“And when the record sounds really good, unusually good, sometimes as good as we’ve ever heard it, we call such a hot-sounding record a Hot Stamper LP.” — Better Records Web site
How much would you pay for a common classic rock record? An LP that’s available for a couple of dollars in practically any used record shop or garage sale? Well, customers looking for the best-sounding versions of their favorite albums are paying several hundreds of dollars or more at Better Records (www.dccblowout.com). Why?
Better Records’ owner Tom Port and crew take the time to listen to dozens, if not hundreds, of copies of albums, making detailed notes about each individual record’s stamper number and playback qualities, in search of what they term a “hot stamper.” Goldmine spoke with Port about hot stampers and why his customers are willing to spend big bucks for big sound.
GM: What are hot stampers and how did you discover them?
Tom Port: About 15 years ago — I have a good friend, Robert Pinkus, who is the producer for the reissue series that Cisco [Records] did. When I moved up to L.A. from San Diego, I met him. We used to find classic rock records that just had amazing sound.
We started noticing the stamper numbers — you know the whole stamper number thing kind of caught on with Harry Pearson [publisher of The Absolute Sound magazine] saying something like, “Oh, you want the FR1 stampers, you want the 1-S for “Pines Of Rome,” you want the FR-1s for your Mercurys. You don’t want any Columbia reissues for your Mercury pressings.”
So this stamper thing had been around and people knew to look in the dead wax, but they didn’t really take it very far. I think the concept of records, even with the same stamper numbers, sounding different hadn’t really caught on with people very well.
There was a Blood, Sweat & Tears record that was on 360 — the second Blood, Sweat & Tears album — I remember one time we found that there was a stamper: It was, let’s say for example 3BB, and Side Two was 3BG. We were playing one, one time, and it didn’t sound very good. So I pulled out my personal copy that I knew was 3BB, and I looked at my copy, which said 3BB. And then in the dead wax, it had very fine scratching — a hash mark and a #2. The one that didn’t sound good didn’t have that hash mark.
That’s obviously a case where the metal stamper, which is what you would scratch something into — it wouldn’t go into the acetate — it would be lightly etched. The second stamper was the better sounding stamper. The first stamper didn’t sound that good.
And so, when Michael Fremer (Stereophile magazine contributing editor) recently wrote that “Oh, hot stampers. All it is, is the first off the — the metal father is used to make many metal mothers, and the metal mothers then make all the stampers. You get the earliest metal mother and you get the earliest stampers, and those are going to be the ones that sound good.”
Well, that’s demonstrably untrue. It’s clearly the kind of thinking that’s logical, but it doesn’t have anything to do with finding good records. We’re all about finding good records. When we’re trying to find good records, we try to ignore everything there is to know about the record, except what it sounds like. It’s the whole idea of actually playing a record to determine what it sounds like, as opposed to looking at the stamper numbers or reading about it or finding out how it was made, or what tape they were using and all that. That’s no help.
That’s like somebody going to a movie if you go to a movie and say, “Yeah. They’ve got the best actors, they’ve got the best producer, they’ve got the best cameraman, they’ve got the best scriptwriter — they’ve got all these great people. This is gonna be a great movie.” Then you walk out of the theater thinking, “That movie wasn’t very good.” And somebody says, “Well, that’s impossible. They had the best of everybody.” [laughs] It just doesn’t work that way. The road to hell is paved with the best intentions.
Some of these audiophile labels have turned out — this is something that’s really only come our way hardcore in the last five years — we talk about this in the Revolutionary Changes In Audio link, which is about how everything has changed in the last five or 10 years with the advent of these really high-quality cleaning fluids. Walker Audio makes fluids. There’s also some really exotic [cleaning] machines. We have this machine that comes from Germany that costs $7,000. Believe me, when you clean a record on it — no matter how clean it was before — it will sound better after you clean it on this machine.
All this stuff has changed. Turntables have gotten a lot better. And the biggest thing, and probably the most upsetting thing — it’s like Schopenhauer’s famous quote, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” That’s exactly what’s going to happen. And now you read on Audiogon and various other audio forums, “Oh, of course no two records sound the same.” But nobody was saying that back when I first started to say it. Nobody. We were it.
Most audiophiles, even the ones who are hardcore vinyl lovers, they still appreciate to some degree — which I think is incorrect — a lot of these audiophile remastering houses. DCC — it went out of business — but there’s lots of labels that have followed in their footsteps. [Records] mastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray and this stuff that Rhino’s doing and Warner Brothers is doing … Rickie Lee Jones and [Joni Mitchell’s] Blue.
GM: Blue has quite a reputation among audiophiles.
Port: Whenever we play these records, we give them every benefit of the doubt. We have a VTA adjustment, we do all that. We have a whole big commentary about Blue, which I highly recommend you read. Blue, we thought, was wrong. Everybody raves about it, and people have written us, telling us we must be crazy not to recognize that Blue is the best-sounding Blue ever.
We said, “We think this record is wrong. But we don’t think it’s our job to tell you why it’s wrong. Because we’re not selling it.” We will, however, help you determine what’s wrong with it by you finding enough copies and cleaning them up and listening to them and telling us what you hear — what stamper numbers you’re working with and what you’re hearing — and we’ll guide you through the process. Because I’ve got at least 50 or 75 copies of Blue. We had over 100 of James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. We have like 115. We just buy them whenever we see them — you never have to pay more than about $5 for that record. You just buy them until you find that one — you sit down and start listening to them.
We started saying that we can’t find virtually any heavy vinyl reissue, virtually any modern reissue, that can compete with the real thing. Now the real thing is what we define it as. In other words, it may not be the original. It may not be an import. It may not be anything. It’s whatever sounds the best.
So sometimes you’ll find a record — I’ll give you a good example — take The Association’s Insight Out. There are a million gold-label original stereo copies. There are very few green-label original stereo copies — they’re not originals, they’re reissues. But the green labels consistently sound better. Why? Because they’re cut on better equipment? Pressed on better vinyl? Who knows? But I play the records — you don’t even have to know that the label is green. You can hear that the label is green. It’s that much better.
Some audiophiles would say, “Always buy the original,” or “Buy the original that’s made in the country that it was recorded in.” For example, Led Zeppelin recorded in England, they didn’t record in the United States. So all the original English pressings should be the best. I got news for you — they’re not the best. They’re not even really very good most of the time. So these sort of theories about what records sound good are mistaken.
And then this whole idea that you can remaster a record with this modern cutting equipment and succeed, seems to us very fallacious. We don’t see very much evidence. So a company like Mobile Fidelity comes along and remasters Santana’s first album at half-speed — well, all the bass is all blurry and woolly and muddy. Half-speed mastering is bad for the bass. You can’t get good bass with half-speed mastering — there’s no such thing.
So they cut this record — and you know, Santana’s mostly about rhythm — and the rhythm is all screwy because the bass is so blubbery. Well, audiophiles don’t seem to notice that — or some do, some of the ones that come to our site do. But you can go up on the average forum and say, “I love that first Santana album that Mobile Fidelity did,” and you’d find a lot of people who would say, “You’re so right. It’s great.” But it’s not great. It’s mediocre at best.
GM: What role does stereo equipment play in finding good records?
Port: We talk endlessly about how you need a big speaker with lots of woofers that can really power the music; otherwise, you’re compressing the heck out of it. You can play the first Santana album on a speaker like that, since it doesn’t have very good bass — there’s no way in the world… imagine Santana in a live concert — how many woofers do they have? That’s what you’re competing with. That’s the sound you’re trying to reproduce. You can’t do it with a 10-inch woofer.
If you’re playing a record on a small box speaker, you might not know that the bass isn’t very good because the bass reproduction isn’t very good to start with. If you don’t know what good bass is, how are you going to know if it’s good or bad? If you’re not playing a record back on a good system — you know, audiophile records sound great on mid-fi equipment. They get worse and worse as your stereo gets better. This is the dirty little secret of audio — as your stereo gets better, you will find that audiophile records sound more and more faulty. They don’t sound right. And your stupid old American rock records that cost $2 at a thrift store start to sound really musical and really magical.
You’ll go, “Wow the cymbals are dead on the money, and the bass is so much more realistic.” You could ask, “Are these modern records being made on bad equipment? Are they EQ-ing them funny? Do they not have good taste?” I don’t know and really don’t care. I’m the business of selling you a great-sounding record. I don’t want to sell a bad record. I’ll sell you something else.
Take the case of Steely Dan’s Aja: We offered all our hot-stamper customers a free copy of Cisco’s 180-gram version of Aja. We’ll give one to you for free, so that if you have any doubts that our $200, $300, $400 version isn’t going to kill it, we’ll give you the record to shoot-out for yourself. We’re pretty sure that the two things are very, very different.
And so when we sell these records for many hundreds of dollars — you see the prices on the Web site — the people that buy them don’t send them back. They’re pretty sure they got $500 worth of sound, because most of them either have copies already or they have some heavy vinyl versions. Occasionally, we’ll get a record back, but it’s mostly because of surface problems, not because it didn’t sound good.
Another thing, I have a very expensive tonearm, the Triplanar. It’s $4,700. And I have a high quality cartridge, the Dynavector 17D, which has a very, very, very fine tip. So it gets way deep in the groove. About a half-dozen people have returned records because they heard a skip or a loud pop. When they return them, almost without exception, they play perfectly here. Why? Because when you have a $4,700 tonearm and a high-quality cartridge and it’s set up correctly and you’ve got a lot of experience, you rarely have problems with records like that. Once every 10 years that might happen. The better your equipment, the fewer problems.
GM: It’s difficult to find used records that have no noise.
Port: Some people say, “I have this equipment that’s so revealing, I need only the best quality, dead-quiet pressings. That’s why I have to buy all this brand-new vinyl.” When you take an old record and play it on an old turntable, the turntable is causing a lot of the noise. If you have an old Technics turntable, an old Dual turntable — whatever you’ve got — half the noise is being created by that turntable. The record itself, once you’ve cleaned it properly, will be surprisingly quiet. We were doing a shoot-out today: We had a pink label, original British Emerson, Lake & Palmer, their first album. It played dead quiet. It’s 40 years old! It’s a used record! But it was very, very quiet. Anybody who complains about records basically has bad records, uncleaned records or bad equipment. Because most records — when you really clean them up and play them on a good turntable, and they’re not scratched or abused — will play pretty quiet. This whole business of virgin vinyl and having to use virgin vinyl because old records have old vinyl — well that old vinyl is actually pretty darn quiet most of the time.
GM: How quickly does a $300 or $400 hot stamper sell?
Port: Once one of my customers buy one or two of our records, they get addicted to them very quickly. We do these mailings on Wednesday nights, and within probably 20 minutes of the mailing going out, half the records in the mailing are gone. And it’s almost always the most expensive ones first. Why? People go, “Man, I’ve always wanted the best-sounding version of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush or The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, or whatever it is. And when they get them, they get their money’s worth. They get the real record.
GM: How much work is it to find a hot stamper?
Port: We may go through 10 or 20 or 50 copies to find a hot stamper. You have to clean each record. It’s a lot of work. Most people don’t want to do that work. We do, and if the record doesn’t blow your mind, you get your money back. We want you to have your mind blown. We’ll describe the musical qualities of every record: how good the bass is, how good the mid-range is, how good the top-end is, how distorted it is, how open it is — these are all descriptions from our notes, when we’re sitting down making evaluations of these records we’ll have 10 or 15 copies and very extensive notes for Side 1 and Side 2. And then when we go back to write the listing, we’ll use those notes to highlight the records.
When you listen to a record, you’re listening for what it’s doing right and what it’s doing wrong. You can try this. Listen to Side 1 of a record and make critical notes. What’s the bass like? How’s the mid-range? How powerful is it? Now flip it over to Side 2. There’s almost no chance that Side 2 will sound the same. It’s like 1 out of 20. No two sides of a record sound the same, and you can prove it with nearly every record you own.
GM: What’s the “hottest” hot stamper you’ve come across?
Port: We’re on record as saying that the right stamper of Blood, Sweat & Tears is the best-sounding pop or rock record ever made. There’s just nothing like it.
GM: Are there multiple hot stampers of different records?
Port: Absolutely. There’s lots of good stampers, and we discover new stampers all the time. We discovered the best-sounding Side 2 of Blood, Sweat & Tears about a year ago. And we have commentary on the Web site. We charged $850, the highest price we’ve ever put on a record on the Web site. We charged $850 for this record because Side 2 was so far above anything I had ever heard, and it was a stamper I never knew could sound that way.