Why Audiophiles Are Paying $1,000 for This Man’s Vinyl

How much would you pay for an original transcript of The Beatles’ Abbey Road ? If you shop at Better Records, the response is plenty: $650. Other staples from the heydayof vinyl command equally astronomical prices. Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous LP: $500. The Police’s Synchronicity : $350. Even kitsches like The B-5 2s is a sticker shocker at $220.

And that’s the cheap stuff. Costs for wish list titles like The Who’s Tommy , Pink Floyd’s The Wall , and The Beatles’ White Album would make a military contractor blush: $1,000.

Price gouging? Not according to Better Records owner Tom Port. He guesses a thousand bucks is a bargain to hear a classic stone opus audio better than you’ve ever heard it sound before–stoned or sober.

” I’d like to charge $1,500, because that’s what I suppose these records are worth ,” he tells.” But I don’t, because the customers balk .”

This is what passes for fiscal restraint in the field covered by high-end audio: drawing the line at three figures for mass-produced records that sold in the millions, the same dormitory room relics found in milk crates at tag sales. But Port insists that his meticulously curated discs are special. Unlike many record traders, he doesn’t peddle the usual dreck pocked with scratches and pot resin. He traffics strictly in” hot stampers ,” the very best of the best.

Hundreds of factors determine what a vintage record will sound like, from the chain of ownership and whether it’s been properly stored to the purity of the vinyl stock and the quality of the equipment that produced it. One factor many serious record collectors fixate on is the quality of the stampers, the grooved metal plates used to press a glob of hot vinyl into a record album. Like any metal die, these molds have a finite lifespan. The accumulation of scratches, flaws, and other injury resulting from the tremendous mechanical stress a stamper be subordinated to — 100 tons of pressure during a production run–leads to a gradual loss of audio fidelity in the finished records. To ensure the best sound quality, some boutique companies that press heavy vinyl today limit their stampers to 1,000 pressings. In contrast, during the peak of the vinyl boom, major labels churned out as many as 10,000 copies on a single stamper. It’s preferable to have a record pressed early in a production run, before the metal exhibits signs of wear, rather than toward the end, right before a fresh stamper is slapped on.

Tom Port guess a thousand bucks is a bargain to hear a classic stone opus audio better than you’ve ever heard it sound beforestoned or sober.

Nab anearly pressing of an iconic title produced under ideal conditions, take really( really) good care of it for 40 years, and maybe it’ll be judged a hot stamper worthfour figures.

Scott Hull, a recording engineer who owns Masterdisk, one of the world’s premiermastering facilities, compares producing a vinyl record to inducing wine.” Each pressing of the grape, and each pressing of the disc, is unique ,” Hull tells.” Hundreds of subtle things contribute to each pressing being different. Everything matters, from plating the lacquers to various molding issues to the quality of the vinyl pellets .”

Copies of this Beatles classic all sound different. Brian Guido/ WIRED

Selling these artifacts at these prices requires more than a listing of customers with too much disposable income. It takes hard work, chutzpa and catalog transcript that erupts neural brush flames in the amygdala.

Consider these savouring notes for the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue ($ 230 ):” A murderer pressing serious punches down low, superb lucidity, all the extension up top and a HUGE open audio field you’ll have a hard time find any Stones record that voices this good period !” Confirmation bias? Likely. Porthad me at” murderer pressing .”

Although Better Records offers jazz, blues, classical, and the occasional genre novelty( faux-Polynesian exotica is a recurring guilty pleasure ), invariably it’s nostalgic classic stone albums like that Stones semi-classic from 1980 that become hot stampers.

But find such pristine and aurally transcendent records isn’t easy.

Hot or Not?

The painstaking process begins by scouring the used market–from Salvation Army bins to eBay–for a dozen or more clean copies of an album. Next arrives the obligatory spa regimen: a three-step enzyme wash followed by a deep groove vacuuming with two record clean machines, one of them an $8,000 Odyssey RCM MKV, an instrument the size of an airline beverage cart handcrafted by persnickety Germans.

Grunt work completed, the hot stamper monarch and his minions meet in the Better Records listening room for a round of tests dubbed a “Shootout.”

By the standards of your stereotypical tube-loving, power-junkie audiophile, the amp Port utilizes as the hub of his Shootout machine is shockingly ordinary: a 1970 s Japanese integrated transistor amp rated at a feeble 30 watts per channel, a typical thrift-store detect.” I use a low-power, solid state amp because it doesn’t color the music ,” he explains.” Tubes construct everything audio warm and add aberration. That can sound nice, but I need accuracy .”

The other components are becoming more upscale. The Legacy Focus speakers have been modded with Townshend Super Tweeters, for example, and the turntable sports a Tri-Planar Precision Tonearm and a Dynavector 17 D3 cartridge. Everything has been carefully selected for sonic neutrality. This isn’t about conjuring mega-bass or shimmering highs. The goal is flat frequency reply, getting as close as possible to the audio on the original master tape. Nothing added or subtracted. The total price for Port’s shootout rig comes to $35,000.

Tom Port is the owner of Better Records in Thousand Oaks, California, and a noted purveyor of high-priced” hot stamper” vinyl LPs. Brian Guido/ WIRED

When the shootout finally get underway, lightings are dimmed, eyelids fall and ears peak. With each cut sampled, the usual things are carefully pondered: presence, frequency extension, transparency, soundstage, texture, tonal correctness, and an elusive oddity called ” tubey magical”( severely ). Every element is scrutinized in granular detail. If sentiments diverge or memories fail, reference copies are pulled from the archive to check benchmarks. It’s tedious run. Choosing whether Side B of Emotional Rescue is a “Mint Minus Minus”( 7 on a scale of 1-10 ), or a” Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus” (8 -9 ), requires dedication, stamina and intense focus. When the grades are tabulated, a sonic pecking order emerges 😛 TAGEND

Hot stampers( great audio/ expensive)
Super hot stampers( really great audio/ really expensive)
White hot stampers( insanely great sound/ insanely expensive)

It’s tempting to reject hot stampers as pseudoscience, like cryogenically treated speaker cables, power amp fuses zapped with Tesla coils, and every other confidence strategy devised to divide affluent middle-aged audiophiles from the contents of their billfolds. Talk to enough studio technologists and record plant technicians, though, and it becomes apparent that theaural discrepancies between records that Tom Port prattles on about really does exist.

Industry experts agree that copies of the same album can, and often do, sound different; sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Not only from transcript to copy, and from side A to side B, but from track to track, and, yes, even within the same track. In fact, vinyl records attained on the same stamper, during the same production run also can vary in sound quality. Other copies, bearing different record labels, pressed in different countries, using different equipment and personnel, will lend their own sonic flavor, which merely muddles the questions further.

Every hot stamper candidate gets a thorough rinsing before evaluation. Brian Guido/ WIRED

” There’s actually little reason why any two disc should sound the same ,” tells Masterdisk’s Scott Hull.” A grading system based on the different significant factors induces sense: surface noise, relative aberration during playback, and things like skips and major pops .” Before this becomesa hot stamper endorsement, Hull lowers the boom:” Telling one disc is wrong and another is right is very controversial. Merely individual producers, the mastering, and cutting technologists really know what that record was supposed to sound like .”

Most each member of hobbyist web forums who discuss vinyl records are vehemently anti-hot stamper. It’s the exorbitant markup, of course, that provokes all the outrage.

The textbook example of good mastering gone bad is the 1969 Atlantic Records release of Led Zeppelin II . The first pressing, mastered by a young Bob Ludwig, beats every other pressing and reissue by a wide margin. This record is easily identified by scanning the matrix, a product code located in the run-out area next to the label. There, etched in the dead wax are the letters “RL/SS,” shorthand for Robert Ludwig/ Sterling Sound. Known among traders as the” hot mixture ,” ithas such energy and dynamic range that when it was released it caused the needles on cheap record players to literally jump out of the grooves. This happened when Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, brought a transcript home to his daughter. Judging the record defective, he immediately ordered a new pressing with the signal dialed down and compressed. Ludwig would later lament that the matter is version” sounded puny and aghh !

Still, like everything else having to do with manufacturing vinyl records, there are no regulations or absolutes. A desirable matrix isn’t foolproof. It’s only a good omen. A random hot mixture of Led Zeppelin II may sound fantastic, but some of the 200,000 “RL/SS” copies that were pressed audio better than others. This is what maintains Better Records in business and earns Tom Port a comfy six-figure income. A Led Zeppelin II white hot stamper is $1,000.

If there is one question that needs to be asked at this phase, it is this: Who actually buys these things?

Brian Guido/ WIRED

The Collectors

Although there are currently 117 testimonies posted on the Better Records website, the success of this bold enterprise hinges on 20 to 30″ preferred customers” who spend as much as $100,000 a year on hot stampers. These clients are wealthy audiophiles with a penchant for classic stone who like nothing better than to sit in an overstuffed wing chair sipping Ptrus and reading Tom Port’s vivid descriptions of the latest shootout winners.

Bill Pascoe, a full-time political consultant and part-time audiophile, is one such customer. Like all hot stamper addicts, he was initially skeptical. The gateway LP for him was Steely Dan’s Aja . Port’s notes boasted that it crushed the lavishly praised Cisco 180 -gram Aja reissue. Pascoe was dubious. But as a Washington power broker, he could certainly afford $130 to find out.

If you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on hardware, why wouldn’t you pay a few hundred for the software? Hot stamper collector Roger Lawry

” After the first track, I told,’ My God, there’s something to this! ‘” That was eight years ago. Today, Pascoe owns more than 100 hot stampers.” I’m not a recording engineer ,” he tells.” All I know is that Tom’s records sound better .”

Roger Lawry, a biomedical engineer in California, was hooked by a hot stamper of Blood Sweat& Tears‘ self-titled LP, the title Port deems” the best voicing pop or stone album ever recorded .” Lawry has accumulated about 150 hot stampers since then. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of buying a new Mercedes E-Class. The only change is that one has an excellent resale value.

Lawry admits this pricy vinyl won’t pad his investment portfolio, but he has no unhappiness.” If you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on hardware, why wouldn’t you pay a few hundred for the software ?” he asks. A recent salary cut, however, has forced Lawry to curb his vinyl excess. Still, if the right hot stamper came along, he says he wouldn’t hesitate pulling the trigger:” I’d be willing to pay $ 500 for the best transcript of Aja .”

The Chorus

Not merely are these original vinyl copies shiny and minty fresh, Port will tell you they also sound better than any of those $30 reissues” sourced from the original master tapes” currently in fashion. Port has particular dislike for these premium, heavy vinyl records, with their bonus tracks and glossy liner notes.

” Those records sound horrible ,” he growls.” A flea market transcript of Sweet Baby James will sound better than any new 180 -gram version .” Surely, there must be some notable reissues of other pop albums? The 60 -year-old California native intermissions.” If there are, I haven’t heard them .”

This outright dismissal of an entire industry has attained Port a pariah in most audiophile circles. It’s an emotional subject. Jonathan Weiss, the owner of Oswalds Mill Audio, a hi-fi sanctuary in Brooklyn known for its outstandinghorn speakers, barely contains his disdain.” This guy is the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the business ,” he tells.” He caters to the worst fears and anxieties of audiophile victims. It’s really absurd .” Weiss finishes by calling Port a couple of names we can’t print.

To genuinely understand the fears and anxieties of vinyl aficionados, follow the impassioned threads that unravel on the hobbyist web forums. Although Port has supporters, they’re a minority. Most each member of sites like audiokarma and audioasylum who discuss vinyl records are vehemently anti-hot stamper. It’s the exorbitant markup, of course, that provokes the outrage.

Brian Guido/ WIRED

Port detects the criticism amusing. On his website, he taunts these people where it hurts: By criticizing their obsessive-compulsive love for bachelor pad hi-fi gear from the Boogie Nights era.” Pioneer turntables? In the working day and age? What time warp did these guys fall through anyway? It’s as if the last thirty years of audio never happened .”( Never mind the apparent hypocrisy of his usinga 40 -year-old amp to rate his records .)

He also relishes rending their precious 180 -gram LPsto shreds and stomping on them.” Heavy vinyl is just a gimmick, like gold plated CDs ,” he says.

To Port’s dismay, record labels have doubled down on the surging vinyl market, promising even higher fidelity by pushing a new format: the 45 -RPM, double LP. Remastered at half-speed, these limited edition records, if properly produced and fabricated, have the capability to outperform single 33 -RPM discs because the stylus expends more time in the grooves retrieving data. Critics gush about greater dynamic range and improved transient response.

Predictably, Tom Port isn’t a fan. Here’s his its consideration of Metallica’s Ride The Lightning , a Warner Brother 45 -RPM album remastered at MoFi from the original analog tape:” Compressed, sucked-out mids , no deep bass and muddy mid-bass, the mastering of this album is an absolute tragedy on every level .” He chuckles when asked how many commercial relationships have soured over the years due to unpopular opinions like this.” I burn all my bridges ,” he tells.” I want nothing to do with any of these people .”

The Duel

Stereophile columnist Michael Fremer falls into this category. InOctober, the audio critic conducted a poll on his blog, Analog Planet, to address the hot stamper vs. heavy vinyl debate. The material chosen for this audio contest was RCA’s 1960″ Living Stereo” record of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade , a symphonic lyric considered by audiophiles to be one of the greatest performances ever captured on vinyl.

In one corner was the prohibitive favourite: Analogue Productions’ 200 -gram, 33 -RPM reissue, a record that prominent critics, including Fremer( he called it “transformative” ), argued was better than the original. The challenger was a vintage RCA pressing of Scheherazade that Port had personally selected from his hot stamper hoard. The records were transferred to hi-res 24 bit/ 96 KHz files–well above standard CD quality–and posted on Fremer’s blog for readers to sample. When the votes were tallied, the new Analogue Productions version was declared the win by a 6percent margin.

Port dismisses the results as meaningless, blaming his hot stamper’s poor indicating on flawed methodology.” Fremer labeled one of the files’ AP, ‘” he tells incredulously.” Voters knew that was Analogue Productions. So, the experimentation was biased from the start! When it was corrected, we caught up fast .”

He could have left it at that, but the thought of smoldering bridges excites Port too much. Convinced that the industry high priestsare aligned against him, he lashes out:” Michael Fremer once said he had six copies of Aja , and they all voiced the same. That’s impossible on a good system! Is he deaf ?”

Fremer has since conducted several live listening sessions using the same two Scheherazade pressings. In each case, the results were, in Fremer’s words,” pretty much 50 -5 0.” Which would seem to indicate, at least in this instance, that heavy vinyl and hot stampers are more about personal predilection than one record actually voicing better than the other.

” If you can afford it, I suppose Tom provides a good product ,” Fremer tells diplomatically.” Although, I don’t always agree with him on everything .”

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