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which American label had the best sounding vintage mono and stereo classical LPs?

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  • which American label had the best sounding vintage mono and stereo classical LPs?

    I cant speak for the stereos, but of the monos I have heard it seems like Mercury had more sonic wonders than RCA or London (or other labels?)
    I'm speaking of the LPs themselves, not just the master recordings. This takes cutting and pressings into account.
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  • #2
    I'd have to go with Mercury. But you cannot separate the performance, recording, engineering and mastering from the finished product, nor the people responsible for the same. The final product is the sum of everything that went into producing it.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Rust View Post
      I'd have to go with Mercury. But you cannot separate the performance, recording, engineering and mastering from the finished product, nor the people responsible for the same. The final product is the sum of everything that went into producing it.
      are you speaking of the monos, stereos, or both?
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      • #4
        Originally posted by Rust View Post
        I'd have to go with Mercury. But you cannot separate the performance, recording, engineering and mastering from the finished product, nor the people responsible for the same. The final product is the sum of everything that went into producing it.
        when I mentioned the master recordings vs the LPs themselves, I was only trying to catch the caveat whereby maybe RCA could produce a better master recording and then blow it in disc pressing stage so they weren't the best sound any longer in the end product,
        Magnepan 1.6 QR Loudspeakers, Amherst A-2000 MOSFET 150 WPC Amp, Conrad Johnson PV-10A Modded Tube Line & Phono Stage, Electrocompaniet MC II Class A Head Amp, Audio Technica AT-OC9XML Cart (St) , Graham Engineering 2.2 Tonearm (St) , VPI Aries-1 Turntable (St) , VPI Clamp, Denon DL-102 Cart, (M) , Luxman Tonearm (M) , Kenwood KD-500 Turntable (M) , Michell Clamp, Marantz 20B Analog FM Tuner, Pioneer SACD, Onkyo DX-6800 CD Transport, DIY 24B/192K DAC, Sennheiser HD-300 Headphones, Headroom Max Balanced Headphone Amp, DIY Silver Interconnects

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        • #5
          are you speaking of the monos, stereos, or both?
          Ahhh. Well, regarding mono vs stereo, I'll go with the monos whenever possible. My collection of originals isn't extensive enough to make any substantive judgements of stereo vs mono. But in most cases everything was mic'd, recorded and engineered with a mono pressing as the intended result so I figure a mono would be the best representation.

          when I mentioned the master recordings vs the LPs themselves, I was only trying to catch the caveat whereby maybe RCA could produce a better master recording and then blow it in disc pressing stage so they weren't the best sound any longer in the end product,
          It is possible that the RCA masters may be better than the end product. But without access to the masters, assuming they survived in non-degraded condition there is no way to tell.

          I think it is possible with some old recordings the equalization curves were not entirely accurate, or that in production some equalization was used that was not appropriate for playback in vinyl, or the mastering chain itself was just a touch off. Or maybe that the mastering was more appropriate for the playback equipment of the day where the cartridges did not have as linear a response as those today. Likewise the phono stages of the day. To my ear, some of the old RCAs sound a bit sharp in the upper mids.

          With the older recordings there are a LOT of potential variables.

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          • #6
            Hi JC,

            I used to think that the RCA shaded dogs (LM-series) were the best mono pressings regarding sonic balance. Some of the Decca and Columbia and Capitol monos, though very quiet in the groove seemed tipped up or less dynamic than the RCA's on a pretty consistent basis. However, after implementing my Sentec EQ-11 phono preamp that allows selectable EQ curves for some common lables, I find that the previous variation of sonic-balance between record labels is very much an even playing field now. The fact that the RCA shaded dogs used the RIAA / New Orthophonic curve explains why the RCA discs sounded better to me when running an RIAA only phono in the past.

            Anymore, the enjoyment of a "good mono record" for me comes down to finding a sample record that is quiet in the groove without scratches or needle-bounce marks from years past. Having a dedicated mono cart (Miyajima Zero) and this Sentec EQ-11 has greatly expanded my listening enjoyment of these older mono gems.
            Last edited by MikeCh; 04-05-2016, 08:16 PM.
            Mike
            Avanti Audio

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            • #7
              Originally posted by MikeCh View Post
              Hi JC,

              I used to think that the RCA shaded dogs (LM-series) were the best mono pressings regarding sonic balance. Some of the Decca and Columbia and Capitol monos, though very quiet in the groove seemed tipped up or less dynamic than the RCA's on a pretty consistent basis. However, after implementing my Sentec EQ-11 phono preamp that allows selectable EQ curves for some common lables, I find that the previous variation of sonic-balance between record labels is very much an even playing field now. The fact that the RCA shaded dogs used the RIAA / New Orthophonic curve explains why the RCA discs sounded better to me when running an RIAA only phono in the past.

              Anymore, the enjoyment of a "good mono record" for me comes down to finding a sample record that is quiet in the groove without scratches or needle-bounce marks from years past. Having a dedicated mono cart (Miyajima Zero) and this Sentec EQ-11 has greatly expanded my listening enjoyment of these older mono gems.
              while I don't have access to various EQ curves, I do at least use a mono only cart and have over the years cherry picked clean playing records. What do you think of the Mercury monos? Those sound best to my ears.(based on my limited collection).
              Magnepan 1.6 QR Loudspeakers, Amherst A-2000 MOSFET 150 WPC Amp, Conrad Johnson PV-10A Modded Tube Line & Phono Stage, Electrocompaniet MC II Class A Head Amp, Audio Technica AT-OC9XML Cart (St) , Graham Engineering 2.2 Tonearm (St) , VPI Aries-1 Turntable (St) , VPI Clamp, Denon DL-102 Cart, (M) , Luxman Tonearm (M) , Kenwood KD-500 Turntable (M) , Michell Clamp, Marantz 20B Analog FM Tuner, Pioneer SACD, Onkyo DX-6800 CD Transport, DIY 24B/192K DAC, Sennheiser HD-300 Headphones, Headroom Max Balanced Headphone Amp, DIY Silver Interconnects

              Comment


              • #8
                I'd like to clarify. When I was referring to monos/stereos, I meant the mono records produced in the pre-stereo era, and the stereo records produced in the stereo era. NOT the mono records produced in the stereo era.
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                • #9
                  I'm not a mono fan because I never hear musicians piled up on top of each other. Yes some monos, take Saxophone Colossus for instance, have a "little" spread but my brain just says no. It is unnatural sounding. Now monos vs. stereo of solo instruments might be a little different but then that "wooden" sound of the monos just bothers me.

                  Sometimes comparing the mono vs. stereo though can be instructive as to the limitations of the cutting lathes back then. Or what the mastering engineers perceived to the lathe's limitation and ergo, engineered around them.Take the 1954 RCA two track, 30 ips recording of Reiner doing Also Sprach Zarathustra. Here the mono version (interestingly read the RCA release on the back of the album) has the low organ in the opening movement and missing in the stereo version.

                  Also found an nice labellography for the Living Stereos derived I think from Pendorf's site.

                  http://www.shadeddog.com/discography/lsc-1806/ Click image for larger version

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                  Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
                  Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
                  ________________________________________

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                  -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
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                  -Technics RS1506 with Flux Magnetic heads, Doshi V3.0 tape stage (balanced)
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                  Comment


                  • JCOConnell
                    JCOConnell commented
                    Editing a comment
                    I think I know what your getting at when you state that the monos have a "wooden" sound you don't like. Yeah sure, some of the early monos
                    are very colored and I don't enjoy those either. But if youre patient, you will find the later monos were much improved and had a very neutral
                    sound and quite dynamic, just like the famous early stereo recordings. These can be quite enjoyable to listen to.

                • #10
                  So back to the original question. Which US classical had on average the best sound? And as usual, I can't say any label is better than the other, just each has different strengths.

                  So what are the candidates in my mind?

                  Columbia
                  Mercury
                  RCA
                  Nonesuch
                  Reference Recordings (I think they qualify as vintage)
                  Sheffield (think they also qualify as vintage)
                  Everest

                  From a sonic perspective, we can eliminate Columbia right off the bat. Strings on Columbias are unlistenable and makes a great argument for having an EQ in the system.

                  Everest had some good music but the mid-hall perspective and lack of low end rules them out of the sonic sweepstakes.

                  Sheffield doesn't have enough of a classical catalog and what they do, is nothing to write home about. The two Leinsdorf recordings lack hall sound and are very dry sounding. Plus another mid hall perspective.

                  So we are down to the final four.

                  Let's take Reference Recordings first. We, unfortunately, never got to truly hear the sound of Keith O. Johnson's recordings on LP. In fact, I could never understand the hullabaloo about RR's LPs. Original RR LPs were amorphous sounding (as were many of the Wilson recordings but maybe for a different reason) and instruments two dimensional among other issues. The tapes, as in The Tape Project releases, are a completely different story. Spectacular sounding and highly recommend hearing the Arnold Overture or the Nojima piano recordings. Dynamics and low end like you've never heard on your system. An amazing sense of space. Still feel though that the RR recordings are a little too illuminated for my tastes.

                  Next, Nonesuch classical but the American composers series, not the Baroque et. al. recordings. These recordings done by Mark Aubort on his trusty Stellamaster are possibly the best recordings ever and straddle the ground between RCA and Mercury. Great transparency, dynamics, low end, imaging and neutrality. If there's a down side, it's that it sounds like these recordings were done with solid-state gear. (Note: many of the great Nonesuch were done at RCA Studio A.)

                  Finally, the two most renowned American labels, RCA and Mercury. Both have some things in common, other things not so similar. One thing in common was both used Ampex tape electronics with tube electronics. (Listeners familiar with the Mercury recordings also know that the early releases had a bit more hiss than the later issues, presumably due to the improvement in tape manufacturing.) Both labels tried to choose the best halls and stick with a relatively similar miking pattern for all the recordings done at a particular hall. RCA arguably had the better sounding halls (BSO and CSO) to Mercury's best (Watford and ER). RCA also had the more professional orchestra compared to Mercury (for instance, Detroit and Minneapolis back then were provincial orchestras while the Eastman-Rochester was a student's orchestra for the major part. Mercury stuck with an exception or two with its three mike setup while RCA used anywhere from two (the earliest recordings) to four or five or more depending upon the vintage of the recording. Both used different mikes that did change over time. Robert Fine and company tended to modify their mastering and George Piros was arguably the best mastering engineer ever! Oh and RCA pressed the FR matrix releases for Mercury. So lot's of variables to consider and compare and have probably forgotten some.

                  So onto the labels. Mercury is a more upfront presentation with great dynamics, low end and transparency. Mercury's achilles heel has always been its string sound that has improved slightly as playback equipment has gotten better. But it's still there. RCA on the other hand, has a more natural presentation, but not the dynamics or low end of Mercury. In addition, there's the string sound of RCA that was probably also in large part simply due to RCA having great string players in their resident orchestras.

                  So in my mind, there's no best and a lot will come down to a recording by recording basis. I don't think on the whole that when looking at the bulk of their releases that RCA or Mercury has a greater number of sonic spectaculars than the other.

                  Perhaps it might be interesting (and we know Sid Marks had his top 50 list of both labels) for people to list their favorite releases from each label. Or that could be done in a separate thread.
                  Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
                  Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
                  ________________________________________

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                  • #11
                    If we are just looking at American labels, then London is out (since these are all Decca UK recordings). A couple of important points. First, most labels (RCA the main exception) did not use RIAA until the stereo era, so many recordings released before around 1957-8 were not RIAA. Ideally, the EQ should be adjusted if you have the phono pre to do it - I do and it makes a big difference. Secondly, at least for Decca, for recordings made between 1954 and 1958 (the time between the first stereo recordins and the release of the first stereo records) there were two different engineering teams for the mono and stereo recordings. The A team (often "Wilkie") did the mono recording since that one was going to be released right away and would sell the best. John Dunkerley told me that the mono and stereo teams would do completely different recordings, including picking out different takes and choosing different edit points. So the records would be very different, even though they had the same players and recording venues. Don't know about Mercury, RCA, Columbia, etc.

                    I would disagree a bit with Myles about mono recordings in terms of sound field. I've just been playing some monos from my collection over the past week. They include the wonderful set of mono recordings that Glenn Armstrong released on his Coup d'Archet label 10-15 years ago. They are all mono and came from radio broadcasts, mostly Johanna Martzy, but including a couple of others. Playing them with my Miyajima Zero cartridge gives them quite a realistic sound field, clearly not left right like stereo, but not the sense of everyone lined up in the center. I also have been playing two of my favorite Ring Cycles, both only from the mono days. They are the Clemens Krauss 1953 Bayreuth Ring with young and vibrant Hans Hotter and Wolfgang Windgassen and the great Astrid Varney as Brunnhilde (on Foyer), and the 1950 La Scala Ring with Furtwangler and the best sonics of a Ring done by Kirsten Flagstad as Brunnhilde. In both of them the sonics are very real (both from live performances) and there is breadth to the sound stage.

                    Larry

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                    • #12
                      An interesting early video about RCA stereo releases!

                      https://archive.org/details/LivingSt1958
                      Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
                      Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
                      ________________________________________

                      -Magico S5 Mk.2 speakers with SPod feet
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                      -Goldmund Mimesis 37S Nextgen preamplifier
                      -Doshi V3.0 phonostage
                      -VPI Vanquish direct-drive turntable
                      -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
                      -Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, Fuuga, vdh Colibri Master Signature, MutechHayabusa, MOFI Master Tracker, Sumiko Songbird cartridges
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                      • #13
                        1806 was the first lp I bought from classic records...Good points about some of the differences between mono and stereo lps.
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                        • #14
                          OK, I forgot one other big factor to consider about the sound of the different labels.

                          Remember only Decca and Mercury actually cut their records from the actual working master tape. All the other labels cut from a mixdown tape. Ergo, Decca and Mercury are one generation closer to the original master tapes. And as anyone who works with tape knows, tape generation is everything and in some ways can outweigh recording speed.
                          Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
                          Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
                          ________________________________________

                          -Magico S5 Mk.2 speakers with SPod feet
                          -Goldmund Telos 280 stereo amp
                          -Goldmund Mimesis 37S Nextgen preamplifier
                          -Doshi V3.0 phonostage
                          -VPI Vanquish direct-drive turntable
                          -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
                          -Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, Fuuga, vdh Colibri Master Signature, MutechHayabusa, MOFI Master Tracker, Sumiko Songbird cartridges
                          -Technics RS1506 with Flux Magnetic heads, Doshi V3.0 tape stage (balanced)
                          -Assorted cables including Transparent XL Gen. 5, Skogrand, Viero, Kubala-Sosna, Audience Au24SX, Genesis Advanced Technologies and Ensemble Power Cords
                          -Accessories including Stillpoint Aperture panels, Cathedral Sound panels, Furutech NCF Nano AC receptacles; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 PLC, Symposium ISIS and SRA Craz racks, Audiodharma Cable Cooker, Symposium Ultra and assorted SRA platforms.

                          Comment


                          • JCOConnell
                            JCOConnell commented
                            Editing a comment
                            This is a very good point and could be the difference of putting mercury "over the top" of RCA.

                        • #15
                          Originally posted by JCOConnell View Post

                          while I don't have access to various EQ curves, I do at least use a mono only cart and have over the years cherry picked clean playing records. What do you think of the Mercury monos? Those sound best to my ears.(based on my limited collection).
                          I've never listened to nor do I think I've got any Mercury mono records in my collection....at least not in the classical genre. Dang, I guess I need to find some to purchase now!

                          Mike
                          Avanti Audio

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                          • JCOConnell
                            JCOConnell commented
                            Editing a comment
                            don't worry, they are not rare or expensive. the pre stereo era mono mercurys are the Olympians. the stereo era mono mercurys are the living presence. I have come across a bunch of them over the years and they sound impressive for their era.
                            Last edited by JCOConnell; 04-06-2016, 01:18 AM.
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