Top Artists – Steely Dan & Donald Fagen Solos

Letter of the Week – “…if you want to pay $700 for Aja, go right ahead.” I took his advice, and I’m glad I did!

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Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide

One of our good customers recently watched a video on Steve Westman’s youtube channel of an interview he conducted with Michael Fremer. (I appeared with Steve back in October of 2022. You can find the interview here.)

This video upset my customer so much that he felt he needed to get a few things off his chest, which he did in the letter you can find right after my commentary below. He does not pull many punches.

I would like to comment on some of the points he makes, points which I hope will be of interest to our readers. That is what you see here at the top.

At the end of my comments I have reproduced the letter, so if you don’t care to see Fremer raked over the coals, please feel free to stop reading at the end of my comments. Mike Esposito, the guy who exposed MoFi’s duplicity, comes in for some criticism as well. (Justified in my opinion, because Mr. Esposito sure likes some bad sounding records. But why pick on him? Modern audiophile reviewers seem to like nothing but bad sounding records, the same way I did in 1982. Except it’s not 1982 anymore, and there is simply no excuse for having equipment that cannot help you tell a good sounding record from a bad one.)

Our customer, let’s call him Mr. A, had this to say in Point No. 2:

[Fremer] says old records in good shape still sound the best. [Which is true.] He says the playback gear back in the day could not even reveal how great those albums actually are. [Also true.] He says that there are significant variations from one stamper to another and you need to get the right stamper. [True again.] (In his view of the world, there’s no variations in pressings within the same stamper. Apart from this detail, he supports every point you make. He even says, “if you want to pay $700 for Aja, go right ahead.” I took his advice, and I’m glad I did!)

I don’t think he says any of these things nearly as often as they need to be said, or with any real conviction. They are footnotes, a kind of anodyne lip service. They’re the fine print that nobody reads. They’re boxes that get checked off so that we don’t have to talk about them anymore.

I don’t think his readers think any of the statements above are relevant to their ongoing pursuit of high-quality vinyl. They want to know how amazing the new pressings are so that they can be assured that buying the record they were going to buy anyway is clearly the right choice. There’s a name for this kind of biased thinking. [1]

Making generalizations about records is rarely of much use. The devil is in the details. Let’s take a look at what Fremer has written recently about originals.

In his review for the new Stand Up on Heavy Vinyl from Chad, he notes that it has great “transient clarity on top and bottom,” and the original has hyped-up mids and upper mids. This is because he is making the most obvious mistake any record collector could possibly make.

He thinks the original pressing is the standard against which the new pressing should rightfully be judged.

But this is out and out poppycock, the kind of conventional wisdom that new collectors might fall for, but only the most benighted veterans would still believe nowadays. We discuss this myth here and in hundreds of reviews on the blog.

There are currently about 150 listings for reissues that beat the originals, compared to 700 or so listings for records in which the early pressings — not necessarily first pressings, but the right early pressings — can be expected to win shootouts.

Stand Up is one of the titles we have found to be clearly superior on the right reissue. After playing dozens of copies over the course of about twenty years, something that no individual audiophile could be expected to have the wherewithal to pull off, we’ve heard our share of great Stand Ups and awful ones.

Fremer makes the common mistake of stopping with his one original. Thinking inside the box, he naturally gets it wrong. It’s a mistake that few record collectors don’t make. I should know. I was one of them.

A big part of the fun of record collecting is learning about them, a subject I have devoted all of my adult life to. There is precious little learning going on when you buy an original and simply assume you now know what the album really sounds like. This blog is practically dedicated to the proposition that nothing could be further from the truth.

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Gaucho According to MCA Masterphile

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Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

The Masterphile Half-Speed is a pathetic shadow of the real MASTERDISK pressings cut by Robert Ludwig.

We’ve played at least a hundred of the original pressings, and I would be surprised if every one of them did not sound better than this compressed, desiccated audiophile piece of trash.

With sound like that, the MCA Masterphile gets our vote for the worst version of the album ever made.

Of all the great albums Steely Dan released, and that means their seven original albums and nothing that came after, there are only three in our opinion that actually support their reputation as studio wizards and recording geniuses. Chronologically they are Pretzel Logic, Aja, and Gaucho.

Every sound captured on these albums is so carefully crafted and considered that it practically brings one to tears to contemplate what the defective DBX noise reduction system did to the work of genius that is Katy Lied, their best album and the worst sounding. (Those cymbal crashes can really mess with your mind if you let them. To get a better picture of the DBX sound just bang two trash can lids together as close to your head as possible.)

The first two albums can sound very good, as can Royal Scam, but none of those can compete with The Big Three mentioned above for sonics. A Hot Stamper copy of any of them would be a serious DEMO DISC on anyone’s system system.

Mistakes Were Made

If you are still buying these modern remastered pressings, making the same mistakes that I was making before I knew better, take the advice of some of our customers and stop throwing your money away on Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered LPs.

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Steely Dan / Aja – One of the Great Audio Disasters, Courtesy of Mobile Fidelity

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Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

Sonic Grade: F

More MoFi bashing, but boy does this MoFi deserve it. In our estimation, it is tied with the Cisco 180g pressing (2007) for The Worst Version Ever.

I remember back in the ’70s when the album came out. I was a big Steely Dan fan by then, having been turned on to their albums with Countdown to Ecstasy. With each new Dan record I became more impressed with their music, from Pretzel Logic to Katy Lied to Royal Scam and finally on to this, their commercial breakthrough, Aja.

At the time I thought the album sounded pretty good on my plain old ABC original.

Then I got a copy of the Mobile Fidelity pressing and I thought it sounded even better. Side two of the MoFi had bass that was only hinted at on my domestic copy. Wow! Listen to all that bass!

Sometime in the ’80s, I realized that the MoFi was hideously phony sounding, and that all the bass on side two was boosted far out of proportion to what must be (I’m guessing) on the master tape. The song Home At Last has at least an extra three or four DBs added around 50 cycles. It’s ridiculous.

And that’s just the bottom end; the highs are every bit as wrong.

Side one has its top end boosted beyond all understanding. The snare drum that opens the song Black Cow sounds like a hi-hat, all top and no body, and the hi-hat sounds so bright you can barely even tell it’s a hi-hat.

Of course the vocals sharing the midrange are all ridiculously thinned out and compressed to death. Fagen’s voice sounds tonally unlike his voice on any other Steely Dan record. That should tell you something.

Fagen’s Evin Twin

Mobile Fidelity was not revealing or discovering the true nature of Donald Fagen’s voice. They were creating an entirely new version of it, one with no relation to the living Donald Fagen, the perfect example of an approach we call My-Fi, not Hi-Fi, as if the world needed such a thing.

Mobile Fidelity took this fairly artificial recording and made it even more artificial sounding than it already was.

We don’t like it when a mastering engineer creates a new sound for a well-known recording, a sound that nobody involved with the original production could have wanted, since no other version of the album ever sounded like this one.

The MoFi Aja is a giant black mark against Mobile Fidelity and half-speed mastering in general. I’m astonished that anybody who calls himself an audiophile in this day and age would not be able to recognize how laughably wrong it is, but I am sure plenty of people still play the record and like it.

If you have small speakers, or screens with no subs, it might actually give you some of the bass and highs your speakers have trouble reproducing. This is not a good way to pursue audio of course. We are of the opposite persuasion and have been since 1975 or thereabouts.

This is exactly what is going on with the Speakers Corner Mercury reissue series from about twenty years ago as well. They are finding a Mercury “sound” that no one ever found before. More to the point, they are finding a sound that no one with two working ears would even want.

If you can’t tell what’s wrong with the MoFi Aja –and I’m guessing that’s a sizeable contingent of self-described audiophiles — then it’s hard to know how to help you.

Like our friend with the MoFi Aqualung, we would not know where to start. Something ain’t workin’ right — room, stereo, who knows what it might be?

In order to build a record collection of high quality pressings, the first thing you need to do is get good sound.

It is the sine qua non of record collecting. Without it you are almost guaranteed to fail. Until you’ve achieved good sound, you most likely will be wasting money on one bad sounding audiophile record after another, and that would really be a shame.

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Listening in Depth to Katy Lied

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Reviews and Commentaries for Katy Lied

The Trick with Katy Lied Is to find the right balance between richness, sweetness and clarity.

Take three or four Katy Lied pressings, clean them up and play just one or two of the tracks we discuss below. On a highly resolving system, you shouldn’t be able to find any two copies that get those tracks to sound the same. We do our shootouts with up to a dozen copies at a time and no two sound the same to us.

This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working at its best to get this complex music to sound the way it should. But if you’ve done your homework and your system is really cooking, you are in for the time of your Steely Dan life.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Black Friday

Arguably the most musically aggressive track on the album, “Black Friday” is without question the most sonically aggressive and a quick indicator of what you can expect from the rest of the side. The typical copy is an overly-compressed sonic assault on the ears. The glaring upper midrange and tizzy grit that passes for highs will have you jumping out of your easy chair to turn down the volume. Even my younger employees who grew up playing in loud punk rock bands were cringing at the sound.

However, the good copies take this aggressive energy and turn it into pure excitement. The boys are ready to rock, and they’ve got the pulsing bass, hammering drums, and screaming guitars to do it.

Without the grit and tizz and radio EQ, which could have been added during mastering or caused by the sound of some bad ABC vinyl, who can say which, the sound is actually quite good on the best of the best copies. It’s one of the toughest tests for side one. Sad to say, most copies earn a failing grade right out of the gate on this album.

In that respect it’s very similar to Royal Scam. Kid Charlemagne is no walk in the park. We noted:
This song will always be a little bright and upper midrangy. That’s the way it’s mixed. It will never sound as good as the songs that follow on side one. It will sound really irritating, hard and aggressive on the average domestic pressing.

Bad Sneakers

This is my favorite track on the whole album. I love this song! On the best copies, the sound is very punchy, but the most important qualities I listen for are richness and sweetness, especially on the backing vocals. Michael McDonald, et al. should sound like they were recorded with ribbon mics and an Ampex 300 Tube tape recorder, like the one Contemporary Records used. The vocals are that good!

Another quality the chorus should have is clarity. By that I mean there should be separation between each of the vocalists that make up the group. When this record is mastered from sub-generation tapes (or sub-sub-generation tapes, which is more often the case) the voices take on a smeary quality and there is a noticeable increase in the harmonic distortion.

I first discovered this sound when listening to a Hot Stamper copy of Countdown To Ecstasy while doing a shootout with a Japanese pressing, which until that time I thought was the better sounding version. On the chorus of one of the tracks the domestic copy was clear, clean and undistorted. The Japanese pressing had noticeable harmonic distortion, which I’m inferring came from their use of a sub-generation tape.

In every other way, the Japanese pressing sounded fine. When the mix got complicated, the flaws showed up.

So when Bad Sneakers gets loud and complex, the shortcomings of some pressings will become obvious. This is what shootouts are all about. Everything is relative. The three most important words in the English language when it comes to evaluating records are “compared to what?

More often than not it takes a better record to show you what’s wrong with the record you’re playing.

And Turning Up Your Volume is key to testing a song like Bad Sneakers. The louder the problem, the harder it is to ignore.

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Letter of the Week – “After playing a few very smooth and quiet bands I put on my excellent vintage copy of Aja that proceeded to destroy the Cisco.”

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Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

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

Hey Tom,   

It’s amusing that even Golden Ears who have the attention of large readerships can miss and misunderstand so much. You don’t have to understand the technical why of the variability of LPs to appreciate just how profound the audible differences can be from stamper to stamper. Even in acknowledging that differences are present, they do not seem to appreciate the extreme degree of the variation in sound among LPs from different stampers.

As so many of us have learned from you, a “hot stamper” LP is simply in a whole different league in sound quality. A good sound system is necessary to realize just how big that difference is and the more optimized that system is the better.

Beyond the audible reality and the technical issues, it is the subject of value that is not understood or appreciated. The ability to simply find a nice playable copy of a vintage LP is a major task. So many LPs have suffered the gouging of what must have been a rusty nail used as a stylus as well as all the other sins that can be wreaked on the plastic disc. Then the incredible task of assembling enough different copies to be able to do the “shoot-out” would seem impossible.

I have, as many now may have tried, done a simple “shoot-out” of a few copies of a favorite LP. Among those I have always found the “better” of the bunch. Now and then and just by luck (since the statistics of not having enough samples was not working in my favor) I have found what must indeed be a “hot stamper). And WOW …..what a difference!

The number of times this has occurred fits on less than one hand yet when you hear an LP that has been mixed and mastered really well and then “transferred” with care and quality via an excellent stamper, there is an epiphany. Suddenly you hear what you often refer to as “master tape” sound. As I have said before, this is really a sad statement about the quality and consistency of record production throughout its history.

The “Audiophile” Half-Speed thing only piles it on top of this with the way mastering at half speed seems to extract the dynamic life and frequency response from an album in contrast to a standard copy. The logical intention that mastering at half speed would allow the cutting lathe tool to have “more time” to lay down more of the music signal just never really worked. You would think the “Golden Ears” that developed this idea would have compared the result with real-time cutting speed (not brain surgery). I never wanted all this to be the way it is and didn’t even know it until I stumbled upon Better Records one day. But it is the way it is!

There seems to be a focus on the “wear” of the stamper as the primary cause of differences in the quality of the vinyl LP. My sense is that there is much variation over time in the production of stampers regarding the audio mastering and transfer in tonal balance and especially in the degree of compression used for a specific stamper that can destroy the “life and transparency” of the sound. This has nothing to do with stamper wear or physical variation but can vary from stamper to stamper over the duration of being in print and production and in some cases, never get transferred correctly.

I purchased the new Cisco Steely Dan “Aja” album hoping it would deliver perhaps even greater sound than the original and the hype regarding the remix quality, heavy virgin vinyl, etc, etc. certainly suggested that. After playing a few very smooth and quiet bands I put on my excellent vintage copy of Aja that proceeded to destroy the Cisco. The life, dynamics and transparency were in a totally different and superb league above. I very carefully returned my now even more precious copy to its sleeve. A few dealers that sell reissues like Aja will sometimes admit this but they certainly don’t want the world to know it. (more…)

Steely Dan – Gaucho

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Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

  • This copy is guaranteed to handily beat any pressing of Gaucho you have ever played, especially the awful Ron McMaster Heavy Vinyl LP
  • This superb pressing has three-dimensional ambience, tubey richness, you-are-there immediacy, tight bass, clear guitar transients, silky highs, and truckloads of analog magic on every track
  • 4 stars in the AMG, 4 1/2 in Rolling Stone, and one of this exceptionally well recorded band’s Three Best Sounding Albums – a true Must Own
  • “Despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, ”Gaucho” contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.” New York Times
  • If you’re a Steely Dan fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1980 is surely a Must Own
  • The complete list of titles from 1980 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

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Donald Fagen / The Nightfly

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

  • With two outstanding sides, this early pressing is guaranteed to be a huge improvement over anything you’ve heard – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Punchy and high-resolution, check out the cymbals and muted guitar on “I.G.Y.” — they sound Right On The Money here
  • If you are looking for a shootout winning copy, let us know – with such good music and sound, we hope to get another shootout going again soon
  • 4 1/2 stars: “A portrait of the artist as a young man, The Nightfly is a wonderfully evocative reminiscence of Kennedy-era American life; in the liner notes, Donald Fagen describes the songs as representative of the kinds of fantasies he entertained as an adolescent during the late ’50s/early ’60s, and he conveys the tenor of the times with some of his most personal and least obtuse material to date.”

Vintage covers for this album are hard to find in exceptionally clean shape. Most of the will have at least some amount of ringwear, seam wear and edge wear. We guarantee that the cover we supply with this Hot Stamper is at least VG


Energetic and present, this copy is on a completely different level than most pressings. We just finished a big shootout for Donald Fagen’s solo effort from 1982 (just two years after Gaucho and the end of Steely Dan) and we gotta tell you, there are a lot of weak-sounding copies out there. We should know; we played them.

We’ve been picking copies up for more than a year in the hopes that we’d have some killer Hot Stamper copies to offer, but most of them left us cold. Flat, edgy and bright, like a bad copy of Graceland, only a fraction had the kind of magic we find on the better Steely Dan albums.

Both sides here are incredibly clear and high-rez compared to most pressings, with none of the veiled, smeary quality we hear so often. The vocals are breathy, the bass is clear and the whole thing is open and spacious.

How Analog Is It?

The ones we like the best will tend to be the ones that sound the most Analog. The more they sound like the average pressing — in other words, the more CD-like they sound — the lower the sonic grade. Many will not have even one Hot Stamper side and will end up in the trade-in pile.

The best copies sound the way the best copies of most Classic Rock records sound: tonally correct, rich, clear, sweet, smooth, open, present, lively, big, spacious, Tubey Magical, with breathy vocals and little to no spit, grit, grain or grunge.

That’s the sound of analog, and the best copies of The Nightfly have that sound.

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Steely Dan / Katy Lied – A MoFi that Beggars Belief

Sonic Grade: F

Katy Lied is bad enough to have earned a place in our Mobile Fidelity Hall of Shame. If it isn’t the perfect example of a Pass/Fail record, I don’t know what would be.

By the time I was avidly collecting Mobile Fidelity records in the late ’70s, this title had already gone out of print, one of the first to do so. My guess is that even the cloth-eared audiophiles at MoFi knew when they had a turkey on their hands and mercilessly put this one out to pasture.

Yes, the sound is so bad that even the brain trust at MoFi could hear it. 

Compressed and lifeless (almost as lifeless as the screen speakers so popular at the time), it’s hard to imagine any version sounding worse than this one.

And yet I continued to play my copy, for enjoyment of course, oblivious — I must have been oblivious, right? — to the bad sound.

Why? That’s hard to say, but here’s a stab at it.

The vinyl was exceptionally quiet for one thing, and for another, as an audiophile I knew this MoFi pressing had been made with tender loving care, using a superior process, Half-Speed Mastering, from The Original Master Tapes, and had been pressed in Japan on the quietest, flattest vinyl in the world. What could possibly go wrong?

My old story about One Man Dog gets to the heart of it. I didn’t understand records very well and I sure didn’t understand the value of doing shootouts or even how to do them with different pressings of the same album.

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More Evidence of Ron McMaster’s Flat Out Incompetence

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho

Sonic Grade: D

Reasonably good bass, we’ll give it that, but no top end and no Tubey Magic.

More of Ron McMaster’s handiwork. The result is a record that simply has no reason to exist.

The AVERAGE original pressing sitting in your local record store bin right now for probably all of ten bucks will MURDER this piece of crap. 

As we noted for Ron’s remastered Band album:

When you see that little RM in the dead wax of one of these new Heavy Vinyl reissues, you know you’ve just flushed your money down the toilet. There should be a warning label on the jacket: Mastered by Ron McMaster.

It’s only a warning to those of us familiar with his work of course; the general public, and that includes the general audiophile public, probably won’t have much of a problem with the sound of this record, or anything else he does.

He still has the job, doesn’t he? What does that tell you?

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Letter of the Week – “The WHS made the music sound more natural and more involving.”

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Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

One of our good customers recently bought a Super Hot pressing of Aja, and wasn’t quite sure if he loved the music enough to keep it, so he wanted to try a White Hot Stamper pressing to see if that would win him over, the idea being that the better sound of the White Hot copy would communicate the music better and let him appreciate every aspect of the music, no matter how subtle. This is his story.

Dear Tom,

Probably my favorite thing to do in audio these days is putting on a record of yours for the first time. When the Aja White Hot Stamper came, I had to wait a few hours until after the kids were all tucked in. I listened with headphones for a change, and right away I could tell how clear and intricate this copy was. Knowing how my other copies sounded, I knew no shootout was going to be necessary.

I also really love doing mini-shootouts of my own. It’s a great way to really sink in to listening for a while. I don’t have 16 other copies of Aja, the way your other customer described, but I could still stack your WHS up against three other ABC pressings with identical-looking labels and nearly-identical deadwax, along with a MoFi and a Japanese pressing.

It proved to be the most beguiling shootout I’ve ever done. Each copy had merits, and among the ABC pressings, I was hearing clear similarities to the WHS. This is such delicate and full music, so obviously well-recorded, that I guess it’s hard for any pressing to completely muck it up.[1]

I’ve heard you say that a white hot stamper is a copy that just does everything right, and that was completely true in this case. The differences were subtler, but also more important, than they usually are in my mini-shootouts. The WHS made the music sound more natural and more involving. All those crazy details, present in the others if you really pay attention, came right up to the surface when the WHS played.

I really can’t claim it trounced the others, but I can certainly say that it had the best aspects of each of them, while in turn not being improved on in any aspect by any of the others. Sure, it would be fun to get to hear one of the sought-after pressings, like a Cisco, but with prices verging on hot stamper territory, it’s not like I’m going to go track that down. I’ll just content myself with your word that this one would beat one of those.[2] Since I’m not feeling anything lacking here, I have no reason to keep going.

After almost every purchase from you, I ask myself, “is it worth what I paid?” This was a funny one. I don’t love Steely Dan, even though all indications are that I should. I’ve always dug Aja, but not to the obsessive levels I know others to be (and that I am with other records). I was curious to own a WHS because I know it’s such a well-recorded album, I knew I’d love the sound, and as you suggested when I asked you about it, I wanted to see if a great-sounding copy could help me get into the music.

So far so good. I appreciate the virtuosity of the musicians, the touch they’ve got on their instruments, the clever wordplay (now that the vocals are so easy to make out), and the communication among them, like a great jazz session. Is it worth what I paid? Well, I’m not sending it back, even though I know you wouldn’t mind if I did. So, thanks for another gem in my collection.

Thank you,

Aaron

Aaron,

Thanks for your letter. A few thoughts:

[1] Yes, an early ABC pressing is unlikely to sound wrong or terrible in our experience. Of the hundred or more that we’ve played, a don’t remember one that did not at least sound good enough to sell, earning perhaps our lowest Hot Stamper grade.

You’ve recently upgraded your system quite a bit. If you keep going that way, in five or ten (or two!) years you may want to revisit the WHS copy relative to your other three ABC pressings (forget the others) and see what changes you have wrought, although I do not recommend you use Aja as a test disc, for the simple reason that extremely artificial recordings can often sound amazingly good, but when your system goes off the rails a bit from some new tweak or change, they will sound different, but not necessarily better or worse, more right or more wrong, and then you don’t know whether the change was a good one or a bad one.

Different means nothing. Things sound different all the time. More right or more wrong should always be your focus.

Test discs like the ones we recommend should make it easy to distinguish better from worse, right from wrong. Test discs that don’t are simply not good test discs and should not be used for that purpose.

[2] Don’t take my word for how bad the Cisco pressing is. We have letters from customers who say the same thing.

The Cisco is so bad we call it a Pass/Fail record.  We describe Pass/Fail records this way:

Some records are so wrong, or so lacking in qualities that are crucial to the sound — qualities typically found in abundance on the right vintage pressings — that the advocates for these records, reviewers and audiophiles alike, have clearly failed to judge them accurately.

Tea for the Tillerman on the new 45 may be substandard in almost every way, but it is not a Pass/Fail pressing. It lacks one thing above all others, Tubey Magic, so if your system has an abundance of that quality, the way many vintage tube systems do, the new pressing may be quite listenable and enjoyable. Those whose systems can play the record and not notice this important shortcoming are not exactly failing. Audiophiles of this persuasion most likely have a system that is heavily colored and not very revealing, but it is not a system that is hopeless.

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