Part Two Of A Series
Audio test CDs tell you how your home movie and music reproduction system sounds. Tweaking audiophiles have two basic kinds of test CDs to objectively measure the sound of their ultimate home movie and music reproduction systems. This series covers them both.
The first kind of test CD reviewed in this series is dryly clinical. We opened with the venerable Stereophile magazine's test CDs. These are the classic test CDs: modest-price, both subjective music and instrument solos, along with objective test tones for analytical comparisons. They include frequency signals, rich music tracks, and even racecar noises.
The second kind of test CD is emotionally involving. It invites you into the listening experience with the system by providing a golden starting point. This is the reference quality music CD.
The audiophile-quality music CD squeezes the very last drop of realism, accuracy and musicality out of the performance, venue, equipment and engineers. DMP and Chesky stand out in this round up for their attempts to give superior audiophile quality recordings to modern jazz music. DMP includes one surprising music track, which provides an rigorous test for tweaking audiophile system. More on that later.
One of my personal choices for bass tests remains Paul Simon's Graceland CD with its vigorous African rhythms. This aging disc is from the folksy poet of the sixties, who transformed himself into the pop artist of the seventies, did it again and transformed himself into a serious composer of worldwide music in the
A low, growling African bass opens the song. It is quickly plucked on a violin bass guitar like Paul McCartney had. The line bops along, setting the pace for Simon's snappy lyrics ("I can be your bodyguard - I can be your long lost pal"). Half a minute before the song closes, the bass breaks away into a fast, showy solo. I love it. When I hear a new system, or make a new change, this is one of the bass lines I want to compare.
For deliciously sweet jazz riffs, the kind you play for guests as they nibble their desserts after dinner, Digital Music Products (DMP) provides excellent 20-bit and SACD recordings. Every home movie and music reproduction system sounds its best with these clean disks. Yours will never sound better.
When I want to hear a songbird in the wood, I play these discs. When I want to hear the snare drum snap like a carrot, or the kick drum thump like a schoolboy dropping his bag of books; I play these discs. As I assess each new test CD, the DMP recordings are the ones at the end of the gauntlet. Comparing a test tone against their discs is like comparing raw noise against refined music.
A 20-Bit Tast Of DMP
My stack of reference discs includes the wonderfully sultry and showy jazz of Diana Krall (Stepping Out, Justintime, 2000) from the moment I heard her. Before that though, the one disc that I had to cart from system to system as my portable auditory standard was the excellent darkness and tone of 20-Bit Taste of DMP, a 1993 sampler from DMP.
A jazzy CD, 20-Bit is clear and clean -- a cool refreshing drink from a bubbling mountain stream. Whatever sonic artifacts crowd the recording of more conventional fare, this disc absents them all. There is more silence in the quiet passages than other CDs. The highs are ice cold. The lows are deep and rich. Highs and lows are vivid contrasts to each other. I love every other song on this slim disc and still play it with every equipment swap and test.
20-Bit has deep and fast kick drums, high and sweet chimes, smooth female vocals and resounding pianos. All other systems always sound their very best when playing this CD.
The second song on this sample disc, "FYI", is a perky little tune from Chuck Leob's Mediterranean CD (DMP CD-494). "FYI" opens with the drums and bass in a snappy joyful melody. The horns pick up the tune, while the piano and guitar punctuate the chorus with sharp attack notes. Although there are no vocals on this little ditty, it does give a good range of dynamic frequencies and instruments. Mid-way through the song, the drum snaps add to the guitar instrumental. As the song moves into its final movements, the drum snaps come more frequently, and a set of chimes shimmers as if blown by a cold wind. In the closing sequence, all the instruments weave the melodic tune, the drums start a rhythmic pounding, and as they begin to fade away, the horns add into the crescendo. It is a nice, foot-tapping, fusion jazz tune.
Unlike the more clinical test CDs, this high-quality recording provides no isolated instrument solos for tweaking audiophiles to clearly hear individual instrument notes. Instrument solos reveal midrange tone and resonant problems in loudspeakers. They show how good the entire system can be when assigned only one isolated note. The piano shows the width, flatness and dynamics of the loudspeakers. There is no raw live rock band recording for heart pounding dynamics. Neither are there delicious enticing acoustic guitar or flute pieces to analysis that most critical of auditory ranges -- the 1kHz to 4kHz mid-range. There are pianos to show the completeness of the frequency range and the important system dynamics.
DMP Does DSD
In 1999, DMP of Connecticut heralded a brave new age of advanced CD recordings with "the next generation in music reproduction," Direct Stream Digital (DSD). The DSD method is a one-bit recording process with an astounding 2,822,400 samples per second, which should improve every recording. The DSD method can achieve 120dB headroom for dynamics, well above the 90dB compressed onto the classic CD.
DMP released a sample compilation of their DSD jazz recordings in SACD format that can be played on any CD player. The DMP Does DSD disc includes ten tracks, from five different jazz groups. Therefore, not only is it quite possible to find some tracks don't really grab you, but because of the clarity and quality of the recording and the music, it is also quite likely that if you like jazz, there will indeed be some tracks that do. Grab you, that is.
The recordings do not have the stuffed, crowded, over-worked feel of many recordings. There is a freeness, lucidity and simplicity to them. Two songs by Manfredo Fest open the disc, followed by Steve Davis and a group called the Stockholm JazzOrchestra.
Trumpets announce the lowing bass riff of the Stockholm JazzOrchestra tracks, showing that brass horns are instruments that few systems can do really well. The loudspeakers have to replay the joyful blare and blat without annoying bite and blast.
The next track, seven, is a tune that our own Enjoy the Music.com™ senior editor, Dick Olsher, made an audiophile classic when he was with Stereophile magazine. This song is now famous with audiophiles as the "Lesley Test." It is "Summertime," as sung by Olsher's wife, Lesley. He wanted to hear how close a recording and system could come to his personal experience. In this case however, the song is merely a flute rendition: very good for comparing the texture and intimate tones on the mid-range, but not the same as vocal version. The intent is still the same though: how close can the home movie and music reproduction system come to the 3D sonic holographic image of the real thing?
The disc closes with male and female Latin choral work: monastic chanting from Gaudemus. While organ pieces show the size of the concert hall as well as the depth of the bass extension, the two Gaudemaus baritone chants do a very good job of showing the smoothness of the mid and upper bass regions.
I am not alone in my admiration for their work. In my lexicon, venerable means respected, long-lived and wise like an old Chinese man. Although its size is thinning and its competitors drop away like rubbish on the roadside, the magazine renown for
it's A, B, C, recommended equipment categories and sky high "price is no
limit" reviews plods on. In my Enjoy the Music.com™
lexicon, the words venerable and Stereophile are forever inexorably linked.
Even if nothing on the DMP Does DSD disc makes you tap your foot, this is an excellent selection of up close instrumentals to reveal the taste and flavor of a audio system. There may not be any hard rock n' roll or tingling deep organ notes, but this disc will certainly inform you how the system will handle any type of music.
If you are interest in a high quality jazz sampler, but without any analytically measurements, want to hear what DMP provides or merely curious to compare "the Lesley test" for yourself, this is an interesting and useful selection.
Multichannel Reference Super Audio CD
Two years later and DMP brings Ali Ryerson, Joe Beck and Gaudemaus back, this time for a six channel recoding with DSD technology. There are seven music tracks, one each, and an eighth Channel ID signal. Warren Berhardt joins the fray with a traditional jazz tune using piano, bass and cymbals. The Bob Mintzer Big Band shows off the blare of brass horns and the rasp of the sax. Track four shows off the tuneful soft
mourning that only the flute can do.
Guadeamus opens with the same "Ubi Caritas" from the previous CD, but their music tracks are not the most compelling ones on the disc...
The better your reproduction systems is, the more important esoteric sound demonstration tracks become, but only to a certain extent. While the binaural recording of the Montréal Formula 1 Grand Prix on Stereophile's Test CD 3 puts the headphone listener in the grandstand, and adds a generous dollop of outer world realism, it doesn't actually duplicate or provide a tool to measure what some, if not many, audiophiles are trying to accomplish - the intimate, 3D sonic holographic image of the live event. The Grand Prix is not music. At least not with the arrangements on these Test CDs. (Editor Steve's notes: the sound of a Formula 1 engine is music to my ears, but nothing i would call music in my home system. In life certain sounds must be heard live as anything else is simply a waste of time)
A drum track, Stereophile said, in their very complete little booklet with their Test CD 2, is "a good test of a system's dynamic range, LF extension, image specificity, and ability to differentiate pitch." Indeed it is. As you will find in a future installment of this series, Chesky does a wonderful job with a series of drum solos that vigorous work the dynamics and positioning of a home system. But this disc includes a track that every tweaking audiophile should at least hear at least once. Preferably on their own system. If not, then certainly on someone else's superb system.
The seventh track on the DMP's Multichannel show-off disc is a musical arrangement that poses no less a challenge to a superb audio system than race cars. If your system has the right stuff, the front-end delicacy and details, the horse-power and "wake me up, I'm ready to rock" loudspeakers, then this track will demonstrate it to you.
For track seven is a simply "Tsunami," a quiet to loud Japanese percussion tempo from the Horner Percussion Ensemble. It comes from DMP's "Far More Drums" album. You want to embarrass a braggart quickly? Play this track on his system at close to full volume. Receiver and loudspeakers that warm your heart with the smooth jazz of Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Patricia Barber and Cassandra Wilson choke, gasp and fall flat when attempting to handle the rowdy dynamics of this raucous track.
If this track doesn't sound like real, energetic, pounding drums, then that audio system doesn't have the high-demand 500-horse power to zip around the high-end reproduction course. Sure, a modest system does great alone on a dark night; it handles the female vocalist curves just fine. I've seriously auditioned in my own home, with the same music and equipment for Enjoy the Music.com™, several loudspeakers that fit easily in that category. But load those loudspeakers up with a few friends, if you turn on the AC and they can barely climb a hill at full throttle.
The single-driver Omega TS1s fit in the first category. Couple them with a sweet little integrated amplifier engine and you have a cute Mazda Miata two-seater, which you can whip around the living or bedroom. Nothing wrong with that. Quite nice, in fact.
Yet, harness something like the massive Pass X250 amplifier (which drive 500-watts into 6-ohms) or the new ASL AQ1003 DT integrated tube amplifier though, to something like the "Big White Boxes And Wide Black Horns Of Classic Audio Reproductions' Cinema Ensemble Loudspeakers"; then you have a powerful Bentley sedan you can chauffer your friends along South Beach or Rodeo Drive with the stereo blaring. The "Tsunami" track is one musical hill that a truly superb system should climb with aplomb. It is a reason enough for drum lovers to buy this or DMP's Far More Drums disc.
Another high quality, interesting and musical jazz sampler from DMP, especially good for multiple channel systems, but with only one objective test: channel ID.
Coming Up Next
So far, Enjoy the Music.com™'s review of Test CDs includes Stereophile magazine's four low-cost, but quite useful, offerings and these three enjoyable DMP discs. Coming up next in the series:
Reference Recordings' swing, classical and objective reference discs
-- one with a useful clap track
Really deep dinosaur footsteps from
Jurassic Park on Telarc's movie music sampler
Chesky's music and practical test offerings
Finally, there is one song, above all others, which provides a rare baseline test for tweaking audiophiles. Something better than the Lesley test (think popular music). Every tweaking audiophile should own this song. It is the sonic marvel against which all others are judged. More on that later. Enjoy the testing... and the music.