Demo Discs and Auditioning Tips

Every system has its strengths and weaknesses. My small room system generally favours music on a smaller scale, be it female vocals with minimalist accompaniment, or a small chamber orchestra. Due to my small room, I sit 6'6" from the speakers, which is pretty close. I suppose its almost nearfield listening. (like in recording studios, where the studio monitors are usually pretty close to the mixing engineer) This of course makes it easier for a system to image well, as you're so close that the room matters less.

In this apparently pointless exercise, I will talk about some of my favourite demo discs I would use to demonstrate (ummm, show off?) the relative merits of my setup to say, a hypothetical average listener. To make it even simpler, I'll put the CDs under different hopefully self-explanatory headings. Theres a lot of overlap, but if its a fact that if you're going to live with your equipment for a long time, you should spend quite a lot of time testing it. Before buying my speakers, I went to audition the speakers on 2 previous occasions.

If you bring 1 CD that covers each heading (some CDs may have tracks that cover everything :)) when auditioning your equipment, you'll probably have left no stone unturned.

Lots of High frequency transients; crashing cymbals etc.
High frequency transients are a pretty ruthless test of any system. They're the least affected by the listening room type so you can basically discount the listening room. Detail: Listen to the decay, the space, does it 'shimmer'? Brightness:Is the system so bright that you run for cover? If so, the detail may just be of the artificial 'etched' type. A smooth but detailed sound is a good sign of good hi-fi.

    'Bad' from U2's Unforgettable Fire (Original US press or Mo-Fi remaster nearly identical)

Lean sounding, slightly bright CD
Because of high frequency transient test CD is a warm analogue remaster by Mobile Fidelity, I need something on the lean side to check whether the system is too bright. This is entirely your preference as you have to drawn the line as to what consitutes 'bright'. But remember to take into consider your listening room into consideration. For me, the following CD may sound slightly lean, but must not be bright:

    Mary Black, Shine

You should try and choose a recently recorded CD of decent quality for this. Just because a CD is on the bright side does not make it a bad recording, but of course there are bad recordings which are bright. In the earlier years of CD, there were lots of CDs that were unacceptably 'thin' and 'hashy' sounding, and the prominence of high frequency energy (not being counterbalanced by appropriate fullness in the midrange), may make the CD sound 'bright'. One example would be Sting's first 2 solo albums, Dream of Blue Turtles and Nothing Like the Sun, which suffer from a certain amount of hashiness (even the Mo-Fi remaster of Blue Turtles). Significantly, this hashiness disappeared from Soul Cages onwards. Slightly off point, this kind of hashiness is very similar to the sort you encounter when you make CD-R copies using a computer CD-R drive.

Depth and Width of Soundstage
Of course, you also really need to audition equipment on a weekday where the shop is usually empty and no one is around. This is sespecially important for assessing the depth and width of the soundstage. You would of course preferably use a recording that is actually recorded on a large stage rather than in a studio. As a bonus, it should be recorded with minimalist miking, either a single blumein mike or a pair of space omnis (sometimes additional mikes are added to record the 'ambience' but thats ok). This is almost solely the province of audiophile labels and I can think of none better than:

Lori Liebermann, A Thousand Dreams

Of course, for depth and width on a larger scale, turn to the a classical recording from Telarc. This one is recorded  using Neuman and Schoeps tubed microphones.  More importantly, it is an extremely small choir - 21, so you can use this disc to see how well the vocals are seperated. Telarc is probably the only label that credits cable companies; in this case Monster and MIT :)

Handel's Messiah (Martin Pearlman, Telarc 1992 [not the Shaw version from the '80s]) 

Of course, the size of the listening room is extremely relevant. So far, the largest showroom I've visited is the monster listening room at KH marketing for the Joseph Audio/VTL monster monoblocks. Playing some discs there, I noticed even though the speakers are way apart, the sound is squished in the centre.

Trust audiophiles to break dynamics up into micro and macro dynamics. For me, I'll just stick to a simple understanding of dynamics as involving  contrasts  in volume. In truth, this is not a really important point for most people, since most people don't listen to classical music. Sure, jazz CDs could test dynamics, but really, what can compare to a orchestra (even a small Chamber orchestra, let alone say, the Berlin Philharmonic?) If you listen to classical music, you'll know there no shortage of demo material to test dynamics, but for those who don't, I can recommend:

    Beethoven's 6th Symphony ('Pastoral'), the 4th ('Storm') movement [I have Harnoncourt/Teldec and Karajan/DG but there're lots of versions]

Lesser equipment seem to lose their way amidst more complex pieces of music. This is really not that obvious, but on an A/B comparison, sometimes you find that say, for 1 CD player, the music seems confused and in another, the music 'gels'. I would call this trait 'Coherence'. Just to clarify things, I won't consider coherence the same as 'musicality', which appears to be a far wider term encompassing coherence and PRAT (infra )

Emotion -- or the Single-ended Syndrome :)

I do like listening to female vocals. If the equipment I audition doesn't do female vocals well, the fact that it does everything fantastically doesn't mean much to me. (to another, it would be a fantastic buy). I thinking of the superb Joseph Audio 25si. Its a really fantastic speaker, but it is only average in reproducing female vocals. Whereas, the Tannoy Westminsters really seduced. The CD which I was listening to is of course the ubiquitous:

    Amanda McBroom, Dreaming

    Also, I would listen to:
    Diana Krall, Love Scenes - 1. My Love is and 2. Garden in the rain, preferring it as a test disc to the ever popular:

    Rebecca Pidgeon, The Raven - 1. Spanish Harlem. I like Pidgeon better, but Krall is a better test disc Pidgeon seems to sound fantastic no matter what system its played on :)


Some equipment may add colourations to the midrange in order to emphasise vocals. An example was my Quad 77 amplifier. Mary-Chapin Carpenter's 'Come On Come On' (also a desert island disc from Anthony Lim of AVfiles) has a full-bodied vocal with a light touch of reverb and on the slightly forward side. The Quad 77 thrust the vocals all the way forward into the listener's face. I think it also tries to trick you into thinking it has a larger soundstage by emphasising the reverb. After listening to it on my McCormack and on other high end systems, I realised how fantastic the recording actually was. So my choice for detecting this kind of colouration is:

    Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Come On Come On

Thats it for the moment, more to come soon