“Better Records/Hot Stampers”/Well-Recorded Jazz

Vinyl collector culture, an LJC Public Interest post, .

Better Records And  Hot Stampers  are an American record selling company, based on the premise that old records can sound dramatically better than ones made today.  I had heard of them in passing, noted some had strong opinions, knew very little about them, decided give them a closer look.

They have sought out copies of in-demand records, carefully cleaned and sonically evaluated, for sale. Though offering various jazz, blues and classical titles, nostalgic classic rock seems to be their core business. 

They freely admit they are met with hoots of derision in some quarters of the audio community, accused of (they quote) “ripping off gullible audiophiles too stupid to realize that what you are selling is the worst kind of snake oil. That, or false hope, cynically preying on those who have more money than sense and laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s a familiar narrative on Hi-Fi Forums, especially from “audiophiles” who buy their speaker cable from Home Depot electrics, and claim to feel sorry for people who actually try better stuff, because they know it doesn’t make any difference.

Wired magazine ran a Hot Stampers story back in 2015, you can read it for yourself. Full article:  Why Audiophiles Are Paying $1,000 for This Man’s Vinyl . The “audiophile” pictured below is about five decades short of actual audiophiles seen at high-end audio shows, mostly older guys whose basic needs were met long ago.

I have no dog in this fight, but based on my own experience listening to thousands of vintage pressings, I agree with many of the principles Better Records founder Tom Port espouses, especially the merits of original vintage pressings over many modern 180gm reissues, who often conceal or misrepresent their sources and are actually the ones “ripping off gullible audiophiles”. The difficulty is that, in order to sell better records, Better Records first have to find them. Good luck with that.

“What are the rules for collecting records with the best sound quality?”

“The answer, of course, is that there are no such rules, and never will be. There is only trial and error. And if you mistakenly  pin your hopes on a current re-issue — your disappointment is almost guaranteed.”

Better Records argue each copy of a record sounds different from every other copy, in a spectrum from better to worse. My experience confirms this is mostly true. Where I have doubles, one will often sound better than the other. I frequently compare copies with audio buddies, and often there will be a clear winner, sometimes too close to call. Promos take first prize.  With few exceptions, most originals sound better than most later reissues of the same recording, certainly better than 70s and 80s reissues, and better than so-called “audiophile” reissues in the 90’s and noughties, though those of the last couple of years are in some cases a different beast, which justify the description “audiophile” The problem is the scarce availability of originals!  

As an aside, the word audiophile is literally someone who “loves sound“, or more specifically, listens to music for that sole purpose, not as a background to other activities. I prefer the description “fussy listener”, with good kit,  a willing to make comparisons and has developed a vocabulary around sound quality. Sample of one is very forgiving. Sample of two, less so.

Better Records claim to audition large numbers of candidates for chosen titles, find the best sounding copies, and offer one to buy, suitably priced, (with a money back guarantee). Only in America, salesmanship or snake-oil, but not necessarily entirely without foundation.

What makes a copy “better” ? Vinyl Auditioning Criteria 

  • Energy What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality
  • Transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks for the piano, horns and drums (not the smear and thickness common to many LPs.)
  • Tight punchy bass – notes with clear fingering and good transient information, with frequency extension further down.
  • Top end extension  – natural air and space in the upper register, instruments showing their full  harmonic information.
  • Transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the sound-field, showing you the space and air around the player’s instruments
  • Presence and immediacy. The musicians aren’t “back there” somewhere, way behind the speakers, they are front and centre, in the room

These auditioning criteria seem good to me for small combo acoustic instruments, and virtually describe Van Gelder engineering. Classic rock perhaps have other attributes. Not all vintage pressings sound great. I have some classic 60s R&B albums, and they sound absolutely dreadful compared to the sonics of  Blue Note recorded the same year, no comparison, but back then it was about haircuts, not hi-fi. (Fifty years later, it’s about hi-fi: often not much hair to speak of.)

High Fidelity

“The unique sound of every instrument is reproduced with remarkable fidelity. That’s what we mean by “Hi-Fi,” not the kind of audiophile phony BS that passes for Hi-Fidelity these days – boosted top,  bloated bottom,  sucked-out midrange”.

If you accept the Better Records proposition, some copies are better than others, can they actually supply you with the best sounding copy, say,  of Kind of Blue? There are over 480 editions of KOB.

The Sales Proposition: example – Kind Of Blue

Once they have caught your attention, they offer : 

A near-mint condition KOB, “vintage Columbia red label”  – the  description “vintage” is ambiguous, could be original Columbia six-eye, but I fear it means the common 1970s-1990s “Columbia-All-Round” red  label.  Another warning flag is “near-mint” condition, further suggesting the more modern origin. From the careful wording, I hazard it is this red label, not so clever.

This is the point where you have to trust them, or not.  Buy-It-Now  for $500. Pricey but not outrageous if it lives up to the promise, and you can always send it back.

The Well-Recorded Jazz Hall of Fame

What caught my eye was Better Records list of Well-Recorded Jazz Albums. The Core Collection consists of around 80 jazz titles which they have picked out as being exceptionally well-recorded. Now that floats my boat.

A place on the list is not based on “the best Jazz compositions and artistic performance”.  It is a judgement on the quality of the recording engineer, hence the inclusion of many recordings by Rudy Van Gelder, Roy DuNann, Fred Plaut, Tom Dowd and others.

For this purpose I was just interested in which titles they consider “well recorded”. I found myself in agreement with many, but also a few surprises, especially the excursion into 70’s jazz rock, which I never thought of as “well recorded”, but may be I’m wrong. I few sample entries I have linked to the listening notes.

The Better Records Well-recorded Jazz Core Collection (sorted alphabetically)

Cannonball Adderley – What I Mean
Cannonball Adderley / Somethin’ Else – Blue Note
Cannonball Adderley – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!
Airto – Fingers – CTI
Mose Allison – Mose Alive! – Atlantic
Gene Ammons – Blue Gene – Prestige
Bob And Ray / Throw A Stereo Spectacular
Count Basie – 88 Basie Street
Count Basie Big Band – Farmers Market Barbecue – Pablo
George Benson – White Rabbit
Ray Brown With The All-Star Big Band, Engineered By Ray Hall
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Further Out (Mono) 6 Eye
Dave Brubeck – Time Out – Columbia
Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue – Blue Note
Donald Byrd – A New Perspective – Blue Note
Caldera / Carnavalito!
Antonio Carlos Jobim – Wave – A&M
John Coltrane – Soultrane – Prestige
John Coltrane – Coltrane Plays The Blues – Atlantic
John Coltrane / Blue Train – Blue Note
Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue On The 6 Eye Label In Stereo
Miles Davis – Someday My Prince Will Come
Miles Davis – Porgy And Bess – Columbia 6 Eye
Miles Davis / Basic Miles
Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain
Miles Davis / Steamin’ – Prestige
Deodato – Prelude – CTI
Masterpieces By Ellington Circa 1951
Duke Ellington / Ellington Indigos
Duke Ellington – Jazz Party In Stereo
Bill Evans – You Must Believe In Spring
Red Garland Trio – Groovy – Prestige
Red Garland Trio – Bright And Breezy
Getz Au Go Go
Dexter Gordon – One Flight Up – Blue Note
Dave Grusin – Discovered Again! – Sheffield Direct To Disc
Vince Guaraldi – Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus
Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage – Blue Note
Hampton Hawes At The Piano – Contemporary
Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay
Wynton Kelly Trio & Sextet – Kelly Blue – Riverside
John Klemmer – Touch – Mo-Fi
Michel Legrand / After The Rain
Herbie Mann – Live At The Village Gate
Shelly Manne And His Friends – My Fair Lady On The Black Label
Shelly Manne & His Friends – Bells Are Ringing – Contemporary
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds Of Fire – CBS Orange
Charles Mingus – Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus
Charles Mingus – Pre-Bird – Mercury
Charles Mingus – Mingus Dynasty
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um – Columbia
Charles Mingus – Mingus Revisited – Limelight/Mercury
Charles Mingus – Oh Yeah – Atlantic
Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners
Thelonious Monk – Criss-Cross – Columbia
Wes Montgomery – California Dreaming
Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder – Blue Note
Oliver Nelson – More Blues and the Abstract Truth
Oliver Nelson – Blues And The Abstract Truth
Phineas Newborn, Jr. – A World Of Piano! – Contemporary
Joe Newman Quintet / Jive At Five
Art Pepper + Eleven – Modern Jazz Classics
Art Pepper –  Meets The Rhythm Section – Contemporary
Oscar Peterson / The Trio – Live From Chicago
Oscar Peterson Trio – West Side Story
Oscar Peterson – We Get Requests
The Poll Winners – Straight Ahead
Andre Previn & His Pals – West Side Story – Contemporary
Return To Forever – Romantic Warrior
Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus – Prestige
Sonny Rollins – Way Out West – Contemporary
Bola Sete – Tour De Force – Fantasy
Bud Shank And The Sax Section
Horace Silver – Song For My Father – Blue Note
Jimmy Smith / Bashin’ – The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery – The Dynamic Duo – Verve
Gabor Szabo – 1969
The Three / Self-Titled (45 Rpm) Shelley Manne
The Three/ The Three On Inner City
Grover Washington, Jr. – All The King’s Horses
Weather Report – Sweetnighter
Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Ben Webster – Soulville
Frank Zappa – Waka/Jawaka

This Jazz Collector’s Take-away

The list is at least thought-provoking, prompted me to take some for a spin. Some would not be on my list,  other titles should be, such as Grant Green’s Idle Moments, one of Van Gelder’s finest recordings. It took me only about four years to acquire an original mono pressing. Does Better Records offer a concierge service to hunt down a better copy for me? 

I am not making any judgement for or against Better Records, as I have no experience of them.   A lot of critics obviously don’t either, but that doesn’t stop them wading in. There was a great ad in the 60s for the Irish stout Guinness: “I’ve never tried Guinness because I don’t like it“. 

I am on the same wavelength as to the quality of original pressings in general, and against bogus “audiophile” reissues from undeclared sources, but … but. . .  180gm vinyl!  (Not to be confused with those all-analog remastered from original tapes, though even they struggle against an original, if you can find one!)

May be it  works better for nostalgic classic rock, many editions and millions of copies in circulation, and  if it makes people happy, why not?

I quite like the idea of grading of records not only for vinyl and cover condition, also for sonic quality,  A+++.  though I am not sure it works in practice, insufficient trust.

 You can read more thoughts on audio quality at The Skeptical Audiophile – In Search of Better Records. and ignore the selling side as you wish. .

Collector’s Corner 

Affordable quality modern stereo reissues (just one mono)  remastered from original tapes.  Some will be on my shopping list, others I already have a mono original.

Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple I am curious about. Mine is a horrible sounding copy, strangely fierce and unbalanced presentation, a West Coast pressing (Bert Co labels) re-mastered by a Liberty engineer, not from the Van Gelder master.  Better Records kindly note.


Blue Note Classic Vinyl Release Schedule second half 2022

July 15, 2022 – Hidden Gems

July 29, 2022 – Hard Bop

August 19, 2022 – Post-Bop

September 16, 2022 – The Rebirth

  • Charlie Hunter – Bing Bing Bing! (1995)
  • Joe Lovano – I’m All For You (2003)

October 21, 2022 – Soul Jazz

  • Big John Patton – Oh Baby! (1965)
  • Stanley Turrentine – Common Touch (1968)

November 18, 2022 – The Avant-Garde

  • Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1964)
  • Grachan Moncur III – Evolution (1963)

December 16, 2022 – Bebop

  • Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 – BLP 1510 (1947-48)
  • J. J. Johnson – The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, Vol. 1 – BLP 1505 (1953-54).

Our friends at Tone Poets have their finger on the collector pulse. TP stands not only for Tone Poet, but it also stands for Test Pressing. If you subscribe to the belief sonic quality degrades  between first and last off the stampers,  then a Test Pressing /Promo  is the best indicator of sonic quality. Sort of like the “Hot Stamper” modern equivalent,

Well, you can now bid on one at auction, a few days still open.

I like the idea. Happy Listening!

AUDIOPHILE WATCHDOG (Woof Woof!)

WARNING!  Art Pepper +Eleven – Amazon  release substitution claimed as “Price Drop”! 

Concord have just released a Craft AAA reissue of the Art Pepper 1959 Big Band title “+ Eleven”, priced around £33. Recent Craft Acoustic Sounds are pretty much the real deal, on a par with TPs, pricing not far off.

If you look on Amazon today, miraculously there has apparently  been a “price drop”. Copies of earlier reissues of indeterminate quality have suddenly appeared in its place – “my basket changed”. I immediately cancelled my purchase when I discovered it had been substituted with the Wax Time reissue, and no longer the Craft 2022 reissue. There was another +Eleven issue, for £23, not just differential pricing.  It took some digging to find out what was going on.

Wax Time is a public domain reissue specialist based in Spain. (EU  public domain covers recordings made before 1963. Copyright protection 1963 on extends from 50 to 70 years, leaving the field open to only unofficial releases). The Wax Time logo is obscured by an Amazon download link, visible only in Expanded View.  Star Rating and Customer  Reviews remain unchanged, generic. The source will be a digital file cut to disc, but (ahem) “Limited Edition” and “180gm audiophile”, whatever that means.

The OJC reissue at £23 has an issue date of 2014, found only by drilling down It was an official Concord reissue. Concord own the rights and have possession of the original tapes, so there is a possibility it was remastered from those tapes, but you are left guessing. The “31% price drop” is a false comparison between this and the 2022 Craft AAA price. It is not the same edition.

The actual new AAA Craft reissue is now nowhere to be seen, possibly sold out, may reappear in future (price hike!) 

Whatever you think of Hot Stampers, it goes some way to explaining why Amazon and many other sellers stick rigidly to the  “180gm Audiophile” sole description with no further detail of provenance, feigned ignorance.  Amazon’s hand caught firmly in the cookie jar, but lucky for them there is no agreed definition of “Audiophile”.

LJC

15 thoughts on ““Better Records/Hot Stampers”/Well-Recorded Jazz

  1. Like others have said, they don’t list any attributes of the pressing…no way I would pay 500 bucks for a 70’s repress that I can get on Discogs for 30…it’s a head-shaker

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  2. Rumors and hyperbole often start with facts, and then take off in odd directions. Better Records business model is validated every time a music listener decides that one pressing sounds better than another. Discogs has extensive data regarding esoteric pressing variations, and prices do vary based upon this pressing minutia. Where Better Records veers off into hyperbole (absurdity?) is in how they describe condition and deliberately obscure pressing details. The highlighted KOB pressing could be a 6 eye, could be a 2 eye, could be the pressing that our author pointed to. One does not know whether the pressing in question is a “1a “or “3a “….there IS a sonic difference and this should be critical information in describing what is offered. But Better Records does not include this information ? One does not know unless a question is asked, or $500 is risked. BTW- the lp in question is now listed as sold….. That said, I do not discount the possibility that a later pressing can sound better than an earlier pressing, in fact I often prefer the sound of a mint later pressing to an iffy earlier pressing. It isn’t just background noise. A clean later pressing often exhibits better transient response and greater clarity at frequency extremes. In my opinion, an early Liberty, that is a “true” Blue Note pressing in all but pressing plant (ear is missing- was Van Gogh the pressing engineer ?), is the sonic equivalent of an earlier pressing, ear included.

    Another aspect of their business model is the claim that they purchase and then listen to multiple copies of the same title to determine their “Hot Pressings”. That takes time and money. Consider the cost of paying someone to listen to 20 or 30 or 50 pressings to find that one copy that sounds demonstrably better ? That cost has to be recovered by the selling price of the Hot Pressing. For some, time is money and they would rather purchase the presumed benefit of someone else’s time instead of investing their own time to achieve the same outcome.

    As for me, I am not a client of BR, nor do I expect I will every be. I enjoy the process of comparisons, I enjoy collecting, and I enjoy this hobby.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. There has been much posting on LJC over the years about matrix numbers, etchings and stamping in the dead wax, “ear” symbols delineating the pressing plant and so on. A great deal of minute detail has been recorded in order to properly identify records and these details seriously impact on the value.

    The site in question doesn’t seem to be concerned with this type of info .I best stick to LJC when buying jazz records, or ,my gut reaction down the local charity shop, if I’ve forgotten my mobile

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  4. Another great post LJC. I am not familiar with this group and judging by some of the reactions, I probably never will be, but I love the list (although I didn’t know that the 50s comedy team of Bob And Ray did a Jazz album). Many things listed have also been reissued by Acoustic Sound and other “audiophile” purveyors,but some I’d never considered as particularly well recorded
    The dichotomy of interests between the two audiophile camps has always been fascinating. Both want to hear the original sound in it’s truest form. One group defines that as being what the engineer and producer heard in the studio, the other, what the consumer heard originally on their playback machine. They are not often the same thing. Just listen to the difference between a near mint original and a source tape re-issue. I love them both.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read quite a few of their posts, etc. Stampers wear, mastering engineers produced excellent results for original and older reissues… fair enough… and the point that older versions can sound better than modern reissues is worth making… but I no longer read their posts when I encounter them as I’m tired of the blanket prejudice towards modern reissue labels, and the way they suck the joy out of the passion for listening to recorded music. I’m not their target audience, though, so… so what?

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  6. I can see where their “model” might work for fairly common titles like the Brubeck catalog where you can feasibly gather up lots of copies for evaluation purposes. That being said, not sure who might pay $700 for a copy of Time Further Out or $350 for Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady, both of which I recently dropped off at the local Goodwill. If you happen to know of any folks in dire need of Dave’s Hot Stampers, a finders fee is available 😉

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  7. Better Records goes all in on a philosophy–“old is better than new” and sticks to it no matter what, charging exorbitant prices for records that can be found easily in the wild. While in many cases, a first pressing is better than a recent reissue, what I can say with almost near certainty is that the Tone Poet and Classic Vinyl Blue Note reissues sound better than their original counterparts (having had over a 100 such original mono and stereo pressings of various titles). Joe Harley who heads the Tone Poet series described this on a few podcasts and I had to hear it with my own ears to confirm it. The simple fact is that RVG used a more narrow mastering bandwidth, curring off much of the higher an lower frequencies when mastering, to insure that records wouldn’t skip on old turntables. Joe Harley and Kevin Gray noticed this with some of the mastered tapes, so instead of trying to adhere to the “original sound” of the first pressing, they aim for the best sounding version of the tape. And I think they achieve it.

    I agree that 180gram is mostly hype, and often worse than original pressings, which in the old days were about 140 grams–which seems to be the swee spot. Some of those old Dynaflex RCA recors which weighed virtually nothing warped very easily even when stored properly

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