Assessing Hi-Fi gear is a lot like test-driving a car: You need to investigate the basic parameters before signing on the dotted line. I’ve listened to literally thousands of audio components during my time as a reviewer, so I’ve learned which songs best reveal what’s going on under the hood and in the room. And nothing puts audio gear — especially a turntable — through its paces better than a well-recorded track on vinyl.
While many will suggest overly produced audiophile recordings for this purpose, I suggest you instead use music you know intimately, so you can easily discern subtleties. Here’s a list of some of the tracks that will best show off your system to its full advantage.
(Note: A few of these songs are available as 12-inch vinyl singles, but for the most part, you will have to play them from the albums cited.)
This is the second track on Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space album, and it’s the tune I always play first when trying out any new piece of audio gear. It immediately tells me if a component can deliver the sense of space necessary to making music feel real. Are you hearing a big soundstage, with every instrument and vocal in its own distinct spot? If so, your system may well be up to the task. During the chorus, when Mann sings “Let me be your heroine,” listen carefully for the backing vocal, which should sound like it’s coming from right behind her as she stands at the mic.
Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of the Moon album has been around forever, but it’s still a great way to show off your system. The deep heartbeat at the beginning of “Speak to Me” gives you a real insight into how deep your woofers/subwoofers can go (and if you’re having turntable feedback issues), while “Time” is a real torture test. The louder you can play it while still distinctly hearing all the different clocks and alarms, the more resolution you have.
Though the vibes at the beginning of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” will instantly show if your cartridge is mistracking, “Peg” (from the Dan’s Aja album) is arguably the best track to judge turntable performance overall, thanks to its incredible dynamic range, pinpoint imaging and multiple layers of backing vocals. 45 years later, it’s still an invaluable tool for evaluating audio gear.
This track from the group’s incredibly well-recorded debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (produced by Brian Eno) is probably the most un-audiophile recording on my list, but it has so many synthesizers and processed vocals, a poor-quality Hi-Fi will make it sound like it’s being played on an AM radio. However, if your system delivers superior detail, you’ll hear sonic treats bouncing all over the room … which might just get you up off the couch to bounce along as well.
Okay, now it’s audiophile time. Violin is one of the most challenging instruments to get right on a Hi-Fi system, with piano a close second. This exquisitely recorded track has both. The two violins and the piano should fill your room, each in its own very distinct space, and the piano notes should gently fade into nothingness. The violins should appear full and rich; if they sound metallic and screechy instead, your system is failing the test. Best to listen to this track off the full vinyl release, Dvorak – Trio in F Minor, Op.65.
When listening to this track from CSN’s self-titled debut album, pay close attention to the distinctiveness of the three legendary vocalists. As with most of the group’s recordings, they all tend to sing at a similar volume, and the blend that makes their sound so unique can also make it sound like one big voice on a mediocre system. The better your audio gear, the more you can hear the subtle differences in timbre between Messrs. C, S and N, and the better you can pick out each element within the intricate harmonies they are weaving.
By now, you’ve probably heard this song to death, but that’s what makes it great for demoing your system. Adele is one of the few contemporary artists with the necessary clout and budget to produce such outstanding-sounding records. The challenge here is to have a system capable of delivering lifelike dynamics and the tremendous range of her voice … and the better your system, the easier it is to discern the changes in her voice from her debut to now. Texture is everything here. Who knows? You may even rekindle your love for 21.
Fans of techno and electronic music usually agree that The K&D Sessions is part of where it all began, and this track contains so much musical information, your system will definitely be put to the test. The production here is huge and airy, with layers of rock-solid bass grooves and tinkly bits everywhere. You should feel like you’re swimming in this track; it’s that big.
Every record from this iconic singer is full of sparkling sonics, and while all of Peter Gabriel 4 (or Security, as it is sometimes called) is a joy to listen to, “Lay Your Hands on Me” is the jewel. When listened to on a great system, the percussion at the beginning of the track will spin around your speakers, with a texture that almost sounds like fingers on a chalkboard, burrowing into your soul as a steam radiator-like sound swells up from behind Gabriel’s haunting vocal. At about 2:30, the song increases in level, with dramatic drums all the way to the end, where they conclude with a massive crescendo. Watch the volume control on this one; it’s a speaker destroyer. Are yours up to the task?
The title track from Shelby Lynne’s masterful Dusty Springfield tribute album Just a Little Lovin’ was recorded on analog tape and is filled with ear candy. It’s a song that’s become an audiophile classic — one that you can go back to repeatedly, even when you’re not listening critically. Things start happening immediately, with a snare sidestick hit floating in the air. As the cymbals fade out at 1:23 (they should dissolve ever so gently to black), listen for the print-through on the master tape just before Shelby’s voice comes back in.
Why is a track from such a poorly recorded album (Headquarters) on this list? Crazy as it may sound, a bad recording can serve to separate a good system from a fantastic one. The more overall musicality your system has, the better it will do playing the worst records in your collection. Perfectly recorded vocals are low-hanging fruit; nearly any audio system will do a passable to great job with them. But put a compressed Monkees record on the turntable and see what happens. You might be surprised.