Hot Stampers

How Much Better Sounding Is a Stradavarius? A Primer on How to Get to the Truth (Which Works for Records Too)

A skeptical take on an old claim, using the Gold Standard of Double Blind Testing.

We evaluate records using something like double blind testing in the record shootouts we do five days a week. It’s what makes us unique in the world of record dealers and collectors. We allow the records to speak for themselves.

With the evaluation process we use, there can be no influence or bias from the reviewer’s preconceived notion of what pressing should sound best, because the person sitting in the listening chair does not have any way to know which pressing is actually playing.

This is not quite true for audiophile pressings, since the VTA must be adjusted for their thicker vinyl. The way such evaluations are done is simple enough however. We play a top quality Hot Stamper pressing, typically one that received a grade of White Hot (A+++), check the notes for what the test tracks are and what to listen for, and then proceed to test the Heavy Vinyl pressing on those same tracks, listening for those same qualities.

It rarely takes more than a few minutes to recognize the faults of the average audiophile pressing.

When played head to head against an exceptional vintage LP, the audiophile pressing’s shortcomings become all too obvious. Again and again, the audiophile pretender is found to be at best a second- or  third-rate imitation of the real thing, if not downright awful.

How the sound of the modern remastered mediocrity has managed to impress so many self-identified audiophiles is shocking to those of us who have been working to get the best sound from our records for a very long time, developing both our systems and our critical listening skills over the decades.

In defense of these surprisingly easily-impressed audiophiles, I should point out that even we were fooled twenty years ago by many of the Heavy Vinyl records produced around that time, such as those on the DCC label and some by Speakers Corner, Cisco and others. It took twenty years to get to where we are now, taking advantage of much better equipment, better cleaning technologies, better room treatments, and the like, most of which did not even exist in 2000.

A turning point came in 2007 with the Rhino pressing of Blue, a record that made us ask, “Why are we selling records that we would not want to own or listen to ourselves?”

In closing, there is one fact that cannot be stressed enough, which may seem like a tautology but is nevertheless axiomatic for us:

Doing record shootouts, more than anything else, has allowed us to raise our critical listening skills to the level needed to do proper shootouts. It’s how we became expert listeners.

Without that process, one which we painstakingly developed over the course of the last twenty-five years, we could not possibly do the work we have set out for ourselves: to find the best sounding pressings of the most important music ever pressed on vinyl.

To learn more about how to conduct your own shootouts and gain the critical listening skills that come from them, click here.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Hot Stamper Customer Reviews

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide to the Fundamentals

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Making Audio Progress 

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

More Black Sabbath

More Rock Classics

  • Black Sabbath’s killer second album returns to the site with excellent Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides – remarkably quiet vinyl too
  • This copy has the kind of energy, presence, and fullness needed to bring the best out of this Heavy Metal classic
  • This copy is on the second label, which is not a problem for this album because it’s still got the right mastering house mark in the dead wax, which is the main reason it would qualify to be put in a shootout
  • Drop the needle on a good copy and you’ll quickly hear how correct it sounds — it’s got a HUGE bottom end, excellent presence, a good amount of tubey magic and TONS of energy
  • 5 stars: “Paranoid refined Black Sabbath’s signature sound — crushingly loud, minor-key dirges loosely based on heavy blues-rock — and applied it to a newly consistent set of songs with utterly memorable riffs, most of which now rank as all-time metal classics.”

It’s taken us ages to find good pressings of this album, probably because just about every copy we see has been beat to death by the crazy muthas who originally bought ’em! Let’s face it — this wasn’t an album bought and treasured by people who know how to take care of their records; this was a record bought by kids who probably played it after getting wasted with their buddies. (No shame in that, of course!)

The music is freakin’ great, by the way. Since Ozzy has basically become a cartoon version of himself (as charming as that is) it’s easy to forget that these guys were a serious classic rock band that was duking it out with Zep for the hearts and minds of young hard rock fans in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

This album set the foundation for heavy metal, and I’m not sure anyone ever topped it. Play this album back to back with Zep II and it’s pretty clear the two bands were fueling each other, pushing both bands into creating bigger, bolder, better riff-based rockers.

Allmusic calls this “one of the greatest and most influential heavy metal albums of all time” and when it sounds this good, I’m guessing you’ll agree! “War Pigs,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” “Electric Funeral,” “Rat Salad” (drummer Bill Ward’s answer to Bonham’s “Moby Dick”) and the title track are some of the classic tracks on this album.

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Herb Alpert – South of the Border

More Herb Alpert 

More Sixties Pop

  • This A&M stereo pressing features an INCREDIBLE Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) side two mated to an excellent Double Plus (A++) side one – exceptionally quiet vinyl on the first side too
  • Tubey Magical, punchy, spacious, natural sound – these sides have plenty of what we love most about Larry Levine’s engineering
  • Not many audiophiles know how well recorded some of these early Herb Alpert albums were, but we count ourselves among the ones that do, going back more than twenty years
  • 4 stars: “…the rise of Alpert’s approach in arranging familiar melodies in fresh, creative settings…[is] pronounced…in the horn-driven updates of several then-concurrent chart hits. [T]he mod sonic wrinkle in ‘Girl from Ipanema’ emits a darkness veiled in mystery, directly contrasting the light buoyancy of ‘Hello! Dolly’ or the footloose feel of the Beatles’ ‘All My Loving.'”

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Cat Stevens Wants to Know How You Like Your Congas: Light, Medium or Heavy?

More of the Music of Cat Stevens

More Reviews and Commentaries for Teaser and the Firecat

During the shootout for this record a while back [the late 2000s would be my guess], we made a very important discovery, a seemingly obvious one but one that nevertheless had eluded us for the past twenty plus years (so how obvious could it have been?). It became clear, for the first time, what accounts for the wide disparity in ENERGY and DRIVE from one copy to the next. We can sum it up for you in one five letter word, and that word is conga.

The congas are what drive the high-energy songs, songs like Tuesday’s Dead and Changes IV.

Here is how we stumbled upon their critically important contribution.

We were listening to one of the better copies during a recent shootout. The first track on side one, The Wind, was especially gorgeous; Cat and his acoustic guitar were right there in the room with us. The transparency, tonal neutrality, presence and all the rest were just superb. Then came time to move to the other test track on side one, which is Changes IV, one of the higher energy songs we like to play.

But the energy we expected to hear was nowhere to be found. The powerful rhythmic drive of the best copies of the album just wasn’t happening. The more we listened the more it became clear that the congas were not doing what they normally do. The midbass to lower midrange area of the LP lacked energy, weight and power, and this prevented the song from coming to LIFE the way the truly Hot Stampers can and do.

Big Speakers

For twenty years Tuesday’s Dead has been one of my favorite tracks for demonstrating what The Big Speaker Sound is all about. Now I think I better understand why. Big speakers are the only way to reproduce the physical size and tremendous energy of the congas (and other drums of course) that play such a big part in driving the rhythmic energy of the song.

In my experience no six inch woofer — or seven, or eight, or ten even — gets the sound of the conga right, from bottom to top, drum to skin. No screen can do it either. It’s simply a sound that large dynamic drivers reproduce well and other speaker designs do not reproduce so well.

Since this is one of my favorite records of all time, a true Desert Island Disc, I would never want to be without a pair of big speakers to play it, because those are the kinds of speakers that play it well. (more…)

Crack The Sky – These Big, Lively Choruses Are a Thrill

Hot Stamper Albums with Huge Choruses

Records with Huge Choruses that Are Good for Testing

The best vintage rock recordings usually have something going for them that few recordings made after the ’70s do: their choruses get big and loud, yet stay smooth, natural and uncongested. 

We’ve mentioned it in countless listings. So many records have — to one degree or another — harsh, hard, gritty, shrill, congested choruses. When the choruses get loud they become unpleasant, and here at Better Records you lose a lot of points when that happens.

This recording, more specifically this pressing of this recording, has exceptionally big, smooth and natural choruses for many of the songs. Rangers at Midnight comes to mind immediately. Credit our man Shelly Yakus below for really getting the choruses right on this album.

Fun tip: Listen for the Elton John-like piano chords on the first track. Can you name that song? (Hint: it’s on Tumbleweed Connection.)

Choruses Are Key

Watch out for too many instruments and voices jammed into too little space in the upper midrange. When the tonality is shifted-up, even slightly, or there is too much compression or distortion, there will be too many upper midrange elements — voices, guitars, drums — vying for space, resulting in congestion and a loss of clarity.

With the more solid sounding copies, the lower mids are full and rich. Above them, the next “level up” so to speak, there’s plenty of space in which to fit all the instruments and voices comfortably, without piling them on top of one another as so often happens. Consequently, the upper midrange “space” does not get overwhelmed with musical information.

Also watch for edge on the vocals, which is of course related to the issues above. Most copies have at least some edge to the vocals — the band wants to really belt it out in the choruses, and they do — but the best copies keep the edge under control, without sounding compressed, dark, dull or smeary.

The highest quality equipment, on the hottest Hot Stamper copies, will play the loudest and most difficult-to-reproduce passages with virtually no edge, grit or grain, even at very loud levels.

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Duke Ellington – Midnight In Paris / Ellington Fantasies

More Duke Ellington

More Big Band Recordings

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  • You’ll find INSANELY GOOD Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound throughout this Harmony reissue LP
  • Both of these sides have plenty of Tubey Magic – they’re fuller, more musical and more natural than all the other copies we played in our shootout
  • Vibrant orchestrations, top quality Columbia sound from 1962 and reasonably quiet surfaces combine for an immersive listening experience
  • Originally released as Midnight In Paris under the Columbia label in 1962, it was reissued as Ellington Fantasies under Harmony beginning in 1967
  • The original is very rare, but the good news there is that it doesn’t sound as good as our good reissues on the Black Label, which works out great for everybody

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Eric Clapton – Self-Titled

More Eric Clapton

More Debut Albums of Interest

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  • Excellent Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish on this early UK Polydor pressing – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Man, what a revelation to hear this old favorite sound so rich and open – you’ll have a VERY difficult time finding one that sounds this good lying around in your local record store’s bins, that’s for sure
  • Spaciousness, richness and freedom from grit and grain are key to the best pressings, and here you will find all three
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Throughout the album, Clapton turns out concise solos that de-emphasize his status as guitar god, even when they display astonishing musicality and technique.”

This is not your usual Clapton album, and that’s a good thing because most Clapton albums are full of filler. Not so here — almost every song is good, and many are superb.

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Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure

More Roxy Music 

More Brian Eno

  • With two seriously good Double Plus (A++) or BETTER sides, this UK copy was one of the best we played in our recent shootout
  • Roxy and their engineers and producers manage to capture a keyboard sound on their first two albums few bands in the history of the world can lay claim to
  • We’ve been working on this shootout for over ten years – here is one of the better copies we have to show for our effort
  • 5 Stars: “… another extraordinary record from Roxy Music, one that demonstrates even more clearly than the debut how avant-garde ideas can flourish in a pop setting.”
  • If you’re a Roxy fan, For Your Pleasure has to be considered a Must Own Title of theirs from 1973.
  • The complete list of titles from 1973 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

Spacious, dynamic, present, with HUGE MEATY BASS and tons of energy, the sound is every bit as good as the music. (At least on this copy it is. That’s precisely what Hot Stampers are all about.)

Strictly in terms of recording quality, For Your Pleasure is on the same plane as the other best sounding record the band ever made, their self-titled debut.

Siren, Avalon and Country Life are all musically sublime, but the first album and this one are the only two with the kind of dynamic, energetic, powerful sound that Roxy’s other records simply cannot show us (with the exception of Country Life, was is powerful but a bit too aggressive).

The super-tubey keyboards that anchor practically every song on the first two albums are only found there. If you want to know what Tubey Magic sounds like in 1972-73, play one of our better Hot Stamper Roxy albums.

Roxy and their engineers and producers manage to capture a keyboard sound on their first two albums that few bands in the history of the world can lay claim to. I love the band’s later albums, but none of them sound like these two. The closest one can get is Stranded, their third, but it’s still a bit of a step down. (more…)

Steely Dan – Testing for Energy with Green Earrings

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for The Royal Scam

The first two tracks on side two tell you everything you need to know about the sound. Most copies are going to be aggressive. There’s an edge to Fagen’s vocals. It’ll become especially apparent when the backing vocals come in on the line “The rings of rare design.”

If the sound is too midrangy and edgy, you simply do not have a good copy. You will probably not find the experience particularly enjoyable. Rather than finding yourself lost in the music, you may find yourself wondering what the fuss was all about when this album came out.

On a musical note, it’s songs like this one and the two that follow that make me realize how ENERGETIC an album this is. It’s actually the last high energy Steely Dan album, second only in that respect to Countdown To Ecstasy.

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Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

More Jimi Hendrix

More Rock Classics

  • A superb copy of Electric Ladyland with roughly solid Double Plus (A++) sound on all FOUR sides of this UK import
  • Forget the Track originals – they can’t hold a candle to the Hot Stamper reissues like the one we are offering here
  • Big, clear, tubey, sweet ANALOG sound – we played it good and loud and it was ROCKIN’!
  • Probably the best-recorded of Hendrix’s studio albums – huge studio space and the Tubey Magical richness of analog are key to the best sound
  • 5 stars: “…not only one of the best rock albums of the era, but also Hendrix’s original musical vision at its absolute apex.”
  • If you’re a fan of Jimi and his band, this UK import of his 1968 classic belongs in your collection.
  • The complete list of titles from 1968 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

Some of Jimi’s best songs can be found here, including “Crosstown Traffic,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and his incendiary cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” All four sides have truly killer sound, big and full-bodied with a MUCH better low end than you’ll find on most. You get enough energy and weight to make the rock songs really ROCK, and enough clarity and transparency to bring out the more spacey, psychedelic elements that Jimi and Eddie Kramer worked so hard on.

Ready to go on a trip? You’ve come to the right place. While the sound is not Demo Quality on every track, the acid-drenched soundscapes created by Jimi and producer Eddie Kramer are certainly going to be exciting to the kind of audiophile who still digs Classic Rock. Unfortunately, most copies are missing a lot of the magic — the space, the tubes, the ambience, the size, the weight.

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