Top Engineers – Andy Johns

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV

More Led Zeppelin

A Member of the Prestigious “None Rocks Harder” Club

  • Insane Rock and Roll ENERGY like nothing you have ever heard – the sound is exceptionally full-bodied, smooth and solid, making it possible to get the volume up good and high where it belongs
  • Here are the Rock and Roll Classics that reign supreme to this very day – Black Dog, Rock & Roll, Stairway to Heaven, When the Levee Breaks, every one sounding better than you’ve ever heard them or your money back
  • 5 stars: “Encompassing heavy metal, folk, pure rock & roll, and blues, Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album is a monolithic record, defining not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of ’70s hard rock.”
  • If you’re a fan of the band, this title from 1971 is clearly one of their best, and one of their best sounding
  • The complete list of titles from 1971 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

It is a positive THRILL to hear this record rock the way it was meant to. If you have big speakers and the power to drive them, your neighbors are going to be very upset with you when you play this copy at the listening levels it was meant to be heard at.

You’d better be ready to rock, because this copy has the ENERGY and WHOMP that will make you want to. Zep IV demands loud levels, but practically any copy will punish you mercilessly if you try to play it at anything even approaching live levels.

I never met John Bonham, and it’s probably too late now, but I imagine he would feel more than a little disrespected if he found out people were playing his music at the polite listening levels many audiophiles prefer. The term “hi-fidelity” loses its meaning if the instruments are playing at impossibly low levels. If the instruments could never be heard that way live, where exactly is the fidelity?

How on earth is a speaker system like this one going to reproduce the 22 inch (or more!) kick drum of John Bonham?

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Chad Has Served Poor Jethro Tull Most Barbarously

More of the Music of Jethro Tull

Reviews and Commentaries for Stand Up

With a nod to our old friend, John Barleycorn.

We were finally able to get our hands on Analogue Productions’ newly remastered Stand Up, a record we know well, having played them by the score. Our notes for the sound can be seen below.

If ever a record deserved a “no” grade, as in “not acceptable,” this new 45 RPM pressing mastered by Kevin Gray deserves such a grade, because it’s just awful.

But let’s put that grade in context. The last time a good sounding version of Stand Up was released, to our knowledge anyway, was 1989, and that version was the Mobile Fidelity Gold CD. I bought mine soon after it came out. I wasn’t even planning on buying a CD player when the Compact Disc was first invented, but then Mobile Fidelity played a dirty trick on me. Instead of releasing Loggins and Messina’s first album on vinyl, they put it out exclusively on CD as part of their Silver MFCD series.

As a die-hard MoFi fan, that sealed the deal: now I had to buy a CD player. I picked up a cheap Magnavox player, I think it ran me less than $100, and played my new Sittin’ In CD, which, as I recall, sounded pretty good. (One of my other early CD purchases was Tumbleweed Connection, the regular label release, and it was not good at all.)

I still own Stand Up on Gold CD, and I still find it superb in every way. (Many of the MFSL Gold CDs from this era are.)

It sounds nothing like this new vinyl release, and that’s a good thing.

On vinyl, Stand Up has rarely been given the care it deserved. The last version of Stand Up to have sound we would want to listen to was pressed in the UK in the early ’70s. That was close to fifty years ago.

We sold some domestic pressings of the album back in the early 2000s, describing them at the time as made from dub tapes with all the shortcomings that entails, but mastered very well from dub tapes. The best domestic pressings are rich, smooth, tonally correct and natural sounding. They’re too dubby to sell as Hot Stampers, but they are not bad records. Some later Chrysalis pressings are big and open, but often they are too thin and bass-shy for the music to work. We’ve never taken them seriously.

It wasn’t long before we’d eliminated everything but the early UK pressings for our shootouts, and we quickly discovered that the earliest of the UK pressings on the older Island label were not good at all. We wrote about the problem with some originals more than ten years ago.

What was surprising about the shootouts we had done in past years was how disappointing most of the early British pressings we played were. They were flat, lacked energy and just didn’t rock the way they should have.

We learned the hard way that most British Pink label pressings aren’t especially rich, that some are small and recessed, and some are just so smeary, thick and opaque that they frustrate the hell out of you as you’re trying to hear what any of the musicians other than Ian Anderson is doing.

So when a reviewer comes along and says something positive about the new pressing compared to some unidentified original, we appreciate the problem that is at the root of his mistaken judgments:

Here’s the deal: if the goal was to duplicate the original pink label Island sound, this reissue misses that, which is good because this new double 45 reissue is far superior to the original in every possible way.

The tape was in great shape, that’s for sure. Clarity, transparency, high frequency extension and especially transient precision are all far superior to the original. Bass is honest, not hyped up and the mastering delivers full dynamics that are somewhat (but only slightly), compressed on the original. Ian Anderson’s vocals are naturally present as if you are on the other side of the microphone. Most importantly, the overall timbral balance sounds honest and correct. But especially great is the transient clarity on top and bottom.

If you’re fortunate to have an original pink label Island, at first you might think the sound is somewhat “laid back”, but that’s only because the mids and upper mids are not hyped up as they are on the original. That adds some excitement, but it clouds the picture and greatly obscures detail.

If you scroll down to our notes, you will see what we thought of the “laid back” sound this reviewer talks about. (Keep in mind that we first read the above review mere moments ago.)

We think “smaller, thick and stuck in the speakers” may be someone’s idea of “laid back,” but, just so there is no misunderstanding, it’s our idea of “awful.”

None of these are good things. Our Hot Stamper pressings are never small, thick or stuck in the speakers. They’re the records with the opposite of those qualities. Our records are big, transparent and open. That’s why we can charge so much money for them and have people lining up to buy them.

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Led Zeppelin / III – We Needed to Do More R&D in 2008

More of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Letters and Commentaries for Led Zeppelin III

A classic example of Live and Learn.

In 2008 we simply had not done our homework well enough. I had been an audiophile for at least 33 years by then, and a professional audiophile record dealer for 21.

Sure, by 2008 we had auditioned plenty of the pressings that we thought were the most likely to sound good: the original and later domestic pressings, the early and later British LPs, some early and later German pressings, maybe a Japanese import or two. In other words, the usual suspects.

We already knew the Classic Records Heavy Vinyl was unbelievably bad; no need to put that in a shootout. It earned an “F” right out of the gate for its bright and harsh sound.

The result? We were roughly in the same position as the vast majority of audiophiles. We had auditioned a number pressings of the album and thought we knew enough about the sound of the album to pick a clear winner. We thought the best original British Plum and Orange label pressings had the goods the no other copies could or would have. (Years later we would get hold of another one, clean it up and put it in a shootout.)

But of course, like most audiophiles who judge records with an insufficiently large sample size, we turned out to be completely wrong.

Logic hadn’t worked. None of the originals would end up winning another shootout once we’d discovered the right reissues.

But in 2008, we hadn’t stumbled upon the best pressings because we hadn’t put enough effort into the only approach that actually works.

What approach is that? It’s trial and error. Trial and error would eventually put us on the path to success. We had simply not conducted enough trials and made enough errors by 2008 to find out what we know now.

We hadn’t made the breakthrough we needed to make in order to know just how good the album could sound.

We reproduce below the commentary for the 2008 listing that gets it wrong.

The best British originals are good records, but none of them would win a shootout these days up against the superior import pressings we discovered around 2015 or so.

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Today’s Heavy Vinyl Disaster from Classic Records… Zep IV

More of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Letters and Commentaries for Led Zeppelin IV

A classic case of Live and Learn

Back in the day I thought the Classic 180 and then 200 gram pressing was the king on this title. In late 2006 I wrote:

“You can hear how much cleaner and more correct the mastering is right away…”

Folks, I must have been out of my mind.

No, that’s not quite fair. I wasn’t out of my mind. I just hadn’t gotten my system to the place where it needed to be to allow the right original pressings to show me how much better they can sound.

Our EAR 324 phono stage and constantly evolving tweaks to both the system and room are entirely responsible for our ability to reproduce this album correctly. If your equipment, cleaning regimen, room treatments and the like are mostly “old school” in any way, getting the album to sound right will be all but impossible. Without the myriad audio advances of the last decade or so you are just plain out of luck with a Nearly Impossible to Reproduce album such as this.

All of the above are courtesy of the phenomenal Revolutions in Audio that have come about over the last twenty years or so. It’s what progress in audio in all about.

The exact same 200 gram review copy now [this was written about ten years ago] sounds every bit as tonally correct as it used to, and fairly clean too, as described above, but where is the magic?

You can adjust your VTA until you’re blue in the face, nothing will bring this dead-as-a-doornail Classic LP to life.

Relatively speaking, of course. For twenty eight bucks (when it was in print) could you buy something better? Probably not. (Now it’s $100 to $400 on ebay and at that price you are definitely not getting your money’s worth.)

The average IV is really a piece of junk. And if you don’t have at least $10k in your front end (with phono), forget it. It takes top quality equipment to bring this album to life, and you better be prepared to go through a large number of copies to find a good one.


Listening in Depth to Stand Up

Reviews and Commentaries for Stand Up

Hot Stamper Pressings of Jethro Tull’s Albums Available Now

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Stand Up.

Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

If British Blues Rock is your thing, then Stand Up is a record that definitely belongs in your collection.

Side One

A New Day Yesterday

This is one of my favorite Jethro Tull songs of all time. (This and To Cry You a Song from Benefit are pretty darn hard to beat.) Clive Bunker’s drumming is incredibly energetic; it drives the song to levels few bands could ever hope to reach. It reminds me of the kind of all-out ASSAULT on the skins you hear in the work of Dave Grohl and John Bonham. Bunker is a highly underrated player; his bandmates Barre and Cornick don’t get the respect they deserve either, for reasons that I’ll never understand. They’re about as good as it gets in my book. (more…)

Stephen Stills – Self-Titled

More Stephen Stills

  • With outstanding sound throughout, this copy of Still’s superb debut is doing just about everything right
  • Love the One You’re With and Sit Yourself Down are to die for, but there’s really not a bad track on the album
  • A triumph of engineering for Bill Halverson and Andy Johns – this and Deja Vu are the very definition of Big Production Rock
  • A member of our Top 100 and a Rock Demo Disc on big speakers at loud levels
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Listening to this album three decades on, it’s still a jaw-dropping experience, the musical equal to Crosby, Stills & Nash or Déjà Vu, and only a shade less important than either of them.”

When we say it’s getting harder and harder to find clean copies of albums such as this in the bins of our local record stores, we are not kidding. (more…)

Led Zeppelin – Back to the Stone Age

Reviews and Commentaries for Led Zeppelin II

More of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame pressing and another MoFi LP reviewed.

Yes, it’s yet another record perfectly suited to the Stone Age Stereos of the Past.

This version of Zep’s sophomore release from 1969 has to be one of the worst audiophile remastering jobs in the history of the world. There is NOT ONE aspect of the sound that isn’t wrong. Not one!

The highs are boosted, the upper midrange is boosted, the mid-bass is boosted, the low bass is missing — what part of the frequency spectrum is even close to correct on this pressing? The answer: none.

If you’re in the market for a Hot Stamper pressing of Led Zeppelin II, we can help you, but prices these days are steep and show no sign of coming down. We typically pay $1000+ or more for the used copies we buy if that tells you anything about what to expect a Hot Stamper pressing will cost you.

Records are getting awfully expensive these days, and it’s not just our Hot Stampers that seem priced for perfection.

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.

At the very least let us send you a Hot Stamper pressing — of any album you choose — that can show you what is wrong with your copy. of the album.

And if for some reason you disagree with us that our record sounds better than yours, we will happily give you all your money back and wish you the best.

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Jethro Tull – Big Speakers, Loud Levels and Plenty of Bass Work Their Magic

More of the Music of Jethro Tull

Hot Stamper Pressings of British Blues Rock

It’s common for pressings of Stand Up to lack bass or highs, and more often than not the copies that we play in our shootouts, shootouts which are strictly limited to import pressings on Island or Chrysalis, lack both.

The bass-shy ones tend to be more transparent and open sounding — of course, that’s the sound you get when you take out the bass.

90-plus percent of all the audiophile stereos I’ve ever heard were bass shy, no doubt for precisely that very reason: less bass equals more detail, more openness and more transparency. Go to any stereo store or audiophile show and notice how bright the sound is. (Yet another good reason not to go to those shows. We stopped decades ago.)

Just what good is a British Classic Rock Record that lacks bass? It won’t rock, and if it don’t rock, who needs it? You might as well be playing the CD. (The average CD of Stand Up — I have a couple of them — is terrible, but the MoFi Gold CD is superb in all respects.)

The copies that lack extreme highs are often dull and thick, and usually have a smeary, blurry quality to their sound. When you can’t hear into the music, the music itself quickly becomes boring. Most Island pressings suffer from these shortcomings.

If I had to choose, I would take a copy that’s a little dull on top as long as it had a meaty, powerful, full-bodied sound over something that’s thinner and more leaned out. There are many audiophiles who can put up with that sound — I might go so far as to say the vast majority can — but I am not one of them.

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Advances in Playback Technology Are More Than Blind Faith

More of the Music of Eric Clapton

More of the Music of Steve Winwood

Reviews and Commentaries for Blind Faith’s Debut

In a 2007 commentary for the Hot Stamper pressing of Blind Faith we noted that:

When it finally all comes together for such a famously compromised recording, it’s nothing less than a THRILL. More than anything else, the sound is RIGHT. Like Layla or Surrealistic Pillow, this is no demo disc by any stretch of the imagination, but that should hardly keep us from enjoying the music. And now we have the record that lets us do it.

The Playback Technology Umbrella

Why did it take so long? Why does it sound good now, after decades of problems? For the same reason that so many great records are only now revealing their true potential: advances in playback technology.

Audio has finally reached the point where the magic in Blind Faith’s grooves is ready to be set free.

What exactly are we referring to? Why, all the stuff we talk about endlessly around here. These are the things that really do make a difference. They change the fundamentals. They break down the barriers.

You know the drill. Things like better cleaning techniques, top quality front end equipment, Aurios, better electricity, Hallographs and other room treatments, amazing phono stages like the EAR 324p, power cables; the list goes on and on. If you want records like Blind Faith to sound good, we don’t think it can be done without bringing to bear all of these advanced technologies to the problem at hand, the problem at hand being a recording with its full share of problems and then some.

Without these improvements, why wouldn’t Blind Faith sound as dull and distorted as it always has? The best pressings were made more than thirty years ago [thirty? make that fifty]; they’re no different. What has to change is how you clean and play those pressings.

The Good News

The good news is that the technologies we recommend really do work. Now Blind Faith, the record, can do what it never could before: sound so good you can find yourself totally lost in the music. The best copies, played back properly, make you oblivious to the album’s sonic problems because, for the most part, they really weren’t the album’s problems, they were, to some extent, your problems.

They were mostly post-groove; you just didn’t know it. This is how audio works. The site is full of commentary discussing these issues. Rest assured that no matter how good you think your stereo sounds now, it can get better if you want it to, and that’s good news if you’re a fan of albums like Blind Faith.

Of course, let us not forget the old Garbage In, Garbage Out rule. You must have a good pressing if you want this album to sound good, and that’s precisely where we and our famous Hot Stamper Pressings come in.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Record Playback Advice 

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Jethro Tull – Stand Up

More Jethro Tull

More British Blues Rock

  • An outstanding UK import LP with Hot Stamper sound from start to finish
  • This is a True Tull Classic – my favorite by the band – and a VERY tough record to come by with this kind of sound and surfaces this quiet, as quiet as any copy we have ever played
  • Both of these sides give you richness, Tubey Magic, clarity and resolution few copies can touch – these are the Hot Stampers, folks
  • “Stand Up! has great textural interest, due, in part, to a more sophisticated recording technique, in part to the organ, mandolin, balalaika, etc., which Anderson plays to enrich each song. The band is able to work with different musical styles, but without a trace of the facile, glib manipulation which strains for attention.”

Need a refresher course in Tubey Magic after playing too many modern recordings or remasterings? These UK pressings are overflowing with it. Rich, smooth, sweet, full of ambience, dead-on correct tonality — everything that we listen for in a great record is here. We must give thanks to the brilliant engineer Andy Johns.

This record is the very definition of Tubey Magic. No recordings will ever be made that sound like this again, and no CD will ever capture what is in the grooves of this record. There is of course a CD of this album, quite a few of them I would guess, but those of us with a good turntable could care less.

If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage All Tube Analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

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