More of the Music of Santana
Reviews and Commentaries for Abraxas
Our good customer Aaron has lately been putting a great deal of time and money into the pursuit of perfect sound. His progress in audio since he discovered Hot Stampers and the kind of high quality vintage equipment we’ve recommended he use to play them has been remarkable.
In 2022 he wrote to tell us that the Super Hot Stamper Abraxas we had sent him and the Mofi One-Step he already owned were comparable in sound quality. Knowing what an awful label Mobile Fidelity is, and what a foolish idea Half-Speed Mastering is, you can imagine that we might have been a wee bit skeptical of this estimation, and we asked him to clarify his position.
Aaron also has made many improvements to his system since then. He carefully listened to both versions of Abraxas again and reported his findings. We believe that there is much to be learned from the kind of shootout that Aaron did for the album.
Oh it’s a fascinating comparison! Here’s some data points, with the final one being the most relevant to your question.
I did another series of shootouts yesterday with my new vintage amp and speakers, and I included Abraxas in it. The bass on the onestep is monstrous and unreal. Sometimes the cymbals and chimes leap out of the speakers. I understand why people go gaga for this record. If you listen for sound, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Then I put on the hot stamper. The bass was back under control. Driving, but not dominating. The overall character was lighter and less ponderous. It was more listenable, more musical, and overall it was a relief to be less distracted by the fireworks. The vocals are back in front where they belong, and more palpable.
But, the hot stamper simply doesn’t grab ahold of you the way the onestep does.
When you describe the sound of the MoFi One-Step of Abraxas, with bass that’s “monstrous and unreal. Sometimes the cymbals and chimes leap out of the speakers,” all I hear in my head is a classic case of smile curve equalization, the kind MoFi has been using since the day they produced their first rock record in 1978, Crime of the Century. Years ago we noted:
We get these MoFis in on a regular basis, and they usually sound as phony and wrong as can be. They’re the perfect example of a hyped-up audiophile record that appeals to people with lifeless stereos, the kind that need amped-up records to get them to come to life.
I’ve been telling people for years that the MoFi was junk, and that they should get rid of their copy and replace it with a tonally correct version, easily done since there is a very good sounding Speakers Corner 180g reissue currently in print which does not suffer from the ridiculously boosted top end and bloated bass that characterizes the typical MoFi COTC pressing. [Of course, we no longer recommend anyone buy Crime of the Century on Speakers Corner. The better our system gets, the less we like them.]
That’s the sound of MoFi all right. The Hot Stampers we offer would never have those “qualities,” if you care to call them that.
Leaping cymbals and chimes? Are they supposed to do that?
Also, the bass on our early pressing would have to be “back under control” or we wouldn’t have sold it to you as a Hot Stamper.
Unsurprisingly, without all that extra added bass, the sound is “lighter and less ponderous.” Saints be praised.
Smile Curve Redux
With the smile curve adding to the top and the bottom, what suffers the most? The midrange. There’s less of it relative to the now-boosted frequency extremes. We described the effect here:
The Doors first album they released was yet another obvious example of MoFi’s predilection for sucked-out mids. Scooping out the middle of the midrange has the effect of creating an artificial sense of depth where none belongs. Play any original Bruce Botnick engineered album by Love or The Doors and you will notice immediately that the vocals are front and center.
The midrange suckout effect is easily reproducible in your very own listening room. Pull your speakers farther out into the room and farther apart and you can get that MoFi sound on every record you own. I’ve been hearing it in the various audiophile systems I’ve been exposed to for more than 40 years.
Nowadays I would place it under the general heading of My-Fi, not Hi-Fi. Our one goal for every tweak and upgrade we make is to increase the latter and reduce the former.
Or as Aaron might have phrased it, “The vocals are back in front where they belong, and more palpable.” You sure got that right.
Aaron was impressed with how much more musical our pressing is, noting: “It was more listenable, more musical, and overall it was a relief to be less distracted by the fireworks.”
Then he concludes with this, sending my head into a spin: “But, the hot stamper simply doesn’t grab ahold of you the way the onestep does.”
Ah, but there is one final paragraph to his letter, his saving grace, one that sums up the differences nicely.
I would no longer describe the choice between the onestep and the hot stamper as a toss-up. That implies they are similar, and they aren’t. They are two fundamentally different sounds, which is all the more baffling to witness since the music is clearly the same. I think it is fair to say this – as my system changed (“improved” would be a debatable term for it – the gear I use now sells for 1/4 what my old gear sells for!), and as my tastes evolved, and perhaps, as my listening skills developed, I now far prefer the Abraxas hot stamper for listening. I’ll break out the OneStep when I want to show off my stereo, but it won’t be what I reach for when I want to enjoy listening to music.
Aaron is saying that there is one clear choice when it comes to wanting to play Abraxas, and a different one for when he wants to show off his system.
Show it off to whom? Somebody who doesn’t know much about sound? Some clueless audiophile who’s impressed by phony, boosted bass and treble? Someone who knows what the MoFi One-Step of Abraxas is selling for these days?
Yes, I can see that such a person might be impressed. People were impressed with the Bose 901 back in the day. “The sound is coming from everywhere!” they exclaimed. If only live music could be more like the Bose 901. If only every copy of Abraxas had all the extra bass and top end that the MoFi has, wouldn’t that be wonderful?
No, it would not be wonderful. MoFi didn’t “restore” or “improve” the sound of Abraxas. They ruined it. Any Columbia engineer who wanted to release Abraxas with that kind of sound in 1969 would have been escorted to the parking lot and told to take his loopy ideas elsewhere.
Anybody with a cheap ten band equalizer can produce that sound. Did Carlos Santana want to make music or produce fireworks?
If you have a good copy of the album, you know that he could actually do both.
One Test to Rule Them All
There is only one true test, and you hit it right on the head: which pressing would you rather play?
Anything else is audiophile BS.
Thanks for writing,
Getting rid of crappy expensive audiophile equipment and buying cheaper but better sounding gear selling for a quarter as much money is a sign that you are definitely going about this whole audio thing the right way.