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Audio Advice & Exercises

Audio Commentary  >  Start Here  >  Audio Advice & Exercises

Here we discuss audio issues raised by particular recordings that we've auditioned.

This link will take you to a description of our playback system. The equipment and sound improving devices we use are for the most part no longer available for purchase on the site. If we know something works it's usually because we've used it ourselves. Naturally we want our customers to benefit from our experience and achieve the same sonic improvements in their own systems. We encourage you to find retailers for these products on your own and give them a critical listen. 

We also have a section devoted to
Home Audio Exercises, experiments and challenges designed to help you improve the sound of your stereo and become a better listener at the same time. (That's fairly redundant actually; improving your stereo and becoming a better listener almost always go together.)

As users as well as retailers we offer helpful practical advice regarding the specific application of the products and equipment we recommend. This is especially true for the Hallographs and Dynavector cartridges we endorse -- products we have experimented with at length over the years.


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Set-up Discs, Part Three

Dialing in the Azimuth

  (Item #: setup_azimuth) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

The Borodin title you see pictured has DEMO QUALITY SOUND OF THE HIGHEST ORDER!

One of the reasons this record is sounding so good today (1/12/05) is that I spent last weekend adjusting my Triplanar tonearm. The sound was bothering me somewhat, so I decided to start experimenting again with the azimuth adjustment. I changed the azimuth in the smallest increments I could manage, which on this arm are exceedingly small. At some point the bass started to go deeper, dynamics improved, and the overall tonal balance became fuller and richer.

More Set-Up Advice / More Audio Advice

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Set-up Discs, Part One

Start with a Large Scale Orchestral Recording

  (Item #: setup_orchestral_recording) 

Classical music is surely the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge set-up. The Liszt recording you see pictured is a superb choice for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like.

One of the reasons $10,000+ front ends exist is to play large scale, complex, difficult-to-reproduce music such as Liszt’s two piano concertos. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you choose to, it would surely be the kind of record that can show you the sound your tens of thousands of dollars has paid for.

More Set-Up Advice / More Audio Advice

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Set-up Discs, Part Two

Dialing in the Anti-Skate

  (Item #: setup_anti-skate) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

I once adjusted my anti-skate while playing this very album, at the time dialing it in to a "T". Over the years I've found that the best test for fine anti-skate adjustment is massed strings, and not just at the end of a side but right at the beginning too.

When you have all the rosiny texture, the high-end harmonic extension, the least shrillness and the widest and deepest staging, you are there, assuming that tracking weight, azimuth and VTA are correct as well.

More Set-Up Advice / More Audio Advice

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VTA Adjustment with Santana

Sometimes It Pays to Just Fake It

  (Item #: santasant1_vta) 

When this Heavy Vinyl pressing by Columbia came out back in 2003, I was dumbfounded at the incredible sound: huge depth and soundstage; an octave of bass below what would normally be considered bass (a 20 cycle note that sticks its head up from under the more common 40 cycle bass that drives the music); wonderful transparency and sweetness in the midrange; dynamics; and lastly, the kind of low-distortion, naturally un-hyped sound that this record shared with the Nirvana LP you’ve read about on the site. When you turn up the volume to very high levels, the sound gets better!
More Santana

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Bob and Ray - Throw a Stereo Spectacular

Our Favorite Record for Cartridge Setup

  (Item #: bobanthrow_setup) 

Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular just happens to be our favorite Test Disc, eclipsing all others in the areas of naturalness and difficulty of reproduction. Any tweak or new room treatment -- we seem to do them almost weekly these days -- has to pass one test and one test only -- the Bob and Ray Test.

This record has the power to help you get to the next level in audio like no other. Six words hold the key to better sound: The Song of the Volga Boatman.

More Setup Advice / More Audio Advice

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Turntable Set Up Advice

Using Court and Spark

  (Item #: mitchcourt_setup) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Court and Spark.

There are loud vocal choruses on many tracks, and more often than not at their loudest they sound like they are either breaking up or threatening to do so. I always assumed it was compressor or board overload, which is easily heard on Down to You. On the best copies there is no breakup -- the voices get loud and they sound clean throughout.

More Court and Spark / More Joni Mitchell

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Are You a Detail Freak?

At Better Records We Call that Pitfall Number 1

  (Item #: 801__live_detail) 

Is that where the music is -- in the details? Brighter ain’t necessarily better; most of the time it’s just brighter.

This album isn't about clarity. It's about the sound of a live Rock and Roll concert. It's about the raw power of one of the most phenomenal rhythm sections to ever be captured in performance.

More Phil Manzanera / More Brian Eno

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Brahms, Handel, Chopin - Lincoln Mayorga, Pianist

Reverse Your Polarity!

  (Item #: variobrahm_mayorga) 

This IMMACULATE Sheffield Direct-to-Disc LP with Very Little Sign Of Play (VLSOP) is one of the best Sheffields. Lincoln Mayorga is an accomplished classical pianist: this is arguably his best work. (I had a chance to see him perform at a recital of Chopin's works early in 2010 and he played superbly -- for close to two hours without the aid of sheet music I might add.)

You might want to try reversing the phase when playing this LP; it definitely helps the sound, a subject we discuss below.

See more of our Direct to Disc recordings

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Gino Vannelli - Storm At Sunup

and The Amazing ARC SP3A-1

  (Item #: vannestorm_stereo) 

Storm at Sunup used to be my favorite Gino Vannelli album. I played it all the time back in the ’70s. It was one of a handful of recordings that made me want to pursue audiophile equipment in the hopes that higher quality playback would allow it to sound even bigger and more exciting. It was pretty damn big and exciting already, but I wanted more.

Right around that time I got my first audiophile tube preamp, the Audio Research SP3A-1, which replaced a Crown IC-150. As you can no doubt imagine, especially if you know the IC-150 at all well, playing this album through that state-of-the-art tube preamp was a revelation. From then on there was no looking back. I started spending all my money on better and better equipment and more and more records. That was forty plus years ago and I haven't stopped yet.

More on The Stereo

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Ambrosia's First Album

Right at the Top of Our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale

  (Item #: ambroambro_setup) 

You can play hard-to-reproduce records all day long if your system is tuned up and working fine. Ours has to be, all day, every day. The shootouts we do require that everything is working properly or we simply couldn't do them.

But you can't play this record on such a system without retesting everything, because this is the Single Most Difficult to Reproduce Recording I know of, bar none.

More Ambrosia

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Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick

Ruthless When It Comes to Accuracy

  (Item #: jethrthick_wtlf) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

From 2009 to 2010 this was our single go-to record for testing and tweaking the system.

Although we now use an amazing copy of Bob and Ray (the big band version of The Song of the Volga Boatmen located therein has to be the toughest test we know of bar none), we could easily go back to using TAAB. It's absolutely ruthless when it comes to the slightest hint of artificiality in the sound of the system.

More Thick As a Brick

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In the Market for New Speakers?

Will They Handle the Size and Energy of Take It Easy?

  (Item #: eagleeagle_speakers) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

Take one of our killer Hot Stamper pressings with you when you go shopping for speakers. The speaker that gets the POWER and ENERGY of this music right is the one you want. This record will separate the men from the boys thirty seconds into Take It Easy. It will be obvious who's got the piston power and who doesn't.

With big bass and huge scope, this may become your favorite disc for showing your friends just what analog is really capable of.

More of the Eagles' first album

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Our DOR (Difficulty of Reproduction) Scale

  (Item #: brewedowni_dors) 

We’ve mentioned how difficult some records are to reproduce: how the Revolutions in Audio of the last decade or two have profoundly changed the ability of the seriously dedicated audiophile to get records that never sounded good before to come to life musically in a way previously understood to be impossible.

This is one of those records. But you have to have done your homework if you want to play a record like this, as the commentary below explains.

See more records that rank high up on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale

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Record Cleaning Advice

  (Item #: cleaning_2014) 

Walker Audio Prelude is the only fluid we recommend for serious SOUND ENHANCEMENT and cleaning of your LPs. You have never heard what's really in the grooves of your records until you've cleaned them using Walker's system. There is nothing in our experience that works as well.

We've tried many fluids over the years and a not insignificant portion of them actually made our records sound worse (most often by rolling off the high end). It's not a good idea to assume the record cleaning fluid you use is doing its job properly. Many do not, including some that are very popular.

More Audio Advice

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Conducting Your Own Shootouts

How Novel Patterns Emerge

  (Item #: ambroambro_2014) 

When you sit down to play ten or twelve copies of an album, one right after the other, patterns in the sound are going to emerge from that experience, patterns which would be very likely to pass unnoticed when playing one copy against another or two over the course of the twenty or thirty minutes it would take to do it.

In the case of this album, the pattern we perceived was simply this: About one or two out of that dozen or so will have punchy, solid, rich, deep bass. (There is a huge amount of bass on the recording, so recognizing those special copies is not the least bit difficult if you have a full-range speaker and a properly treated room.)

More Shootout Advice

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My-Fi Versus Hi-Fi

  (Item #: fidelity) 

We went wild recently over a marvelous copy of the Ted Heath record you see pictured. Talk about Tubey Magic, the liquidity of the sound was positively uncanny. This was vintage analog at its best, so full-bodied and relaxed you'll wonder how it ever came to be that anyone seriously contemplated trying to improve upon it.

This is our kind of sound. It's also important to keep in mind that our stereo seemed to love the record. (Stereos do that.) Let's talk about why that might be the case.

Our system is fast, accurate and uncolored. We like to think of our speakers as the audiophile equivalent of studio monitors, showing us exactly what is on the record, with nothing added and (hopefully) nothing taken away.

More Audio Advice

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Table / Arm / Cartridge Set-up Advice

  (Item #: set-up) 

Click here for advice on how to go about adjusting tracking weight, Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA), azimuth, Anti-skate and the like.

This link will take you to more advice for improving the sound of your playback.

  more Info

Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA)

A Few Moments of Experimentation Can Really Pay Off

  (Item #: paganvioli_vta) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically adjust your Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA).

Experimenting with the VTA for this record in preparation for a shootout we found a precise point where it all came together, far exceeding whatever expectations for the recording we had at the time. Correct VTA revealed what to our ears now sounded like a gloriously real violin floating in the room, a huge concert space surrounding it...

More recordings featuring the violin

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In the Market for New Speakers?

See How Well They Handle the Energy of Far More Drums

  (Item #: brubetimef_exercise) 

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.

The drum solo Joe Morello lets loose on Far More Drums is one of the best on record. I was playing that very song recently and it occurred to me that it is practically impossible for a screen or panel speaker of any nature to reproduce the sound of those drums properly, regardless of how many subs you have.

Most of the music is not in the deeper bass anyway. It’s the whack of instruments whose energy is in the lower midrange and midrange that a screen speaker will struggle with, while a good large-driver dynamic speaker seems to handle the energy in that range with ease.

See all Dave Brubeck albums in stock

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The Brahms Violin Concerto

Unplug or Suffer the Consequences!

  (Item #: brahmvioli_test) 

The massed strings here, such as those found at the opening, are close miked and immediate in the "Mercury recording style." Your electricity better be good when you play this record, because it presents a test many of you will have trouble passing at even moderate levels.

We've often encouraged our readers and customers to go about unplugging things in their homes in order to test the effect of clean electricity on their playback systems. The opening of this record is a perfect example of the kind of material with which everyone should be testing in order to hear these changes. I'd be very surprised if the strings on this record don't sound noticeably better after you've unplugged a few things in your house, and the more the better.

More recordings featuring the violin

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Yes, We're Getting Awfully Close To The Edge

Are Your Planets Aligned?

  (Item #: yes__close_planets) 

A word of caution: Even our Hottest Stamper copies can sound problematical unless your system is firing on all cylinders. Your electricity has got to be cooking, you've got to be using the right room treatments, and ideally you should be using a demagnetizer such as the Talisman on the record itself, your cables (power, interconnect and speaker) as well as the individual drivers of your speakers.

This is a record that's going to demand a lot from the listener, and we want to make sure that you're up to the challenge. If you don't mind putting in a little hard work, here's a record that will reward you many times over, and probably teach you a thing or two about tweaking your gear in the process.

More Close to the Edge

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Advances in Playback Technology

More Than Blind Faith

  (Item #: blindblind_advances) 

In a 2007 commentary for the Hot Stamper pressing of Blind Faith we noted that

When it finally all comes together for such a famously compromised recording, it’s nothing less than a THRILL. More than anything else, the sound is RIGHT. Like Layla or Surrealistic Pillow, this is no demo disc by any stretch of the imagination, but that should hardly keep us from enjoying the music. And now we have the record that lets us do it.

More on Progress in Audio

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Turntable Tweaking Advice

Try This at Home, It Worked for Us

  (Item #: goodadvice) 

The Mapleshade website has a piece of audio advice that caught the eye of one our customers, who sent me the excerpt below.

Like most advice, especially Audio Advice, we find that some of it accords well with our own experience and some of it clearly does not. The relationship of good to bad is hard to determine without making a more careful study, but let's just say that there is plenty of both and leave it at that. That being the case, we thought it would be of service to our customers to break it down in more detail, separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

More Audio Advice

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Good Audio Advice

and Otherwise

  (Item #: badadvice) 

[This is an updated version of a commentary written in 2009.]

The latest Mapleshade catalog (Spring 09) has, along with hundreds of recommendations, this little piece of audio advice that caught my eye:

For much improved bass and huge soundstage, put your listening chair or sofa right against the wall behind you. Move your speakers in to 5’ in front of you and 7’ or more apart. No room treatments will yield this much bass improvement.

I literally had to read through it a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating, but every time I read it it still said the same thing, so I know I can’t have been dreaming. This is crazy talk! What the hell is wrong with these people?
More Audio Advice

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Joe Jackson's Jumpin’ Jive

Get Rid of Grit and Grain The Right Way

  (Item #: jacksjumpi_advice) 

Jumpin' Jive is one of the clearest examples of an album where it is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to make sure your stereo is running on good electricity before you make any attempt to play it. This is the kind of recording -- bright, full of energy -- that will bring most stereo systems to their knees. Of course, when you play a good copy and it really sounds good, it's a record that rewards all the time and effort you've put into your system.

So much of the aggressiveness, grit and grain that we hear in immediate, high-energy recordings such as this are really the fault of the electricity feeding the stereo, not the fault of the record or even the equipment used to play it.

More Audio Advice

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How To Get The Most Out Of Your Records

  (Item #: how-to) 

We've recently begun to include an info sheet with our Hot Stamper pressings that describes a few simple steps you can take to get better results with our records in your home. Since these tips really apply to all records and not just our Hot Stampers, we figured we'd outline them here and add a few additional thoughts.
More Audio Advice

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My Aim Is True Can Really Rock

If You Have the Speaker System to Play It

  (Item #: costemyaim_volume) 

Another in the long list of recordings that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

There is a line in the Hot Stamper commentary below concerning driving punk rock bass. Man, this record lives or dies by your ability to reproduce the powerful bottom end that propels this music. Pardon me for cueing up a broken record again, and with all due respect to the things they do well -- they must do something well, right? People keep buying them -- small speakers and screens are not going to cut it on My Aim Is True. This is precisely the kind of album they don’t do well.

More Big Speaker Recordings

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Letter of the Week

... going through all my Hot Stampers and taking it all in ...

  (Item #: hallograph_testimonial_1) 

This week’s letter comes from our good friend Franklin who was having some serious sound problems that were driving him crazy after moving his speakers from the long wall (not a good idea) to the short one (much better as a rule).

He already had one pair of Hallographs, which had helped his room problems quite a bit. We rely on three pair, and the second and third pair were a big improvement over the first, so we recommended another to Franklin, which, by the sound of this letter, seems to have worked miracles!

More on The Stereo

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Azimuth, VTA, Anti-Skate and Tracking Weight

We Got to Live Together

  (Item #: Azimuth) 

With a shout out to my man Sly!

In this listing you can find commentary and advice about tonearm azimuth adjustment, Ansermet’s recordings, Speakers Corner 180g pressings, and more.

More of the Best Recordings Made in Victoria Hall

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Can This Machine Turn YOUR Records into Hot Stampers?

  (Item #: rcm) 

The short answer is of course not. (Maybe "you wish" might be more to the point, but there's no need to rub it in so we won't even go there.)

A bad record is a bad record no matter how clean it is. Most record collections are swimming in mediocre-at-best LPs (especially collections made up of audiophile pressings) and no machine can fix bad mastering from bad tapes pressed on bad vinyl, or any combination thereof.

More Audio Advice

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Revolutionary Changes in Audio

What Works for Us Can Work for You

  (Item #: revolution) 

This listing, like the stereo itself (mine and yours), is a work in progress. Please check back for the commentary we expect to be adding in the future.

Our reason for having this kind of commentary on a site ostensibly devoted to the selling of records is simple: the better your stereo sounds, the better our records sound, and, more importantly, the bigger the difference between our records and the copies you already own. Also those LPs recommended by "audiophile" record dealers, which tend to be on Heavy Vinyl, at 45 RPM, half-speed mastered or, even worse, Japanese pressed. We have no interest in any of them. Why? On our system they rarely sound better than second-rate.

More on The Stereo

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Some Thoughts on

Acoustical and Electrical Polarity

  (Item #: polarity) 

Click here to see Pressings We’ve Discovered with Reversed Polarity.

We also have a section for other Audio Issues such as these.

  more Info

Taking Stock of the Most Fundamental Questions in Audio

  (Item #: twoquestions) 

This commentary is about two things -- knowing the kind of music you like, and getting the kind of sound you want.

If you believe a word you read on the various sites where audiophiles freely dispense advice about everything under the sun regarding music, recordings and equipment, you are asking for trouble and you are surely going to get it. You will encounter an endless supply of nonsense, more often than not defended tooth and nail by those with more aptitude for typing than for critical listening.

More Audio Advice

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Turn Up Your Volume!

One of Our Favorite Tricks to Getting Better Sound

  (Item #: volume) 

As an experiment, one which we have conducted countless times, we recommend that you try Turning Up Your Volume for the titles we've listed here.

We have no doubt that you will be able to recognize and appreciate, even to the point of amazement, the improvements in both the sound and the music we ourselves heard when we turned up our volume.

More Turn Up Your Volume entries listed Alphabetically by Artist

More Turn Up Your Volume entries with Newest Arrivals listed first

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Walker Talisman Magnetic Optimizer

Please Contact Your Nearest Walker Dealer

  (Item #: talisman) 

It works! The improvement is EXTRAORDINARY.

Every shootout record, every potential Hot Stamper we play, gets demagnetized before we evaluate it. Like you we want to hear our records at their best. A serious cleaning followed by the Talisman's Magnetic Optimization is the only way to ensure you're getting the most from your records. We cannot recommend this product any more highly.

More Audio Advice

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Becoming an Expert Listener

Challenging Yourself Can Really Pay Off

  (Item #: expert) 

Scientific American joins forces with Better Records (or is it the other way around?) to share a few ideas, which turn out to have much in common.

For years we've been writing commentaries about the sound of specific records we've auditioned in order to put them up for sale on the site. By now there are literally hundreds of pages of commentary in which we've tried to explain, often in great detail, exactly what we listened for and exactly what we heard when playing these pressings. We've tried to be as clear as possible about precisely which qualities separate the better sounding LPs from their competitors -- what they do right, and how you can recognize sound that is right .

More Shootout Advice

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Our Playback System ...

And Why You Shouldn’t Care

  (Item #: stereo) 

Below you will find a list of most of the equipment we use to carry out our pressing evaluations, also known as Hot Stamper shootouts. Of course the old 80/20 Rule comes into play here -- 80% (probably more like 90 or 95%, truth be told) of the sound is what you do with your audio system, 20% (or 10 or 5%) of the sound is the result of the components you own.

We like to say it’s not about the audio you have, it’s about the audio you do: how you set up your system, what you’ve done to treat your room, how good your electricity is and all the rest of it. Our current system is described below.

More on The Stereo

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