How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings

From time to time I get emails asking which recordings I have used when I write reviews and why. I usually keep this type of information to myself for my own odd reasons.

But in this case, I will relent: 

In the early 70s, before the term audiophile had come into common use, a recording was made that unknowingly adhered to every audiophile convention that are now the subject of so much of the hype that infects today’s audiophile labels. The record is Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise RS 6376). First of all, this LP is among the last of the big label LPs that were lovingly pressed on only the finest vinyl. My pressing is pushing 30 years old, is free of pops and ticks, and tracks just as it did lo those many years ago. Here we have the most challenging registers of the female voice, trading focus with cello, clarinet, piano and more. Can you hear the shadings that make the clarinet stand clear from the voice? Do you hear the floor boards resonate beneath the cello? The truth is in the details, and this LP has a wealth of them. The recording is beyond reproach, and the compositions are sublime and timeless. The bad news? This baby will be very hard to find in decent condition.

Sorry for follow up one needle in a haystack LP with another, but this one is another LP that will become an essential part of your collection, if you can get a hold of a copy. It is the 1984 release by guitarist George Cromarty, Wind in the Heather (Dancing Cat Records {a division of Windham Hill} DC3001). This is an amazing collection of short solo guitar pieces. Each of the 13 original compositions are melodic masterpieces in their own right, and the recording is simply lucious…easily the finest recording of acoustic guitar that I have ever heard. The mastering was done by Bernie Grundman and you will never hear a cleaner pressing. Like the Mitchell LP, this LP is invaluable for listening to a system’s critical ability, or sometime unfortunate inability, to render both a natural sound space and retrieve the essence of the acoustical truth of the music. Does the guitar emanate from clear space, or does it seem bound to the speakers? Do the overtones of each note connect to the fundamental pitch of the note, or does one come from here and the other from a over there? Acoustic instruments demand coherence, and this is always a challenge for a multi-driver loudspeaker.

But what, you may ask, about the non-acoustical truth? Find yourself (this will be much easier) a copy of the 1975 classic from Steely Dan, Katy Lied (ABC Records ABCD-846). Again, here we have audiophile sensibilities before audiophile pretensions. The back cover of the album notes not only the use of a Neumann VMS 70 lathe, but also advises strict adherence to the RIAA curve. Who says the ‘70s were an empty decade? This is great stuff, rock with wit and intelligence played by some of the hardcore studio guys of the era (including Rick Derringer, the late Jeffery Porcaro, and a pre sellout Larry Carlton). My friends, these guys could play. If your system is unable to play “Chain Lightning” with Derringer’s sharp & wicked guitar riffs and Porcaro’s thundering drum fills both loudly and with ease please resign as an audiophile and take up bowling.

Here’s something you can buy new that represents the state of the art in vinyl today. The artist is Sonny Landreth, bayou slide guitarist extraordinaire. The LP is called Outward Bound and you can buy a new pressing of this from none other than Classic Records (RTH1032-1), and while you can also get it on CD, why would you? For a modern rock recording, Outward Bound is dynamically challenging for a system. The players showcased here don’t spend much time tacking it easy. Mastering, once again is by Grundman, and while the pressing is good, it doesn’t measure up to the oldies that have discussed previously in this section. Again, this material needs to be recreated at full volume, yet always in complete control and with all of its original tonality and timbre intact.

The language of audio (and now video) is critical if we are to make ourselves understood. The bad news is that most of our vocabulary is borrowed from photography and other visual arts. Terms like imaging and focus really have no place in a audio, but they have become terms of art that we all use without thinking about them. Even the oft used term bright refers to brilliance of light rather than anything even remotely related to sound. Still, it’s just too late to buck the semantical system, so here are some notable CDs that I use. Please note that some of these will be easy to find, while some a bit rare.

A good starting place is Amazon.com as their search system allows you to find CDs by a number of different criteria from performer, piece of music, ensemble, label and catalog number. Tone, timbre and ambiance: Three tests, one CD One Minute and thirty-four seconds! The Cowboy Junkies / The Trinity Sessions (RCA 8568-2-R) Track 1: “Mining for Gold.” This classic traditional tune, sung a cappella by Margo Timmons will tell you more about what your system can and can’t do than any other minute and a half of recorded music can. It was recorded using the famed (notorious?) Calrec Ambisonic microphone in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. What you should hear, what you must hear, is the sense of the church’s physical size and space even before Timmons starts to sing. In the center of the space you should hear Timmons’ earthy, smoldering yet sweet voice at once anchored and yet floating in the center of the soundstage. Can you hear it? If you can you’re already most of the way there. If you can’t, well, “Houston. we have a problem.” Until you can get this most basic test right, your system will be stuck in neutral.

Midrange pitch precision and speed of attack and decay: Laurel Zucker & Susan Jolles / Images for Flute & Harp / Sonatine for flute & harp Victor Frost (1952-) (Cantilena Records 66016-2) Track 14 Moderato e deciso. Lots of luck finding this gem…it took me weeks to find it. The flute and harp cast their notes squarely on pitch and the interplay between the distinct voices create quite a challenge. Listen for any tendency for the flute to sound wispy or tonally dispersed. It is not a function of the recording. The harp’s strings start and stop quickly so any sense of slowness or muddying tells you that something bad is happening. As an aside, this is a truly fine piece of modern classical music in a sea of amusical junk. This CD is worth the trouble of finding it, and trouble you will have.

Small scale ambiance & image placement: Gabriel Fauré The Two Piano Quartets / The Ames Piano Quartet (Dorian DOR-90144). The entire CD is the very pinnacle of the genre in both performance and recording. A good system has to place each of the three string instruments in their own sound field with the piano well focused, yet expansive. A weak system will have the notes of the piano jumping (seeming to come from different positions as the pitch changes) and the strings may become crowded together or unnaturally spread out. Again, not the easiest CD to find, but it’s out there and in print.

Large scale ambiance & image placement: Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet in G minor / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude MCD 10018). Again, not an easy one to find but a treasure. To my knowledge, the only current release featuring Schoenberg’s orchestral transcription of this seminal piano work by Brahms at the height of his creative powers. The job of recreating the sense of a full orchestra in one’s listening room is at once irresistible and impossible. The scope and sweep of the dynamics are just too much, not to mention the sheer space and complexity that the music presents. Still, we must try: What we want here is a sense of size and majesty without strain. A great system will be able to approach this ideal and lower volume levels and the poor system won’t be able to get it right at any level. Listen also for a natural portrayal of shifts between the loud and the soft and everything in between. Any tendency to draw the presentation of the music toward the speakers, like light from a flashlight, is bad and is illustrative of a system that has reached its limits.

Dynamic shifts, tonal consistency & complexity: Beethoven-Liszt Piano Transcriptions Symphony No.6 / Glenn Gould (Sony SMK 52639). Want to hear Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony as if for the very first time? That’s what it’s like to hear this wonderful Lizst transcription of this sadly overplayed, yet marvelous piece. By giving a solo piano virtually all of the symphony’s themes, Liszt strips the melodies and harmonies of this piece bare. One can hear much further into the piece without all of the timbre and voices of the full orchestra. A system will also reveal if it has any problems recreating a sense of tonal complexity without a feeling or tendency toward confusion. Gould’s playing and the recording are beyond reproach. A superb system will keep the tonal nature of the piano consistent whether the notes are played fast or slow, loud or soft. How does your system capture these essentials?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a sampling of recordings I trust to ask and answer basic questions of essential system musicality.

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings

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