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Sarah Vaughan / The Lonely Hours on Classic Records

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Classic Records remastered this album back in the day, and I can see why: the average pressing on Roulette is borderline unlistenable. Of course we didn’t know that when we started this shootout. We had found a nice sounding copy and subsequently went on the hunt for more. Little did we know how wide the variation in sound quality we would find on the original Orange Label pressings. There was simply no denying that many of the copies we played were just too thin, shrill and pinched in the midrange to be of any interest to our audiophile customers.

As mediocre as Bernie’s Classic cutting may be, it’s still better than the average Roulette original one might throw on the turntable.

And you can forget the monos completely; they were by far the worst sounding of them all.

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The Beatles / White Album – Listening in Depth

Hot Stamper Pressings of The White Album Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for The White Album

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It’s exceedingly difficult to find audiophile quality sound on The White Album. The Beatles were breaking apart, often recording independently of each other, with their own favorite engineers as enablers, and George Martin nowhere to be found most of the time. They were also experimenting more and more with sound itself, which resulted in wonderful songs and interesting effects. However, these new approaches and added complexity often result in a loss of sonic “purity.”

Let’s face it, most audiophiles like simplicity: A female vocal, a solo guitar — these things are easy to reproduce and often result in pleasing sound, the kind of sound that doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment or much effort to reproduce.

Dense mixes with wacky EQ are hard to reproduce (our famous Difficulty of Reproduction Scale (DORS) comes into play here), and the White Album is full of that sound, taking a break for songs like Blackbird and Julia.

Some of the Tubey Magic that you hear on Pepper is gone for good. (Play With a Little Help from My Friends on a seriously good Hot Stamper pressing to see what has been lost forever.)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Looks at the lineup for side one. Is there a rock album on the planet with a better batch of songs?

Having done shootouts for the White Album by the score, we can also say with some certainty that side one is the most difficult side to find White Hot stamper sound for. It’s somewhat rare to find a side one that earns our top Triple Plus (A+++) sonic grade, even when all the other sides do. (Actually what happens more often than not is that we take the best second discs and mate them with the best first discs to make the grades consistent for the whole album. But don’t tell anybody.) (more…)

Frank Sinatra – Trilogy: Past, Present and Future

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  • An outstanding copy of Sinatra’s superb 1980 release with solid Double Plus (A++) sound on all SIX sides
  • The sound here is rich and full-bodied with much less grain and much more Tubey Magic than most of the other copies we played
  • Credit the brilliant engineering of Frank Laico for the excellent sound – this record doesn’t sound like 1980, and that’s a very, very good thing
  • “An audacious, ambitious way to stage a comeback, each of the album’s three records was conceived as an individual work, and each was arranged by one of Sinatra’s major collaborators. . . the best moments are triumphant, proving that the Voice was still vital in his fourth decade of recording.”

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The Poll Winners – Straight Ahead

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  • This superb collaboration has KILLER Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it on both sides
  • Musically, this is by far our favorite Poll Winners record – these guys got back together after 15 years and were eager to prove that they still had their youthful exuberance, and even better chops, which they did have and did prove!
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Kessel in particular is heard in excellent form… Overall this is the best all-around recording by The Poll Winners and is easily recommended to bop fans.”

These guys play with more spunk here than on any other album of theirs I’ve heard. And you have to love those ’70s leisure suits they’re wearing on the cover. I remember my commentary when this record was around, mentioning that Roy DuNann had lost none of his engineering skills in the intervening years either.

This is a very dynamic recording, one of his best. You almost never hear cymbals sound this good on an RVG Blue Note, that’s for sure. The bass definition on this record is amazing — you can really hear Ray Brown pulling and bending the strings of the instrument. He’s tearing it up. (more…)

What Are the Rules for Acquiring Records with the Highest Quality Sound?

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The Riverside pressings we’ve auditioned of both The Thelonious Monk Orchestra – At Town Hall and Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two – At The Blackhawk were just awful sounding. The OJC reissues from the ’80s, although better, were not overflowing with the rich, natural, relaxed sound we were looking for either.

Ah, but a few years back we happened to drop the needle on one of these good Milestone Two-Fers. Here was the sound we were looking for and had had so little luck in finding.

Which prompts the question that should be on the mind of every audiophile: What are the rules for collecting records with the best sound quality?

The answer, of course, is that there are no such rules and never will be.

There is only trial and error. Our full-time staff has been running trials — we call them shootouts and needle drops — for more than twenty years now, with far more errors than successes. Such is the nature of records. It may be a tautology to note that the average record has mediocre sound, but it nevertheless pays to keep that rather inconvenient fact in mind.

Even worse, if you make the mistake of pinning your hopes on a current reissue — and you unfortunately find yourself a member of that small minority of audiophiles with reasonably high standards and two working ears — your disappointment is almost guaranteed. (more…)

Cat Stevens – Tea, Teaser & Mona Bone – 180g Universal Debunked

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This commentary was written shortly after these three Universal Heavy Vinyl pressings were released in 2000.

Sonic Grades: F/F/F

Around 2000 Universal did the three most famous Cat Stevens titles, and they have to be three of the worst sounding records I have ever heard in my life. Many audiophile record dealers carry them. Have YOU been ripped off by one of these dealers? If so, we can help. We would never promote garbage like that.

Any record dealer who would actually charge money for these titles has to be either ignorant (having never taken the time to play the record — why bother when audiophiles will buy practically anything pressed on Heavy Vinyl?); auditorily-challenged (deaf, to be blunt about it); or cynically contemptuous of record lovers, music lovers and audiophiles in general.

If they’re gullible enough to buy into the 180 gram vinyl = better sound, they deserve what they get.

Mencken had a good take on a similar idea.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

If you want to stop throwing your money away on bad records, stop doing business with the ignorant, deaf or cynical people who peddle them. (more…)

Michael Jackson / Thriller – Thoughts on Thriller, Circa 2006

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Reviews and Commentaries for Thriller

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

This pressing has a side two that is so amazing sounding that it COMPLETELY CHANGED my understanding and appreciation of this album. The average copy is a nice pop record. This copy is a MASTERPIECE of production and engineering.

After playing a bunch of these we noticed some recurring shortcomings on most of the pressings. Either they lacked extension on the top end or they lacked bass definition and weight, or both. When this copy hit the table, the first thing we noticed was that the top end was Right On The Money and the bottom end was also Right On The Money. Not surprisingly, the middle fell right into place.

It ended up having the most ambience, the most transparency, the most resolution, the most dynamic contrasts, the most presence — in short, it had more of EVERYTHING than any copy we’ve ever heard. The lesson to be learned there may be that when the extremes are somehow properly transferred to the vinyl, the middle will take care of itself. Since the extremes seem to be the hardest thing to get right, at least on this record, that might explain why so many copies don’t quite cut the mustard.

Side one fits perfectly into this theory. The bottom end is MEATY with plenty of punchy, solid bass, but the top end is lacking a bit of extension compared to the very best. The result is that there’s a trace of hardness in the vocals that shouldn’t be there. If you can add a dB or two of extreme highs, EVERYTHING will sound right on side one. It all comes back to life.

I remember five or ten years ago playing Thriller and thinking they were all so transistory, spitty, and aggressive sounding. Well, I didn’t have a Triplanar tonearm, a beautiful VPI table and everything that goes along with it back then. Now I can play this record. I couldn’t back then. All that spit was simply mistracking. The record is no different, it just sounds different now. In other words, this record is a great test. If you can play this record, you can play practically anything.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going!

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  • As Good As It Gets Triple Plus (A+++) sound from start to finish for Collins’ second studio album – exceptionally quiet vinyl too 
  • This is the last of the albums Phil recorded in analog, and of course the sound is big and rich – you will not believe all the space and ambience on this copy
  • Includes Phil’s killer version of the Supreme’s classic, “You Can’t Hurry Love”
  • 4 stars: “… the album is still a winning follow-up that shows Collins to be in full control of songwriting and production. It may be a shade less impressive than Face Value, but that was a hard act to follow. 

Fortunately, the recording quality of this album is still analog and can be excellent, thanks to hugely talented engineer and producer Hugh Padgham (Peter Gabriel, Genesis, The Police, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, etc.). (more…)

Linda Ronstadt / Heart Like A Wheel – Does Bernie Ever Get Bored?

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Recordings of Linda Ronstadt

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Years ago we wrote:

One thing we noted with interest while doing this shootout was how compressed the first track is. When the chorus comes in, and Linda seems to be singing louder — should be singing louder, with a substantial coterie of vocalists backing her up — the volume is actually lower. In the verse immediately following you can hear that not only is she singing louder, but the amount of dynamic contrast in her voice is greater. Go figure.

The compression also means that that song will never sound the way we would wish it to. But that doesn’t mean it won’t sound good. It means it will sound good in more of a radio-friendly way. On a good copy, one with relatively little grain and plenty of bass, the music can still be very enjoyable, and that includes a Number One Pop Hit like “You’re No Good.”

Do we still see things this way? Well, yes and no. It’s not exactly that we were wrong, but that better cleaning and better playback (all that revolutions in audio stuff) have now allowed us to hear that some copies are actually much more dynamic on this track than others. Quite dynamic in fact.

Think about it. Bernie Grundman is going to cut this record many, many times, maybe more times than he wants to. Is he always going to apply exactly the same amount of compression to each cutting, or is he going to experiment a bit and see what works better over time? Or maybe he just learned a thing or two as he went along.

Which is pretty much what we do when playing copy after copy. The best pressings show us precisely what it is they are doing when they actually work. We can’t know that in advance; we’re learning on the job so to speak. (more…)

Lou Rawls – Live!

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  • This superb 2-pack of Lou Rawls’ masterpiece offers a Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) side two mated with an outstanding Double Plus (A++) side one – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Lou Rawls Live! is an amazing recording that really comes to life on this Hot Stamper pressing
  • The songs are fantastic, the musicians are brilliant, the sound is superb – Stormy Monday & Tobacco Road are highlights, but really, there’s not a bad track here
  • If you could only have one Lou Rawls album, no question it would have to be this one – everything that’s good about the man’s music is fully on display
  • 4 stars: “Lou Rawls gives a riveting performance on Live!, covering standards from Basie/Rushing’s tambourine-jumpin’ ‘Goin’ to Chicago’ to T-Bone Walker’s foot-stompin’ ‘Stormy Monday,’ and whole lot in between.”

What an album! For live soul-infused vocals, we know of none better. (more…)