I have added the paragraph titles and the bolding you see. The title is the author’s.
We are witnessing an absolute explosion in vinyl. It’s thrilling, but it has also become frankly overwhelming.
What matters? The experience of listening, of course. But, how do we know, I mean, how do we really know, what listening experiences are going to be sublime?
Too often, collectability becomes our proxy for listening. We’ve all done it – chasing a near mint early pressing, a Japanese or German pressing, a re-press from a label we trust. We all end up with multiple copies of our favorite records, but only listen to one or two of them. And whether we sell them or not, it brings us some comfort to see their going rates on Discogs continue to climb. For me at least, FOMO was a strange driver of my buying habits. I regretted records I didn’t purchase, far more often than I regretted purchases I did make, even as I have about a year’s worth of listening in records still sealed on the shelf. I’m even afraid to open some of them because I can see their value is rising. Isn’t that silly?
My Philosophy Was Off-Base
I love records. Listening to them, curating a collection, is a joyful hobby. It gets at some need I can’t quite name. But, of course, records shouldn’t be only for collecting. They are for the pleasure of listening. My philosophy was pretty off-base. I didn’t even perceive it that way, and here’s what got me to realize it, and get out of it.
Last summer, I came across an original mono pressing of Mingus Ah Um in one of my local shops. It was labelled as a “top copy” and the surface looked pretty good. The price was a little absurd, and considering I had the [MoFi] OneStep and the Classic Records pressings, I wasn’t sure I needed it. But, this is an album I loved, even as a kid, even on digital, and a first pressing held a lot of allure. I took some time to think about it, do some online comparison shopping, and by the time I got back to the shop, it was gone.
In a fit of pique, I bought the copy Better Records was selling. It was listed as a Super Hot Stamper, and it was slightly cheaper than the copy the shop was selling. With a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, it seemed a safe bet.
An Initially Disappointing Hot Stamper Reissue Pressing
Well, you can imagine my disappointment when it arrived a few days later. Nicely boxed for shipping, I unsleeved what was clearly a later pressing. My disappointment magnified when the needle dropped and the first thing I heard was surface noise. I’ve been conditioned by the heavy vinyl renaissance to equate surface noise with a bad-sounding record.
But then, the instruments kicked in, and from the first notes I could tell I was listening to something really different. It was clear, forward, and dynamic. Nothing harsh, even in the horns, but so much more engaging and rich than I was used to. It was the drum solo partway through the first track that convinced me I was hearing something special in this pressing. I sat and listened to the entire record without doing anything else, and for me, something that holds my attention to where I don’t want to grab my phone or a book is part of what defines a peak listening experience.
Columbia Abraxas Versus MoFi Abraxas – A Toss-up
What next? They also had a Super Hot Stamper of Abraxas listed. Owning the MoFi One Step, along with a few other pressings, and this being another album I’ve loved for years, I decided to take the challenge that Better Records makes, and see if their copy could unseat my others.
The presentation of the hot stamper and the onestep are really different. The hot stamper reaches out and grabs you. The percussion is forward, hitting you right in the chest. The onestep is huger, it fills the room with a massive soundstage.
The instruments on the onestep are less differentiated, except (on my system, at least, which tends to be bright) for the chimes and hi-hat hits, which absolutely stand out on the onestep. The onestep has some tape hiss I don’t hear on the hot stamper early pressing. I love a black background, which my tube preamp doesn’t really have in the first place, so I find that tape hiss a little objectionable, since it further compromises a weak spot in my system.
My thirteen year old prefers the MoFi; I prefer the hot stamper. At this point, the hot stamper is bound to be a lot cheaper than you’d pay for the MoFi, and you can consider it a toss-up between the two – they have different attributes.
I Try Buying a Similar Pressing on Discogs
I’m an empiricist, so naturally I looked up the matrix numbers on Discogs. For $30 I purchased a copy that had matching matrix numbers, at least as close as I could get them. (You feel kinda stupid when you send a discogs seller three messages saying, “but would you say that’s a faint N or a faint Z scrawled in the deadwax?” Enough already. Just buy the stupid thing.)
The discogs copy had a family resemblance to my hot stamper in terms of its sound, and it was also in near mint condition with no evident listening damage. But, the experience is different. The hot stamper simply sounds more real and immediate. I recognize what I’m describing is the complete opposite of A/B double-blind testing, but which is the copy I keep putting on, feeling engrossed and enlivened by with spin after spin? (The miniscule writing in the dead wax was indeed not identical, so the experiment wasn’t perfect, but it was enough for me to have trust that hot stampers are a good value proposition for me. It sure beats buying a stack of copies at $5-$25 and picking out your favorite from them.)
Now I’m now ten Hot Stampers in, and planning to cool it, at least for a little while. I’ve been able to get many of my favorites (Stardust, Rumors, Mahavishnu, some Zeppelin, some Ella, some Beatles) in Hot Stamper format. That’s good enough for me while I start thinking about a speaker upgrade.
I can say this has been true in my experience – no matter how many other pressings of a title you have, if you buy a Better Records Hot Stamper, you can play it in a “shootout” against the rest of your stack of that title, and you will find that either it bests them all, or at very least, it gives you a different presentation that you will value and want to hold on to. For me, this has been true for ten of the eleven purchases I’ve made. Try it sometime. Even if you start with the regular hot stampers, you’ll hear they are different.
Listenability Versus Collectibility
So, although I have a very collectable collection that I hope and expect will hold its value over the years to come, it is with joy, relief, and a sense of relaxation that I shift my record-buying focus now to listenability rather than collectability. As we cope with the ever-growing onslaught of new pressings and inflation in the prices we’re seeing on discogs, listenability is a great way to cut through the noise and put your record-buying money where it matters.
It is really hard to buy for listenability anywhere other than on Better Records. Maybe if you have a friend who wants to sell you some of his records, you could do it. But, if you’re buying on Discogs or ebay, you’re not buying for how things sound. Occasionally, you can hear listening descriptions as part of the seller’s grading, but those are not comparisons to other pressings of the same title. And, as much as I like to support my local record stores, when it comes to listening first as a basis for buying, you can basically forget about it.
I’ve been formulating these thoughts for a while, but not sure why I’d want to post them. I mean, who wants to drive more customers to this guy when I still want to buy his merchandise, and some titles already sell out within seconds of listing, before I can even make up my mind? But, here you have it. Merry Christmas, I guess. Add my voice to the choir – you can buy better records hot stampers with confidence.
Thanks for writing about your experiences playing our Hot Stamper pressings against others in your collection. We encourage our customers to do their own shootouts. It is the only way to know exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of any pressing you may own might be. Naturally, we enthusiastically welcome the challenge when someone wants to play our records head to head with whatever other pressings they may own.
You liked your MoFi Abraxas about as well as the Hot Stamper, and we are fine with that. As we like to say, as you continue to make progress in all aspects of audio, check back with us in five years and let us know what your MoFi sounds like then. We know our Abraxas will be fine. We’ve been playing Hot Stampers of that title since 2006 or thereabouts and the best originals are still winning our shootouts fifteen years later.
It is a truly extraordinary recording, with guitars that get louder in the mix than 99 out of 100 rock records we have ever heard.
Compared to What?
Shootouts are the only way to answer the most important question in all of audio:
“Compared to what?”
Without shootouts, how can you begin to know the specific characteristics of the sound of the pressings you own?
Are the chimes and hi-hats “right” on the MoFi? I am guessing I would not agree with you that they are better. Having never played their One Step pressing, it’s probably wise that I not comment further.
But any label that would release a record that sounds as bad as this one has some explaining to do.
You bring up a number of good subjects, the kind we have been writing about for decades, and we have commentaries you may find of interest. A couple that spring to mind:
Hot Stampers Versus Collector Pressings
Ah-Um Reissues Versus Originals