skeptical-thinking

Hot Stampers and Occam’s Razor

Skeptical Thinking Is Key to Finding Better Sound

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – A Guide

This is an excerpt from a commentary I wrote many years ago in reply to a letter writer who thought our records were ridiculously overpriced.

When people ask us how our records can possibly be worth the prices we charge, this is our answer.

As a skeptic, I require evidence for what I believe in order to believe it. Although it’s certainly possible that our customers are willing to pay our admittedly high prices on nothing more than our say so, I see no evidence that this is the case. All things being equal, I think they must really like our records. They tell us so all the time, and they keep buying them week after week, so if they really are just fooling themselves, they apparently can’t stop doing it.

Occam’s Razor

The scientist’s and skeptic’s best friend, Occam’s razor, comes into play here. It holds that “the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible.” It’s often paraphrased as “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” In other words, when multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions…”

Why assume people who buy expensive records are crazy? Why assume that the records they buy aren’t every bit as good as advertised, if not better? Why assume that the “other resources available for buying music” are even remotely as good, absent any evidence?

People assumed that the CD was going to be a cheap and easy source for their music, and look where that got them.

Assumptions? Us?

I could go on for days about assumptions. We try very hard to make as few as we have to around here. We bend over backwards to let the pressings speak for themselves. Most of the time when we’re doing our shootouts we have no idea what pressing is on the table. All we have to go on is the sound.

It may be relative — everything is — but people seem to be able to replicate our findings in their own homes pretty well. Well enough anyway. When they write to us, they really don’t sound all that crazy. In fact they seem fairly rational to us.

More than anything they seem to be enthusiastic about the great sound they’re finally hearing on a favorite album of theirs, courtesy of Better Records. After having played the records ourselves, we don’t think it’s the least bit crazy to believe them.

The assumptions we really do take issue with are these:

  • Carefully remastered records pressed on heavy vinyl and marketed to audiophiles typically sound better than vintage mass-produced records sold to the public at large.
  • Original pressings always sound better than later pressings.
  • Records that look the same should sound the same.
  • Buying audiophile pressings guarantees better sound.
  • Buying audiophile equipment guarantees better sound.

I could go on for days about assumptions or theories that are easily disproved. All you need to do is play a representative sample of the records in question and listen to them critically using a blinded approach. (We call them shootouts.)

If you want to find out whether something about records is true or not, then find out.

Don’t guess and don’t assume. Get the evidence.

There are many commentaries on this blog that will help anyone to improve the way he thinks about records. I implore the reader to make use of them.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Improving Your Critical Listening Skills

What Are the Best Stampers for Led Zeppelin’s Albums?

More of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Led Zeppelin

As if we would tell you!

This is a reworked excerpt from a much longer piece entitled Record Collecting for Audiophiles – The Limits of Expert Advice

In it we discussed the various stampers for some of Led Zeppelin’s albums and what role they play in our Hot Stamper shootouts.

Please to enjoy.

There is no way to know whether a record is any good without playing it, early stamper, late stamper or any other stamper. First pressings (A, 1A, A1) don’t always win shootouts. If they did we would simply buy only first pressings with those early stampers and only sell copies with those early stampers, since they are the best.

But this ignores the inconvenient fact that a great many other things go into the production of a record that have nothing to do with how early the stamper is.

A single copy of an album with stampers numbered (or lettered) A, when compared to B, when compared to C, has no definitive meaning for stampers A, B, C, or any others, because of the tremendous variation in the sound of all the pressings with A, B,C and other stampers.

Example Number One

There is a hot stamper for a certain Zep album that always wins the shootouts, [redacted].

It beats the hell out of the early stampers, A and B. In fact, we don’t even go after A and B anymore because they are expensive and rarely sound good enough to recoup our investment of all the time and money we would spend buying, cleaning and auditioning them in a shootout.

A and B can be good, but why pay top dollar for them when they have never been any better than “good?”

We’re looking for “great” so that we can charge a premium price for them. This accomplishes three things that are obviously extremely important to any business:

  1. It pleases the hell out of our customers.
  2. It pays the bills.
  3. And it lets us pay our staff good wages and bonuses for their hard work, skill and knowledge.

A good staff is essential to any business. No business can be successful without a highly skilled staff that does the work from day to day.

It is hard to imagine that any other retail record business could possibly have a staff with more than a small fraction of the talent of ours. The key members responsible for shootouts know something that few (if any) audiophiles on the face of the earth can rightfully claim to know: the sound of thousands upon thousands of pressings.

Most of our staff of ten has been with us for a very long time. They now run the business since I have retired and they are doing an amazing job. Without them there would be no Hot Stampers.

Back to Zeppelin

As we say, on a certain title, A and B can be good. Some of the hottest stampers for other Zeps, the stampers that win shootouts, are D, E and F.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t buy A, B and C on those titles because they can still be pretty good, say Two Pluses. When you’ve played these kinds of records by the dozens over the course of twenty odd years you learn things empirically that no one who hasn’t done this kind of work can know.

That is why we do things the way we do them: because it works. Customers are very happy these days, and what could be more important than that?

The trick is to listen to plenty of copies of the same title, the more the better. That’s when you hear how different they all sound.

If anyone was doing this kind of thing in a serious way twenty years ago when I started (with the exception of my friend, Robert Pincus, who coined the term “Hot Stampers” in the first place), I have yet to find any evidence of it.

And no one is really doing it at scale other than us. Because it’s expensive, hard and time consuming.

Some of our customers have done the work. They’ve undertaken their own multi-pressing shootouts, and kudos to them for rolling up their sleeves and doing what the vast majority of audiophiles cannot be bothered to do.

That’s how we learned everything we know about records, and anyone who follows our approach will learn more from doing their own shootouts, for themselves, on their own time, on their own stereos, than they will from all the reviews, all the blogs and all the youtube channels combined.

(more…)

Why You Won’t Hear What You Don’t Want to Hear

More Entries in Our Critical Thinking Series

It’s because of a well documented cognitive error known as Confirmation Bias.

Wikipedia sums it up this way:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias cannot be eliminated entirely, but it can be managed, for example, by education and training in critical thinking skills.

But hold on just a minute: What about us? Aren’t we as susceptible to this particular critical thinking error as anyone else?

Of course we are. But that’s where our famous Hot Stamper Shootouts come in. They are the only way we manage to (almost) always stay on the straight and narrow.

By regularly revisiting the same records over and over again under blind testing conditions, playing the best recently acquired copies against our reference pressings, and doing so sometimes more than once a year, we make sure our results are as correct as they can possibly be.

We’ve discussed this issue in depth on our site. The commentary below gets at most of it:

After doing our first shootout for this album a few years back, I can honestly say I had never heard this music sound remotely as good as it did on the best Hot Stamper pressings we played. More importantly, from an audiophile point of view, I can honestly say that I never imagined it could sound as good as I was hearing it. The sound was just OUT OF THIS WORLD.

It’s why we link the Revolutionary Changes in Audio commentary to so many of our Hot Stamper listings. The changes we discuss are precisely what make it possible for any audiophile (this means you) to hear better sound than they ever imagined on all their favorite albums.

All you have to do is do all the stuff we do.

Let’s Face Facts

Hot Stampers simply do not exist for most audiophiles.

Most audiophiles don’t have the system (power, equipment, room, tweaks) to bring them to life.

Or the listening skills to recognize a Hot Stamper pressing were they to encounter one.

The most damning evidence? Most analog-oriented audiophiles are quite happy with the sound of Heavy Vinyl pressings, the kind of BS Vinyl that we regularly trash around here. Those records set a decidedly low standard for sound quality, to our ears anyway, so if the typical audiophile is happy with them, what does that tell you about his audio chain and his critical listening skills?

Rock Your Own Boat

Our Hot Stampers will of course still sound quite a bit better on even a run-of-the-mill audiophile system than any Heavy Vinyl pressing you care to name, but if you’re happy with a $30 reissue, what’s your incentive to spend five or ten or twenty times that amount, based on nothing more than my say-so? Even with a 100% Money Back Guarantee, why rock your own boat?

On the site we take great pains to make it clear that there are many ways that an audiophile — even a novice — can prove to himself that what we say about pressing variations is true, using records he already owns. You don’t have to spend a dime to discover the reality underlying the concept of Hot Stampers.

So-Called Skeptics

But perhaps you may have noticed, as I have, that most audio skeptics do not go out of their way to prove themselves wrong. And a little something psychologists and cognitive scientists call Confirmation Bias practically guarantees that you can’t hear something you don’t want to hear.

Which is all well and good. At Better Records we don’t let that slow us down. Instead we happily go about our business Turning Skeptics Into Believers (one record at a time of course), taking a few moments out to debunk the hell out of practically any audiophile LP we run into, for sport if for no other reason.

(They’re usually so bad it’s actually fun to hear how screwy they sound when played back correctly. Who knows — on a ’70s-era Technics turntable running into a Japanese receiver they might sound great. When we buy old audiophile collections that’s the sort of table we find collecting dust along with the vinyl. Might be just the system you need to get them to sound their “best.”)

(more…)

Master Tape? Yeah, Right

mastertapebox

Thinking Critically About Records

More Heavy Vinyl Commentaries

Let me ask you one question. If so many of the current labels making 180 gram reissues are using the real master tapes — the real two-track stereo masters, not dubs, not cutting masters, not high-resolution digital copies, but the real thing — then why do so many of their records sound so bad?

If you’re honest you’ll say “I Don’t Know…” because, and here I want you to trust me on this, you don’t know. I don’t know either. Nobody does.

Records are mysterious. Their mysteries are many and deep. If you don’t know that you clearly haven’t spent much time with them, or don’t have a very revealing stereo, or don’t listen critically, or something else, who knows what.

They’re mysterious. That’s just a fact.

There is no shortage of records that say “Made From the Original Master Tapes” that simply aren’t. I know this dirty little secret for a fact. I would never say which ones those are for one simple reason: it would make it seem as though others must be, when in fact we have little evidence that very many of them are.

We want them to be — I’m all for it — but how can we know if they are or not? Face it: we can’t.

We must make do — heaven forbid — with actually opening up our own ears and engaging the sound of whichever Heavy Vinyl Reissue we may find spinning on our turntable.  Judging the quality of the sound — no doubt imperfectly — coming out of the speakers.

(more…)

Turning Skeptics into Believers, One Hot Stamper at a Time

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

About 15 years ago we received a letter from a fellow on our email list who found our prices for vinyl curious, as he considered vinyl a bygone technology. [You may have noticed that It has since made quite a comeback.]

Bygone technology? Can’t say I agree with that assessment. It sure would be nice to demonstrate for him how much better records sound than the supposedly superior technologies that have — for most people, perhaps even for this gentleman — replaced them.

Wait, there is a way! A Hot Stamper, 100% Guaranteed to Satisfy or Your Money Back. One click is all it takes. Which is pretty much what I said in my reply to his letter below.

Tom,

I receive your HTML email regularly. Along with the curious prices of your offerings, I occasionally wonder about the opinions expressed in your e-missives. A Roman senator once said that all mortal things are ‘only perfect in death.’ Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust aside: vinyl (of which I own a considerable library) is merely a bygone technology at this point in time. The opinions expressed on your website rarely credit the writer. Whose words are these? And why should I accept the opinions of someone who only stands to profit from their fanaticism? (more…)

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.

(more…)

Arrogant and Elitist Skeptics – They’re the Worst!

Below you will find a link to a reasonably fair and balanced look at the battle between transistors and tubes from Brian Dunning’s skeptoid website, worthwhile reading for those of us who favor a skeptical approach to life (and especially this hobby).

Thirty plus years ago, when I started my little record business, I knew that most records marketed to audiophiles offered junk sound (half-speed masters, Japanese pressings) or junk music (direct to discs by artists nobody ever heard of). As our playback has improved, fewer and fewer of these “specialty” pressings have survived the test of time, a subject we write about endlessly on our site and here on this blog.

For the longest time our motto has been “Records for Audiophiles, Not Audiophile Records,” and we see no reason to change it.  If anything, the current spate of manufacturers of Heavy Vinyl pressings are making records that get worse sounding by the day. Many of the most egregious offenders can be found here.

More commentaries about Heavy Vinyl can be found here. We are not fans of the stuff, not because it’s our competition, but because it just doesn’t sound very good to us.

I Confess

Here is the article. I confess I sped through it quickly, barely skimming it, because I have heard plenty on the subject of  tubes versus transistors. This is my fifth decade in audio and I know where I stand on the subject. I offer it as edification for those who might be interested.

Our Approach

In order to do the work we do, our approach to audio has to be fundamentally different from that of the audiophile who listens for enjoyment. Critical listening and listening for enjoyment go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing.

The first — developing and applying your critical listening skills — allows you to achieve good audio and find the best pressings of the music you love.

Developing critical thinking skills when it comes to records and equipment is not a bad idea either.

Once you have a good stereo and a good record to play on it, your enjoyment of recorded music should increase dramatically.

A great sounding record on a killer system is a thrill.

A Heavy Vinyl mediocrity, played back on what passes for so many audiophile systems these days — regardless of cost — is, to these ears, an intolerable bore.

If this sounds arrogant and elitist, so be it. We set a higher standard. Holding our records to that higher standard allows us to price our records commensurate with their superior sound and please the hell out of the people who buy them.

For those who appreciate the difference, and have resources sufficient to afford them, the cost is reasonable. If it were not we would have gone out of business years ago.

Hot Stampers are not cheap. If the price could not be justified by the better sound quality and quieter surfaces, who in his right mind would buy them? We can’t really be fooling that many audiophiles, can we?

(more…)

Acoustic Sounds Was Selling This Ridiculously Bad “TAS List” Record Back in the ’90s

I remember 15 years ago when Acoustic Sounds was selling the then in-print 25th Anniversary Island pressing (7U, as I recall) for $15, claiming that it was a TAS list record. If you’ve ever heard the pressing, you know it has no business going anywhere near a Super Disc List. It’s mediocre at best and has virtually none of the magic of the good originals.

I refused to sell it back in those days, for no other reason than it’s far from a Better Sounding Record. I don’t like misrepresenting records and I don’t like ripping off my customers.

That pressing was a fraud and I was having none of it.

Chad probably didn’t even know the difference. When you don’t know much about records, you can say all sorts of things and not get called out for them. Audiophiles are a credulous bunch and always have been. They still believe the same nonsense that I foolishly believed back in the ’80s (and even as late as 2000).

Over the last twenty years we’ve figured a few things out. Most of what we learned you can read right here on this blog.

We’re still waiting for most of the audiophile community to catch up with us. Excessive amounts of credulity make it hard for audiophiles to approach audio problems scientifically. They believe things that are easily disproven, but when you want to believe as badly as most audiophiles do, why make the effort to find out whether what you believe is true or not?

It sure is hard to hear what you don’t want to hear.

When your theory is this good, why bother to test it?

(more…)

The Science of Hot Stampers – Incomplete, Imperfect, and (Gulp!) Provisional

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

We have a section on the website you may have seen called We Was Wrong. This section is devoted to discussing the records we think we got, uh, wrong.

Oh yes, it’s true. But it’s not really a problem for us here at Better Records. We see no need to cover up our mistakes. The process of learning involves recognizing and correcting previous errors. Approached scientifically, all knowledge — in any field, not just record collecting or music reproduction — is incomplete, imperfect, and must be considered provisional.

What seems true today might easily be proven false tomorrow. If you haven’t found that out for yourself firsthand yet, one thing’s for sure, you haven’t been in this hobby for very long.

We’re so used to the conventional wisdom being wrong, and having our own previous findings overturned by new ones, that we gladly go out of our way in listing after listing to point out just how wrong we were. (And of course why we think we are correct now.)

A common misperception among those visiting the site is that we think we know it all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We learn something new about records with every shootout.

Each time we go back and play a 180 gram or half-speed mastered LP we used to like (or dislike), we gain a better understanding of its true nature. (The bulk of those “audiophile” pressings seem to get worse and worse over time, a subject that has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere on the site.)

Record cleaning gets better, front ends get better, electronics get better, tweaks get better — everything in your audio system should be improving on a regular basis, allowing you to more correctly identify the strengths and weaknesses of every record you play. (I almost forgot: your ears get better too!)

If that’s not happening, you’re not doing it right. (more…)