Records that Sound Best on the Right Import Pressing

The Pentangle – Pentangling

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  • With a Triple Plus (A+++) shootout winning side one and a superb Double Plus (A++) side two, this copy could not be beat
  • The unprocessed quality found throughout the album has its audiophile credentials fully in order, especially in the area of guitar harmonics, as well as drums that sound like real drums actually sound
  • The foundation of the music is provided by two legendary guitar heavyweights, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, with Jacqui McShee’s almost unbearably sweet vocals soaring above them
  • The best material from Pentangle’s amazing first six albums, with sound that’s full of British Analog Tubey Magic
  • “Pentangling is filled to the brim with some of the finest recordings the British folk movement had to offer…”

This album presents the classic 1969 lineup at its best, with superior sonics to boot.

The unprocessed folky sound found throughout the album has its audiophile credentials fully in order, especially in the area of guitar harmonics, as well as drums that sound like real drums actually sound. (How many of the ’70s rock albums in our Top 100 have that natural drum sound? Not many when you stop to think about it.)

When I was selling audio equipment back in the ’70s this was one of our Demo Discs. The song Pentangling has beautifully recorded drums and string bass. The first track, I’ve Got A Feeling, is lovely as well.

Notice how there is nothing — not one instrument or voice — that has a trace of hi-if-ishness. No grain, no sizzle, no zippy top, no bloated bottom, nothing that reminds you of the phony sound you hear on audiophile records at every turn. Silky sweet and Tubey Magical, this is the sound we love here at Better Records. (more…)

Gerry Rafferty – City To City – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of City to City.

Listen to the chorus on the first track, The Ark. On the best copies it really gets loud without becoming harsh or shrill. So many popular albums have choruses (and guitar solos) that are no louder, and sometimes not even as loud, as the verses, which rob the songs of any real drama or power. This recording has the potential to give you a dramatic, powerful, loud chorus. It’s a thrill when you find a pressing that delivers on that promise. (more…)

Prokofiev / Symphonies No. 1 & 7 – Seventies EMI Classical LPs and Vintage Tube Playback

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What to listen for on this album? That’s easy: The all-too-common ’70s EMI harshness and shrillness. We could never understand why audiophiles revered EMI as a label the way they did back the day. I chalk it up — as I do most of the mistaken judgments audiophiles tend to make about the sound of records, my own included — to the limitations of the equipment, bad rooms and poor record cleaning. 

If you had vintage tube equipment back in the ’70s — McIntosh, Marantz, etc. (I myself had an Audio Research SP3-A1 and a D-75a, later a D-76a) — the flaws heard on most copies of this record wouldn’t be nearly as offensive as they are to those of us playing them on the much more revealing systems that are possible today. (more…)

The Moody Blues – A Question of Balance

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  • Side one earned a Double Plus (A++) grade and side two was even better, nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++)!
  • This copy has some of the tubiest, richest, yet clearest Moody Blues sound we’ve heard
  • Huge and spacious with strong midrange presence – this is the way the band should sound, alive and kickin’!
  • Includes the big hit Question, one of the all time greats by the band, which sounds fantastic here of course

Note that the sound on side one seems to get better as it goes, a phenomenon we have noticed often in the past.

What to Listen for

Achieving just the right balance of “Moody Blues Sound” and transparency is no mean feat. You have to be using the real master tape for starters. Then you need top end extension, a very rare quality on these imports, and finally, good bass definition to keep the bottom end from blurring and bleeding into the midrange. No domestic copy in our experience has ever had these three qualities, and only the best of the British imports (no Dutch, German or Japanese need apply) manages to get all three on the same LP.

Allow me to steal some commentary from a Moody Blues Hot Stamper shootout we did years ago, for the wonderful In Search of the Lost Chord, in which we say that, on the best Hot Stamper pressings, the clarity and resolution come without sacrificing the Tubey Magical richness, warmth and lushness for which the Moody Blues recordings are justifiably famous.

It’s so correct from top to bottom, so present and alive, while still retaining all the richness and sweetness we expect from British Moody Blues records, that I would find it hard to believe you could do much better, in this life anyway. (We did, of course; we found a White Hot copy that beat this one, but it took us many, many years and many, many copies to do it.)

We guarantee this copy will take the Moodies’ wonderful music to a level you have never experienced in all your audio days.

What amazing sides such as these 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 pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1970
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments (and effects!) having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space
  • No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is of course the only way to hear all of the above

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Question 
How Is It (We Are Here) 
And the Tide Rushes In 
Don’t You Feel Small 
Tortoise and the Hare

Side Two

It’s Up to You 
Minstrel’s Song 
Dawning Is the Day 
Melancholy Man 
The Balance

AMG Review (short)

And the Tide Rushes In” is one of the prettiest psychedelic songs ever written, a sweetly languid piece with some gorgeous shimmering instrumental effects. The surprisingly jagged opening track, ‘Question,’ recorded several months earlier, became a popular concert number as well as a number two (or number one, depending upon whose chart one looks at) single. Graeme Edge’s ‘Don’t You Feel Small’ and Justin Hayward’s ‘It’s Up to You’ both had a great beat, but the real highlight here is John Lodge’s ‘Tortoise and the Hare,’ a fast-paced number that the band used to rip through in concert with some searing guitar solos by Hayward.

George Starostin’s Review (very long, but a fun read)

Apparently, Children invigorated the band, so they decided they were strong enough to try and duplicate its success. And, darn it all, they almost succeeded – they were on such a high songwriting roll that, formula as it was, it was still nearly impeccable; I sort of view this record as a special Magical Mystery Tour-type ‘extension’ for Sgt Pepper. The sound might have changed a trifle (less Mellotron and less hi-tech overdubs on this one, apparently, to make it easier to reproduce some of these numbers on stage), but the essence is still the same.

What distinguishes the album is its concept: for the first (and last) time in their existence, the Moodies try out a straightforward take on ecological problems (that’s what ‘Balance’ is all about). However, as much as I hate eco rock for its brainwashed nature and (usually) dorky lyrics, there’s really little to complain about this particular concept: the ‘save-the-world’ problems are taken on a global, cosmic scale, with innocent philosophical allusions tied in now and then and lyrics masked by the Moodies’ artistic and ontological pretensions (oh well, what else could one expect?) On top of it, Graeme Edge gets the one and onely reasonably attractive piece of text-writing ever: the spooky ‘Don’t You Feel Small’, although his closing Biblical stylization (‘The Balance’) ain’t that nauseating either – so much for maturation.

Of course, it isn’t really the concept that matters here, rather the songs themselves. The first side of the album is truly awesome – maybe the greatest side of material recorded by the band since Days, and definitely the band’s best ‘democratic’ side – five songs, each by a different band member.

It all starts with an absolute Hayward classic – the upbeat acoustic rocker ‘Question’, with an intoxicating ‘aaah’ now and then, and a vocal melody that forms a perfect optimistic counterpoint to the pessimistic aura of ‘Gypsy’; both songs are otherwise very similarly structured, with verses and ‘aaah’s interchanging with each other over a fast steady beat, backed by a ‘wall-of-sound’ Mellotron backing. Unlike ‘Gypsy’, though, ‘Question’ also has a middle romantic acoustic slow part which is quite endearing too, although I fear the balance between the two parts is a little too far shifted in favour of the slow part.

Pinder contributes the dark, ‘labyrinthic’ (if you know what I mean) meditation ‘How Is It (We Are Here)’, one of his catchiest ditties ever, and introduces the ecological topic – although I’m a bit puzzled as to what is meant under ‘her love’. Is it the Earth he means? Possibly. In any case, the symphonic effect in the instrumental part of the song is admirable, with the Mellotron forming a perfect duet with Hayward’s strangely encoded guitar solo. If you ask me, that passage is at least ten times as good as the band’s stupid cluttering with their instruments on ‘The Voyage’.

After the ‘depression’, Ray Thomas comes up to soothe us and becalm us with the beautiful ‘And The Tide Rushes In’, reminiscent of his style on Days – same shaking vocals, same stunning harmonies, hey, it could have easily fitted onto their debut, it’s on the same level. Except that it’s actually different: this is the first time Ray managed to come up with something of a truly operatic character, not giving his voice even the slightest restraint, and it’s also very personal-sounding – after all, it’s just an acoustic ballad with some Mellotron in the background.

As for the already mentioned ‘Don’t You Feel Small’, this disturbing shuffle could have been Edge’s masterpiece, if not for the utterly nasty loud whispered voice echoing the band’s singing – it mars an otherwise excellent vocal melody. Kudos to Graeme anyway for writing the first true song in his career – after all, even his best contributions so far on Children have mostly been instrumentals with an occasional bit of declamation.

Finally, Lodge’s ‘Tortoise And The Hare’ is yet another minor-key rocker, with a suspicious, disturbing sound and suspicious, disturbing lyrics. I love hearing the band go ‘it’s all right it’s all right’ with that paranoid beat, and I love hearing Justin deliver a short grizzly solo, completely up to the point. It should be noted, however, that ‘Tortoise’ is the first example of Lodge showing a passion for disco-type monotonous rhythms and thus leads to ‘I’m Just A Singer’, which in turn leads to ‘Sitting At The Wheel’ which in turn leads to ‘Here Comes The Weekend’… oh me, oh my.

Getting back to pleasant things, I must reiterate that this side has it all – it’s slow (‘Tide’), it’s fast (‘Question’), it’s sad (‘How Is It’) and it’s funny (‘Tortoise’), it’s dark (‘Don’t You Feel Small’) and bright (‘Question’ again) at the same time. If you ever needed to demonstrate all of the Moodies’ talents in one twenty-minute session, this would obviously be the best choice.

Unfortunately, the second side, as is quite often the case with the Moodies (see On The Threshold Of A Dream for further reference), just doesn’t sustain the heat. For me, it contains just two songs that can be qualified on the same (or nearly the same) level: Lodge’s ‘Minstrel’s Song’ is a nice little ‘pastoral’ shuffle with hippiesque overtones and an excellent vocal melody structure, and Pinder’s ‘Melancholy Man’…

I know some people prefer to detest it, but I just think it’s a perfect example of a lyrics-melody match: the song is supposed to be slow, dreary, long and muddling, as it is dedicated to depicting the ‘process’ of melancholy, and, well, it is. Plus, those backing vocals are moody, and why should we expect anything else from a band with the word ‘Moody’ in it? Nah, I like the song, even if it’s more than five minutes long.

It’s also heavily influenced by French chansons, as is my hypothesis, and thus – quite naturally – provokes an Anglo-Saxon to rebellion. What I don’t quite like are Hayward’s contributions to this side. Both ‘It’s Up To You’ and ‘Dawning Is The Day’ are quite pretty by themselves, but they’re just not too substantial, ya know. Once again, Justin fell into the atmospheric trap of harmonizing and romanticizing without any truly creative melodies. In fact, I know it might sound strange, but at this point in his career Hayward was much better at ‘rockers’ than at gentle songs (aren’t ‘Question’ and ‘Gypsy’, two of his best songs, proof enough?)

Also, just as the album opened on a high note, so it closes with a downer: ‘The Balance’ is obviously just a piece of conventional crap, even if the Edge poem is not the worst he’d ever written. For some reason, though, I’m about the only person on Earth who dislikes the number – seriously now, do all you people really fall for that unmelodic chorus and Pinder’s pompous declamations of the old drummer boy’s poetry? Still, none of the other nine songs are really bad, and so, being in a good mood, I gently deprive the album of just one point. Blame it on the ecologists.

Discography

Hot Stamper shootouts have been done for all their records with the exception of Go Now (which never sounds good as far as we know).

  • Go Now! (a.k.a. The Magnificent Moodies) (1965)
  • Days of Future Passed (1967)
  • In Search of the Lost Chord (1968)
  • On the Threshold of a Dream (1969)
  • To Our Children’s Children’s Children (1969)
  • A Question of Balance (1970)
  • Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971)
  • Seventh Sojourn (1972)

 

 

Robert Palmer – Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley – His Best Album By Far

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A distinguished member of the  Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

TWO EXCELLENT SIDES on this British Sunray Island pressing. SSTTA is very hard to find nowadays, but we managed to put together a big enough stack to make a shootout possible, and this copy acquited very well indeed — it was miles ahead of the typical pressing. As is usually the case with these originals, the vinyl is a bit noisier than ideal at Mint Minus Minus.

No doubt this is the best album Robert Palmer ever made. With Lowell George’s unmistakable slide guitar and members of the Meters providing backup, as well as the amazing Bernard Purdie on drums, it’s the only Robert Palmer release that consistently works all the way through as an album. The entire first side is excellent from top to bottom, with the title track being our favorite RP song of all time.  (more…)

The Moody Blues – Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

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  • Superb Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides – this is one of the better sounding copies we played in our recent shootout
  • With a wonderful combination of Tubey Magical richness and clarity, this pressing will be very hard to beat
  • Full-bodied and lush, yet not veiled or distant, this is the sound that brings the Moodies magic to life
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The best-realized of their classic albums, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was also the last of the group’s albums for almost a decade to be done under reasonably happy and satisfying circumstances — for the last time with this lineup, they went into the studio with a reasonably full song bag and a lot of ambition and brought both as far as time would allow…”

This copy had the BIG, RICH, LUSH British sound that can only be heard on the very best Moody Blues pressings. (more…)

Eric Clapton – Backless

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  • One of the better sounding copies to hit the site in a while – this British original earned Double Plus (A++) grades on both sides
  • Rich, smooth, clear sound throughout – listen to the grungy guitars on Walk Out In The Rain – that’s the way they should sound all right
  • Clapton comes to life on the traditional blues Early In The Morning – it also has the best sound on the album
  • “Backless is a seductive record, if you’re attracted to the interplay of Clapton’s dolorous voice and Marcy Levy’s raspy backup vocals, George Terry’s slide guitar and Glyn Johns’ pristine production.” Rolling Stone

The true test for side two was the second track, the old blues song Early In The Morning. It’s by far the best sounding track on the album, with huge space, rich bass, a fat snare and Tubey Magic to die for. This is the kind of sound that only the likes of Glyn Johns can get down on tape, live in the studio no doubt, and it made it easy to do the shootout for side two. The bigger, the richer, the tubier, the more transparent the better. It’s THE track to demo with.  (more…)

Phil Collins – Face Value – Whomp Factor

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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. 

Until we heard some of the better copies we were simply not able to appreciate just how important good bass definition and serious weight down low are to the sound of this record. When the bass is wooly or thin, as it is on so many copies — not clear, not deep, not full enough — it throws the rest of the mix off. When the bass is huge and powerful the music itself becomes huge and powerful.

The copies with the big bottom end are the only ones that really make you sit up and take notice of just how good these songs are. (more…)

Rod Stewart – Gasoline Alley

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  • Excellent Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – only the second copy to ever hit the site
  • These early Vertigo sides are rich, smooth and Tubey Magical yet still relatively clean, clear and spacious
  • Absolutely as QUIET as any pressing we have played – Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus – it is the very rare copy that will play this well
  • 5 Stars: “Of course, being a rocker at heart, Stewart doesn’t let these songs become limp acoustic numbers — these rock harder than any fuzz-guitar workout. The drums crash and bang, the acoustic guitars are pounded with a vengeance — it’s a wild, careening sound that is positively joyous with its abandon.”

This early Vertigo pressing has 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 love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound. (more…)

The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour – Are Your Cellists Digging In?

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

Over the last decade I Am The Walrus has evolved into a good test for side one, a fact that came as a complete surprise to me. As I was listening to the various copies in a shootout years ago I noted that the opening cellos and basses in the right channel were often tonally identical from copy to copy, but sounded quite a bit more lively and energetic on some pressings relative to others. Was it EQ? Level? Compression?  

Why so much more passion from the players on some copies and not others?

As I tried to puzzle it out, playing first one copy and then another, it became clear to me what was happening. The cellists and the bassists were just plain digging HARDER into the strings on the best copies. When you see live classical music, the cellists at the front of the orchestra are usually sawing away with abandon when the music is really going. They dig their bows hard into the strings to make them vibrate as loud as possible. To make their instruments heard in the back row it becomes a matter of muscle, of pure physical exertion.

So armed with the copies where the string players are working the hardest, I checked the other tracks. Sure enough, the opening cut, MMT, jumped out of the speakers with the most energy I had heard on any copy. As I went through the tracks one by one, they had the most life of any of the copies I had been listening to. To use a word that was popular at the time, the music was HAPPENING.

This was the final piece to the puzzle. Tonality always comes first. Frequency extension; lack of distortion; rich, powerful bass — these are important qualities as well. But the life of the music is in the micro and macro dynamics, and that is what I had not been paying sufficient attention to in the shootout. That was until I listened to Walrus and heard the players working up a good healthy sweat. Then I knew I had a hot stamper. And when I played the not so hot stampers, the string guys sounded like session musicians picking up a paycheck. Where was their passion? Didn’t they realize they were making a Classic?

If you get the right pressing they sure were!



Further Reading

This recording is quite difficult to reproduce, which means it ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale (DORS). Do not attempt to play it using any but the best equipment. The tutti passages will tear your head off unless you are using a very good cartridge and arm.

In its way, this is an ideal record to gauge how much progress you have made in audio. I remember playing these DG pressings only five to ten years ago and hearing shrill strings, harmonic distortion and many other unpleasant qualities in the sound. With those very same pressings today the sound is dramatically better. This is no accident. It is the result of both hard work and the Revolutions in Audio we discuss on the site.

Here is what I had to say about a Brewer and Shipley album that ranks high on the DOR scale:

I can also tell you that if you have a modest system this record is just going to sound like crap. It sounded like crap for years in my system, even when I thought I had a good one. Vinyl playback has come a long way in the last five or ten years and if you’ve participated in some of the revolutionary changes that I talk about elsewhere on the site, you should hear some pretty respectable sound. Otherwise, I would pass. On the Difficulty of Reproduction scale, this record scores fairly high. You need lots of tubey magic and freedom from distortion, the kind of sound I rarely hear on any but the most heavily tweaked systems, the kind of systems that guys like me have been slaving over for twenty years. If you’re a Weekend Warrior when it comes to stereo, this is not the record for you.

Much like Synchronicity, this is a tough record to get the right sound out of — even if you do have an excellent pressing. It took a long time to get to the point where we could clean the record properly, twenty years or so, and about the same amount of time to get the stereo to the level it needed to be, involving, you guessed it, many of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio we tout so obsessively.

It’s not easy to find a pressing with the low end whomp factor, midrange energy and overall dynamic power that this music needs, and it takes one helluva stereo to play one too. As we’ve said before about these kinds of recordings — Ambrosia; Blood, Sweat and Tears; The Yes Album; Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin II — they are designed to bring any audio system that tries to reproduce them to its knees.

If you have the kind of big system that a record like this requires, demands even, you are going to hear some amazing sound when you drop the needle on these Hot Stampers.