As we all know, listening to familiar music is the only way to evaluate a hi-fi system. And yet, a not-insignificant number of journalists and serious audiophiles listened to the manufacturer’s demo tracks at this year’s Vegas hi-fi extravaganza. DVD-A players or reel-to-reel machines playing master tapes or custom cuts are almost worthless in evaluating a system’s overall performance. While these exclusive tracks sound absolutely fantastic, if you really want to know how a system sounds, you'd better bring your plebeian silver discs.
My demo disc contained a five minute mix of 30 second cuts cross-faded and burned onto a CD. I used as much popular music from 2007 as possible (after all, hi-fi is all about new and exciting music) and included tracks with a variety of recording styles, dynamic compression and MP3 nastiness.
If I didn't have a chance to hear my own music on a system, I'll let you know. Additionally, I'll let you know the kinds of looks and responses I received when playing non-audiophile (aka popular) music. A few people left the room clutching their stomachs, but most exhibitors and show-goers were thankful for a respite from the never-ending string quartets and elevator jazz.
The 5 minute SonicFlare Torture Demo Disc contains:
Star Wars Main Theme -- John Williams – City of Prague Philharmonic
Let’s be real, soundtracks are the bread and butter of classical album purchases these days. The Star Wars theme, in addition to being a fun way to start any demo disc, is one fantastic speaker-busting tune. The huge orchestral fireworks demand liberal cranking of the volume knob while the quick transitions to happy strings requires systems to be light on their toes.
Afro Celt Sound System – Dark Noon, High Tide -- Gangs of New York Soundtrack
This is one track with terrifyingly explosive bass and worlds of rough string and drum dynamics through the midrange. While the track is free of dynamic compression, I ripped this to 192kbps MP3 to see just how a system would handle the MP3-based nastiness on the low end with live instruments.
Kanye West -- Stronger
If a system can’t handle hip-hop, it has no hope appealing to the next generation. Kanye West was huge this year and his "Stronger" track, while suffering from typical dynamic compression, sounds great on systems that can step up to this kind of Escalade thumping power.
Etta James – I’ll Drown In My Own Tears – Live in New York
This woman eats microphones for lunch. No compression or reverb combined with dynamics that go from subtle audience hoots and hollers to Etta’s live vocal explosions that shoot well beyond the range of the mic, this cut tested a system’s tolerance for rough recordings and extreme transitions (and blues as thick as butter).
Amy Winehouse – You Know I’m No Good – Back to Black
Female vocals are one of the classic tests of hi-fi systems, and rightfully so. Amy Winehouse took her brand of modern hipster jazz to the masses in '07 so who better to represent the next generation of back alley angst than a woman who can’t keep herself out of the news. Despite the album's "big label" production (compression, reverb, etc), Amy's vocals don't suffer the way rockers' voices tend to turn into mush.
Spoon – The Underdog – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Modern rock is a must for any good demo disc and Spoon’s refined sound is some of the best in 2007. The marginal dynamic compression doesn’t squeeze the solid recording and excellent dynamics of the hard-hitting instruments. This great piece, more than any other, had many people smiling, bobbing their heads and, God forbid, actually enjoying themselves. If heads weren't bobbing, something was wrong with the system.
Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
Another female vocal track but with 192kbps MP3 compression. This track has deep, solid notes and an overall excellent mastering job. Keeping the vocals clear and alive is a challenge with this much background bass action bouncing the mid-woofers. Atypical Fiona but a damn fun (and demanding) track.
Eddie Izzard – Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite -- Across The Universe Soundtrack
Eddie Izzard’s cornucopia of sounds and strange vocal stylings with MP3 compression made for a useful rock demo. Vocals, horns, strings, guitar, drums, blue people – it has it all with a fantastic mastering job to boot.
Dizzee Rascal – Wanna Be – Maths + English
Out of the gutters of the UK hip hop scene, Dizzee Rascal’s “Wanna Be” (with Lily Allen) is a banging digitally and dynamically compressed hip-hop track. With male and female vocals and a world of busy sounds, this track tested a system’s tolerance for the kind of tunes most likely to be found on the iPods of discerning mall rats everywhere.
Yello -- Planet Dada
Bass, bass and more bass. This track (thrust upon me by SonicFlare’s very own Danny Kaey) put out so much meat from 20Hz (and below) to 120Hz, it actually shook the imbedded lights out of the ceiling of one Mirage penthouse suite. Combined with zero dynamic compression and wonderfully delineated techno sounds through the rest of the frequency range, this track really pushed systems to club-level dynamics which, for one speaker, resulted in a smoldering crossover and smoke escaping from the vents. Ah, good times...
My mix CD, in addition to my 5 minute mix (which John Devore of Devore Fidelity called my ADD Mega Mix), included tracks from MIA, Amon Tobin, Massive Attack, live Daft Punk, Bjork, Rage Against The Machine, Linkin Park as well as random cuts off Danny’s uber mix of amazing music.