My self-serving (and somewhat rude) Aja advice:
Try the Cisco if you hate your domestic copy and can't be bothered finding a good one.
If you love the album and want to hear it right, buy one from us. It's guaranteed to blow your mind or your money back.
If you have the MOFI or Japanese pressing, toss them both. If they sound good on your stereo, get rid of that too.
Darn You and Your Hot Stampers
You can read one Steely Dan Fan's review here. Let us just say he was not too impressed with the Cisco either.
You Don't Even Want the Cisco Aja for Free?!
Interestingly, when we put up those Hot Stamper copies of Aja in August, we offered to send each buyer a copy of the Cisco LP for FREE to do the comparison for themselves. Not one person took us up on it, which was actually a bit surprising. On further reflection we realized that most of our serious customers know by now that today's Heavy Vinyl reissues leave a lot to be desired, and it doesn't require a state-of-the-art stereo or a pair of golden ears to hear it.
Our previous commentary:
This pressing will handily beat the average ABC LP, which is typically an aggressive, grainy piece of junk. That said, we have issues with some of the mastering choices made by Cisco, notably in the range of 250 cycles and below. The "Whomp Factor" here isn't what it should be, a common problem with modern remastered pressings. They consistently lack the weight and power of the best originals. (The new Aqualung is totally Whomp Free. Who is his right mind wants to play a bass-shy copy of Aqualung? It's crazy!)
There is also an overall loss of spaciousness, ambience and resolution. The sound tends to be drier and harder, with less of the "Midrange Magic" we prize so highly in our hand-picked pressings.
What you see below is some commentary we wrote for our most recent shootout.
We Now Return to The Revolution, Which Is Already in Progress
Seriously, what album on the planet is better than Aja? This music belongs in any serious collection worthy of the name. And, of course, as audiophiles we all know that when it sounds this good, it makes you appreciate the music even more. I never cared all that much for this album until a few years ago, when I discovered how amazing the most amazing copies could sound. (Had to make quite a few improvements in the system before that reality hit home. The third pair of Hallographs and the new EAR 324P phono stage we brought on board since the last shootout made a HUGE difference in the sound. Aja is now without a doubt a real DEMO DISC, and I wouldn't want to live without it. It's a THRILL to finally hear this album sound the way it should have sounded, but for various and sundry reasons never quite did.
Aja -- A World of Sound Awaits You
That's what the Recent Revolutionary Changes in Audio link is all about. If you haven't taken advantage of all the new technologies that make LP playback dramatically better than it was even five years ago, Aja won't do what it's supposed to do. Trust me, there's a world of sound lurkng in the grooves of the best Aja's that simply cannot be revealed without Disc Doctor cleaning fluids, Aurios, Hallographs, top quality front ends, big speakers and all the rest. Our playback system is designed to play records like Aja with all the size, weight and power of the real thing. We live for this kind of Big Rock sound here at Better Records. We're prepared to do whatever it takes to play records like this with Maximum Fidelity, secure in the knowledge that a system that can play Aja can play ANYTHING.
More MoFi Bashing, But Boy Does The MOFI Aja Deserve It
I remember back in the '70s when I thought this album sounded pretty good on my plain old ABC original. Then I got a copy of the Mobile Fidelity pressing and I thought it sounded even better. Side two of the MOFI had bass that was only hinted at on my domestic copy.
Sometime in the '80s I realized that the MOFI was hideously phony sounding, and that all the bass on side two was boosted far out of proportion to what was on the master tape. The song Home At Last must have at least an extra five DBs added at 40 cycles. It's ridiculous. Add to that the bloat caused by half speed mastering and you have An Audiophile Disaster of Epic Proportions.
And that's just the bottom end; the highs are every bit as wrong.
Side one has its top end boosted beyond all understanding. The snare drum that opens the song Black Cow sounds like a high hat, all top and no body, and the high hat sounds so bright you can barely even tell it's a high hat. Of course the vocals sharing the midrange are all ridiculously thinned out and compressed to death. Fagen's voice sounds tonally unlike his voice on any other Steely Dan record. That should tell you something.
Fagen's Evin Twin
Mobile Fidelity was not revealing or discovering the true nature of Donald Fagen's voice. They were creating an entirely new version of it, one with no relation to the living Fagen, the perfect example of My-Fi, not Hi-Fi, if the world needed such a thing.
The MOFI Aja is a giant black mark against Mobile Fidelity and half-speed mastering in general. I'm astonished that anybody who calls himself an audiophile in this day and age would not be able to recognize how laughably wrong it is, but I know people who still play the record and like it. Shocking but true.
(This is exactly what is going on with the recent Speakers Corner Mercury reissue series as well. They are finding a Mercury "sound" that no one ever found before. More to the point, they are finding a sound that no one with half an eardrum would even want.)
If you can't tell what's wrong with the MOFI Aja --and I'm guessing that's the majority of audiophiles (hopefully not the ones who come to this site) -- then it's hard to know how to help you. Like our friend with the MOFI Aqualung (Hey Pal, My Aqualung MOFI Sounds Just Fine), we don't know where to start. Something ain't workin' right -- room, stereo or both.
The Aja You Want
Generally, what you try to get on side one is a copy with ambience, because most copies are flat, lifeless and dry as a bone. You want a copy with good punchy bass -- many are lean, and the first two tracks simply don't work at all without good bass. And then you want a copy that has a natural top end, where the cymbals ring sweetly and Wayne Shorter's saxophone isn't hard or honky or dull, which it often is on the bad domestic copies. (The Japanese pressing we put up on the site recently is a total waste of vinyl; there's nothing above 8k on the damn thing!)
So Many Bad Copies, So Little Time
It's shocking just how many lousy sounding copies there are of records like this. You can play ten copies of Crosby, Stills and Nash's first album without ever finding one that even sounds decent. Mediocre records by definition are the norm. Good sounding records like this one are the exception.
AMG Rave Review
"Steely Dan hadn't been a real working band since Pretzel Logic, but with Aja, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's obsession with sonic detail and fascination with composition reached new heights. A coolly textured and immaculately produced collection of sophisticated jazz-rock, Aja has none of the overt cynicism or self-consciously challenging music that distinguished previous Steely Dan records. Instead, it's a measured and textured album, filled with subtle melodies and accomplished, jazzy solos that blend easily into the lush instrumental backdrops. It's complex music delivered with ease, and although the duo's preoccupation with clean sound and self-consciously sophisticated arrangements would eventually lead to a dead end, Aja is a shining example of jazz-rock at its finest."
The dead end they refer to above has to be the post-Gaucho catalog, because Gaucho is not a dead end in any way, shape or form. Its unique brilliance should be obvious to any Steely Dan fan. Everything after Gaucho is practically inexcusable. From an audiophile perspective, the super-clean, compressed, music-for-robots digital sound of the later albums is inexcusable, the deadest dead end imaginable.
Black Cow Key Track
Fagen's voice on the first line will always sound grainy - it's that way on the CD and every LP I have ever played, which means it's on the tape that way.
And don't you just love the way it starts on the upbeat? Now that's the way to kick off an album!
Aja Key Track
Got a big speaker? Lots of power? You will need both to play this song right. Note how the percussion comes through the dense mix, without being abrasive in any way. That's a sure sign that you have a copy with the transparency and resolution you need to bring out the track's best qualities. The mix needs that percussion; it's there for a reason.
Peg Key Track
Oddly enough one of the best ways to hear this song is on the -- gulp! -- MOFI. It's got a lot more top end along with whatever else they boosted the shit out of when they cut the record, and on this track their crazy EQ works. I admit it! Their version has plenty of problems, but it beats the hell out of nine out of ten woefully dull domestic pressings. (It was recorded at a different studio, which might explain why its EQ never quite fits in with the rest of the side.)
Home at Last Key Track
The toughest song on side two bar none. Nine out of ten domestic copies have grainy, irritating vocals and the deep bass is often missing too.
Focus on Vic Feldman's piano at the beginning of the song. It lacks body, weight and ambience on the 180 gram pressing, but any Hot Stamper will show you a piano with those qualities in spades throughout the track. It's some of my favorite work by the Steely Dan vibesman. The thin piano on the Cisco release must be recognized for what it is: a major error in judgement by the mastering engineers.
I Got the News
Josie Key Track
Interestingly this is some of the best sound on side two; Josie can sound good on even otherwise mediocre copies. The key to Josie is the bass. If it's full and punchy, not smeared or wooly, you probably have a winner, assuming the mids and highs are right. The bass drives the song. If it ain't right, the song just doesn't work. Is the bass right on the new Cisco LP? You be the judge!
If you're in the market for a Hot Stamper pressing, you may be in luck. Click here to see what we currently have on hand.