critical-thinking

Labels, Patterns and the Circle of Reason

Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

30+ Reviews of Mercury Classical LPs

This commentary was written more than ten years ago, but as far as I can tell, it still holds up!

RFR1/ 2.  This pressing has DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND.

Here is the sound that Mercury is famous for: immediate, dynamic and spacious. This record lives up to the Mercury claim: You immediately feel as though you are in the Living Presence of the orchestra.

This is precisely the kind of record that Speakers Corner would not have a clue how to master. I’d stake my reputation on it, for what that’s worth.

As you may know, I am one of the most vocal critics of the new [now long in the tooth] Speakers Corner Mercury series, and I can tell you without ever hearing their version of this recording that there is NO CHANCE IN THE WORLD they will ever cut a record that sounds like this. It’s alive in a way that none of their pressings would even begin to suggest. If you don’t believe me, please buy this record and play it for yourself. If you don’t agree, I will refund your money and pay the domestic shipping back.

This record also gives the lie to those who think that Vendor pressings are inferior. This is a Vendor and I would be very surprised if there’s a better sounding copy than this one. I’ve certainly never heard one.

People who like to read labels and find some sort of pattern or connection between the label and the sound of the record are living in a world of their own making. A world that exists solely in their head.

The stamper numbers are the only thing that can possibly mean anything on a record, and even those are subject to so much variation from pressing to pressing that they become only a vague, general guide.

This LP is a good example of a record that a misguided or misinformed record collector would pass up, hoping to find a better sounding non-Vendor pressing.

Of course, the circular reasoning that would result is that such a collector would buy the non-Vendor pressing, possibly with the exact same stamper numbers, hear how good it sounded, and congratulate himself on the fact that the non-Vendor pressings always sound so much better.

All without ever having done a comparison.

A good way to never be wrong.


This is what we mean by Unscientific Thinking.

Some approaches to this audio hobby tend to produce better results than others. When your thinking about audio and records does not comport with reality, you are much less likely to achieve the improvements you seek.

Without a good stereo, it is hard to find better records. Without better records, it is hard to improve your stereo.

You need both, and thinking about them the right way, using the results of carefully run experiments — not feelings, opinions, theories, received wisdom or dogma — is surely the best way to acquire better sound.

A scientific, empirically-based audio approach leads to better quality playback. This will in turn make the job of recognizing high quality pressings — the ones you find for yourself, or the ones we find for you — much, much easier.


Further Reading

Dopey Record Theories – Putting Bad Ideas to the Test

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

Below we discuss some record theories that seem to be making the rounds these days.

The discussion started with a stunning White Hot Stamper 2-pack that had just gone up on the site..

I implored the eventual purchaser to note that side two of record one has Joni sounding thin, hard and veiled. If you look at the stampers you can see it’s obviously cut by the same guy (no names please!), and we’re pretty sure both sides were stamped out at the same time of the day since it’s impossible to do it any other way.

What accounts for the amazing sound of one side and the mediocre sound of its reverse?

If your theory cannot account for these huge differences in sound, your theory is fundamentally flawed. 

Can anything be more ridiculous than the ad hoc, evidence-free theories of some audiophile record collectors desperately searching for a reason to explain why records — even the two sides of the same record — sound so different from one another?

The old adage “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” couldn’t be more apt. If you want to know if a pudding tastes good, a list of its ingredients, the temperature it was cooked at, and the name of the person stirring it on the stove is surely of limited value. To know the taste one need only take a bite.

If you want to know the sound of a record, playing it is the best way to find out, preferably against other pressings, under carefully controlled conditions, on good equipment, while listening critically and taking notes.

The alternative is to… Scratch that. There is no alternative. Nothing else will ever work. In the world of records there are no explanatory theories of any value, just as there are no record gurus with all the answers. There are only methods that will help you find the best pressings, and other methods that will not.

The good news is that these methods are explained in detail on this very site, free of charge.

We’ve made it clear to everyone how to go about finding better sounding LPs. Once you see the positive results our methods produce, we suspect you will no longer be wasting time theorizing about records.

You will have learned something about them, at least about some of them, and that hard-won knowledge is the only kind that counts for much in the world of records.

Scientific Thinking – A Short Primer

Some approaches to this audio hobby tend to produce better results than others. When your thinking about audio and records does not comport with reality, you are much less likely to achieve the improvements you seek.

Without a good stereo, it is hard to find better records. Without better records, it is hard to improve your stereo.

You need both, and thinking about them the right way, using the results of carefully run experiments — not feelings, opinions, theories, received wisdom or dogma — is surely the best way to acquire better sound.

A scientific, empirically-based audio approach leads to better quality playback. This will in turn make the job of recognizing high quality pressings — the ones you find for yourself, or the ones we find for you — much, much easier.


Further Reading

A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers – Making Mistakes, Part One

mistakes_stevensx20Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Thinking About Records

Want to get better at audio and record collecting?

Try making more mistakes

I was reading an article on the web recently when I came across an old joke Red Skelton used to tell:

All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner.

Now if you’re like me and you play, think and write (hopefully in that order) about records all day, everything sooner or later relates back to records, even a modestly amusing old joke such as the one above.

Making mistakes is fundamental to learning about records, especially if you, like us, believe that most of the received wisdom handed down to record lovers of all kinds is more likely to be wrong than right.

If you don’t believe that to be true, then it’s high time you really started making mistakes.
 
And the faster you make them, the more you will learn the truths (uncountable in number) about records.

And those truths will set you free.

Yes, We Admit It. We Sell the “Wrong” Pressings

Think about it: perhaps as many as a third of the Hot Stamper pressings on our website are what would commonly be understood to be the “wrong” pressings — or, worse, records that are not supposed to sound any good at all. 

  • Reissues of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin from the wrong country?
  • ’60s and ’70s Living Stereo reissue pressings?
  • Original Jazz Classics from the ’80s?
  • Beatles records reissued in the ’70s, in stereo no less!
  • Kind of Blue on the ’70s Red Label?
  • Jazz “Two-Fers“?
  • Budget Reissue Classical LPs?

The list goes on and on. We’ve reviewed 147 reissues to date worthy of the Hot Stamper designation. Some budget reissues are so good, they actually win shootouts.

Can we be serious?

Yes, we are indeed quite serious. We believe that by now we know most of the best pressings — the ones with potentially the best sound — for most of the records we regularly shootout. Over the course of decades we’ve tried copy after copy of practically every title we do.

We know which ones to avoid, which betters the odds of finding good sounding pressings.

mistakes_stevensx20It’s pretty much as simple as that.

We’ve played all the copies that are supposed to be the best, and we’ve also played the ones that aren’t supposed to be any good — late reissues, or records pressed in the “wrong” country; or cut by the “wrong” mastering engineer; or found on the second, third, or fourth labels, all wrong, don’t you even know that much?! — and against all odds we’ve kept our minds and our ears open.

Whatever pressing sounds the best, sounds the best. Whether it’s the “right” pressing according to orthodox record collecting wisdom carries no weight whatsoever with us, and never will — because that way of thinking doesn’t produce good results.

All the Answers?

Please don’t think we’re trying to say we have all the answers. We most certainly do not. We find pressings that beat our old favorites on a regular basis — not every day, but often enough to make trying long shots an important part of our business.

Yes, there was a time when we actually had dozens of Tea for the Tillerman’s in stock, ready to shoot out.

Those were the days!

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Audiophilia 101 – What Kind of (Audio) Fool Was I?

New to the Blog? Start Here

Thoughts on Becoming an Expert Listener

[This commentary was written in 2007 or thereabouts.]

Today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making as a budding audiophile more than thirty years ago. [Make that 45+ years ago, ouch].

Heavy Vinyl, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each with a track record more dismal than the last?

Was Devo right? Is everything in audio getting worse?

Our Story Begins

One Man Dog has long been a favorite James Taylor album of mine. It didn’t catch on too well with the general public when it came out but it caught on just fine with me. I used to play it all the time. As a budding but misguided audiophile back in the early ’70s, I foolishly bought the import pressing at my local record store, The Wherehouse, assuming it would sound better and be pressed on quieter vinyl. The latter may have been true, probably was true, but the former sure wasn’t. Turns out even the average domestic original is far better sounding, but how was I to know?

Compare and Contrast? What For?

Back in those days it would never have occurred to me to buy more than one copy of a record and do a head to head comparison to see which one sounded better. I approached the subject Platonically, not scientifically: the record that should sound better would of course sound better, so what is the point of testing?

Later on in the decade a label by the name of Mobile Fidelity would come along claiming to actually make better sounding pressings than the ones the major labels put out, and — cluelessly — I bought into that nonsense too.

(To be fair, sometimes they did — Touch, Waiting for Columbus and American Beauty come to mind, but my god, Katy Lied, Year of the Cat and Sundown have to be three of the worst sounding records I’ve ever played in my life.)

[Obviously, we no longer agree with much of that except for the one MoFi record that has stood the test of time, Touch.]

The Audiophile of Today

From our point of view, today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making thirty years ago. The Audiophile Heavy Vinyl Remaster, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each burdened with an equally dismal track record?

And isn’t it every bit as true today as it was in the past that the audiophiles who buy these “special” pressings rarely seem to notice that many of them don’t actually sound any good?

The Learning Curve Is Looking Awfully Flat

Pardon my pessimism, but it seems to me the learning curve these days is looking awfully flat. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of learning going on. If such learning were actually going on, how would most of these audiophile labels still be in business?

Don’t get me wrong: some progress has been made. Reference, Chesky and Audioquest thankfully no longer burden us with their awful LPs. But is the new Blue or Fragile really any better than the average MoFi from 1979? Different yes, but better? I know one thing: I couldn’t sit through an entire side of either of them. And I love both of those albums.

Compared to the real thing, can any of these records really compete sonically? A few, I guess, but too few, and they are pretty darn far between.

Easy Answers and Quick Fixes

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John writes: “The only problem I have with my evaluations is that I never heard his records.”

More Commentaries Prompted by Forums, Videos and Comments Sections

More Letters from fans and detractors alike.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out the interview Wired conducted with me a few years back.

If you have some time on your hands, maybe too much time on your hands, go to the comments section and read the 300 plus postings that can be found there, the writers of which seem to be offended by the very idea of Hot Stampers. They also decry the obvious shortcomings of analog vinyl itself, as well as the ridiculously expensive equipment some “credulous, misguided audiophiles,” their terms, use to play vinyl records, as if you didn’t know already!

Here is one that I found to be especially interesting, from a psychological perspective if not from an audio one: 

Bad, mismatched system setup. Customer base probably has the same. Also evaluation process is questionable. Uses a mediocre solid state amp and looks for “tubey magic” because of some misplaced concept of “accuracy” as I discussed before. [Man, this guy has got our number all right, ouch!]

Yes, there is a lot of bad stuff out there, and it does give the stereo industry as a whole a bad name. I have heard some pretty crappy, expensive setups in my day.

I was listening to Phoebe Snow’s “Second Childhood” on my best system last night. Boy, I love my new turntable!

The only problem I have with my evaluations is that I never heard his records. My comments are probably correct, but it would be interesting to audition a few of his “golden” albums just to confirm he hasn’t really found anything. The reason I am confident that he probably does not have anything is because virtually every repressing I’ve heard is better than the original. Claiming otherwise hurts his credibility.

John

There is one sentence in the paragraphs above that should raise a giant red flag and help you to appreciate how reliable John’s analysis of our stereo and methods might turn out to be. If you didn’t catch it the first time through, give it another shot. Okay, here goes:

The reason I am confident that he probably does not have anything is because virtually every repressing I’ve heard is better than the original.

That’s so strange! Virtually every repressing I’ve heard is worse than the original.

What gives?

If I may paraphrase our writer: the reason I am confident that he probably does not know anything about records or audio is that he thinks repressings are always better than vintage pressings. We’ve critically auditioned tens of thousands of records, including many hundreds of repressings, admittedly on our “bad, mismatched system setup,” and I guess we must have gotten it all wrong over the 34 years we’ve been in the audiophile record business. The shame of it all!

Obviously, John knows he does not need to try one of our Hot Stampers. You can see him talking himself into the wisdom of doing nothing with each succeeding paragraph. It’s so easy for him to be right by pretending to know something he can’t possibly know.

(Knowledge that is not backed up by empirical findings [1] comes in for a lot of criticism here at Better Records, and for good reason. Guessing, speculating and assuming are poor approaches to separating good pressings from bad ones.)

And if he did ever order one, and had at least a halfway decent stereo to play it on, it would turn his world upside down so fast it would make his head hurt, and the possibility of that happening would be very, very upsetting. It makes no sense for John to risk such an outcome.

Even if our records were as cheap as the ones he is buying, even the superior sound would not justify the psychological damage that would result. He would basically have to start his collection over again, as this good customer did.  A few hundred others just like him have done the same, and they’re the ones that will be keeping us in business for years to come. To paraphrase another famous saying, “They’ve heard the future, and it works!

Better for John to follow the path he is on. It’s working for him. Why would he want to rock his own boat?

We wrote about that issue on this very blog. Here is an excerpt:

Our Hot Stampers will of course still sound quite a bit better on even a run-of-the-mill audiophile system than any Heavy Vinyl pressing you care to name, but if you’re happy with a $30 reissue, what’s your incentive to spend five or ten or twenty times that amount, based on nothing more than my say-so? Even with a 100% Money Back Guarantee, why rock your own boat?

On the site we take great pains to make it clear that there are many ways that an audiophile—even a novice—can prove to himself that what we say about pressing variations is true, using records he already owns. You don’t have to spend a dime to discover the reality underlying the concept of Hot Stampers.

But perhaps you may have noticed, as I have, that most audio skeptics do not go out of their way to prove themselves wrong. And a little something psychologists and cognitive scientists call Confirmation Bias practically guarantees that you can’t hear something you don’t want to hear.

Which is all well and good. At Better Records we don’t let that slow us down. Instead we happily go about our business Turning Skeptics Into Believers, taking a few moments out to debunk the hell out of practically any Heavy Vinyl LP we run into, for sport if for no other reason.

They’re usually so bad it’s actually fun to hear how screwy they sound when played back correctly.

But don’t tell John that.


[1] Pretense of Knowledge

When someone pretends to know things they cannot possibly know, or think they know things that simply are not true and are easily demonstrated to be false, such a person can said to be suffering from a “pretense of knowledge.”

Some of the theories that audiophiles believe — original pressings have the best sound, the first pressings off the earliest stampers sound better than later pressings — are best understood as articles of faith, since there is rarely much data to support them.

“Made from the master tape,” “no compression or equalization was used in the making of the recording,” “AAA, all analog mastering,” etc., etc., are all forms of pretentious knowledge that should never be accepted at face value.

Anyway, these claims and others like them are beside the point.

Records must be judged only by the way they sound, not by what may or may not be true about the processes used to make them.


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

More Entries in Our Critical Thinking Series

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. Because the amount of tweaking you do with your setup, components, room, electricity and the like is the only thing that can take you to the highest levels of audio.

The unfortunate reality audiophiles must eventually come to grips with in their journey to higher quality sound is that you cannot buy equipment that will get you there.

You can only teach yourself, painstakingly, over the course of many, many years, how to tweak your equipment — regardless of cost or quality — to get to the highest levels of audio fidelity.

And tweaking and tuning your equipment has other, fundamentally more important benefits in addition to its original purpose: making your stereo sound better.

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.


Further Reading

Black, Green, Yellow, Orange – Which Contemporary Label Has the Best Sound?

Contemporary Jazz Records Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Contemporary Jazz

Our Hot Stamper commentary from a long-ago shootout we’d carried out for the wonderful Helen Humes album Songs I Like to Sing discusses the sonic characteristics we find most commonly associated with the various Contemporary labels.

This Contemporary Black Label Original LP has that classic tube-mastered sound — warmer, smoother, and sweeter than the later pressings, with more breath of life. Overall the sound is well-balanced and tonally correct from top to bottom, which is rare for a black label Contemporary, as they are usually dull and bass-heavy.

We won’t buy them locally anymore unless they can be returned. I’ve got a box full of Contemporarys with bloated bass and no top end that I don’t know what to do with.

Like most mediocre-to-bad sounding records around here, they just sit in a box taking up space. All of our time and effort goes into putting good pressings on the site and in the mailings. It’s hard to get motivated to do anything with the leftovers. We paid plenty for them, so we don’t want to give them away, but they don’t sound good, so most of our customers won’t buy them.

What to do, what to do? Ebay I guess, but that’s a long way down the road. It’s too much fun doing listings for good records these days to want to stop now. The average record is just average, and nothing is ever going to change that!

We shot this out against a variety of later pressings. The Black Label copies have a bit of echo added to the vocals and have the attributes listed above — warmth, sweetness, presence, and immediacy. The later pressings offer superior clarity and resolution. I wouldn’t say one is necessarily better than the other; it’s really more a matter of taste.

More on the subject of Record Labels.

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Simon and Garfunkel – 1A, or Is 1B Better? Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

More of the Music of Simon and Garfunkel

Reviews and Commentaries for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Before we go any further, I have a question: Why are we guessing?

I received an email recently from a customer who had gone to great pains to do his own shootout for a record; in the end he came up short, with not a lot to show for his time and effort. It had this bit tucked in toward the end:

Some of [Better Records’] Hot Stampers are very dear in price and most often due to the fact that there are so few copies in near mint condition. I hate to think of all the great Hot Stampers that have ended up in piles on the floor night after night with beer, Coke, and seeds being ground into them.

Can you imagine all the 1A 1B or even 2A 2B masters that ended up this way or were just played to death with a stylus that would be better used as a nail than to play a record!

As it so happens, shortly thereafter I found myself on Michael Fremer’s old website of all places, where I saw something eerily similar in his review for the (no doubt awful) Sundazed vinyl. I quote below the relevant paragraphs.

So how does this Sundazed reissue hold up next to an original 1A Columbia pressing that I bought new when it originally was released (it still has the Sam Goody “C” Valley Stream sticker on it, with the $2.49 markdown written in pen)? Well, for one thing, when people say records wear out, I don’t know what they are talking about! Since it was first released more than forty years ago, I’ve played this record a hundred times at least, in Ithaca in my fraternity house, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Hackensack and now and it still sounds fantastic. It’s quiet, it’s detailed, it’s three-dimensional and it still has extended, clean high frequencies.

No reissue could possibly touch an original 1A pressing of just about any Columbia title and that goes for this reissue, which is very good, but not as open, spacious, wideband, transparent and “tubey” as the original.

He later goes on to give this piece of advice:

If you can find a clean, reasonably priced used original 1A pressing, it’s definitely going to sound better, but if you can’t, this reissue sounds very good and you’ll not know what you’re missing.

The entire review can be found on his site for those who care to read it. If, as MF seems to believe, you won’t know what you’re missing on the Sundazed LP, you need to put a lot more effort into this hobby, or find yourself another one. If it’s anything like most of their cardboardy crap, it’s missing a great deal more than it’s finding. (more…)

If Records Are About Money, You’re Going About It All Wrong

New to the Blog? Start Here

Basic Concepts Explained

We get letters from time to time chiding us for charging what strikes some as rather large amounts of money for records that we happily admit do not have much in the way of Collector Value, the implication being that collectible records are of course worth the high prices they command in the marketplace. Hot Stampers, however, are somehow different. Clearly they cannot be worth the outrageously high prices we’re asking.

It is our opinion that the writers of these letters have made a rather glaringly erroneous assumption: That the records we sell are not subject to the same market forces as other records. This strikes us as just plain silly.

As anyone with a grounding in basic economics will tell you, we cannot force our customers to buy anything from us, especially old vinyl records, the kind of thing that most people have found they can easily do without, thank you very much.

We even take the time in many of our commentaries to advise you about What to Listen For in order to help you find your own Hot Stamper copies.

Even better, we implore you to learn how to do it for yourself. No need to spend a penny with us, just look for the Hot Stampers hiding in your own collection. Here’s how it’s done. It’s really not all that complicated. Tedious and time-consuming, yes. Hard as in finding-the-cure-for-cancer hard? Not even close. Fun? If you like that sort of thing, absolutely.

Bottom line: If you don’t like our prices, you have plenty of alternative sources for the recordings we sell. (Not the specific Hot Stampers we offer, mind you. Every record is unique, which of course means you can only buy the copy we are selling from us.)

Pricing Strategies

We price our records just like anyone prices anything: according to what we think it’s worth, what we think we can get for it, how many customers will want it, how long it will take to sell at any given price, how many we have on hand, how hard it is to find another one of comparable quality, how much better or worse it is than others we’ve played, how much work went into finding this particular one, how much we paid for it, and on and on and on until we just have to quit thinking about it and pick a number.

If we pick a good number, it probably sells right away (often within an hour of it going on the site). If we pick a bad number, it probably doesn’t. If we pick a number too low, we can’t meet the demand. If we pick a number too high there won’t be enough demand.

It ain’t rocket science, it’s just nuts and bolts business planning, the kind carried out every day by millions of sellers looking for buyers for their wares.

Money Is at the Root of the Problem

The impetus for this discussion of records as an investment was my stumbling upon a letter that a fellow named Jason wrote us all the way back in August of 2007 and the colloquy that followed. We called it Letter From a Thrift Store Junkie. Jason wrote me, I replied, and then he wrote back to make a few points, one of which was this:

3. Your records are a poor value in terms of investment. Until you convince the whole LP community that your HOT-STAMPER choices are the pinnacle of sound a buyer will never be able to re-sell B S & T for $300. Even if they swear it is the best sounding copy in the world.

Which Prompted My Reply as Follows:

With his last email, the subtext to this tirade has finally become clear. Go back and read through it again yourself. It’s about the MONEY. It’s about how much all the equipment and the records cost and why I don’t need to spend that kind of money to enjoy music just as much, if not more, than you and your customers.

Jason, if your point is that spending lots of money in audio is often foolish, I can’t say I disagree — that’s why we poke fun at reviewers and their expensive equipment.

But the most telling remark is this one: Our records are a bad investment. They can’t be resold for anything close to what the buyer paid for them.

If Records Are About Money…

… then buying them at a thrift store for a buck apiece and getting something halfway decent makes perfect sense. As the Brits say, “that’s value for money.” If we sell you a Hot Stamper for, say, $500, can it really be five hundred times better?

I would argue that here the math is actually on our side. The average pressing is so close to worthless sonically that I would say that it isn’t even worth the one dollar you might pay for it in a thrift store. I might value it somewhere in the vicinity of a penny or two. Really? Yes indeed. Assuming it’s a record I know well, I probably know just how wonderful the record can really sound, and what that wonderful sound does to communicate the most important thing of all: its musical value. A copy that doesn’t do that — make the music come alive — has almost no value. It’s not zero, but it’s close to zero. Let’s assign it a nominal value. We’ll call it a penny.

You see, when I play a mediocre copy, I know what I’ve lost. Jason can’t know that. All he knows is what he hears coming from his mediocre equipment as his mediocre LP is playing. To him it sounds fine. To me it sounds awful. I feel like I must be in hell.

If I’ve actually done all the hard work I talk about on the site, I will find myself in the unique position of knowing what he’s missing, and he is in the (to me) unenviable and quite common position of only knowing what he’s getting. (It may be a litttle or it may be a lot, but it’s certainly nowhere near what I’m getting.)

Ignorance is bliss, and he is welcome to his. Being average is the lot of most of us, right? I’m average in most areas of life and make no bones about it. But I’m not average when it comes to this hobby. Because I enjoy it so much, I’ve worked very hard, for a very long time, four decades or so, to become good at it.

More for Less?

This is precisely what Jason has utterly failed to grasp: that all the hard work we encourage you to do really does pay off. The end result is a dramatic increase in your enjoyment and appreciation of the music you play. Here his obtuseness is at its pig-headed worst. He wants us to believe he gets more out of his records by hearing less? If I understand the formula correctly, it goes something like: Mediocre Pressing plus Mediocre Stereo equals Greater Musical Satisfaction.

Uh, you want to run that by me again?

How Most Records Are Like Frozen Pizza, A Tortured Analogy

Jason, it’s all well and good to eat frozen pizza. Frozen pizza is cheap and it can taste pretty good. But it’s ridiculous to think that no one should bother to go to a real pizzeria and sit down to a lovely meal, a meal prepared by a highly-skilled chef, using the freshest ingredients, perhaps with the added indulgence of a fine bottle of wine or two. You may end up spending five or ten times or twenty times as much money as a frozen pizza would cost, but the result is much more likely to be a meal that is delicious and satisfying beyond words. Beyond even dollars, if that’s more the language you understand. The two meals may appear superficially similar — they both involve pizza — but in actuality they are worlds apart.

Which is more or less how we see records here at Better Records. Any two copies of the same LP can look remarkably similar, identical to the naked eye in fact. But the effect they can have on you the listener is so dramatically different, they might as well be different albums, different recordings, performed by different musicians even.

The group on one pressing may sound bored, just playing by the numbers, there to pick up a paycheck. The other LP’s musicians are tearing the roof off, playing out of their heads at the top of their game. Same album, same recording, different pressings. Hyperbole? Not to me. I’ve heard it. I’m a believer. (The people that make those oh-so-expensive records disappear from the site apparently feel the same way. Some of them even write me letters! And unlike our friend Jason here, they know what they are talking about; they played the record that we wrote about and heard what we heard. No hypnotism involved, not on our part anyway.)

P.S.

One more thing: If you’re worried about the resale value of your records, you shouldn’t have bought them in the first place.

And Your Point Is?

Buy records for the joy the music and sound bring you. Do not buy records to collect or resell, buy them to play.

They’re an investment in your present happiness and are sure to last you a lifetime. What could be better than that?


Stop These Things and You Too Will Find Better Sounding LPs

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to the Fundamentals

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Some audiophile reviewers prefer to discuss only those records that sound good to them and ignore the rest. We think this does the audiophile community a disservice.

No unlike Consumer Reports, we like to test things. They test toasters, we test records. Like them, we put the things we’re testing through their paces and let the chips fall where they may.

They want to find out if the things they are testing offer the consumer quality and value. We want to find out if the records we are testing offer the record-loving audiophile good sound and music. If they do have exceptionally good sound and at least fairly good music, they go up on our site to be sold as Hot Stampers. The bad records end up on this blog in our Halls of Shame. (Yes, there are two.)

What It Takes

It takes a lot of people and a healthy budget to carry out large numbers of these kinds of tests.

No other record dealers, record reviewers or record collectors could possibly have auditioned more than a small fraction of the records that we’ve played. We’ve been looking for the best sounding records for a very long time. Now, with a staff of ten or more, we can buy, clean and play records in numbers that are unimaginable for any single person or group to attempt.

That puts us in a unique position to help audiophiles looking for higher quality sound.

Yes, we have the resources, the staff and the budget. More importantly, we came up with a new (sort of) and much more successful (definitely) approach.

We’ve learned through thousands and thousands of hours of experimentation that there is no reliable way to predict which pressings will have the best sound for any given album.

The impossibility of predicting the sound of records is one which we’ve learned to accept as simply axiomatic. As a born skeptic, this was never difficult for me to wrap my head around. Early on in my audio career, sometime in the ’80s, I realized it was, in fact, self-evident.

What to Stop

Given the chaotic nature of records, the solution we put into practice mainly comprised these five elements:

  1. We stopped pretending we could know something that can’t be known. [1]
  2. We stopped relying on theories proven to have virtually no predictive effect. [2]
  3. We stopped paying attention to the experts and so-called authorities. [3]
  4. We stopped assuming and speculating. [4]
  5. We stopped worrying about getting it wrong. [5]

It took many years, decades even, to learn what worked and what didn’t work in our pursuit of better records. We came to realize over time that the five things listed above weren’t helping, so we stopped doing them.

What remained was the simplest possible approach to the problem. One that could be taught in a high school science class, if high school science classes were run by experimentally-minded record collectors.

  1. Guess what pressings might be good for a given album.
  2. Buy some of those pressings and others like them.
  3. Clean them up, play them and see if your guess about the sound of the pressing turns out to be right, wrong or somewhere in-between.
  4. Repeat steps one through three until you chance upon a pressing that sounds better than all the others.
  5. Get hold of as many of those as you can and play them against each other under rigorously controlled conditions.
  6. Continue to make other guesses and acquire other pressings to play against the pressing you believe to be the best.
  7. Keep making improvements to your playback system and never stop testing as many records as possible.

That’s it. Nothing to it. It all comes down to experimenting at a sufficiently large scale to achieve success.

Failing Forward

Edison is said to have failed 10,000 times before inventing a light bulb that was useful.

Most audiophiles do not have the time and money, not to say patience, needed to fail again and again this way.

For us, having a full-time staff of ten and a rather large record buying budget, we see failures as just another part of the job. Our successes pay for them — obviously somebody has to, as Milton Friedman famously remarked which partly accounts for our prices being as high as they are.

We don’t make a dime from writing about records that don’t sound good to us. We review them as a service to the audiophile community. We play them so that you don’t have to.

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