critical-thinking

To Find Better Sounding Records, Neglect Your Beautiful Ideas

More Entries in Our Critical Thinking Series

On the Big Think website, Michael Strevens has outlined some ideas from his recent book about how science advances.

I stumbled upon Strevens through Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Podcast. Shermer and his professor guest discuss at length (about an hour and a half) his singular insight that trying to understand and promulgate a Big Picture of Reality is what kept the scientists of the past (they used to call themselves natural philosophers) for hundreds of years from actually making the breakthroughs necessary to come up with one.

What was needed was data, and lots of it, with no concern for theories of any kind, elegant, inelegant or otherwise.

Here is the link to the podcast, which we feel is well worth your time if a deeper understanding of how we gain knowledge is a subject that interests you.

Some of the key takeaways from the book:

  • Modern science requires scrutinizing the tiniest of details and an almost irrational dedication to empirical observation.
  • Many scientists believe that theories should be “beautiful,” but such argumentation is forbidden in modern science.
  • Neglecting beauty would be a step too far for Aristotle.

My heart raced a bit when I read the line “an almost irrational dedication to empirical observation.”

This describes our obsession with finding the best sounding pressings of our favorite music better than any seven words I’ve ever come up with, that’s for sure. If only I were a better writer!

However, I did have some skills to bring to bear to the problems I was trying to solve, the most important of which was the fact that I was a naturally a skeptic.

I have never been much interested in what anybody thought about either audio or records unless they had good evidence to back up their claims. Rarely was such evidence forthcoming, and in the few cases when it was made available to me, I had no trouble finding fault with it.

By taking a different approach to the pursuit records and audio, by avoiding theorizing and just accumulating more and more and better and better data, I was able to learn things that seem to have completely escaped the vast majority of reviewers and audiophiles.

This site is full of the information I’ve managed to learn over the last forty or so years. The first twenty were mostly a waste; I made all the mistakes that audiophiles tend to make and are still making today. The last twenty taught me and my staff 99% of what we know, based on the data we were accumulating through increasingly rigorous record shootouts with access to much improved playback.

This changed everything, and you can read about it on this blog in hundreds of commentaries. Or you can buy the superior pressings our scientific approach to finding, cleaning and evaluating them has made possible.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Revolutions in Audio, Anyone?

Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

A Collection of Beatles Oldies on Video – Good Advice?

The LOST Beatles Album | Cancelled By Apple – Should It Be Re-released?

Click on the link above to see an interesting and informative video that we think is well worth watching.

Allow me to make a few points:

As to the question posed above, my vote would of course be no. The new Beatles albums are awful sounding. Here are a couple of reviews outlining their many shortcomings:

Rubber Soul – How Does the Heavy Vinyl Sound?

Let It Be – The Gong Rings Once More

After playing those two, we gave up playing the rest of the set. The Mono Box (in analog!) was even worse.

Mushy Sound Quality

Andrew Milton, the Parlogram Auctions guy, offers opinions about the sound quality of the various pressings he reviews, opinions of which we are naturally skeptical. We have no idea how he cleans his records or how carefully he plays his records, or even what he listens for. (Frankly, even if we knew all those things it wouldn’t mean much to us. So many reviewers like so many bad sounding modern records that we’ve learned not to take anything they say seriously.)

The comment about the 1G stampers being “mushy” that Andrew makes about 19 minutes in is one we take exception to. The problem here is that we can’t really be sure what he means by “mushy.” If it means smeary or thick, that has not been our experience with the best cleaned originals.

Since the later pressings tend to be thinner and less Tubey Magical, they are probably even less ‘mushy,” assuming I have the definition of the term right.

But to say that the 1G stampers were used for both the originals and the reissues on the later label and that therefore the sound is the same is definitely a sign that Andrew’s understanding of stampers and pressings is incomplete.

What We Think We Know

We have done a number of shootouts for the album over the last ten years or so, and our experimental approach using many dozens of copies provides us with strong evidence to support the following conclusions regarding the originals versus the reissues:

1.) The best of the early pressings always win the shootouts. No reissues have ever earned a grade of A+++ and it is unlikely a reissue ever will.

2.) The reissues can be quite good, however. The best of them have earned grades of Double Plus (A++).

3.) The worst of the early pressings also earned grades of Double Plus (A++).

4.) Conclusion: if you have a bad original and a good reissue, you might be fooled into thinking the sound quality was comparable. The stamper being the same was also not helpful. It’s possible Andrew saw that 1G on both pressings and heard what he thought he should hear, the kind of confirmation bias that our shootouts are designed to reduce if not downright eliminate.

5.) This mistake is the result of having a small sample size, aided no doubt by improper cleaning and less than hi-fidelity playback. (The law of large numbers may be instructive here.)

Here are a couple of our takes on the album:

The Beatles / A Collection of Beatles Oldies – Listening in Depth

The Beatles / A Collection of Beatles Oldies – Sounds Great on the Original

And we are proud to offer the discriminating and well-healed audiophile the best sounding Beatles albums ever made. We’ve written a great deal about them over the course of the last twenty years, but none of that really matters. Once you’ve heard one, we suspect you will become a believer like so many of our other customers.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

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

stereooldNew to the Blog? Start Here

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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Reality has a surprising amount of detail (and so does audio)

John Salvatier has written a very interesting essay. It’s not short but I think it is well worth the time it will take you to read it.

The parallels to records should be clear to anyone who has spent much time on this blog. Those of us who have run record experiments by the thousands have learned to accept that identical looking LPs can vary dramatically in their sound quality. Even two sides of a single record are often very different sounding.

 

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Linda Ronstadt – The Middle of the Midrange Is Key

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

More Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Tonality

Here’s what we learned when doing our recent shootout: many copies sounded like they were half-speed mastered. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a lot of things. In this case, these half-speed sounding ones had a little something phony added to the top of Linda’s voice, they had a little bit of suckout right in the middle of the midrange, the middle of her voice, and they had an overall diffuse, vague quality, with sound that lacked the SOLIDITY we heard on the best pressings. 

These hi-fi-ish qualities that we heard on so many copies reminded us of the audiophile sound we decry at every turn. We’ve played literally hundreds and hundreds of MoFi’s and other half-speed mastered records over the course of the last twenty years, and one thing we know well is THAT SOUND.

Wait a Minute

But stop and think about it for a moment. What if you only had one copy of the album — why would you have more than one anyway? — and it had that Half-Speed Sound? You’d simply assume the recording had those qualities, assuming you could even recognize them in the first place. (Let’s face it, most audiophiles can’t, or all these companies that use this approach to mastering would have gone out of business and stayed out of business, and their out of print records would sell for peanuts, not the collector prices they bring on ebay and audiophile web sites.) (more…)

Master Tape? Yeah, Right

mastertapebox

Thinking Critically About Records

Let me ask you one question. If so many of the current labels making 180 gram reissues are using the real master tapes — the real two-track stereo masters, not dubs, not cutting masters, not high-resolution digital copies, but the real thing — then why do so many of their records sound so bad?

If you’re honest you’ll say “I Don’t Know…” because, and here I want you to trust me on this, you don’t know. I don’t know either. Nobody does.

Records are mysterious. Their mysteries are many and deep. If you don’t know that you clearly haven’t spent much time with them, or don’t have a very revealing stereo, or don’t listen critically, or something else, who knows what.

They’re mysterious. That’s just a fact.

There is no shortage of records that say “Made From the Original Master Tapes” that simply aren’t. I know this dirty little secret for a fact. I would never say which ones those are for one simple reason: it would make it seem as though others must be, when in fact we have little evidence that very many of them are.

We want them to be — I’m all for it — but how can we know if they are or not? Face it: we can’t.

We must make do — heaven forbid — with actually opening up our own ears and engaging the sound of whichever Heavy Vinyl Reissue we may find spinning on our turntable.  Judging the quality of the sound — no doubt imperfectly — coming out of the speakers.

Good Luck

If you want to believe the press releases (made from Ian Anderson’s secret master tape!), the hype, the liner notes, the reviews and all the rest of it, that’s your business. Good luck with that approach; you’re going to need it. When you reach the dead end that surely awaits you, come see us. After 35 years in the record business there is a good chance we will still be around.

Our approach, on the other hand, revolves around cleaning and playing as many records as we can get our hands on, and then judging them on their merits and nothing but their merits, calling them as we see them as best we can, without fear or favor.

Our judgments may turn out to be wrong. Tomorrow we may find a better sounding pressing than the one we sell you today. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

We don’t know it all and we’ve never pretended that we did. All knowledge is provisional. We may not be the smartest guys in the room, but we’re sure as hell smart enough to know that much.

If somehow we did know it all, there would not be a hundred entries in our Live and Learn section. We regularly learn from our mistakes and we hope you do too.

But we learn things from the records we play not by reading about them, but by playing them. Our experiments, conducted using the shootout process we’ve painstakingly developed and refined over the course of the last twenty years, produces all the data we need: the winners, the losers, and the ranking for all the records in-between.

We’ve learned to ignore everything but the sound of the records we’ve actually played on our reference system.

What, of value, could anyone possibly tell us about a record that we’ve heard for ourselves? The question answers itself.

This approach allows us to have a unique, and, to our way of thinking, uniquely valuable service to offer the discriminating audiophile. When you’re tired of wasting your time and money on the ubiquitous mediocrities that populate the major audiophile dealers’ sites and take up far too much space in your local record store, let us show you just how much more real handpicked-for-top-quality-recordings can do for your musical enjoyment.

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Stevie Nicks – Speculate Shmeculate

More Hot Stamper Pressings of Albums with Stevie Nicks Performing

More Entries in Our Critical Thinking Series

The sound of the typical copy can best be summed up in three words: thin, hard and bright.

When the sound is thin or hard or bright, the fun factor of this mainstream rock drops to zero.

Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and Leather And Lace both sound great on the radio, why not on Warners vinyl?

We sure can’t blame Sheffield Labs, the original cutting house: all the copies we played — good, bad and otherwise — were originals and mastered by them.

Could it be the vinyl?

It could. It could be a lot of things, but speculating about them doesn’t really get us or you anywhere, so I’m going to stop doing it and just say we played a big pile of records and heard a lot of unpleasant sound. If you have the record you probably know what I mean.

Our Approach

In order to do the work we do, our approach to audio has to be fundamentally different from that of the audiophile who listens for enjoyment. Critical listening and listening for enjoyment go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing.

The first — developing and applying your critical listening skills — allows you to achieve good audio and find the best pressings of the music you love.

Once you have a good stereo and a good record to play on it, your enjoyment of recorded music should increase dramatically.

A great sounding record on a killer system is a thrill.

A Heavy Vinyl mediocrity, played back on what passes for so many audiophile systems these days — regardless of cost — is, to these ears, an intolerable bore.

If this sounds arrogant and elitist, so be it.

We set a higher standard. Holding our records to that higher standard allows us to price our records commensurate with their superior sound and please the hell out of the people who buy them.

For those who appreciate the difference, and have resources sufficient to afford them, the cost is reasonable. If it were not we would not grown to have a staff of ten doing the work we do. We would have gone out of business years ago. Businesses that do not satisfy the needs of their customers do not stay in business for long.*

Hot Stampers are not cheap. If the price wasn’t more than justified by the better sound quality and quieter surfaces, who in his right mind would buy them? We can’t really be fooling that many audiophiles, can we?

Some folks think the whole Hot Stamper thing is hogwash, a case of mass hysteria, a psychological syndrome that does exist and cannot be ruled out as a possibility. Maybe our customers are as delusional as most forum posters think they are.

Keep in mind that virtually none of the folks who write about us have ever heard one of our records, so that should help you decide how much confidence you should put in whatever explanations they might have to offer.

We think the best way to understand their skepticism is through the prism of cognitive dissonance. Here is an excerpt from our much longer piece on the subject:

This whole Hot Stamper thing makes no sense. It’s not possible. Your customers are wrong. They are deluding themselves. You guys are the ones who are suffering from cognitive bias, not me. You hear what you want to hear on these old records and you ignore what’s good about the new ones.

I’m pretty sure that must be what’s going on. How can everybody else be wrong and somehow you get to be right? That’s really absurd. You should be ashamed of yourself for ripping off gullible audiophiles who are too stupid to realize that what you are selling is the worst kind of snake oil. Either that or false hope. You’re cynically preying on those who have more money than sense and laughing all the way to the bank. That’s on you. There’s a sucker born every minute, and that’s why you will never run out of customers. Hah!

Fair enough. Well said. You figured out this whole thing must be a scam. Awesome. Good job.

As a bonus, you’ve just saved yourself a huge amount of work and avoided a lot of mental anguish. You proved yourself right without lifting a finger. (Well, you did some typing, so I guess that counts as lifting a finger. But it sure was easier than playing a record and critically listening to it. That sh*t is hard.)


Now that all that Hot Stamper stuff is out of the way, please allow me to point you toward the one book that explains all the problematical thinking we humans constantly engage in, this one.

In my experience, no other book explains more about audio and the audiophiles who pursue it, myself included. I guarantee that if you read this book you will never be the same. It is that eye-opening.

Kind of like playing your first Hot Stamper. Nothing is ever the same again. Even if it is a scam.

*Those in the business of making Heavy Vinyl pressings these days are giving some portion of the public what it wants, the portion of the record-loving public that doesn’t have very good playback equipment or especially well-developed critical listening skills. If you have either, you should have given up on the stuff a long time ago.

In 2007 we found ourselves in such a place and we’ve yet to have any doubts concerning the mediocrity of those records. When we play Heavy Vinyl pressings these days we are often dumbfounded, at a loss to understand their appeal, but twenty years ago we liked many of them just fine, so who are we to talk?


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

(more…)

Three Stages of Truth

spock

All truth passes through three stages.

First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident.

Arthur Schopenhauer


Here’s a blast from the past that may shed some light on the philosophical insight above.

I had an interesting conversation with one of our good customers a while back. He had  recently been chatting with some of his audiophile buddies about Hot Stampers. Let’s just say they weren’t buying any of it. This is more or less how he related the conversation to me over the phone (which started out as an email, most of which is reproduced below).

First he told me how much he has been enjoying his Hot Stampers, then we talked about his audiophile buds.

The Hot Stampers have been phenomenal as always. No matter how many records I buy, none can hold a candle to anything in my Hot Stamper collection.

A couple of my friends happen to be longtime audiophiles. As still a relative beginner to the world of audiophiles, I had hoped that these audio vets would be fans of Better Records, if not regular customers.

Instead they seemed to be incredulous at the thought of Hot Stampers — even though they had never heard one!! Admittedly, they have more years of experience in this endeavor, but I thought, hey, at least I am willing to give a great sounding record a try, right? Perhaps over the course of many years, people believe they have it all figured out. {More on that subject here.]

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Advances in Playback Technology Are More Than Blind Faith

More of the Music of Eric Clapton

More of the Music of Steve Winwood

Reviews and Commentaries for Blind Faith’s Debut

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

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

The Playback Technology Umbrella

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

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

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

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

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

The Good News

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

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

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


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Record Playback Advice 

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How Novel Patterns Emerge During Shootouts

More of the Music of Ambrosia

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Ambrosia

When you sit down to play ten or twelve copies of an album, one right after the other, patterns in the sound are going to emerge from that experience, patterns which would be very likely to pass unnoticed when playing one copy against another or two over the course of the twenty or thirty minutes it would take to do it.

In the case of this album, the pattern we perceived was simply this: About one or two out of that dozen or so will have punchy, solid, rich, deep bass. (There is a huge amount of bass on the recording so recognizing those special copies is not the least bit difficult if you have a full-range speaker and a properly treated room.)

About one or two copies really get the top end right, which is easily heard when the cymbals splash dynamically, with their harmonics intact, and they extend high about the rest of the soundfield (just the way they do in live music).

Fewer copies have an extended top end compared to those with tight punchy bass by the way.

Like so many Mastering Lab tube-mastered records from the era, most copies tend to be somewhat smooth.

Only one copy had both the best bass and the best highs. All the other copies fell short in one or both of these areas.

Think about it: if you do your home shootouts with three or four or even five copies of an album, what are the chances that:

1. You will detect this pattern? Or,
2. That you will run into the one copy that does it all?

This is precisely the reason we have taken the concept of doing comparisons between pressings to an entirely new level.

It’s the only way to find the outliers in the group, the “thin tails” as the statisticians like to call them. (More on outliers here.)

These very special White Hot Stamper pressings are the kind of game-changers that more than make up for all the hassle and expense of seriously good analog.

They can take your stereo, and your listening experience, to a place no other records can.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments