Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Lately I’ve been busy churning out reviews for SoundStage! Access and SoundStage! Hi-Fi, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process. While listening to, evaluating, and comparing audio gear comes naturally -- I’ve been involved in the hobby for 25 years -- I’m relatively new to reviewing that gear, and in the past year I’ve learned a lot about how to write reviews. As a career public servant working in the sciences and regulatory sectors, I’ve done my fair share of technical writing, and that’s helped me in writing the technical sections of my reviews -- but I continue to sharpen my skills in describing, in the Listening sections, what I hear.

An integral part of describing the sound of an audio component is revisiting sounds that the listener-writer is already intimately familiar with. But while the notion of using the listening sessions required to review a component to explore new music sounds nice, it’s not always the best approach. When evaluating gear, I do occasionally try newly discovered or recommended tunes -- but to truly understand how, say, a loudspeaker is performing in my listening room, I mostly need to hear through it music I know.

Diego Estan

If you’ve read some of my reviews, you may have noticed that I tend to re-use certain tracks, many by Canadian artists. (I’m a proud Canadian, eh!) In this article, I explain what it is about some of these tracks that makes them so useful in evaluating various attributes of a speaker’s or subwoofer’s sound. I’ve ripped all of these tracks from CDs to my music server as 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC files -- I play them in the latter format, but here I’ve included the record labels and catalog numbers of the original CDs, so that you can find a copy and compare what I hear with what you hear.

Bass extension and definition

While I wouldn’t call myself a bass-head (my wife unabashedly admits to being one), good-quality, accurate, extended bass is very important to me. This is why I use two active subwoofers (SVS SB-4000s) crossed over to quality minimonitors (Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2s) at a relatively high frequency (130Hz). The pursuit of good bass reproduction is also why I think everyone should at least consider room correction/equalization from 15 to 200-300Hz. When I’m evaluating a loudspeaker’s or subwoofer’s low-frequency performance, I focus on the sound and feel of its bass: its speed, punch, extension, and overall output. Here are three tracks I routinely use to do this.

“Run-Around,” from Blues Traveler’s Four (A&M 31454 0265 2), doesn’t have a lot of bass output, but the speed, pace, and rhythm of the kick drum and bass guitar are great -- it’s a good toe-tapping song. I’m always listening for how “fast” the bass sounds, and how quickly the woofers start and stop. In short, I’m looking for good transient response.

Blues Traveler and Eagles

I also often use a concert recording, “Hotel California,” from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (Geffen GESSD 24725). This track is useful for the great quantity of bass it contains, as well as the quality of that bass -- it’s both punchy and goes deep. I focus on the degree to which I feel in my chest the punch or slam, aka bass tightness, and on how much I feel the bass in my seat and legs, aka bass extension.

I also make judicious use of hip-hop, not a genre I casually listen to, for evaluating bass extension down to the lowest octave of the audioband (20-40Hz). When evaluating subwoofers, I’ll typically listen to “She Will,” from Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV (Cash Money B0015550-02) -- it has ultra-low-frequency, liver-massaging, pulsating bass that will cause severe woofer excursion when played loud.

Lil Wayne and The Tragically Hip

An honorable mention before moving on to the midrange: “Ahead by a Century,” from the Tragically Hip’s Yer Favourites (Universal Music Canada 81291). It’s a good test track to hear if your speakers and/or room suffer from boomy or bloaty bass. The bass is a little too hot, or pronounced, relative to the voices and guitars -- if your speakers and/or room suffer from a bass peak between 40 and 80Hz, this track will let you know it. In my EQ’d room, this bass bloat is tolerable or just barely under control -- but when I turn the EQ off, the bass is lumpy, bloated, overwhelming. (Now you know why I so value EQ.)

Midrange transparency and detail

For me, transparency refers to the sense that one is listening through or into a recording. This creates an illusion of reality in the reproduced sounds, as opposed to them sounding like what they actually are: sounds recorded at another time and place, and reproduced by and coming out of a pair of boxes. The more the speakers seem to “disappear,” the more transparent the sound. Although I would argue that detail is linked to transparency, for me it refers to a speaker’s ability to portray and delineate all of the subtle and nuanced sounds a recording contains. Typically, a very transparent speaker also sounds detailed.

The first track I use to evaluate detail and transparency is the title track of Colin James’s National Steel (Warner Music Canada 19634). Through the right system, the sound of James’s acoustic guitar is sublime, with in-the-room realism. I can focus on the leading-edge attacks of his plucked notes, the space around each note, and each note’s slow decay. Through resolving speakers, even the subtle echo and reverb from the recording venue can be heard. James’s voice, too, is well recorded -- I use “National Steel” to hear if I can pick out all of his subtle intonations and raspy inflections, as well as how distinctly separate are the sounds of his voice and guitar.

Colin James Norah Jones AC/DC

Another great album for judging a speaker’s ability to deliver an uncolored, transparent midrange is Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me (EMI Music Canada 5 32088 2). The entire album is so well recorded that every track is perfect for this sort of evaluation. However, I particularly use “Turn Me On” to hear if Jones’s voice is being reproduced with realism, presence, and palpability while still sounding smooth at loud volumes. I focus on the air and space around her voice -- how distinct it appears from the other instruments -- and how high above the speaker plane it appears to be projected. The other attribute I listen for with this track, more than others on this album, is excessive sibilance. The worst example, at 1:27, borders on excessive, which makes it ideal for determining whether or not a speaker tends to overemphasize sibilants. A bright speaker will overemphasize the sibilance and grate at high volumes; a neutral-sounding speaker -- i.e., one that sounds and measures flat, or whose frequency response shows a gentle downward slope from 2kHz to 20kHz -- will present the sibilance as it is on the recording, no more and no less, but won’t irritate you while it’s doing it.

To verify whether a speaker can convey all of a complex recording’s midrange detail, I turn to well-recorded hard rock, typically “Hells Bells,” from AC/DC’s Back in Black (Atlantic A2 16018). I play it loud, to make sure the speaker remains composed and unstrained at high levels, and listen for all the complex layering of rhythm and lead guitars, and whether they sound distinct from the thumping bass of the kick drum, the shimmering decay of the cymbals, and Brian Johnson’s unique vocals.

Treble extension, decay, shimmer and sheen

Treble extension refers to how high in frequency a speaker is perceived to reach, and if those highs sound bright or rolled off. Decay refers to the time it takes for a sounded note to fade away to silence or into the recording’s (or room’s) noise floor. Shimmer or sheen are high frequencies that sound smooth with no compromise of detail.

To evaluate these qualities I often turn to an old favorite: “Black Velvet,” from Alannah Myles (Atlantic A2 81956). Through a pair of good speakers, the cymbal crashes in this track, recorded hard right and left, will image above and beyond the outer edges of the speaker cabinets, with decays that seem to last forever. When evaluating a speaker’s treble response, I focus on the cymbals and listen for delicacy and shimmer, extension both in terms of frequency and physical placement outside the speaker cabinet, and length of decay.

Colin James Alannah Myles

I also turn to another Colin James track, “Find My Home,” from his Rooftops and Satellites (Maple Music MRCD 6521). It opens with subtle, rhythmic brushed cymbals low and to left of center, accompanied by occasional cymbal strokes delivered with attack and sizzle high and to the right of center. Based on the sound of the latter, I can usually tell within the first few seconds if a speaker’s sound is marred by a too-hot tweeter. I also focus on decay, extension, and imaging. Specifically, at 1:20, there’s a gentle cymbal crash at hard right that, through a pair of good speakers, has an initial attack that grabs my attention, its sound then gently spreading past the speaker’s outer edge to decay gently and slowly into oblivion. And, like the Tragically Hip’s “Ahead by a Century,” James’s “Find My Home” is also a good test track for the bass -- if your room and/or speakers produce boomy bass, it will let you know.

Soundstaging and imaging

A soundstage is the overall size, in three dimensions, of the sound an audio system reproduces: how wide, deep, and high the positions of the instruments are. Soundstaging can refer to the relative positions of the individual aural images of instruments and voices within that overall spread. An aural image is the apparent size and shape and position of each instrument or singer on the soundstage. Tighter imaging means smaller, more focused aural images. This aspect of reproduced sound is very important to me, and is one reason I like a pair of good stand-mounted minimonitor speakers, which tend to be better at imaging than floorstanders. I deeply appreciate a pair of speakers with laser-like imaging -- speakers that can carve out the aural image of an instrument or object no bigger than an apple.

My favorite track for evaluating imaging and the accurate positioning of images on a three-dimensional soundstage is “Give Me One Reason,” from Tracy Chapman’s New Beginning (Elektra 61850-2). It begins with guitar plucked left of center; then Chapman’s voice dead center; then the bass-drum line, with subtle cymbal work just to the right and rear of the first guitar; then a second guitar to the extreme right of Chapman’s voice. All of this is occasionally accompanied by two backing singers, the first appearing to the right and behind Chapman at center, followed by the second to the left and behind Chapman. When I listen to this track, I evaluate the size of each image, and its position and size relative to the other images.

Tracy Chapman Blue Rodeo

Another favorite for evaluating soundstaging and imaging is “Bad Timing,” from Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July (Warner Music Canada 93846). Jim Cuddy’s lead vocal is recorded not center stage but off to the right. I pay attention to the size of his vocal image, and the ease with which I can pinpoint its appropriate position in space: about a third of the way from the center to the right speaker. Even more important is Greg Keelor’s backing vocal in the chorus, positioned even farther to the right of Cuddy’s already-right-of-center voice, and quite close to the right speaker. A pair of good speakers should present Keelor’s voice as distinct from the edges of the right speaker’s cabinet and above and to the speaker’s left, to the right of and behind Cuddy. And thanks to Cuddy’s voice, which can sometimes sound edgy when he leans into the mike, I also use this track to hear how smooth a speaker’s midrange is. I’m always on the lookout for that elusive yet beguiling combination of very good midrange presence and buttery smoothness.

Any recommendations?

Now that I’ve shared the type of music I enjoy and use to evaluate speakers and subwoofers, do any of you have any suggestions for more? Drop me an e-mail -- maybe some new reference tracks will make it into my next review.

. . . Diego Estan