There has been a huge amount of correspondence on the TNT forum about reviewing equipment and what to look out for. Having vaguely tried to describe things like *timing* and *dynamics* I came to the conclusion that the only way out of this was to put down a list of the records I use when assessing equipment.
All but one of the records are common and easily obtained and I like to think good music to boot. They're almost all rock - I'll let the classical buffs take that one on. I also hope Lucio will allow this to be a work in progress for me to add to, so that budding audiophiles can have a reference. I'll also add that these are snippets mainly designed to find pretty glaring faults. Long term listening with all my favourite music is the only way to get the full picture.
This is the killer. I remember bringing this home and playing it on my Gyro and wondering what the hell was going on. The whole album is tricky but on this track the Gyro just fell apart at the first attempt. It starts fairly easily, tinny chopped guitar doing percussion duties while tinny violins play. OK so far, then the weird drum beat cuts in, an off beat accordion, vocals - yuk! Next day I took it off to a friends house and played it on his LP12, it suddenly made sense. I spent the rest of the day fiddling about with the Gyro and now it plays it OK - just... 80% of turntables and 90% of CD players will screw this up, if yours doesn't - if you can happily tap your feet and you don't need to look for the rhythm, then timing is simply not an issue in your system.
Two stand out tracks here. Firstly 'Breed'. This begins with the usual distorted guitar, thrashing chords. It builds as wave after wave of drumming and guitar comes in then climaxes in a crashing beat. This needs to be played loud - very. You should feel the swell of the music come and get you and make your heart race. If it doesn't time right it won't work, and it'll fall flat if your system is short on dynamics. Please note - just because it's loud doesn't mean that you have good dynamics, any cheapo system will play loud, but the crescendo will not work without the slamming rhythm having the contrast between the loud and quiet at every beat - try it. As an example a Shure V15 pulls this off perfectly, an Ortofon MC 20 Supreme is just too nice and lacking in dynamics.
Second track is 'Something in the Way'. This is the last on side two and is basically Cobain and guitar. He is very close miked and compressed, producing huge sibilant energy. Your cartridge will either track this or splash the sound right across the soundstage. It should sound edgy, it doesn't on CD and so it simply doesn't work for me. I have a new V15, a fantastic groove hugger and it hangs on in there, very few others do.
This has a lovely fruity bass line that runs up and down and will make many systems sing at certain notes, ported speakers especially. The Vocal is also well recorded and should sound natural.
This track has very deep clean bass, but each note stops very abruptly. This is very difficult to reproduce, as speakers that go really low are often big resonant boxes that simply don't stop when the note does! Likewise every other part of the chain is tested to the full. If it's done right the end of each note should sound like all the bass in the room is being sucked back into the speakers in a millisecond, leaving only silence, rather like a tape dropout. The only time this has worked in my system was with a Goldring Excel VX cartridge - sadly missedL
I could pick almost any track here, but on this one the 'dub' element of clanky bass and simultaneous drum made my Goldring Elite hop right out of the groove even at 2 grms! Sort of a Reggae equivalent to Telarc's cannons...
Interesting one this. As Madonna sings - 'He's not a lover anymore', she says - 'He's not in love with her anymore'. The level of this spoken part slightly increases as the record continues so you should hear it and what she says clearly, the word to watch out for is "He's" which gets swallowed in the mix. When comparing two components one will let you do this earlier in the record than the other and this will have the better dynamics - the loud singing doesn't mask the spoken word - and the better definition - the words can not just be heard but picked out and understood.
Try 'Blue Rondo a'laTurk'. Here the cymbal on the left should have body and size. Cymbals are big bits of beaten metal and should sound like a musical dustbin-lid! They don't ever go tizz! Joe Morello plays this with different emphasis on each strike, the antithesis of a drum machine... Each track should time beautifully, the Sax should be breathy but with the reed clearly heard. Snare drum should sound tight skinned and back in the mix etc etc. The drum effects on 'Take Five' should sound like the drum is on the left with the echo sweeping back from a distant wall to the right.
Tape dropouts are a great test of speed because they last a split second and make a period of total silence in a piece. To get the effect the system must stop very rapidly to a low noise floor. 3 minutes 30 seconds into this piece there is a biggie. It is at a pause in the music so might be deliberate but if so it's very clumsy. The effect is as if all sound in the room has been sucked back into the speakers. When I first heard this both my wife and I jumped up thinking something had blown in the hi-fi - it's that dramatic. As it's such a familiar piece and you'll have heard it a million times on trannies and the like it's a double surprise.
I've included this for those who want to buy a test disk. Take this when you audition stuff at the hi-fi shop and watch the staff blanche... It's all acoustic stuff, unprocessed and clear, with comprehensive notes on what to listen for. The technical section is a bit easy, anything that plays the torture tracks in the above list will sail through it, but as a test of music it's very, very hard. As the sounds are unamplified they should sound natural and so resonances are very easy to pick up.
When I first bought this record 15 years ago I really wondered what they were talking about half the time, now a lot of time effort and money down the line I get most of it, but it picks apart even the best system. How's about this as an example - an organ piece where you're expected to hear the difference in distance from the mike (9 to 14 metres) of each pipe! On my system I can hear the depth but not of each separate pipe, and I wonder if a system that did pick them out would rattle the windows as mine does? The recording is superb with real natural depth, just a shame so much of the music is so dreadful :-)
Over the years there have been many technical test records, but recently the supply has dried up. This is a new recording done in conjunction with Len Gregory 'The Cartridge Man'. There's no music, this is purely designed to test the technical parameters of your arm/cartridge and help in set up.
For a reviewer it gives an objective insight, which I use for any cartridge review. It must be said that as so often in hi-fi, sailing through all the tests doesn't guarantee excellent sound any more than a poor performance guarantees a poor sound, but if a cartridge mistracks it sounds bad and ruins records.
It checks system noise, balance and phase, but the most useful sections are those concerned with tracking in which a 300 Hz tone is played at higher and higher amplitudes. On side one these run at +12, +14, +16 and +18 dB. On my SME IV my new Shure V15 sailed through the first two levels, needed tweaking of both tracking weight and bias to clear the third whilst the +18 dB spat the stylus off the record!
This is a reasonable enough result as no record will have this last level and the + 16dB is as much as you can expect, but it was easy using this to get the bias and tracking weight spot-on - very difficult to do with a normal record. It'll also let you know what the resonance of the arm/cartridge is, and whether you need to add damping. All in all an excellent piece of kit and as important as a stylus balance for getting settings correct.
Copyright © 1999 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com