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<br>"In Defense of the Beginner..."<p>Shootouts Are a Bitch</P>

"In Defense of the Beginner..."

Shootouts Are a Bitch

One of our good customers wrote to tell us of a shootout he conducted a while back. This is his story.


In defense of the beginner audiophile: I am a spoiled owner of many of your Hot Stamper LPs. (So please don’t tell anyone where I live!) You endlessly bash us newbies as not being able to tell the difference in sound between two sides of a record. Fair enough – usually we can’t. In our defense, it is very difficult to tell differences between two sides of an album if BOTH sides sound like s__t! Where I come from this is the norm; two crappy sides.

See all of our Neil Young albums in stock

Sku # : youngzuma_shootout_letter

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To illustrate: Months ago you put up several Hot Stampers of Zuma. When I opened the mailing, the Hot ones were already sold. So I decided to try the Better Records approach and purchased ten copies of Neil Young’s Zuma to do a weekend shootout. (six originals, two early pressings, two reissues) I would have been happy with a Hot side one, but no. Twenty sides of vinyl yielded: two Side Ones with an A rating and a single Side Two with an A+++ rating. That’s three good sides and seventeen crappy sides. All for $182 plus fourteen hours of comparison listening, with no money back guarantee, etc. I guess it helps to already know the good stampers to look for! By the way, I’m still looking for that magical side one…

Chris L


I feel your pain. The first few hundred shootouts are the hardest, that's for damn sure. After that it seems to get a little easier. Of course that's with one person cleaning the records, another flipping them on the turntable (who's also listening critically), and another one of the listening crew sitting in the main chair with a pile of large post-its madly scribbling away.

If you don't have that kind of help then it really doesn't get that much easier after the first few hundred.

Thanks for your letter.

If you are interested in doing your own shootouts, the commentary entitled Hot Stamper Shootouts -- The Four Pillars of Success may be of interest.

Click on this link to read more about Zuma.

Our "What to Listen For" Commentary on Zuma

Hot Stampers are all about finding those rare and very special pressings that present the master tape at its best.

Notice I did not say accurately represent the master tape, because the master tape may have faults that need to be corrected, and the only way to do that it is in the mastering phase. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that fidelity to the master tape should never be, and rarely is, the goal of the mastering engineer.

Flat transfers are usually a mistake. (Chesky is famous for boasting that their early remasterings of the Living Stereo catalog were flat transfers. They sure sound flat all right. If there is a more clueless bunch of audiophiles on the planet than the people running Chesky you would have a hard time proving it to me. But I digress.)

Likes and Dislikes

While listening we constantly make judgments about the way we think the recording at any moment "ought" to sound, based on what we like or don't like about the sound of recordings in general and how our stereos present them to us.

Audiophiles naturally listen for different qualities and ascribe to these different qualities higher and lower relative values based on little more than their personal taste. While doing our Hot Stamper shootouts, we -- being audiophiles -- do the same.

Through our commentaries we try to communicate as accurately as possible the special qualities of the best pressings we heard and why they were meaningful to us.

So what are we listening for, specifically?


First off, correct tonality is critically important; for an audiophile this should go without saying. It is the sine qua non of reproduced sound.

Dynamics, Bass and Energy

We prize dynamics, bass, and the overall energy of recordings more than transparency, tubey magic, sweetness and the like, even though we love those qualities in recordings as well.

We like the Big Speaker sound, the kind of sound that, when played at loud levels, can almost make you think you're listening to live music. That means the sound must be dynamic, present and full-range. Small speakers, screens and their ilk can do some nice things to be sure, but they can't move much air, so they never give you a true sense of the power and energy of the recording the way dynamic drivers can (assuming of course the drivers are big enough and you have enough of them).

Good Music Has Power

Music has the power to take you out of the world you know and place you in a world of its own making. How it can do that nobody knows. Whatever Neil tapped into to make it happen on Danger Bird (discussed below), he succeeded completely. If you're in the right frame of mind, in the right environment, with everything working audio-wise, a minute into this song you will no longer be sitting in your comfy audio chair. You won't really know where you are, and that's exactly where you want to be.

Trancendental Recordings

To accomplish this feat the sound has to be right. As always this is the rub. If you're an audiophile these transcendent experiences tend to be prompted by very high quality recordings, the kind that allow you to forget you're listening to a recording at all. So many recordings do the reverse: they call attention to their shortcomings. When that happens the effect of losing oneself in the music quickly becomes hopelessly difficult if not impossible.

Ruined Recordings

Of course I'm using the word "recording" inaccurately here. We don't really know what the recording sounds like. All we have are pressings, and the sad fact of the matter is that most recordings are ruined in the mastering and pressing phase. How else to explain how a Hot Stamper pressing like this can sound so amazing, yet the average copy sounds so, well, average? Which brings us to the sound of Zuma.

Zuma has a kind of garage band sonic purity that makes practically any other studio album you own sound phony in comparison. This is clearly a bunch of guys playing together live in a room, a room which happens to be a studio but could just as easily have been somebody's garage. It has exactly that kind of loose feel; there's a sense of real communication between the players. Much like great jazz musicians, they're completely in tune with each other. Drop the needle on any song at random and you can tell right away that these guys are comfortable playing together. They've known each other for a long, long time. This is a real band; this ain't no Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young pickup group. (Neil is famous for saying CSN&Y were never a band, more like four guys each trying to do their own thing.)

Raw and Real Sound

The sound is as raw and as real as it gets. It's about as far from Deja Vu as you can get, except for the one song on Deja Vu that really does sound like a band playing live in the studio: Almost Cut My Hair. Slowly over the years it has become my favorite CSNY track, mostly because it really does make them sound like a BAND. If you love THAT SOUND as much as we do, you will absolutely love Zuma.

The whole album has that sound -- good news. The better news is that Zuma is a better recording, and it's better in every way -- rock solid bass (the kind that all the best Neil Young records always have); explosive dynamics; superb transparency; extended highs; some of the best sounding drums and guitars you've ever heard; clear, correct, unprocessed, lifelike vocals and choruses -- I could go on, but I'm guessing you get the picture. This is it folks. For grungy guitar rock it just doesn't get any better than Zuma.

Danger Bird!

Listen to the way Danger Bird opens. Each instrument, one by one, slowly, deliberately, one could almost say haltingly, feeds into the mix, until the churning guitars give way to Neil's spare vocal -- fatalistic, doomed, already resigned to some fate he barely understands. Even though the song has just begun, you sense that Neil feels a weight and a darkness bearing down on him, that it's ongoing, that it's already started, that somehow you're coming into it in the middle, well after the weight of it has begun to crush and perhaps even kill him. He knows how Danger Bird has to end.

It's as powerful and intense a piece of music as any I have ever experienced; sublime in its simplicity, transcendental in effect. You feel yourself swept along, an out of body experience that you can't control. When Neil launches into the first of many guitar solos, the sense of journeying or exploring with him the imaginary musical world he inhabits is palpable. He doesn't seem to know where it will lead and neither do you. There is no structure to reassure you, no end in sight, only the succession of notes that play from moment to moment, first tensing, then relaxing; cresting, then falling away.

The best pressings, played on the best equipment, allow you to go on that journey with Neil. That's what really good records (and nothing else in my experience, outside of the live event) can do. When we listen to records, we're listening for records that do that.

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