Records that Sound Best in Stereo, not Mono

Nat “King” Cole’s Love Is The Thing – The Breatkthrough We Were Waiting For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on what you should be listening for when critically evaluating your copy (or ours) of the album.

Love Is The Thing has long been one of the best sounding Nat “King” Cole recordings we had auditioned over the years. With a large variety of copies to play, including some interesting “finds” among them, we now know it actually is The Best. We have never heard the man sound better than he does on the hottest copies of this very album.

Of course we’re always on the lookout for Nat King Cole albums with good sound. In our experience that is not nearly as easy as one might expect. Far too many of his recordings are drenched in bad reverb and can’t be taken seriously. At least one we know of has his voice out of phase with the orchestra on most of the copies we played, putting a quick end to that shootout.  (more…)

Ray Charles – Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul

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  • Insanely good sound throughout with both sides earning shootout winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades
  • These sides are doing it all right — richer, fuller, better bass, more Tubey Magic, and the list goes on!  
  • “The high points are very high — “Busted,” his hit reworking of a composition by country songwriter Harlan Howard, is jazzy and tough, and one of his best early-’60s singles…” – All Music

What the best sides of this Rhythm and Blues album from 1963 have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl import pressings like this one offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1963
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with the guitars and drums having the correct sound for this kind of recording
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the studio

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now

Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Busted 
Where Can I Go? 
Born To Be Blue 
That Lucky Old Sun 
Ol’ Man River

Side Two

In The Evening (When The Sun Goes Down) 
A Stranger In Town 
Ol’ Man Time 
Over The Rainbow 
You’ll Never Walk Alone

AMG  4 Star Review

Although it was a big commercial success, reaching number two on the LP charts, this record would typify the erratic nature of much of Charles’ ’60s output. It’s too eclectic for its own good, really, encompassing pop standards, lowdown blues, Mel Tormé songs, and after-hours ballads. The high points are very high — “Busted,” his hit reworking of a composition by country songwriter Harlan Howard, is jazzy and tough, and one of his best early-’60s singles, and the low points are pretty low, especially when he adds the backup vocals of the Jack Halloran Singers to “Over the Rainbow” and “Ol’ Man River.” A number of the remaining cuts are pretty respectable, like the tight big band arrangement of “Ol’ Man Time” and the ominously urbane “Where Can I Go?

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Swings Lightly

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  • With two outstanding Double Plus (A++) sides, this original Bow Tie Verve Stereo pressing is going to be very hard to beat – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Lovely All Tube sound from 1958, with a huge, rich orchestra conducted by one of our favorite arrangers, Marty Paich 
  • Grammy Award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo – these were the days when Ella was on top of the world
  • “The bright, sunny optimism of Fitzgerald’s style comes through in several tracks, including ‘If I Were a Bell’ (which also includes several remarkable variations on the melody), and ‘Teardrops From My Eyes’ (which alternates between rock and jazz beats—not a big leap back then!)”

When you are lucky enough to find an album chock full of standards from the Great American Songbook, you cannot help but recognize that this era for Ella will never be equaled, by her or anyone else.

The recording is excellent, with space and midrange richness that might just take your breath away. (more…)

Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays

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  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) grades or BETTER on both sides of this wonderful collaboration from 1962 
  • Two masters come together here to create a compilation of timeless arrangements still appreciated by both music lovers and audiophiles to this day
  • It’s tough to find top quality sound for Nat King Cole – here’s your chance to hear just how good he sounded on this All Tube Recording from the early ’60s
  • “Cole is in prime form on such songs as “September Song,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and “Serenata.” Shearing’s accompaniment is tasteful and lightly swinging, and the string arrangements help to accentuate the romantic moods.”

The better pressings of this unique collaboration between Nat King Cole and George Shearing put Cole’s voice right up front with lovely breath and natural texture. On the better copies such as this one, the Nat’s vocals are full-bodied, the piano has real weight, and the soundfield is open and transparent. If you want a great sounding male vocal LP in your collection, this one will do the trick nicely. (more…)

Peter, Paul & Mary – See What Tomorrow Brings

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  • This incredible copy boasts killer Triple Plus (A+++) sound on side two and an outstanding Double Plus (A++) side one
  • Wonderfully rich, sweet vocals – it’s hard to imagine this trio sounding much better than they do on this very copy
  • Very quiet for a WB Gold label original — Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus
  • “See What Tomorrow Brings is a strong album that plays to the strengths of Peter, Paul, & Mary. There is a good variety of material within their folk format, and a nice esprit de corps that pervades the recording. All members sing lead, which brings a good balance to the proceedings.”

Peter, Paul & Mary records live and die by the quality of their midrange reproduction. These are not big-budget, high-concept mulit-track recordings. They’re simple, innocent folk songs featuring exquisite vocal harmonies, backed by straightforward guitar accompaniment. If the voices aren’t silky sweet and delicate, while at the same time full-bodied and present, let’s face it — you might as well be listening to something else. (As we say below, the average copy will have you looking for another record to put on.)

The Breath Of Life

Steve Hoffman’s famous phrase is key here: we want to hear The Breath Of Life. If P, P & M don’t sound like living breathing human beings standing right between your speakers, toss yours and buy this copy, 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 almost can’t really even imagine it. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear each and every nuance of their singing reproduced so faithfully. (more…)

Marty Robbins – Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs

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  • With Double Plus (A++) grades on both sides, this Six-Eye Columbia pressing was one of the better sounding from our most recent shootout
  • This copy is amazingly clear and open, superior to most in that regard, with fairly smooth and rich vocals to boot 
  • Is the original Six Eye stereo the only way to go on this record? We discuss the subject in detail below
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The single most influential album of Western songs in post-World War II American music. The longevity of the album’s appeal is a result of Marty Robbins’ love of the repertory at hand and the mix of his youthful dynamism and prodigious talent…”

Two excellent Double Plus (A++) sides, with the kind of ’50’s Tubey Magical Analog Sound that’s been lost to the world of recorded music for decades — decades I tell you! Nobody can manage to get a recording to sound like this anymore and it seems clear to us that no one can remaster a recording like this nowadays, if our direct experience with more than hundred such albums counts as evidence.

Albums such as this live and die by the quality of their vocal reproduction. On this record Mr. Marty Robbins himself will appear to be standing right in your listening room, along with the other other musicians on the sessions of course.

Transparency and Tubey Magic are critical to the sound of the arrangements and you will find both in abundance on these sides.

Each of the huge studios the music was recorded in are captured faithfully here. The height, width and depth of the staging are extraordinary. We are not big soundstage guys here at Better Records, but we can’t deny the appeal of the three-dimensional space to be found on a recording as good as this.

This LP has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern pressings cannot BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing any sign of coming back.

Having done this for so long, we understand and appreciate that rich, full, solid, Tubey Magical 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.). The music is not so much about the details in the recording, but rather in trying to recreate a solid, palpable, real person singing live in your listening room. The best copies have an uncanny way of doing just that.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of older recordings (this one is now 58 years old), 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 can serve as a guide.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

Copies with rich lower mids did the best in our shootout, assuming they weren’t veiled or smeary of course. So many things can go wrong on a record! We know, we’ve heard them all.

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 ambience and space, and instruments will lack their full complement of harmonic information.

Tube smear is common to pressings from and any era and this is no exception. The copies that tend to do the best in a shootout will have the least (or none), yet are full-bodied, tubey and rich.

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

We often have to go back and downgrade the copies that we were initially impressed with in light of such a standout pressing. Who knew the recording could be that huge, spacious and three dimensional? We sure didn’t, not until we played the copy that had those qualities, and that copy might have been number 8 or 9 in the rotation. Think about it: if you had only seven copies, you might not have ever gotten to hear a copy that sounded so open and clear. And how many even dedicated audiophiles would have more than one or two clean original copies with which to do a shootout?

One further point needs to be made: most of the time these very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy do what this copy can, it’s an entirely different – and dare I say unforgettable — listening experience.

A Shocking Finding

It turns out that some copies of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs on the later red label can actually sound surprisingly Tubey Magical, especially on side two. In fact we heard a red label side two that was even more rich than the best 360s (but not the best Six Eye pressings; those kill).

Since the person listening to the record has no idea what the actual label is of the record being evaluated — which is about as close an approximation of the Scientific Method as we can manage around here — it was very surprising to hear such glorious Tubey Magical Richness and Sweetness come from such an unexpected source.

A good reason not to avoid later pressings and reissues absent plenty of evidence of their inferiority.

And a good reason to judge your records by playing them whenever possible.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Big Iron Cool Water 
Billy the Kid 
A Hundred and Sixty Acres 
They’re Hanging Me Tonight 
The Strawberry Roan

Side Two

El Paso 
In the Valley 
The Master’s Call 
Running Gun 
Little Green Valley 
Utah Carol

AMG Review

The single most influential album of Western songs in post-World War II American music, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs touched a whole range of unexpected bases in its own time and has endured extraordinarily well across the ensuing four decades.

The longevity of the album’s appeal is a result of Marty Robbins’ love of the repertory at hand and the mix of his youthful dynamism and prodigious talent that he brought to the recordings, and the use of the best music production techniques of the era.

Add to that the presence of a pair of killer original songs that were ready-made singles, “El Paso” and “Big Iron,” and a third, “The Master’s Call,” that was startlingly personal, and the results are well-nigh irresistible.

Sonny Rollins – What’s New? from 1962

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  • Two insanely good sounding sides with each rating a shootout winning Triple Plus (A+++)
  • The sound here is vintage 1962 Living Stereo at its best – big, rich, relaxed, tonally correct and full of Tubey Magic
  • This copy is unusually quiet for a Black Label stereo original – it’s Mint Minus Minus with no audible marks of any kind 
  • 4 1/2 Stars: “Rollins’ characteristically huge tone, relentless harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness, and fierce solos were consistently impressive. Not only did he state the melody clearly and superbly, but his ideas and pacing were remarkable; no solo rambled and his phrases were lean, thick and furious.”

For us audiophiles both the sound and the music here are wonderful. If you’re looking to demonstrate just how good 1962 All Tube Analog sound can be, this killer copy will do the trick. (more…)

Kenny Burrell with Gil Evans – Digging Creed Taylor

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  • A superb sounding original stereo pressing with solid Double Plus (A++) sound from first note to last
  • Gil Evans wrote the superb orchestral arrangements and Rudy Van Gelder captured them on lovely analog tape – what’s not to like? 
  • We’ve really been digging these Creed Taylor productions for years now – it may not be serious jazz, but it’s no less interesting and captivating for it
  • “His landmark 1965 collaboration with Gil Evans, Guitar Forms rivals anything the arranger did with Miles Davis. Indeed, the track “Lotus Land” has a bolero form very reminiscent of Sketches of Spain. Throughout, Burrell takes thoughtful, concise, and utterly musical solos, and even switches to acoustic classical guitar on “Prelude #2” and “Loie.””

For us audiophiles both the sound and the music here are wonderful. If you’re looking to demonstrate just how good 1965 All Tube Analog sound can be, this killer copy will do the trick. (more…)

Gerry Mulligan Quartet – Spring Is Sprung

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  • With shootout-winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades on both sides, it just doesn’t get any better than this copy of Mulligan’s superb sounding and Hard To Find 1963 release on Philips
  • Quincy Jones directed, and Phil Ramone made sure the album would be exceptionally well-recorded, which it is!
  • Big, rich, and Tubey Magical, this pressing let us hear Mulligan’s quartet with the energy and clarity these classic jazz performances deserve
  • 4 Stars: “Mulligan and Brookmeyer always seem to stimulate one another’s playing to a high level, and this album is no exception. The group gets into a swinging groove right away with its updated treatment of a Count Basie favorite, “Jive at Five,” followed by Mulligan’s brisk yet intricate jazz waltz “Four for Three.””

Clean and Clear Yet Rich and Sweet

This copy managed to find the ideal balance of these attributes. You want to find that rare copy that keeps what is good about a Tubey Magical analog recording from The Golden Age of ’60s Jazz while managing to avoid the pitfalls so common to them: compression, opacity, and blubber. (more…)

Paul Desmond – Take Ten

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  • Paul Desmond’s 1963 Cool Jazz Classic returns with superb Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides – quiet vinyl too
  • The brilliant Ray Hall engineered – anyone hearing this copy will understand exactly why we love to play his fabulous ’60s recordings here at Better Records
  • Desmond joins forces here with Jim Hall, a top player whose guitar stylings perfectly complement Paul’s velvety tone
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Everyone wanted Desmond to come up with a sequel to the monster hit “Take Five”; and so he did, reworking the tune and playfully designating the meter as 10/8. Hence “Take Ten,” a worthy sequel… There is not a single track here that isn’t loaded with ingeniously worked out, always melodic ideas.”

For us audiophiles both the sound and the music here are enchanting. If you’re looking to demonstrate just how good 1963 All Tube Analog sound can be, this killer copy will do the trick. (more…)