Top Engineers – Kenneth Wilkinson

Respighi – Skip this Ridiculously Compressed London LP

Hot Stamper Pressings of The Pines of Rome

More Reviews and Commentaries for The Pines of Rome

The Prevatelli on London you see pictured was way too compressed to be taken seriously by us.

When the music is supposed to get loud at the end of the Pines, it never does!

The Stereo Treasury you see below was equally bad sounding. It did not last more than a few minutes on our turntable.

If more vintage Londons had sound as bad as the three or four copies we had on hand (it’s a fairly common used record, now I know why), we would happily admit that going the Heavy Vinyl route is a good idea.

And there certainly are a lot of bad vintage pressings — we should know, we’ve played them by the hundreds — but the number of bad Modern Heavy Vinyl pressings would give them a run for their money.

There are quite a number of others that we’ve run into over the years with sonic shortcomings.

Here they are, broken down by label.

  • London/Decca records with weak sound or performances
  • Mercury records with weak sound or performances
  • RCA records with weak sound or performances


Herrmann – Citizen Kane (The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann)

More of the music of Bernard Herrman (1911–1975)

More Orchestral Spectaculars

  • An original RCA Red Seal pressing with STUNNING Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them from start to finish
  • On this killer copy you will hear deep bass notes; incredible dynamics from every area of the stage; masses of strings playing at the top of their registers with abandon; huge drums; powerful brass effects, and more
  • Every sound an orchestra can produce is found on this record, and then some — it’s the very definition of Demo Disc sound
  • These wonderful works, undoubtedly some of the greatest Bernard Herrmann composed, should be part of any serious Orchestral Collection
  • 5 stars: “… the best of the entire series by conductor Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra… every track is worthwhile and memorably played.”
  • If you’re a Bernard Herrmann fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1974 is clearly one of his best
  • The complete list of titles from 1974 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

The Citizen Kane Suite on this album is to die for — big, bold, dynamic sound like few records you own. It’s a real Desert Island Disc for me. (The CD, by the way, is actually quite good. I have it in the car and play it often.)

The Concerto Macabre for Piano and Orchestra (from “Hangover Square”) is superbly well-recorded and a brilliant piece of music as well.


Kenneth Wilkinson Discusses His Favorite Venues — They’re the Older Ones

Hot Stamper Pressings of Recordings by Kenneth Wilkinson

Reviews and Commentaries for the Recordings of Kenneth Wilkinson

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.


The Biggest “If” in All of Audio

More of the Music of Ted Heath

More Records that Are Good for Testing Tonality and Timbre

The best of the best vintage recordings are truly amazing if you can play them right. That’s a big if.

In fact, it may just be the biggest if in all of audio.

But that is not our story for today. Our story today concerns the relationship between more accurate timbre and higher fidelity.

What do we love about vintage pressings like the Ted Heath disc you see pictured above?

The timbre of the instruments is reproduced with wonderful fidelity.

The unique sound of every instrument in this very large ensemble has been recorded accurately. Every instrument sounds the way it would sound if you were hearing it live. Every instrument sounds real.

That’s what we mean by hi-fi, not the kind of “Audiophile Sound” that passes for hi-fidelity on some records. (Some of the worst offenders along those lines can be found here.)

Old Sound, New Sound

Older audiophile records, typically those made by Mobile Fidelity in the ’70s and ’80s, suffered from a common group of problems which could be heard on practically every record they released:

A boosted top, a bloated bottom, and a sucked-out midrange.

Nowadays that kind of low fidelity sound is no longer in vogue.

Not to worry!

A new, equally low fidelity sound has taken its place.

What seems to be the “in sound” these days, judging by the Heavy Vinyl Reissue pressings we’ve played in recent years, is a very different sound from the one described above, with a different but no less irritating suite of shortcomings.

These new records, with few exceptions, tend to be compressedthickdullopaque, veiled, recessed and badly lacking in ambience.

These are the current hallmarks of the Heavy Vinyl LP. Whether made by Speakers Corner, DCC, Analogue Productions or any other label, starting at some point in the mid-’90s, these labels apparently preferred  sound that was just too damn smooth. We were hearing overly smooth sound on practically every infuriatingly unbalanced modern Heavy Vinyl record we played.

The phony boosted highs of the bad old days are gone, replaced by the phony rolled off highs of today.

(The exception was Bernie Grundman. Bernie cut hundreds of records for Classic Records starting in the ’90s, and it’s clear he chose a different path, but his path turned out to be every bid as problematical. And Mobile Fidelity no longer makes bright records with ill-defined, bloated bass. Now they make overly smooth records with ill-defined, bloated bass.)

Are the audiophiles who are buying these new, smooth records any better off?

The ones with bright, phony systems probably are. Everybody else is getting taken to the cleaners. Ripped off. Sold a bill of goods. Etc. Etc. (There are scores of terms for this activity because there have always been companies and individuals who were happy to take your money in exchange for something of low quality dressed up in fancy packaging.)

First Things First

As we have been saying for years, to get anywhere in this hobby, the first thing you need is reasonably good sound.

Then you can buy records that actually have the potential to be good records. Records with higher fidelity. Records that are tonally correct.

If you’re buying these modern heavy vinyl pressings, what are you going to do with them when you finally get around to making your stereo reproduce music properly and can now hear how second- and third-rate they are?

You can tell yourself you’ll sell them for high prices on ebay down the road, but can you be sure they will hold their value?

And do you really want to go through the hassle? As someone who has been selling on ebay since 1998, I can tell you from experience it is a pain. Why create a problem for yourself now that your future self will have to clean up?

Further Reading

Witches’ Brew / Gibson – Our First Shootout Winner in 16 Years

More of the music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

More of the music of Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

  • This original Shaded Dog pressing of the New Symphony Orchestra of London’s performance of these classical warhorses boasts INSANELY GOOD Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) Living Stereo sound from first first note to last
  • It’s also fairly quiet at Mint Minus Minus, a grade that even our most well-cared-for vintage classical titles have trouble playing at
  • These sides are doing everything right – they’re rich, clear, undistorted, open, spacious, and have depth and transparency to rival the best recordings you may have heard
  • The rich, textured sheen of the strings that Living Stereo made possible in the ’50s and early ’60s is clearly evident throughout these pieces, something that the Heavy Vinyl crowd will never experience, because that sound just does not exist on modern records

Demonstration Quality Sound, of a sort. As I’ve said elsewhere on the site, this is not my idea of natural tonality. It’s not trying to be a realistic recreation of music performed in the concert hall. It’s a blockbuster to be impressive when played on an audio system in your home. On that level is succeeds.

The excerpt on side 1 from Pictures at an Exhibition and the complete A Night on Bare Mountain are both played with a kind of energy and orchestral technical quality that makes these pieces come alive right in your living room.

The entire side 2 is outstanding from start to finish.

Only the Arnold piece on this record is not particularly inspiring, although it does have excellent sound.

All in all, an amazing group of warhorses given a fresh reading by Alexander Gibson and the New Symphony Orchestra of London.


Azimuth, VTA, Anti-Skate and Tracking Weight – We Got to Live Together

More Record Playback Advice

More Turntable Setup Advice

With a shout out to my man Sly!

The commentary was written in 2005.

One of the reasons this record is sounding so good today (1/12/05) is that I spent last weekend adjusting my Triplanar tonearm. The sound was bothering me somewhat, so I decided to start experimenting again with the azimuth adjustment.

I changed the azimuth in the smallest increments I could manage, which on this turntable are exceedingly small increments, until at some point the following changes became evident:

  1. The bass started to go deeper,
  2. The dynamics improved, and
  3. The overall tonal balance became fuller and richer.

Basically the cartridge was becoming perfectly vertical to the record.

I don’t think this can be done any other way than by ear, although I don’t know that for a fact.

Azimuth, VTA, anti-skate and tracking weight all work in combination to create the sound you hear. They are like trying to juggle four balls at the same time. They all interact with each other in mysterious ways.

This is one of the reasons why I think everyone needs to know how to set up their own front end. Nobody you could ever pay is going to put the time and effort into getting it just right. I have at least 30 or 40 and probably closer to 50 hours of set up time in this arm. [It is in the many hundreds by now.]

This is, of course, over a period of two years. But as I have played around and experimented in different ways with the setup, I have managed to tailor the sound to my taste while maintaining what I consider to be the highest levels of accuracy.

Robert Brook has some advice for those who would like to learn more about analog setup, and you can find it here.

Nobody can know exactly what the “right” sound is, but when you play as many records as we do around here, hundreds per week, any imbalances will show up sooner or later, and when they do, we do our best to fix them.

Our Stereo

More Commentaries and Advice on Equipment

Revolutions in Audio, Anyone?

Unsolicited Audio Advice

Tchaikovsky / Swan Lake Highlights / Fistoulari

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

More Imported Pressings on Decca and London

  • This Demo Disc quality pressing of Fistoulari’s powerful and exciting recording boasts STUNNING Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it throughout
  • It’s also fairly quiet at Mint Minus Minus, a grade that even our most well-cared-for vintage classical titles have trouble playing at
  • So transparent, dynamic and REAL, this copy raises the bar for the sound of ballet music on vinyl
  • One of the most popular ballets in the world, presented here with out-of-this-world Decca engineered All Tube Chain sound from 1961 – it’s a match!
  • For the Highlights of Swan Lake, we know of no better performance, and we certainly know of no better sounding recording on vinyl
  • It took us years to find enough copies to do this shootout – not many copies will play as quietly as this one, and many of them will have their inner grooves destroyed by the mistracking tonearms of the day
  • The big finish at the end of the second side is so powerful it might just take your breath away – show me a modern remastering with that kind of sound and I will eat it
  • “It is a superb account of Swan Lake, perhaps better than most recordings out there. Maestro Fistoulari and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam are in top form.”
  • If you’re a fan of delightful orchestral showpieces such as these ballet highlights, this LP from 1961 belongs in your collection

This London UK import is one of the best single-disc versions of the ballet we have ever played. This is the one folks, assuming you do not want a (nearly) complete performance of the work. (For that we recommend the 2 LP box set with Ansermet.)

Note that the big finale at the end of side two is loud and HUGE on this album. There is a touch of compressor overload, but no actual inner groove distortion. At first we thought the former may have indeed been the latter because we had a copy or two with chewed-up inner grooves.

This one plays clean to the end, and boy does it get loud and powerful at the climax of the work. (more…)

Does Anybody (Other than Us) Ever Talk About the Dry String Tone of Some London LPs?

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

More Reviews and Commentaries for The Nutcracker

Not that we know of. If audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them are listening carefully to these famous recordings on high quality equipment, why do they never talk about this problem?

Here is what we noticed when we played a big batch of Nutcracker recordings on London and Decca:

On some copies of this album the strings are dry, lacking in that wonderful quality we like to call Tubey Magic. Dry is decidedly not our sound, although it can often be heard on the hundreds of London pressings we’ve played over the years.

And we imagined that this might be the culprit:

If you have a rich sounding cartridge, perhaps with that little dip in the upper midrange, the one that so many moving coils have these days, you may not notice this tonality issue nearly as often as we do.

Our Dynavector 17Dx Karat is ruler flat and quite tonally unforgiving in this regard. It makes our shootouts much easier, but brings out the flaws in all but the best pressings, exactly the job we require it to do.

We discussed the issue in a commentary entitled Hi-Fi Beats My-Fi If You Are At All Serious about Audio.

Here are some other records that are good for testing string tone and texture.

Can we really be hearing all these things that nobody else seems to be hearing?

Like what, you ask? Like:

Not to mention the fact that we have played a lot of these kinds of records:

If audiophiles and audiophile reviewers are hearing these things on the records they review, in magazines and audiophile forums, why aren’t they discussing them?

Case in Point Number One

We occasionally take the time to create a little “test” to see if audiophiles — customers or just visitors to the blog, makes no difference to us — can hear a specific quality we’d noticed when auditioning a record. Normally this would be a quality that jumped out at us when playing the record, and we were just curious as to whether it jumped out at anybody else.

On this version of Sweet Baby James we heard something that took us by surprise, an artifact we subsequently dubbed an “EQ Anomaly.” We put the question of what this anomaly might be to our readers and waited for someone to spot it. And here is what we got in return.

Crickets. Nada. Zilch. Not even one response.

Does no one own the new Heavy Vinyl reissue? As we said in our review, it’s very good sounding and the vinyl is quiet. I think you could buy one for twenty bucks or less before it went out of print. Seems like someone should have bought one and played it.

If someone did play it, they must not have heard it, because the anomaly could be described in ten words or less in an email to me.

Many of the Heavy Vinyl pressings we play these days — watch for reviews for some heavy hitters coming soon — suffer from the same problem, a shortcoming, by the way, that is almost never heard on authentic vintage vinyl pressings in our experience, our experience being derived from the tens of thousands of them that we have auditioned over the past twenty years.

In the case of Sweet Baby James  I believe I know why most audiophiles can’t hear it: It actually helps fix a problem in their systems. That’s probably why lots of records these days have it. Audiophiles may actually prefer that their records have it. They sure don’t seem to complain about it much.

But if your system is correct from top to bottom, it’s easy to hear. In fact it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Case in Point Number Two

Nobody seems to want to play this game, although Geoff Edgers took a stab at it, and he would no doubt describe himself as more of a music lover than an audiophile.

I guess none of this should come as a surprise, because only one person wanted to play this game, and it’s been around for more than fifteen years.

These games, as well as doing your own shootouts, can radically change everything you do in audio for the better.


Tchaikovsky / Swan Lake – Fistoulari Conducts Our Favorite Recording of the Highlights

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

More Imported Pressings on Decca and London

Kenneth Wilkinson engineered this album for Decca in 1961, and, as usual, he did a great job.

It’s as wide, deep, and three-dimensional as any, which is, of course, all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

Highlights of the recording include huge amounts of bass; a clear snare at the back of the hall (a good test for transparency, of both the record and of your system and room); full-bodied horns and strings which never become blary or shrill; and of course huge amounts of space.

This is the kind of record that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage. They cannot begin to sound the way this record sounds. (Before you put them in storage or on Ebay please play them against this pressing so that you can be confident in your decision to rid yourself of their mediocrity.)

Quality record production is a lost art, and it’s been lost for a very long time.

Like Live Music

In my notes I remarked that when the music is quiet the sound is so spacious, clear, and sweet it will have you thinking you are sitting in the concert hall.

One thing live classical music does much better than any recording in my experience is that it gets very, very quiet, yet stays clear and spacious.

None of the thousands of classical recordings I have heard to date reproduce that quality completely, but this one gets awfully darn close. Other records with that live music quality can be found here.

Note that the big finale at the end of side two is loud and HUGE on this album. There is a touch of compressor overload, but no actual inner groove distortion. At first we thought the former may have indeed been the latter because we had a copy or two with chewed-up inner grooves.

This one plays clean to the end, and boy does it get loud and powerful at the climax of the work.

All the qualities we look for in a classical recording are here:

  • lovely string tone and texture,
  • rich tonality,
  • a big hall,
  • no smear,
  • superb transparency

How many classical records have all of these qualities in such abundance?

One out of a hundred? If that!


Witches’ Brew on Classic Records and How Crazy Wrong We Were, Part Two

Hot Stamper Living Stereo Classical and Orchestral Titles Available Now

More Reviews and Commentaries for Witches’ Brew

As I noted in Part One of this commentary, I promised to find my old blurb for the Classic pressing of Witches’ Brew from the catalog I sent out for years in the mid-’90s.

Well, I found it.

The excerpt from the earlier commentary seen below gets to the heart of the problem with my (embarrassing) review.

“With an Old School Audio System you will continue to be fooled by bad records, just as I and all my audio buds were fooled thirty and forty years ago. Audio has improved immensely in that time. If you’re still playing Heavy Vinyl and Audiophile pressings, there’s a world of sound you’re missing. We would love to help you find it.”


I apparently had one of those systems in the ’90s, because my system sure wasn’t doing a very good job of showing me how awful the Classic pressing of Witches’ Brew was.

Also, my guess that the Classic pressing was 10db more dynamic is risible. That number was clearly plucked out of thin air by someone who didn’t know what he was talking about (10db is a lot).

I will take some solace from my comment that  “90% of the magic of the original is here,” which means that even in 1994 I could hear that Bernie’s cutting system had problems reproducing the Tubey Magical Living Stereo sound that was all the rage at the time.

And, although we still like Gibson’s reading of the work, these days our favorite performance of Danse Macabre is this one on EMI, one we only discovered about five years ago. It’s one advantage to being in the record business. You get to play lots and lots of records, and playing large numbers of records is practically the only way to find the ones that are even better than the ones you know.

Below you will find our old commentary detailing the shortcomings of the Classic Records pressing, a record I liked just fine in 1994, but whose sound I would find intolerable less than ten years later.

Making mistakes is key to making progress. We appear to have made quite a bit of progress after 1994, and in order to do the shootouts we began to undertake seriously starting in 2004, it was clear we needed to. In those early days it was sometimes a struggle, but we worked hard and made many important improvements to the quality of our playback and record cleaning, because we had to.

Admitting to your mistakes is also important, and we’ve done plenty of that in the past as well.

Our Review from Circa 2005

If this isn’t the perfect example of a Pass/Not-Yet record, I don’t know what would be.

I’ve long held that the remastering of this album is nothing less than a crime against music lovers and audiophiles of every stripe. Boosting the bass and highs and adding transistory harshness is the last thing in the world that Witches’ Brew needed.

At the risk of insulting some of you out there, if you think the Classic Records version of this album sounds good, your system must be some combination of low-rez, dull and bass shy, or you must like really hi-fi-ish sound.

There is no way that that record should ever sound good on a full-range system that’s reasonably revealing and tonally accurate.

I’ve heard this record played by people attempting to demonstrate the brilliant sound of their system, a demonstration which nearly caused blood to run from my ears. All the while they stood there with a big grin on their face, so pleased with the sound.

I don’t understand how anyone can put up with that kind of sound, but obviously people do.  People like lots of things I don’t like, and the Classic record is just one more to add to that list. 

Classic Records pressings may have been mastered by one of the greats, Bernie Grundman, but he was well past his prime, as we explain here.

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Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

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