to take your money in exchange for something of low quality dressed up in fancy packaging.)

The First Thing

As we have been saying for years, to get anywhere in this hobby, the first thing you need is reasonably good stereo sound.

Then you can buy records that actually have the potential to be good records. Records with higher fidelity. Records that are tonally correct.

If you’re buying these modern heavy vinyl pressings, what are you going to do with them when you finally get around to making your stereo reproduce music properly and can hear how second- and third-rate they are?

Last Question

How do we know we are right about the tonality shortcomings of these modern remastered records?

Stay tuned for part two of this commentary for the answer. (more…)

Michael Jackson – Thoughts on Hearing Thriller in the ’80s, Circa 2006

More of the Music of Michael Jackson

Reviews and Commentaries for Thriller

This review for a killer copy of Thriller that we discovered in our 2006 shootout gave us a whole new appreciation for just how good the record could sound. It was a real breakthrough, and proof that significant progress in audio is just a matter of time and effort, the more the better.

Our review from 2006

I remember twenty years ago playing Thriller and thinking they were all so transistory, spitty, and aggressive sounding.

Well, I didn’t have a Triplanar tonearm, a beautiful VPI table and everything that goes along with them back then. Now I can play this record. I couldn’t back then. All that spit was simply my table not being good enough as well as all the garbage downstream from it that was feeding the speakers.

The record is no different, it just sounds different now. In other words, this record is a great test. If you can play this record, you can play practically anything.

This pressing has a side two that is so amazing sounding that it COMPLETELY CHANGED my understanding and appreciation of this album. The average copy is a nice pop record. This copy is a MASTERPIECE of production and engineering.

After playing a bunch of these we noticed some recurring shortcomings on most of the pressings. Either they lacked extension on the top end or they lacked bass definition and weight, or both. When this copy hit the table, the first thing we noticed was that the top end was Right On The Money and the bottom end was also Right On The Money. Not surprisingly, the middle fell right into place.

It ended up having the most ambience, the most transparency, the most resolution, the most dynamic contrasts, the most presence — in short, it had more of EVERYTHING than any copy we’ve ever heard. The lesson to be learned there may be that when the extremes are somehow properly transferred to the vinyl, the middle will take care of itself. Since the extremes seem to be the hardest thing to get right, at least on this record, that might explain why so many copies don’t quite cut the mustard.

Side one fits perfectly into this theory. The bottom end is MEATY with plenty of punchy, solid bass, but the top end is lacking a bit of extension compared to the very best. The result is that there’s a trace of hardness in the vocals that shouldn’t be there. If you can add a dB or two of extreme highs, EVERYTHING will sound right on side one. It all comes back to life.

When You Hear Sound Like This, You Know It’s Right

More of the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Franz Schubert

What I hear on this pressing is sound that is absolutely free from any top end boost, much the way live music is. There’s plenty of tape hiss and air; the highs aren’t rolled off, they’re just not boosted the way they normally are in a recording.

A few years back I had a chance to see a piano trio play locally; they even performed a piece by Schubert. The one thing I noticed immediately during their performance was how smooth and natural the top end was. I was no more than ten feet from the performers in a fairly reverberant room, and yet the sound I heard was the opposite of what passes in some circles for Hi-Fidelity.

This is the OPPOSITE of those echo-drenched recordings that some audiophiles seem to like, with microphones placed twenty feet away from the performers so that they are awash in “ambience.” If you know anything about us, you know that this is not our sound.

I have never heard live music sound like that and that should settle the question. It does in my mind anyway. The Chesky label (just to choose one awful audiophile label to pick on) is a joke and always will be.

How anyone buys into that phony sound is beyond me, but any audio show will prove to you that there is no shortage of audiophiles who love the Chesky “sound,” and probably never will be. (more…)

Jobim and Ramone – These Strings Are a Tough Test

jobimthecomposerMore of the Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim

Reviews and Commentaries for Antonio Carlos Jobim

Credit engineer Phil Ramone for correctly capturing the sound of every instrument here: the guitars, piano, flutes, strings, drums, percussion instruments — everything has the natural timbre of the real thing. I used to think this recording erred on the bright side, but not the Hot Stamper copies. They are tonally Right On The Money.

When the balance lacks lower midrange the sound gets lean, which causes the strings to seem brighter than they really are, a not uncommon problem with some of the pressings we heard.

We had quite a batch of these to play, including imports, originals, reissues (all stereo), and one lone mono, which was so ridiculously bad sounding we tossed it right out of the competition and into the trade pile.

For those of you playing along at home, we are not going to be much help to you here in finding your own Hot Stampers. Every version had strengths and weaknesses and all are represented in the three listings we are putting up today.

The sound of this side one blew our minds — no other copy could touch it. So open and airy, yet with real weight to the piano and a clear and strong bass line, this copy did EVERYTHING right. The strings are very much part of the ensemble on this album, and getting good string tone, with just the right rosiny texture, the least amount of smear, freedom from shrillness or hardness — this is not easy to do. On the strings, this copy KILLED.

(more…)

In 2005, I Fell Into a Common Audiophile Trap – This Is the Album that Helped Me Find My Way Out

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Michel Legrand

More Albums We’ve Reviewed on Columbia and Epic

This 2005 commentary discusses how easy it is to be fooled by tweaks that seem to offer more transparency and detail at the expense of weight and heft. Detail is everything to some audiophiles, but detail can be a trap that’s easy to fall into if we do not guard against it.

The brass on this wonderful Six Eye Mono pressing of the album set me straight. [Since that time I have not been able to find mono pressings that sounded as good as I remember this one sounding. That sh*t happens.]

I was playing this record today (5/24/05) after having made some changes in my stereo over the weekend, and I noticed some things didn’t sound quite right. Knowing that this is an exceptionally good sounding record, albeit a very challenging one, I started playing around with the stereo, trying to recapture the sound as I remembered it from the last copy that had come in a few months back.

As I tweaked and untweaked the system around this record, I could hear immediately what was better and what was worse, what was more musical and what was more Hi-Fi. The track I was playing was Night In Tunisia, which has practically every brass instrument known to man, in every combination one can imagine.

Since this is a Mono pressing, I didn’t have to worry about silly issues like soundstaging, which can be very deceptive. I was concerned with tonality and the overall presentation of the various elements in the recording.

To make a long story short, I ended up undoing all the things that I had done to the system over the weekend! In other words, what improvements I thought I had made turned out not to be improvements at all. And this is the album that showed me the error of my ways.

Brass instruments are some of the most difficult to reproduce, especially brass choirs. You have to get the leading edges so that the instruments have “bite.” You can’t have too much harmonic distortion or smearing, because harmonic distortion and smearing are very obvious on brass instruments.

But the one thing above all that is intolerable when trying to reproduce brass is a lack of weight or heft. There is nothing worse than thin sounding brass. It becomes hard, shrill, sour and altogether unpleasant.

This is another reason why I don’t like small speakers: they have trouble reproducing the weight of brass instruments, in both jazz and classical music.

The tweaking I had done over the weekend resulted in greater transparency and openness.

But greater transparency and openness at the expense of richness, fullness, correct tonality and proper overall presentation is a bad trade-off.

Many audiophiles fall into this trap. I fell into it myself. Thank goodness I had this wonderful jazz record to help me find my way out. If I had been playing Patricia Barber I doubt I would have ever realized how wrong I was.

This is yet another reason that it’s important to play REAL MUSIC recorded by real engineers and not AUDIOPHILE MUSIC recorded by audiophile engineers when adjusting or tweaking your system.

(more…)

Seals & Crofts’ Folky Rock – What to Listen For

More of the Music of Seals and Crofts

Hot Stamper Pressings of Folk Rock Albums Available Now

In our recent shootout, all our best copies had very similar numbers and letters in the dead wax, which doesn’t happen all that often but does from time to time.

This album does not have a single set of stampers that always win, but it does have a set of very similar stampers that always win. All of the best stampers can only be found on the Green Label original pressings, if that’s any help.

What We’re Listening For On Summer Breeze

Here are some of the things we specifically listen for in a vintage Folk Rock record. Our hottest Hot Stamper copies are simply doing more of these things better than the other copies we played in our shootout. The best copies have:

  • Greater immediacy in the vocals (most copies are veiled and distant to some degree).
  • Natural tonal balance (many copies are at least slightly brighter or darker than ideal; those with the right balance are the exception, not the rule).
  • Good solid weight (so the bass sounds full and powerful).
  • Spaciousness (the best copies have wonderful studio ambience and space).
  • Tubey Magic (without which you might as well be playing a CD).
  • And last but not least, transparency, the quality of being able to see into the studio, where there is plenty of musical information to be revealed in this sometimes simple, sometimes complex and sophisticated recording.

Further Reading

If you would like to run your own tests on the Folk Rock records you own, we make that easy. Here are some other titles that are good for testing these qualities, many with specific advice on what to listen for.

Records that Are Good for Testing Ambience, Size and Space

Records that Are Good for Testing Bass and Whomp

Records that Are Good for Testing Correct Tonality and Timbre

Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Presence

Records that Are Good for Testing Transparency

Records that Are Good for Testing Tubey Magic

Kansas / Leftoverture – Listen to the Differences Up High and Down Low

kansaleftoReviews and Commentaries for the Music of Kansas

Hot Stamper Progresive Rock Records in Stock Now

This is one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity.

UPDATE 2014

Just played the record again and can say without fear of contradiction that the two easiest ways to recognize that the polarity is wrong are these:

  • The record is simply far too bright without the polarity reversed. It’s an interesting sound — I myself like a lot of top end — but switching back and forth it’s clear that the highs are overdone until you reverse the polarity. Once corrected they sound like the highs should sound on a Big Rock record from the ’70s.
  • Even more telling: the BASS. Reverse the polarity, then listen for the kick, the toms and the bass guitar. Assuming you have a good copy, they’re full-bodied, punchy and solid. Now put the polarity back to “normal” and hear how hollowed-out the bass sounds. The kick and the toms don’t punch through the way they should. It’s obviously worse and obviously wrong. The evidence down low is incontrovertible in my opinion.

With all that in mind, the first track still sounds good even when the polarity is wrong. It just sounds better when it’s right. (more…)

Various / Paris 1917-1938 / Dorati – Side One Versus Side Two

More music conducted by Antal Dorati

What to Listen For – Side to Side Differences

Super Hot Stamper sound for Eric Satie’s wonderfully eccentric Parade (and the Auric piece as well) can be found on this rare original promo copy of Mercury 90435, a record that was previously on the TAS List if I’m not mistaken.

It certainly deserves to be. The sound is BIG and OPEN, and like so many Mercury recordings with the London Symphony, it’s rich and full-bodied, not thin and nasally as is so often the case with their domestically recorded releases. Above all the sound is transparent, lively and dynamic.

In many ways this album would certainly serve quite well as an audiophile Demo Disc: the timbre of the wide array of instruments used is (mostly) Right On The Money.

Check out the lengthy and humorous producer’s notes for the sessions below. And people think The Beatles discovered experimental sounds in the studio.

With one small exception: the brass doesn’t have all the weight of the real thing, and for that we have deducted one plus from our top grade of three.

Side one has Classic Bad Mercury Sound — so screechy, hard and thin. How many audiophiles own records like this and don’t know that the sound of one side is awful and the other brilliant?

Since so few have ever commented publicly about such matters — and even supposedly knowledgeable audiophile reviewers never bother to even bring up the subject of one side versus the other — one must conclude that this is a subject that has yet to pierce the consciousness of most of our audiophile brethren, especially the ones who haven’t yet discovered this site.

Now’s a good time to start. Dig in, you may be surprised by what you find.

(more…)

Our System Just Loves Certain Records – Why Do You Suppose That Is?

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Ted Heath

More Records that Are Good for Testing Tonality and Timbre

The highest fidelity vintage recordings are truly amazing if you can play them right.

That’s a big if.

In fact, it may just be the biggest if in all of audio.

Be that as it may. What do we love about vintage pressings like the Ted Heath disc you see pictured?

The timbre of the instruments is hi-fi in the best sense of the word.

The unique sound of every instrument is being reproduced with remarkable fidelity on this old record.

That’s what we mean by “hi-fi,” not the kind of Audiophile Phony BS sound that passes for hi-fidelity on some records.

Older audiophile records, typically those made by Mobile Fidelity in the ’70s and ’80s, had suffered from a common group of problems on practically every record they released:

A boosted top, a bloated bottom, and a sucked-out midrange.

Nowadays that phony sound is no longer in vogue. A new, equally phony sound has taken its place.

What seems to be in vogue these days, judging by the Heavy Vinyl Reissue pressings we’ve played over the last few years, is a very different sound, with a very different suite of shortcomings.

These newer records, with few exceptions, tend to be compressedthickdullopaque, veiled, recessed and badly lacking in ambience.

These are currently the hallmarks of the Heavy Vinyl LP. Whether made by Speakers Corner, DCC, AP or any other label, starting at some point in the mid-’90s, the sound these labels apparently preferred had an infuriating tonal balance problem we noted in practically every record we played: sound that was just too damn smooth.

The phony boosted highs of the bad old days are gone, replaced by the phony rolled off highs of today.

(Bernie Grundman cut hundreds of records for Classic Records starting in the ’90s, and it’s clear he chose to go a different way, but his way turned out to be every bid as problematical.)

Are the audiophiles buying these new, smoother-than-smooth records any better off?

The ones with bright, phony systems probably are.

As we have been saying for years, first you need to have reasonably good sound. Then you can buy good records that actually are good.

Last Question

How do we know we are right about the tonality issues of these modern remasterings?

Stay tuned for part two of this commentary.

The Ideal System for an Exceptionally Well Recorded Album

It’s clear our stereo loves this record. Let’s talk about why that might be the case.

Our system is fast, accurate and uncolored. We like to think of our speakers as the audiophile equivalent of studio monitors, showing us exactly what is on the record, nothing added, and nothing taken away.

When we play a modern record, it should sound modern. When we play a vintage Tubey Magical Living Stereo pressing, we want to hear all the Tubey Magic, but we don’t want to hear more Tubey Magic than what is actually on the record. We don’t want to do what some audiophiles like to do, which is to make all their records sound the way they like all their records to sound.

They do that by having their system add in all their favorite colorations. We call that “My-Fi”, not “Hi-Fi”, and we’re having none of it.

If our system were more colored, slower and tubier, this record would not sound as good as it does. It’s already got plenty of richness, warmth, sweetness and Tubey Magic.

To take an obvious example, playing the average dry and grainy Joe Walsh record on our system is a fairly unpleasant experience. Some added warmth and richness, with maybe some upper-midrange suckout thrown in for good measure, would make it much more enjoyable. But then how would we know which Joe Walsh pressings aren’t too dry and grainy for our customers to enjoy?

We discussed some of these issues in another commentary: (more…)

Prokofiev / Peter & The Wolf / Bernstein – What to Listen For

More of the music of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Sergei Prokofiev

What makes this an especially good Peter and the Wolf?

The timbre of the solo instruments — bassoon, oboe, flute — each of which serves to represent a character in the story.

Shockingly lifelike, the tonality is unerringly Right On The Money (ROTM) throughout. That makes this pressing both a superb Demo Disc as well as a top quality Audio Test Disc.   

When you hear the bassoon or clarinet or oboe playing their solo parts on this record you should be knocked out by how real those instruments sound. Man, this is analog at its best. 

Your Guard Against Phony Hi-Fi sound

As you make changes to your setup, equipment, room, electrical system and who knows what else (we’re hoping you do; it can make all your Hot Stampers even hotter), this record will show you the progress you are making, as well as keep you on the straight and narrow. If you know anything about audio, you know that it’s easy to go off the rails. Happens to the best of us. That’s why it’s essential to have records like this one handy, to help you get back on the right path should some hi-fi-ish sounding something make itself appealing to you in an unguarded moment (to mix yet another metaphor).