audiophile vinyl

Paganini / Concerto No. 1 / Rabin – Reviewed in 2011

This is a rare and very nice looking Capitol LP. The violin sounds rich and sweet, although the sound of the orchestra is a bit “old school” with too much congestion and distortion during the louder sections to qualify as a Hot Stamper were we to put this record in a shootout.

Which makes it a “good, not great” vintage classical record, best played on an Old School Stereo system.

The much more revealing systems of today, like the one we employed to audition this very copy, simply make it too easy to spot its many faults.

Vintage Vinyl

We are not fans of vintage vinyl because we like the sound of old records. Lots of old records don’t sound good to us at all, and we review them by the score on this very blog.

We like old records because they have the potential to sound better than every other kind of record, including the ones that have been made and marketed to audiophiles over the course of the last thirty years or so.

We wrote about that subject in a commentary we call The Big If. An excerpt:

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.

We go on to discuss the wonderfully accurate timbre of the better vintage pressings, in contrast to the consistently inaccurate tonality of the Modern Heavy Vinyl pressing. It’s a long story but we think it is well worth your time if you are an audiophile looking for better sounding vinyl.


AMG Biography

Michael Rabin managed to be one of the most talented and tragic violin virtuosi of his generation. Hailed as a child prodigy, his talent matured gracefully into an adult level, but he failed to follow in his emotional growth, resulting in a cutting short of his career. He never reached the age of 36, yet remains one of the most fondly remembered of virtuoso violinists for listeners and fellow musicians such as Pinchas Zukerman, with whom he shared a teacher.


This is an Older Classical/Orchestral Review

Most of the older reviews you see are for records that did not go through the shootout process, the revolutionary approach to finding better sounding pressings we started developing in the early 2000s and have since turned into a veritable science.

We found the records you see in these older listings by cleaning and playing a pressing or two of the album, which we then described and priced based on how good the sound and surfaces were. (For out Hot Stamper listings, the Sonic Grades and Vinyl Playgrades are listed separately.)

We were often wrong back in those days, something we have no reason to hide. Audio equipment and record cleaning technologies have come a long way since those darker days, a subject we discuss here.

Currently, 99% (or more!) of the records we sell are cleaned, then auditioned under rigorously controlled conditions, up against a number of other pressings. We award them sonic grades, and then condition check them for surface noise.

As you may imagine, this approach requires a great deal of time, effort and skill, which is why we currently have a highly trained staff of about ten. No individual or business without the aid of such a committed group could possibly dig as deep into the sound of records as we have, and it is unlikely that anyone besides us could ever come along to do the kind of work we do.

The term “Hot Stampers” gets thrown around a lot these days, but to us it means only one thing: a record that has been through the shootout process and found to be of exceptionally high quality.

The result of our labor is the hundreds of titles seen here, every one of which is unique and guaranteed to be the best sounding copy of the album you have ever heard or you get your money back.


New to the Blog? Start Here

What exactly are Hot Stamper pressings?

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

More Classical and Orchestral Commentaries and Reviews

Two CDs that Sound Nothing Like Their Vinyl Counterparts

Reviews and Commentaries for Sticky Fingers

Reviews and Commentaries for Back in Black

I made the mistake of buying both Back in Black and Sticky Fingers on CD to listen to in the car, and both are a disaster — no bass, no rock weight, with boosted upper mids, no doubt in a misguided attempt to provide more “clarity” and “detail.”

But trying to achieve more clarity at the expense of the rock and roll firepower that makes both of these albums Must Own Rock Records is beyond foolish.

These albums did not need a new sound or a more modern sound. The sound of the original pressings of both of them is superb, as close to faultless as you are likely to find in this world.

Mobile Fidelity managed to get more transparency in the midrange for their pressing, and look what it got them: our award for the worst version ever.

On both of these CDs, even in the car I couldn’t get past the third song.

If this is what the digital lovers of the world think those albums actually sound like, they are living in some kind of parallel universe.

The best pressings on vinyl sound nothing like them. In fact the best pressings sound so good they are on our Rock and Pop Top 100. Rest assured that you don’t get to be on our Top 100 with anemic, upper midrangy sound.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Bad Digital Remastering Jobs

Bad Sounding Digital on Vinyl

CD Advice 

Digital Versus Analog 

Good Sounding Digital Recordings on Vinyl – Really?

Saint-Saens / Symphony No. 3 / Mehta

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

Our favorite performance of this magnificent work is the Fremaux on EMI from 1973

This is an old review from 2011. I doubt we would have anything nice to say about this recording these days. Our system has come a long way since then, and these Mehta Londons have revealed themselves to be much more artificial sounding than we thought they were, or, more accurately, could tell they were back in 2011. In a review of another Mehta recording, we noted:

Unlike many audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them, we have never been enamored with the recordings Zubin Mehta made with the LA Philharmonic.

They almost always suffer from exactly the same problems that we heard on this album. We had about five copies on hand in preparation for a shootout, some of which I had noted seemed to sound fine, but once we listened more critically we started to hear the problems that eventually caused us to abandon the shootout and give away the stock to our good customers for free.

The exceptionally rare copy of Mehta’s Planets can sound good, but 90% of them do not — just don’t make the mistake of telling that to the average audiophile who owns one. Harry told him it was the best, he paid good money for it, and until someone tells him different it had better be “the one Planets to own.”

We see one of our roles here at Better Records as being the guys who actually will “tell you different,” and, more importantly, can back up our opinions with the records that make our case for us.

Our review from 2011:

This British London pressing is the winner of our shootout for this performance. We had three London pressings, all the same stamper numbers if I recall correctly, and this is the only copy to have Super Hot Stamper sound on either side. Side one is actually quite nice, with lovely texture to the strings.

The sound is transparent and natural, two qualities that are in short supply on most of the recordings Mehta did with the L.A. Phil. in our experience.

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The L.A. 4 / Going Home

  • A vintage East Wind 33 RPM Japanese import pressing with STUNNING Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them from start to finish
  • A top album in both rarity and demand – you’d be hard pressed to find another copy with this kind of transparency, clarity, presence, and sound (assuming you could find one)
  • This is one of the best sounding copies with all 7 tracks we have ever played
  • Lee Herschberg recorded these sessions direct to disc – he’s the guy behind the most amazing piano trio recording I have ever heard, a little album called The Three
  • The star of this record is Shelly Manne, who really plays up a storm
  • This 33 RPM version features all seven of the original tracks – “Greensleeves” and “Django” were omitted from the shorter 45 RPM pressing

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Sergio Mendes + Psych + Your Mind Will Be Blown

mendestill_depth_1102533608More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Reviews and Commentaries for Stillness

More Albums with Key Tracks for Critical Listening

This commentary was written sometime around 2010.

If you are looking for DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND with music every bit as wonderful, look no further — this is the record for you.

If I had one song to play to show what my stereo can really do, For What It’s Worth on a Hot Stamper copy would probably be my choice. I can’t think of any material that sounds better. It’s amazingly spacious and open, yet punchy and full-bodied the way only vintage analog recordings ever are.

This one being from 1970 fits the bill nicely.

Side two of this album can be one of THE MOST MAGICAL sides of ANY record — when you’ve got a killer copy. I don’t know of any other record like it. It seems to be in a class of its own. It’s an excellent test disc as well. All tweaks and equipment changes and room treatments must pass the Stillness test.

To fail to make this record sound better is to fail completely. The production is so dense, and so difficult to reproduce properly, that only recently have I begun to hear just how good this record can sound. There is still plenty to discover locked in these grooves, and I enthusiastically accept the challenge to find all the sounds that Sergio created in the studio, locked away in the 40 year old vinyl.

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Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

More of the Music of the Jefferson Airplane

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of the Jefferson Airplane

  • This outstanding stereo copy of the band’s sophomore release boasts solid Double Plus (A++) from first note to last
  • It’s the rare copy of this ’60s Psych Classic that has this kind of freedom from grit and distortion – it’s also swimming in Tubey Magic, the glorious sound of vintage analog vinyl, found on the real thing and, let’s be honest, nowhere else
  • An incredibly difficult album to find with audiophile sound, but this pressing has the goods and will is guaranteed to beat – and by a large margin – whatever you throw at it
  • 5 stars: “Every song is a perfectly cut diamond … a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia that hit — literally — like a shot heard round the world…”

Check out the breathy vocals on “Today” — now THAT is what we call the magic of vintage analog!

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Badfinger / Straight Up – What to Listen For

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Badfinger

More of Our Favorite Minimally-Processed-Sounding Albums

The best sides have the kind of PRESENCE in the midrange that most copies can’t begin to reproduce. The sound on the right pressings just JUMPS out of the speakers, which is exactly what the best copies are supposed to (but rarely) do. 

This is Power Pop, plain and simple. The basics are what count: punchy drums, grungy guitars, present vocals, clear but full bass lines — just the meat and potatoes of rock, no fancy sauces.

For this music to work, all the elements need to be in balance, with correct timbre for the relatively few instruments that make up the arrangements.

Opacity, smear or grit instantly destroy the whole point of having a straightforward production, which is to be able to have all the parts laid out cleanly and clearly.

The idea is to get the production out of the way and just let the music speak for itself.

The truly Hot Stampers remind you of the kind of basic rock and roll record that really knows how to rock. Back in Black comes instantly to mind. Black Dog off Zep IV. This is the sound you want your Straight Up to have. The title of the album is the key to the sound. No fancy packaging, just the band, Straight Up.

From 2007 to 2010 and Beyond

In 2007 we wrote: “Having played more than half a dozen copies of this record during the shootout I can tell you that the most common problem with Straight Up is grainy, gritty sound. Most copies of this record are painfully aggressive and transistory.”

With improvements to cleaning and playback,  I would say that’s not actually true in 2010.

There is some grit to the sound to be sure, but like most records from the era, veiling and smearing are what really hold most copies back.

Good copies of this record, ones that are mastered properly and pressed on “good” vinyl, sound a lot like a stripped down version of Abbey Road, which is what they’re supposed to sound like. That’s clearly the sound Badfinger and their producers George Harrison and Todd Rundgren (with some help from the Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick* ) were aiming at.

You will also hear some influences from All Things Must Pass and McCartney’s first. The music owes a lot to both The Beatles as well as Harrison and McCartney as individuals. What’s not to like? Catchy pop songs with grungy guitars — it’s ear candy when the sound is good, and the sound is very good here.

British Porky Prime Cut?

We had an original British pressing in our shootout, unbeknownst to me as it was playing of course. And guess where it finished: dead last. The most thick, congested, crude, distorted, compressed sound of ALL the copies we played. We love the work of Porky, Pecko et al. in general, but once again this is a case where a British Band recorded in England sounds best on domestic vinyl. (McCartney on Apple is the same way.)

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Respighi / Pines of Rome / Reiner – Our Favorite for Performance and Sound

More music conducted by Fritz Reiner

More Orchestral Spectaculars

  • With two Double Plus (A++) sides, this Shaded Dog pressing of Reiners’s excellent 1960 recording had the glorious Living Stereo sound we were looking for
  • 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
  • There were only three performances with audiophile quality sound in our shootout, and the Shaded Dog pressings not only had the best performances, but the sound that the team of Mohr/Layton managed to achieve was second to none
  • In other words, Harry was right to put this on his TAS Super Disc list – it really is a super disc
  • If you know anything about these works, you know that have tons of top and bottom end, and it is the rare pressing that can capture both
  • The texture and harmonic overtones of the Living Stereo strings are near perfection – as we listened we became completely immersed in the music on the record, transfixed by the remarkable virtuosity Reiner and the CSO brought to these difficult and demanding works so many years ago
  • There are roughly 150 orchestral recordings that we think offer the discriminating audiophile the best combination of Superior Performances with Top Quality SoundThis record has earned a place on that list.

This shootout has been at least five years in the making, and the case could be made that something like fifteen is closer to the truth. Around 2016 we surveyed the recordings of the work we had on hand — close to a dozen different performances, I think — and found them all wanting, save three: this one (which is still on the TAS List), a Reader’s Digest pressing with Kempe (our second favorite), and a London with Kertesz.

If a particular performance had any distortion or limitation problems in the higher frequencies, it was quickly rejected out of hand. Same with low end whomp and weight. On these works both are crucial.

No other pieces of music of which we are aware have so much going on up high and down low. This narrowed the field of potential Hot Stampers considerably. Great performances by top conductors could not get over these hurdles — high and low — time and time again.

For these reasons, it took us years to find the right recordings. We knew the Reiner would be hard to beat, but we kept trying record after record hoping that we could find one to wrest the crown away from what is widely considered the greatest recording of the works ever made.

We never did find something better. Our best Shaded Dog ended up winning the shootout. The best RCA pressings were doing everything right. There was plenty of top end, with virtually no harmonic distortion, and when I say plenty, I mean the right amount. Not many engineers managed to get all the highs correctly onto the tape, but Lewis Layton nailed it — in 1960!

So many recordings had screechy strings and horns. When the music would get loud, and both the Pines and the Fountains get very loud indeed, assuming the recording will let it, the sound would become unbearably harsh and unpleasant. This is the opposite of what should happen, and it was obvious that those recordings would not make it past the first round.

All three of the finalists could claim enthusiastic performances with powerful energy and top quality orchestral playing. Still, with the best copies going head to head with each other, Reiner had more of all the qualities we were looking for.

How did the famous 1S/1S pressing fare? No idea. I haven’t seen one in twenty years. It may be better than the White Hot copy we are offering here. I certainly would not make the mistake of saying what it sounds without having played it. If someone has one and wants to send it to me to audition, I would love to give it a spin.

Some recordings we played lacked transparency, as well as the relaxed sense of involvement that eases one’s ability to be tricked into thinking “you (really) are there.”

The famous 1977 Maazel recording for Decca, which was on the TAS List for a long time, suffered from a bad case of multi-miking and the transparency issue mentioned above. What do you expect from 1977?

This is, of course, the knock on the Modern Heavy Vinyl Pressing — where is the transparency? The space? The three-dimensional depth? If your stereo can reproduce these qualities — a big if, since even as recently as twenty years ago mine could not — you should have given up on these opaque and airless frauds years ago.

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Albeniz / Turina – Iberia / Danzas Fantasticas

More of the music of Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909)

Decca and London Hot Stamper Pressings Available Now

  • With two seriously good Double Plus (A++) sides, this reissue pressing is guaranteed to blow the doors off any other Iberia you’ve heard, especially if what you own is the Speakers Corner Decca (which is actually not a bad record)
  • Here you will find the huge hall, correct string tone, and spacious, open sound that are traits common to all the best vintage orchestral pressings
  • Listen to the plucked basses – clear, not smeary, with no sacrifice in richness. Take it from us, the guys that play classical recordings by the score, this is hard for a record to do!
  • Ernst Ansermet conducted some of the best sounding records ever made — here are some of the ones we’ve reviewed
  • We don’t have any problem recommending a Budget Reissue pressing such as this one, not when it has this kind of audiophile sound. In fact, some of them are so good that, even up against the best vintage pressings, they actually win the shootout

The sound of this copy is so transparent, undistorted, three-dimensional and REAL, without any sacrifice in solidity, richness or Tubey Magic, that we knew we had a real winner on our hands as soon as the needle hit the groove.

We were impressed with the fact that it excelled in so many areas of reproduction. The illusion of disappearing speakers is one of the more attractive aspects of the sound here, pulling the listener into the space of the concert hall in an especially engrossing way.

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AC/DC / Back In Black – None Rocks Harder

More of the Music of AC/DC

Reviews and Commentaries for Back in Black

This review was written shortly after we discovered what an amazing recording Back in Black was as we were finally getting around to doing our first big shootout for the album, in 2008 or thereabouts.

Robert Ludwig must have had a phenomenally good transistor cutting system in 1980, aided in no small part by superbly musical tube compressors, perhaps the same ones he used on Led Zeppelin II, and we’re fortunate that he did. All that massive compression is at least partly responsible for Back in Black being one of the Best Sounding Rock Records Ever Made.

Our review from 2008 follows:

If you love HUGE drums, meaty guitars, and monster riffs as much as we do, you’re going to freak out over the MASTER TAPE SOUND ON BOTH SIDES. Moments after dropping the needle we heard a prominent low octave to the intro bells that we hadn’t noticed on other copies. We kept our fingers crossed and waited for the band to kick in, hoping for some serious bottom end power. And man oh man, it was there all right! I am pleased to report that the whomp factor on this copy was nothing short of MASSIVE.

I ask you, what album from 1980 sounds better than Back in Black?

Hell’s Bells has HUGE sound and in-the-room presence. The transparency and clarity are shocking — we heard texture on the guitars and room around the drums that simply weren’t to be found elsewhere, plus tons of echo and ambience. The vocals simply could not be any better — they’re breathy and full-bodied with loads of texture. The bottom end is big, beefy, and rock-solid. You probably never thought you’d ever use an AC/DC LP as a Demo Disc, but this side one will have you reconsidering that notion — it’s ALIVE!

Imagine our delight when it turned out that side two was just as good! Everything you could ask for from this music is here, and it won’t take you very long to realize that for yourself when you play You Shook Me All Night Long. The energy, presence, immediacy and tonality are all SUPERB. I don’t think you could find a better sounding side two no matter what you did!

This link will take you to all the titles we have available in the None Rocks Harder series .

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