Top Artists – Santana

Letter of the Week – “The most remarkable drums I’ve ever heard, especially on side two.”

More of the Music of Santana

Reviews and Commentaries for Abraxas

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

[The Abraxas White Hot Stamper] is a monster. Practically tore down the walls. The most remarkable drums I’ve ever heard, especially on side two. The sound is completely circumambient, completely enveloping, but always musical with lovely harmonics even when blasting in the tuttis.

The Mobile Fidelity, which I own, is an attenuated portraiture of the real thing. I will soon be dropping it off at the local Salvation Army store.

Phil

Phil,

Quick question: Did you buy your MoFi before or after I put it in my Hall of Shame?

And wrote this review of it?

MoFi Manages to Disgrace Itself Even Further

See what happens when you don’t read my blog? You end up with crappy remastered records like the ones Mobile Fidelity has been spewing out for more than forty years.

Some forum posters take us to task for criticizing the old MoFi that everybody knows made lousy records, not the new MoFi, which they believe makes good sounding records.

If this is the pride of the new MoFi, and it seems to be, I will leave it to those who post on forums to defend it. I certainly am not up to the task.

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Robert Brook Does Abraxas Again, This Time on MoFi One-Step

More of the Music of Santana

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Santana

One of our good customers has started a blog which he calls A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

Below is a link to a review Robert Brook has just written for the MoFi One-Step pressing of Abraxas, the price of which now far exceeds what even the hottest stamper copies would sell for. Luckily he managed to borrow one from a friend. Had he paid good money for it, you can imagine that his review would have included a lot more exclamation marks. Bad sounding audiophile records upset me too, so I know how the man feels.

Review: Mobile Fidelity’s ABRAXAS ULTRADISC ONE STEP

We’ve written quite a bit about Abraxas, played copies of the album by the score as a matter of fact, and you can find plenty of our Reviews and Commentaries for the album on this very blog.

Moments ago I did a search for this title on the web, and I could not find a single review that was less than a rave, and some audiophile reviewers were calling the One-Step one of the best sounding records they had ever played. They all agreed: analog nirvana, or something like it, has finally arrived. Thanks Mobile Fidelity! You da bomb.

I myself have never heard the pressing, and have no intention of buying one or borrowing one in order to do so.

The sound that Robert Brook describes in his review is a sound I know all too well from playing other Mobile Fidelity pressings, some of which sound bad enough they defy all understanding. After playing one of their remastered records, I frequently find myself asking the same two questions: Who are these idiots and how are they still in business?

The Linda Ronstadt record this label released in 2008 is so awful we put it on our list of Audiophile Pressings that Are the Worst Version of the Album We’ve Ever Heard. You might even think we created that category of awfulness just to have a place for records of its ilk to get the attention they deserve. You would not be far off the mark.

The Genesis album MoFi released in the early ’80s is every bit as bad, and the best part of the story we tell about their pressing is how much I used to like it. [1]

You think Modern Heavy Vinyl pressings are lifeless? Play this piece of crap and see just how bad an audiophile record can sound.

And to think I used to like this version! I hope I had a better copy back in the ’80s than the one I played a few years ago. I’ll never know of course. If you have one in your collection give it a spin. See if it sounds as bad as we say. If you haven’t played it in a while (can’t imagine why, maybe because it’s just plain awful?), you might be in for quite a shock.

As I never tire of pointing out, for the first twenty years I spent in audio I was completely lost. I sure didn’t think I was lost. I thought I had a really good system and I thought I knew a lot about records and audio.

But clearly I did not. When I read the posts of those on audiophile forums or the comments of those discussing our approach to finding better sounding records on videos and articles, I see a reflection of the foolish audiophile I used to be all those years ago. Thank goodness I didn’t have a internet access in the ’80s. I still have copies of my embarrassing catalogs from back then. Thankfully they are in a file cabinet and not up on the web for all our critics to feast upon.

Back to Robert Brook

Based on everything I am reading these days from Robert Brook, he has a good stereo, two working ears, and knows plenty about records and what they are supposed to sound like.

His story is not that different from my own. At the start of his journey, he found himself going in a particular audio direction. He was making some progress, but felt that he needed to take a different approach to get the sound he imagined was still eluding him.

Fighting the inertia that holds us all back in our lives, he reversed course and now finds that he is making progress by leaps and bounds, progress that surely would have been impossible had he stayed on the road he was on.

I did the same thing. I simply stopped believing what I read or was told and started testing everything for myself.

By 2004, after only 30 or so years in the hobby, that approach paid off. I had made enough progress in audio to officially start doing regular shootouts for vintage pressings I knew from experience to have top quality sound, potentially anyway. Teaser and the Firecat was the first Hot Stamper pressing we put up for sale. Our customers were ecstatic to pay ten times the going rate to get a pressing of Teaser that sounded better than they’d ever even imagined the album could sound. They wrote us lots of nice letters, more than 300 to date.

From that point on, we never looked back. Why would we? Our customers were buying Hot Stampers like they were going out of style. Records would go up on the site and sell in minutes.

Now, with a staff of ten, and having discovered much better ways of doing practically everything involved in finding Hot Stampers, not the least of which is using the knowledge we have gained from the thousands and thousands of different pressings we’ve played over the years, we feel confidant our records can hold their own against any and all comers. Especially those being produced today.

Bring it on, we say, and some audiophiles do. Most do not, but we’ve long been resigned to the fact that there’s little we can do about that situation. Even with a money back guarantee, the idea of Hot Stampers is just too absurd for some folks to wrap their heads around.

And the MoFi One-Step? I do not doubt for a minute that it’s every bit as awful as Robert says it is.

Down the road, A.B., our letter poster and source for the pressing Robert played, will no doubt come to recognize the faults that Robert lays out so clearly.

It took me a long time too.

[1] As far as Trick of the Tail goes, Live and Learn, right?

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Santana / Abraxas – MoFi Manages to Disgrace Itself Even Further

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Reviews and Commentaries for Abraxas

Sonic Grade: F

The remastered Abraxas never got past the first elimination round; it had to have been one of the worst half-speeds I have ever heard. Dead dead dead as a doornail.

Santana’s first album on MoFi is a record we admit to having liked a bit when it first came out. Since then we have changed our minds. It’s just too damn compressed and lifeless. The Whomp Factor on this pressing is Zero. Since whomp is critical to the sound of Santana’s music, it’s Game Over for us. The review below is exactly what we wrote at the time the record came in. We tried to like it, but it’s clear to us now that we tried to like it too hard. Please accept our apologies.

I noted in my old blog: “But now I would have to say that the MoFi LP is far too lifeless to be acceptable to anyone, even those with the worst kinds of audiophile BS systems.”

We also mentioned a while back (4/29/08) on our blog how bad the latest crop of MoFi vinyl was, with the heading: “Mobile Fidelity, Ouch.

On another note, we played some godawful sounding MOFI pressings over the last few weeks: Linda Ronstadt (which appears to be out of phase, more on that down the road); Metallica (with blobby bass at 45 RPM no less; only half-speed mastering can guarantee muddy bass under any and all circumstances!); and Rush (nothing even resembling a top end. How do these things happen?).

These three albums have to be some of the worst sounding vinyl I have ever heard in my life. I won’t waste any more of your time or mine talking about them. Buy them if you feel the need, and if you like what you hear, drop us a line. Maybe the copy we cracked open was a “bad” one, unrepresentative of the general pressing run in the same way that the latest Crisis half-speed was.

Well, maybe so, but we are going to have to leave that conundrum unsolved for the time being. To crack open more copies to see if they are all as bad as the first one we played is not something we are particularly inclined to do. We call that throwing good money after bad around here at Better Records.

This is a label making some seriously bad records these days.

But why single them out? They all are.

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Santana / Self-Titled – Truly a Masterpiece

More Santana

More Debut Albums of Interest

  • An outstanding 360 Label pressing of Santana’s debut with Double Plus (A++) sound or close to it on both sides
  • The drums have real snap to them – fast, clean percussion is critical to the energy and drive of Santana’s music and this copy has the top end and the speed to bring it all together
  • A Must Own album, clearly their Masterpiece, and one of the truly groundbreaking debuts in rock history
  • Also it’s a personal favorite that knocked me out when I first heard it back in high school — over the decades it has become even more impressive, especially these days with the revolutions in cleaning and playback quality letting it sound as big and bold as it does
  • “Santana combined Latin rhythms with jazz-inspired improvisation, hard-rock guitar and lyrical, B.B. King-style blues – and even had a hit single, “Evil Ways. The combination of rock guitar and funk percussion was undeniable.” – Rolling Stone
  • We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” but with less of an accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life. Santana’s first album is a good example of a record many audiophiles may not know well but should.

Santana’s first album came out of nowhere and rocked in a way that few music lovers (especially those who knew nothing about Tito Puente) had heard before.

In one sense it had something in common with Led Zeppelin’s debut from early in 1969. Zep’s first album took the blues and added heavy metal guitars. Santana took African and Latin rhythms and added his own style of heavy guitar.

Each is a landmark recording in its own right. It’s hard to imagine any collection of popular music that would be without both.

Folks, you owe it to yourself to hear what a great band Santana were back in the day. Hot Stampers of any of the first three records will do the trick. If you’ve got the stereo that can play loud rock and roll, we’ve got the records that sound like Santana playing live in your listening room. Take it from someone who likes to listen to his music at fairly loud levels, Santana’s first album is truly a thrill. (more…)

Tom Port Discusses Robert Brook’s Recent Shootout for Abraxas

More of the Music of Santana

One of our good customers has started writing a blog which he calls

A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

If you are new to the audio game, and even if you aren’t, we think you will find much of value there. (If you already think you know it all, his blog will be of little use, but of course neither will mine. You already know it all!)

This link will take you to a comparison Robert Brook carried out between some pressings of Abraxas: his own and a Hot Stamper pressing he borrowed from a friend.

I wrote to him about a few issues I had with his commentary.

Dear Robert,

Of course we love it when one of our records gives you the experience you had.

But their are some fine points to keep in mind so that we present our approach as correctly as possible with no hype.

I would not say you can’t hack a hot stamper.

I would say it is very hard.

You could say something like: “Tom says his superior cleaning techniques make it hard to compete with him. If you have a copy with the same stampers as his, his will sound better most of the time simply because the right cleaning noticeably improves the sound’

Which means that you need a different stamper to beat mine, the stamper of the record that won our shootout, not the one that came in at 2+!

Anyone can do it is our motto.

It’s hard is also our motto. (We have a lot of mottos.)

We only beat your other copies on one side, so imagine if the copy you heard did not have that one great side? That is something to think about!

And all the work you’ve done on your stereo is a key part of hearing Santana, a story we tell often ourselves.

Working on the stereo and working on the collection go hand in hand, you lived it and you know it is the only way it can work.

And now records that you thought were just fine, your copies, are unlistenable. This also is key to my experience.

You recommend doing more shootouts. I would add to your comments that you plan on buying more copies of Abraxas even though you already have some. Buy them when you see them.

And if, after a while, you haven’t found the one that does it, you can buy one from me that will do it.

Your point about the WHS and NWHS is a good one. Hard to beat. Not impossible, but so difficult as to make the effort hardly worth it.

We have no magical powers. We just have a staff of ten and forty years of experience. We can be wrong, but it does not happen very often, and if it does you get your money back.


FURTHER READING

We’ve written quite a bit about Abraxas, and you can find plenty of our Reviews and Commentaries for the album on this very blog.

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Robert Brook Does His Own Shootout for Abraxas

More of the Music of Santana

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Santana

One of our good customers has started writing a blog which he calls

A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

Below is a link to a comparison Robert Brook carried out between some pressings of Abraxas – his own and a Hot Stamper pressing he managed to borrow from a friend.

We’ve written quite a bit about the Abraxas, played them by the score as a matter of fact, and you can find plenty of our Reviews and Commentaries for the album on this very blog.

ABRAXAS and Why We Cannot HACK The Hot Stamper

About a week from now I will address some issues I have with Robert Brook’s commentary, so stay tuned!

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Letter of the Week – “Why waste valuable time listening to a great record with a poor pressing…?”

More of the Music of Santana

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Santana

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

  Hey Tom, 

I get it. most people probably want to feel good that whatever they are listening to is the best there is since that is what their ears are telling them (or to justify what they paid). The heavy vinyl craze is a perfect example. I recently heard a copy of the MoFi One Step Pearl. I could not get through side one–Janis’s vocals were ear piercing. And the on line crowd for some reason love it? And $3K for a One Step Abraxas? Crazy.

I am just happy you guys are still in business making it so much easier for folks like me to know what they are getting. Why waste valuable time listening to a great record with a poor pressing on an expensive system. I also appreciate that when I have a great recording (eg, Close to Edge) and if there is a playback issue, it provides a litmus test to troubleshoot my setup.

Keep up the great work!

It’s 100% collector mentality frenzy. Man, I could beat their pressing with one hand tied behind my back, and I sure don’t charge 3k!

We will keep up the good work, you can count on that.

TP


FURTHER READING

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Santana – Santana (III)

  • An outstanding copy of Santana III with Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides
  • Amazing transparency – you hear into the huge, deep soundfield with almost nothing between you and the musicians
  • Surprising amounts of Tubey Magic – some of the best sound this very well-recorded band achieved in the studio
  • 3 big hits that sound great here: “No One To Depend On,” “Everybody’s Everything” and “Everything’s Coming Our Way”
  • 4 1/2 stars: “. . . an album that has aged extremely well due to its spare production (by Carlos and the band) and its live sound. This is essential Santana, a record that deserves to be reconsidered in light of its lasting abundance and vision.”

Another in the long list of recordings that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

If you want to bring the funky sound of Latin percussion to life in your living room, this is the ticket. This is one of the most TUBEY MAGICAL Santana recording we have ever heard, and at its best it is competitive with Abraxas for the title of Greatest Santana Recording.

Both sides here absolutely DESTROY the typical pressing, with the kind of huge, wide soundfield and stunning clarity and detail that really bring this music to life!

This pressing is open and spacious, which gives all of the drums and guitars their own space. Santana records live and die by the sonic quality of the drums and percussion, and on this copy they are KILLER.

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Letter of the Week – “…this pressing truly captures the large and tonally balanced sound like nothing I have ever heard.”

More of the Music of Santana

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Santana

More Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

Listening to Moonflower now and you are spot on with your review. I have seen Santana in concert a couple of times and this pressing truly captures the large and tonally balanced sound like nothing I have ever heard.

Can’t stop listening : )

Rob


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Letter of the Week – “…so much more engaging and rich than I was used to.”

This posting on an audiophile forum was made not long ago by a good customer who authorized me to print it here. (It started out on Hoffman’s forum but was quickly taken down as the subject of Hot Stampers is forbidden.)

I have added the paragraph titles and the bolding you see. The title is the author’s.

Better Records Hot Stampers: Or, how I learned to stop collecting and love listening

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.

Dear AB_BA,

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 a great many commentaries you may find of interest. A couple that spring to mind:

Hot Stampers Versus Collector Pressings

Ah-Um Reissues Versus Originals

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