Great Recorded Music to Showcase Your Sound System
Several months ago I attended a listening session showcasing the awesome Naim Statement amplifier. The entire system, using B&W’s 800 Series Diamond reference speakers had a price tag just north of $400K. That’s a-ton-o-cash for anything, let alone a stereo system. As I was heading to the session, I kept wondering what music/ artist/album the presenters were going to choose to play. After all, the chosen music would be critical and heavily influence the perceived performance and capability of the system. That listening session became the impetus of this article for NOVO.
In my 45-years of acquiring and listening to recorded music, select records have stood out for their remarkable sonic qualities, others for creativity, musicality, pure music listening enjoyment and at times addictive and repetitive listening sessions.
When I’d have people over to my place and wanted to “show off” the capabilities of my audio system, I found myself repeatedly reaching for those very albums. If I were to plot those albums on a Venn diagram, they would be the ones located in the middle of both set A and set B. Essentially, the ones that sound great, but are also great sounding.
For this article, I’ve chosen records that I own, enjoy listening to on my system, and are musically pleasing, in some fashion. I tend to think I have a good set of ears and after many years, I’ve developed a wideranging pallet of musical taste.
The list is inclusive of studio and live recordings. They go back as far as 1957, and up to 2005. It includes jazz, alternative, rock and jazz-rock fusion. You may agree with some, perhaps vehemently disagree, or just think, “huh”? In a perfect world, it would be a great conversation starter and possibly introduce you to some new music to enjoy on all fronts while showcasing your prized sound system.
For reference, I listened to all these titles on CD. They were played on a Micromega Stage 4 CD player, Naim 112 preamp, 150 power amp, Flatcap power supply through a pair of 2-way floor standing Mirage M760 speakers.
Here’s the list, in chronological order:
Lush Life, John Coltrane - 1961
Pieced together from recording sessions in 1957 and 1958 and cobbled together for release in 1961. I chose this recording because the album is easy to listen to and the recording is straightforward; clean with a very balanced soundstage. The first three tracks are simply sax, bass and drums. The
low notes are tight and the highs are clean, sparkly yet warm. You clearly hear and feel all three instruments in your room. With a very clean ambient background, you don’t hear the recording; you just hear the instruments, if that makes sense. The instruments come across as very open, not crowded together, but still feel like an intimate setting, perfect for the delicate complexities that is Lush Life. Great to listen to on a nice summer day with all the windows open, allowing the notes and chords to escape the confines of the listening room. Your neighbours will thank you, unless they hate you, or jazz music.
Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, One Size Fits All - 1975
Yes, I’m a Zappa fan. When I was married, my wife also loved music, except for two artists, Frank Zappa & Tom Waits. My ex would call it circus music. She had a point, but I liked the circus-music sound. A lot of cascading xylophones & vibraphones, sped up voices, frequent and continual time changes with lots of syncopation, it all sounded great to me. Thanks to my guitar teacher, I possess every album Zappa ever made. Regardless of what you think of his music, he was a genius and his studio albums were expertly produced and recorded. One Size Fits All is a great example. It has some jazz/rock fusion, progressive rock, hard rock overtones and the unique sound that is his musical style. Zappa’s vocals have a multiple dimensionality to them. The album opens with my favourite track, Inca Roads. The last minute of the track is the most impressive, in terms of musical complexity, recording techniques and the sparkling and otherworldly sonic quality. The three recorded voices you hear simultaneously singing leap out of the speakers in a multidimensional form and allow you to very easily zero in on any one of the three vocal tracks. On the tracks that Zappa himself sings, it feels and sounds as if he’s standing right near you and quietly singing right into your ear. If you like, or don’t hate his music, this is a great sounding and approachable record to test and show off your sound system. The sonic architecture that Zappa designed on this record, and with many of his others, is beyond reproach!
Keith Jarrett , The Köln Concert - 1975
A very interesting recording, for a number of reasons. Recorded live in Köln Germany in 1975, it showcases Jarrett’s impressive improvisational skills. There are very melodious sections & some choppy-sounding dissonant parts. His piano playing sounds very “chimey” with what seems to have the higher notes relegated to the right channel & lower register notes to the left. For those familiar with this record, the first thing that may come to mind when you think of The Köln Concert is Jarrett’s several vocal/oral outbursts & foot stomping during certain passages. When a colleague of mine first introduced me to this record years ago, the outbursts & foot stomping bothered me and I found it annoying. After many listens however, it simply becomes part of the recording and almost part of the music. The soundstage is full, but not large, and due to the fact that it’s just one piano on one track with left & right separation, captured live, it does not present any layers of sound. Strangely though, the aforementioned vocal noises and foot stomping contribute to a wider soundstage, albeit only several times in the 1-hour and 7-mins recording. I’ve included The Koln Concert in this list because the overall ambience of the recording easily places you in the middle of the audience and keeps you there for most of the performance.
Steely Dan, Aja - 1977
If I had to somehow provide an example of what 1977 sounded like, I’d refer you to this record. It served up a number of songs that were venerable 70’s and early 80’s FM Radio staples. Steely Dan was essentially Walter Becker & Donald Fagen, although somewhat surprisingly, Becker didn’t have all that much to do with this record. Donald Fagen was super-fastidious in the recording and producing process and the sessions employed an actual sound consultant, which is certainly evident when listening to it.
Although the recording is dense, in terms of number of instruments played, as well as number of tracks per song, it still feels airy and has a nice, almost three dimensional soundstage. The highs are sharp, but not cutting, with the lows sounding tight and snappy. Steely Dan was not a touring band in the 70s & 80s and employed the best hired-guns to play their respective instruments in the studio. Jazz/fusion guys like Larry Carlton, Tom Scott & Lee Ritenour play on this record.
Every instrument is perfectly captured & when a particular instrument is soloing, it takes centre-stage in the mix. When I first got my HiFi system, this was the CD I’d play to people who came over to my place who wanted to listen. It was also the same disc I played to people who were completely uninterested in my system, and couldn’t care less. Interestingly, those people don’t seem to come over anymore. Everything about this record easily falls under the moniker “reference disc”. If I were to use a video/TV analogy, listening to Aja is akin to the first time you watched an HD 1080p TV and realized how much clearer and lifelike it looked and felt over the old traditional circa 1970’s TV set. If you get a chance, Classic Albums has an episode on Aja, which is absolutely worth watching.
Pink Floyd, The Wall - 1979
Pink Floyd put this record out in the last remaining months of the 70s and it could certainly be labeled as the mother of all concept records. I was 14-years old, and already a huge Floyd fan. My grandfather had just passed away when The Wall was released and my household was in mourning. I consequently spent many an hour with headphones on completely immersed, and equally lost, in the album. At the time, it seemed to be the most professionally recorded album I had ever heard. Roger Waters & Dave Gilmour were part of the production team, but so was Bob Ezrin, (a Torontonian btw), which gives it that very polished sound and feel. When auditioning albums for this article, I listened to both the vinyl and CD copies, and found myself thinking the same thing once again. The clarity, immense soundstage, multiple dimensions of layering instruments and “sound effects” with great stereo separation are remarkable. In terms of dynamics, one minute you’re treated to the sound of birds quietly chirping, the next, explosions, helicopters and other ominous sounds such as TVs being smashed in. These sounds come leaping out of the
speakers shaking things in close proximity. There are sonic treats around every corner. In order to fully appreciate this recording, your system needs to have an amp capable of quickly responding to the extreme changes in dynamics and fast-attack that this recording dishes out. If your amp can keep up with the sudden and lightening-fast changes, and your speakers can properly reproduce them, it’s a remarkable immersion of sound. In addition, it’s a great theatrical record that remarkably still sees Roger Waters touring 38-years after its initial release!
The Grateful Dead, Reckoning/ For the Faithful - 1981 for the former title, 1984 for the latter
Despite the gigantic drug-fueled jam-band aura that is, or more accurately was, The Grateful Dead, a large majority of their records were recorded quite well, and some of those were live albums. The Dead were one of the few, if only bands, that would actually allow certain members of the audience to plug directly into the mixing board on the floor to make great sounding “Boot-Legs”. Most Dead Heads have reams of live recordings that sound OK, but not great. For The Faithful is one of the greats. To many, including me, this is the first example of an unplugged album. The first song, Dire Wolf kicks off with a beautifully sounding and recorded acoustic guitar with a sonic presence that you don’t expect. The sound is very full, warm and projects a large and dimensional soundstage. The highs are not super high, nor the bottom end too low, but a great midrange natural recording. The overall ambience of the recording leaves you feeling as if you are sitting on stage amongst the members and watching and hearing the jam happen. The Dead are not for everyone, but if you can “dig it”, and are looking for a great unplugged acoustic guitar driven live album, this could be for you.
Sufjan Stevens ,Come on Feel The Illinoise - 2005
On first listen, it’s a pretty quirky sounding album, with the opening piano arrangement sounding very reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts and Charlie Brown scores back in the day. The album is a musical history lesson of the state of Illinois.
Stevens recorded, engineered & produced the whole thing. Additionally, all arrangements were by him. He plays 15 separate instruments including guitar, piano, flute, banjo, voice, and yes, even a glockenspiel (The epitomic non-rock n’ roll instrument). It’s also a bit reminiscent of Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, who also played an enormous amount of instruments. The recording is very dynamic in a number of ways. It has some very quiet passages, as well as some powerful and noisy parts. The voices are mixed with Stevens singing in the left speaker/channel and a female voice with a slight delay in the right, which provides a nice sense of layering, and gives a wider double tracking effect. The voices are also recorded very dry, meaning a lack, or very
little reverb, which provides a greater sense of presence to the voices, which are mostly front & center. The multitude of instruments in any given song is well presented and offers a nice balanced soundstage. You feel and hear many musicians, but its not overwhelming.
The amusing part was that at the time of its release, Stevens had mentioned that his ambition was to record an album for each of the 50 US states in the union. If you do the quick math, it becomes evident Stevens would consequently have to release a “state-themed” album, every year until 2053! He had already recorded one for Michigan and Illinois. The story goes that once he realized that, he kyboshed the idea.
Every time I listen to “Illinoise”, it reaffirms how great this album is, in every sense. If you don’t know it, make a point of checking it out. Your sound system will thank you.
Daniel Lanois, Here Is What Is - 2007
One of my favourite albums. I automatically buy anything Lanois puts out. I can’t seem to get enough of “the Lanois sound”. Primarily a producer, it’s evident, if not axiomatic, that he pays extra special attention to the recording process, utilizing the studio as one of the instruments. You can feel the studio as part of the mix when listening to this record. He employs a delay, or echo to his voice that I find fascinating. It only repeats once, but has a large section of the piece just sung, repeat, offering some additional depth to the tracks with that effect. Interestingly, there is no other real studio “trickery” used. Lanois has a few snippets of conversations with his buddy Brian Eno within the recording. The record actually begins with Eno talking about a “Chest of Draws” he once bought, which is a bit odd, but adds to the overall character of the record. Daniel Lanois is a sonic architect. Consequently, everything on this record, be it large, small, or seemingly unimportant, is there for a reason. All put together, it conveys that this record is special and well worth listening to on a great HiFi. System. Clocking in at 64-mins and 18-tracks, it offers up a lot of everything for an enthusiastic listener.
As space is at a premium in NOVO, Part 2 of “Great Recorded Music to Showcase Your Sound System” will be revealed in the next edition. Without giving too much away, it will include some newer releases and titles that perhaps made a bigger splash internationally. With regards to the aforementioned Part 1 list, I urge you to check out the titles you’re not familiar with, or have yet to listen to. If you’re somewhat like me, your new favourite records are perhaps just a couple of listens away. Enjoy!