Thinking About Records

The Said and the Unsaid – Stravinsky’s Firebird on Mercury

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

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Another entry in our Thinking About Hot Stampers series.

For our recent shootout of The Firebird we had three minty, potentially hot copies of the Mercury with Dorati, as well as our noisy ref. (We have a noisy reference copy for just about every major title by now. We have been doing these shootouts for a very long time. After thirty years in the record business we have accumulated a World Class collection of great sounding records that just too noisy to sell.)

We had one FR pressing and two of the later pressings with the lighter label, the ones that most often come with Philips M2 stampers.

This is how we described the winner:

So clear and ALIVE. Transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

Lifelike, immediate, front row center sound like few records you have ever heard.

Rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. This side really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy.

What we didn’t say — and what we never say in the listings — is what the second tier copies didn’t do as well as the shootout winner. (more…)

Advice on How to Avoid Making This Rookie Record Collecting Mistake on Kind of Blue

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Record Shopping Day Video!

Not sure how much of this video you can stand — nothing could interest me less than a couple of audiophile / vinyl enthusiasts spouting off on what they think about some random records sitting in a local store’s bins — but one or two bits caught my eye. I thought it might possibly be of service to share them with you.

Is there any value to the comments of these two collectors? If you care about what music they like, perhaps.  Anything about what to look for on the label or jacket that might correspond to better sound?  If it’s there I sure didn’t see it, but I admit to speeding through most of it so I can’t say for sure.

The first bit I refer to above is at 18:42.  The album in question is the legendary Kind of Blue. At this point the unseen helmet-cammed audiophile picks up the record, recognizes the original cover, and proceeds to pull the record out to see what era the pressing is from.

Drat! The disappointment in this audiophile’s voice is palpable as he drops the record back in the bin with his dismissive comment that  “it’s a later pressing.”

But we here at Better Records would be falling all over ourselves to get our hands on that later pressing. Those late pressings can and often do win shootouts. We would never look down our noses at a Red Label Columbia jazz LP, and neither should you.

Our intrepid audiophile explorer does much the same thing about 23 minutes in. It seems pretty clear to us that he has no respect for such reissues, another example of one of the most common myths in record collecting land, the myth that the  original pressing is always, or to be fair, usually better.

This is simply not true, and those of our customers who have purchased White Hot Stamper pressings from us that turned out to be reissues know exactly what I am talking about. This is especially true for the records we sell by  The Beatles. No original pressing has every won a shootout.

Let’s get back to Kind of Blue. Is the ’50s original always better, is the ’70s reissue always better, is the ’60s 360 pressing always better? No to one, two and three.

Why? Because no pressing is always better. All pressings are unique and should only be judged on their merits, and you do that by playing them, not by looking at their labels. For us this truth is practically axiomatic. It is in fact the premise of our entire business. Over the course of the 28 years we have been selling records we have never found any compelling evidence to invalidate it.

The day that someone can accurately predict the sound quality of a specific record by looking at the label or cover is a day I do not expect to come, ever.

A Larger Point

But there is a larger point to be made. Let’s assume that the best original Six Eye Columbia pressings can be the best — the most Tubey Magical, the most involving, the most real. You just happen to have a clean pressing, and you absolutely love it.

But is it the best? How could you possibly know that?

Unless you have done a comparison with many copies under controlled conditions, you simply cannot know where on the curve your copy rightfully belongs.

Perhaps you have a mediocre original. Or a mediocre 360 Label copy. Since you haven’t done a massive shootout you simply have no way of knowing just how good sounding the album can be.

If that’s the case, even stipulating that the best early pressings are potentially the best sounding, that lowly ’70s Red Label copy that got tossed back into the record pond could very well have turned out to be the best sounding pressing you ever heard.

But Bad Audiophile Record Collector Thinking prevents the very possibility of such an outcome. A record never auditioned cannot win a shootout, even a simple head to head competition against the copy you alreadyhave in your collection. The result? Your Kind of Blue never gets any better. You’re stuck, at what level nobody knows, especially you.

Our advice is to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, letting your ears, not your eyes, become your one and only trusted guide to the best sounding pressings.

And please consider us a trustworthy second in line, a source for the best sounding titles that you do not have time to shoot out for yourself.

Here’s more on Kind of Blue.

The Book of Hot Stampers

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I received this email a while back: “Hi Tom, could you please recommend a book which would give the stamper numbers associated with the different pressings of a particular record.”

Let me take this opportunity to give a more comprehensive answer, since the concept of Hot Stampers is not especially well understood by the audiophile community outside of our admittedly rather small customer base. Only those who have spent a great deal of time reading the reviews and commentary on the site are likely to understand the importance of stampers. This is partly my fault, as this issue of stamper variability and quality is spread out all over the place, exactly where, no one really knows.
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The Science of Hot Stampers – Incomplete, Imperfect, and (Gulp!) Provisional

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We have a section on the website you may have seen called We Was Wrong. This section is devoted to discussiing the records we think we got, uh, wrong.

Oh yes, it’s true. But it’s not really a problem for us here at Better Records. We see no need to cover up our mistakes. The process of learning involves recognizing and correcting previous errors. Approached scientifically, all knowledge — in any field, not just record collecting or music reproduction — is incomplete, imperfect, and must be considered provisional.

What seems true today might easily be proven false tomorrow. If you haven’t found that out for yourself firsthand yet, one thing’s for sure, you haven’t been in this hobby for very long.

We’re so used to the conventional wisdom being wrong, and having our own previous findings overturned by new ones, that we gladly go out of way in listing after listing to point out just how wrong we were. (And of course why we think we are correct now.)

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Is the Original Better? Not on This Album It Ain’t

Yet another album we are clearly obsessed with

Click on the link below to pull up the many reviews and commentaries we’ve written, as well as Hot Stamper copies that are currently available on the site.

Crisis? What Crisis?

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This is an older listing that illustrates how We Was Wrong when we thought the best domestic copies were not competitive with the A&M Half-Speed or better British pressings.

We touch on other much-loved themes in this commentary, such as the myth that the original pressing is going to be better than a reissue or later stamper. On this album that is definitely not the case.

TWO AMAZING SIDES, including an A+++ SIDE ONE! It’s not the A&M Half Speed, and it’s not a British pressing either. It’s domestic folks, your standard plain-as-day A&M pressing, and we’re as shocked as you are. Hearing this copy (as well as an amazing Brit; they can be every bit as good, in their own way of course) was a THRILL, a thrill that’s a step up in “thrillingness” over our previous favorite pressing, the Half Speed.
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New Paradigms and Old

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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 we all 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). MF 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. This commentary addresses this issue in more depth.
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Building a Serious Record Collection – Hot Stampers Versus Collector Pressings

I defy anyone who has not made a lifelong study of record collecting to tell me what even 10% of the records shown here sound like. 

The owner has no way of knowing either.
 

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Anyone can amass a collection of records — one this big, ten times its size or one-tenth its size, the process is the same. You just buy whatever you like and organize them whichever way you see fit.

There is no limit to the kinds of records one might collect: originals, imports, audiophile pressings, picture discs, the TAS List – you name it, you can collect it.

There are literally millions of records for sale around the world on any given day. They’re not hard to find, and being so common, collecting them is easy. A single collection for sale as of this writing contains more than 3 million records. That works out to a thousand records each for three thousand collectors. Do you really have time to play more than a thousand records? That’s a different record every day for close to three years!
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Making Mistakes – Advice from Better Records

More on So Far

A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes. Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying… that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”  Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies

When I think of the 20 odd years (early ’70s to early ’90s) I wasted trying to figure out how audio works before I had learned to develop critical listening skills, it brings to mind that old Faces’ song, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and most cogently in this commentary from way back in 2005.

We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one as critically as you can.
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After You’ve Played 100 Copies of the Album, What’s Left to Learn?

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A common misconception of many of those visiting the site for the first time is that we think we know it all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We definitely do not know it all. We learn something new about records with practically every shootout.

Case in point: the record you do NOT see pictured above. (The record we recently learned something new about — this, after having played scores and scores of copies over the years — will remain a secret for the time being. At least until we find another one.)

In 2013 we played a red label Columbia reissue of a famous ’60s rock record (again, not shown) that had the best side two we have ever heard. Up to that point no copy other than the 360 original had ever won a shootout, and we’ve done plenty. Lo and behold here was a reissue that put them all to shame.
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