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

For a More Scientific Approach to Finding Better Records, Sweat the Details

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

More Commentaries on the Basics of Shootouts

When it comes to doing shootouts, half the battle is just being able to play the record right.

Our approach is simply a matter of precisely adjusting the arm and cartridge for every title, then comparing the various pressings, properly cleaned of course, under carefully controlled conditions, with as much scientific rigor as we can bring to the proceedings.

In some ways it is analogous to rocket science, which we would define as the seemingly simple process of discovering all the details that need to be sweated and then sweating the hell out of them.

It’s the opposite of theoretical physics. One doesn’t need to be a novel thinker or have big ideas to do audio well.

Obsessively working through the basics of table setup, tweaks, room treatments and electrical quality will take your system to levels beyond those you could have ever imagined.

And, you sure don’t need a bloody microscope to check your stylus rake angle, unlike some audiophile reviewers who insist that such devices are somehow essential.

Your ears, if they are any good at all, will do the job just fine, and probably much better.

Even shootouts won’t teach you what you can learn from variations in your table setup

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

Hot Stamper Pressings of Court and Spark Available Now

There are loud vocal choruses on many tracks, and more often than not at their loudest they sound like they are either breaking up or threatening to do so. I always assumed it was compressor or board overload, which is easily heard on Down to You.

On the best copies there is no breakup — the voices get loud and stay clean throughout.

This assumes that your equipment is up to the job. The loudest choruses are a tough test for any system.

Setup Advice

If you have one of our hottest Hot Stampers, try adjusting your setup — VTA, Tracking Weight, Azimuth, Anti-Skate — Especially! Audiophiles often overlook this one, at their peril — and note how cleanly the loudest passages play using various combinations of settings.

Keep a yellow pad handy and write everything down step by step as you make your changes, along with what differences you hear in the sound.

You will learn more about sound from this exercise than you can from practically any other. Even shootouts won’t teach you what you can learn from variations in your table setup.

And once you have your setup dialed in better, you will find that your shootouts go a lot smoother than they used to.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark

Hot Stamper Pressings of Court and Spark Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

  • The sound is rich, warm and natural, with wonderful transparency, ambience and loads of Tubey Magic
  • Musically this is one of our favorite Joni albums here at Better Records, and probably her Best Recording as well
  • A proud member (along with Blue) of our Top 100 Rock and Pop albums – yes, it’s that good sounding when it’s mastered and pressed as well as this copy is
  • 5 stars: “[A] remarkably deft fusion of folk, pop, and jazz … the music is smart, smooth, and assured from the first note to the last.”
  • Court and Spark, along with For the Roses, are two of the best sounding albums in Joni Mitchell’s canon. Roughly 100 other listings for the Best Sounding Album by an Artist or Group can be found here.
  • If you’re a Joni fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1974 is an absolute Must Own
  • The complete list of titles from 1974 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

Court and Spark deserves to be heard with all the clarity, beauty and power that our Hot Stampers reproduce so well. If there is a better sounding album with Joni Mitchell’s name on the cover, you’ll have to prove it to us.

What you hear is the sound of the real tape; every instrument has its own character because the mastering is correct and the vinyl — against all odds — managed to capture all (or almost all; who can know?) of the resolution that the tape had to offer. (more…)

Joni Mitchell / Court And Spark – The DCC LP Is Not Bad!

Reviews and Commentaries for Court and Spark

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Sonic Grade: B

Steve’s version is very musical; it’s rich and natural sounding, which of course makes it very enjoyable. You can do a lot better but you sure can do a lot worse.

Opaque, veiled, lifeless, dull sound is the norm for Court and Spark — most copies are dead as a doornail. If they’re not dead, they’re likely to be thin and gritty.

The DCC is a big improvement over the average domestic pressing. (The original SYL British imports are fairly competitive with the DCC; the later Brits with the K catalog numbers suck as a rule.)

The Nautilus Half-Speed is pretty but lifeless, like so many of their pressings (and Half-Speed Mastered records in general). I would grade it about a C. Don’t waste your money. Keep buying originals until you find a good one.


Letter of the Week – “Big, warm, mushy and limp”

More Letters Comparing Hot Stamper Pressings to their Heavy Vinyl Counterparts

More Heavy Vinyl Commentaries and Reviews

One of our good customers had this to say about some records he played recently:

Hey Tom, 

I just had to drop you a brief note, to say THANK YOU, for your writings regarding DCC pressings many years back.

I was just going back through them on your site, after I unearthed my DCC pressings this afternoon and gave a couple of them (i.e., Elton’s Madman; Joni’s Court and Spark) a spin – as I recall y’all being the first to speak truth in the face of overwhelming adoration regarding these (when they first were released).

OMG. They are COMPLETELY lifeless, with ZERO energy! Big, warm, mushy and limp, yes. Probably sound comforting (at some level) on a low-budget lean solid state system. But on a system with any level of transparency and truth-to-pressing, YIKES. It just made me sad.

THEN, I went online, and checked the current PRICES for these pressings (of which I own several sealed), and I got SUPER HAPPY! People are paying some serious coin for these turkeys – so I can be well rid of them, and take that cash and buy some more of YOUR awesome pressings! Win-win! 👍😊

Warmest regards



Thanks for your letter. A few thoughts:

The sound I think you are hearing that you refer to as lifeless and lacking in energy is really the result of Kevin Gray’s lousy cutting chain. The sound you hear on your DCC albums is precisely the sound I had heard on this DCC album many years ago. Played back to back with the properly mastered, properly pressed originals, the DCC was shockingly lacking in many of the most important qualities a record can have.

Low resolution cutters like the ones used to cut the DCC discs sound dead and boring, even when the mastering choices are good ones and no obvious compression is being used. (Kevin Gray famously does not have a way to put compressors into his chain, as my friend Robert Pincus at Cisco found out when he cut 52nd Street and could not get some aspects of it to sound right. It needed compression and there was none available. Kevin don’t play dat.)

I have been beating this long-dead horse for about fifteen years now. Any time I actually do play one of the DCC records these days, it usually sounds worse than I remember it.

As one’s stereo improves, and one actually has good records to play, the shortcomings of these audiophile pressings become less and less tolerable, and now, in 2022, with all the Revolutions in Audio that have come our way, they sound so third-rate one would be hard-pressed to even sit through one all the way to the end of a side.

We think this is a clear sign of progress.

Lucky for you there are still audiophiles who have not made the progress you’ve made. They are still willing to pay premium prices for these records, and that means you won’t have to take a haircut on them.

Think about this though.

I liked those DCC records just fine when they came out. Said lots of nice things about them. Back in the ’90s, when you first bought some, you liked them just fine too.

The audiophiles buying them today are not idiots and fools. They are exactly where we were back then. We learned, and they can learn too. There is hope for everybody!

But you had help. You got hold of some Hot Stampers, and that raised the bar for your listening experience beyond any Heavy Vinyl pressing ever made. The obviously superior sound of the Hot Stamper pressings you acquired — or found on your own — made it easy to hear what was wrong with the reissues and their “audiophile sound.”

As long as the fans of Heavy Vinyl stick with Heavy Vinyl, how are they ever going to learn how mediocre their records are?

It is a problem that has no easy solution. We sure haven’t found one.

These people are stuck, and the more we attack their records, the more they defend them in order to avoid feeling bad about themselves, a classic example of the pernicious results of the natural human need to avoid cognitive dissonance.

You are the living proof that some can hear, some can tell the difference, and some can make progress in this crazy hobby of ours. Thanks again for your letter.

Best, TP

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And finally,

A Confession

Even as recently as the early 2000s, we were still impressed with many of the better Heavy Vinyl pressings. If we’d never made the progress we’ve worked so hard to make over the course of the last twenty or more years, perhaps we would find more merit in the Heavy Vinyl reissues so many audiophiles seem impressed by.

We’ll never know of course; that’s a bell that can be unrung. We did the work, we can’t undo it, and the system that resulted from it is merciless in revealing the truth — that these newer pressings are second-rate at best and much more often than not third-rate and even worse.

Some audiophile records sound so bad, I was pissed off enough to create a special list for them.

Setting higher standards — no, being able to set higher standards — in our minds is a clear mark of progress. Judging by the hundreds of letters we’ve received, especially the ones comparing our records to their Heavy Vinyl and Half-Speed Mastered counterparts, we know that our customers see things the same way.