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!

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