Whenever I attend a show that features audio demos—be it CEDIA, CES, or any of the numerous regional audio shows—I make a point of cataloging the tracks I hear. The best demos use music that's carefully selected to highlight one or more desirable attribute of the system, and in that context, it's always a bonus if I am already familiar with the tracks.
Over time, I've developed a list of my favorite tracks that test the mettle of any audio system. It's the music I listen to when I review speakers and audio gear, and it's definitely not the usual selection of audiophile favorites from Diana Krall, Pink Floyd, The Eagles, etc.
Because there is such a wide variety of music—and musical taste—in the world, any list of 10 tracks can't please everyone. For this list, I gravitated toward tracks that I'm intimately familiar with, which makes them useful as tools for subjective speaker and sound-system evaluation. I hope you will post a comment with your own top-10 list of test tracks, which could well be totally different from mine.
On a final note, I'm a big fan of listening to whole albums. All of these cuts come from great albums, so if you get a chance, check out the other tracks. For now, here's my list:
1. Sly & Robbie: "Safe Space" from Free Dub
The brilliance of Sly & Robbie is the way they work in tandem to create infectious dub-reggae rhythms and grooves. Typically, their production is as top-notch as their musicianship—these guys are among the best reggae artists in the world when it comes to playing drums and a bass.
Free Dub is a gift of an album; it's straight-up old-school Sly & Robbie in a modern recording that is immaculate in terms of production. It’s dub heaven, and don't be surprised if you wind up listening to the entire album several times in a row. "Safe Space" is a modern classic, a perfect Sly & Robbie jam, and a killer test track. Listen for judicious use of echo, panning, and reverb that creates the distinctive Jamaican dub vibe—systems that image accurately will have a distinct advantage in getting the best effect out of it.
2. Daft Punk: "Disc Wars" from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack album
A staple of my speaker and subwoofer reviews, "Disc Wars" contains an onslaught of deep bass that has, on occasion, brought beefy amplifiers to their knees. The production is exceptional, blending Daft Punk's electronica with The London Symphony to great effect.
When the bass comes rolling in, it's a beast. My whole room starts to physically vibrate—not rattle, mind you; it's more like a small earthquake. I can literally feel the weight of the air in the room and the power pouring through.
Reproducing reference levels with this track, and rendering it to its full potential (in terms of bass extension and dynamics) requires an extraordinarily stout system. "Disc Wars" is the very definition of a great test track, but its effect is lost on smaller speakers that can't handle the bottommost octave (16 to 32 Hz).
3. Tones on Tail: "Real Life/Rain" from Everything!
Here are two tracks from Tones on Tail's compilation Everything! that together form one 13-minute super-track, so be sure to play them in sequence. I have marveled at the musicianship of Tones on Tail since I first heard the band on my first "serious" stereo system. I hate to keep count, but that was 25 years ago—time sure does fly.
Tones on Tail recorded these two tracks back in 1983, but they were remastered in 1998 for the release of Everything!, and they sound great. These selections are as rock and roll as I'm going to get with this list, featuring some fine distorted electric guitar and bass work. In "Real Life," pay particular attention to the quality of the recording, how the acoustic guitar fills out the edges of the soundstage and frame the vocals. You won’t need a sub to hear these tracks at their best, just a good pair of speakers that don’t get congested in the mid-bass region during challenging segments.
4. John Rutter: "Requiem: Pie Jesu" from Rutter: Requiem, Five Anthems (Turtle Creek Chorale)
While not my cup of tea by any means, this track is a great test for any serious subwoofer or a truly full-range speaker system. Wide dynamic range is the name of the game here, so you'll want to turn the volume way up to feel the full impact of the recording.
The highlight of the track is an exquisitely captured organ that hits 20 Hz four times and 16 Hz once. Mind you, every organ note in the performance is a pleasure to hear, and the singing is heavenly as well. Properly rendered, "Requiem: Pie Jesu" conveys the sense of grandeur and awe that the composition calls for.
5. Snoop Dogg: "California Roll" from Bush
Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams, and Stevie Wonder are great together on "California Roll," a song that features a catchy funk groove and sounds excellent. However, the bass line can easily become bloated when played on a system that doesn't handle low-frequency reproduction well. You need a flat response that also digs deep to experience this track properly—as you'd expect from a Snoop Dogg joint.
There's plenty to appreciate in "California Roll," from the superstar vocal talent to Pharrell's truly impeccable production. Listen for Stevie's harmonica, it's a key element of the track.
6. Thievery Corporation: "Samba Tranquille" from The Mirror Conspiracy
I can't count how many times I've heard this track play in the background while dining in a restaurant, and yet "Samba Tranquille" deserves an attentive listen. What I enjoy about it—aside from the chill beat—is the deep, almost ethereal bass line that comes in at the halfway point. If your system is properly dialed in, all the recorded elements of this smooth groove come through in perfect proportion.
There's a lot of delicacy to Thievery's mix, but it does not employ any gimmicks—for example, there's no panning. Listen to the individual elements and then appreciate the whole; it should sound "just right" on a good system.
7. Meat Beat Manifesto: "Chimie Du Son" from Answers Come in Dreams
An absolute speaker-wrecker of a track, "Chimie Du Son" is a top choice for a "turn it up and let the system sort it all out" test of frequency response and plain old power.
No joke, this is likely the most sonically intense track on the list in terms of the sheer energy you feel when it plays. Listening to this track ofn a system with deep bass extension and plenty of dynamic headroom is as much a physical experience as it is aural. If your subs are up to it, you'll marvel at intricate use of deep bass near the end of the composition.
"Chimie Du Son" is filled with swirling sounds and subharmonic rumbles, and the mix expands into a huge, detailed soundfield when using a surround upmixer. It's especially interesting to hear the layering and the synthetic textures contained in the track. If your speakers are top-notch and set up properly, it will totally immerse you.
8. Air: "Run" from Talkie Walkie
I first heard Air's "Run" at the 2014 New York Audio Show. I was demoing a system by Gamut, a Danish company that makes some truly great-sounding speakers as well as the electronics to drive them. I was blown away by what I heard at the show.
When I got home and played the track again, I was struck by how much of what I loved about the Gamut system's sound was actually baked into the song's production—it turns out that most decent (or better) systems will sound great playing "Run."
If your speakers image well, "Run" rewards an attentive listen. Synth pads create an ambient wash that envelops you, while a music-box melody and a few detuned synth notes guide you through the journey. The vocals are a bit robotic, and almost spoken rather than sung; they anchor the track quite well by floating dead center as the rest of the instruments envelop them.
Turn up the volume on a full-range system, and an underlying subharmonic texture will emerge from the bass. It's a great track that is equally intriguing played loud or quiet, and it remains an compelling listen even on speakers with limited bass extension.
9. Boards of Canada: "You Could Feel The Sky" from Geogaddi
Masters of deeply layered psychedelic electronica, Boards of Canada make music that reveals a system's ability to render a detailed and enveloping soundfield. Geogaddi is a super-solid listening experience from beginning to end, but "You Could Feel The Sky" is one of the best tracks from the album.
There's a lot of texture and nuance packed into this piece. It evolves from a mix of glitch, noise, and percussion to an ambient and almost meditative blend of a male chant, an ethereal chorus, and ghostly, almost-subliminal voices. This band knows how to produce music that truly surrounds you—even when it's played through a two-channel system. Moreover, this track demands multiple attentive listening sessions, such is its complexity.
10. Bassnectar: "Science Fiction" from Into the Sun
I saved the best for last, at least as far as what I enjoy hearing when pushing a system to its limits. (Of course, if you don't love electronic music, you probably won't agree with my preference.) It's a downtempo, trip-hop, dubstep jam that offers up a grand soundfield, epic visceral electronic bass, and a wide variety of interesting synthesized musical textures. On a system with robust dynamics, you'll get a body buzz from feeling all those textures.
"Science Fiction" is guaranteed to disturb the neighbors when blasted at maximum volume through a competent surround system. The way to listen to Bassnectar is to turn up the subs, engage the surround upmix, and sit back to enjoy the trip.
Spotify Playlist Link