This is where I describe my music selection for auditioning gear.
Any good auditioning session starts with music I know well. Here's what I use and why I use it. It's a broad selection with all kinds of styles mixed in, but I've selected specific portions of each track/piece to highlight what I'm interested in hearing from the gear.
I should also point out that these are not weird "audiophile" selections that no one has heard of. It always irritates me to no end when some audio "authority" pulls one of those "This ever so slightly brings out the airiness on this rare 1956 edition of my nobody-knows-artist's eponymous album, blah, blah, blah..." What good does that do me (and you), if we can't find that same track anywhere other than that author's personal living room? Simply put, if it's not on iTunes, I'm not going to waste your time with it. I want you to be able to hear as much as possible of what I'm hearing when I audition.
On that note, this is all music we should know, enjoy, and want to own. There's a reason why Webern is grating no matter how good the recording. It's kind of like the movie The Tree of Life - wonderful to watch once, maybe twice - but let's be honest, who's sitting there watching it every other month? And if you are, I really do worry about you. No this is music you are going to want to own, because if you are going to audition with it, you will have to become familiar with it and hear it over and over again. Sorry, but Def Leppard is also going to get on your last nerve if you have to hear it that often.
The Auditioning Tracks:
Artist: Dave Brubeck
Album: Time Out
Track: Take Five
I know the majority of folks don't like Jazz (yes, I know that's hard for audiophiles to comprehend, but it's true). However, if you must own one album it's this one. Never mind that the album is a Jazz standard, that the tracks use 9/8 and 5/4 time signatures, which was a first for Jazz, or that it's the first Jazz album to hit platinum, this is just a great album to have. And everyone knows the track Take Five - it's been used in movies, commercials, and turned into a dozen different versions of Muzak. Even if you absolutely hate Jazz, this is one album you will want to have.
I typically do my first auditioning with the opening of Take Five. The reason is because on good equipment, you can clearly hear where the instruments are on the stage, and not one is dead center. I can't tell you how many second-rate or poorly set up systems don't get this right. This is a great track to hear if speakers are out of phase, to listen for stereo separation, and on very good systems whether there is depth, air, and ambiance to be heard. The drum solo is pretty good at this as well. This is not to knock the other tracks on the CD, but Take Five is not only a great auditioning track, it's such a toe-tapper, you'll forget to skip to the next track.
Artist: Massive Attack
If the Brubeck track test above wasn't conclusive, it could be because of the audiophile snobbery in the room, so I like to scare them away with this little gem. Mezzanine played at higher levels (within reason, of course) is the solution. This album's got some serious bass, an album cover even Johnny Rotten could love, and is a fantastic recording to boot - the studio guys knew what they were doing.
What you'll notice first is the awesome stereo imaging. The track Risingson has these dream-like sequences after the chorus that should sound like they are swirling all around you. If the system gets that right, try and listen for how the distance changes. It should be as if you're floating inside the swirl.
The other thing I listen for is whether the system was able to handle the bump in volume. You don't have to crank it up, but a little volume should be revealing. Did the stereo image collapse? If the sound distorted, or you head cracking noises, you want to rush and turn down that volume. I'm not saying every system needs to play loud enough to shake the rafters, but it should at a minimum be able to play louder without changing the quality of the music being played. It's surprising how many systems change dramatically as the volume is turned up.
Album: Any that is well recorded (read some reviews)
Track: Fifth Symphony
I have my favorite recordings of this one, including the DG edition of conducted by Carlos Kleiber, above, but really any decent one will do. Beethoven is by far the greatest composer of all time, not because he wrote more music, wrote better music, or wrote more complex music. No he is the greatest because he could take a childishly simple melody and turn it into the most beautiful, most powerful, and most engaging musical statement in the history of music. Even if you don't care for x-mas music (that's what one of my friends calls classical music, lol), you will want to own this one symphony.
I mentioned raising the volume before, and if the system you're auditioning could handle Mezzanine without complaint, then put this one with the volume just a little higher. It should come at you like that commercial for the Maxell Cassette.
This piece shocked the music establishment of the 18th century, and it should be able to do the same to you. Go ahead crank it up. Can the system handle it? Good. Now close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting in a concern hall. Can you hear into the depth of the hall? Can you place the different instruments across the stage? Does the music carry you away, or rather does it drag you away? Do you feel the impact in your chest?
I know you're probably wondering why I am not using a bunch of audiophile terms to describe this situation? Because it's impossible to do that. I know John Atkinson is probably falling over in his chair as I write this, but the fact is without an defined baseline across the industry that has international agreement for each term, this is an exercise in futility. It also turns auditioning into a very dry, cold and clinical affair, which is the diametrical opposite of what music should be. If you can find yourself immersed in the immenseness that is music, and an audio system can help you get there, then that is success.
OK, I'll get off my soapbox now. Suffice it to say that no auditioning selection should be without Beethoven, and his 5th is one of his most engaging symphonies... even if it doesn't make you tremble and shake but rather reminds you more of watching Saturday morning cartoons in your youth. At least it still took you to another place.
Artist: Loreena McKennitt
Album: Book of Secrets
Audiophiles have a whole collection of "audiophile approved" artists, and while Loreena McKennitt doesn't always make the list, she does come up often enough. I stumbled across her work well before I was into audio, just because the music is so hauntingly beautiful. You may not like this genre of music, but it's a mix of Celtic, Arabic, and Far Eastern music that is great to listen to when you just want to listen to something relaxing.
Book of Secrets is excellently recorded and on a good system, much more of the ambient sound comes out, particularly at the frequency extremes. The first track on the album, called Prologue, is a great track to discern how well the system plays bass. Much like listening to an organ recital and completely missing the bottom of the melody, a bad system will completely ignore the deep bass that slowly comes into Prologue at the beginning. One easy point of reference is to listen to a compressed MP3 of the track or to pull it up on YouTube and listening to it on computer speakers - the bass line is almost completely gone. But ona good system, it should come in low, deep, and eventually make your couch rumble.
The rest of the album has similar sounds. I particularly like to listen to the clarity of the plucking of the strings in La Serenissima, a great instrumental. The two best songs on the album in my opinion are Night Ride Across the Caucasus and the haunting narrative of The Highwayman. This music isn't for everyone, I know, but it still makes a great auditioning album.
Album: Hotel California
Track: Hotel California
Now I suppose that there's a few people out there who don't care for Southern Rock, but even if you fall into that category, this is one album everyone should own. There is just something about sitting on a porch on a hot summer eve, a cold drink in-hand, watching the sun go down, and listening to side one of this great album. My first copy was so worn out, I had to buy it again.
What I like about the title track, is the way the guitars, vocals, bass, and drums just stand out. On a mediocre system, they all just kind of blend together, but on a good system they are distinct, clear, and it should be easy to hear when they start, stop or fade in and out. On a really good system they will float in the air and resonate within you.
Artist: Wynton Marsalis (J.S. Bach)
Album: In Gabriel's Garden
Track: 32. Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major BWV 1047, III. Allegro assai
Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 is one of the most famous pieces of music ever recorded. It was sent out into space (twice) to convince extra-terrestrial intelligent life forms how sophisticated our civilization is here on earth. Even if you don't like classical, this is one of those pieces that just carries you back to the 18th court of Prince Leopold in Köthen, Germany - or if I lost you with that reference, back to Saturday morning cartoons, but one with a positive ending. It is a joyous piece, full of life and energy, so it can also double as Christmas music, if it must.
The third movement of the Concerto, the last track on the CD is capable of incredible dynamic highs - the kind of highs that can break the proverbial wine glass. At higher volumes this piece should sound ethereal, as if played high above you by an orchestra of angels in the sky. On a very good system you will hear Wynton Marsalis, as well as the other flutists and trumpeters take ever so shallow breaths as they play the piece.
Marsalis tends to put a bit more emphasis in certain sections, slowing down and easing into the crescendos more than players on many other recordings, and I'm guessing this is also slower than Bach intended it to be written. That said, it is what gives this piece that unique character. This album also has 31 other tracks and they are masterfully played. I've listen to it more times than I can count, I know where the pauses are, the ever so slight errors, and the occasional shifting of a player. These are the things that one hears on a good system.
Artist: Erich Kunzel and Cincinnati Pops (Peter I. Tchaikovsky)
Album: Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture & Other Pieces
Track: 1. 1812 -- Festival Overture, for orchestra in E flat major, Op. 49
It would be a sin to omit this piece. The warning inside the booklet states: "The cannons of the Telarc 1812 Overture are recorded at a very high level. Lower levels are recommended for initial playback until a safe level can be determined for your equipment."
- Classical - I was raised on it, it's in my blood:
Mahler, Hovhaness, Bruckner, Schubert, Glass, and yes, also Beethoven
- Dance/Techno - this is a recent development for me, 'started when I began exercising:
Armin v. Buuren, Sasha, Paul v. Dyk, Basshunter, Daft Punk, Deadmau5
- Classic Rock - Ah yes, high school memories:
Floyd, AC/DC, Maiden, Queen, Scorpions, Dio, Rush, Clapton, Metallica... Rock On!
- Classic Jazz - this grows on you in the audiophile community & it's great for auditioning gear:
Hawkins, Coltrane, Marsalis, Davis, Monk, Brubeck, Mingus, Blakey, Roach
- Modern/pop - the influence of people around me, and more recently, my kids:
Linkin Park, Muse, Stabbing Westwards, Papa Roach, 30 Seconds to Mars, Kings of Leon
- Vocal/Contemporary - also great for auditioning & pretty much standard fare at audio shows:
Loreena McKinnit, Amy Winehouse, Rebecca Ferguson, Nora Jones, Diana Krall, Alicia Keys. Weird, everyone that came to mind as I wrote this is a woman, hmmmm...