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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.”

 

Listen for the quiet parts. Many demo tracks or audiophile recordings will 

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin'

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.

The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.

 

Hold that thought for a moment.

 

In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.

 

As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.

 

As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.

 

And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.

 

As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.

 

Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.

 

So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?

 

There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.

 

But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.

 

A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.

 

It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.

 

This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.

 

I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.

 

And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

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.

Tube-Based Home Theater–Why Not?

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

the Zen Ultra 5.1-channel preamplifier

Many audiophiles love tube gear. So why do we almost never see or hear about tube-based home theater systems? If tubes sound so luxuriously great, why aren’t they more common in home entertainment installations?

 

Multichannel-friendly tube products do exist. Decware makes a multichannel tube preamp— the Zen Ultra, a $2,995 six-channel unit that accommodates up to four program sources. Butler Audio offers its five-channel TDB 5150 tube power amplifier ($2,995) and three-channel TDB 3150 (price currently unavailable). For a program source, there are the

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

ModWright Instruments modifications of the Oppo BDP-105 (shown at left), BDP-105D, and UDP-205 Blu-ray players ($2,495 for the base modification only; user must supply player). Note that the players themselves are discontinued—you’ll have to search to find one.

Not exactly a big list.

 

In fact, I couldn’t find any other tube Blu-ray players or multichannel preamps other than out-of-production ModWright mods of other models—the Fosgate Audionics FAP V1 preamp/processor and the Conrad-Johnson MET-1 multichannel preamp. (If

readers know of any other products, please let me know.) There are also Samsung components that have tubes in their amplifiers, but they’re home-theater-in-a-box systems, not luxury AV products.

 

On the other hand, there is a plethora of tube amplifiers (in addition to the Butler Audio models) that could be used in a home theater system. In a 5.1 system, for example, 

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

the tubes in Samsung’s HT-H7750 home-theater-in-a-box system

you could employ stereo amps for the main and the surround channels and a mono or bridged stereo amp for the center channel. Or use five separate mono amps. (This is assuming a powered subwoofer in the system; a passive subwoofer would require another amp to drive it.)

 

So—other than tube amplifiers, there’s an obvious lack of tube home theater components.

 

Also, to use a multichannel tube preamp, you’d want to pair it with a source component with discrete (separate) multichannel audio outputs. You guessed it—there aren’t many around. Other than the ModWright/BDP-105, BDP-105D, and UDP-205 (and other models they’ve offered over the years), there are only a few other (solid-state) Blu-ray players with such outputs, 

like the highly regarded Ultra HD Panasonic DP-UB9000 or the Denon Professional DN-500BD MK II, recommended by Decware head honcho Steve Deckert. (You could use an HDMI-to-multichannel analog converter box with a Blu-ray player or other A/V source without multichannel analog outputs, but such a kludge would almost certainly degrade the sound.)

 

What about those tube amps? There are plenty available. But you’d have to use amps that are powerful enough for home theater, which limits the range of choices. Just picture a phalanx of big, hot, heavy, energy-sucking amps in your home-entertainment room—maybe not something that

would fit into your living environment. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, tube components do require some attention and maintenance.

 

But the main reason tube-based home theater systems are rare is that there’s almost no demand for them. As Stereophile’s Kal Rubinson noted, “There are too few people to make tube home theater components a viable market for manufacturers. Even 10 years ago, when we were in what we might call a ‘golden age’ of home theater popularity, it was hard to find such components or customers who wanted them.”

 

Based on my experience over decades of going to countless audio shows, dealers, and homes, I agree. And there are those who would say, “Why bother? Tubes don’t sound any better than solid-state.”

 

That said, having a tube home theater system is more than just some outrageous idea dreamed up by the editor and myself.

 

While not wanting to reveal sales figures, Decware told me the company sells several of its six-channel tube preamps each year. And between 2010 and 2019, ModWright has sold an average of 100 tube Blu-ray players each year (in addition to

other tube and hybrid components). That’s hundreds of listeners—maybe not McDonald’s numbers, but proof that there are enthusiasts out there who prize tube home theater sound. (How many home theater systems have tube amps? As of now, I don’t have an estimate, if one is even available.)

 

Also, although they’re not multichannel, there are countless stereo tube CD players, DACs (digital-to-analog 

converters), and even phono stages that could be incorporated into home entertainment systems, the $2,999 PrimaLuna Prologue Classic CD player (shown above) being just one example.

 

In fact, there are some who feel you don’t even need multichannel to enjoy spacious home theater sound. A well-set-up 2-channel or 2.1-channel system (two speakers and a subwoofer) can offer a compelling listening experience, maybe even fooling listeners into thinking they’re hearing surround sound. And there’s a wide variety of tube stereo components out there with which to create such a system.

 

Certainly, most people are going to go with a standard home-entertainment installation. Yet if you want to experience some sonic tube flavor in your system, it might be an uncommon option—but it’s a viable one.

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.

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Photo by Ivan Boban from Pexels

Listening to a luxury turntable can be a sublime musical experience. However, actually buying an ultimate record-playback setup can be daunting, especially if you don’t know who to turn to for advice. There are so many choices for turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and electronics . . . where to begin?

The short answer: Rely on an expert.

 

The obvious first place to look is a good specialist audio/video retailer, custom installation firm, or systems integration company. You want companies that sell and install high-end turntables and are knowledgeable about these things. (Luxury turntables require expert setup.)

 

Do a search, and you’ll find that some dealers focus on home audio and video, while other companies lean toward home automation, business, and corporate services, and may not even have turntables on their line card. Traditional “stereo stores” (boy, does that sound dated, but do a Google search and they’ll come up) will likely be your best bet, but don’t rule out others without checking. Stirling Trayle of the consulting company Audio Systems Optimized notes, “The consumer/dealer relationship is vital. Find a good dealer and stick with them.”

 

See if the potential dealer carries reputable brands. Ones you can expect to find at a dealer who’s on top of his game

include Brinkmann, Clearaudio, Linn, McIntosh, SME, Tech DAS, and VPI.

 

Even if you don’t know a platter from a pizza you should be prepared with as much knowledge as possible. As the old Syms clothing store commercials used to say, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”

 

Good articles about buying turntables can be found online at Engadget, CNET and Make Use Of. Although these tend to focus on lower- and mid-priced models rather than ne plus ultra gear, they’re good reading. For articles about and reviews of ultimate-performance gear, check out some of the websites listed in the “Sites & Sound” sidebar below.

And if you feel up to some old-school book-length reading, I highly recommend two volumes, both written in a clear, non-intimidating style. The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, contains a wealth of information on turntables (and every other type of audio component). It’s available from Amazon, HiFiBooks.com, and other outlets. The Friendly Audio Guide by veteran A/V writer Mark Fleischmann is exactly that, filled with useful material about turntables and everything audio. You can buy it from Amazon, Quiet River Press, and elsewhere.

 

As for online and Facebook forums and discussion groups, you’ll need to keep things in perspective. Audiophiles tend to be opinionated, with adherents and detractors for analog vs. digital, tubes vs. solid-state, and every conceivable audio-related topic, with no consensus on what’s “best.” That said, reading posts, some from honest-to-goodness audio-industry experts who are friendly and generous with advice, can be extremely informative.

 

However . . . there’s also an epidemic of misinformation online. Without getting 

into the sociological “why,” it’s well-known that social media sites are filled with people posting uninformed and rude comments. Sadly, audio forums and discussion groups aren’t immune. Beware of self-styled “experts” who are anything but, not to mention the flat-out trolls. If the poster is inflammatory, dogmatic, condescending, seems to have an agenda, or all of the above, those are the typical tells of someone to ignore.

Once you feel like you’ve identified some potential places to buy your dream turntable setup, go and take a listen. Buying a high-performance, luxury turntable-based audio system is not unlike buying a sports car—and can cost as much, all told. So you’ll want to be as comfortable with your audio dealer as you are with your car dealer.

 

Check out a variety of turntables. This is important: Ask the dealer to take you through the process of actually playing a record—putting it on the platter, cueing up the tonearm/cartridge, and so on. Playing a record without damaging the disc or the turntable takes a little practice. And you’ll want some instruction in how to maintain your gear over time. Bring some good-sounding records you’re familiar with so you’ll have a consistent point of reference as you check out different models (see “A Newbie’s List of Reference Discs”).

 

 A great turntable setup should sound astoundingly lifelike, detailed and dynamic with an almost tangible presence to vocals and instruments. It should absolutely, completely, utterly blow you away.

 

Oh, and one more suggestion . . .

 

If you can, attend an audio show! If you’ve never been to one, you’ll be dazzled by the variety of turntables and audio gear to listen to. They’re a wonderful opportunity to meet the designers and manufacturers first-hand, along with hundreds of enthusiasts. They’re also tremendous fun! With more and more audio shows happening around the country—like AXPONA (Chicago), Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

A NEWBIE’S LIST OF REFERENCE DISCS

If you already have some albums you’re well familiar with, bring those along when you go to audition a turntable. But if you’re looking for a place to start, you can’t go wrong with these classic choices:

 

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Mobile Fidelity re-issue)

The Eagles, Hotel California

Diana Krall, All for You

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin’ 

Cecile McLorin, WomanChild

(Denver), Capital Audiofest (Rockville, MD), the Florida Audio Expo (Tampa), the California Audio Show (Oakland), The Home Entertainment Show (Long Beach, CA), and the New York Audio Show (Manhattan)—not to mention international shows, you can find one just about anywhere.

 

There’s no one “right” way to buy a vinyl playback setup. While the opinions of an expert will be invaluable, ultimately, you should buy what makes you (and your fellow listeners) happy.

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.

A Brief Introduction to Tube Electronics

The history of tube audio components parallels that of vinyl records over the past 40 years, so in my mind it’s sort of appropriate that tubes and vinyl often go together among audiophiles.

 

By the early 1970s, tube gear was becoming obsolete, supplanted by smaller, more efficient wonder-of-the-Space Age transistors and solid-state audio components. But many audiophiles and music lovers found the sound of early solid-state harsh, spatially flat, even awful. Yet while tubes flickered out of mainstream consumer electronics, they enjoyed a high-end audio revival in the 1970s, still going strong. Today a wealth of tube gear exists, most of it in the high-end luxury realm.

With the advent of the digital Compact Disc in 1982, records were written off—literally, among the mainstream audio press—as a dying format. After all, CDs offered “Perfect Sound Forever.” But critical listeners rejected the sound of early digital, like that of solid-state gear, as harsh, flat and sometimes awful. Some CDs and CD players certainly were. Many audiophiles clung to the analog sound of vinyl, and still do.

 

Thanks to some very talented designers, engineers, and manufacturers, digital audio has improved dramatically. High-resolution audio formats and better D/A (digital to analog) converters are just two examples. In fact, a large contingent of audio professionals will tell you “Game over. Tube components and record players are hopelessly outmoded.”

 

Not so fast.

 

The fact—not wishful audiophile longing, but fact—is that vacuum-tube components have a major presence in high-

end audio, as do turntables, and it’s common knowledge that vinyl is enjoying a major renaissance. Many people who prefer tubes also like to listen to vinyl.

 

Why? Is it because tubes and vinyl really do sound better? Or is it nostalgia—the desire to transport, via one’s music system, back to a simpler, more fondly remembered time as heard through the aural equivalent of rose-colored glasses? Maybe it’s the fun factor of basking in the glow of those tubes (they look really cool in the dark!), watching the record spinning, and holding the record jacket in your hands as you admire the artwork and read the liner notes.

 

(An aside—I listen to everything from old mono LPs to hi-res streaming audio. I’ve heard superb digital and solid-state, and those formats have practical and engineering advantages. That said, there will always be a special place in my heart for tubes and vinyl.)

 

Good tube gear can sound incredibly good, with superb tonal richness, body, detail, and spaciousness. If you equate measurements with fidelity, some tube gear in fact measures very well. On the other hand, detractors will say that “tube warmth” is just an inaccurate coloration or harmonic distortion. (Some people like to run digital audio through tubes to “warm up” the sound, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

 

There are practical considerations. Tubes generate heat and use more electricity. Tube audio components tend to skew expensive—vacuum tubes cost a lot more than transistors and integrated circuits, they use other expensive parts, and building them is labor-intensive. Tube gear can weigh a lot.

 

Tube amps come in many varieties. There are under-10-watt single-ended-triode Class A designs like the Audio Nirvana 300B ($1,650) and behemoths like the VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock ($75,000/pair). Careful speaker 

matching will be necessary, especially with lower-powered amps. (There are also hybrid audio components that incorporate both tubes and solid-state, to combine the advantages of both.)

 

Tube electronics require commitment—the tubes eventually need to be changed, though they can last many years, and some tube amps need periodic user attention. Solid-state gear is set-and-forget by comparison. If you’re thinking of going tube, talk to your dealer, read reviews, and do your homework.

 

To bring turntables, which I discussed in my previous article, into the discussion: Although vinyl has its drawbacks (bass limitations, inner-groove distortion, etc.), a high-end record-playback system can sound wonderful. And there are those who insist analog does sound better than digital, especially through tubes. Complementary colorations or better fidelity? The debate rages.

 

Arguments—er, debates—on sound quality aside, there’s definitely a funky cool nostalgic vibe to tube components and turntables. They look retro and give you classic analog sound. Vintage pieces from Marantz, McIntosh, Quad, Western Electric, Garrard, Thorens and others are from a bygone era—and prized by many audiophiles. (And are also going up in value.)

 

A friend of mine wanted a tube/vinyl setup specifically to listen old-school style to

music as it sounded back in the day as he looks out onto a lakeside sunset and cues up an album on the stereo. You’re just not going to get that vibe scrolling through a computer playlist.

 

In that sense, tubes and turntables very much go together. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fun just to be around them. Playing an old record on a tube/vinyl system gives a strong connection with the past. It’s like listening through a time machine. (Try it. You’ll feel it.) Listening to contemporary albums also sounds great.

 

Writers give a lot of blah blah blah lip service to the experience—but really, that’s what listening to music is all about. It should be fun, involving, emotional. Tube audio gear, turntables, and records offer an intriguing path toward getting you there. Maybe it’s a path you’d like to take.

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.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

With the resurgence of all things vinyl, there’s arguably never been a better time to add a high-end turntable to a luxury home entertainment setup.

 

A what?

 

Audiophiles like me take this for granted, but most people don’t even realize luxury turntables even exist. But what exactly makes a turntable luxury? Well, if it’s defined not just by price but by the ability to deliver a compelling musical experience, the best record-playback systems sound remarkably realistic, blurring the line between “reproduced sound” and the feeling the musicians are right in front of you.

A fine turntable can also be strikingly beautiful, whether a minimalist design like the classic Linn Sondek LP-12 or the clockwork-tech visuals of the VPI Avenger Reference.

 

If you think of audiophiles as a bunch of tweak-crazy perfectionists—assuming you’ve ever bothered to think of audiophiles at all—well, in some cases, you’d be right. (Certainly in my case!) But don’t let the thought that a turntable isn’t a simple plug-and-play purchase scare you away from buying and enjoying one of these gorgeous pieces of machinery.

But there’s one thing I need to emphasize before we proceed: Any high-end turntable will require setup.

 

If you don’t know, or don’t want to know, the tricks of the trade, you can enlist the help of a dealer, systems integrator, or turntable setup specialist (yes, there are people like that). Their advice (and that of expert reviewers) on what turntable to buy 

will also be invaluable. While setup is exacting, it’s not a black art, so if you want to learn how to do it yourself, I would recommend Michael Fremer’s turntable setup DVD.

 

Better turntables start at around a few hundred dollars for a complete turntable/arm/cartridge setup, and spending from $500 to around $2,000 will bring immense musical satisfaction. But if you’re striving for the sonic ultimate, manufacturers like 

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the five-platter, 780-pound TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable

the above and SME, Brinkmann, Spiral Groove, Rega, and Technics offer models from four and five figures all the way up to the mighty $440,000, 780-plus-pound TechDAS Air Force Zero, which features five interlocking platters floating on a cushion of air, and a host of exotic proprietary materials, including a motor that’s no longer made.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the Koestu Goldline Black
phono cartridge

Should you decide to invest in such a dazzling device, you’ll need to add a tonearm and cartridge. While there are plenty of excellent complete turntable setups on the market, for many high-end record-playback rigs, the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge must be chosen separately. (One truly luxury exception is the $17,500 SME Synergy, which includes a Nagra phono stage and Ortofon Windfeld cartridge.) 

 

There are ultra-refined tonearms from some of the manufacturers mentioned above, plus Swedish Analog Technologies (their $48,000 CF1-09 is a mind blower), Acoustic Signature, Graham Engineering and more, and dozens of superb phono cartridges from Grado, Ortofon, Koetsu, Audio-Technica, van den Hul, Kiseki, Lyra, Soundsmith, and many others. The miniaturized works of these diamond-tipped marvels are made to the standards of fine watches.

To go to another level of audiophile geekdom—and raise another topic you might want to hand off to an expert—you’ll also need a phono stage, which amplifies and equalizes the weak signals coming from the turntable to a level the rest of the audio system can handle. (In the days when turntables were everywhere, phono inputs were common on receivers and preamps—today, not so much.) While budget and some under-$1,000 turntables have a built-in phono stage, ultimate-performance phono rigs and outboard phono stages like the Audio Research Reference Phono 3 ($15,000) or the CH Precision P1 ($31,000) go together like Ferraris and Brembo brakes.

 

(For an overview of what’s available check Stereophile’s”Recommended Components” or The Absolute Sound’s“Editors’ Choice” listings.)

 

Why is the best turntable gear expensive? Consider: A record groove is around 40 to 80 micrometers wide. A human hair is 17 to 181 µm wide! When dealing with that kind of micro-level physics, things like stylus shape and cartridge and tonearm alignment become exacting concerns in accurately translating the minute wiggles of the stylus through the groove into electrical signals heard as music. On the macro level, the motor must spin the platter at an unwavering speed (or it’ll be heard as pitch variation) while adding no noise of its own, and the turntable should be immune from outside vibrations.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the MAG-LEV Audio ML1 turntable features a levitating record platter

It all adds up to a delicate balancing act—literally—and the engineering involved could fill more than one book. There are a myriad of approaches to things like materials, cartridge designs (the most common are moving coil and moving magnet), tonearm geometries, motors, and noise isolation. (The MAG-LEV Audio ML1 turntable uses magnetic levitation for platter

isolation!) Materials like titanium platters, high-precision bearings, and handmade phono cartridges don’t come cheap, especially when manufactured in small quantities. But when a manufacturer takes a cost-no-object approach, it provides the freedom to reach for the sonic ultimate.

 

So, what’s best for you? I asked Michael Trei, who is a reviewer for Sound & Vision and a turntable setup expert, what his well-to-do clients want most—looks? sound? bragging rights? “Reliability is the most important thing,” he said. ”My customers don’t want to deal with turntables going out of adjustment.”

 

He added that “arm handling is important.” There aren’t any high-end turntables with automatic operation (let alone remote control!), so you have to manually play your records, and take care in doing so. Because of that, you need to be comfortable with the “feel” of the arm. (Some SME models make it physically impossible to accidentally drop the tonearm onto the record.)

 

For the klutzes among us, Trei recommends using a moving-magnet cartridge, since the stylus on most can be easily replaced if damaged. If you have toddlers or others who might cause damage, keep the turntable—or them—out of reach! “I wish someone would make a locking turntable dustcover,” Trei mused.

 

On the other hand, as mentioned before, some audiophiles enjoy “tweaking” their setups. Some turntables are very stable; others require regular attention.

Is it all worth it? Consider me an enabler. A high-end turntable setup will convey music with astounding realism, resolution of musical detail, and a soundspace that can extend beyond the boundaries of your entertainment room or place you right in the audience.

 

If you’ve never heard a high-end turntable at this level of performance, it will be a revelation.

 

If that’s not luxury for the soul, I don’t know what is.

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.

Three Essential Vinyl Demos

I’ve been a vinylphile since I was a child, when 78 RPM records like Debbie Reynolds’ “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” and Spike Jones’ “Hawaiian War Chant” captivated my young ears on my grandmother’s Victrola.

 

Here are three of my favorite demo discs for audio system and component evaluation and listening pleasure. In fact, I’d say you could tell everything you need to know about what your system is doing or where it’s falling short with these three records.

 

 

Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars, For Duke

M&K Realtime RT-101

 

This LP attained audiophile-pantheon status shortly after it came out in 1978, and for good reason. It remains one of the most astonishingly well-recorded vinyl LPs ever. Unlike many “audiophile” discs with exceptional sonics and forgettable music, the playing is wonderful, with a jazz combo having a ball playing Ellington’s greatest hits, including “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Mood Indigo.”

 

For Duke was recorded direct-to-disc—the performance was cut live directly to the master disc, a process that eliminates the sonic degradation and generation loss that comes with recording to analog tape and then cutting the disc from tape.

 

It shows. In particular, the dynamics are remarkable. A couple of minutes into “Take the A Train,” Berry takes a cornet solo that is literally startling—when he comes in, it’s all you can do not to flinch in surprise (as I did the first time I heard it). The drums are powerfully lifelike, as are all the instruments—Ray Brown’s bass is jaw dropping in its richness and presence. The recording is astoundingly pure and detailed. The tonal balance is near perfect.

 

We’ve all heard the cliché “It sounds like the musicians are in the room” to describe the sound of a good recording, but in this case, it really does sound like that. This record is hard to find and usually expensive, but hey, that’s part of the agony and the ecstasy of record collecting.

Fritz Reiner, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade

Analogue Productions LSC-2446 re-issue of RCA “Living Stereo” original

 

While For Duke is renowned for its up-front perspective, Scheherazade puts the listener in an entirely different acoustic environment, with its realistic rendering of an orchestra in the concert hall. Recorded in 1960 by producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton and brilliantly performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Fritz Reiner, this Analogue Productions re-issue is nothing less than sensational.

vinyl demos

The tonal palette of the orchestra is beautifully conveyed, with sumptuous lows, a natural midrange, and the sweet, airy upper midrange and highs that let you know you’re hearing analog at its best. On a good system, you can clearly hear the character of the hall. The quiet parts are exquisite (Sidney Hart’s violin playing could not be more nuanced and expressive) and the fortes are thrilling.  My feeble words don’t begin to do this masterpiece justice.

 

For decades, the legendary original RCA Living Stereo recording was nearly impossible to find, with various vinyl re-issues ranging from mediocre to very good. No longer—this 2013 Analogue Productions re-issue is magnificent. In fact, while I don’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison (though I’ve heard it many times), no less an authority than Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer thinks this re-issue actually betters the storied original. I won’t argue.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

Factory Records Factus 10 (1983 US 12-inch single)

 

But want to know if your system can rock? All you need do is listen to the first Oberheim DMX drum-machine beats of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12-inch single of all time (according to Wikipedia), and one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, walloping bowl-you-over dance-music singles ever. But don’t turn it up too loud or you might blow out your woofers.

 

“Blue Monday” is insanely powerful and dynamic, irresistibly catchy and moving. Back in the day, this would propel people to the dance floor with its mesmerizing mix of synth and Peter Hook’s unmistakable electric bass, its layered synthesizer washes and melodies, its pull-no-punches electronic drums, and Bernard Sumner’s dryly-delivered vocals. On a good audio system, it sounds massive.

 

My copy is an original 1983 US version with the die-cut cover (designed to resemble a floppy disc!) and silver inner sleeve, though not one of the first UK pressings with the “FAC 73” catalog number. There are literally more than 50 1983 vinyl US, UK, and international issues listed on Discogs (and there were also 1998 and 1995 remixes and numerous CD and digital versions), so I certainly can’t vouch for the sound quality of every one of them! But since the record sold so well, you shouldn’t have to do a Where’s Waldo to find a copy like mine. Put it on the turntable and stand back!

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.