Thinking About Records

Mysteries Many and Deep

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Master Tape? Yeah, Right

Let me ask you one question. If so many of the current labels making 180 gram reissues are using the real master tapes — the real two-track stereo masters, not dubs, not cutting masters, not high-resolution digital copies, but the real thing — then why do so many of their records sound so bad?

If you’re honest you’ll say “I Don’t Know…” because, and here I want you to trust me on this, you don’t know. I don’t know either. Nobody does.

Records are mysterious. Their mysteries are many and deep. If you don’t know that you clearly haven’t spent much time with them, or don’t have a very revealing stereo, or don’t listen critically, or something else, god knows what. They’re mysterious; that’s just a fact.
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Record Collecting Axioms

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In an old commentary for a shootout we did for Carole King’s Tapestry album we took shots at both the CBS Half-Speed Mastered Audiophile pressing and the Classic Heavy Vinyl Audiophile pressing, noting that both fell far short of the standard set by the Hot Stamper copies we’d discovered. This finding (and scores of others just like it) prompted us to promulgate the following axiom of audiophile record collecting, which we are calling…

Better Records Record Collecting Axiom Number Two

The better your stereo gets, the fewer Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered pressings you will want to play, or own for that matter.

(This assumes a fact not in evidence: that audiophiles get rid of their bad sounding records. It has been my experience that the reverse is actually more often the case. Most audiophiles seem to like to hang on to their bad sounding audiophile pressings, Why they do so I cannot for the life of me understand. To me a bad sounding audiophile record is a record that has no business being played and should either be tossed or sold, with any proceeds from the sale applied to the purchase of good records — you know, like the ones on our site.)
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Confirmation Bias – Why You Won’t Hear What You Don’t Want to Hear

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Steven Novella has a wonderful critical thinking blog I only just discovered today, and in it was this article discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect. An extract:

Dunning summarizes the effect as:

“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”

He further explains:

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Could this explain why so many audiophile reviewers are so bad at their jobs, especially the ones who are most well-known and highly regarded (leaving aside for the moment their exceptional amounts of self-regard)?

But hold on just a minute: What about us? Aren’t we as susceptible to these critical thinking errors as anyone else?
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Porky Not So Prime Cut

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British Band, British Pressing… Right?

Nope. It’s just another Record Myth.

We had an original British pressing in our shootout, unbeknownst to me as it was playing of course. And guess where it finished: dead last. The most thick, congested, crude, distorted, compressed sound of ALL the copies we played. We love the work of Porky, Pecko, et al. in general, but once again this is a case where a British Band recorded in England sounds best on domestic vinyl. (McCartney on Apple is the same way.)

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For this music to work all the elements need to be in balance, with correct timbre for the relatively few instruments that make up the arrangements. Opacity, smear or grit instantly destroy the whole point of having a straightforward production, which is to be able to have all the parts laid out cleanly and clearly. Get the production out of the way and just let the music speak for itself.

The truly Hot Stampers remind you of the kind of basic rock and roll record that really knows how to rock. Back in Black comes instantly to mind. Black Dog off Zep IV. This is the sound you want your Straight Up to have. The title of the album is the key to the sound. No fancy packaging, just the band, Straight Up.

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Miles Davis In Person – Friday Night and the Sound of Tubes

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Allow me to transcribe my notes:

Both Sides

The right sound — big, rich, tubey and real. Transparent. Rich, smooth, balanced. Horn gets huge and loud the right way. Piano is full. Solid bass.

No need to pick nits.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark in the Night

Normally our notes for the sound of the records we are shooting out against each other fall into two categories: what the record is doing right and what the record is doing wrong. You’ll note that in this case there was nothing wrong about the sound to write about.

I could have picked some nits, but when a specific pressing is so clearly superior to its competition, what’s the point?

Reissues

There are some very good sounding reissues from the ’70s that will eventually make it to the site. Again and again my notes made it clear that the sound could have used some tubes in the chain.

On this record, more than any other, the tubes potentially make all the difference.

Now keep in mind that we are talking only about 1961 tubes, not the stuff that engineers are using today to make “tube-mastered” records. Those modern records barely hint at the Tubey Magical sound of a record like this, if our experience with hundreds of them is any guide. We, unlike so many of the audiophile reviewers of today, have a very hard time taking any of the new pressings seriously. We think our position is pretty clear in that regard.

If you’ve ever heard a pressing that sounds like this one, you know there hasn’t been a record manufactured in the last forty years or so that has its sound. Right, wrong or otherwise, this sound is simply not part of the modern world we live in. If you want to be transported back to San Francisco circa 1961, you will need a record like this to do it.

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A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers: The More Mistakes the Better, Part Three

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“The essence of success is that it is never necessary to think of a new idea oneself. It is far better to wait until somebody else does it, and then to copy him in every detail, except his mistakes.” ~Aubrey Menen

Indeed, if only that were practical. Our approach to Hot Stampers and How to Find Them is certainly a revolutionary new idea, and undoubtedly the only way of discovering records with superior sound quality.

But even if we were to publish all of our secrets, the stamper numbers and labels and countries of origin of all the best pressings we’ve ever played, every last one, that would still not be the answer, for the simple reason that no two records sound the same.

As long as that’s true, either we have to play a pile of records to find the best sounding ones, or you do. There is no other way to do it.

But at the very least, with commentaries such as this one, we hope we can be helpful in pointing the analog record lover in the right direction. Follow us. What we do can work for anyone — anyone who’s willing to make mistakes that is.


Further Reading

We have a number of entries in our original equals better series, in which we debunk the conventional wisdom regarding which are the best sounding pressings for specific artists and titles.

Here are some commentaries on a subject near and dear to all of us, namely Record Collecting.

The entries linked here may help you gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding Hot Stampers.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

 

Which Album by The Who Has the Best Sound?

Tommy

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We Think It’s This One

I don’t know of another Who album with such consistently good sound — song to song, not copy to copy, of course. Just about every song on here can sound wonderful on the right pressing. If you’re lucky enough to get a Hot Stamper copy, you’re going to be blown away by the Tubey Magical Guitars, the rock-solid bottom end, the jumpin’-out-of-the-speakers presence and dynamics, and the silky vocals and top end. Usually the best we can give you for The Who is “Big and Rockin,” but on Tommy, we can give you ’60s analog magic like you will rarely hear in the decades to follow.

Acoustic guitar reproduction is key to this recording, and on the best copies the harmonic coherency, the richness, the body and the phenomenal amounts of Tubey Magic can be heard in every strum.

What do high grades give you for this album? Silky, sweet vocals; huge weight to the bottom end; “you are there” immediacy; BIG drums, off the charts rock and roll energy, and shocking clarity and transparency.

No other Who album has all these things in such abundance.

The Tubey Magic Top Ten

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Phil DeLancie Digital or George Horn Analog?

peppetoday_ojc_1441117461We’ve wanted to do Art Pepper Today for more than a decade, but the original Galaxy pressings were just too thick and dark to earn anything approaching a top sonic grade. Thirty years ago on a very different system I had one and liked it a lot, but there was no way I could get past the opaque sound I was now hearing on the more than half-dozen originals piled in front of me.

So, almost in desperation we tried an OJC reissue from the ’90s. You know, the ones that all the audiophiles on the web will tell you to steer clear of because it had been mastered by Phil DeLancie and might be sourced from digital tapes.

Or digitally remastered, or somehow was infected with something digital somehow.

Well, immediately the sound opened up dramatically, with presence, space, clarity and top end extension we simply could not hear on the originals. Moreover, the good news was that the richness and solidity of the originals was every bit as good. Some of the originals were less murky and veiled than others, so we culled the worst of them for trade and put the rest into the shootout with all the OJCs we could get our hands on.

Now, it’s indisputable that Phil DeLancie is credited on the jacket, but I see George Horn’s writing in the dead wax of the actual record, so I really have no way of knowing whether Mr Delancie in fact had anything to do with the copies I was auditioning. They don’t sound digital to me, they just like other good George Horn-mastered records I’ve heard from this period.

And of course we here at Better Records never put much stock in what record jackets say; the commentary on the jackets rarely has much to do with the sound of the records inside them in our experience.

And, one more surprise awaited us as we were plowing through our pile of copies. When we got to side two we found that the sound of the Galaxy originals was often competitive with the best of the OJCs. Which means that there’s a good probability that some of the original pressings I tossed for having bad sound on side one had very good, perhaps even shootout winning sound on side two.

This is a lesson I hope to take to heart in the future. I know very well that the sound of side one is independent of side two, but somehow in this case I let my prejudice against the first side color my thinking about the second. Of all the people who should know better…

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Expanding Space Itself

Dark Side of the Moon

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Recently we played a copy with all the presence, all the richness, all the size and all the energy we ever hoped to hear from a top quality pressing of Dark Side of the Moon. It did it ALL and then some. The raging guitar solos (there are three of them) on Money seemed to somehow expand the system itself, making it bigger and more powerful than I have ever heard. Even our best copies of Blood Sweat and Tears have never managed to create such a huge space with that kind of raw power. This copy broke through all the barriers, taking the system to an entirely new level of sound.

Take the clocks on Time. There are whirring mechanisms that can be heard deep in the soundstage on this copy that I’ve never heard as clearly before. On most copies you can’t even tell they are there. Talk about transparency — I bet you’ve NEVER heard so many chimes so clearly and cleanly, with such little distortion on this track.

One thing that separates the best copies from the merely good ones is super-low-distortion, extended high frequencies. How some copies manage to correctly capture the overtones of all the clocks, while others, often with the same stamper numbers, do no more than hint at them, is something no one can explain. But the records do not lie. Believe your own two ears. If you hear it, it’s there. When you don’t — the reason we do shootouts in a nutshell — it’s not.

A Whole New Dark Side

The best sounding parts of this record are nothing less than ASTONISHING. Money is the best example I can think of for side two. When you hear the sax player rip into his solo as Money gets rockin’, it’s almost SCARY! He’s blowin’ his brains out in a way that has never, in my experience anyway, been captured on a piece of plastic. After hearing this copy, I remembered exactly why we felt this album must rank as one of the five best Rock Demo Discs to demonstrate the superiority of analog. There is no CD, and there will never be a CD, that sounds like this.

In fact, when you play the other “good sounding” copies, you realize that the sound you hear is what would naturally be considered as good as this album could get. But now we know better. This pressing takes Dark Side to places you have never imagined it could go.

To say this is a sonic and musical masterpiece practically without equal in the history of the world is no overstatement. But you have to have a top copy for that statement to be true.
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Home Audio Exercises for Made In Japan, That’s The Way of the World, Fragile, Chabrier’s Orchestral Music and Bizet’s Carmen Fantasie

 



Deep Purple – Made In Japan
What to Listen For

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.
We’ve raved about a number of live albums over the years. Some of the better sounding ones that come readily to mind (in alphabetical order) are Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, David Live, Johnny Cash At San Quentin, Donny Hathaway Live, The Jimi Hendrix Concerts, Performance – Rockin The Fillmore, Live Wire – Blues Power, Waiting For Columbus, Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out and Live at Leeds. I would be proud to have any of them in my collection.

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Earth, Wind & Fire – That’s The Way of the World
What to Listen For

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.
We’re pretty sure that the first track on side one, Shining Star, is made from a dub, a common occurrence with planned hit singles. The rest of the songs on side two are a step up in class; when you play the side, see if you don’t hear some veiling and smearing.These are problems we hear in the sound of practically all the Heavy Vinyl pressings that, let’s be honest, we waste our time auditioning, which leads us naturally to conclude that they are not really made from master tapes, but high quality analog dubs or high-rez digital masters. Some of course sound better than others, but none will ever sound the way this copy does.

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Yes – Fragile
Listening in Depth
Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with plenty of advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Fragile.
EDDIE OFFORD took charge of Yes’s engineering starting with Time and a Word (1970) and we are very lucky that he did. Although his masterpiece is surely ELP’s first album, both The Yes Album and Fragile are so amazingly well recorded they clearly belong at the top of any list of All Time Great Sounding Rock Albums.

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Chabrier / Orchestral Music / Ansermet
What to Listen For


Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.
On many copies the strings are dry, lacking Tubey Magic. This is decidedly not our sound, although it can easily be heard on many London pressings, the kind we’ve played by the hundreds over the years. If you have a rich sounding cartridge, perhaps with that little dip in the upper midrange that so many moving coils have these days, you will not notice this tonality issue nearly as much as we do. Our 17D3 is ruler flat and quite unforgiving in this regard.

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Bizet & Saint-Saens / Carmen Fantasie
This Is Why You Must Do Shootouts

Ricci’s playing of the Bizet-Sarasate Carmen Fantasie is OUT OF THIS WORLD. There is no greater performance on record in my opinion, and few works that have as much Audiophile Appeal. Which is why I’ve had a copy of this record in my own collection for about fifteen years marked “My Demo Disc”. But this copy KILLED it. How could that be?
It just goes to show: No matter how good a particular copy of a record may sound to you, when you clean and play enough of them you will almost always find one that’s better, and often surprisingly better. Shootouts are the only way to find these kinds of records. Nothing else works. If you’re not doing shootouts (or buying the winners of shootouts from us) you simply don’t have top quality copies in your collection, except in the rare instances where you just got lucky. In the world of records luck can only take you so far. The rest of the journey requires effort.

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