Records that Are Good for Testing High Frequency Extension

Elton John – These Strings Are a Tough Test

More of the Music of Elton John

Reviews and Commentaries for Elton John’s Self-Titled Second Album

What’s especially remarkable about this album is the quality of Paul Buckmaster‘s string arrangements. I don’t know of another pop record that uses strings better or has better string tone and texture. Strings are all over this record, not only adding uniquely interesting qualities to the backgrounds of the arrangements but actually taking the foreground on some of the songs, most notably Sixty Years On.

When the strings give in to a lovely Spanish guitar in the left channel (which sounds like a harp!) just before Elton starts singing, the effect is positively glorious. It’s the nexus where amazing Tubey Magical sound meets the best in popular music suffused with brilliant orchestral instrumentation. Who did it better than The Beatles and Elton John? They stand alone.

Correct string tone and texture are key to the best-sounding copies. The arrangements are often subtle, so only the most transparent copies can provide a window into the backgrounds of the songs that reproduce the texture of the strings.

Without extension on the top, the strings can sound shrill and hard, a common problem with many pressings and one that positively ruins any chance of musical involvement.

Without a good solid bottom end the rockers (“Take Me to the Pilot”) don’t work either of course, but you can even hear problems in the lower strings when the bass is lightweight.

String tone on a pop record is a tough nut to crack, even more so on a record like this where the strings play such a prominent role. It’s the rare copy that allows you to forget the recording and lets you just enjoy the music.

For that you really need a Hot Stamper.

These Are Some of the Qualities We’re Listening For in Our Shootouts for Elton’s Eponymous Second Album

There are probably closer to a dozen, but some of the more important ones would be:

Ambience, Size and Space

High Frequency Extension

Midrange Congestion 

Midrange Presence

Smear

String tone and texture

Transparency 


Extraordinary Engineering

There are three amazing-sounding Elton John records on our Top 100 list, one of them engineered by the estimable Robin Geoffrey Cable, Trident Studios’ house engineer in 1972. His work on this album and Tumbleweed Connection marks him as one of the All-Time Greats in my book. Madman Across the Water, the album to follow, seems to be a more difficult recording to master properly. That said, the best copies — we call them White Hot Stampers – are very nearly as good sounding as the two titles mentioned above.

*The others are, in order of quality: Tumbleweed Connection (#1), Honky Chateau (#2), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (#3) and Madman Across the Water (#5).

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The Byrds in Mono – How Do The Original Pressings Sound?

More of the Music of The Byrds

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of The Byrds

Congested and compressed, with no real top, who in his right mind could possibly tolerate that kind of sound on a modern audiophile system?

Can the apologists for mono really be taking this ridiculously crappy sound seriously?

I hope not, but I suspect they do take it seriously.

They seem to like the congested, distorted, top-end-lacking Beatles records in mono, so why not The Byrds? To these ears, the monos for both bands have a lot in common.

And what they have in common is sound we want nothing to do with.

Now, to be fair, we’ve stopped buying these monos, so there may actually be a good copy or two out there in used record land that we haven’t heard and that does have good sound.

In our defense, who really has the time to play records with so little potential for good sound?

What about the Sundazed mono pressings?

The best Columbia stereo copies on the original label are rich, sweet and Tubey Magical — three areas in which the Sundazed reissues are seriously lacking.

Does anyone still care? We simply cannot be bothered with these bad Heavy Vinyl pressings. If you’re looking for mediocre sound just play the CD. I’m sure it’s every bit as bad.


FURTHER READING

More Pressings with Weak Sound Quality or Music 

Mono, Stereo, Reprocessed Stereo, We’ve Played Them All!

Mono or Stereo? Both Can Be Good

Mono or Stereo? Stick with Mono

Mono or Stereo? Stick with Stereo

Mono Reprocessed into Stereo – Good and Bad

Dick Schory – Out of Polarity Stampers Revealed

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Dick Schory

More Stamper and Pressing Information

Presenting another one of the many pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity on some copies.

An amazing discovery from Better Records. Many copies of this album are REVERSED POLARITY on side two (the side with Buck Dance, one of the better tracks on that side and great for testing).

Yes, once again you heard it here first, folks. We had two 4s copies of the album and both of them had side two out of polarity.  

NEWSFLASH: 7s on side two is out of polarity too. Just played one today. There’s practically no real top end extension until you reverse the polarity.

Excerpts from Our Commentary from Way Back When

Reversing the absolute phase on this record today was a REVELATION. There before me was all the ambience, openness, sweetness, silkiness and warmth I had come to expect from the best pressings of this longtime member of HP’s TAS List of Super Discs, a record that really is a Super Disc when you hear a good one, and this is a very very good one indeed, on side two anyway.

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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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Rod Stewart – A Milestone Listening Experience

More of the Music of Rod Stewart

More Milestone Events in the History of Better Records

In the listing for our 2010 Shootout Winner, we noted:

Having made a number of serious improvements to our system in the last few months, I can state categorically and without reservation that this copy of Never a Dull Moment achieved the best stereo sound I have ever heard in my life (outside of the live event of course). I’m still recovering from it. [In 2022, of course this statement strikes me as way over the top. But I must have believed it when I wrote it.]

The credit must go to the engineering of MIKE BOBAK for the DEMO DISC sound. We just finished our most comprehensive shootout ever for the album, culling the best sounding dozen from about twenty five entrants, and this copy just plain kicked all their butts, earning our highest grade on side one (A+++).

Side one here is OFF THE CHARTS! No other side one could touch it. It’s got all the elements needed to make this music REALLY ROCK — stunning presence; super-punchy drums; deep, tight bass; and tons of life and energy.

The Sound

So many copies tend to be dull, veiled, thick and congested, but on this one you can separate out the various parts with ease and hear right INTO the music.

It’s also surprisingly airy, open, and spacious — not quite what you’d expect from a bluesy British rock album like this, right? But the engineers here managed to pull it off.

One of them was Glyn Johns (mis-spelled in the credits Glynn Johns), who’s only responsible for the first track on side one, True Blue. Naturally that happens to be one of the best sounding tracks on the whole album.

Side Two — Almost As Good

We were thrilled when we dropped the needle on side two and heard BIG BASS and TONS of ENERGY just like this amazing side one.

Listen to the room around the drums on Angel — you can really hear the studio as well as the sound of the skins being beaten. On the same track, the meaty guitar in the left channel sounds mind-blowingly good. With a little more top end, the kind that makes the glockenspiel in the right channel clear and present and harmonically correct, this copy would have been hard to beat on side two as well. 

The story of our old shootout is 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 beast for those of us who constantly make improvements to our playback and critically listen to records all day. And it all comes courtesy of Revolutions in Audio.

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Bonnie Raitt / Nick Of Time – What to Listen For

One of the biggest problems we ran into over and over again with this album is a lack of top end. The sound gets a bit too smooth and some of the ambience and spaciousness of the studio disappears. (This, to a much stronger degree, is the problem from which the DCC suffers.)

On the best copies note how silky the cymbal crashes are; not too many copies get them to sound that way. 

The sound has the potential to be POWERFULLY BIG AND BOLD, with meaty, deep bass (such a big part of the rockers here, Thing Called Love being a prime example) and some of the sweetest, richest, most ANALOG sound we’ve heard from any record Don Was has been involved with.

When you hear it like this — something probably pretty close to what he heard during the control room playback for the final mix — it actually makes sense. It works. It’s not exactly “natural”, but natural is not what they were going for, now is it?

What to Listen For 

Listen especially for how all the elements of the recording are clearly laid out and audible, never forced or hyped in any way. The sound can be so 3-D!

Key note for side two — listen for the sibilance on Bonnie’s voice on Too Soon to Tell. Some copies have really gritty, spitty sibilance, others keep it well under control, with a much more silky quality to her vocals.

We play albums like this VERY LOUD. I’ve seen Bonnie Raitt live a number of times and although I can’t begin to get her to play as loud in my living room as she did on stage, I can try. To do less is to do her a great disservice.

Oscar Peterson Trio / West Side Story – His Best Recording? Sure Sounds Like It to Us

More of the Music of Oscar Peterson

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Oscar Peterson

I’ve known this was a well-recorded album since I first heard the DCC Gold CD back in the ’90s.

It sounded great to me at the time although I had nothing to compare it to; I was not a fan in those day. But it sure didn’t sound like this Shootout Winner!

I now realize that this album is clearly one of the best jazz piano recordings we’ve ever played. In its own way it’s every bit as good as the other landmark recording we talk so much about, The Three, from 1975.

Both belong in any right thinking audiophile’s jazz collection. Here are some others we’ve put in our Core Jazz Collection.

Both are phenomenal Demo Discs on the best pressings. Other Jazz Demo Discs can be found here.

The description for the amazing copy we found in our shootout more than a decade ago has been reproduced below.

The Right Sound from the Get Go

Side one starts out with a solid, full-bodied piano and snare drum, a sure sign of great sound to come. This side was richer and fuller than all the other copies we played. That rich tonality is key to getting the music to work. It keeps all the instrumental elements in balance. The natural top on this side is just more evidence that the mastering and pressing are top drawer. Great space and immediacy, powerful driving energy — this side could not be beat.

And side two was every bit as good! The sound was jumpin’ out of the speakers. There was not a trace of smear on the piano, which is unusual in our experience, although no one ever seems to talk about smeary pianos in the audiophile world (except for us of course).

Ray Brown’s bass is huge, probably bigger than it would be in real life, but I can live with that. Once again, with this kind of extended top end, the space of the studio and harmonics of the instruments are reproduced brilliantly.

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Herb Alpert / Whipped Cream & Other Delights – Top End Extension Is Key

More Sixties Pop Recordings

More 5 Star Albums

The better pressings have the kind of Tubey Magical, big-bottomed, punchy, spacious sound that we’ve come to expect from Larry Levine‘s engineering for A&M. If you have any Hot Stamper pressings of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s albums, then you know exactly the kind of sound we’re talking about.

Top end extension is critical to the sound of the best copies. Lots of old records (and new ones) have no real top end; consequently, the studio or stage will be missing much of its natural air and space, and instruments will lack the full complement of harmonic information.

In addition, when the top end is lacking, the upper midrange and high frequencies get jammed together — the highs can’t extend up and away from the upper mids.

This causes a number of much-too-common problems that we hear in the upper midrange of many of the records we play: congestion, hardness, harshness, and squawk.

Painstaking Vertical Tracking Angle adjustment is absolutely critical if you want your records to play with the least amount of these problems, a subject we discuss in the Commentary section of the site at length.

Full-bodied sound is especially critical to the horns.

Any blare, leanness or squawk ruins at least some of the fun, certainly at the louder levels the record should be playing at.

The frequency extremes (on the best copies) are not boosted in any way. When you play this record quietly, the bottom and top will disappear (due to the way the ear handles quieter sounds as described by the Fletcher-Munson curve).

Most records (like most audiophile stereos) are designed to sound correct at moderate levels. Not this album. It wants you to turn it up. Then, and only then, will everything sound completely right musically and tonally from top to bottom.

Bryan Ferry / Boys And Girls – Two Tracks Are Key

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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