Rimsky-Korsakov on Speakers Corner – Diffuse, Washed Out, Veiled, and Just So Damn VAGUE

More of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Hot Stamper Pressings of Decca/London Recordings

Sonic Grade: C

We cracked open the Speakers Corner pressing shown here in order to see how it would fare up against a pair of wonderful sounding Londons we were in the process of shooting out some time ago. Here’s what we heard in our head to head comparison.

The soundstage, never much of a concern to us at here at Better Records but nevertheless instructive in this case, shrinks roughly 25% with the new pressing; depth and ambience are reduced about the same amount. But what really bothered me was this: The sound was just so VAGUE.

There was a cloud of musical instruments, some here, some there, but they were very hard to SEE. On the Londons we played they were clear. You could point to each and every one. On this pressing it was impossible.

Case in point: the snare drum, which on this recording is located toward the back of the stage, roughly halfway between dead center and the far left of the hall. As soon as I heard it on the reissue I recognized how blurry and smeary it was relative to the clarity and immediacy it had on the earlier London pressings. I’m not sure how else to describe it – diffuse, washed out, veiled. It’s just vague.
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Barbra Streisand / Guilty – Bab’s Best and Most Underrated Album (By Too Many Audiophiles Anyway)

More Barbra Streisand

This ain’t no zombie audiophile BS, the kind of sleep-inducing, reverb-drenched trash that passes for “female vocals” in bad audio showrooms around the globe. (Paging Diana Krall.) This is Barbra and The Bee Gees at the peak of their Pop Powers. It just doesn’t get any better.

This is THE BEST ALBUM Babs ever made, and you can take that to the bank. It’s also one of the best sounding, if not THE best sounding of her later Monster Pop Productions. Can’t say for sure as I haven’t played all that many. Her first album is a true Demo Disc as well, but that one’s all about the Tubey Magical ’60s Columbia era, the Golden Age of Natural Sound, a world away from Guilty and its layers and layers of tracks. Having said that, there are multi-tracks and then there are multi-tracks.

The engineers and producers here pull it off brilliantly.

If you don’t feel something deep inside when playing this record, open up a vein and let some of that ice water that passes for blood in your system run out.

It’s From WHERE?

This very copy was on the site for a long time. Nobody wanted to buy it even though it was quite cheap, and there’s a good reason nobody wanted to buy it: it’s a Japanese pressing.

That’s right, it’s one of those typically awful Japanese pressings that we criticize endlessly on the site, the purest form of audiophle BS vinyl in the history of the world. We played side one and heard the kind of sound that did not exactly float our boats. (Before it was cleaned it really sounded bad.)

But when we filpped it over we were positively KNOCKED OUT by the sound and decided it had to be part of our shootout. While evaluating the record the listening panel (mostly me) had no idea which pressing was playing. When the Side Two A Triple Plus Gold Star was awarded to this much-maligned Japanese pressing we were FLABBERGASTED.

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Earth, Wind, Fire – Hard and Honky Brass Is a Dealbreaker

More of the Music of Earth, Wind and Fire

More Recordings by George Massenburg

As you can imagine, most copies of this album leave a lot to be desired. Most were, to one degree or another, dull, smeary, opaque, gritty or shrill.

Our Hot Stampers, on the other hand, depending on hot hot they are, will give you the sound you’re looking for. If you’re a fan of BIG HORNS, with jump-out-of-the-speakers presence, this is the album for you. Some of the best R&B-POP brass ever recorded can be found here — full-bodied, powerful, fast, dynamic and tonally correct.

Advice

Here is some specific advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy of The Best of Earth Wind & Fire.

When the brass sounded the least bit squawky on a given copy, that was almost always a dealbreaker and out it went.

When the BIG, MULTI-TRACKED vocals get going they need to have plenty of space to expand into. They also need to be breathy and warm, with airy extension for the harmonies (and those crazy high notes that only Philip Bailey can sing). Proper tape hiss is a dead giveaway in this respect.

This advice will of course work for any Earth Wind & Fire record you happen to have multiple copies of.

Choruses Are Key

Three distinctive qualities of vintage analog recordings — richness, sweetness and freedom from artificiality — are most clearly heard on a Big Production Recording like this one in the loudest, densest, most climactic choruses of the songs.

We set the playback volume so that the loudest parts of the record are as huge and powerful as they can possibly become without crossing the line into distortion or congestion. On some records, Dark Side of the Moon comes instantly to mind, the guitar solos on Money are the loudest thing on the record.

On Breakfast in America the sax toward the end of The Logical Song is bigger and louder than anything on the record, louder even than Roger Hodgson’s near-hysterical multi-tracked screaming “Who I am” about three-quarters of the way through the track. Those, however, are clearly exceptions to the rule. Most of the time it’s the final chorus of a pop song that gets bigger and louder than what has come before.

A pop song is usually designed to build momentum as it works its way through the verses and choruses, past the bridge, coming back around to make one final push, releasing all its energy in the final chorus, the climax of the song. On a good recording — one with real dynamics — that part of the song should be very loud and very powerful.

The climax of the biggest, most dynamic songs are almost always the toughest tests for a pop record, and it’s the main reason we play our records loud. The copies that hold up through the final choruses of their album’s largest scaled productions are the ones that provide the biggest thrills and the most emotionally powerful musical experiences one can have sitting in front of two speakers. Our Top 100 is full of records that reward that kind of intense listening at loud levels.

We live for that sound here at Better Records. It’s precisely what the best vintage analog pressings do brilliantly. In fact they do it so much better than any other medium that there is really no comparison, and certainly no substitute. If you’re on this site you probably already know that.

Kōtèkan – Percussion And…

More Kōtèkan

More Percussion Recordings of Interest

  • You’ll find STUNNING Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them on both sides of this original Reference LP
  • So transparent, dynamic and REAL, this copy raises the bar for the sound of percussive music on vinyl
  • Includes an extraordinary interpretation of Ravel’s La Flute Enchantee that must be heard to be believed
  • “… heady, explosive, weird, bizarre and brilliant playing…” – S.F. Chronicle

This Reference LP, mastered by Stan Ricker might just be the best sounding record this sorry excuse for an audiophile label ever made.

Any label that would release Audiophile BS records such as this one and this one has a lot of explaining to do.

I hadn’t played this Kōtèkan title in probably twenty years, but I remembered it sure sounded good to me back in the day, so we decided to get some in and do a shootout for them. This copy was an impressive reminder of just how good the recording can be.

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The Glorious Sound of Triple Flutes

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More of the Music of Count Basie

Hot Stamper Pressings of Big Band Recordings

Check out the triple flutes on the first track on side two – on a copy like this you will hear some shockingly Tubey Magical, breathy, sweet, natural flutes. And there are three of them! Only the largest classical orchestras have three flutes. The sound is to die for.

Play any number of copies and listen for the tri-flute sound – some copies are tubier and a bit smeary, some are breathier and a bit thin, some are recessed, some are more present. On a sufficiently resolving system, no two pressings will have those flutes sounding exactly the same.

Don’t judge the whole side by just the flutes, they are only one element in a complex array. But they are a very strong clue as to what the rest of the sound is doing better or worse. One might even go so far as to say right and wrong.

Basie Big Band is a Top Basie Big Band title in every way — musically, sonically, you name it, this album has got it going on.

If you like your brass big, rich, powerful and dynamic, you came to the right place. In practically every way this copy is Hard To Fault.

With 18 pieces in the studio (five trumpets!, four trombones!, five saxes!) this album can be a real powerhouse — if you have the right copy, and both White Hot Stamper sides here show you just how lively and dynamic this music can be. It’s got real Demo Disc qualities, no doubt about it.

When you get this record home, pay special attention to how natural and correct the timbre of the brass is. This is the hallmark of a well recorded album — it sounds right.

Tchaikovsky / 1812 Overture – Telarc Reviewed

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

Reviews and Commentaries for Recordings of the 1812 Overture

Sonic Grade: D

If you want an amazingly dynamic 1812 with huge amounts of deep bass for the firing of the cannon, you can’t do much better than this (or its UHQR brother). 

But if you want rich, sweet and tonally correct brass and strings, you had best look elsewhere. I’ve never liked the sound of this record and I’m guessing if I heard a copy today I would like it even less. Who thinks live classical music actually sounds like this?

Telarc – The Sound of Digital

Telarc makes clean, modern sounding records. To these ears they sound much like a good CD. If that’s your sound you can save yourself a lot of money avoiding vintage Golden Age recordings, especially the ones we sell. They’re much more expensive and rarely as quiet, but — again, to these ears — the colors and textures of real instruments seems to come to life in their grooves, and in practically no others.

We include in this modern group analog labels such as Reference, Sheffield, Chesky, Athena and the like. Having heard hundreds of amazing vintage pressings, I find it hard to take them seriously at this stage of the game. Twenty years ago, maybe. But twenty years is a long time, especially in the world of audio.

We started a list of records that suffer from a lack of Tubey Magic like this one, and it can be found here.


A PUBLIC SERVICE

We play mediocre-to-bad sounding pressings so that you don’t have to, a public service from your record loving friends at Better Records.

You can find this one in our Hall of Shame, along with more than 350 others that — in our opinion — qualify as some of the worst sounding records ever made. (On some Hall of Shame records the sound is passable but the music is bad.  These are also records you can safely avoid.)

Note that most of the entries are audiophile remasterings of one kind or another. The reason for this is simple: we’ve gone through the all-too-often unpleasant experience of comparing them head to head with our best Hot Stamper pressings.

When you can hear them that way, up against an exceptionally good pressing, their flaws become that much more obvious and, frankly, that much less excusable.

Average White Band / Self-Titled

More Average White Band

More Soul, Blues and R&B Albums with Hot Stampers

Having done this shootout a number of times since we first discovered a hot sounding copy all the way back in 2007, it’s hard to imagine this music sounding any better than this very copy. It’s smooth, sweet, airy, open, spacious and ALIVE. The best sounding songs here truly have Master Tape Sound.

We’ve been playing this record for years, but until finding a very Hot copy back in 2007 we had no idea what a sonic monster it could be. The typical copy tends to be smeary, with sour horns and not very much energy.

The overall sound on both sides is lively and energetic with superb transparency. The bass is deep, rich, and tight — just what this funky music demands. The brass sounds wonderful — it has just the right amount of bite and you can really hear the air moving through the horns.

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Junior Wells – It’s My Life

More Electric Blues

More Soul, Blues, and Rhythm and Blues

  • A superb copy of Junior Wells’ recording from Chicago in ’66 (this is the read deal, folks!) with Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound – just shy of our Shootout Winner – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Bigger and bolder, with more bass, more energy, and more of that “you-are-there-immediacy” of a live performance that set the best vintage pressings apart from reissues, CDs, and whatever else might be out there
  • “Cut from the same cloth as Wells’ classic Hoodoo Man Blues LP from the same period, It’s My Life, Baby! captured the Junior Wells-Buddy Guy team in great form, both in the studio and live at Pepper’s Lounge on 43rd Street. This album tends a bit more towards slow blues, including a rare example of Wells’ chromatic harmonica playing on ‘Slow, Slow,’ but there are fine uptempo pieces…”

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Julie London / Your Number Please – Skip the Mono

More of the Music of Julie London

More Pop and Jazz Vocal Albums

The mono we played (not pictured) in our shootout did not fare well head to head against the stereo pressings we had on hand.

Yes, it is rich and tubey, and Julie’s voice is solid and full-bodied, but the overall presentation is dark, opaque and small.

How do the mono record lovers of the world find this kind of sound to their liking?  We honestly don’t know.

On today’s modern stereos, the mono pressing leaves a lot to be desired, and for that reason we say Skip the Mono.

For records that we think sound best in mono, click here.

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Got Nice Equipment? It’s a Good First Step, but Only a First Step

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Nice Equipment Is Only the First Step on the Long Long Road to Good Sound

The audio magazines that their reviewers write for are purveyors of what we consider to be one of the most pernicious falsehoods in all of audio — that buying more expensive equipment is the key to better sound. (Note that is is a falsehood, not a lie; they probably actually believe it.)

From the audiophile rags’ point of view, this makes perfect sense. They extoll the virtues of one piece of sexy hardware after another on page after page of their glossy magazines. The ten bucks a year you pony up to subscribe doesn’t even cover the cost of all that pretty paper. They make their real money by selling advertising to equipment manufacturers, who in turn advertise equipment they want you to buy. What are all the glossy pages of these magazines devoted to? The fawning and credulous discussion of the sexy equipment being advertised.

See how that works? It ain’t rocket science. These magazines have a vested interest in convincing you that the Newer and More Expensive the equipment you own, the better will be the sound in your home.

Wrongheaded Thinking

It’s easily demonstrated how wrongheaded this way of thinking is. If you’ve been in audio for any length of time at all, you know that one bad interconnect can ruin the sound of a stereo. We’ve all been there. All it takes is one little wire — the wrong wire in the wrong place — to make all that expensive equipment sound like shit.

Or a bad room. Or the speakers on the wrong wall. Or VTA too high. Or too low. Or a mismatch between the arm and cartridge. Or a mismatch between the speaker and amp. Or about 68 million other things, any one of which can turn the sound of all that sexy equipment into musically unpleasant dreck.

Suffering Through the Sound

Maybe you haven’t been there but I sure have. I’ve been hearing mega-buck crappy-sounding stereos my whole life, in every showroom in Los Angeles, at every Stereophile show I attended (thankfully I no longer have a need to go to them) and homes throughout the Southland. It’s not news to me that these high-dollar systems rarely sound good. It may come as a surprise to those who prize megabuck equipment, but I’ve suffered through more than my share of bad sound at the hands of gearheads with more money that audio sense.

Why do you think we talk so much on the site about Doing It Yourself? Testing yourself, challenging yourself, trying new things, adjusting this and changing that and seeing what works in your room with your records (which hopefully you bought from us so that we can all be sure they actually sound good).

Because there’s no other way to do it. We want you to have good sound at home so that you can appreciate the good sounding records we sell and continue spending your hard-earned money with us. If your stereo ain’t workin’ right, Hot Stampers won’t fix it. They can help, but they aren’t the solution. You are.

Necessary But Not Sufficient

Good equipment is an important part of proper music reproduction in the home, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

My rule of thumb is that 20% of the sound you hear is the equipment you bought and 80% of the sound comes from what you did with it: how you set it up, what you’ve done to treat your room, how good your electricity is and all the rest. It’s all over the site: here is the best place to see the broad contours of our argument.

These are the kinds of issues we deal with every day. How the stereo is sounding is CRUCIAL to our being able to do our job evaluating various pressings of recordings. We take every aspect of record reproduction very seriously. It’s what pays the bills around here, and we have plenty of bills to pay, so we make sure we are doing everything in our power to insure that the sound is absolutely the best it can be. At these prices it had better be.

On more than one occasion we’ve stopped in the middle of a shootout because the electricity had gone bad and caused the sound to go bad along with it. If you can’t hear the records at their best you’re just wasting your time trying to find Hot Stampers. By definition Hot Stampers have to sound great, and that means the stereo has to be capable of sounding great for us to find them.

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