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Which "Scheherazade" is the "Better" Record?

Which "Scheherazade" is the "Better" Record?
(Files now "live")

Over the past few years a few audiophile/record collectors have played for me records they'd purchased, some at considerable expense, from Tom Port's Better Records, which advertises on this website.

The business model is to scour the world for used records and select the very best sounding for resale at what some would consider to be very high prices that some find outrageous. I don't. Going through dozens or more pressings of a given title to find the very best sounding is a time consuming process. You have to listen all the way through especially if you sell the records with a money back guaranty.

You could do likewise if you have the time, inclination and money but those with money it's easier to let someone else do the work and pay for it. Anyone who's sat down with a stack of say, Crosby, Still & Nash knows pressing quality and sonics are all over the map, with specific lacquer cuts and pressing plants producing the best sound—but not always. So while cynics will say they can buy clean copies all day for a few bucks of CS&N, getting a great sounding copy (beyond just "clean") takes perseverance and a great deal of knowledge. No doubt over the decades Port has been doing this he's gained plenty.

There's no controversy when you hear an "RL" Led Zeppelin II of course. That is most certainly a "better record" and worth whatever it costs to get one in great condition. On the other hand, a friend got a copy from "Better Records" of The Rolling Stones's Let It Bleed on the American London label that cost him plenty. In my opinion there are no good, not to mention better copies of that album on London records, which were all mastered and pressed in America. The only great copies of that one are on the British Decca label (in this case Londons and Deccas are way different!).

That said, though I believe the company's term "Hot Stamper" is a marketing ploy (like "Living Stereo", or "Living Presence") most of the "Better Records" records that I've heard have been sonically superior for whatever reason or reasons so it's no mystery the company has thrived and prospered over the decades its been in business even though, as some of you may know, Mr. Port and I have not always seen (6) "eye to eye" on everything.

After Analogplanet's enthusiastic review of Analogue Productions' Scheherazade (LSC-2446) "Living Stereo" reissue, Better Records contacted us with an offer and a challenge: they would send us a nearly top rated original "Hot Stamper" pressing for us to compare with the reissue.

The copy that arrived (some time ago, I'm sorry to admit), pressed at RCA's Indianapolis plant had an "N/A" rating for side one (lacquer 14S) and an A++/A+++ rating for side two. The problem with side one was immediately obvious before I even played it: visible "strings of pearls" throughout "The Story of the Kalendar Prince" indicating "non-fill" issues. Top rated side two (12S, first mother, first stamper [A1]) looked and sounded as advertised.

However, rather than me comparing the two records, why don't you do it? So here are two 90 second excerpts from side two. Admittedly a longer sample would be more useful but I think the excerpted section is sufficiently useful. The turntable was the Continuum Caliburn with Cobra arm. The cartridge was the .2mV Transfiguration Proteus—which is not a warm and soft sounding cartridge and the phono preamp was the Ypsilon VPS-100 with the MC16L step-up transformer. A/D conversion was via the Ayre QA9 at 96/24 resolution.

The cuts are not at the same level and I chose to not manipulate the files in any way to level-match so adjust as necessary. Vote for which you prefer and then comment as to why and which you think is which.

File "1"

File "2"

One thing I can tell you for sure: the reissue jacket is far superior to the original since Analogue Productions went to the trouble of getting the original artwork including a spectacular image of Fritz Reiner. But the sound? You decide!

vinyl_spinner's picture

...I really tried to find something in File #1 I liked better than File #2, but I can't. With File #2, I feel like I'm hearing what the composer intended me to hear. Individual instruments are clearly presented, but blend together well as whole. The soundstage is wonderful. The background noise in File #1 is distracting and intense passages blur a bit, as if this were a record that was played often.

In the end, it's all pretty subjective. The better record is the one that sounds better to you and that you reach for when you want to hear a particular piece of music. That said, it will be interesting to see what the consensus is.

Thanks, Michael, for a very entertaining post. These are great fun!

Now, any chance of comparing a great UK Beatles Mono pressing with the recently released reissue box?

calaf's picture

after spending a few more minutes listening, I convinced myself that Michael must have swapped the L/R channels somewhere in his recording chain. If I flip my headphones when playing the samples I hear pretty much the same instrument of the spotify track (spotify:track:7uh28Y8dmhkSz3OA9xvcr9).

Although it is decidedly on the bright side on neutral, I prefer file 2 to file 1. There is a longer decay to the cymbal notes, much more detail in the drums, and a tighter bass in the cello notes. File 1 OTH has a deeper and more connected soundstage than file 2, which has a bit of the dreaded "two-blobs" effect with my headphones (Beyer T1). I will not try to compare the two needle drops to the spotify track since there is this L/R swap problem in the samples.

my new username's picture

I picked 1 despite hearing more surface noise which yes, did distract somewhat. But it sounds like it's got more separation and dynamics (I normalized both to -0.3db) and just more life.

But in my opinion none of those should carry too much weight because with experience comes the realization of detail, air and tone that for me determines what's more lifelike overall.

I'll listen again tomorrow with another system and fresh ears. Tough test for me.

RobWynn's picture

Because I knew which file was which and because I was pre-disposed not to want to like File 1 over File 2, I was annoyed at myself that I liked File 1 right off the bat. So I listened 5-7 more times to the pair to listen more deeply and to give File 2 more of a chance to win me over. In the end, File 1 still won.

I feel it comes down to the sense of depth and air that File 1 has. File 2 is "in your face" as markp notes and has more of a black background than File 1 but it feels like the music is being sucked into the black background, not unlike a black hole.

I really didn't want to choose File 1 as I've spent at least one or two evenings in the recent past reading Better Records (BR) website, the back-and-forths with him and Michael, as well as postings by others about BR at other sites. However, I've come to realize that my opinion and thoughts about BR hasn't changed even though I picked File 1, and here is why...

1) I think the difference between the two has nothing to do with the pressing, but the different mastering.

2) The difference in price between the copies is not proportionate to the difference in music quality that I hear. So, if the exercise included the price and the question was which would you buy, I'm sure the vote would be for File 2 at a rate of 9-to-1, or more. Maybe, just maybe, it would be worth it for the difference in quality between two original copies of my favorite album of all time, but even then not likely.

3) BR's rating scale still makes the whole thing seem silly. The plus sign inflation is laughable and starts to have no meaning at some point.

4) BR and AP are built on two different models. AP and other audiophile re-issue labels are about creating a consistently high quality product for a reasonable price that exceeds the average quality of mass produced LPs of decades past and even equaling or surpassing the quality of "hot stampers" apparently as we see from the results of the poll. For brevity's sake, let's just say BR is aftermarket.

My final thought is something I haven't seen others put forth, although I probably just missed it. If a regular mass pressing of LPs randomly results in a certain percentage of "hot stampers", then the same percentage should hold for re-issues although due to the smaller runs there would be few numbers of hot stampers out there. Since a regular audiophile re-issue is fairing better than the hot stamper in the poll, can you imagine how much higher the quality of that audiophile re-issue "hot stamper" would be than the current mass-produced "hot stamper" for sale?

cooker's picture

Yes I agree, if an of the bat reissue pressing from AP gives the absolute best original hot stamper A+++++++++++ that costs far more, a run for its money then honestly, I think Sample 2 deserves far more credit, even if to some, including myself preferred Sample 1. Both are pretty much even, because what one lacks, the other has and what one has the other lacks.
Both are good overall.
Its not really a fair comparison. It should be a random 1st pressing vs a random reissue AP pressing. That would be more fair.
Why pay more then double the price for an LP that you can only listen to one side of it when the reissue is reasonably cheap, sounds good enough to be ahead on the poll, has a near silent background and has such a gorgeous cover and art work?
I am so thankful to AP's awesome reissues that they allow the general public to experience excellent quality music for a fraction of the price what an A+++++++++++++ hot Stamper record would cost. Bringing quality to the masses at affordable rates.

Wouldn't it be funny if really Sample 1 turned out to be the AP reissue and Sample 2 is the hot Stamper? Highly unlikely but would be funny.

Jon's picture

I just thought I would confirm that the left and right channels in the two samples are reversed. I swapped them around in my DAW and it all sounds correctly balanced. My vote goes for sample 1 as the better one and most likely the original RCA issue. I can hear a slightly more tangible inner depth to the string parts and the frequency balance, clarity and energy to me suggests a much fresher magnetic tape from which it was transferred. I also dug out my own vinyl transcription of the Analogue Productions reissue and the sound of my own transcription matches much more closely to sample 2. That said, my whole setup is a relatively warm one headed by an Ortofon Rondo Bronze, so it sounds quite a lot different to both to begin with - much warmer and more tube-like, smoother strings but not achieving the levels of clarity, detail and ambience of Michael's examples.

In the end, given that I like sample 1 more, if it turns out to be the original RCA then I am still very impressed with the reissue (sample 2?) regardless, and in my opinion the reissue sounds far better than any other remasterings and reissues that have been produced since the dawn of the compact disc age and beyond.

The only other thing I might mention is that if indeed I am right and sample 1 is the original, it is quite concerning to me how much detail, inner clarity and energy is lost in the tape after 50 plus years, but then again I suppose we should be amazed it sounds as good as it does today. It is for that reason alone that one side of me hopes I am wrong.

ViciAudio's picture

Try this, concentrate on a small part, exactly at 00:58 - 01:05 (on file 1) and 00:52 - 00:59 (on file 2)...

Hear that "puck" beating sound? In file 2 it sounds 3D, full, with deep and varying tonality in that very short moment when the beat occurs.

On the other hand, file 1 presents the exact same sound/instrument in 2D fashion, no depth, almost mono-tone... just a percussive beat without half the characteristics we can hear on file 2.

That is ruined timbre right there. I hear that improvement in all areas of file 2. What is being perceived, and in my opinion confused, as more air and musical coherence on file 1... is just the coherence one would expect from much less information tonal information, less resolution, less detail, less frequency extension... it's pretty normal that it sounds like that, but that is not superior fidelity.

I, on the contrary, am able to hear the increased musicality that comes with increased fidelity. So for me some opinions here are really not easy to follow... I understand totally where "they come from", technically speaking, but I think it's all a huge misconception about what real sound, real instruments, real orchestras sound like and what high fidelity music reproduction really is or should be.

I respect all opinions, but let's say this in direct contradiction with some posts here that are completely beyond my understanding: file number 2 does have more resolution, better transient response, more energy, more detail... this can be heard easily, even if you don't like it you can hear it!

Exactly the opposite of what one would expect from a 50 years old tape! So for me this indicates the most probable cause: back then, it was mastered with the limitations of its time and the average playback systems of its time. Now it was mastered really "full on", without caring for such limitations, that's why 50 years later that same tape can result in a better mastering with much livelier, dynamic and realistic sound :)

Michael Fremer's picture
Actually I did not swap out anything other than the records. Clearly when these two records were mastered the channels were reversed. I'm surprised I didn't notice when I originally reviewed the reissue.
Audiobill's picture

I have three differently mastered versions of this recording: RCA Red Seal .5 Series 1/2 speed mastered (ARP1-4427), Chesky Records (RC4), and the one you excerpted, Analogue Productions 2013 remastering (LSC-2446). All three have the first violins on the left side of the sound stage, and the cellos on the right (which is, of course, normal). My guess is you swapped the channels when you hooked up your A-D converter. That is easy enough to check out. I'm surprised you didn't. Also, why did you choose to provide unequal length excerpts? With all your sophisticated equipment, surely you have a timer available.

analogkid14's picture

I like both, but the first sample was warmer and more generally pleasing to the ear. The second sample which is the reissue, had more detail, but a harder sound. I am not an expert on these things, but I assume the mastering on the original was mixed and mastered using tube technology, the
second using solid state??

I'd be perfectly happy with the reissue, certainly finding an original in decent condition would be expensive. As long as reissues are done well, they are nice to have around.

Audiobill's picture

Didn't have time to read all these posts. File 1 is 75.9MB. File 2 is 53.5MB. I'm not sure if that is a product of the level difference mentioned, but it would seem the larger file size would indicate more information, which might be interpreted as better fidelity in the LP. I guess it could also indicate more noise. Just wondering.

jwinder's picture

The two excerpts don't stop at the same point in the music (or are they the same time length), so the file size isn't that relevant. Left and right channels are indeed switched around on both recordings here.

coaster92's picture

Anyone who's heard the earlier RCA pressings is familiar with their sort of sweet and smooth string tone, and also their surface noise. That's the tell tale signs, but not the only things that make it pretty easy to distinguish the samples. Sample 1 has more space and natural air around the instruments and the characteristc seductive instrumental timbre of old RCA pressings. While it may be slightly euphonic, it still sounds more like being in a symphony hall to me. Sample 2 sounds like it has some processing and or EQ to make it seem like those charactersitics are still on the tape, a well as some upper mid/treble boost to bring up the frequencies that have dulled over time. I notice this on nearly all of the AP reissues of anything. They do the best they can but there's some qualities that are on older pressings of music (rock, jazz or classical )that will never be recaptured by present day reissues IMO. Sample 1 is the Port record sample 2 is the AP. I suppose one could make a case for why they prefer either sample, the AP isnt bad considering how old the tape is and they did a pretty good job. It would be plenty good enough for most people who dont wnat to seek out and older one or for someone who's really sensitive to surface noise. Mr. Fremer you once said in a review as to "Hot Stampers" that "there is no such thing", haig heard some and liking what you heard, have you changed your mind? Port has always been excessive in his bashing of 180g reissues and of your reviews. I think you both have plenty of valuable experience to offer the analog enthusisiast regarding records and equipment. Btw I do own a few hot stampers and they do sound really good. I also like to find my own really good sounding used records and I also like certain reissues.

vqworks's picture

First thing's first. I'll say that the second sample is the Analog Productions record.

Why? Well, part of the reason is that every era has its own sound. By that I mean that the second sample appeals to newer sensibilities or preferences in sound quality. It is dryer with more transient attack due to a little more upper midrange/lower treble emphasis (probably partially resulting from equalization). The extreme highs sound rolled off or truncated, though. Still, the overall presentation is more dynamic because of the emphasis on transient attack. Of course, the first sample (which I assume is the older pressing) may have undergone a certain degree of limiting or compression to allow older and less capable tonearms to track its grooves). Since most of the dynamic range is in the midrange and the transient peaks in the upper midrange may be compressed, the extreme highs sound more prominent. In fact, the first sample seems to have more treble sheen. Unfortunately, the overall definition in the lower frequency range is clearly not as good as in the second sample.

I do like the extra treble sheen I hear from the first sample. It's what I've heard from a lot of old classical records pressed in the 60s. But the transient attack of the second sample is too appealing for me to dismiss. I'm just a sucker for transient attack.

Both samples have audible surface noise (occasional "ticks") that are just enough to give a hint that the source is an LP. I've heard better pressings in this respect.

In any case, I wouldn't even try to guess which sample sounds closer to the original master tape. We're at the mercy of the engineers. I'm saying this despite the fact that I believe accuracy at least partially defines the term high fidelity.

Cardinal Wolseley's picture

I was surprised at the the amount of surface noise on both recordings. Do you not clean the records prior to playing them? Also, there was a surprising level of hum.

That said, I did prefer File 2. Granted, it was the louder of the two and I didn't make any attempt to equalize, but I felt the orchestral swell just bloomed so much more convincingly. On the other hand, File 1 did appear to have the edge in resolution.

It was an interesting test. Do you have the capability to rip to DSD? I know only the minority have the ability to play it, but even so .... ? :)

mem916's picture

Yes the hum is very noticeable in the silence before the music starts on your samples. Here's the spectrum plot of that 2 seconds or so. I also noticed the channel swap, at least on the APO track. It had me going for a bit until I verified my setup is correct. For what it's worth I also liked file 2 better despite the flaws. Next time don't drink before setting up your digital recorder. ;)

mem916's picture

I can't do anything about the 60 cycle hum (and all the harmonics thereof) but here are the files with the tracks swapped.

hifibri's picture

Will say first sample is original and sounds more natural. Second is re-issue and more in your face/hard.

AndersKH's picture

Definitively the first file and not because of the record noise.
The hall sound is just so much more like the real thing.

AndersKH's picture

Guess I will just stick with my old doggie and burn it onto cd for the car.
I would like to try some of the mo fi's and maybe some other re-issues.

armand5000's picture

First - fantastic experiment and website. I found you via the NYT article on "$1000 for this man's Vinyl."

Choice: 1st track, because nostalgia.

I'll admit that I was pulling for Tom Port's romanticism (or perhaps capitalism), on somehow justifying a 1000% premium over new-issue vinyl. Track one - the cymbals. They're tinny, perhaps too hot on the reverb, but they have that "echo-ey", woodgrain quality that brings me back to childhood memories of Marvin Gaye on "the big speakers". (born '81)

Track two performs amazingly during the crescendo, I'd say better, but I honestly think that the cymbals and "hot" instruments sounded disappointingly muddy on the new press. It's too balanced, too flat/neutral.

That being said, thank you for introducing me to this recording - I'll definitely take the new issue.

javabarn's picture

Number 2 for me.... the background drumming did it for me.. MUCH cleaner and 3 dimensional....

javabarn's picture

Number 2 is the Analogue Productions "HOT" stamper... :)

Fonofilm's picture

I just found this. I'm baffled. The channels are reversed on both clips, it is thus meaningless either to evaluate them in some absolute sense individually or to compare. Your face in a mirror is not what you look like.

That said, I say that file 1 is the original LSC, file 2 the reissue (haven't read the answer yet!). Also, I feel that the LSC is a slightly worn copy, or (God forbid) that the turntable isn't properly adjusted (for this record at least). I recognize a slight lack of focus or clarity in texture that I've met when facing these problems. Nevertheless, I vote for file 1 as the better source, it can be worked with, while file 2 has a quality, however good (and superficially better given the conditions in this test), that feels like cut in stone (just as digital sources).

pazmusik's picture

I never liked the Reiner recordings, despite the excellent performance. They always sound very clinical, as though tracked in a tight studio, with a fairly unnatural reverb applied. Previn+Vienna Symphony remains my absolute favorite release of that seminal work (actually it was the very first CD I ever bought, in 1985 I believe.)

Having said that, I prefer File 2.

Bob Henneberger's picture

ones an original(60yr LP) and one is a brand spanking new reissue, sound aside you can tell which is which just listening for surface noise..... its not a fair test,,,,,,,