piano-test

Shelly Manne & His Friends – Bells Are Ringing

Contemporary Jazz Records Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Contemporary Jazz

  • Outstanding solid Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER throughout this Black Label original on vinyl that’s about as quiet as they ever play
  • The piano sounds lifelike right from the start, a beautiful instrument in a natural space, tonally correct from top to bottom
  • This copy makes it clear that this is a Demo Disc Quality Recording for Contemporary, and that’s saying a lot
  • It’s also our favorite jazz piano performance by Andre Previn on record
  • Only a handful of copies of this title have made it on the site in the last few years – finding them in audiophile condition is getting harder (and more expensive) than ever these days
  • “Previn’s piano is the lead voice and his virtuosity, good taste, melodic improvising, and solid sense of swing are chiefly responsible for the music’s success.”

I have a very long history with this album, going back decades. My friend Robert Pincus first turned me on to the CD, which, happily for all concerned, was mastered beautifully. We used it to test and tweak all the stereos in my friends’ systems.

Playing the original stereo record, which I assumed must never have been reissued due to its rarity (I have since learned otherwise), all I could hear on my ’90s all tube system was blurred mids, lack of transient attack, sloppy bass, lack of space and transparency, and other shortcomings too numerous to mention that I simply attributed at the time to vintage jazz vinyl.

Well, things have certainly changed. I have virtually none of the equipment I had back then, and I hear none of the problems with this copy that I heard back then on pressing I owned. This is clearly a different LP (I sold off the old one years ago) but I have to think that much of the change in the sound was a change in cleaning, equipment, tweaks and room treatments, all the stuff we prattle on about endlessly on the site.

In other words, if you have a highly-resolving modern system and a good room, you should be knocked out by the sound of this record. I sure was.

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Boz Scaggs – Such a Rich, Solid Piano, This Is the Forgotten Sound of the Seventies

xxxReviews and Commentaries for the Music of Boz Scaggs

What do you hear on the best copies? Well, the first thing you hear is a rich, solid piano, a piano sound that’s practically missing from the CBS Half-Speed and 90% of the reissues we’ve played.

Like so many recordings from the ’70s, this album is surprisingly natural sounding. I’ve had the same experience with Billy Joel’s ’70s records. I was surprised to hear how well recorded they are — and how full-bodied the piano is — after I stopped listening to the audiophile and import pressings and went back to the original domestic copies. When you get the right ones — that’s how we see our job, finding the right ones — they’re wonderfully rich and smooth (but not too smooth), the way good analog should sound.

And these were the kinds of records that we audiophiles were complaining about back in the day. We lamented the fact that these pressings weren’t audiophile quality, like the best MoFis and Japanese pressings. Can you imagine?

This is how bad even good equipment must have been back then.

Of course we got what we deserved. We got lots of phony, hyped-up pressings to fool us into thinking we were hearing better sound, when in fact the opposite was true. I regret to say that nothing has changed — most pressings aimed at audiophiles are still mediocre and some of them are surely the worst versions of the album ever produced. That’s pretty bad, wouldn’t you say? (For some unfathomable reason, nobody but us ever does say.)

The other record that immediately comes to mind to show you the sound that’s missing from many pressings, both vintage and modern, is Aja. Here’s what we had to say about it:

If you own the Cisco 180 gram pressing, focus on Victor Feldman’s piano at the beginning of the song. It lacks body, weight and ambience on the new pressing, but any of our better Hot Stamper copies will show you a piano with those qualities in spades. It’s some of my favorite work by the Steely Dan vibesman. The thin piano on the Cisco release must be recognized for what it is: a major error on the part of the mastering engineers.

A full piano is key to the sound of the best pressing of Silk Degrees.

The other thing you hear on the best copies is a smooth, sweet top end, which is likewise missing from the above mentioned pressings.

Most copies lack presence and top end.

Dull, thick, opaque sound is far too common on Silk Degrees, which may account for some audiophiles finding the half-speed preferable.

Of course, our Hot Stampers give you the presence and highs that let this music come to life. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be Hot Stampers now would they?

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Blood Sweat and Tears – The 30 Second Spinning Wheel Test

More of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Blood, Sweat and Tears

This test is found in the track commentary for side two of our Hot Stamper listings for the album.

If you think you have a hot copy, see if yours does what our best copies do.

We also think that a record like this — a dynamic, full-spectrum recording, not overly concerned with detail — makes a much better Test Disc than the kind most audiophiles seem to prefer.

Patricia Barber it is not.

If you’re in the market for new speakers, take this record — or one like it — with you to the audition. Any speaker that can play this record properly deserves your consideration, or at the very least your respect.

In my experience not many speakers have what it takes to do this album justice.

The Blood, Sweat and Tears Spinning Wheel Test 

The first thirty seconds are key. Here is what you should be listening for.

Piano, Cowbell, Snare

Side two starts off with a bang; note that the piano has real weight to it right from the git go. When the cowbell comes in it should not sound muffled in any way (it’s a bell, don’t you know), quickly followed by the solid-as-a-rock-snare (the best on record.)

The Brass

On the killer copies that first blast of brass will be completely free of grain or grunge, yet the brass instruments themselves (trumpets and trombone) have all their leading edge transients, their “bite,” fully intact. They’re not in any way muffled or smeared, yet the sound is never aggressive. If anything, the brass is so free from distortion and so tonally correct it should actually sound smooth.

The Vocals

Some of the vocals on side one can have a bit of honk or edge, but not here. They are natural, rich and sweet as any you will hear on the album.

Bottom End Energy

And don’t forget that there is a tremendous amount of bottom end throughout the song. It’s the very foundation of the music, and it needs to be reproduced properly, no ifs, ands or buts, as in “but I only have a small speaker”. To play this song you need big woofers and lots of them. Small speakers simply make a mockery of this music.

If you’ve ever heard big band up close, you know that there is not a speaker in the world that can do justice to that sound. It’s too big and it’s too powerful. But some speakers do more justice than others, and in my experience those speakers tend to have large cabinets with plenty of dynamic drivers. If you have a system built around such speakers there is a very good chance that this will be the best sounding record you have ever heard, assuming you have one of our Hot Stamper pressings or a good one of your own. If not, we would love to get you one. You won’t believe the sound.

Now You Try

Play your own copy. Everything you need to know about the sound of your LP can be heard in the first thirty seconds of side two. On the Hot Stampers it’s all there. On most copies, however, the reverse is true: Problems raise their ugly heads right off the bat. Thinness, grain, smearing, bloat, edginess — all the failings that records are heir to will be thrown in your face if your copy is not up to snuff, and not many of them are.

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Earl Fatha Hines / Fatha – Now That’s a Dynamic Piano

More Direct to Disc Recordings

Reviews and Commentaries for Direct to Disc Recordings

This review is from 2012, the first time we did a mini-shootout for the album.

This M&K Direct to Disc SMOKED the copy we played it against — the difference was NIGHT and DAY! The sound is smoother, sweeter, and richer than we are used to hearing for this album. There’s lots of space around the drums, and the tuba sounds awesome.

You aren’t going to believe how DYNAMIC this copy is — when Fatha’s really pounding on the keys, you’re gonna jump out of your chair. The overall sound is clean, clear, lively, and super transparent. The edgy, hard piano sound that plagued our lesser copy is nowhere to be found.

One of the BEST Direct to Discs on M&K. This is especially good jazz piano music; Earl Hines plays up a storm on this album. The opening track, Birdland, with just a high hat, a tuba and Fatha on piano is worth the price of the disc alone.

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Mussorgsky – Ravel / Pictures at an Exhibition / Ashkenazy – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

More of the music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Mussorgsky

This original London pressing of the solo piano version of Pictures has uncannily natural piano reproduction, which is why we are awarding this side one our highest sonic grade, A Triple Plus.

The fact that the recording takes place in Kingsway Hall in 1967 no doubt plays a large part in the natural sound. The hall is bigger here than on other copies, the piano even more solidly weighted, yet none of this comes at the expense of the clarity of the playing.

The piano has no smear, allowing both the percussive aspects of the instrument and the extended harmonics of the notes to be heard clearly and appreciated fully.

Side two has Mehta’s performance of the orchestrated work squeezed onto side two, which is never a good idea if one is looking for high quality orchestral sound. The performance itself is mediocre as well.

We are not, and never haver been, big fans of Mehta’s work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on London.

The exceptionally rare copy of Mehta’s Planets can sound good, but 90% of them do not — just don’t make the mistake of telling that to the average audiophile who owns one. Harry told him it was the best, he paid good money for it, and until someone tells him different it had better be “the one Planets to own.”

We see one of our roles here at Better Records as being the guys who actually will “tell you different,” and, more importantly, can back up our opinions with the records that make our case for us. (more…)

Liszt / Sonata in B Minor & Other Pieces / Curzon

More of the music of Franz Liszt (1811-1880)

Hot Stamper Classical LPs on Decca & London

This Super Hot Stamper solo piano record is 1963 Decca recording technology at its finest (or would be if we had ten copies to shoot out and could find the White Hot Stamper pressing hidden among them).

As it is, we are happy to have found this one, Super Hot on both sides, an amazingly realistic representation of a piano. You will have a hard time finding better. 

And the music, especially on side two, is compelling and wonderful. This is classical music that will engage you at the deepest and most serious level. Widely considered Liszt’s masterpiece, in Curzon’s forceful hands it is not hard to understand why.

Side One

A++ Super Hot Stamper sound, with a clear piano surrounded in space. Present and dynamic, there is little to fault here, save a touch of smear and a slight lack of weight.

Real pianos in live recitals have weight that I have never heard reproduced by any stereo system, so “real weight” is a relative term, one that applies more to recordings than to the live instrument itself. (more…)

The Rolling Stones / Black and Blue – Listen to Billy Preston’s Piano

Billy Preston is all over this album on piano and organ and his contribution is crucial to the musical vibe on practically every song. Listen for Billy’s full, solid, clear piano sound. When the piano is thin, the mix is thin and that’s not the sound you want on a Stones album.

If the piano gets lost, your copy either has a smear problem or a transparency problem. Those are certainly easier to live with — all the ’70s systems I owned were smeary and opaque compared to my system today and I enjoyed the hell out of all of them — but far from ideal. (more…)

Supertramp / Even In The Quietest Moments – Key Tracks for Critical Listening

More of the Music of Supertramp

Reviews and Commentaries for Even in the Quietest Moments

On this extraordinary copy the bottom end is big and punchy, the top is smooth and sweet, and the vocals are present and breathy. On a transparent copy such as this the drums really punch through the dense mixes, giving the music more life and energy. The piano sounds correct, the sax is full and breathy — you’d be very hard-pressed to find better sound for this album than this. Very hard pressed indeed.

In 2005 we wrote:

This is actually one of the best Supertramp albums but it’s almost impossible to find a domestic copy that won’t tear your head off. The vast majority of them are unbelievably bright and grainy. I’ve been buying them lately because I found a copy or two that seemed to sound pretty good, but most of my money was wasted on aggressive, noisy vinyl.

Side one of this copy is no great shakes — it’s too bright — but side two is actually quite good. The highs are sweet and silky, there’s plenty of bass and the vocals are actually quite natural sounding. I can’t call this a Hot Stamper. The best way to look at it is to say it’s a Relatively Hot Stamper. The average copy is so bad that when a copy like this one sounds pretty good it really sticks out. We’re still in the hunt but haven’t got much to show for our efforts to date, I can tell you that.

The good news is that ten years later and more copies than we care to remember we think we’ve got EITQM’s ticket. We now know which stampers have the potential to sound good as well as the ones to avoid. Finding the right stampers (which are not the original ones for those of you who know what the original stampers for A&M records are) has been a positive boon. (more…)