Our VPI Aries (original, not the latest model) with Super Platter (no longer made) and TTWeights Carbon Fiber Platter (a big upgrade) / VPI Synchronous Drive System (as of 2016 now sitting on a Townshend Seismic Sink) Triplanar Tonearm / Dynavector 17d3 / Aurios (no longer made), which sit on a Townshend Seismic Sink (another big upgrade, contact me if interested) / EAR 324P and the hundreds of hours we've spent setting up and tweaking this beast is at the heart of everything we do around here.
Mix in extensive room treatments, aided inestimably by three pairs of Hallographs (as we like to say, there is no practically no Hi-Fi without them), more than thirty years of experience and endless hours of experimentation and you have a system that can separate the winners from the losers like nobody's business.
Exactly like nobody's business, because nobody does it in this business but us. Having heard hundreds of systems over the years it's an open question as to whether anyone even could do it but us. The positive evidence is lacking to the point of non-existence.
We love our modified Legacy Focus speakers, even more now that they have much improved high frequency extension courtesy of Townshend Super Tweeters. Our preamp and amp are vintage and low power; the Focus can play quite loudly with the thirty watts our amp puts out. We are big fans of Low Power (but not single ended) and are not the least bit happy with the current trend toward high-power amps, whether tube or transistor. (This trend started in the early '70s with the Phase Linear 400 amp and has only gotten more out of hand with each passing year.)
A few years back we tried using higher power amps when doing shootouts for the likes of Nirvana, AC/DC and such. We found that using a bigger amp involved major trade-offs; trade-offs (opacity; loss of transient information, spaciousness and ambience) whose costs rarely exceeded their benefits.
With more power comes less Tubey Magic, sweeteness, transparency, three-dimensionality and that wonderful relaxed quality which gives the music its flow and sense of ease. High power amps in our experience do none of these things well. As most speakers today are terribly inefficient they require their use, a choice most audiophiles do not even know they are making when they buy inefficient speakers. More's the pity.
Warning: Audiophile Wire Bashing Ahead
Most of our wiring -- interconnect and speaker (the Triplanar is hardwired with a top quality phono interconnect) -- is custom, although we recommend certain power cords when you buy specific equipment from us (such as the EAR phono stages and the VPI SDS). We occassionally engage in audiophile wire-bashing in our commentaries. There is a long audiophile wire debunking commentary that involves testing with Aqualung which you may care to read.
And Why You Shouldn't Care
Having said that, we don't think you should care a whit about what equipment we use.
No, I Take That Back. Let's be honest. The equipment we've listed is the equipment we use and recommend because it's the best equipment we have had the opportunity to audition, or managed to acquire, or happened to come our way, and was affordable. In truth, it was some combination of the above. It's what works for us.
The vast majority of audiophile equipment we have auditioned over the last thirty plus years would make our famous Hot Stamper shootouts difficult if not all but impossible to carry out. Most of it sounds far too colored, limited and often -- not to put too fine a point on it -- just plain wrong. Our Beatles commentary targets the issue, but in hundreds of listings we try to help the reader/ listener focus specifically on what a recording should be doing in the home (usually under the heading of What to Listen For). The better your equipment and room, the better your Hot Stamper will be able to do what the best copies can do.
If you would like to hear your records (or our records, we sell them you know) sound their best, we would love to help you accomplish that goal. There is no greater thrill than hearing your favorite music sound better than you ever thought possible. It's what Hot Stampers are all about. And the right equipment is a big part of that better-than-you-ever-thought-possible sound. Not the biggest part; the biggest part is you. Still, a very big part.
A Good Record Is an Education
A good record is an education for us too. This is not only how we've managed to learn about the pressing in question; it's the same process that allows us to make improvements in the sound of the stereo. It's learning how to identify what is right and what is wrong with the sound of any pressing -- the same process that helps us recognize whether any change to the stereo makes it sound better or worse, and to try and figure out by how much and in what way.
And the best part is, like the practice of any skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. We do it all day, every day. Not because we're noble or dedicated. We do it because we enjoy it. It's fun. It's the most fun part of this job. Discovering great sounding recordings is a THRILL. It's what this hobby is all about -- hearing music sound better than you ever thought it could.
Change For The Better
Of course, as I've stated elsewhere on the site, you learn almost nothing from the same record played back on the same equipment. What you must do is learn to listen for differences in the sound, and differences only come about as the result of a change. You have to CHANGE something in the system to develop your critical listening skills.
How about this example: the difference in sound between any two sides of a record. The only change there involves flipping the record over. No new equipment, no tweaks, no shootouts with dozens of alternate pressings. Just flip the record. Almost no record has the same sound on both sides, not the records we play anyway. Where else have you ever read such a thing? Nowhere else, at least to our knowledge. Because few audiophiles and almost no record dealers make the effort to listen critically at anything approaching this level of scrutiny.
Training Your Ears
If you can't hear the difference on at least some of your records, it has to be one or both of the following. Either your system is not good enough to resolve these differences, which is sometimes the case, or, much more likely, you simply haven't trained your ears to listen for them.
This has nothing to do with listening for pleasure. This is listening like it's your job. Critically. Analytically.
Try to listen for one quality by itself. Listen for grain, or top end extension, or bass, or dynamics -- anything, the list is endless. Focus in on that single quality, recognize it, appreciate it, then flip the record over and judge that one quality for side two.
There is a minimum level of resolution your front end must attain before these differences are important. With a cheap rig you certainly don't need us to find records for you.
Many of the records we praise highly present a severe test for a playback system, one that less sophisticated setups will have a hard time passing. Sergio Mendes' records come readily to mind. You need to have one helluva well-setup, high-quality front end before you can play them without sibilance and grain, let alone bring out all the magic. I don't know a tougher test than Stillness, or Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66. They will bring most stereos to their knees, mine included if I haven't tuned it right. We think the VPI Classic (II much more than I) is a good entry level table if you plan on acquiring many of the best pressings we have to offer.
Better Vs. Not-Better
Much of the commentary on the site is there to explain how to differentiate the better pressings from the not-so-better pressings. The better the system, and the more careful the listener, the more these differences will matter. That's why we charge so much money for the really hot copies - to us, they are worlds better than the runners up. They are right in a way that the typical Half-Speed Mastered or Heavy Vinyl pressing almost never is. The more critically one listens, the more obvious this distinction becomes. The real thing just can't be beat, and you can be pretty sure that the real thing is an old record. (Not any old record of course. It needs to have Hot Stampers!)
...along these lines can be found below.
This listing: Advances in Playback Technology -- More Than Blind Faith has a similar theme.
You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts -- The Four Pillars of Success.
We have 70+ Audio Exercises you can try at home for fun and profit.
We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.
And finally we'll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.
Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.