Sorry, but this is not going to be one of those analog vs. digital rants that goofball audiophile types like to indulge in at the drop of a hat. In fact I probably should have just called it something like “Why you should never buy new vinyl versions of classic albums.”
Actually I like digital audio just fine. In fact, until four years ago, I’d have told you that I preferred it. SACDs, HDCDs, High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-Rays, 24-bit HD master audio files, 5.1 surround sound, DSD files—I have a large amount of this kind of material, both on physical media and with another ten terabytes on a computer drive. I like streaming audio very much. Roon is the bomb! Let me be clear, I’ve got no problem with digital audio. Even if I did, 99.9% of all music made these days is produced on a computer, so there’s really no practical way to avoid it. Analog and digital audio are two very separate things and each has its own pluses and minuses. I like them both for different reasons.
Please allow me to state the obvious right here at the outset: Most people WILL NOT GIVE A SHIT about what follows. One out of a hundred maybe, no, make that one out of a thousand. Almost none of you who have read this far will care about this stuff. If you are that one in a thousand person, read on, this was written especially for you.
Everyone else, I won’t blame you a bit if you want to bail.
FROM THE BEGINNING
I have always been—and have self-consciously identified myself as such from a young age—an audiophile. Right around the time when I was first figuring out what rock music was, a large neon Wurlitzer jukebox was installed at the local swimming pool complex I went to with my younger sister. Three songs for a quarter. I’d play things like “Rock On” by David Essex, “Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” (and its gorgeous flipside, “From the Beginning”), Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and “Money” by Pink Floyd. I didn’t just like these songs, I liked the way they SOUNDED. I’d stand right in front of this thing and just absorb the soundwaves. It made my entire being fizz with happiness. I was happier spending my quarters on music instead of Klondike bars and Slushies. It was a true revelation. I loved listening to my Batman radio, but this was a truly delicious sensory experience. Mind = blown.
My parents had almost zero music in the house. A Smothers Brothers album, a Bob Newhart record, a Jonathan Winters record, a Gene Autry Christmas album where he sings “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” One Johnny Cash record. That was about it. And then it happened: A huge fun fair/garage sale was held on the grounds of our church and there it was, a beautiful Marantz receiver for FIVE DOLLARS. For a while I had crappy little speakers, but providence soon intervened again and I found some big Pioneers with 10” woofers in a St. Vincent de Paul store for ten bucks. My stereo might have cost just $15 all in—I was also using my dad’s old record player—but it was loud, and as far as I was concerned it sounded fantastic.
I scoured yard sales and the cut out bins of low rent department stores in search of cheap records, and it being the 1970s, I found a lot of them. By the time I started the six grade I had amassed a sizable record collection for a 10-year-old kid. I was relentless. My best score was an entire box of what would now be considered classic rock staples—dozens of albums by Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Who’s Next, a zipper cover Sticky Fingers, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, the Allman Brothers, Brain Salad Surgery, Band on the Run, Blood, Sweat & Tears, etc—four for a dollar. It was an instant record collection and the single greatest record shopping day of my life, never to be equalled.
As I got older, I always had pretty good but never great stereo gear—“mid-fi” as they say. You can’t have an elaborate stereo living in a New York City apartment or your neighbors will just hate you. It was stuff that I’d buy used at Stereo Exchange or from a friend of mine who’d get a new preamp or whatever, and then decide he hated it and needed a different one. When CDs came out, he was someone who echoed what Michael Fremer was writing about in Stereophile magazine, that CDs didn’t sound nearly as good as vinyl and in fact, they sounded a whole lot worse.
I never got that. Obviously CDs were superior! On a purely technical level they have a much wider dynamic range than records are capable of reproducing. You don’t have to worry about dust, scratches, or inner groove distortion, plus they last forever. Or maybe I just never had a good enough turntable (I didn’t) to be able to hear the difference. If you have a mid-fi system, CDs do sound better. Although I continued to buy records, when CDs of things that I wanted to buy started to come out (remember that at first it was just Phil Collins, Dire Straits, and Billy Joel CDs) my allegiance shifted to the new format and I’d replace the album with the CD. I still owned a few thousand albums. By the late 90s, with my books, records and CDs steadily encroaching upon our small Manhattan living space, my girlfriend at the time convinced me that if I hadn’t listened to a particular album in over five years, it was probably time to sell it.
I ended up getting rid of nearly all of my vinyl. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Five years ago I was having a back and forth via email about records with longtime Dangerous Minds contributor Marc Campbell who took a pro vinyl stance—unsurprisingly since he does own a record store—while I said “no, not for me ” to an antiquated format that had barely been improved upon since Thomas Edison had first invented it. Marc stuck to his guns. He felt, strongly, that a good vinyl pressing played on a good stereo system was better than any high definition 24-bit digital file.
Marc sent me the URL to a Wired article about a guy named Tom Port, the proprietor of an operation called Better Records, who sells what he calls “Hot Stampers.” Port claims—and it is his business to provide this service, for a price—that he has identified the very best copies of classic albums. The very, very best. He does the legwork for you, a vinyl sommelier, a record sherpa, sitting there in his office doing shootouts with a large stack of the same album, keeping only the best and selling the rest. But it will cost you. Port was selling Beatles, Hendrix, Coltrane, and many other things for ridiculous prices. Want a hot stamper of Led Zeppelin III? The absolute BEST Led Zeppelin III you’re ever gonna hear, a Led Zeppelin III that you didn’t even know existed? That’ll be $799, thank you!
I couldn’t believe that anyone could be so gullible to pay those prices. Still it seemed like many of Port’s Better Records customers were very happy with their purchases and he offered a no excuses, hassle free return policy if you didn’t enthusiastically agree with his lofty claims for his pricey hot stampers. Was this merely confirmation bias going on in the minds of the stock brokers and dotcom millionaires who were rich enough to afford $400 Rod Stewart albums? Or were these actually, you know, better records? I scoffed at the notion.
I didn’t scoff for long.
EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG (AT LEAST EVERYTHING I KNEW WAS WRONG)
I knew that there was a vinyl revival going on, but I paid it no mind. It seemed like some sort of retro poser thing. I’d see heritage rock albums for sale at Urban Outfitters alongside crappy Crosley suitcase turntables and groan. I imagined them displayed proudly in the homes of young guys with elaborate mustaches and craft beer. It just seemed like… not my thing. I had my home theater 5.1 surround sound system and my high resolution digital audio formats galore, which were obviously superior to something pressed into a pancake of a petroleum byproduct, right? How could a needle running across the grooves of an old fashioned plastic platter possibly compare to the perfect sound of digital? Impossible! The technology of the longplayer album has hardly improved at all in the past 70 years. This was something akin to a “back to VHS” movement, from what I could tell. I rolled my eyes at these kooky analog Andys. Soon every hipster with a Hitler haircut would be collecting 8-track tapes.
The gift of a high end turntable—I had not played records in nearly two decades—from a friend of mine who is a world renowned audio designer saw me reevaluate this position. I’d never actually owned a good turntable before, just mediocre ones, and this gorgeous deck, quite honestly, was life changing and a real turning point in the way I experience music. I really thought I was sophisticated in such matters. I thought I knew what I was talking about. As I would soon discover, I was simply clueless.
I had been gradually upgrading my audio system, but with the unexpected addition of this beautiful high end turntable, the weakest link became glaringly obvious. My (at one time really good) AV receiver was clearly inadequate compared to the rest of my gear. I spent a week in bed after an operation and went down a deep internet rabbit hole about tube amps. The tube sound was described as “holographic” which intrigued me right away. Something else that I took notice of was a high end audio dealer in Tokyo quoted as saying that Japanese audiophiles had no interest in solid state amps anymore, and that even the best ones were dead stock in his store. Hmm. What did these Japanese audiophiles know that I didn’t know?
The deeper down this rabbit hole I went, the more I wanted a tube amp. I shopped around and auditioned several before finding one with hand-soldered point-to-point wiring (no printed circuit boards or transistors) and the highest quality parts. My turntable/tube amp combination makes for an all analog signal path, with nothing digital in the circuitry whatsoever, so older albums, those recorded between the early 1950s to about the mid-1980s in analog studios, with analog mixing boards and mastered to analog tape, are played back optimally, in exactly the manner they were meant to be heard.
Once you hear this you cannot unhear it. And then you start craving more of it like a drug.
This is my story.
MY VINYL REVIVAL
For the past three years I’ve gone about rebuying the cream of the crop of my former record collection, and I have learned quite a bit along the way.
First, with rare exception, I buy almost no newly manufactured vinyl. If—like 99.99% of almost every new song that is created these days—something was recorded digitally, I have no need to pay money for it to be pressed into plastic or to store it in my home. I can just stream that. It’s not going to sound any better. Why bother making (or buying) a digitally-sourced analog product? That makes no sense to me. There is so little to be gained from an audio fidelity point of view by doing this and plenty to lose.
The same is true of digitally remastered classic rock and jazz new vinyl reissues. Unless you know that something was mastered in a fully analog cutting path and from the original master tape—any label that makes the effort to do this will have a hype sticker alerting you to it—you should flat out avoid it. Played at a moderate volume, modern records might sound “fine,” but turn them up and the shortcomings are easily discernible. Newly manufactured classic albums on vinyl that have been digitally remastered almost always sound poorly—muddy, boomy, flat, lifeless—when compared to a vintage pressing and in my opinion are a complete waste of money.
Luckily it didn’t take me too long to figure this out. Right after I got the turntable, a friend at a major label sent me a very heavy care package bursting with records, many of them 60s/70s classic rock reissues. From the first one I played to the last, they simply didn’t sound right to me. It was almost as if the audio had been “smudged” if that makes sense. The midrange was a mess. The overall effect was weak. At higher listening volumes, these albums tended to sound extremely muddled. Something was compromised. And then I realized—oh shit, these records have been mastered from digital files! Think about this: originally laid down on analog tape, this music has been transcoded to digital, heavily compressed and then transcoded back again to analog when this digital information got etched into the grooves of a vinyl record. If major label catalog classics on vinyl often sound as if they’ve been indifferently sourced from CDs, there’s a reason for that. They probably have been!
I became pretty leery of these heavy vinyl reissues, but I did still buy a few more. One day I went to the record store and picked up new reissues of the Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj, The Slider by T.Rex and A Kiss in a Dreamhouse by Siouxsie and the Banshees. All three of them, from different labels and each a 180 gram platter, sounded like shit. Lifeless. All of the energy had been drained out of them. They were so bad that I knew that I would probably never play any of them ever again—all of them sounded far better on CD or streaming—and I felt ripped off and disappointed. Why would anyone want products like this? Are they viewed merely as “collectibles”? Maybe they look nice sitting next to your Crosley, but to actually listen to them?
This point was driven home when I found a used first UK pressing of the Banshees album at another local record store. I played the new version again first to remind myself of what it sounded like. Dull. No sparkle. Limp. Then I dropped the needle on the 35-year-old original release, which revealed itself as a sensuous, shimmering, sexy beast of an album. There was just no comparison. One was all analog and sounded great, the other other had gone from analog to digital and then back to analog again and sounded just like you’d expect it to, lousy.
The final nail in the new vinyl coffin for me was one of the Bowie boxes. I was excited to unwrap it, it looked great, but it sounded really bad. It was shocking to me that this was the state of such a major and important catalog and that these pallid pressings would henceforth be regarded as the definitive versions of these musical masterpieces.
THEM’S THE RULES
If you were to play a big stack of different versions of the same album, pressings manufactured all over the world, invariably some of them, maybe just one or two, will stand out from the rest. Sometimes there’s not much difference at all among pressings, but sometimes the differences are vast. The trick is how to locate the best sounding pressings.
To do this you have to think like a detective, or better still like Tom Port of Better Records. But few people have the time, inclination or deep enough pockets to buy loads of the same album to find the winner. How could one at least narrow it down to the likeliest candidates?
Discogs makes it easy to hunt down very specific pressings of almost any album ever made. Not all records are created equally. CDs sure, one is a perfect clone of the next, but with vinyl there are a lot of variables. Often there are several different versions of an album, perhaps even hundreds, that were mastered by different technicians working in differently equipped studios across the globe from sources of varying quality. These records can sound quite different from country to country. But it’s not just the mastering. The vinyl quality can have a lot to do with it. Records made in the same factory during different production runs might sound noticeably different. There can even be audible differences from within the very same production run: a record that is pressed at the beginning of the stamper’s life will likely sound noticeably better when compared to a copy pressed up after that same stamper has squashed several thousand pucks of hot plastic into records. A stamper can deteriorate appreciably after just 1000 pressings, but might still be used to make 10,000 records before it is retired. It stands to reason that what can be presumed to be the earliest copies coming off the production line—such as white label or gold stamped promotional copies—would likely sound the best. When you see promos selling for big bucks, this is why.
A truism about finding the best analog mastering of vintage vinyl—which isn’t always true—is the so-called “country of origin rule” which dovetails with the notion of the first pressing being the best. This refers to the commonly held opinion among more knowledgeable record collectors that if an album is by an American group or artist who recorded in an American recording studio for an American record company, then first issue US pressings are probably what you want (better still if they are promos). The same is supposedly true for albums by English artists recording in English studios. Why does this matter? Because the domestic first press copies are (usually) going to be the ones stamped from the only mastering job that was approved—and was perhaps sent back for multiple revisions and tweaks to get it just right—by the producer and artists. (This is not an ironclad rule by any means. Sometimes a later repress will sound far better than a first pressing. This stuff is always going to be on a case-by-case basis.)
Equally important in the process of sussing out the best sounding version is that the country of origin is also where the master tape likely resides. Unlike with digital recordings which are cloned exactly and suffer no loss whatsoever even when copied exponentially, the sound of analog tapes deteriorates very, very quickly when they are copied. With each subsequent generation, the high end becomes less sparkly, the air and space between the instruments less distinct and the dynamic range gets squashed. The soundstage begins to collapse, there is distortion and tape hiss gets noticeably louder. With digital recordings, of course, this does not happen at all. A copy is a perfect clone each and every time. In effect, they are all “the master” or at least a near exact copy of it. There was no tape hiss to begin with and no degradation of the signal takes place, but with analog tape, even a single generation removed from the master tape can sound somewhat audibly worse. This is why American collectors are willing to pay so much for the first issues of British Beatles albums. They were cut at Abbey Road from the master tapes, test pressings were made for evaluation and signed off on by George Martin and the Fabs themselves, whereas US Beatles records were cut by a competent engineer at Capitol Records from a safety master, with little or no input from the producer or band. A side by side comparison will almost always see the UK pressing the victor over the American in the case of Beatles albums.
Aren’t super flat, ultra quiet, high quality Japanese vinyl pressings supposed to be the most desirable records of all? That’s a bit of a myth. The country of origin rule is especially applicable to Japanese records, which as well-produced as they might be, were almost never cut from first generation analog master tapes. As a result, Japanese vinyl can actually be a bit duller sounding than its American and British counterparts. A certain magic is already lost and can be noticed happening, like I was saying, as early as but a single generation away from the analog master tape. (I hasten to add that Japanese SACDs and DSD mastered files might be the very pinnacle of digital audiophile products, but that’s for another post.)
ALWAYS CHECK THE MASTERING CREDIT
“Mastering” an album is the means by which music is transferred from tape to a cutting lathe that spins and cuts grooves in a lacquer which is then employed in the process of mass producing vinyl record albums. It is a tactile process. The mastering engineers of the 1960s didn’t have all that much control over the translation of tape to vinyl, but by the early 1970s, new mastering equipment gave them a lot of control and the ability to radically improve upon the end product.
In the video below, which I encourage you to watch, legendary mastering engineer George “Porky” Peckham—whose career began at Abbey Road working for the Beatles—explains exactly what a mastering engineer does and why it’s as much an art as a science. [Note where he mentions that he’s using a tube-based compressor from the early 1950s.]
If you’re a record collector in the UK, whether or not you’re aware of it, you are likely to own one, if not several, “Porky Prime Cuts.” Have a look in the deadwax for his signature. Peckham famously cut All Things Must Pass, for instance. Electric Warrior by T.Rex. Albums and singles by The Who, Jethro Tull, Ultravox, Dead Kennedys, Free, Wings, Hawkwind, Peter Hamill, Serge Gainsbourg, AC/DC, Monty Python’s double grooved Matching Tie & Handkerchief and so many more. Peckham mastered hundreds and hundreds of classic records over the decades. A Porky message scratched into the runout groove is an unambiguous mark of quality.
In the US, George Peckham’s visceral mastering of Led Zeppelin IV was what you heard from the first pressing of that album in 1971 up until about 1977. Think about how heavy “When The Levee Breaks” sounds on that album. Even if you haven’t heard it for years, if you are of—ahem—a certain age you might still have a vivid sense memory of how hard-hitting the drums on that song sounded coming out of your speakers. Porky’s mastering wizardry is a big part of what it took to achieve that sound in your home. (If you compare a 70s pressing of that album to the one currently available on vinyl, you will hear a very big difference. Spoiler: the new one sucks.)
There are dozens of prominent mastering engineers. Names in the credits like Robert Ludwig, Bernie Grundman, Denis “BilBo” Blackham, Tim “TimTom” Young, Chris Bellman, Doug Sax, Kevin Gray, Lee Hulko, Steve Hoffman, Greg Calbi, Ray Staff, and Howie Weinberg are strong indicators of high caliber sound.
In her excellent 2015 book, Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich presents a fascinating portrait of the fraternity—for of course they are all male—who collect old 78 rpm blues records. The commonality of what fuels these guys (who will often part with many thousands of dollars for a rare side) is a desire to get as close as they possibly can to THE SOURCE OF THE BLUES. Nothing less will do. It becomes a compulsion for them. Petrusich does a very good job capturing in prose why some people will devote their entire lives searching for this musical magic.
The blues records of the 1920s and 30s were created by positioning the performer so that they were playing and singing into a large cone which captured their vibrations and directly transcribed their essence onto acetate discs which were then turned into record stampers for mass production. The signal path from performer to recording to reproduction on a turntable was a short one, and the owner of one of these fragile records is, it makes perfect sense to say so, much closer to the source of the blues than someone, say, listening to Robert Johnson on Spotify.
I had a similar revelation staring into the eyes of James Joyce via a framed portrait that had been taken by Berenice Abbott. The photo was shot, developed and printed by hand in the 1920s using her negative which had actually “flashed” on the great man himself, making it an all analog process. Looking at that printed photo was as “close” as I would ever get to James Joyce myself in the sense that Native Americans once saw the camera as a soul-snatching device. It was like time travel. A scan of Abbott’s portrait of the artist as seen on Google Images would not have had nearly the same effect on me, if you take my point. It’s the same thing with these rare 78 rpm records. A song by Leadbelly played back on a Victrola is going to give you much more than it would when heard on a streaming service. It wasn’t recorded with streaming in mind.
And analog recordings weren’t made with digital playback in mind, either. If you really want to be able to hear deeply into a particular album, and it’s something recorded before, say, 1985, the best way to do that is via a vintage vinyl copy that was mastered from an analog tape.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF HI-FI
The marketable concept of high fidelity begins in 1948 with the debut of the long playing 33 1/3 rpm microgroove vinyl album, which was a big step up from the noisy shellac 78 rpm record which could only play a few minutes per side. Reel-to-reel magnetic tape recording technology was taken from the German military after the war and put to commercial use in America. There was a tremendous leap forward in sound quality with the innovative speaker designs of Paul Klipsch and nearly distortion free amplifiers coming to the home entertainment market. With the economy booming, “hi-fi” became a craze during the Eisenhower era. Performers like Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Esquivel made “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” specifically arranged to sound good on a stereophonic system with a wide soundstage and effects that pingponged between the speakers. RCA’s Living Stereo classical and opera recordings and Rudy Van Gelder’s intimately recorded, meticulously engineered jazz recordings for the Blue Note record label were also geared towards the enthusiastic audiophile audience. These recordings and this newfangled hi-fi gear made it sound like the performers were right in front of you, and in your home. This was the golden age of hi-fi.
One of the main reasons that recordings from the 1950s and 60s sounded so good was the universal utilization of vacuum tube-based gear in studios. Tubes lend an airy spaciousness to recordings. Vocals and instruments recorded via microphones with tube preamps and mixed on tube-based audio consoles have a distinct presence and sound that can only be achieved with vacuum tubes. It’s difficult to put into words exactly what that quality is, but there is a certain sonic “lushness” that is achieved. “Holographic” and “tubalicious” are common terms associated with valve amps (as they are called in the UK.) Although there are many notable examples of the classic tube sound that I could cite—such as every Beatles album up to The White Album or Billy Sherrill’s 1960s Nashville productions for Tammy Wynette—two of my personal favorites are Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and The Byrds’ Greatest Hits.
In the Robbins classic, the acoustic guitars are heard entirely distinct and separate from one another in the mix, while Robbins’ voice sounds like it’s glowing and the background vocals are stacked nicely. Each instrument has ample air around it and the soundstage is so pronounced that you can tell exactly where each of the players was standing in the studio. The Byrds album is a fantastic example of what a top studio equipped with all tube gear could do. That would have included all of the guitar amps, the microphone preamps, the four track tube-based soundboards and any other amplification anywhere in the chain. Of course the tape machines were all tube-based and so were the compressors and record cutting lathes. When the end product of all of these tubes—the record—gets reproduced on an analog, tube-based stereo system—in other words, the kind that they had back when these records were originally released—it’s magic hearing those vocal harmonies and the guitars chime like that. The music has details and nuances that cannot be experienced any other way.
NOT SO SUBTLE SUBTLETIES
Think of what a representation of an analog sine wave would look like drawn on textured rag paper with charcoal. It would be continuous and the medium would never leave the paper. You would be able to see the strokes of the hand that drew it, perhaps even indications of the pressure that was applied. If that piece of paper is then scanned into a computer and seen reproduced on a high definition monitor this would (very roughly) compare to the process of digitizing analog audio tapes for CD or streaming. It becomes a somewhat different thing—the same but different—as when film is seen on TV reproduced by millions of pixels instead of having light projected through a series of consecutive moving frames. A lot of the transient information simply isn’t there anymore when the original format is abandoned.
To take these visual analogies one step further, it’s easy to understand why transferring digital video to celluloid film would be somewhat undesirable—the images are flat and you can often detect artifacting—while the opposite, going from celluloid to 4K video makes perfect sense and happens every day. Think of today’s classic rock and jazz catalog iterations on new vinyl as taking the initial video transfer that you made from the celluloid to digital and then TRANSCODING IT BACK TO FILM AGAIN. This isn’t a perfect comparison, of course, but I think it gets the point across.
The intermediary step—the digital part—is where the problem resides when it comes to modern vinyl.
When an analog tape is transferred to digital certain subtleties are lost. For instance, the first thing that I notice is that the CRACK of a snare drum, or the thud of a floor tom, are muted when I compare an album to a CD or streaming. Something is leached out when an analog signal is digitized (i.e turned into a series of zeros and ones) and the most obvious place you can hear this is with the drum transients and other percussion. It loses some of the energy. With analog to digital transfers you also lose that sense of being able to mentally place the players around the room where something was recorded. (One of the biggest differences between older analog recordings and today’s digital music made on computers is that it used to be that bands were recorded playing together—resulting in a “soundstage” that gives the impression the performers are right in front of you—and this rarely occurs anymore. Sonically, you can’t really compare a 55-year old Byrds record to the latest Dua Lipa album, as completely different methodologies were employed to create them.)
HITTING A BRICK WALL
There’s another reason why it’s worthwhile to seek out vintage vinyl over not only new vinyl, but also CDs and streaming, when it comes to back catalog albums. If you compare waveforms of an original vinyl pressing to a CD of the same album and then to a 24-bit/96kHz digital audio file and a newly manufactured digitally remastered vinyl copy—as many audiophiles are wont to do, there are thousands of such visual comparisons posted on a site like the Steve Hoffman Forum—you will invariably find that while the original vinyl and the 24-bit HD files usually have about the same wider dynamic range, the CD and digitally remastered new vinyl will often, almost always, be heavily compressed.
Compression is utilized so that digital music will sound okay when heard on earbuds, over laptop speakers and so it will ride above the sounds of the road and your car when you are driving. To achieve this, most of the dynamic swings (from quiet to loud) are purposefully removed from the music via compression.
CDs and streaming audio should have a clear technological edge over the lowly record—and they do—but the way digital audio gets reshaped and dumbed down so that it will sound good anywhere is a big problem. Digital absolutely has a far wider dynamic range than vinyl, it’s simply that the dictates of the marketplace demand this sonically crushed approach. In other words, it doesn’t have to sound like this, the music industry requires it to sound like this! [For more information about this, google “the loudness wars.” The most infamous example of an overcompressed, “brickwalled” album is Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers.]
To avoid these overcompressed, lowest common denominator versions of a beloved album seek out the OG vinyl, because these terrible sounding files are also probably the same sources used for what’s being put out on today’s new vinyl releases. Just because it says “digitally remastered” on the hype sticker does not necessarily mean that it has been improved upon.
SUMMARY AND TIPS
Hopefully this deep dive into analog audiophilia will take some of the guesswork out of your searches for the best mastered versions of your favorite albums, but I do want to stress that all of this is subject to empirically comparing various pressings. The “rules” for tracking down top quality vinyl pressings are not ironclad and there are exceptions galore. A cheap early 80s Nice Price album might handily beat a 60s first pressing from the country of origin in a vinyl shootout. Always keep in mind that it not about collectability, it’s about locating the best sounding records.
Everything is truly on a case by case basis when it comes to records.
If there’s a classic rock or jazz album that you really love and you want to hear the best possible version, you probably need to seek out a vintage vinyl pressing that comes before 1985, give or take.
Unless you are purchasing products made by high quality, all analog mastered record labels like Intervention Records or Speakers Corner, AVOID all digitally-sourced vinyl of older albums. The music has been transcoded from an analog tape to digital, inevitably compressed during the digital remastering stage, and is then transcoded yet a further time when it’s cut to vinyl. This will sound terrible, or at least inferior, when compared directly with pre-1985 pressings in nearly every instance. CDs or streaming will sound better than most new vinyl reissues of classic albums. It’s the final step of going back to vinyl from a digital source that ruins everything.
Cross reference between Discogs, the Steve Hoffman Forum (type in “best vinyl of’’ plus anything) and the Better Records website along with their On the Record blog. You should be able to triangulate the best vinyl copy in that way, or at least get a good sense of where to start looking.
Nothing trumps empirically comparing a stack of different pressings of the same album in a shootout. This is why you should take what Tom Port of Better Records has to say very seriously. Whether or not you’re willing to pay his Hot Stamper prices, Port probably knows more about records than anyone on Earth and his On The Record blog is one of the very best repositories of hard won empirical evidence relating to audiophile vinyl that’s out there. It might take weeks to read everything, but it’s quite an education.
Pay attention to the mastering credits on Discogs. You could, for instance, go to the George Peckham page and drill down to see if he’s done an album that interests you. If he has, you can probably stop looking for the best version because you have likely just found it, but before you buy it, do still check if anyone has something to say about that particular pressing on the Steve Hoffman Forum.
Regarding the Steve Hoffman Forum it can be very informative, but ignore the goofball exclaiming “I’ve never heard anything else to compare it with, but my 4 Men with Beards pressing of X sounds great!” and look instead for a poster who tells you “For whatever reason, during my travels, I have acquired 25 different pressings of X album over the years and…” One of them has no idea what he’s talking about but feels compelled to chime in anyway, while the other guy has compared 25 different pressings of the album you’re interested in.
Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet website is a great resource for finding out about new and upcoming quality vinyl releases. He is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to vinyl and he’s also produced a handy YouTube guide to AAA mastered new vinyl releases that you should definitely watch.
There are some notable exceptions to the bad digital mastering normally found on today’s heavy vinyl pressings. The mono Beatles vinyl came directly from the precious master tapes and they sound amazing. Adrian Younge’s Linear Lab label puts out new AAA music. Both the Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa estates go back to the tapes for mastering done via an all analog (AAA) mastering path and employ top mastering engineers for the job. Neil Young and Bob Dylan’s classic albums can be found in AAA vinyl reissues. Labels like Intervention Records (who only use master tapes, only master in AAA environments and discard stampers after 1000 albums are pressed), Blue Note’s Tone Poet reissue label, Speaker’s Corner and many others do use the original tapes, but they are special cases, producing just a tiny subset of the vinyl pressed up every year. On increasingly rare occasions, Rhino will do right by a classic album and hire the likes of Kevin Gray, Chris Bellman or Steve Hoffman to master from original tapes in an all analog cutting chain. When they do this, they will let you know on the hype sticker. Absent their participation, avoid Rhino vinyl. This is an outfit that should know better, but too often they take the cheap and lazy route—mastering from digital files—and the product sounds like it.
A simple tube amp, preferably one with no modern addons, like Bluetooth or HDMI inputs, is perhaps the best way to listen to analog vinyl. Look for something that’s been assembled with point-to-point wiring. Tube amps can cost thousands of dollars, but if you shop around, you can find a unicorn like the incredible sounding Reisong Boyuu A10 tube amp which sells for less than $500. Add some high sensitivity speakers made for use with low watt amps—like the Klipsch RP-600M model—and you will have assembled a smoking hot analog system (with the addition of a good turntable, of course.)
And finally, there is an incredibly useful analog audiophile blog that I get a lot of value from. Anyone who has read this far will absolutely love Robert Brook’s The Broken Record blog “for the budding analog audiophile.” There you will find well-written articles on how to look for mastering credits, how to sniff out the very best pressings of David Bowie albums (even if you’re not looking for Bowie albums, his catalog on vinyl is a great example to illustrate this stuff), stereo gear, the best thing I’ve ever read about cables and much more. I’ve read every single post on TBR and it has immeasurably helped me refine my own hunt for the best mastered versions of my favorite albums. I was already on this road when I discovered The Broken Record, but Robert Brook has been on the road longer and shares what he has learned freely. Essential.