shootout-basics

What We Listen For – The Basics

What Makes This Enya Pressing a Hot Stamper?

More Advice on How to Find Your Own Hot Stampers

Specifically, what are the criteria by which a record like this should be judged?

Pretty much the ones we discuss in most of our Hot Stamper listings:

  • energy,
  • vocal presence,
  • frequency extension (on both ends),
  • transparency,
  • harmonic textures (freedom from smear is key),
  • rhythmic drive,
  • tonal correctness,
  • fullness,
  • size,
  • space,
  • Tubey Magic,

and on down through the list.

When we can get all, or almost all, of the qualities above to come together on any given side, we provisionally award it a grade of “contender.”

Once we’ve been through all our copies on one side, we then play the best of the best against each other and arrive at a winner for that side.

Repeat the process for the other side and the shootout is officially over. All that’s left is to see how the sides matched up.

It may not be rocket science, but it is a science of a kind, one with strict protocols that we’ve developed over the course of many years to insure that the results we arrive at are as accurate as we can make them.

The result of all our work speaks for itself. We guarantee you have never heard this music — really, any music — sound better than it does on one of our Hot Stamper pressings, or your money back.


Here are some records that are good for testing the qualities we look for in our shootouts:

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Hot Stamper Note Taking – Here Is What You Need to Know

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained 

Finding Hot Stampers is all about doing shootouts for as many different pressings of the same title as you can lay your hands on.

Lately we have achieved better results by going about it like this:

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album at key moments of your choosing.

Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that others do not do as well, using a specific passage of music — the acoustic guitar John beats the hell out of on Norwegian Wood just to take one example — it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing reproduces that passage.

The process is simple enough. First you go deep into the sound. There you find something special, something you can’t find on most copies. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

Admittedly, to clean and play enough copies to get to that point may take all day, but you will have gained experience and knowledge that you cannot come by any other way. If you do it right and do it enough it has the power to change everything you will ever achieve in audio.

The kind of notes I take can be seen below. 4×6 Post-its work great for this purpose, using one per side. We go through thousands of them every year. Without specific notes on your records about exactly what you heard as you played them, you cannot possibly keep track of which pressings have the qualities you were listening for, and in what amounts.  Extensive notes like the ones you see below are a must.

Below you will find more readable copies of the notes.

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The Traveling Wilburys – Learning the Record, Any Record

More of the Music of the Traveling Wilburys

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Many of the pressings we played of Volume One suffered from too much compression and a phony hi-fi-ish quality on the vocals. We knew there had to be great copies out there somewhere, so we kept dropping the needle until we found a few good men. Here is what we had to say about a killer copy we ran into during that process.

We heard a lot of copies with a spitty, gritty top end, but this one is smooth like butter and sweet like candy. Side two is nearly as good but doesn’t have quiet the same energy factor. It’s still dramatically better than most copies out there.

Now that we’ve discovered these Hot Stampers, the sound is finally where we want it to be. Until this week, we were convinced that these songs sounded better on the radio. (That’s what tons of compression and FM bass boost will do for you.)

Learning the Record

For our recent shootout we had at our disposal a variety of pressings we thought would have the potential for Hot Stamper sound. We cleaned them carefully, then unplugged everything in the house we could, warmed up the system, Talisman’d it, found the right VTA for our Triplanar arm (by ear of course) and proceeded to spend the next hour or so playing copy after copy on side one, after which we repeated the process for side two.

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album. Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that other pressings do not do as well, using a few specific passages of music, it will quickly become obvious how well any given copy reproduces those passages.

The process is simple enough. First, you go deep into the sound. There you find a critically important passage in the music, one which most copies struggle — or fail — to reproduce as well as the best. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

It may be a lot of work but it sure ain’t rocket science, and we never pretended it was. Just the opposite: from day one we’ve explained how to go about finding the Hot Stampers in your own collection.

The problem is that unless your a crazy person who bought multiple copies of the same album there is no way to know if any given copy is truly Hot Stamper. Hot Stampers are not merely good sounding records. They are the copies that win shootouts. This is a fact that cannot be emphasized too strongly.

As your stereo and room improve, as you take advantage of new cleaning technologies, as you find new and interesting pressings to evaluate, you may even be inclined to start the shootout process all over again, to find the hidden gem, the killer copy that blows away what you thought was the best.

You can’t find it by looking at it. You have to clean it and play it, and always against other pressings of the same album. There is no other way.

For the more popular records on the site such as the Beatles titles we have easily done more than twenty, maybe even as many as thirty to forty shootouts.

And very likely learned something new from every one.

Beware of Fooling Yourself with Pseudo Shootouts

We encourage any audiophile who wants to improve the quality of his record collection to start doing his own shootouts. Freeing up an afternoon to sit down with a pile of cleaned copies of a favorite LP (you won’t make it through any other kind) and playing them one after another is by far the best way to learn about records and pressing variations.

Doing your own shootout will also help you see just how much work it is.

Be sure to take extensive notes.

Shootouts are a great deal of work if you do them right. If you have just a few pressings on hand and don’t bother to clean them carefully, or follow rigorous testing protocols, that kind of shootout anyone can do. We would not consider that a real shootout. (Art Dudley illustrates this approach, but you could pick any reviewer you like — none of them have ever undertaken a shootout worthy of the name to our knowledge.)

With only a few records to play, you probably won’t learn much of value and, worse, you are unlikely to find a top copy, although you may be tempted to convince yourself that you have. As Richard Feynman so famously remarked, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” (more…)

How can I find my own Hot Stamper pressings?

More Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

Finding Hot Stampers is all about doing shootouts for as many different pressings of the same title as you can get your hands on.

There are four basic steps you must take, and you have to do right by each of the four if you are going to be successful at discovering and evaluating your own Hot Stampers. 

We discuss every one of them in scores of commentaries and listings on this blog. Although none of it will come as news to anyone who has spent much time reading our stuff, we cobbled together this commentary to help formalize the process and hopefully make it easier to understand and follow.

If you want to make judgments about recordings — not the pressing you have in your collection, but the actual recording it was made from — you have to do some work, and you have to do it much more thoroughly and carefully and above all scientifically than most audiophiles and record collectors we’ve met apparently think is necessary. Don’t be one of those guys. Do it right and get the results that are simply not possible with any other approach.

The Four Cornerstones of Hot Stamper Shootouts

The work of finding these very special pressings is made up of these four parts.

  1. You must have a sufficient number of copies to play in order to find at least one “hot” one.
  2. You must be able to clean your copies properly in order to get them to sound their best.
  3. You must be able to reproduce your copies faithfully.
  4. You must be able to evaluate them critically.

This Approach Will Help You Find Better Sounding Records

There is a clear benefit to doing it this way, and it’s something you should consider when tweaking your system too.

Lately we have achieved the best results by going about it like this:

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album at key moments of your choosing.

Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that others do not do as well, using a specific passage of music — the acoustic guitar John beats the hell out of on Norwegian Wood just to take one example — it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing reproduces that passage.

The process is simple enough. First you go deep into the sound. There you find something special, something you can’t find on most copies. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

Admittedly, to clean and play enough copies to get to that point may take all day, but you will have gained experience and knowledge that you cannot come by any other way. If you do it right and do it enough it has the power to change everything you will ever achieve in audio.

Tweaking your system should proceed along the same lines. Using the above process, get to know some specific attributes of a recording inside and out. Then and only then is it time to tweak, when your system is at its best and the blood is pumping through your ears. If your experience is anything like ours, the results you achieve using this approach will be much more reliable over the long term.

We still end up undoing many initially promising tweaks the next day, usually when some record we know well doesn’t sound the way it should. But you learn nothing unless you try, so we keep at it, and so should you. Some of the spaghetti will stick to the wall eventually, and when it does it produces one of the best highs in all of audio.

Of course it’s always a good idea to confirm whatever changes you’ve made with other records you know well. In audio, as in life, it’s easy to be wrong. 

This hobby is supposed to be fun. If you’ve been in it for any length of time you know that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But if you enjoy doing it at least some of the time, and you devote the proper resources to it — time and money — you will no doubt derive much more pleasure from it, especially if you use our approach.

It works for us and there’s no reason it can’t work for you.

Some Listening Basics

On our site, almost every Hot Stamper has a list very similar to the one you see below outlining the kinds of things we were paying attention to as it was playing.

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

You would do well to listen for all these things and more as you conduct your own shootouts.

The kind of notes I take can be seen below. 4×6 Post-Its work great for this purpose, one per side. We go through thousands of them every year. Without specific notes on your records about exactly what you heard as you played them, you cannot possibly keep track of which pressings have how much of whatever qualities you were listening for.  Extensive notes are a must.

Addendum

I wrote a very long piece about the remastered Joni Mitchell Blue album in 2007 in an attempt to explain how we went about evaluating it (and finding fault with it), with advice as to how any audiophile looking for better sound could do the same using the methods we laid out.

We called it The Joni Mitchell Blue Game and introduced it this way:

Instead of us telling you what’s right and wrong with the new Blue, we’d much prefer that you tell us. Doesn’t that sound like fun? No? No matter, we can come back to it later.

You may have noticed that there is a great deal of commentary on the site about what we listen for, what we like, how to become a better listener, how to tweak your system, how we do these laborious shootouts to find you Hot Stampers, and on and on, ad infinitum and for some people ad nauseum. “We do the work so you don’t have to,” right?

Well in this game, you do the work so we don’t have to. Now that’s what we call a fun game!


FURTHER READING

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Hot Stampers and Good Sounding Records Are Not the Same Thing

More of the Music of Stevie Ray Vaughan

More of the Music of Pink Floyd

They are barely even related. Here’s why.

A good customer wrote to us recently to say that he was not happy with the Stevie Ray Vaughan White Hot Stamper pressings we had sent him.

Tom,

I also have a couple more returns for you: SRV Couldn’t Stand the Weather and SRV Soul to Soul. While these are good, they’re just not quite up to White Hot Stamper quality like some of the other records clearly are.

I took the opportunity to reply at length. The most interesting part is at the top if you don’t want to read the whole thing.

Dear Sir,

You appear to be conflating two concepts, Hot Stampers and Good Recordings. They are not the same thing. They are barely even related.

Hot Stampers are especially good sounding pressings of specific albums that we found through shootouts.

The recordings of these albums may be better or worse than others you are familiar with. That has nothing to do with how hot the stampers are of the pressings we sell.

It works this way: if you had a hundred copies of The Dark Side of the Moon, the median pressing– the one that would have ranked number 50 out of 100 — would sound substantially better than either of those two SRV albums.

Pink Floyd: amazing recording. 

SRV: good, not great recording.

We would never sell an average pressing of DSOTM. We only sell the best sounding versions of it.

We would never sell the average version of any SRV album. We only sell the best sounding versions of them.

But no SRV album is ever going to sound like a good Dark Side of the Moon! (more…)

What We Listen For – The Basics

What Makes This Enya Pressing a Hot Stamper?

Specifically, what are the criteria by which a record like this should be judged?

The criteria we discuss in most of our Hot Stamper listings are a good place to start:

Energy, vocal presence, frequency extension (on both ends), transparency, harmonic textures (freedom from smear is key), rhythmic drive, correct tonality, fullness, space, Tubey Magic, and on and on down through the list.

When we can get all, or most all, of the qualities above to come together on any given side, we provisionally award it a grade of “contender.” Once we’ve been through all our copies on one side we then play the best of the best against each other and arrive at a winner for that side.

Repeat the process for the other side and the shootout is officially over. All that’s left is to see how the sides matched up.

For some records we offer advice on what to listen for track by track. 

It may not be rocket science, but it is a science of a kind, one with strict protocols that we’ve developed over the course of many years to insure that the results we arrive at are as accurate as we can make them.

The result of all our work speaks for itself. We guarantee you have never heard this music sound better than it does on any of our Hot Stamper pressings — or your money back.

(more…)

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

Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Hot Stampers – The Four Pillars of Success

Doing carefully controlled shootouts with large groups of records is the only practical way anyone can learn what to listen for.

The advice you see below is often reproduced on our site. Here is some we recently included in a listing for Rubber Soul, with specific commentary about the song Norwegian Wood:

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album at key moments of your choosing.

Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that others do not do as well, using a specific passage of music — the acoustic guitar John strums the hell out of on Norwegian Wood from Rubber Soul just to take one example — it will quickly become obvious how well any given pressing reproduces that passage.

The process is simple enough. First you go deep into the sound. There you find something special, something you can’t find on most copies. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

Admittedly, to clean and play enough copies to get to that point may take all day, but you will have gained experience and knowledge that you cannot come by any other way. If you do it right and do it enough it has the power to change everything you will ever achieve in audio.

Once you have done that work, when it comes time to play a modern record, on any label, it often becomes obvious what they “did to it” in the mastering, and how far short if falls when compared head to head to the pressings that were found to have the best sound. 

Our critiques are often quite specific about the sound of these Heavy Vinyl pressings. Our review for the remastered Rubber Soul is a good example of how thorough we can be when we feel the need to get down to brass tacks. 

Many of those who were skeptical before they heard their first Hot Stamper have written us letters extolling the virtues of our pressings. Here are some Testimonial Letters you may find of interest.

One Final Note

Before you try your first Hot Stamper, as long as you are buying vintage pressings in the meantime, not audiophile records, you are probably not wasting much money.

Every vintage pressing has the potential to teach you something.

A modern record, on the other hand, should never be considered anything more than a stop-gap, a kind of sonic benchmark to beat when you finally find a better sounding vintage pressing in acceptable condition.


FURTHER READING

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