*Reviewing the Reviewers

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 mediocre-at-best 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.

Further Reading


The Beatles / Rubber Soul – How Does the Heavy Vinyl Sound?

Hot Stamper Pressings of Rubber Soul

Reviews and Commentaries for Rubber Soul

[This review was originally written in 2015.]

We are so excited to tell you about the first of the Heavy Vinyl Beatles remasters we’ve played! As we cycle through our regular Hot Stamper shootouts for The Beatles’ albums we will be of course be reviewing more of them*. I specifically chose this one to start with, having spent a great deal of time over the last year testing the best vinyl pressings against three different CD versions of Rubber Soul.

The short version of our review of the new Rubber Soul vinyl would simply point out that it’s awful, and, unsurprisingly, it’s awful in most of the ways that practically all modern Heavy Vinyl records are: it’s opaque, airless, energy-less and just a drag.

I was looking forward to the opportunity to take Michael Fremer, the foremost champion of thick vinyl from sources far and wide, to task in expectation of his rave review, when to my surprise I found the rug had been pulled out from under me — he didn’t like it either. Damn!

MF could hear how bad it was. True to form, he thinks he knows why it doesn’t sound good:

As expected, Rubber Soul, sourced from George Martin’s 1987 16 bit, 44.1k remix sounds like a CD. Why should it sound like anything else? That’s from what it was essentially mastered. The sound is flattened against the speakers, hard, two-dimensional and generally hash on top, yet it does have a few good qualities as CDs often do: there’s good clarity and detail on some instruments. The strings are dreadful and the voices not far behind. The overall sound is dry and decay is unnaturally fast and falls into dead zone.

It strikes me as odd that the new vinyl should sound like a CD. I have listened to the newly remastered 2009 CD of Rubber Soul in stereo extensively and think it sounds quite good, clearly better than the Heavy Vinyl pressing that’s made from the very same 16 bit, 44.1k remixed digital source.

If the source makes the new vinyl sound bad, why doesn’t it make the new CD sound bad? I can tell you that the new CD sounds dramatically better than the 1987 CD I’ve owned for twenty years. They’re not even close. How could that be if, as MF seems to believe, the compromised digital source is the problem?

Fortunately I didn’t know what the source for the new CD was when I was listening to it. I assumed it came from the carefully remastered hi-rez tapes that were being used to make the new series in its entirety, digital sources that are supposed to result in sound with more analog qualities. Well, based on what I’ve heard, they do, and those more analog qualities obviously extend to the new Rubber Soul compact disc. At least to these ears they do.

Possibly my ignorance of the source tape allowed me to avoid the kind of confirmation bias — hearing what you expect to hear — that is surely one of the biggest pitfalls in all of audio.

Doors Progress

He raved about the digitally remastered Doors Box Set when it came out, but now that Acoustic Sounds is doing Doors albums on 45 he is singing a different tune:

Whatever I wrote about that box then [5/1/2010 if you care to look it up], now, by comparison, the best I can say for The Doors on that set is that it sounds like you’re hearing the album played back on the best CD player ever. It’s smoooooth, laid back and pleasant but totally lacks balls, grit, detail, spaciousness and raw emotional power. The entire presentation is flat against a wall set up between the speakers. The double 45 has greater dynamics, detail, spaciousness and appropriate grit—everything the smooooth 192k/24 bit sourced version lacks.

We, on the other hand, had no trouble at all hearing how bad it was right from the start. For our last Hot Stamper shootout winner of The Soft Parade we noted:

Need I even mention how much better this copy sounds than the recent 180g version from the Rhino Box Set, digitally remastered by Bernie Grundman? That thing is just awful, possibly the worst sounding pressing I have ever heard. The Gold CD Hoffman did for Audio Fidelity would be night and day better. So much for the concept of vinyl superiority. Not with Bernie at the helm.

To his credit MF finally recognizes his mistake, but let’s stop and think about how he came by this insight. He did it by playing a pressing that, to his mind, has every reason to sound better, being sourced from analog tapes and mastered at 45. Now he hears that Bernie’s cutting sounds like a CD. To us it sounded worse than a CD when we played it the first time, vinyl or no vinyl. We even recommended the Hoffman-mastered DCC Gold CDs for those who didn’t want to spring for one of our Hot Stamper pressings. As we like to say, good digital beats bad analog any day.

Real Progress

Then again, who are we to talk? Bear in mind that as recently as 2000-something we were still recommending the DCC vinyl pressings, records that I can’t stand to listen to these days. My system couldn’t show me how colored and lifeless they were then, but it sure can now.

It’s amazing how far you can get in 10 years if you’re obsessive enough and driven enough and are willing to devote huge amounts of your time and effort to the pursuit of better audio. This will be especially true if you are perfectly happy to let your ears, not your brain, inform your understanding of the sound of the records you play.

If we thought like most audiophiles, that money buys good sound and original pressings are usually the best, there would be no such thing as Hot Stampers.

That’s Fremer’s world, not ours. He’s making progress in some areas, not so much in others, but man, he sure has a long way to go. At this rate it will take him forever. It just goes to prove that Mistaken Thinking can really slow down your progress.

Take our advice (and stop taking his, which is also our advice) and you will be amazed at the positive changes that are sure to come your way.

So, What’s The Grade?

MF’s grade for the new Rubber Soul pressing was a 5 on a scale of 1 to 11. If we were to follow the more standard scale of 1 to 10, we would probably give Rubber Soul a 2, at most 2.5 (and that’s only if we were in an expecially generous mood). The new record is a drag, and even the remastered CD is better. Under those circumstances how can the 180 gram pressing be a 5? Maybe in Fremer’s world you automatically get three points for being made out of vinyl. He seems to really like the stuff, even when it doesn’t sound good. Never could figure that one out.

More Beatles Heavy Vinyl?

Due to the heavy volume of mail on the subject (2 emails flooded in!) we finally broke down and bought the set. As we pursue our Hot Stamper shootouts of The Beatles’ catalog we will be commenting on how the new pressings sound from time to time and in no particular order. We’re also in no particular hurry; practically nothing on Heavy Vinyl impresses us these days and we expect The Beatles records to be no different, rave reviews (for most of them) from audiophile reviewers notwithstanding.


After playing two titles and hearing the same mediocre sound, this survey is on indefinite hiatus.

Who has the time to play crappy records, especially when there are so many good ones, or potentially good ones, that we don’t find the time to get to as it is?

How Can Anybody Not Hear What’s Wrong with Old Records Like These?

beatlrubbeoriginalRecord Collecting – A Guide to the Fundamentals

More of the Music of Beatles

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the kinds of sonic differences among pressings we describe, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified Audio Expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom.

A reviewer most of us know well is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment:

It’s not my pleasure to be so negative but since I have a clean UK original (signed for me by George Martin!) I’ll not be playing this one again. Yes, there are some panning mistakes and whatever else Martin “cleaned up” but really, sometimes it’s best to leave well-enough (and this album was well-enough!) alone.

We can’t imagine how anyone can have a system in this day and age that can obscure the flaws of the original Parlophone pressings of Rubber Soul (or any other Yellow and Black label Parlophone pressing for that matter, other than Yellow Submarine and Oldies but Goldies).

[Here is another exception to that “rule.”]

This reviewer apparently does (as do some of our customers, truth be told), but we have something very different indeed. One might even consider it the opposite of such a system.

Our system is designed to relentlessly and ruthlessly expose the flaws of every record we play.

Only the best of the best can survive that level of scrutiny. Our system (comprising equipment, setup, tweaks, room treatments, electricity) operates at the Highest Level of Fidelity we have been able to achieve to date. We are constantly making improvements to our playback system in search of even better sound.

Real Progress

But wait a minute, who are we to talk about being fooled? Bear in mind that as recently as 2000 or so we were still recommending DCC and other Heavy Vinyl pressings. These are records that, with few exceptions, I would have a hard time sitting through nowadays.

My system couldn’t show me how colored and lifeless they were then, but it sure can now.

It’s amazing how far you can get in 10 years [now 20] if you’re obsessive enough and driven enough, and are also willing to devote huge amounts of your time and effort to the pursuit of better audio. This will be especially true if you are perfectly happy to let your ears, not your brain, inform your understanding of the sound of the records you play.

If we thought like most audiophiles, that money buys good sound and original pressings are usually the best, there would be no such thing as Hot Stampers. Old thinking and wrong thinking can really slow down your progress.

Follow our advice and you will be amazed at the positive changes that are bound to come your way.

Training Your Ears

Of course, we should note that it helps to have a dedicated full time staff doing shootouts, including a full-time record cleaning person. All of the members of the listening panel were musicians with already well-trained ears when we hired them. From the start they had no trouble appreciating the differences between pressings.

I, on the other hand, am not a musician. Since the 70s, I’ve simply worked at trying to get my stereo to sound more like live music. Over many years, as it slowly improved, it allowed me to hear more and more of what was really on my records. I slowly gained the skills I needed to do the kind of critical listening comparisons that are currently the heart of our business. Let me be the first to admit it was rough going for about the first twenty five years. (Getting rid of my old tube system in the 2000s was a great leap forward.)

It has been my experience that most audiophiles are in that same non-musician boat. The problem seems to be that stereos are not nearly as good at teaching these skills as musical instruments are. Unless you are of an experimental mind and are willing to devote a great deal of your time and money to the audio game, you are unlikely to develop the skills necessary to critically evaluate recordings at the highest levels.

Unfortunately, playing into this vicious cycle, those same critical listening skills are the very ones you need to make your stereo revealing enough so that even subtle differences between pressings become not just clear, but obvious. Better ears lead to better stereos, but bad stereos make it hard to develop better ears. That’s why I made so many mistakes and learned so little in my first twenty years as an audiophile.

Further Reading


Is The Heavy Vinyl from 2012 the Best Sounding Sgt. Pepper?

beatlessgtMore of the Music of The Beatles

Letters and Commentaries for Sgt. Peppers

You might agree with some reviewers that EMI’s engineers did a pretty good job with the new stereo pressing of Sgt. Pepper mastered by Sean Magee from the 2009 digitally remastered tapes.

In the March 2013 issue of Stereophile Art Dudley weighed in, finding little to fault on this title but being less impressed with most of the others in the new box set. His reference disc? The MoFi UHQR! Oh, and he also has some old mono pressings and a domestic Let It Be.

Now there’s a man who knows his Beatles. Fanatical? Of course he is! We’re talkin’ The Beatles for Chrissakes.

When I read the reviews by writers such as these, I often get the sense that I must’ve fallen through some sort of Audio Time Warp and landed back in 1982. How is it that our so-called experts evince so little understanding of how records are made, how variable the pressings can be, and, more importantly, how absolutely crucial it is to understand and implement rigorous protocols when attempting to carry out comparisons among pressings.

Critically comparing LPs is difficult and time-consuming. It requires highly developed listening skills. I didn’t know how to do it in 1982. I see no evidence that the audiophile reviewers of today are much better at it now than I was in 1982.

Just to take one example: They all seem to be operating under the same evidence-free conceit: that the original is the benchmark against which other pressings must be compared.

To those of us who have played Beatles pressings by the hundreds, this is patent nonsense. To cite just one instance, a recent Hot Stamper listing notes [inaccurately as it turns out, see below]:

We defy any original to step into the ring with it. One thing we can tell you, it would not be a fair fight. The cutting equipment to make a record of this quality did not exist in 1967, not at EMI anyway.

We had the opportunity not long ago to audition a very clean original early pressing of the album and were frankly taken aback by how AWFUL it was in virtually every respect. No top end above 8k or so, flabby bass, murky mids — this was as far from Hot Stamper sound as one could imagine. If it were a Heavy Vinyl or Audiophile pressing we would surely have graded it F and put it in our Hall of Shame.

To be fair we have played exactly one early copy of the record on our current system. (Played a copy or two long ago but on much different equipment, so any judgments we might have made must be considered highly suspect.) Perhaps there are good ones. We have no way of knowing whether there are, and we are certainly not motivated to find out given the price that original Sgt. Pepper’s are fetching these days.

We can tell you this much: no original British pressing of any Beatles album up through Pepper has ever impressed us sonically. We’ve played plenty and have yet to hear one that’s not congested, crude, distorted, bandwidth-limited and full of tube smear. (The monos suffer from all of these problems and more of course, which is only natural; they too are made with the Old School cutting equipment of the day.)

If that’s your sound more power to you. It’s definitely not ours. The hotter the stamper, the less congested, crude, distorted, bandwidth-limited and smeary it will be. (Or your money back.)


[Update: there is a copy of a Beatles album on the original label that was competitive with our best 70s pressings, this one. We explained why it’s not a problem to admit we were wrong about For Sale this way:

This finding about For Sale is precisely why Live and Learn is our motto.

We don’t know it all, and we’ve never claimed that we did. We constantly learn things about pressings in our daily shootouts. That should not be too surprising, as record shootouts are the only way to learn anything about the sound of records that’s actually worth knowing.

Start doing your own experiments and your record knowledge might just take off the way ours has. 99% of what we think we know about the sound of records we’ve learned in shootouts over the course of the last twenty years.

Here is our advice on getting started.

Before this, the only Beatles record we would sell on the Yellow and Black Parlophone label was A Collection of Oldies… But Goldies. That title does have the best sound on the early label. In numerous shootouts, no Black and Silver label pressing from the ’70s was competitive with the best stereo copies made in the ’60s.

Until now, it was clearly the exception to our rule. From With the Beatles up through Yellow Submarine, the best sounding Beatles pressings would always be found on the best reissue pressings.

The Best Pepper Pressings

How did we come to find the best Sgt. Peppers pressings? Our recent commentary about a wonderful Benny Carter record on the original Contemporary Black Label may serve to shed some light on the process.

We noted how Tubey Magical Benny’s trumpet sounded on the original, adding that it unfortunately comes at the expense of all the other instruments — drums, bass and piano — which are simply harder to hear — less immediate, less real, less “live in your listening room.” We went on to say:

Yet this is precisely the sound that many, even most, audiophiles would find perfectly acceptable. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones has to be that they have never heard a truly amazing reissue, the kind we sell all day long. Had they heard such a pressing they would be in a much better position to weigh the pros and cons of both. This is why we do shootouts. Every pressing has the potential to show you some quality you can’t hear any other way, some aspect of the sound you would not even know was possible. Super Hot and especially White Hot pressings — on the right equipment — can put you in the presence of a recording you had no idea existed. It would be no exaggeration to say that it happens to us every week.

Not to put too fine a point on it, comparing an original pressing of Sgt. Pepper with the new Heavy Vinyl reissue is simply comparing one badly flawed pressing with another badly flawed pressing. Pace Mr Dudley and his confreres, we’re not exactly sure how their efforts in this regard are of much benefit to audiophiles who take their record collecting seriously, at least to that subset of collectors in search of the best sounding pressings.

If you want to find an LP of Sgt. Pepper that sounds better than the original, that’s one thing. If, on the other hand, you want to find the best sounding pressing there is, that’s quite another.


If This Guy Isn’t on the Payroll…

He sure ought to be!

Based on what I’ve just read, if Rhino Records is looking for a head cheerleader, they could hardly do better than Mr. Youman.

I stumbled upon this fellow’s review of The Cars first album on Positive Feedback just a few days ago.

Not sure I would even call it a review. It comes across to me as more of a PR release.

I don’t think Positive Feedback cares either way. They need content, and apparently they consider this content.

The New Rhino High Fidelity Series – The Cars And John Coltrane Kick It Off in Grand Style!

One thing I have noticed about PF is that they do not seem to employ editors of any kind. My friend Robert Pincus writes for them — here is his review of a Dillards album that no one would be likely to buy from us but is probably worth picking up for the five or ten dollars a record store might charge — and there are plenty of typos throughout his reviews and others I have read. You’re on your own with PF. And they are good with however many exclamation marks you may want to use. Four in one paragraph? Bring it on they say!

The following paragraph from Youman’s review contains a ridiculous mistake that any knowledgeable editor should have noticed. Can you spot it? If so, email me at tom@better-records.com

Mastered by George Marino, the 1978 original would seem hard to beat, as the level of detail and attack is quite impressive. It absolutely rocks, and I would be very happy if this was my one and only copy. The 1980 Nautilus, which was half speed mastered by Jack Hunt, is surprisingly very much like the original with some minimal improvement in transparency and dynamic punch. Most would be hard pressed to hear the difference. Of course, the super quiet Japanese vinyl might be contributing to this. We also have the 2009 Mofi, which was half speed mastered by Shawn Britton. In my system, I found it to be dark and somewhat veiled. Bass was just too prominent to my ears. It was almost impossible to sit through the entire Mofi after hearing the OG and the Nautilus. I am a huge Mofi fan, so this was very disappointing.

When someone as clearly lacking in critical listening skills as this fellow has the temerity to compare “the” original and the Nautilus remaster (reviewed here) and declare “Most would be hard pressed to hear the difference,” it upsets me no end. I want to sit such a person down and say that it’s unlikely that anyone with two working ears and a halfway-decent stereo would not hear the difference. You can hardly hear it, that seems clear, but why insult others of a Cars-loving persuasion?

The reference to Giant Steps below is yet more evidence of this fellow’s inability to recognize a bad record when he hears it:

Let’s return to that Rhino catalog and all that it could possibly offer to the audiophile enthusiast. We need to send our wish lists and raise our hands if not bring out the megaphones!  Of course we have the Led Zeppelin catalog, but that has been debated ad nauseum on several internet websites and forums. It seems that those in control will not allow it. Can you imagine a Kevin Gray mastering for Led Zeppelin II? There have been several very good reissues for the Black Sabbath catalog, but the original UK pressings are still the ones to beat based on my own comparisons with various other collectors. Lets [sic] get those original analog UK tapes and hand them over to Kevin!  I also have a copy of the 45 RPM John Coltrane, Giant Steps released by Rhino in 2008. Some argue that this is best pressing ever and by a wide margin! One of the top ten jazz releases of all time as ranked by many jazz experts. Bernie Grundman did a fantastic job on that reissue but there was only a limited production of 2500 copies. Lets [sic] take another shot at those tapes as part of the new Rhino High Fidelity series!

We make the case that Bernie’s recutting of Giant Steps for Rhino is possibly the worst sounding version of the album ever, and perhaps by a wide margin! He already had his shot, the patient did not survice the operation, what good would it do to put another bullet in the corpse?

Jazz experts may rank it one of the top releases of all time — I certainly would — but it is unlikely they have ever heard Rhino’s bloated, thick, dull, lifeless and altogether unsatisfactory pressing of the album. We gave it an a F and felt that we were being too kind. There is some consolation to be had though: The limited production meant that only 2500 people had to suffer through it upon release. (According to Discogs, these days the average price paid for a copy is $225. We may charge a lot for records, but we charge a lot for good sounding records, not bad sounding records, and that should count for something, shouldn’t it?)

And Kevin Gray already ruined the album once for Rhino, so why would anyone want to hand him the tapes to do it again? Is he now a better mastering engineer than he was in the mid-2000s? What evidence to support this proposition could you possibly supply to those of us who doubt his competence? The shockingly bad sounding records he’s cut recently — Stand Up, Moondance and Rickie Lee Jones are three that spring to mind — make a mockery of the very idea that this guy knows what he is doing.

More comments from the above paragraph of the exploding head variety:

There have been several very good reissues for the Black Sabbath catalog…

Have there? Would someone please name one? We would love to hear it.

but the original UK pressings are still the ones to beat based on my own comparisons with various other collectors.

Then you need to get out more. The UK pressings we have played are not competitive in the least with the best domestic originals. Maybe there are some new reissues that are comparable to the UK pressings, but that is clearly setting the bar much too low. For our last shootout, we noted:

Back in 2018 we wrote: This title will surely make the cut next time we update our Top 100 Rock and Pop List. I would go so far as to say that the best copies of this album have sound as good or better than anything I’ve heard all year, and that’s an awful lot of great sounding records, hundreds and hundreds of them.

It did in fact make the Top 100 a while back. The album is hard to find in audiophile playing condition, but we make the effort and this killer Hot Stamper is the result.

Sabbath recorded their set list more or less live in the studio. This give the recording an unprocessed quality that really stands out on the best copies. The best Green Label pressings sound raw and real, with sound that is a perfect match for the band’s powerfully dark music.

No UK originals ever gave us that sound. The idea that the British pressing would be the best sounding for a British band such as Black Sabbath is something we used to characterize as a myth. Our preference now is to use a less pejorative term and call it a Misunderstanding.

To help our customers better understand why so many of our Hot Stamper pressings are from the “wrong” country, or have the wrong label, or are in stereo instead of mono, or are reissues, even budget reissues, we often add these lines to our listings:

Many audiophiles employ this kind of mistaken audiophile thinking, believing that a British band’s albums must sound their best on British vinyl for some reason, possibly a cosmic one. Those of us who actually play lots of records and listen to them critically know that that is simply not true and never has been.

How did we come by that information? By conducting carefully controlled experiments to find out.

We don’t guess. We don’t assume. We just play lots and lots of records and find out which ones sound better and which ones sound worse.

But enough about this silly review. We laid out for all to see a detailed account of the shortcomings of Kevin Gray’s Cars remaster back in June. Having just reread it, I find no reason to change a word. It’s still awful (the record, not the review).

Kevin Gray is a hack, turning out one junk pressing after another for the benefit of those whose stereos must be exceptionally good at hiding the many faults of his awful records. (We do not have the luxury of being able to hide the faults of the records we play. In order to find the best sounding records ever pressed — our mission here at Better Records — we had no choice but to take our system in the opposite direction, and we and our customers are very glad we did.)

Bernie Grundman and Doug Sax often come in for criticism from us here on the blog, but at least they used to make good records. Nothing Kevin Gray cut without the help of others has ever impressed us in the least, which is why we have a special link for our reviews of those records here.


Stevie Wonder on Heavy Vinyl – Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

More of the Music of Stevie Wonder

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

This commentary was written more than ten years ago. I’ve just gone to this reviewer’s website to make sure the quote below is accurate, and everything you need to see is still up and as misguided as ever.

Some audiophiles never learn, and a great deal of this blog is devoted to helping audiophiles avoid the errors this reviewer and others like him have been making for decades. In the mid-90s I wrote my first commentary about the awful audiophile records this person had raved about in a review printed in one of the audiophile rags. In the years since it seems that nothing has changed. Bad sounding audiophile pressings make up the bulk of this person’s favorable reviews to this day.

How it is possible to spend so much time doing something yet learn so little in the process? It is frankly beyond me.

I put the question to you again:

Is This a Well-Engineered Album?

How on Earth could anyone possibly know such a thing?

Some background. Years ago our first Hot Stamper shootout for Songs in the Key of Life had us enthusiastically singing its praises:

HOT STAMPERS DISCOVERED for one of the funkiest and most consistent double albums of all time! It’s beyond difficult to find great sounding Stevie Wonder vinyl, but here’s a copy that proves it’s possible if you try hard enough. So many copies are terrible in so many different ways — we should know, we played them. And just to be clear, this copy is far from perfect as well, but it did more things right in more places than we ever expected it would or could. And that means it showed us a great sounding Stevie Wonder record we never knew existed.

But a well known reviewer says it’s a bad recording. Does he know something we don’t?

Not exactly. The fact is he doesn’t know something we do, something he, like anybody else, could have found out had he simply done more homework than he was willing to do. (We call them shootouts, but homework is certainly a serviceable and in some ways even more accurate description: it’s work and you do it at home.)

All it takes is one good copy to falsify the assertion this fellow makes. We in fact found more than one. But I’m quite sure we do things very differently at Better Records than they do at any reviewer’s digs, including this reviewer’s basement lair.

As you may know, a few years back he got in a bit of a dust-up over his initially negative review (since revised, a story in itself) of the Speakers Corner pressing of the album. We found it refreshing for this reviewer to be making critical comments about an in-print heavy vinyl reissue, but he eventually warmed somewhat to the sound of the record after hearing from the mastering engineer. We honestly don’t care all that much about any of it, but we couldn’t help but notice this paragraph in his review:

As with many productions of the era, there was a noticeable decrease in sound quality on this album compared to earlier Wonder releases, though no doubt the engineers thought they were making better sound here with “more”: more compression, more use of effects, more tracks and newer, more complex boards, but what was really happening was less transparency, diminished dynamics, narrower and flatter soundstages and especially less extension. This production sounds closed in, distant and listless. Bass lacks real thrust and extension and there’s little shimmer from the cymbals. “Boxy” is the operative adjective.

Really? I wonder how many different pressings this fellow evaluated before reaching his conclusions. He certainly couldn’t have heard one that sounded like the one we played. All four sides were transparent and dynamic, and I’d certainly never characterize any of them as flat, distant, listless or closed in.

And boxy? Not a chance. And we certainly have no trouble recognizing boxy sound when we hear it.

I will concede that many copies of this record would benefit from more extension up top, but that still leaves this person with a batting average low enough to have him surfing the pine on just about any softball team he cared to join.

Our Hot Stamper Copy From Way Back Proves It

Sides one and four both earned very good grades. The sound is richer, sweeter, and fuller than what we heard elsewhere. Many copies we played had a phony hi-fi quality that drove us crazy, but the sound here is exceedingly natural. We also heard a ton of copies that added a nasty bite to Stevie’s vocal; I’m pleased to say that’s not an issue here. Both of these sides are positively brimming with energy, so don’t let anyone tell you that the production is listless. It might sound that way on a typical copy, but not even close on this one.

Sides two and three are darn good as well. Side two could stand to be a bit more open and side three could use a little more top end, but they’re still miles ahead of the sound on most copies out there.

Both sides have excellent presence and lovely texture to the vocals.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stampers

This reviewer and anyone else who thinks this is not a well-recorded album is making one or more of the following mistakes:

1.) Not playing enough copies to find a good one.
2.) Not cleaning the copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.
3.) Not playing them back properly.
4.) Not listening to them critically.

To find and appreciate Hot Stampers you have to do all four. We discuss each and every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this very site. None of this should come as news to anyone by now.

If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the small number of pressings you might have at your disposal, but the actual recording that they are made from — you have to do your homework, and you have to do it much more thoroughly than most audiophiles (including the one quoted) seem to think is necessary.

Wrong? Welcome to the Club

He keeps coming up with the wrong answer, but so would we if we couldn’t find enough copies, clean them right, play them right, or listen critically to them on an accurate, highly-resolving stereo.

And here’s how we know that the above statement is true. 

We used to not do it this way, and we were pretty much in agreement with this fellow about the sound of the album.

We would have described the sound using terms not that different from the ones he used.

Through most of the 80s and 90s, I too was a one-man band, and I was wrong about a great many recordings, for reasons blindingly obvious to me now.

I simply did not have the resources to clean and play enough copies of a given album to make accurate judgments about their sound. Small sample sizes dramatically increase the probability of a misjudgment being made, especially when you are working with sample sizes of one or two. You need five copies at a minimum, and ten is better.

And that assumes you are playing copies with potential for top quality sound, which on this title would mean no Japanese pressings, no imports from other countries, and no later reissues. None of those would ever have a chance of winning a shootout.

So you would need to plan on having five or ten good vintage pressings to clean and play. (67, however, is way too many. Three days is a long time to play the same album, no matter how good an album it is.)

How It Used to Be

It’s an open question as to whether we could have played Songs in the Key of Life properly ten years ago. I have my doubts. But the good news in audio is that things change. It’s amazing how many records that used to sound bad now sound pretty darn good. The blog is full of commentaries about them. Every one of them is proof that comments about recordings are of limited value.

The recordings don’t change. Our ability to find, clean and play the pressings made from them does, and that’s what the Hot Stamper Revolution is all about.

You have a choice. You can choose to go with this reviewer’s approach, which is in fact the approach that most audiophiles tend to use. Then it’s simply a matter of accepting that many “recordings” don’t live up to your standards. Prepare to allot a fair amount of time to complaining about such an unfortunate state of affairs.

Follow Us

Or you can follow our approach and hear those very same albums sound much better than you ever thought possible. This has the added benefit of freeing up time that would normally be spent bitching about the bad sound of some album, which in turn makes more time available for pleasurable listening to the actual record you got from us.

You also probably won’t feel the need to go on audiophile forums to argue the merits of this or that pressing. You will already own the pressing that settles the argument.

Keep in mind that your pressing only settles the argument for you; nobody else will believe it. And why should they? They have never heard your copy. It would take quite a leap of faith to believe that your copy sounds so much better than the one they own, when the one they own looks just like it. But this is precisely what Hot Stampers are all about. Records may look the same but if your equipment is any good they sure don’t sound the same.

What We Offer

Unfortunately we can’t do it all for you. Most of what is important in audio you have to learn to do for yourself. We can find you the best sounding pressings; that’s the easy part. Figuring out how to play them, and learning how to critically listen to them, well, that’s a fair bit harder. That part takes a lifetime. At least.

This hobby is supposed to be fun; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But if you enjoy doing it at least some of the time, and you make a good effort, and devote the proper resources to it, you will no doubt take enormous pleasure from it.

You won’t be bitching about the sound of Songs in the Key of Life like most audiophiles and those who write for them. You will instead be enjoying the sound of Songs in the Key of Life like those of us here at Better Records.

And One More Thing

Speakers Corner says they make all their records from original master tapes. No one should believe them without proof, especially since proof would be so easy to supply. Put a picture of the master tape boxes on your website for all to see. When they show you those pictures, then you can believe it. Until then I would be highly skeptical. Labels lie about these things all the time, and I see no reason to believe Speakers Corner is any more careful with the truth than the other companies producing reissues.


We Get Letters – “Insulting people is petty and makes you sound as though you are jealous of their success.”

A fellow sent me this email a few days back. Normally when people find fault with what we do, or how we do it, or the prices we charge, or the things we say, we figure live and let live and just ignore them.

This fellow took me to task for speaking ill of “people in the record industry,” which is a common complaint Michael Fremer makes, rather foolishly in my opinion, so I thought I would write a few word addressing the topic.

Ray’s letter:

Everytime I am tempted to make a purchase I always read something where Mr. Port is insulting people in the record industry. I get it. Your records may sound better than an audiophile pressing but for the price, they better! I respect the fact that you put a lot of time and effort into what you do, but insulting people is petty and makes you sound as though you are jealous of their success, you can sell records by simple stating that they sound great and with your money back guarantee (which few people actually take advantage of, from what I have read) You should be able to continue doing what you do with great success.

Just my unsolicited opinion.


I replied as follows:


Thanks you for your letter.

Part of the problem with our approach to vinyl is that we not only selling a product that competes with those produced by others in the industry, but we also review the products that others make.

This is where insults are hard to avoid. We are of the opinion that the people making records today should be held to account for their substandard work. Who better to do that than us? We possess the physical records that, when played properly, prove just how second-rate theirs actually are.

Bernie Grundman cut many of the best sounding pop and rock records ever made. I wanted to pay tribute to his fine work, so I wrote this commentary and tagged many of his best records within it.

But the bad records he made are very bad indeed. Most of what he mastered for Classic Records is awful, a more recently he has been doing equally spotty work. Here is a link to a select group of his remasterings.

Since no one seems to want to write about just how bad these records are, we felt it was our duty, as experts in the world of records, to point out their specific shortcomings. We do this for the benefit of audiophiles who might actually want good sound and not just quiet vinyl.

Some of them may be tired of being ripped off. Some of them may not even be aware they are being ripped off. Some of them never fell for the hype in the first place. (They’re the lucky ones.)

We want to help all of these audiophiles find higher quality records to play. We tell everyone who doesn’t want to pay our prices how to go about doing what we do for themselves.

In the meantime, like Consumer Reports, we help people to see what a scam and a fraud the modern heavy vinyl pressing is, in the hope that they will stop throwing their money away, and that those in the industry will improve their product or find something else to make a buck from.

The world is full of bad sounding records, we don’t need any more, and audiophiles should stop buying them. But who else is going to tell them that? Audiophile reviewers seem to be as easily taken in as everyone else.

As for being petty, I discussed the charge in this commentary. Allow me to quote a few lines:

I never say that the people making these modern records, as well as those reviewing them, are malicious or evil. I say they make or review bad sounding records and are simply misguided and incompetent.

You Call That Success?

You accuse me of being jealous of their success. What success? They are selling junk to those who haven’t learned how to spot it. Why would anyone be jealous of such scam artists?

If you want to defend these people, name a record they’ve produced worth defending. If there is no such record, then why are you defending them?

The rich and powerful who produce these second- and third-rate vinyl offerings are taking advantage of the credulity of the average record collector.

Why should they be protected from criticism? Shouldn’t you be on the side of the audiophile community that’s being ripped off?

I am.

As long as they see no reason to stop making bad sounding records, we see no reason to stop criticizing them, and, to the great benefit of everyone, offering an alternative approach that is guaranteed to produce better results.


Classic Records 45 RPM Recut – This Is Your Idea of a Great Firebird?

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Reviews and Commentaries for The Firebird

Sonic Grade: D

Many years ago, a customer alerted me to a review Wayne Garcia wrote about various VPI platters and the rim drive, and this is what I wrote back to him:

Steve, after starting to read Wayne’s take on the platters, I came across this:

That mind-blowing epiphany that I hadn’t quite reached with the Rim Drive/Super Platter happened within seconds after I lowered the stylus onto the “Infernal Dance” episode of Stravinsky’s Firebird (45 rpm single-sided Classic Records reissue of the incomparable Dorati/LSO Mercury Living Presence recording).

That is one of my half-dozen or so favorite orchestral recordings, and I have played it countless times.

This is why I have so little faith in reviewers. I played that very record not two weeks ago (04/2010) against a good original and the recut was at best passable in comparison. If a reviewer cannot hear such an obvious difference in quality, why believe anything he has to say?

The reason we say that no reviewer can be trusted is that you cannot find a reviewer who does not say good things about demonstrably mediocre and even just plain awful records. It’s the only real evidence we have for their credibility, and the evidence is almost always damning.

I want a reviewer who knows better than to play such an underwhelming pressing and then waste my time telling me about it. He should tell us what a good record sounds like with this equipment mod. Then I might give more credence to what he has to say.

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


This is one of the Classic Records titles on Harry Pearson’s TAS List of Super Discs (!).


Allow me to quote a writer with his own website devoted to explaining and judging classical recordings of all kinds. His initials are A.S. for those of you who have been to his site.

Classic Records Reissues (both 33 and 45 RPM) – These are, by far, the best sounding Mercury pressings. Unfortunately, only six records were ever released by Classic. Three of them (Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky) are among the very finest sounding records ever made by anyone. Every audiophile (with a turntable) should have these “big three”.

Obviously we could not disagree more. I’ve played all six of the Classic Mercury’s. The Chabrier, Ravel and Prokofiev titles are actually even worse than the Stravinsky we reviewed.

This same reviewer raved about a record we thought had godawful sound, Romantic Russia on MoFi, a label that never met an orchestral string section it didn’t think needed brightening.

Find me a Mobile Fidelity classical record with that little SR/2 in the dead wax that does not have bright string tone. I have yet to hear one.

What is it with audiophile record reviewers? They seem to be taken in by the most unnatural sounding pressings. The world is full of wonderful vintage pressings that have no such problems. If you are an audiophile who feels himself qualified to write about records, shouldn’t you at least be able to hear the difference between a phony audiophile pressing and the vintage pressings it supposedly improved?

The Absolute Sound is a good example of this kind of malpractice. Most of the records on the old list were vintage pressings, and most of the classical titles set a high standard (the popular titles not so much). Now it’s full of second- and third-rate heavy vinyl recuts that are about as far from Super Discs as you can get.

We went to some pains to show the audiophile community exactly what is wrong with this famous audiophile favorite, and how they could learn to spot one of its most objectionable shortcomings.

The fact that one of the “bad” versions of the album is on the TAS List, side by side with the Living Stereo, is a sign that the standards currently in effect over there have fallen about as far as they can fall.

One of the greatest piano concertos ever recorded is on the list, but so is this unbelievably bad heavy vinyl repress of it. Surely somebody at The Absolute Sound can hear the difference. It’s not subtle.

But maybe it is to them. And that’s a sign that they should stop promoting the equipment they write about. Judging by their inability to tell a good record from a bad one, it must not be very good.

Further Reading

Below you will find our reviews of the more than 200 Heavy Vinyl pressings we’ve played over the years. Feel free to pick your poison.

And finally,

A Confession

Even as recently as the early 2000s, we were still impressed with many of the better Heavy Vinyl pressings. If we’d never made the progress we’ve worked so hard to make over the course of the last twenty or more years, perhaps we would find more merit in the Heavy Vinyl reissues so many audiophiles seem impressed by.

We’ll never know of course; that’s a bell that can be unrung. We did the work, we can’t undo it, and the system that resulted from it is merciless in revealing the truth — that these newer pressings are second-rate at best and much more often than not third-rate and even worse.

Some audiophile records sound so bad, I was pissed off enough to create a special list for them.

Setting higher standards — no, being able to set higher standards — in our minds is a clear mark of progress. Judging by the hundreds of letters we’ve received, especially the ones comparing our records to their Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered counterparts, we know that our customers see things the same way.

The Graceland Remastering Disaster, Part 2

More of the Music of Paul Simon

Analogplanet Visits Sterling Sound and Interviews Mastering Engineer Ryan K. Smith

The interviewer apparently does not know how bad the new version sounds, but we had no trouble recognizing its awfulness here at Better Records. As a public service, we soon set about describing what we heard when we put this remastered piece of junk to the test.

Up against a properly mastered, properly pressed early pressing, it earned a failing grade. Is it the worst version of the album ever pressed on vinyl? Hard to imagine it would have much competition. 

The title of our review gives away the game: What to Think When the New Version Is Completely Unrecognizable?

The reviewer who interviewed the remastering engineer responsible for this and no doubt many other awful sounding records has never been able to tell a good record from a bad one, and he carries on that tradition with Graceland.

Ryan Smith, the hack who cut this album, has done quite a lot of work for Analogue Productions. We can’t say we’ve played many of his recuts, but the ones we have played are hopelessly bad, with the overly smooth sound so much in vogue today.

We played his recut of Scheherazade, and rather than just give it the failing grade it deserved, we explained how any audiophile can use its mistaken EQ in order to recognize what is wrong with it and others like it.

(Contrary to popular opinion, it is no better than Bernie Grundman’s bad sounding version from the ’90s, the one he cut for Classic Records.)

One of my good customers read this rave review from this same reviewer for the Texas Hurricane Box Set and made the worst mistake any audiophile can make: he believed it.

“His overdriven Stratocaster sound is one that guitar aficionados never tire of hearing live or on record, especially when it’s well recorded. … Yet again, Chad Kassem sets high the box set reissue bar delivering a “must have” package for SRV fans, every bit the equal of the one Doors fans have come to cherish. …every one of these records betters the originals and by a considerable margin. It is not even close…You’ve never heard these albums sound like this. That is a 100 % guaranty. …this is an impeccably produced box set physically and especially sonically. It’s the best these albums have ever and probably will ever sound.” — Music = 9/11; Sound = 10/11 — Michael Fremer

Sure, he’s out $400, but on the bright side he’s now learned a lesson he is very unlikely to forget.


Simon and Garfunkel – 1A, or Is 1B Better? Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

More of the Music of Simon and Garfunkel

Reviews and Commentaries for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Before we go any further, I have a question: Why are we guessing?

I received an email recently from a customer who had gone to great pains to do his own shootout for a record; in the end he came up short, with not a lot to show for his time and effort. It had this bit tucked in toward the end:

Some of [Better Records’] Hot Stampers are very dear in price and most often due to the fact that there are so few copies in near mint condition. I hate to think of all the great Hot Stampers that have ended up in piles on the floor night after night with beer, Coke, and seeds being ground into them.

Can you imagine all the 1A 1B or even 2A 2B masters that ended up this way or were just played to death with a stylus that would be better used as a nail than to play a record!

As it so happens, shortly thereafter I found myself on Michael Fremer’s old website of all places, where I saw something eerily similar in his review for the (no doubt awful) Sundazed vinyl. I quote below the relevant paragraphs.

So how does this Sundazed reissue hold up next to an original 1A Columbia pressing that I bought new when it originally was released (it still has the Sam Goody “C” Valley Stream sticker on it, with the $2.49 markdown written in pen)? Well, for one thing, when people say records wear out, I don’t know what they are talking about! Since it was first released more than forty years ago, I’ve played this record a hundred times at least, in Ithaca in my fraternity house, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Hackensack and now and it still sounds fantastic. It’s quiet, it’s detailed, it’s three-dimensional and it still has extended, clean high frequencies.

No reissue could possibly touch an original 1A pressing of just about any Columbia title and that goes for this reissue, which is very good, but not as open, spacious, wideband, transparent and “tubey” as the original.

He later goes on to give this piece of advice:

If you can find a clean, reasonably priced used original 1A pressing, it’s definitely going to sound better, but if you can’t, this reissue sounds very good and you’ll not know what you’re missing.

The entire review can be found on his site for those who care to read it. If, as MF seems to believe, you won’t know what you’re missing on the Sundazed LP, you need to put a lot more effort into this hobby, or find yourself another one. If it’s anything like most of their cardboardy crap, it’s missing a great deal more than it’s finding. (more…)