Selecting Speaker Audition Music

I wrote this for a talk at DIY Dayton 2004. The schedule got so compressed I never gave it. Maybe next year:

This is an area where everyone struggles. Finding good audition pieces is one of the hardest parts of tuning your system. Some people are constantly on the prowl for good pieces while others are happy to use the same pieces years after year. The goal for all of us is simple: music that tells us something about our systems.

Right off the bat there are a lot of issues here. The biggest questions are: What is right? If there is a problem, what is it: speakers, amp, room? And most importantly: do I like the sound? I think events like this do more for the first question then anything else. We hear a lot of speakers and surely everyone at some point says "these both sound very good but I cannot tell what better is". These are panic moments for all of us. I just went through this with a preamp. The new one is more detailed and separates the instruments better. The old one is warmer and has a great sound stage. I can hear a huge difference in the two, but which is better? The jury is still out.

So while we learn and our listening habits improve, we all need to understand that the goal is to like what we hear and there really is a broad "correct sound". Some may like the concert hall and some the night club. I cannot tell you which is best for you. I am one of those who constantly cruise for new great audition music. I am guilty of owning a lot of bad disks with great tracks. I am guilty of playing parts of a lot of tracks. I am guilty of jumping up to move speakers around a lot. The key to audition music is that every piece must tell me something about the system. I am not a fan of all the music on today's disks so I won't be hurt if you don't like them. They are simply tools for a specific purpose.

My criteria:

I am opening with a piece that is boring in a group setting so I will only play 30 seconds. This subtle piece has a lot of info in it. It is very dynamic with not much compression. Good speakers will bring out the plucking of the lute and her tension (pushing air) leading into the stronger notes. I listen for word clarity and emotion, especially as she drops off. Dull speakers will almost remove the lute and do nothing for the singer. Bright speakers will make it sparkly. Good systems will convey a lot of emotion and draw you into the song. I use a lot of female vocals and enjoy them the most.
1. Barbara Bonney "Fairest Isle": Soprano and lute.

Pianos are the reference point for a lot of people and one of the most difficult instruments to record. Here are three piano pieces which sound very different. The first is Dick Hyman on the nine foot Boesendorfer from the Maestro Foundation, the most expensive recording piano ever made in a room designed around the piano. The second is Adreas Schiff on a Steinway in a concert hall. The third is Helene Grimaud on a Steinway. All are great and all are right. What I listen for is:

· Hammer action: attack. Should be crisp and not mushy. Pianos are percussion instruments
· Decay is smooth and not warbly.
· The piano image stays in the center of the stage on the entire scale, a tough one in a group environment like this. If your system has a problem, many times certain notes will jump out of the stage over to the speaker. Or the piano will crawl across the stage as the player moves up and down the scale. Some of this is OK as many records use stereo mics on pianos. But watch of out of place notes or octaves.

2. Dick Hyman, "In Recital": Shenandoah
3. Andreas Schiff, "Goldberg Variations"
4. Helene Grimaud, "Credo" track 5

Did those sound different? A well tuned system will allow those to sound very different. All of these sound a little distant for my tastes but the middle one (Schiff) is closest for me. The most realistic piano for me is coming up in the jazz section. By the way, I like this version of Goldberg Variations better than Gould.

Some tracks with recording problems make great test pieces. Over-miking really brings out details and can highlight speaker problems. A really great speaker can't solve problems in an over-miked recording, but a good speaker can keep your head from exploding.

This first one is "Dukes Place" by Armstrong and Ellington. It is on the edge of bright with a touch of harshness, great striking on the piano, reedy horns and chesty voice. Should be very clear and you should hear the reed on the clarinet. The trumpet should be up high on stage and clearly to the left of the piano center stage. On some speakers, the clarinet will roll off or the trumpet harshness would kill small animals. Sometimes the trumpet will not sound real at all and sometimes it will sound very real. The Duke is whistling his esses due to the over-miking. Esses get worse with crossover and tweeter problems.
5. Ellington and Armstrong: "Duke's Place". 60 seconds on start and then to the 2:30
6. Eva Cassidy: "autumn Leave" All her stuff is on the edgy side. Listen for screaming tweeter or change in sound at the XO.

We all love bass and tend to like a lot of it. Explosions, organs and other test draw me into the "loud bass" arena too. I love big rumbles. But this is not real music and a speaker should not add more bass than the recording has. Every Organ test I have heard is won by the speaker with the loudest bass. I stick to bass tests that have real stringed instruments.

This piece is basses only and most of the cut is below 100Hz. So it sounds mushy or odd on speakers lacking bass or with bass problems. Listen for separation of similar instruments. It is very clean plucking on good speakers and total mush on bad.
7. Ray Brown, "Live at Starbucks": Get Happy.

This next piece is an example of a cut which just sounds better and better the more bass you have. Watch out for cuts like this.
8. Holly Cole, "Temptation": Train Song.

Same thing with this next cut: no measure for what is right. Funner with too much bass.
9. Holly Cole, "Temptation": Jersey Girl.

This next piece is interesting because it is single miked. This is where the band is set up and moved around the room to engineer the sound rather than a bunch of tracks taken and assembled in a studio. I put this with the bass group because it has great natural bass and provides a group in front of the bass to make sure the bass volume is right. Ms. Smith's alto voice is also good for noting hollow or chesty tones in the mids section. This track sounds very different on different speakers. In a listening room, the stage is clear and instruments well placed. On bad speakers it almost sounds mono with no instrument placement.
10. Doreen Smith "Tribute to Julie London", No moon at all.

This cut is in four part harmony and has the singers spread across the stage, almost too wide for the average sound stage to accommodate. Listen for: · Blending of harmonics yet separation of voices. · Singers stay in same place on stage as they sing and not swirl around the stage. · Notes do not jump to the speakers and back again.
11. A4: "American Angels": Amazing Grace.

Here is the first classical piece. I do not have a favorite right now. This is from one of the "spectacular" CDs I stole from Dennis and never gave back. It is good for getting about as much range in a single piece as you can. Almost like pink noise. I cannot do much with these cuts. Many people can really hear problems with the crossover and dynamics with these spectaculars. I cannot.
12. Orchestra spectacular.

I can tell some things with this one. It is still a large orchestra, but this time with solo violin. This one has a great sound stage, something we won't get in this room. It is also heralded as one of the best violin recordings on the market. I include it here to note that both of these pieces, the spectacular and this one, are big and classical yet sound very different. That is one of the problems with classical, they all sound so different it is important to get familiar with them so you can pick out right and wrong. You cannot just pop one in and expect to pick out a system problem. This one also has some background noise, but hey, it was recorded in 1963.
12. "Living Stereo" SACD, Beethoven, Heifetz.

There is a great drive out there to go for horns to test the upper ranges of a speaker and the XO region. This is a fun track and I chose it to represent all the bad big band tracks out there. I have five or so Piquito D'Rivera CDs, a number of Cuban band CDs, and all sorts of Sinatra CDs the back section of my CD drawer. All of these have the same malady, the horns are so raw they are distorted and they fool me into thinking the best speaker with the best amp will solve these problems. They will not. Now I only buy these if I like the music. Michael Buble is interesting because his big band is electronic, yet still has the problems (but sounds worse).
13. Piquito D'Rivera: "Mambo ala Kenton"

Time for a drum test. I don't like drum tests in general. They are fun but I don't hear much of anything that actually tells me what is happening. Sometimes they sound good and sometimes they sound better. But no real sense of right. It takes a pretty bad speaker to sound bad on a drum test. However, high hats do tell me something but I don't need the drums to get this. Does the high hat sound like a high hat or running water? Good speakers get solid hits and bell-like sound instead of running water sound.
14. Drum test from Chesky test CD 2

OK, here is the R&R. But what does this, or any R&R album tell us? There are no real instruments, no real measure for "right" sound except the night club we were last in.
15. Pink Floyd, "DSOTM": Money

The key point I have been trying to make on this demo is that finding good test tracks is hard and it is important to find pieces which highlight specific areas of the music. The pieces must be familiar enough for you to know what sounds right and what does not. You may have heard something in these tracks or not. Pick your own.

Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2004 Return to helarc.com