audio demos Tag

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass). The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

 

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin’

How to Listen: Just a LIttle Lovin'

In the first installment of “How to Listen,” I talked about the sonics of The Dark Side of the Moon, an album with a sound as immense as the album’s influence. The sound of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ is exactly the opposite.

 

A tribute to Dusty Springfield, with Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs and other covers (plus “Pretend,” a Lynne original), it’s almost minimalist in its approach, with Lynne’s lower-register contralto voice accompanied by just a few instruments on any 

given track—typically one or two electric or acoustic guitars, along with lightly-played drums (usually with brushes), acoustic or electric piano, and acoustic or electric bass.

 

As such, her vocals are right up front, and on a good system her singing and each instrument stand out with an almost physical presence, essential parts of a simple, pure, and clean sonic presentation that is remarkably well recorded.

 

No wonder—the album was produced by Phil Ramone, recorded and mixed by Grammy winner Al Schmitt and mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab. For the most part, it sounds like it was recorded with the musicians playing together live, although I don’t know that for a fact, and on a good system you can feel as well as hear them grooving together with a relaxed yet swinging feel. And Lynne’s gorgeously husky, smoky voice is so well-recorded and expressive that I don’t think you can help but be moved by the emotional nuances of her singing.

 

Small wonder the album has become a bonafide audiophile classic.

 

I listened to the Analogue Productions vinyl LP remaster, an astoundingly quiet and well-done pressing, as well as a Qobuz 24/96 hi-res stream and a recently purchased CD.

 

The tonal balance of the album is warm and smooth—if Just a Little Lovin’ doesn’t make your stereo sound sweetly, richly inviting, something isn’t right. In fact, it could be argued that the tonal balance is a touch too warm; but, on the other hand, some of that very deep bass you should be hearing is there (or should be) because on a few cuts (“Breakfast in Bed” for example), the bassist is playing a five-string electric bass, which goes deeper (usually tuned to a low B) than a four-string electric or acoustic bass.

 

The midrange sounds about as natural as you’ll hear on a recording and the upper-midrange should be detailed and transparent, without a hint of stridency or forwardness. The soundspace overall is big and deep, but not hugely extended beyond the speakers. This is a more intimate than cinematic recording.

 

Another attribute of the album is that while Lynne’s voice is 

dead center, the instruments, while occupying their own sonic spaces, aren’t laser-focused in terms of imaging. It sounds like some of them were miked in stereo and then panned a little more to the left or right, but I can’t verify this. In any case, most 

of the time the instruments create more of a sonic spread across the soundfield than the hard left, center, or right placement you often hear in jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, for example. So if that’s what you’re hearing, your system’s imaging isn’t vague—it’s what you should be hearing.

 

One of the key sonic ingredients is the reverb on Lynne’s voice. During quieter instrumental sections, it should not only be clearly audible but should fill the sound space. This leads to my one quibble about the album’s sonics—at times, the reverb sounds over-applied, and I would like to have heard more of her singing presented “dry” instead. This is especially apparent on the last track, a cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.”

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin'

Listen for the quiet parts. Many demo tracks or audiophile recordings will impress you with their loud and sometimes bombastic dynamics. This record is exactly the opposite—it’s the detail in the sparse, soft parts that will draw you in.

 

There’s no need to go into a track-by-track analysis since the above paragraphs describe the overall sound of the record, but there are a number of specific sonic attributes to listen for.

 

The first one happens on “Just a Little Lovin’” almost immediately with a literally startling thwack rim shot that happens with incredible realism. Lynne’s voice is so upfront and present that you can, on a good system, actually hear some mouth sounds at points when she pauses between phrases. The Rhodes electric piano gives notice of the sumptuously rich sounds to come.

 

Listen to the way the acoustic piano and electric guitar blend chordally and rhythmically on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” It’s the sound of master musicians at work. It’s very hard for a guitar player and a piano player to “comp” together in a band, but here you can hear it done perfectly. And listen for the scrape of the drummer’s brushes on the drum heads. Incredible. Most of all, listen for the restrained passion in Lynne’s voice. Hair-raising.

 

“I Only Want to Be with You” is an all-acoustic-instrument (guitar, piano, bass, drums), languid take on the song Dusty Springfield made famous. As such, it’s a can’t-miss system demo track—if your system’s up to the task. The same is true for “The Look of Love.” It’s a song that’s been done and heard countless times, but Lynne brings a grit and a yearning to it that no one else does.

 

“Willie and Lauramae Jones” has a distinctly different sonic feel than the other tracks, thanks to the fact that Lynne is playing guitar on this one along with the other musicians. Listen for the “ring” of the drum hit (not sure if it’s a snare or

something else; the tuning is odd), the beautifully-recorded dobro happily sliding away in the left channel, and the acoustic guitar “chops” in the right channel, where you should very distinctly get the feel of a real person doing them.

 

Speaking of feel, Lynne’s version of Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” is so emotionally riveting, I’ll bet it had him in tears the first time he heard it. The way the song ebbs and flows will simply be 

lost on a lesser system. And just when you think you’re hearing a fadeout, the musicians reveal they’re just getting quieter until they decide to end the song. Masterful.

 

Perhaps the best is saved for last: Lynne duetting with acoustic guitarist Dean Parks on the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” Now the sonic minimalism is at its most sparse, just the two of them playing with, and off of, each other. Not only can you hear that Parks is fingerpicking rather than flatpicking the guitar, you can hear the sound of flesh on string and the way he continuously varies the touch of his fingerpicking. The beautiful fade out is the perfect ending to this sublime-sounding recording.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Dark Side of the Moon

How to Listen: The Dark Side of the Moon

In “How to Become an Expert Listener,” I talked about the kinds of recordings you can use to evaluate a luxury audio setup and walked you through the general things to listen for, such as deep, articulate bass, accurate instrumental and vocal timbre, and an expansive sound field.

 

Here I’m going to take one of the most revered albums not just in the audiophile world but in rock history and give you a sense of what makes it such a great recording—not just so you can better appreciate the virtues of this particular effort but so 

you can apply that knowledge to your own favorite albums. Once you get used to not just listening to the music but savoring the quality of its presentation, you’ll find it easy to pick out the common elements that make for a great recording and that reveal the virtues and flaws of high-performance gear.

 

No album is more iconic than Pink Floyd’s towering 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. (I don’t think I  need to give a musical synopsis here—is there anyone reading this who hasn’t heard it?). Dark Side is up there with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. It was the band’s commercial breakthrough (to put it mildly), spending more than 900 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart.

 

It’s also one of the best-recorded albums ever, thanks to Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons and the innovative use of then-new synthesizers, elaborate multitracking, found sounds, and the resources of Abbey Road Studios, to say nothing of brilliant performances by Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. It’s a true reference recording that will give every aspect of an audio system a thorough workout.

 

I listened to an original UK pressing on my main system and on Qobuz in 24-bit/44.1 kHz hi-res on high-end nearfield monitors. (Geek-speak translation: “Qobuz” is a high-resolution music-streaming service and “nearfield monitors” are speakers meant to be listened to from up close.) I also heard a good chunk of the album on a huge system at a trade show within the past year. Unfortunately, I now can’t remember the show or the system. I do remember the incredible sound.

 

One quick note: This isn’t meant to be an exam. You don’t need to go through the whole album, in sequence, to appreciate what Parsons and the band wrought here or to put it to use for demo purposes. Start with your favorite tracks and, if you find yourself getting into this new way of listening to an old classic, make your way around from there.

 

“Speak to Me”

The album sucks you in with the iconic heartbeat. You’re not going to hear it fully—or at all—on a small speaker with a 

small woofer. You need a speaker setup capable of extended low end. The track should sneak up on you quietly, then crescendo into . . .

 

“Breathe”

. . .and the trademark sonic signature of the album, a vast, wide, deep soundspace with instruments placed hard left, hard right and everywhere in between, up close and far away. Start with your system volume low!

 

Listen for the clarity of every instrument—electric bass, guitars, keyboards, drums, percussion, and effects. Even though some of the sounds are heavily processed, you should hear the clarity of the processing, such as the myriad of reverbs that are a major part of the album’s sonic palette. The tonal balance is smooth and even, from the articulate bass to the densely detailed midrange and clear highs—although I wouldn’t call TDSOTM the absolute last word in transparency.

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

Alan Parsons mixing The Dark Side of the Moon with Pink Floyd

(Check out a good version of the RCA Living Stereo Reiner/Chicago Symphony Scheherazade for that.)

 

In fact, this one track will tell you everything you need to know about how a system is performing—but you’d be shortchanging yourself if you didn’t keep listening.

 

“On the Run”

On a lesser system, this will sound like flat musical filler. On a good system, you’ll hear a rich variety of 

details, like the multiple synthesizers panning from left to right, and the very distinct sound of someone turning the knobs on the main sequencer/synthesizer in real time as it plays through the track. “On the Run” ends with a roar and a rumble that, on a system capable of delivering it, might even scare you.

 

“Time”

You know what I’m going to say here. The clanging of the multiple clocks going off at the beginning should be nothing less than startling. If ever there was a test of a system’s transient response, here it is. The soundstage, if anything, is even bigger now. This is one of the most masterful uses of reverb in recording history. The mixed male and female processed background vocals are utterly gorgeous. Those vocals rise in intensity after the second chorus, with a scraped guitar string lifting you to Gilmour’s fuzzed-out guitar solo, one of the most epic ever recorded. This should sound simply mammoth, thrilling, with layers of synths, vocals, guitars, everything, behind it. (Conventional wisdom opines that Gilmour’s greatest solo is on “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall. I’d argue, uh uh, no. This one is it.)

 

“The Great Gig in the Sky”

After those dizzying aural heights, you need a comedown. But it’s not a crash . . . just an intensity of a different kind. The soundstage expands to galactic proportions. The dynamic range goes from relaxing to system-taxing. (My main system has 100 watts per channel and three-way speakers, and I didn’t hear any strain. My desktop monitors? Well, I didn’t want to risk blowing them up.) You should be able to hear guest vocalist Clare Torry go from a very distinctive growl (on a good system; it’ll be completely lost on a lesser one) to seductive sweetness and every nuance in between. Wright’s piano accompaniment is the model of sensitivity. And listen to how Waters’ bass beautifully complements Torry’s vocals in the second half of the track. This should sound nothing less than emotionally riveting.

 

“Money”

Like the clocks at the beginning of “Time,” the cash registers and sacks of coins should sound surprising. Listen for the clarity of Waters’ picked bass (as opposed to played with the fingers on the previous track) and the way it drives the song. Once

again, the mix is “big,” but not as much as the previous tracks, and sounds more dynamically compressed. My guess is this was done to make the track sound more radio-friendly. But it’s relative—if the other album tracks’ soundspaces are the size of a galaxy, this one’s merely a solar system in comparison. Listen to the drastic removal of all reverb in the breakdown section after the guitar solo

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

—a dramatically effective sonic contrast that should come through razor-sharp. Gilmour’s final solo should practically peel the paint off the walls in its treble intensity, yet still have body and depth.

 

“Us and Them”

The galactic soundspace returns. Listen for the “swirl” of Wright’s Hammond organ played through a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, and the complementing swirl of Gilmour’s guitar through a Uni Vibe pedal, designed to simulate the sound of a Leslie. It’s a rich, densely textured mix. When the sax comes in, even though it has added reverb, it should have a palpable presence and a physicality by comparison.

 

“Any Colour You Like”

Here, Parsons uses repeating echo on the main synthesizer to create spaciousness and depth, and even though it’s a dense mix, you should be able to clearly hear the echo repeats trailing off into the sonic distance. Listen for the harmonic complexity of the multiple synths and guitars and the, once again, startle factor of Gilmour’s guitar when it comes in dead center, in the middle of the song. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a clam (wrong note) from the left-channel guitar at around 2:14 into the song.

 

Another track that might sound like a flat wash on a so-so system. Not on a good one.

 

“Brain Damage” & “Eclipse”

I don’t know what else I can say, as these concluding tracks continue the sonic strengths of the rest of the album—exceptional clarity, dynamics, tonal balance, placement of instruments, soundstage width and depth, huge drum sounds, and masterful mixing of all the vocals, instruments, and effects by Parsons. A final test of your system’s resolving power: Near the very end of the album, listen for Abbey Road Studios’ doorman Gerry O’Driscoll saying, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. It’s all dark.” If your system’s up to the task, you’ll hear it.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Become an Expert Listener

How to Become an Expert Listener

Recently, I helped my friend Ed set up two audio systems. During the process of dialing them in, I had to walk him through what to listen for in order to hear the improvements because he didn’t know what to focus on in evaluating the sound. It occurred to me that most people don’t.

 

A luxury stereo system or home theater should deliver exceptional sound, of course. But what exactly should you listen for in evaluating, choosing, setting up, and enjoying a high-performance system?

 

(Note: I’m not going to dig deeply here into how to set up various aspects of a system to achieve peak performance, but rather what to listen for.)

First of all: A system will only sound as good as its source material. It’s essential to use good demo tracks. Don’t go with a low-bit-rate MP3 file for music listening, for example. Use an audiophile CD or LP, or a high-res download or streaming service.

 

For stereo music evaluation, you can’t go wrong with that stone classic, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s one of the best recordings ever made, thanks to the brilliant talent of Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons. Listing the strengths of this album is like outlining a mini-course in what to listen for:

 

—Deep, articulate bass, a rich midrange, and extended highs

—Accurate timbre of vocals and instruments (except when deliberately processed)

—An expansive sound field

—Wide dynamics, from almost subliminally soft to powerfully loud

—A remarkably clean sonic character.

 

(I’ll expand on each of these various areas below.)

 

A system should have a coherent tonal balance from top to bottom, without any particular frequency range sticking out. You don’t want it to sound too bright in the midrange (roughly the area between 200Hz and 5kHz, where most of the frequencies of the human voice reside) or have weak, recessed bass. With a solo piano recording like Robert Silverman’s superb Chopin’s Last Waltz, listen for the transitions between the low, middle, and high notes, which should be smooth and seamless.

 

Listen for a clear, “transparent” sound with a lot of fine musical detail. The sound should be pure, without any “grain,” hardness, or roughness in texture. (For example, a flute should sound clean and natural, not buzzy or strident or distorted.) Bass should be articulate, not indistinct. The midrange should have plenty of presence, since that’s where most of the music “lives.” Highs should be airy and extended.

 

Subtleties like the “ting” of the triangle in the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording of Scheherazade (an example of the upper range) or the reverb on Shelby Lynne’s voice on Just A Little Lovin’ (an example of the midrange) should be clearly audible. Although it’s not all that realistic in terms of spatial positioning of the instruments, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue is excellent for evaluating timbre, resolution, and overall naturalness of sound.

 

For stereo setups, listen for a coherent sound field without a “hole in the middle” (from your speakers being too far apart 

or not angled in properly) or a lack of imaging and spaciousness (speakers too close together). Depending on the recording, vocals and instruments can be precisely defined in space, left to right and front to back, and the sound field can seem to extend beyond the speakers and maybe even the room. (For some tips on speaker placement, check out these articles from Lifewire and Dynaudio.)

 

However, be aware that on some recordings, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1970s, vocals and instruments can be placed too far off to the left or right. Also, you won’t hear laser-focused pinpoint imaging on a properly-miked orchestral recording—because that’s not what things sound like in real life. And keep in mind that changing your

listening position will have a significant impact on the sound.

 

I once visited the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where they used Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to help determine the differences between speakers. That’s because it’s one of the easiest cuts for people to use in picking out sonic differences.

 

When listening to multichannel movies or music, the sound literally expands, thanks to the addition of center and surround speakers, one or more subwoofers, and, in some installations, height speakers (for example, in a Dolby Atmos system). In fact, Cineluxe has some excellent recommendations for home theater demo material.

 

Listen for a good balance between all the speakers. The surround speakers and subwoofers shouldn’t overly call attention to themselves except when the audio mix warrants it. You should hear a seamless, immersive 360-degree bubble of sound.

 

Dialogue clarity is critical for movies and TV! As such, the performance of the center-channel speaker in a multichannel setup is crucial. (Center-channel volume can be set independently—a very important aspect of home theater system tuning.)

How to Listen—The App

 

I have a confession to make.

 

Instead of writing this post,  I could have been lazy and just told you to check out the Harman: How to Listen app. It’s a training course that teaches you how to become a better listener by pointing out various sonic aspects to focus on, such as specific frequency ranges, spatial balances, and other attributes. Check out this post by Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive for more details.

–F.D.

On another note, it’s a good idea to use material you’re familiar with when evaluating a system, even if it’s not “demo quality,” so you can instantly hear the improvements a luxury system can make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat someone in front of my high-end setup, asked them to pick a favorite piece of music, and then heard them say things like, “I can’t believe the difference! I never knew it could sound like that! It sounds like a different recording!”

 

The best advice I can give is to constantly school yourself to become a better listener.

 

Go out and listen to live unamplified music, whether at Carnegie Hall or a friend strumming an acoustic guitar. Get familiar with the sonic nuances of various instruments. Listen to as many audio and home theater systems as possible, at stores, friends’ houses, and audio shows. Listen to the sounds around you—birds, wind, city streets.

 

Good listeners are made, not born.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.