record-experiments

After You’ve Played 100 Copies of the Album, What’s Left to Learn?

bloodchildMore of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Child Is Father to the Man

A common misconception of many of those visiting the site for the first time is that we think we know it all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We definitely do not know it all. We learn something new about records with practically every shootout.

Case in point: the record you do NOT see pictured above. (The record we recently learned something new about — this, after having played scores and scores of copies over the years — will remain a secret for the time being. At least until we find another one.)

In 2013 we played a red label Columbia reissue of a famous ’60s rock record (again, not shown) that had the best side two we have ever heard. Up to that point no copy other than the 360 original had ever won a shootout, and we’ve done plenty. Lo and behold here was a reissue that put them all to shame.

I’m still in shock from the experience to tell you the truth, but what a blast it was to hear it!

The recording, which I first played more than 40 years ago at the tender age of 16, was now bigger, less murky and more energetic than ever before. Had you asked me, I would have confidently told you not to waste your time with the second pressing, to stick to the 360’s on that title, and I would have been wrong wrong wrong.

How Wrong?

But wait a minute. The 360 original will probably beat 49 out of 50 red label reissue copies on side two, and the best 360 original could not be beaten on side one by any other pressing. When you stop to think about it, we weren’t very wrong at all.

Let’s just say our understanding was incomplete. This is why we prefer to offer actual physical records rather than just advice, although it’s clear for all to see that we happily do both, and, moreover, we certainly feel qualified — as qualified as anyone can be — to offer opinions since our opinions are virtually always backed up by experimental data.

Sometimes we guess about the sound quality of some titles, usually when we just can’t be bothered to order a copy up and take the time to audition it. So many labels today produce such consistently second- and third-rate pressings, can you blame us for not wanting to hear where the latest one went wrong? 

Ultimately what makes our case is the quality of the records we sell. And I’m glad to report that we don’t get many complaints, even at these prices. (Some of our customers seem to think they got their money’s worth, and who are we to argue?)

Avoiding Mistakes

Keep in mind that the only way you can never be wrong about your records is simply not to play them. If you have better equipment than you did, say, five years ago, try playing some of your MoFi’s, 180 gram LPs, Japanese pressings, 45 RPM remasters and the like. You might be in for quite a shock.

It’s all good — until the needle hits the groove. Then you might find yourself in need of actual Better Records, not the ones you thought were better.

How Do We Do It?

There are more than 2000 Hot Stamper reviews on this blog. Do you know how we learned so much about so many records?

Simple. We ran thousands and thousands of record experiments under carefully controlled conditions, and we continue to run scores of them week in and week out to this very day.

If you want to learn about records, we recommend you do the same. You won’t be able to do more than one or two a week, but one or two a week is better than none, which is how many the average audiophile manages to do.

When it comes to finding the best sounding records ever made, our advice is simple.

Play them the right way and pay attention to what they are trying to teach you. You will learn more this way than any other.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

How Can I Recognize What I Should Be Listening For on a Given Album?

Art Pepper – Which Is Better: Phil DeLancie Digital or George Horn Analog?

More of the Music of Art Pepper

More Jazz Recordings featuring the Saxophone

We’ve wanted to do Art Pepper Today for more than a decade, but the original Galaxy pressings were just too thick and dark to earn anything approaching a top sonic grade. Thirty years ago on a very different system I had one and liked it a lot, but there was no way I could get past the opaque sound I was now hearing on the more than half-dozen originals piled in front of me.

So, almost in desperation we tried an OJC reissue from the ’90s. You know, the ones that all the audiophiles on the web will tell you to steer clear of because it has been mastered by Phil DeLancie and might be sourced from digital tapes.

Or digitally remastered, or somehow was infected with something digital somehow.

Well, immediately the sound opened up dramatically, with presence, space, clarity and top end extension we simply could not hear on the originals. Moreover, the good news was that the richness and solidity of the originals was every bit as good. Some of the originals were less murky and veiled than others, so we culled the worst of them for trade and put the rest into the shootout with all the OJCs we could get our hands on.

Now, it’s indisputable that Phil DeLancie is credited on the jacket, but I see George Horn‘s writing in the dead wax of the actual record, so I really have no way of knowing whether Mr Delancie in fact had anything to do with the copies I was auditioning. They don’t sound digital to me, they’re just like other good George Horn-mastered records I’ve heard from this period.

And of course we here at Better Records never put much stock in what record jackets say; the commentary on the jackets rarely has much to do with the sound of the records inside them in our experience.

And, one more surprise awaited us as we were plowing through our pile of copies.

When we got to side two we found that the sound of the Galaxy originals was often competitive with the best of the OJCs. Which means that there’s a good probability that some of the original pressings I tossed for having bad sound on side one had very good, perhaps even shootout winning sound, on side two.

This is a lesson I hope to take to heart in the future. I know very well that the sound of side one is independent of side two, but somehow in this case I let my prejudice against the first side color my thinking about the second.

Of all the people who should know better…

Brahms / Violin Concerto – Is the 1s Pressing Always the Best?

Hot Stamper Pressings that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Records We’ve Reviewed that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

This early Shaded Dog pressing of a 1958 recording has surprisingly good sound on side two. On the second side the sound opens up and is very sweet, with the violin becoming much more present and clear. The whole of side two is transparent with an extended top. Usually the earliest Living Stereo titles suffer from a lack of top end extension, but not this one.

Maybe the 1s is also that way. For some reason audiophiles tend to think that the earliest cuttings are the best, but that’s just another Record Myth in our experience, easily refuted if you’ve played hundreds of these Living Stereo pressings and noted which stampers sound the best and which do not.

The 1s pressings do not win all that many shootouts around here.

Less than half the time, probably closer to a quarter or a third.

Of course, to avoid being biased, the person listening to the record doesn’t know the stamper numbers, and that may help explain why the 1s loses so often.

If you are interested in finding the best sounding pressings, you have to approach the problem scientifically, and that means running Record Experiments.

Practically everything you read on this blog we learned through experimentation.

When we experimented with the Classic Records pressing of LSC 1903, we were none too pleased with what we heard. Our review is reproduced below.

The Classic reissue of LSC 1903 was a disaster: shrill, smeary and unmusical.

(In a recent commentary we went into some detail about Bernie Grundman’s shortcomings as a mastering engineer for those of you who might be less familiar with his more recent work. He was great in the ’70s, but the work he did in the ’90s leaves a lot to be desired.)

The best Heifetz records on Classic were, if memory serves, LSC 2734 (Glazunov), LSC 2603 (Bruch) and LSC 2769 (Rozsa). They aren’t nearly as offensive as the others. If you can pick one up for ten or twenty bucks, you might get your money’s worth depending, I suppose, on how critically you listen to your classical records and how revealing your system is.

My guess is that the CDs are probably better sounding. That’s probably the first place to go, considering Classic’s track record and the fact that CDs are cheap now because nobody wants them anymore. 

If you must have Heifetz’s 1958 performance, our advice is to buy the CD.

We know for a fact that the Living Stereo CD of Reiner’s Scheherazade is dramatically better than the awful Classic Records pressing of it, TAS Super Disc Listing or no TAS Super Disc Listing.

As you may know, Classic is a label which we found very hard to like right from the beginning. We like them even less now. They may have gone out of business but their bad records are still plentiful on ebay and you can actually still buy some their leftover crap right from the world’s biggest retailer of bad sounding audiophile records, Acoustic Sounds.

If you don’t care how bad your records sound, Chad Kassem is your man.


The “Not-So-Golden-Age” of RCA, Mercury, London and Others

Well Recorded Classical Albums – The Core Collection

Hot Stamper Pressings of Classical Albums from The Core Collection

We ran into a number of copies of this title that had what we like to call that “Old Record Sound,” which is surprisingly common on even the most revered Golden Age labels, RCA included.

No top, no real bottom, congested climaxes and a general shrillness to the sound — we’ve played Living Stereos by the dozens that have these shortcomings and many more.

Some audiophiles may be impressed by the average Shaded Dog pressing, but I can assure you that we here at Better Records are decidedly not of that persuasion.

Something in the range of ten to fifteen per cent of the major label Golden Age recordings we play will eventually make it to the site. The vast majority just don’t sound all that good to us. (Many have second- and third-rate performances and those get tossed without ever making it to a shootout.)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Liebestraum / Composed By – Franz Liszt
Gayne Ballet Suite: Lullaby / Composed By – Khatchaturian
Moonglow And The Theme From “Picnic”
Dancing Through The Years

Side Two

Jalousie / Composed By – Gade
Fantasia On “Greensleeves” / arr. Vaughan Williams
Hernando’s Hideaway / Written-By – Jerry Ross, Richard Adler
The Bohemian Girl: Overture / Composed By – Balfe

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An Extraordinary Recording of the Beethoven Septet – This Is Why You Must Do Shootouts

More of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

My first note on side one is “HTF” — Hard To Fault, for the sound was both rich and sweet, with easily recognized, unerringly correct timbres for all seven of the instruments which are heard in the work. The legendary 1959 Decca Tree microphone setup had worked its magic once again.

And, as good as it was, we were surprised to discover that side two was actually even better! The sound was more spacious and more transparent; we asked ourselves, how is this even possible?

Hard to believe but side two had the sound that was TRULY Hard To Fault. This is precisely what careful shootouts and critical listening are all about. If you like Heavy Vinyl, what exactly is your frame of reference? How many good early pressings could you possibly own, and how were they cleaned?

Without the best pressings around to compare, Heavy Vinyl can sound fine. It’s only when you have something better that its faults come into focus. (We, of course, have something much, much better, and we like to call them Hot Stampers!)

Side One

A++, so good, yet in comparison to side two we realized that it was not as present, spacious and transparent as it SEEMED.

Side Two

A+++, White Hot!

Ah, here was the sound we didn’t know we were missing. So big and open, with space for every player, each clearly laid out across the stage. This is Hi-Fi at its best.

(more…)

Oliver Nelson and RVG – Mastering Better than the Master?

More Music and Arrangements by Oliver Nelson

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills in Audio

The sound of this Shootout Winning reissue is tonally correct, Tubey Magical and above all natural. The timbre of each and every instrument is right and it doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it. So high-resolution too. If you love ’50s and ’60s jazz you cannot go wrong here.

For those record lovers who still cling to the idea that the originals are better, this pressing will hopefully set you straight.

Yes, we can all agree that Rudy Van Gelder recorded it, brilliantly as a matter of fact. Shouldn’t he be the most natural choice to transfer the tape to disc, knowing, as we must assume he does, exactly what to fix and what to leave alone in the mix?

Maybe he should be; it’s a point worth arguing.

But ideas such as this are only of value once they have been tested empirically and found to be true.

We tested this very proposition in our recent shootout, as well as in previous ones of course. It is our contention, based on the experience of hearing quite a number of copies over the years, that Rudy did not cut the original record as well as he should have. For those of you who would like to know who did, we proudly offer this copy to make the case.

Three words say it all: Hearing is believing.

(And if you own any modern Heavy Vinyl reissue we would love for you to be able to appreciate all the musical information that you’ve been missing when playing it. I remember the one from the ’90s on Impulse being nothing special, and the Speakers Corner pressing in the 2000s if memory serves was passable at best.) (more…)

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.

Bob Dylan – Leave It Dry, Or Add Some Reverb?

More of the Music of Bob Dylan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Bob Dylan

The noisy (aren’t they all?) mono copy we keep around as a reference presents Dylan and his guitar in a starkly immediate, clear and unprocessed way. The stereo version of the album is simply that sound with some light stereo reverb added.

More than anything else, on some tracks the mono pressing sounds like a demo.

It’s as if the engineers threw up a mic or two, set the EQ for flat and proceeded to roll tape. This is a good sound for what it is, but it has a tendency toward dryness, perhaps not on all of the tracks but clearly on some. Certainly the first track on side one can have that drier sound.

What the stereo reverb does is fill out the sound of Dylan’s voice respectfully.

The engineers of the late ’50 and ’60s had a tendency to drown their singers in heavy reverb, as anyone who’s ever played an old Tony Bennett or Dean Martin album knows all too well.

But a little reverb actually benefits the vocals of our young Mr. Dylan on The Times They Are A-Changin’, and there is an easy way to test that proposition. When you hit the mono button on your preamp or phono stage, the reverb disappears, leaving the vocal more clear and more present, but also more dry and thin. You may like it better that way. Obviously, to some degree this is a matter of taste.

The nice thing about this stereo copy, assuming you have a mono switch in your system (which you should; they’re very handy), is that you have the option of hearing it both ways and deciding for yourself which approach you find more involving and enjoyable — if not necessarily truthful.

We suspect your preference will be both listener- and system-dependent. Isn’t it better to have the option and be able to make that determination for yourself?

To see our current selection of Hot Stamper pressings that we think sound better in mono, click here.

To see our current selection of Hot Stamper pressings that we think sound better in stereo, click here.

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Two Reviews of Child Is Father to the Man – Fremer Vs. Better Records

More of the Music of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Blood, Sweat and Tears

Audiophile Reviewers – Who Needs ‘Em!

In 2010 MF reviewed both the Sundazed and Speakers Corner Heavy Vinyl pressings of the album.

I think his review is mistaken on a number of counts, and mostly unhelpful. The commentary below will discuss his errors in detail, in the hopes that you, dear reader, will not make the same mistakes yourself. 

He talks about his history with the album for a while, and then notes:

Anyway, the original “360 Sound” edition of this record sounds fantastic. It’s a high quality Columbia studio recording, with vivid harmonics, impressive transparency and dynamics, shimmering highs and tight extended bass. The soundstage is expansive and the images tightly presented. I’m not sure it can get much better than the original given how well-pressed Columbia records were in those days, especially if you have a clean original.

We, however, seem to hold precisely the opposite view. I quote from our review:

Why did it take us so long [to do a Hot Stamper shootout]? Let me ask you this: have you ever played this album? The average copy of this record is a sonic MESS. Even the best copies have problems.

We then go on to discuss in detail what most copies do wrong and what to listen for in order to find a copy that gets it right. (More on that later.)

Shortcomings? What Shortcomings?

Fremer continues:

There are two reissues of this. One is from Sundazed and there’s a far more expensive one from Speakers Corner…

The Speakers Corner reissue, which uses the wrong label art is pressed at Pallas and consequently it’s quieter and better finished overall. However, the Sundazed copy I got was very well finished and reasonably quiet, but not as quiet.

On the other hand the Speakers Corner version was somewhat more hyped up at the frequency extremes and cut somewhat hotter, but not objectionably so. The Sundazed sounds somewhat closer to the original overall, so for half the price, you do the math!

“Somewhat hyped up”? We liked it a whole lot less than Mr. Fremer apparently did. Early last year I gave it a big fat F for FAILURE, writing at the time:

This is the worst sounding Heavy Vinyl Reissue LP I have heard in longer than I can remember. To make a record sound this bad you have to work at it.

What the hell were they thinking? Any audiophile record dealer that would sell you this record should be run out of town on a rail. Of course that won’t happen, because every last one of them (present company excluded) will be carrying it, of that you can be sure.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, out comes a record like this to prove that it can. I look forward to Fremer’s rave review.

(more…)

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