Buying Hi-Fi Equipment and Media: The Music

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Buying recordings is a little like buying food: With experience, you can tell a lot from appearances, but you won’t definitely know if it’s good until you’ve tried it—by which time it’s too late to make a return. Recording companies and stores certainly don’t consider such qualities as lousy sound quality, poor mastering, and wonton-wrappet-thin disc to represent a legitimate basis for return. In their eyes, these are not “defects” but simply the norm. Therefore, you have to do as much as you can for yourself to protect against getting stiffed. You can, if you know what to look for, learn a great deal about the recording—whether CD, LP, or tape—just from its wrappings before having to shell out your money.

(You can also patronize a record store where the staff is knowledgeable and the return policy is reasonable in the event of real defects. If you show the courtesy of giving your business to one store, that store is likely to return the courtesy and treat you as a valued customer. This may sound old-fashioned but it’s worth a try. Just be sure to pick out a store that’s worthy of your custom in the first place.)

There are four basic qualities to a recording: (1) the musical performance, (2) the record technique, (3) manufacturing, and (4) play back. Playback, of course, is in your hands, but you can probably judge quite a lot about the other aspects by culling the copy of the jacket.

Regarding the music and its performance, obviously if you already know the work of the performers, then you’re in a stronger position to decide whether or not to buy. Otherwise, you have to read reviews in magazines like Fanfare, listen to the radio, turn to friends, borrow records from the library. The Absolute Sound has extensive record reviews, and Stereophile and occasionally JAR also review records. All publish short lists of recommended recordings. Hi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Answers do the same for English releases. If you’re lucky, someone in your record store will have similar taste to yours and will be able to advise you. But hearing the recording on the store system may tell you very little—most store systems are pretty awful. And not just awful but often blaring loud enough to tear off your ears—this does not engender confidence. If you’re very lucky, you’ll know someone like friend Deep Ears, a repository, seemingly, of ALL classical disc knowledge.

You may find information somewhere on the jacket about the recording techniques used, perhaps indicating the number of mikes, and the recording location. In an on-site rather than studio recording, representational rather than interpretive recording techniques were probably used. Even this is no warranty of sound quality—the sound quality can still be manipulated after it passes through the mikes.

The quality of foreign pressings is often better than American ones, because over here many of the companies cut corners wherever they can, even for a third of a cent. On the other hand, it’s best to try to get a pressing from the same country the master tape is from, because rarely is the original master tape sent out of the country for pressings. Instead, a copy is sent that is at least two steps removed from the master tape and therefore noticeably degraded sonically from the original. Also, this copy tape is used to cut a new master disc from which the stampers are made, and the -engineers, in their wisdom, will often re-EQ the tape to their own taste. Whether the tape is re-equalized or not, cutting systems sound as different from one to the next as do power amps.

Japanese pressings are often admired by audiophiles as being superior to the same LP pressed elsewhere. Technically (physically), the pressings are excellent—warp free, with correctly centered spindle hole, never any no-fill, and very quiet surfaces. The tonearm, instead of per forming its usual bob and weave as it travels up and down warps and sideways from the off-center spindle hole, rides true and steady. But sonically, while these pressings tend to be very “live,” they are often also considerably brightened and thinned out, especially in the mid range. They tend, as a rule, to be less musical and, despite their good points, less enjoyable to listen to, we find.

There’s speculation that the Japanese actually hear differently than Americans, and certainly their taste in sound must be different. Even their electronics and speakers are designed to have this same bright, somewhat antiseptic sound. However, Japanese audiophiles cannot get their hands on enough quality American tube equipment, for which they’ll pay a king’s ransom. Apparently you can pay for an entire trip over there just by taking over a few of the right pieces of classic American equipment.

In any case, a good rule of thumb, when you have the choice, is to buy the pressing from the country of origin of the album. For example, an English pressing of the Beatles will be better than the American pressing. Your Basic Dave Van Ronk, which is a wonderful album— wonderful folk music and very good sound—was recorded in England but by Americans who kept the master tape. The American release, though the actual pressing quality is inferior, sonically is far better than the English one, which sounds more compressed, darker, and strangled. Technically, an American pressing may have worse surface noise, but if the music was recorded here (or the master tape is here), the sound quality of the American pressing is likely to be better.

Regrettably, there has recently been a big stink by the U.S. record industry about the sale of foreign pressings in this country. If the industry has its way, a Stones album, for example, released in the United States could not be the original—and best—British pressing but would have to be repressed in America to be sold here. We would lose out on both counts—it would not be from the country of origin, meaning the master tape would be a copy, and it would be further degraded by poorer American pressing quality. This kind of protectionism only protects mediocrity. Music lovers prefer foreign pressings of foreign recordings be cause they are better. Many even prefer foreign pressings of domestic recordings because these are technically better and quieter. Improve American pressing quality, and protectionism might not be needed.

Musically, some recordings you select to buy are found to be duds — the only way to have fail-safe success is to stick only with the knowns and never experiment. When you end up with a record you don’t like, put it away in a separate box. If you leave it in with the rest of your collection, you’ll be depressed every time you flip past it. You’ll also be misled into thinking you have more records than you actually do (at least to listen to) and this will discourage you from buying others. Keep your collection well weeded. If the ones you don’t like are segregated, they’re also easy to show friends for trading or presents—others may like the music even if you don’t.

Recordings that are sonically duds are more difficult to decide what to do with. As your system gets better, the record may sound better— with less distortion being added by your equipment, more music may be revealed. If you’re already familiar with the music, then the sound quality is more easily “listened around” and may be tolerable. Or you may have several versions of the same piece and value this particular one for its special performance despite poor sound. Some performances are so extraordinary that poor sound is happily allowed for.

You’re likely to have to return as many as 25 percent of the new recordings you buy because of flat-out defects like warps, an off-center spindle hole resulting in wow, or dust and fingerprints. Some people are more fussy about exchanging defective recordings and others may not want to be as meticulous. But if you plan to have the records you now own still in good shape to comfort you in your old age, it figures you may as well start off with the best you can get and then take good care of them. These may be the last days of vinyl records, so take full ad vantage while you still can get them at all.

Some recordings sold as brand new have already been opened, used, and resealed. These may have been returns, store demos, or sent out that way from the pressing plant or distributor. Clues are dust and dirt, fingerprints, maybe faint markings around the spindle hole. Such defects will show up more clearly under strong light. Our policy is to return these—not only are you paying full price for used goods but, more important, in the case of LPs you don’t know the condition of the stylus that rode in those grooves and what damage it may have done while it was there. Get another copy that’s new. The recording companies, if they were interested, could readily eliminate this problem by sealing the spindle hole with foil or the like, the same as is done for aspirin to prevent tampering. One could then immediately know whether or not a recording had been played.

LP BUYING

Look for short LP sides, which suggest the music hasn’t been overly compressed to squeeze the maximum time onto each LP—this squeezes sound quality too. Many album jackets will provide timing for the individual songs or else give the overall length per side—a total of about 20 minutes or less is usually a good sign. The shorter the side and the wider the run-out, the less distortion the music is subjected to.

Any record that’s intended primarily to be played over the air waves will have been ipso facto rigorously compressed. The stations want to play the music at maximum volume to cover a maximum geo graphical area—in an undoctored recording, the loud passages would be too loud and the soft ones too soft to hear, so these are electronically compressed or “flattened out” to a more uniform sound level, making the buds less loud and the softs less soft.

When you consider that the cost of producing most album jackets far exceeds the cost of the records they contain, and that the industry standard for record promotion is about 30 percent of revenues, then it begins to make more sense that so many records aren’t made well. The money doesn’t go into production, it goes into marketing.

Record jackets are often emblazoned with terms like “Teldec vinyl” (a good German brand of virgin vinyl), “audiophile pressing” (who knows what this is really supposed to mean), “chrome stampers” (which make cleaner pressings), and the like. But this is all so much window dressing and marketing unless the master tape itself was excel lent. The purpose of all these techniques is to reduce manufacturing distortions and therefore more clearly reveal the sound captured on the master tape; if that wasn’t so good, better “revelation” won’t improve it.

Going to great lengths to reduce tape hiss, for example, doesn’t mean all that much as far as the quality and enjoyment of the recording is concerned. Hiss and background noise on LPs is steady and quite separate from the music so it can be easily tuned out. As a playback system improves, the clicks and pops on recordings matter less—they’re like the quiet rustlings and coughs of an audience. The music-to-noise ratio is much better on a good system and the music becomes more compelling.

Far more important in manufacturing are such things as the basic quality of the pressing technique, the vinyl, the stampers and how worn they are allowed to become before replacement. Stampers should at most be used for only a few thousand pressings. Imperfect pressing can cause the gaps or potholes in the vinyl known as no-fill. Many records are made far too thin, which means not only that they warp easily but also that distortion increases when they are played. The stylus dragging in the groove actually sets up a vibration that is picked up by the cartridge and amplified right along with the music. With heavier vinyl, such resonances are less easy to set up and more effectively damped if they are started. The mid-1970s oil crisis encouraged record companies to cut LP thickness by one third; being patriotic, they continue their conservation efforts to this day.

Proper storage immediately after pressing is essential to prevent warps and must be maintained throughout the distribution chain. A thick piece of vinyl, a substantial jacket, loose shrink wrap (a quarter inch or so larger than the jacket all around), and a quality rice-paper sleeve all help to protect the record. Overly tight shrink wrap is likely to warp the record. Wakefield is widely recognized as being one of the best American pressing plants. Europadisc is also highly regarded for both mastering and pressing.

At times it may require real perserverance to get finally a clean copy. CBS, for one, is notorious for its poor pressings. The Smithsonian has some marvelous recordings — including authentic renditions of Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton music — but more than a dozen copies of a particular album (at that time pressed by CBS) had to be exchanged before finally finding one not smeared all over with finger prints! The then head of Smithsonian Records down in Washington, laconically responded that fingerprints are a normal part of the manufacturing process!!! (He’s not there anymore and CBS has decided to get out of the LP business altogether—it will be releasing only CDs from now on. How well it manages to press these, considering that CDs are far more demanding than LPs, will be most interesting to see.)

Pressing quality overall does seem to be improving, whether in response to the years of complaint from the underground press or in response to the challenge of CDs—either way, we’re happy.

If you can’t get a new copy because your defective one is the last available and the album is going out of print—an increasingly common problem—then you have to balance your desire for the music with the seriousness of the defect. A record that’s just dirty on the surface can be cleaned with a VP! or similar quality vacuum cleaner.

An off-center spindle hole can be a serious problem because you will always hear the wow as the record turns out of round. No record is ever perfectly cut relative to the spindle hole—some minor error is in evitable because the hole is punched after the record is pressed—but there are times when the error is significant.

Warps vary in their degree of severity—some records look like potato chips. The least disturbing kind of warp is one with very shallow, long curves so the tonearm rides smoothly up and down over it without too much distortion. Small sharp warps tend to be more audible. Edge warps usually affect the music only at the beginning of the record. The easiest way to spot warps Is to put the record on the turntable and squint along the edge of the rotating record. Then also look straight down onto it and look for quaverings in your face’s reflection. Also put the stylus down on it and watch the movement of the tonearm, both up and down and from side to side.

The importance of scratches must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Surface noise, ticks and pops from poor vinyl, and even no-fill, are the least objectionable of the manufacturing defects. They are clearly distinct from the music, and though they certainly add noise, they don’t distort the music.

Buying Used Records

You often run across used records being sold at tag sales, flea markets, in secondhand stores. As many of these are out of print, and with more LPs becoming unavailable all the time, used records can be a wonderful source of real finds. With a little skill, you can develop a sense of the overall record quality by knowing what to look for. A dead giveaway is whitish powdery dust embedded in the grooves—these records have generally been “re-grooved” by a worn or damaged stylus acting as a record eraser. Or they may have just been played over and over again, so that the grooves, which were once like the Rockies, are now as worn as the Appalachians. Nothing will help records in this condition—neither a VPI cleaning, a treatment of Last, nor anything else. Buy only if the music is a must-have—it’ll hold you over until you may be lucky enough to find a better copy. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people treat the records with a light coating of oil to conceal the white haze and restore the surface to apparent newness. Watch out.

Often, the only problem with a record may be that it’s dirty, in which case a good cleaning will leave you with an almost-new copy. Fingerprints are a sign that the record was carelessly handled, which suggests the grooves may also be somewhat damaged by a worn stylus. The prints can be cleaned off with a stronger cleaning solution and your record cleaner. Faint marks around the spindle hole, if extensive, also indicate sloppy handling—you should be able to match up hole and spindle without too much trouble if you’re being careful.

Scratches may or may not matter, depending on their depth. Sur face scratches don’t penetrate down into the groove so they need not be a problem sonically, though here again their presence indicates carelessness, which may manifest itself in other groove damage. Deep scratches obviously affect the sound.

As more and more people make the changeover to CDs and foolishly throw out their LPs, there will be all the more riches for LP addicts to pick up at great prices—many of them long out of print and available no other way. Used records are definitely a resource to investigate.

PRERECORDED TAPE BUYING

Prerecorded tape is the most ephemeral medium and generally has the lowest fidelity. Recognize it as being primarily a convenience source. Nonetheless, it is definitely worthwhile to seek out quality tapes, because these will not only sound better but will last longer be fore print-through develops or the cassette mechanisms malfunction. Some record stores estimate that close to half the prerecorded cassettes sold are already defective in one way or another at the time of sale. If you get one of these, return it without hesitation for a replacement. Make sure before you buy that the cassettes aren’t stored in a way that will damage them—for example, in direct sunshine or near some other source of heat.

Nakamichi, Monster Cable, and Chesky Records Realtime cassettes are all considered good.

CD BUYING

CDs are as subject to warping as LPs. Quality control has been steadily slipping as the demand has been increasing and also as acceptance has been established—it is no longer so necessary for CDs to prove them selves “perfect.” Quality varies not only from label to label and title to title, but also from disc to disc. There are indications that the thickness of the silvering has an important effect on sound—or more precisely stated, a thicker backing reduces the amount of “error” that then needs “correction.”

Undoubtedly, CDs, like LPs, are being sold as new when they are in fact used. This is far more difficult to identify than with LPs, as overall sound will be degraded as error correction copes with the micro-scratches but there may be no actual ticks and pops to hear. Return defective CDs without fail or the manufacturers may allow quality to deteriorate further.

It is tricky to predict how a CD will sound because there are so many possible combinations of analog and digital involved. Some discs are marked with the three-position SPARS (Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios) code, which identifies their lineage. The letters used are A and D for analog and digital. The first position identifies if the original recording was analog or digital; the second position specifies whether the original recording was mixed to a digital or analog recorder; and the third position specifies whether the recording was then mixed to an analog tape recorder or was directly digitally transferred into 16-bit/44.1 KHz format. So an AAD code indicates that the source was analog tape, mixed to an analog tape recorder, and then transferred to a digital master.

However, how much you can do with this knowledge is question able. Some say an analog original transferred to digital sounds better than a recording made digitally from start to finish. This was probably absolutely true with the awful early digital recorders. The present digital recorders are still pretty awful, so an analog original may give you a better first step. There are still so many variables in the playback that it is hard to establish definite judgments on the recordings. The Opus 3 CD samplers will give you an idea of what a good CD sounds like. These, incidentally, are digitalized versions of original analog master tapes.

The other problem unique to CDs is that some will load into certain players and some will not. Players are being made cheaper and cheaper and their quality control becomes poorer and poorer. Reliability is worsening. Combine this with imperfect discs and a fair number of them end up being rejected by the players.

HAPPY LISTENING!

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Updated: Friday, 2016-05-13 19:19 PST