critical-listening

Rachmaninoff – Have You Ever Noticed that Sometimes the Highs Will Come Back?

More of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

This side one is interesting., I would say that it starts out Super Hot (A++) and within a few minutes becomes White Hot (A+++). The piano is a bit veiled at the start, but within a relatively short period of time that subtle loss of transparency disappears and the piano is RIGHT THERE.

This is not unusual in our experience.

The first track on many records can sound dull, and by the second track the highs come back and the tonality is right from top to bottom. Who knows why?

We speculate that the vinyl did not have time to fully heat up the edge of the record, but that’s speculation, something that has almost no value in our (yours and mine) quest for better sounding records. 1A, 1B, first off the stamper, who gives a flying you-know-what. You have to play the record to know how it sounds.

The rest is BS, proffered by those who are simply too lazy to do the work of actually cleaning and playing multiple copies of an album to know what they are talking about.

Side Two

A++, with all the texture and transparency we heard on side one. The strings are PERFECTION — truly Demo Disc quality.

The piano however does not quite have the weight it does on side one, so we knocked a plus off, putting this one at A++.

Only the last quarter inch has the slightest amount of groove damage on the loudest piano peaks. We’ve never heard one that played cleaner all the way through, I can tell you that. [This was written about a decade ago. Now we have, many of them in fact. They are out there, but if you buy a copy, make sure you can return it for Inner Groove Distortion because most of them have a problem in that area.]

What an amazing recording! What an amazing piece of music!

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Thoughts on Becoming an Expert Listener

More Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

This commentary was written around 2006, about two years after we started to put Hot Stampers on our website. Most of these kinds of commentaries from our old site can now be found on the blog you are reading. Here is one of the early ones that got the ball rolling.

For years we’ve been writing commentaries about the sound of specific records we’ve auditioned in order to put them up for sale. By now there are literally hundreds of pages of commentary in which we’ve tried to explain, often in great detail, exactly what we listened for and exactly what we heard when playing these pressings. We’ve tried to be as clear as possible about precisely which qualities separate the better sounding LPs from their competitors — what they were doing right, and how we were able to recognize those qualities.

As we’ve gained a better understanding of records and their playback, we’ve made every effort to share with our readers what we’ve learned. Although the vast majority of these records sold long ago, almost all of the commentary remains available on the blog, to act as a resource for the audiophile who owns or might want to consider buying a copy of the record discussed.

Over the years, one thing has continued to bother me (I almost wrote “vex me”) about this hobby and those who pursue it. I’m frankly still shocked at how unskilled most listeners are. How else to explain all the bad sounding 180 gram pressings so many audiophiles embrace?

Add to the above bad half-speeds, bad Japanese pressings, bad Classic Records, bad 45s and all the rest, and you have a lot of bad sounding records that people don’t seem to have noticed sound bad. How can that be?

Finally, after years of scratching my head over this conundrum, Scientific American has come to the rescue with an article by Philip E. Ross in the August 2006 issue entitled The Expert Mind. Its subtitle explains:

Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well.

The studies have a number of significant findings which go a long way toward explaining the expertise, or lack of it, in listeners. It concludes that experts are made, not born, which means that virtually anyone can acquire the skills to become an expert listener.

But more importantly, the efforts required to reach that expert level explain why many audiophiles have not managed to acquire the necessary skills.

These studies show that two requirements must be met. The first is ten years of hard work. This means full time — not weekends, not a few hours after work to relax, but full time: forty, fifty, sixty hours a week, for years and years.

That amount of effort for that amount of time is “necessary but not sufficient,” as the logicians like to say. You can play golf all day every day and never become a scratch golfer. If you want to play at that level you have to work at it. You have to challenge yourself to play better, by whatever means necessary. You must actively approach the game with the intention to improve, not passively approach the game with the goal of enjoyment. That fundamental difference in attitude and effort results in very different skill levels over time.

As you can probably guess by now, I started to see something of myself in these findings. I’ve been listening critically to records full time for well over a decade, close to two at this point [now three and counting]. And many others who work here do the same — play lots of records and listen to them critically.

Let’s face it, we don’t play records all day because we want to. We play them because we have to. It’s how we make our living. Life would be a lot easier if we could just be one of those record dealers who throws a title up on his site with a visual grade and a high price. We can’t do that. Audiophiles come to us for superior sounding pressings, and there’s only one way to find those — by playing the records.

What’s more, you have to compare any given pressing to others you may have on hand, to see what it’s doing right and wrong, where its strengths and weaknesses lay. It’s a lot of work. This is how we’ve learned about records. We can’t imagine any other way of doing it.

After reading this article, I went back through some of my audio commentary and found this little gem from 2005.

A good record is an education for me too. This is not only how I’ve managed to learn about the pressing in question; it’s the same process that allows me to make improvements in the sound of the stereo. It’s learning how to identify what is right and what is wrong with the sound of any pressing — the same process that helps me recognize whether any change to the stereo makes it sound better or worse, and to try and figure out by how much and in what way.

And the best part is, like the practice of any skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I do it all day, every day. Not because I’m noble or dedicated. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s the most fun part of this job. Discovering great sounding recordings is a THRILL. It’s what this hobby is all about — music that sounds better than you ever thought it could.

The study corroborated what we already knew to be true. Improving your Critical Listening Skills requires the expenditure of effort, and lots of it.

The second finding of the study was corroborated in the next few paragraphs, wherein I exhorted the reader to challenge himself, to test his skills using records he already owns:

Of course, as I’ve stated elsewhere on the site, you learn almost nothing from the same record played back on the same equipment. What you must do is learn to listen for differences in the sound, and differences only come about as the result of a change. You have to CHANGE something in the system to develop these critical listening skills.

How about this example: the difference in sound between any two sides of a record. The only change there involves flipping the record over. No new equipment, no tweaks, no shootouts with dozens of alternate pressings. Just flip the record. Almost no record has the same sound on both sides, not the records we sell anyway. Where else have you ever read such a thing? Nowhere else, at least to my knowledge. Because not enough audiophiles and almost no record dealers make the effort to listen critically.

If you can’t hear the difference on at least some of your records, it has to be one or both of the following. Either your system is not good enough to resolve these differences, which is sometimes the case, or, much more likely, you simply haven’t trained your ears to listen for them. Not listening for pleasure. Listening like it’s a job. Critically. Analytically. Try to listen for one quality by itself. Listen for grain, or top end extension, or bass dynamics — anything, the list is endless. Focus in on that single quality, recognize it, appreciate it, then flip the record over and judge that quality for side two.

Although we make plenty of mistakes, we think of ourselves as experts when it comes to evaluating the sound of records and stereo equipment. (Experts make mistakes; they just make fewer of them.) The studies alluded to above make it clear that anyone can.

But the practical consequences of these findings are that few audiophiles can ever hope to achieve expert critical listening skills. It takes too much time and it takes too much work. Most people are in this hobby for fun. They already have a job. They don’t need another one.

Perhaps there’s another, better way to look at it. Most people are not going to become scratch golfers, but they can still get better at the game. There is a balance to be achieved between working hard to improve your skills and having fun at the same time.

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How Can Anybody Not Hear What’s Wrong with Old Records Like These?

beatlrubbeoriginalRecord Collecting – A Guide to the Fundamentals

More of the Music of Beatles

Reviews and Commentaries for Rubber Soul

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the kinds of sonic differences among pressings we describe, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified Audio Expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom.

A reviewer we all know well is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment: (more…)

Nirvana – Identical Stampers + New Vinyl = Different Sound?

nirvaneverMore Milestone Events in the History of Better Records

Reviews and Commentaries for Nirvana

In this listing from 2007 we recount our experience with some copies of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. It was an important milestone in the evolution of Better Records.

We learned our lesson – no more sealed records. Not if you’re the kind of audiophile record dealer who cares what his records sound like (which appears to put us in a class of exactly one.)

That same year we decided to stop carrying any new Heavy Vinyl release, prompted mostly by the mediocrity of the Rhino reissue of Blue.

So, all in all 2007 was a good year for us. We stopped playing their game and invented a new one all our own. Judging by the enthusiastic response of our customers we think we did the right thing.

NEVERMIND CIRCA 2007 

The dirty little secret of the audiophile record biz is that the purveyors of these pressings cannot possibly know with any certainty the quality of the sound of any sealed record they are selling. (Whether they can tell what the sound quality is of any record they sell is an open question, and one we would have to answer in the negative based on the hundreds of audiophile pressings we’ve auditioned over the last 40 years.)

They turn a blind eye to the fact that some copies are simply not going to measure up to the sound of the review copy that they auditioned and described.

This is a good reason not to sell sealed records, which, of course, we don’t.

That’s because we’ve done the experiments and found out the things they cannot be bothered to learn.

But wait a minute. Even that’s giving audiophile record dealers far too much credit.  Only a small fraction actually review the records they sell. Most cut and paste a review from the manufacturer and let it go at that. And the few that do write reviews are often so far off the mark that they might as well be talking about another pressing entirely.
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Good Audio Advice and Critical Listening Skills

Making Audio Progress 

More Unsolicited Audio Advice

[This is an updated version of a commentary written in 2009.]

The latest Mapleshade catalog (Spring 09) has, along with hundreds of recommendations, this little piece of audio advice that caught my eye:

For much improved bass and huge soundstage, put your listening chair or sofa right against the wall behind you. Move your speakers in to 5’ in front of you and 7’ or more apart. No room treatments will yield this much bass improvement.

I literally had to read through it a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. But every time I read it, it still said the same thing, so I know I can’t have been dreaming. This is crazy talk. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Well, it’s not all crazy. There is actually a factually true statement at the end of that paragraph. Yes, it is true that no room treatments will yield as much bass as sitting up against a wall. But why stop there? Bass, regardless of its source, immediately seeks out the corners of the room. That’s where the most bass will always be: where the room boundaries are. If you want to hear the maximum amount of bass your speakers are producing, put your head in the corner of the room down at the floor, where three boundaries intersect. Like the sound now? Getting enough bass are ya?

Along the same lines, for a “huge soundstage” try putting one speaker at one end of the room and the other speaker at the opposite end. Why stop at seven feet? My listening room is twenty feet deep; I can get a soundstage that’s twenty feet across without any problem at all.

I would just have to be dumb enough to think that doing such a thing would be a good idea.

Fellow audiophiles and music lovers, it is not. Let’s talk about why.

Room Reflections

The closer you are to anything that the sound coming from your speakers can bounce off of, right before or right after it reaches your ears, the worse the sound. You want to be as far away from everything as you can be, and this includes not only the back wall of your listening room, but the heads of other persons who may be listening with you. This is easily demonstrated. Have a friend or loved one sit next to you and listen critically to some music you know well. Now have that person leave the room. The sound will always get better (unless something else is very wrong). I have done this experiment many, many times and it only comes out one way: fewer near reflections, better sound.

This is why we have three pair of Hallographs in our listening room. They help control room reflections. Reflections are the main cause of bad sound in most listening rooms. The louder you play your stereo, the worse the reflections get and the more they screw up the sound.

We like to play our stereo very loud — much of the music we love demands it — and we simply could not turn up the volume the way we do without effective room treatments. Your first pair of Hallographs, even just “roughed in,” not tuned precisely the way they can be, will immediately allow you to play your stereo louder than you could before you installed them. (Since the first pair reflect the sound waves directly back to the listener, Hallographs do actually increase the sound level at the listening position, adding energy and dynamics.)

This is a good thing. It’s a clear sign they work.

Sitting Close

Sitting close to the speakers eliminates much of the effect of room reflections. So does wearing headphones. I have never liked either approach to listening; both seem very unnatural to me. And sitting too close is a bad idea from my experience. Now, I can only speak for the sound of large dynamic multi-driver speakers, since those are the only kinds of speakers I’ve owned for the last thirty-odd years. (more…)

Tweaking and Tuning Are Essential to Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Improving your critical listening skills is what allows you to make Audio Progress.

Better quality audio allows you to collect better sounding records.

Since we play all kinds of records all day, practically every day, as part of our regular shootout regimen, tweaking and tuning are much easier for us to do than they would be for most audiophiles. As I have told many in this hobby over the years, if you don’t do the work, the only person who doesn’t get to hear better sound is you. I can come home to my good sounding stereo — I’ve put in the work — but you’re stuck listening to all the problems you haven’t solved, right?

There’s no problem with an untweaked stereo or an untreated room as long as you don’t mind mediocre sound. If you actually want good sound, you have to learn how to tweak your stereo and you have to learn how to treat your room. Neither one can be ignored. You have to learn how to do both.

And doing both is what teaches you how to listen, which is a skill that’s very hard to acquire any other way. This explains why so many audiophiles have such poor listening skills. They simply never developed them because they never needed them. Think about it: Listening to music for enjoyment requires the exercise of no skills whatsoever.

Such is obviously not the case with tweaking. Tweaking your system requires that you listen carefully and critically in order to make the fine judgments that are essential to making progress. Progress in audio from tweaking often occurs in small, almost imperceptible increments.

Being so subtle, these changes force you as a listener to concentrate, to focus your attention, to bring to bear all your critical listening skills.

Naturally, these skills, like any skills, having been exercised, start to improve, and continue to improve as you continue to exercise them.

Going About It

Everybody knows that practicing and challenging yourself will make you better at whatever you are trying to do. But where have you ever seen those concepts applied to bettering your own audio skills (other than on this web site)? Just how would you go about challenging yourself as an audiophile?

Easy.

Tweaking and experimenting with room treatments is one sure way.

Playing ten copies of the same album back to back and making notes about the sound of each side is another.

Adjusting the turntable sixty six different ways and seeing what the effect is on scores of different records works too.

All these things taught me a lot.

No amount of reading or advice was remotely as helpful as just getting down and messing around with anything and everything in my listening room.

As Van Morrison said: “No guru, no method, no teacher.”

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The Pareto Effect in Audio – The 80/20 Rule Is Real

More of the Music of Ambrosia

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Ambrosia

Ambrosia’s first album does exactly what a Test Disc should do. It shows you what’s wrong, and once you’ve fixed it, it shows you that it’s now right.

We audiophiles need records like this. They make us better listeners, and they force us to become better audio tweakers.

You cannot buy equipment that will give you the best sound. You can only tweak your equipment to get it.

At most 20% of the sound of your stereo is what you bought. At least 80% is what you’ve done with it. (Based on my experience I would put the number closer to 90%.)

This is known as the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, The Law of the Vital Few and The Principle of Factor Sparsity, illustrates that 80% of effects arise from 20% of the causes – or in laymens terms – 20% of your actions/activities will account for 80% of your results/outcomes.

The Pareto Principle gets its name from the Italian-born economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), who observed that a relative few people held the majority of the wealth (20%) – back in 1895. Pareto developed logarithmic mathematical models to describe this non-uniform distribution of wealth and the mathematician M.O. Lorenz developed graphs to illustrate it.

Dr. Joseph Juran was the first to point out that what Pareto and others had observed was a “universal” principle—one that applied in an astounding variety of situations, not just economic activity, and appeared to hold without exception in problems of quality.

In the early 1950s, Juran noted the “universal” phenomenon that he has called the Pareto Principle: that in any group of factors contributing to a common effect, a relative few account for the bulk of the effect. Juran has also coined the terms “vital few” and “useful many” or “trivial many” to refer to those few contributions, which account for the bulk of the effect and to those many others which account for a smaller proportion of the effect. — Juran

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After Years of Searching, We Finally Found an Old Beatles Record that Sounds Pretty Good

Hot Stamper Pressings of The Beatles for Sale

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of The Beatles

On the Yellow and Black Parlophone label! This is best sounding early label pressing we have ever played. Not a Shootout Winner, but a perfectly enjoyable copy of one of the best sounding Beatles albums we play on a regular basis.

NEWSFLASH FROM 2022

We just played another original pressing of For Sale and this copy had a Triple Plus (A+++) side one, mated to a Double Plus (A++) side two. For Sale is still the only studio album with top quality sound on the original pressing that we have ever played, but now we can say with some authority that if you have a bunch of originals, you might just have one with killer sound.

Before this, the only Beatles record we would sell on the Yellow and Black Parlophone label was A Collection of Oldies… But Goldies. That title does have the best sound on the early label. In numerous shootouts, no Black and Silver label pressing from the ’70s was competitive with the best stereo copies made in the ’60s.

Until now, it was clearly the exception to our rule: that from With the Beatles up through Sgt. Pepper, the best sounding Beatles pressings would always be found on the best reissue pressings.

Here are the notes for the best sounding For Sale on the early label we played in our recent shootout. (more…)

Letter of the Week – “Your hot stampers forced me to work on my stereo and on my room.”

Pink Floyd Hot Stamper Pressings Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Dark Side of the Moon

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

Hey Tom, 

Many thanks for your efforts.

Things can sometimes really be easy. I [purchased] medical water from the drugstore, hopefully the best available here in Austria.

Now I know the difference between a Super Hot and a White Hot. After half a minute it was clear. The Super hot of Dark side is really, really excellent but the White hot makes (at least) a step up on every aspect. Will send the Super Hot back shortly.

What I like to mention is:

Your hot stampers forced me to work on my stereo and on my room. Tom is totally right when he says, only work, work and even harder work gives you benefit in HIFI. I think it´s the Dopamine in our heads that drives us for better and better, it´s a great feeling.

I never will be an expert in HIFI or hot stampers, that´s your business. But I can become mediocre or even good, can become a listener who has developed listening skills and has a stereo which is reasonably OK.

The first benefit (beside the sound of your Hot Stampers) I already got: improving my stereo and my listening skills just a bit gives me a lot more listening pleasure on my existing records, and there are a lot, especially in Metal and extreme Metal.

Kind regards from Austria,
Hans


FURTHER READING

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Judy Collins – Sometimes the Hits Are Mastered from Sub-Generation Tapes…

More of the Music of Judy Collins

Sometimes the Hits Are Mastered from Sub-Generation Tapes…

And There’s Not Much You Can Do About It

Both Sides Now, the Top Ten hit that finally put Judy on the map, is clearly made from a copy tape and doesn’t sound as good as the songs that follow it on side two. Hey, it happens, and I suspect it happens more often than most audiophiles think. I would wager that back in the day most people who bought this album never even noticed.

One thing I’ve noticed about audiophiles over the years is that they’re pretty much like most other people.

The difference of course is that they call themselves audiophiles, and audiophiles are supposed to care about sound quality.

They may care about it, but are they capable of recognizing high quality sound? What is the evidence for the affirmative in this proposition?

Are they actually capable of critical listening?

Do they listen critically enough to notice a dubby track on an otherwise good sounding record when they hear it?

Or dubby sound in general?

Or to notice that one side of a record often sounds very different from another?

Or that some reissues sound better than the originals of the album?

Or that there is no reliable correlation between the country that a rock band comes from and the country that made the best sounding pressings of their albums?

The embrace of one third-rate Heavy Vinyl pressing after another by the audiophile community has rendered absurd the pretense that their members ever developed anything beyond the most rudimentary critical listening skills.

Sadly, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the best explanation for the sorry state of audio these days, means they simply don’t know how little they know and therefore see no reason to doubt their high opinions of themselves, their equipment and their acumen.

Progress in audio is possible, but only if you know that you are not already at the top of the mountain. The first thing you need to do is to appreciate just how much serious climbing is left to do.

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