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A Professional AV Installer’s Favorite Music for Testing a Sound System, Part 2

An Update to My Favorite Music for Evaluating a System

A Professional AV Installer’s Favorite Music for Testing a Sound System, Part 2

A while back I wrote a blog about my favorite music to listen to when evaluating a system. I decided that though many of those CD's are still so awesome to hear, I've felt that I had so much more to add to the list. As stated in the last article, being a professional AV installer is kind of cool. Everyone is always bringing in music and saying things like listen to this or that. Or, you need to hear what these sound like. Or, check these out and listen to the difference, or something along those lines. At trade shows people are always playing what they think really shows off their systems. From the various trade shows I've often heard and learned about some good music I didn't already know. Even including tracks from artists like Beck and Dianna Krall that I did know. One of the CD's that is on this list was brought in by my AudioQuest representative.

My last list was kind of heavy on the Jazz side. I haven't been listening to as much jazz music lately. In fact I am noting a trend as I type, on this list there's a lot of acoustic guitar. While writing this article, I was surprised to find some of these Artists or Songs didn't even make the first list. I guess I probably just ran out of room and time. This new list even contains a fair amount of country music, which I never used to listen to. I remember one time, asking a high end professional AV installer why he had so much country among his test CD's (I found it odd at the time) and he explained how the country recordings use very top of the line equipment and put a lot more care into the sound of the recordings than do many of the other more popular genres.

So here we are with an update for 2013 to the last list..

Barenaked Ladies - "Gordon ",
Track 1 - "Hello City" and "I Love You"

Actually almost any track on this CD will sound fantastic. However on these two especially, the stand-up bass is really outstanding and clear. You can hear every little detail on this recording. From the individual voices on the backing vocals to the hand slapping against the acoustic guitar in certain parts of the songs. This is a great recording to use when listening to a system. It's also just a plain old enjoyable recording to listen to anytime.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs - "God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise"
Track 4 - "Beg Steal or Borrow"

Our local AudioQuest representative brought in this CD while we were doing an audio cable comparison. He was using the track to show how even a very basic system could be improved with better AudioQuest cables. Not only was the AudioQuest demo very impressive but because of it I went out and acquired a new "test" CD for my listening pleasure. Listening to the sound stage and the different guitars in both the left and right speakers is so cool.

Chicago - "Greatest Hits"
Tracks - Any of them you can't go wrong

When listening to music from Chicago, I always listen to the horns. How do they sound? Do they sound realistic? Are they too harsh? Are they muted or sound to "thin"? When things are right they sound alive and wonderfully brassy adding just the right tonal element to the record at just the right time. Also with Chicago the percussion instruments are always so interesting too.

Brad Paisley - "This is Country Music" 
Track 1 - "This is Country Music"

Hi-Fi awesomeness from the second you cue up this recording. Track one starts so quiet... the acoustic guitar starts up with a cool little intro riff and then you'll quietly hear Brad counting, One, Two, Three. Then the rest of the song kicks in. The first time I really heard the guitar was when the local Totem Rep was in. I had never heard the song sound quite like that. I had to take on the Totem brand here at AV Specialists just to hear that stunning guitar sound again. You may never hear a guitar sound so good.

Days of the New - "Days of the New"
Track 1,2 and 5 - Shelf in the Room, Touch, Peel and Stand, The Down Town

Speaking of Guitars, this CD is full of great acoustic guitar mixes with an occasional punch of the electrics. The layered guitars and vocals just sound so incredible when you can hear everything clearly. Radio never did justice to this bands work.

The Tragically Hip - "Fully Completely"
Track 10 - Wheat Kings

The song starts with the distant howl of wolf in the background. There are birds singing and crickets chirping mixed in with that. It's a perfect beginning for a dark offering from these Canadian artists. When the acoustic guitars start in you are on your way to be delivered a great folk song from these fantastic song smiths. One of my all-time favorite CD's and bands.

Rickie Lee Jones - "Rickie Lee Jones"
Track 1 - Chuck E.'s In Love

There's a reason this song and album have been on all kinds of audiophile lists since the album was released on vinyl back in the 70's. You can hear the bass and feel the difference between this and a typical recording instantly. Rickie Lee's breathy vocals are captured so clean and pure. If you don't know it, give it a listen see what I mean.

America - "History America's Greatest Hits"
Tracks 1 &4 - A Horse With No Name, Ventura Highway

I must confess, I really love folky early 70's AM pop and America provides that along with some great quality sound. You can hear all the guitars and voices that make America what we remember the band for. The layered background vocals are so perfect in these songs.

God Smack - "Awake"
Track 1,3 & 4 - Running Blind, Touche', Voices

Very similar to the "Days of the New" disc I mentioned earlier, This offering from Godsmack is filled with beautiful melodies on the acoustic guitars. You'll also hear some excellent percussion accompaniment too. It's a joy to listen to, especially when you can hear every single individual part of the song.

The Beatle's - "A Hard Day's Night"
Track 5 - And I Love Her

Continuing the Guitar theme, right out of the gate you get those first four notes that would tell anyone that knows music what song is coming. We've all heard this song a million times on the radio.  So I was amazed when I heard it being used as a demo, to show off Marantz's reference series. I honestly had no idea the Beatle's could sound like this. Wow.

Norah Jones - "Come Away With Me"
Track 1 - Don't Know Why

Norah sounds like she's sitting right there in the room with you.  A lot of CD's and/or music systems will tend to muddle the sounds together, not this one.  On this CD you can clearly hear every note from the bottom of the keyboard right up to the top and all the notes in the middle.  I love the way the balance of all the instruments is handled on this track.  Everything is balanced just right.  At the beginning of every phrase on this song you can hear how powerful her voice has the potential to be even though she sings with a quiet breathiness. For example "I waited 'til I saw the sun and "I left you by the house of fun".  Both waited and left will throw you back a bit in how strong the words come out compared to the other words. 

James Taylor - "Greatest Hits"
Tracks - Any

The stereo separation of the guitars and the warmth of the backing vocals are what makes this CD.  It's a great mellow and relaxaing compilation of folk music.  

AC/DC - "Powerage"
Track 2 - Down Pavement Blues

While not exactly a great "sonic" experience. This CD is recorded very well for a hard rock CD. The guitar is clean at times and because of the simplicity of what AC/DC does, (straight forward very tight rhythm, bass and drums, with great guitar riffs over the top of it) it really sounds good.  The song starts with a heavy reverb bluesy guitar and then quietly the rhythm starts to come in.  As the song builds to the chorus all of the instruments kick in and the tempo and volume get a lot heavier.  Then they pull it back again while the vocals start.  It's a great ride up and down dynamics wise.  A lot of bands could learn a lot about music dissecting this song.

Miranda Lambert - "Revolution"
Track 10 - The House That Built Me

When you tune out the rest of the world and sit down to take in this recording you'll be amazed at how much is going on. To start there are at least two acoustic guitars. Then as the song builds you'll hear the faint fade in notes of an electric and then a slide guitar, along with the bass. You can hear the dryness/wetness of the vocals change as the song moves along. You can tell Miranda is doing her own backing vocals (at least I think so) because you can her layered voice and it's just incredible. If this song doesn't leave a lump in your throat you may not be human.

The Zak Brown Band - "The Foundation"
Track 4 - Free

On a good system, when this track starts you can tell right off, this guy can play guitar. What sounds like a simple chord being picked on the radio is a really complex little intro run.  Once the vocals start, the song stays the kind of same for a little while until they get to the chorus.  Then you can hear the cool jazzy beats the drummer is playing.  In the background you quietly hear the long pulls of the bow across the lower strings on the fiddle to help build the "foundation" of the song.  As they come out of the course it's the fiddles turn to step out front.  When the fiddle is done the next verse starts and you'll hear an electric guitar introduced into the background.  There's more and I could go on but I'll end this section by pointing out the background vocals.  On our Marantz Reference System with the Totem Sttaf speakers you can pick out every voice and every note they are each singing.  It's the best way I've heard this song to date.     

Wrap Up

So that concludes my list.  If you are a music lover I guarantee you will appreciate my choices.  Whether they're your style or not there is some great music to be appreciated here. As a professional AV installer, I have a lot of opinions on music, especially when it comes to testing sound systems. I would love to hear your comments and suggestions too.