Reviewer Malpractice

How Not to Conduct a Proper Shootout for Aqualung

I think this commentary was written in 2010 or thereabouts, since that’s the date on Fremer’s Aqualung review, which can be found here. I have made a few changes to the commentary below, but most of the original has been left intact.

We recently put up a Hot Stamper Aqualung that just BLEW THE DOORS OFF the CLASSIC 200g pressing. Michael Fremer may think the new reissue is the ultimate pressing, but we sure don’t. 

The Aqualung shootout on his site is priceless. He has so many silly things to say about it, let’s not waste any more time and get right to them.

His Shootout Begins

He says he “… compared Classic’s new 200g reissue with: 1) an original UK Chrysalis 2) an original American Chrysalis/Warner Brothers, 3) an original French Pink Label Island, 4) The Mobile Fidelity ½ speed mastered edition and 5) DCC’s 180g issue mastered by the team of Hoffman and Gray.”

How many of each? One, right? (All the articles in front of the nouns are singular. Assuming MF is using good grammar, how many could there be?)

Mikey, that’s your first mistake.

When it comes to the domestic release, one is a wholly inadequate sample size for pressings that were pumped out by the millions and therefore mastered multiple times. Go to Discogs if you want to see just how many different stamper numbers can be found in the original Reprise pressings. Hint: it’s a lot. Some of them are known to us to be awful, some fall into the middle of the pack, and some we like. Figuring out which are which has taken us a lifetime of work and is well beyond the ability of any single person to decode.

Maybe you got hold of a bad sounding “original American Chrysalis/Warner Brothers,” did you ever think of that? The record bins are full of them.

If you did get hold of a bad one — and all the evidence points in that direction — the value of your shootout just went flying out the window, defenestrated as some might say.

Proper shootouts cannot be carried out using a small number of pressings. Anybody who claims to know anything about records ought to know that.

This next line just floors me.

Now rather than make value judgments, let’s just compare without prejudice.

This guy may not be good for much, but he sure is good for a laugh.

Does he really expect us to believe that the comments that follow are not biased in any way, that they are The Truth, that he is able to measure “intimacy and warmth” and tell us precisely how much of each there is on any given pressing? Who in his right mind thinks like that?  (At this rate he may end up wandering about a park with snot running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Help is available; perhaps Stereophile has a mental health plan under which he could be covered.)

Soon enough he goes on to give his opinion as to the merits of each of the pressings noted above. I’m sorry, did I say opinion? I meant comparisons without prejudice. Sorry, my bad.

The Big Truth

And of course he is more than welcome to make any and all the comparisons he deems fit, each from that lovely sample size of one. And if he wants to add another sample (size = 1) to the mix by playing the DCC gold CD, he’s welcome to do that too, which he did. I’m guessing that his CD player is every bit as accurate as his front end (comprising turntable/ arm/ cartridge/ phono stage/ cables), which, if he were to ascribe a number to the accuracy of all the pieces that make up this chain, would have to be in the 100% or so range. Or as the late John McLaughlin might say, on a scale of one to ten: ten, meaning Metaphysically Accurate.

No colorations. No imperfections. Pure Truth, and nothing but.

I could go on like this for days, but even I’m getting tired of it. Without a basic understanding of records and the wide variation in the quality of pressings, you cannot design a testing protocol that will result in any meaningful findings.

You end up with a Pseudo Shootout, custom made for an audience of one, especially one who never wants to be wrong. If you are not trying to separate truth from falsehood, open to the possibility of overturning your preconceived notions by the proper use of the scientific method, how can you learn anything?

Pseudoscience

What you have here is a man practicing the worst sort of pseudoscience: the kind of science that looks like you know what you are doing when in fact you haven’t got a clue. His carefully controlled experiment, free from prejudice or bias of any kind, using only the finest scientific instruments (some expensive front end, with some unknown setup, in some — from the looks of it — very problematic basement listening room), playing to a listening panel of exactly one, with all of six pressings on hand, is anything but.

The results — unrepeatable of course, and why would anyone bother to follow his approach? — speak for themselves.

More to the Point

The acquisition of critical listening skills is extremely important if you want to make progress in this hobby.

But critical thinking skills are much more important, because without them you make the kind of mental errors that this reviewer makes again and again. If your thinking about records and audio is as confused as Fremer’s, your chances of learning how to do either one well are small. In the more than 25 years that I have been cataloging this fellow’s mistakes, I have seen very little evidence that he’s learned much at all.

Classic Records

The new Classic is a decent enough record. On Fremer’s scale of one to eleven, I might give it a ten for music, and about a seven for sound. (He gives it nines for each, for what that’s worth.)

The commentary for the proper shootout we did back in 2008 can be found here. We had around twenty copies of Aqualung, culled from a pool of maybe forty or so. When we get one that doesn’t sound too hot we don’t put it in the shootout pile, we put it in the shit pile and take it back to the store we got it from, or donate it to the Goodwill.

Let’s just say our results did not match Mr. Fremer’s. Anyone who would like to do the shootout for himself is welcome to buy one of our Hot Stamper pressings of Aqualung, and a Classic pressing if need be, and have at it.

Like George Michael Says, Listen Without Prejudice

But please, don’t make value judgments. Compare without prejudice. Is that really too much to ask? Mikey did it, why can’t you? Then just keep the one that sounds best. (You can get rid of the Classic on ebay easily enough.)


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Reviewers – Who Needs ‘Em?

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

How Can I Recognize What I Should Be Listening For on a Given Album?

Destination Stereo and the State of Reviewing As We See It

Hot Stamper Pressings of Living Stereo Titles Available Now

Hot Stamper Pressings of Orchestral Spectaculars Available Now

Explosive dynamics, HUGE space and size, with unerringly correct tonality, this is a Demo Disc like no other.

When “in-the-know” audiophiles discuss three-dimensionality, soundstaging and depth, they should be talking about a record that sounds like this.

But are they? The so-called “glorious, life-changing” sound of one heavy vinyl reissue after another seems to be the only kind of record audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them want to talk about these days.

Even twenty years ago reviewers noted that tracks on compilations such as this often had better sound than the albums from which they were taken, proof that they were listening critically and comparing pressings. What happened to reviewers of that caliber?

I can tell you what happened to them: they left audio, driven out according to the principle that underlies Gresham’s Law: bad reviewers drive out good ones.

Which leaves you with the type that can’t tell how truly awful most modern Heavy Vinyl Reissues are. A sad state of affairs if you ask me, but one that no longer impacts our business as we simply don’t bother to buy, sell or play most of these records.

A Must Own Living Stereo from 1959

A record as good as Destination Stereo belongs in every serious audiophile’s collection. Allow me to make the case.

The full range of colors of the orchestra are here presented with remarkable clarity, dynamic contrast, spaciousness, sweetness, and timbral accuracy.

If you want to demonstrate to a novice listener why modern recordings are so often lacking in many of the qualities prized by audiophiles, all you have to do is put this record on for them. 

Just play Gnomus to hear The Power of the Orchestra, Living Stereo style.

The fourth and fifth movements of Capriccio Espagnol, the second track on side one, sound superb, CLEARLY better here than on the Shaded Dog pressings we played about a year ago (which were terrible and never made it to the site. Great performance but bad mastering of what obviously was a very good master tape). [We’re not so sure that is true, the record may in fact be a lot better than we give it credit for.]

You can also hear the Living Stereo sound especially well on the excerpt from “The Fourth of July” performed by Morton Gould. It’s one of the best sounding tracks here.

I don’t think the RCA engineers could have cut this record much better — it has all the Living Stereo magic one could ask for, as well as the bass and dynamics that are missing from so many other vintage Golden Age records.

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Bob Dylan / This Kind of Sound Earns You a 10?

More of the Music of Bob Dylan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Bob Dylan

Sonic Grade: F

We played this Mono reissue and found it to be flat as a pancake and dead as a doornail, like most of the Sundazed records we played starting way back in the early 2000s. No, they never got any better.

In our experience, Sundazed is one of the worst record labels of all time. This pressing is just more evidence to back up our low opinion of them.

Obviously we may have had a low opinion of them, but a famous audiophile reviewer seemed to find the sound much more to his liking. He wrote:

Sundazed’s reissue gives the original a run for the money and remains true to the original, though it suffers in the bass, which while deep and reasonably well defined, is not as tightly drawn or focused. The upper mids on the original also bloom in a way that the reissue’s don’t, giving the reissue a slightly darker, recessed sound, but there’s still sufficient energy up there since Dylan’s close-miked vocals pack an upper midrange punch. If the vocals or harmonica sound spitty and unpleasantly harsh, it’s your system, not the record – though there’s plenty of grit up there. On the plus side, the overall clarity and transparency of the reissue beats the original. A really fine remastering job.

Of course we find every word of this review arrant nonsense, except the discussion of the qualities he praises in the original relative to the reissue. It’s been twenty years since this remastered pressing came out, does anybody still like the sound of it? Anybody? I hope not.

The intro to his review boldly declares a respect for Sundazed (and Classic Records and Analogue Productions) that we find puzzling after playing so many of their rarely-better-than-awful sounding records. This commentary gets at it pretty well.

Sundazed’s decision to issue Blonde on Blonde using the much sought after mono mix is indicative both of the company’s dedication to doing what’s musically correct, and of the vinyl marketplace’s newfound maturity. There was a time a few years ago when no “audiophile” vinyl label would dare issue a mono recording; audiophiles wouldn’t stand for it was the conventional wisdom. Perhaps back then it was even true. Today, with Sundazed, Classic, Analogue Productions and others issuing monophonic LPs on a regular basis (and one has to assume selling them as well) listeners are appreciating the music for music’s sake, and equally importantly, for the wonderful qualities of monophonic sound reproduction.

My grade might be 2 out of 11. No audiophile should be fooled by the crap sound of this pressing, and no audiophile should believe a word of this review.

Reviewer Incompetence? We’ve been writing about it for more than 25 years. From the start we knew we could never begin to do much more than scratch the surface of preposterous record reviews in need of rebuttal. The audiophile world is drowning in this sh*t.

But rather than spending all day typing at a keyboard, we felt the best use of our time we be to offer the audiophile community actual records that backed up everything we typed, something obviously no reviewer has ever been able to do.

More on Blonde on Blonde

Over the many years we have been doing shootouts, we have cleaned and played quite a number of vintage pressings of Blonde on Blonde. For those of you who love the album, some of these may be of interest:

The right 360 label pressings are very special. Nothing can beat them. They might even be original. We’re not saying one way or the other.

This customer really liked his very expensive but very awesome copy. (Apparently he did not get the message that analog is a bygone technology. For more on that subject, please read the comments section for this article.)

Side four of some copies is horrendously bad sounding. Any idea why?

A better question: Any idea why nobody ever noticed?

Finally, of course Blonde On Blonde is a recording that should be part of any serious popular Music Collection. Others that belong in that category and that are currently available can be found here.

Reviews for other records in the Rock and Pop Core Collection can be found here.


New to the Blog? Start Here

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A Collection of Beatles Oldies on Video – Good Advice?

The LOST Beatles Album | Cancelled By Apple – Should It Be Re-released?

Click on the link above to see an interesting and informative video that we think is well worth watching.

Allow me to make a few points:

As to the question posed above, my vote would of course be no. The new Beatles albums are awful sounding. Here are a couple of reviews outlining their many shortcomings:

Rubber Soul – How Does the Heavy Vinyl Sound?

Let It Be – The Gong Rings Once More

After playing those two, we gave up playing the rest of the set. The Mono Box (in analog!) was even worse.

Mushy Sound Quality

Andrew Milton, the Parlogram Auctions guy, offers opinions about the sound quality of the various pressings he reviews, opinions of which we are naturally skeptical. We have no idea how he cleans his records or how carefully he plays his records, or even what he listens for. (Frankly, even if we knew all those things it wouldn’t mean much to us. So many reviewers like so many bad sounding modern records that we’ve learned not to take anything they say seriously.)

The comment about the 1G stampers being “mushy” that Andrew makes about 19 minutes in is one we take exception to. The problem here is that we can’t really be sure what he means by “mushy.” If it means smeary or thick, that has not been our experience with the best cleaned originals.

Since the later pressings tend to be thinner and less Tubey Magical, they are probably even less ‘mushy,” assuming I have the definition of the term right.

But to say that the 1G stampers were used for both the originals and the reissues on the later label and that therefore the sound is the same is definitely a sign that Andrew’s understanding of stampers and pressings is incomplete.

What We Think We Know

We have done a number of shootouts for the album over the last ten years or so, and our experimental approach using many dozens of copies provides us with strong evidence to support the following conclusions regarding the originals versus the reissues:

1.) The best of the early pressings always win the shootouts. No reissues have ever earned a grade of A+++ and it is unlikely a reissue ever will.

2.) The reissues can be quite good, however. The best of them have earned grades of Double Plus (A++).

3.) The worst of the early pressings also earned grades of Double Plus (A++).

4.) Conclusion: if you have a bad original and a good reissue, you might be fooled into thinking the sound quality was comparable. The stamper being the same was also not helpful. It’s possible Andrew saw that 1G on both pressings and heard what he thought he should hear, the kind of confirmation bias that our shootouts are designed to reduce if not downright eliminate.

5.) This mistake is the result of having a small sample size, aided no doubt by improper cleaning and less than hi-fidelity playback. (The law of large numbers may be instructive here.)

Here are a couple of our takes on the album:

The Beatles / A Collection of Beatles Oldies – Listening in Depth

The Beatles / A Collection of Beatles Oldies – Sounds Great on the Original

And we are proud to offer the discriminating and well-healed audiophile the best sounding Beatles albums ever made. We’ve written a great deal about them over the course of the last twenty years, but none of that really matters. Once you’ve heard one, we suspect you will become a believer like so many of our other customers.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

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Who Can’t Hear Differences in Sound from Side to Side on Most Records?

rimskscheh_2446More of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Our Favorite Performance of Scheherazade – Ansermet with the Suisse Romande

Both the Chesky [1] and Classic reissue pressings of LSC 2446 are just plain terrible. Embarrassingly the latter is found on the TAS List.

There is a newly remastered 33 RPM pressing of the album garnering rave reviews in the audiophile press. We didn’t like it either. It fails the violin test that we wrote about here.

Please note that in many of the reviews for the new pressing, the original vinyl used for comparison is a Shaded Dog pressing. In our experience almost no Shaded Dog pressings are competitive with the later White Dog pressings, and many of them are just plain awful, as we have noted previously on the site.

rimskscheh_chesky

The “original is better” premise of most reviewers renders the work they do practically worthless, at least to those of us who take the time to play a wide variety of pressings and judge them on the merits of their sound, not the color of their labels.

Missing the Obvious

The RCA White Dog with the best side two in our shootout had a very unmusical side one. Since reviewers virtually never discuss the sonic differences between the two (or more) sides of the albums they audition, how critically can they be listening? Under the circumstances how can we take anything they have to say about the sound of the record seriously?

The sound is obviously different from side to side on most of the records we play, often dramatically so (as in the case of Scheherazade), yet audiophile reviewers practically never seem to notice these obvious, common, unmistakable differences in sound, the kind that we discuss in every listing on the site. If they can’t hear the clear differences in sound from side to side, doesn’t that call into question their abilities at the most basic level?

Heavy Vinyl

For us it is this glaring obtuseness that best explains the modern audiophile reviewer’s infatuation with Heavy Vinyl. Poor reproduction or poor listening skills, it could be one or the other; most likely it’s some combination of the two (they clearly do go hand in hand, no surprise there). We can never be sure exactly where the fault lies. But do we really need to concern ourselves with the reasons for their shocking incompetence?

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Kind of Blue – Don’t Tell This Guy the MoFi Is a Joke

Reviews and Commentaries for Kind of Blue

Hot Stamper Pressing of Miles’s Albums Available Now

The MoFi of KOB may be a joke, but don’t bother telling this guy, who appears to be rather new to this whole “reviewing” thing.

He has a record store in Phoenix and a youtube channel called The “In” Groove, wherein he proffers advice to audiophiles about records. Unsurprisingly, he tends to favor audiophile pressings. No doubt he sells lots of them in his store.

To quote the man himself, “I do a review of the best sounding copy’s [sic] of Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue. What are the copy’s [sic] you should own?”

Obviously, literacy is not his strong suit, so writing about records is out, replaced by endless talking about records on these insufferable content-light videos. Everything of interest this gentleman has to say could be written on the back of a napkin and read in the span of the average TV commercial, but that would require stringing together lots of words and arranging them so that they make some kind of sense. It’s so much easier to chat about vinyl while seated in front of some very expensive and no doubt awful sounding (judging by the results of this “shootout”) McIntosh electronics. (I am on record as being opposed to this approach to audio, and have been proselytizing for the benefits of low power amps for more than twenty years.)

Regardless of what he thinks he is doing, in no way does this fellow actually review the best sounding copies, because he’s too inexperienced and ill-informed to even bother with the ’70s Red Label reissue pressings, some versions of which happen to be among the best pressings we’ve heard, a subject we discuss here.

Our Kind of Blue Obsession

KOB is an album we have been obsessed with for a very long time, along with a great many others.

To see a small sampling of other youtube reviewers who seem to know very little about records but are nonetheless comfortable giving out advice “on the copy’s [sic] you should own,” click here.

You may heard that many of these guys who were supposedly devotees of the purest of analog pressings by the purest of audiophile labels got the shock of their lives recently.

Going all the way back to our early days in the record business in 1987, I can honestly say we never bought into the Master Tape Hype of the typical audiophile record, preferring to remain skeptical of facts we had no way to confirm.

And now it turns out the facts weren’t actually facts at all. They were lies.

We advise everyone, Hot Stamper customers and skeptics alike, that the best way to judge records is not to read about them, but to play them.

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Peter Gabriel – Some People Have No Business Reviewing His Records

More of the Music of Peter Gabriel

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Peter Gabriel

This commentary was written many years ago after a review I spotted online prompted me to crack open one of the Classic Records 200 gram Peter Gabriel titles and play it. Let’s just say the results were less than pleasing to the ear.

Bernie Grundman had worked his “magic” again and as usual I was at a loss to understand how anyone could find his mastering in any way an improvement over the plain old pressings, even the domestic ones.

I then had a discussion with a reviewer for an audiophile web magazine concerning his rave review for the Peter Gabriel records that Classic pressed.

I just now played one, and it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. But of course it’s not right either.

Not surprisingly, reviewers have a tendency not to notice these things. I’m not exactly sure how these people are qualified to review records when the most obvious tonal balance problems seem to go unnoticed. The Classic is brighter and less rich. This is not the right sound for this music and does the album no favors.

That’s Bernie for you. After all these years. no amount of mischief he does for Classic should surprise me.

A Bad Record Tells You… What?

Which brings up something else that never fails to astonish me. How can an equipment review be trusted when the reviewer uses bad sounding records to evaluate the equipment he is testing? Aren’t we justified in assuming that if said reviewer can’t tell he is listening to a bad record, he probably can’t tell whether the equipment under review is any good either?

Here is a good example of a reviewer raving about a mediocre-at-best pressing in an equipment review.

A bad record tells you nothing about the equipment it is playing on. Worse, it might complement the faults of the gear and end up sounding tonally correct. If you use So Long So Wrong as a test disc, what are you testing for, the hyped-up vocals or the harmonically-challenged guitars?

The Mobile Fidelity Apocalypse, Part One

For those of you who have not been following this story, here is the best place to start:

How a Phoenix record store owner set the audiophile world on fire

Although it’s behind a paywall, you can get a free test drive easily enough.

In September there will be a long-form video of me going about a Hot Stamper shootout and discussing the world of audiophile records, which you do not want to miss, so sign up now and start reading.

Once you are up to date on the basics, check out the video that started it all.

For those of you who can take the abuse, check out the 234 (currently more than 1000!) pages of comments about this video on the Steve Hoffman forum.

I will be adding my two cents worth to this discussion soon, which should equal the value of the 1000 pages of discussion to date if I may be honest about the value of this label and the people who choose to respect it.

I’ve watched about twenty seconds of the video, and read  three or four comments on this thread, just enough to get the gist of both, so I am admitting up front that whatever comments I make will be ill-informed regarding the particulars of what has been claimed and what may have been discussed regarding whatever has been said.

I do know something about the subject, however, and my plan is to limit what I say to the broader questions this video raises, in my mind anyway

If you are wondering whether this In Groove guy knows much about records, allow me to refer you to the two commentaries associated with his reviews that we’ve posted to date, which we believe should answer that question.

One for Aja, and one for Kind of Blue.

Our next post on the subject can be found here: The Mobile Fidelity Apocalypse, Part Two

And here is Part Three.

There are no doubt more to come, so this link will take you to all of them, probably in the reverse order they should be read.

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Audiophile Reviewers Raved About This Doug Sax Tube Mastered Mess

More of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Reviews and Commentaries for TAS Super Disc Recordings

Records that Do Not Belong on a Super Disc List

The reviews below will sound depressingly familiar to you if you have been in audio for as long as I have.

Sonic Grade: F

This Athena LP is now long out of print, but it received rave reviews when it was released. (We quote many of them below.) This album is a member of the TAS Super Disc list, but we found the sound awfully opaque, smeary, slow and compressed, the kind of bad “analog” sound that Doug Sax brought to the early AP releases. 

The sticker on the shrink wrap of a previous copy had these quotes:

“…for this is the definitive symphonic recording to date.” – J. Gordon Holt/ Stereophile

“Wins ‘Best Record of the Year’ award against tough competition.” – Joe Hart/High End Audio Press & Music Review

“HP heard the Athena remastering of the Rachmaninoff and found it stunning. He could recommend it without reservation.” – Harry Pearson/The Absolute Sound #57

I guess things never change.

And doubtlessly he continued to refer to himself in the third person until the end.

Reviewer malpractice? We’ve been writing about it for more than 25 years.

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Rodgers / Slaughter on Tenth Avenue – How is this title not on the TAS List?

Hot Stamper Pressings of Orchestral Spectaculars

More Living Stereo Recordings

This copy from years ago was so good on side two it almost left me speechless.

How is this title not on the TAS List?

Why is it not one of the most sought-after recordings in the RCA canon? Beats the hell out of me.

But wait just one minute. Until a month ago [now years ago] I surely had no idea how good this record could sound, so how can I criticize others for not appreciating a record I had never taken the time to appreciate myself?

Which more than anything else prompts the question — why is no one exploring, discovering and then bringing to light the exceptional qualities of these wonderful vintage recordings (besides your humble writer of course)?

HP has passed on. Who today is fit to carry his mantle into the coming world of audio?

Looking around I find very few prospects. None in fact. But then again, I’m not looking very hard.

I could care less what any of these people have to say about the sound quality of the records they play.

They all seem to like records that don’t sound very good to us, so why put any faith in their reviews for other records?

Reviewer malpractice? We’ve been writing about it for more than 25 years.

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