Music to Test Your System, Blow Your Mind – And Blow Your House Down:
Audio enthusiasts sometimes like to show off their systems. Audio dealers must show off their systems – it's an essential part of selling. So, what music shows off audio systems and what do they show off?
The female voice is perhaps one of the best "tests" of an audio system's midrange. We tangentially touched on this in an earlier post when we were talking about the Amanda McBroom live concert at CES some years ago. As we noted, the amplified nature of the concert was disturbing to me because it did not sound like the Sheffield Amanda disc that I had been listening to. But, when she put down the mic and there was nothing but air between Amanda's vocal and my ears – it was breathtaking. And what I had been listening to. So, if you're looking for something that shows the glory of a female cabaret singer at the height of her power, "Growing Up in Hollywood Town" is the "must have" disc. There are those who prefer the original black vinyl version, which due to the nature of Direct-to-Disc is now out of print. However, some copies can still be found on Amazon.
So, that's your disc if you're looking for a pop vocal, but what about classical? Let it be said up front that for me, Performance + Sound = Impact. That is, something does not have to be crashing loud to be an impressive demonstration. There are a few that raise goose bumps for me and have proved effective as "knock 'em dead" demos. If opera is your thing, the Countess's aria, "Dove Sono" from Act 3 of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" is an exquisite match of sadness, passion and intimacy. Lisa Della Casa's rendition on the London complete opera, headlined by Cesare Siepi as Figaro and presided over by Erich Kleiber, is one a really good one.
Keeping with classical female voice, another choice I'd have on hand would be almost any good recording of Schubert's "Ave Maria." It is truly an otherworldly experience. A good recording might make a believer of the most devout atheist. Put it through a surround-sound processor and you've really got something memorable. An "oldie but goodie," one of my favorite versions is a 1936 recording by the great contralto, Marian Anderson. It can be found, on Marian Anderson.
Looking for a true "Blow the House Down" cut? Going back to opera, Donner's hammer strike at the end of Wagner's "Das Rheingold" should do it. The Decca (London in the U.S.) John Culshaw engineered 1958 Georg Solti, et al recording is still considered one of the most impressive versions.
Going from a conclusion to an overture, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" is a standard and staple for a reason. Virtually any good recording using real cannons delivers jaw-dropping sound. And, most amplifiers clip. Antal Dorati gives this piece – and several others – dramatic and memorable performances Tchaikovsky: 1812 Festival Overture, Capriccio Italien / Beethoven: Wellington's Victory.
Want to make that impact with a rock piece? Try, Guns n' Roses' "November Rain" -- any 30 seconds or the entire 8:53 provides a massive sound display and superb performance. The drums are especially impactful in this fully passionate piece. It can be found on GnR's Use Your Illusion I.
Want quieter rock? "The Last Waltz" was The Band's last concert and the theme is a marvel. Starting with Garth Hudson's organ intro and going to Robbie Robertson's dual-neck guitar, this piece shows how low your system can go and the crispness of transients. The lilting melody will also make you smile – or hum along.
How about purity of the single voice in a pop genre? Joan Baez was a wonder when she first became known. Her specialty was old English ballads and many would say that those were her best efforts. If you or those you're trying to impress, like this kind of music, "The Cherry Tree Carol" or "Silver Dagger" will bring a smile of wonder to your face. Both can be found – along with many other classics – on The First Lady Of Folk 1958-1961 [ORIGINAL RECORDINGS REMASTERED] 2CD SET.
Prefer to make your impact with a male voice? My choice is James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. It is intimate, forceful and fun. James joins you in your room for a personal performance.
Can a single instrument be made to deliver that kind of impact? My vote would be yes. True, it may require a bit more attention on the part of the listener, but a well played and recorded solo cello can be an eye-opening experience. Two works centuries apart define that for me: the Bach Cello Suite Number 1 and the Kodaly "Unaccompanied 'Cello Sonata, Op. 8" provide a virtually hypnotic experience. Either of these two works, again well played and recorded, will show a system off – or up to a fare thee well. The Rostropovich recording of the complete set, Bach: Cello Suites, is masterful and wondrously recorded. Yo-Yo Ma: Solo includes the Kodaly and works by Mark O'Connor, Bright Sheng, David Wilde and Alexander Tcherepnin. While all are remarkable, the Kodaly is mesmerizing.
We don't want to neglect jazz. The Modern Jazz Quartet was a paragon of musical virtue and innovation. The John Lewis score for the Roger Vadim movie, "No Sun in Venice" is revealing. Fascinating and haunting, it delivers immediacy and provides several spots often difficult for an audio system to reproduce well. It is available at Amazon in both vinyl and CD: No Sun In Venice (US Release).
In addition to being an instrumental form, jazz is a vocal one. One disc has just come to my attention. "Feel the Rhythm" features the singing of a woman known simply as "Daria" and backed by small jazz ensemble. The disc includes a few works of the singer's own creation as well a covers of Sting's "Fragile" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luiza." Feel the Rhythm provides what may appear to be an oxymoron: quiet impact.
Every musical genre has real homeruns. This is merely a smattering of the music that can be found, played, enjoyed – and yes, shown off. It's a favorite game of audio fans.
Enjoy & Good Listening,