Music Reviews and System Tests from the Defiant Audiophile
In a recent blog post, I detailed my nearly year-long experience rebuilding my listening room. Since its resurrection it has provided hours of entertainment and some very satisfying listening proving, to me at least, that even a “budget” dedicated listening environment can render recorded musical performances well enough to recreate the live experience.
Of course, this relies on careful speaker placement, effective room correction and capable electronics, but most of all the so-called “suspension of disbelief” has to come from the source material. A poorly recorded or badly engineered track will sound “bad” on even the most sophisticated audiophile system, whereas some carefully recorded tracks can make even a budget system sound its best. Of course, even the best recordings will suffer from being compressed into MP3’s, played through cheap earbuds, or streamed at insufficient bandwidth, so all the links in the reproduction chain have to be maintained to at least a minimum “audiophile” standard.
But if the reader has already assembled a reasonably competent music system, then all that remains is to feed it with some of the best source material that can extract the maximum musical enjoyment for his efforts. Hence, I have assembled the details on some of the recordings and sources for them that I have found to be the most satisfying in my listening room.
Before diving into the material, allow me to also add that I have recently spent time organizing, playing, and digitizing my meager collection of vinyl records, most of which date back to the time when vinyl was the only consumer source available. Moody Blues, Aztec Two Step, Ofra Harnoy, and Herb Alpert are among some of the platters that date back over 50 years. Some have become victims of warping, groove wear from endless playing with cheap styluses, or clicks-pops-scratches, but many were only ever played after careful cleaning with Diskwasher D3 Fluid on my old Thorens TD-160 equipped with an Ortofon M15E Super cartridge and handled and stored with utmost care.
None-the-less, at the risk of offending the greater half of the audiophile community, I appreciate the historical significance of some of these records, especially those that were never re-issued as CD’s, but overall when it comes to the recordings that really make my system sing, digital sources prevail. Perhaps a thoughtful discussion regarding music sources and systems will follow.
With that, let’s dive into the music.
The first recording I want to recommend is one that I have
used for years to evaluate the effect of various listening room modifications.
It is especially handy when trying to balance bass and treble response and for
judging how well the system can keep individual element separated and not allow
Christy Baron – Take This Journey
This 2002 Chesky Records release benefits first, from being the work of a label known for fanatical devotion to the engineering details and second, for featuring exceptionally talented artists.
Here both are in full splendor, as Ms. Baron can convey emotions in just a phrase, and her smooth and effortless delivery just coats the room like butterscotch.
The band that accompanies her on this album matches her voice beautifully and the bass playing on Track 6 – Bitter With The Sweet, so expertly delivered by David Finck, juxtaposes Ms. Baron’s voice in a way that can expose an unbalanced audio system in an instant. Finck also wrote two of the songs on this album, Gentle Journey and The Way He Captured Me showing off his obvious writing talent.
Mastered from a 96kHz/24 Bit recording made in St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea, NYC by recording engineer Barry Wolifson (also known for his 1990 engineering work on Present…. by Pressed Meat & The Smallgoods) the performer’s presence on the soundstage of this CD is truly palpable. Christy Baron’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed is a master class in how to cover a popular tune and yet make it your own. Her voice reverberates off the walls and pews and recreates the recording space in uncanny accuracy as it flows from the speakers.
Dick Hyman – From The Age Of Swing
Keith O. Johnson, A.K.A. Professor Johnson, has dedicated much of his professional energy to what Stereophile’s Gordon Holt once described as “intimate (molecular-level) knowledge of the [recording] process”.
Frustrated with existing technology of his day, Johnson built his own microphones and mixers, and heavily modified stock tape recorders to extract every last detail of live performances.
With the advent of digital recording The Professor drove the technology with custom designed circuits and revolutionary techniques.
So, it’s no surprise that when you partner that level of devotion and expertise with a performer that maintains an equally high standard in his dedication to the piano, the resultant recording will be spectacular. And so, it is!
If this 1994 release of Swing era standards recorded at Concert Hall A, State University Of New York, doesn’t sound exceptionally live and “present” when you hear it, then there is something seriously wrong with the system you are listening to. When I recently played Track 12, Mean to Me, Dick Hyman’s little intro made me wonder how a whole grand piano could fit into my modest listening room and leave room for couch and ottoman. The recording is THAT good.
The rest of the session players meld so smoothly with Hyman’s playing that as each take their turn in Moonglow you just get carried away by the swing and almost don’t realize that it’s individual players and instruments, but rather just one magical treat. Not to slight Dick Hyman’s performance in any way. He provides the anchor for the band and his playing on Rose Room for instance is world-class perfect. The list of contributors is featured right on the cover in large type, and for good reason. Rarely do you find that much talent assembled in one place at one time and recorded by one of the best engineers that ever lived. If you need more proof, see:
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
This album has received so many awards and so much recognition, it’s almost superfluous for me to include it here.
Norah Jones is such a comfortably natural performer it seems as if she was born to sing. After nine Grammys and sales of 50 million plus records it would seem that the world agrees.
She is the daughter of a legendary musician and sitar master, Ravi Shankar. Old timers might remember the name from his association with the Beatles’ George Harrison, whom he tutored on sitar for a brief period, developing a strong friendship.
On this ubiquitous Blue Note album, Ms. Jones’ singing and piano are brought into such fine focus that on a good system she seems to appear right in the front and center of the room, piano and all. The engineering, from studio to pressing, is first-rate, and that may be part of the reason that this album has sold 27 million copies world-wide.
In my listening room, the title track, Track 5 – Come Away With Me and Track 12 – Nightingale have become defining standards for determining the “correctness” of the room setup. On both tracks you should be transported to the venue with Ms. Jones solidly cemented on stage in front of you. Short of an actual test disk, this recording is concrete proof of proper speaker phasing or perhaps, an unfortunate lack thereof.
Jeff Beck – Emotion & Commotion
Jeff Beck has played guitar with more legendary bands and performers than seems possible. Since the early sixties, Beck has lent his talent to numerous bands and formed his namesake band The Jeff Beck Group in 1967.
Here in this 2010 award winning album Beck plays with such diverse styles that it’s hard to believe it’s all him.
Listen to track 2 – Hammerhead and compare it to the cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow just 2 tracks later and see if you don’t agree.
He bends the guitar so expertly here that you think the neck was made of rubber. The clarity of tone exercises the limits of your speakers as the notes float in and out of the transition between the midrange and tweeter of most crossovers. If that design is weak, you will know it because the upper and lower notes will sound as if they came from two different guitars rather than the one expertly played instrument recorded here.
Martin Taylor – Artistry
In a completely different guitar album from the one above, the no-less talented Martin Taylor extracts an incredible tone from his favorite acoustic jazz guitar.
Influenced by one-time bandmate and idol Django Reinhardt whom Taylor replaced on tour with Stéphane Grappelli, he recorded this album in just 3 days in 1992 with no overdubs.
My favorite cut on this disk is Track 5 – Georgia On My Mind the classic Hoagy Carmichael tune, played here with such emotion it instantly reminds me of the intensity with which Ray Charles often performed it.
As Taylor’s fingers slide along the wire-wound strings the harmonic squeak that results is very often heard on guitar recordings and sounds so natural here that it becomes as much a part of the performance as the plucked strings excited into vibration by Taylor’s signature fingerstyle technique.
Poor tweeters often fail to reproduce this sound accurately and in especially well engineered recordings such as this one can develop an unnatural glassy hard edge, the glare of which then distracts from the tone of the strings. In severe cases, it sounds more like nails on a chalkboard than fingertips sliding on nickel wire.
Chris Botti – To Love Again: The Duets
Chris Botti takes some hard hits from some detractors because of his “obvious pandering to the God of record sales.” So, this is to say that he is to be criticized for making a living? By all accounts, a very good one at that. “Too smooth,” some say, and yet nominated for 5 Grammys and winner for his album Italia.
On this 2005 disk, Botti performs with notables such as Sting and Gladys Knight and it is just that extra touch of “smoothness” that allows his playing to complement their vocal performances rather than compete with them.
His playing is so elegant and rewarding that within a few tracks I was totally immersed, unable to tear myself away from the speakers.
On Track 3, he partners with the perfect foil, Paula Cole, to perform a beautiful passionate rendition of My One And Only Love and his trumpet is made to sound just a silky as her voice.
Therein also lies the challenge for the system that attempts to reproduce this impeccably engineered album. It’s all too easy for the trumpet to be reproduced as “brassy” or the vocal as “nasal” in yet another test for the crossovers and the interaction of the midrange and tweeter drivers. I once heard a pair of Klipsch Heresey speakers that made female vocals sound a lot like a trumpet would, exhibiting a common weakness of horn loaded drivers in general, and my dislike for those particular speakers specifically. These were early generation Heresey speakers, mind you, so I cannot comment what a current pair might do with this album.
When he accompanies Gladys Knight on Lover Man, its upbeat tempo and her soulful singing combine with a few Hammond riffs to produce a thoroughly satisfying hit, which the album follows with a Botti instrumental-only solo on I’ll Be Seeing You in which his high notes are so pure that ANY weaknesses in the speakers will be glaringly revealed. Is this album more of the “Pop” that critics fault Botti for? Maybe, but will it exercise the system it’s played on? Definitely!
Lisbeth Scott – Dove
There’s a good chance that you have heard Lisbeth Scott’s voice and may not know it, as she has been a contributor to many of the most popular movies. A multi-facetted artist, she produces, writes, plays, and sings with equal aplomb.
On this album, dove from 2002, Ms. Scott has produced a what might be a “sleeper.”
My favorite track, Push The River, when played on a music system that isn’t capable of full-range reproduction like an MP3 Player or a small Bluetooth speaker, isn’t unappealing, it’s just not captivating.
But, played in the listening room, it develops its hidden potential as soon as you realize that much of the musical content and punctuation is far below the frequencies that most small speakers can hope to reproduce. With this content revealed, this composition which she sings constantly shifting from her full range lower register up into her falsetto, is filled with weighty echoing bass notes that suggest the might and grandeur of the river she is singing about.
As her voice shifts up and down in range, vaguely reminiscent of yodeling, the speakers’ midrange driver is given a serious workout. All-the-while, those thundering bass notes require exceptional bass response to reproduce. The risk here, of course, comes from playing it on a system that, lacking sufficient clean power reserves, will just make these notes into a booming soggy mush that will obliterate her voice. A good system will keep these two elements distinctly separate and allow the full dynamic impact of this track to fill your senses. The album contains a number of other musical gems that can only be discovered on a good system. Played on a set of inexpensive computer speakers, this album is just OK. Played on a balanced full range audio system, this CD becomes a rich complex musical experience to be enjoyed over and over
Julie London – Julie Is Her Name
Old-timers will possibly recognize Julie London from the very popular 70’s TV Series, Emergency!, in which she played the LA Rampart Hospital nurse, Dixie McCall.
Here, much earlier in her career, she is recorded in 1955 at age 29, mostly in mono, on 34 tracks, some of which are less than two minutes long. With minimal accompaniment, her voice is pure, stripped down, luscious 50’s lounge singer. Think of Helen Forrest without all the big band production that always backed her.
Even though this album is almost all recorded monophonically, with just a few late “bonus” stereo tracks at the end, the combination of elegantly simple jazz guitar backing her perfect “period” voice makes for an intensely personal listening experience. It’s obvious that most of these tracks were resurrected from ancient, and possibly noisy master tapes that were used to cut the lacquer masters for the original 1955 LP.
Re-issued as late as 2009 as a 2 record LP set, and in this 2019 Japanese CD version, the lasting popularity of this album is testament to the timelessness of Julie London’s voice. Japanese audiophiles, who go to legendary lengths to reproduce music, consider this album a fundamental demonstration of the capabilities of their sometimes astronomically prices systems. Why? Because this recording is perhaps one of the best examples of pre-digital, fully analog recording and mastering. The often-used RCA 74b Junior Velocity Ribbon Microphone or the ubiquitous Shure Model 55 “Elvis” microphone produced a signature sound all but impossible to re-create today and puts Ms. London so intimately close in this recording that you may want to be sure you are well groomed before you hit “play.”
Greg Brown – Dream Café
If you want to be sure that your “sound” is recorded and engineered exactly as you desire, then maybe you should found your own recording studio and record company. That’s what Greg Brown did in 1981 when he started Red House Records that subsequently issued this 1992 CD.
The content of this obscure disk may not appeal to everyone, and his voice and style are, perhaps, an acquired taste, but the quality of the recording is superb.
Greg Brown sings some phrases in a breathy baritone that taxes the capability of most speakers that strain to reproduce the “gravel” that punctuates his style.
Track 5 – You Can Watch Me is a perfect example, as it takes the accuracy of any lower midrange driver to task. Properly reproduced, you can feel his breath. The much more “folksy” Laughing River is still intimately present due to the quality of the recording. The harmonica bridge just sounds live and real, and as the instrument’s name implies, is rich in the all-important “harmonics” that give it its characteristic sound.
Some backing vocals on this and a few other tracks from Kate McKenzie should blend with Greg’s voice and yet appear as distinctly separate. This is clearly in evidence again in Track 7 – You Drive Me Crazy which has such a variety of instrumentation, thumping bass, honky-tonk piano, harmonica, and their two voices, that many systems will just smear it all together as a pudding of sound. Especially difficult to faithfully reproduce are the bass notes that provide the driving rhythm as Mr. Brown starts to sing. If the woofer (or subwoofer in some cases) isn’t perfectly integrated into the speaker’s crossover, the bass well either become lost in the mix or, if the room has standing waves, just pound your eardrums obscuring all detail of what else is happening in the recording. So, whether this disk is your cup of tea or not, it can still put a system through some difficult gyrations.
Livingston Taylor – Ink.
Bob Katz. Not the performer, no, that’s Livingston Taylor who is, yes, James Taylor’s brother and quite the artist in his own right.
But who’s Bob Katz? He is the engineer picked by Chesky Records to master this disk because he’s the guy that mastered previous “Audiophile Test Disks” for Chesky that are still used today to qualify audio systems.
This might as well be an audiophile test disk. On Track 1, Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely starts with Taylor whistling into the microphone, an incredibly difficult sound to record and reproduce properly. Here, it’s as if he was standing next to you in a big acoustic space.
The album, fully digitally produced and recorded in 96kHz at 24 Bit depth, is full of just such perfect sonic experiences . Some familiar covers like Baker Street, the Gerry Rafferty tune, take on a character of their own under Taylor’s performance, and the recording quality bring them to life right there in your room. Again, harmonica, hauntingly real and rich with blues squeal and appeal, is so well reproduced on a good system that you can feel the humid breath flowing out the other side of it.
Cheap speakers and inaccurate Digital to Analog Converter chips will take the “haunt” right out of the harmonica and leave a brash jagged skeleton behind that sounds more like a kazoo. Bob wouldn’t approve.
Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters (Expanded Edition)
First, as soon as I dialed up Herbie Hancock’s River” on the Listening Womb stereo streaming from Amazon Music on my Sony Vaio and out through the USB port to the Schiit Modi3 DAC, I could hear the limitations of the MP3 quality stream that Amazon spews. I listen to a lot of piano jazz, and Hancock’s piano just doesn’t shimmer in the upper mid-range as I know it should. But, I was instantly drawn into the music, so I toughed it out. You’ll see why below.
To the music. It’s unfair to start off an album that features guest artists with a cut that stars Norah Jones. Personally, I’m a hopeless sucker for what she sells. Here, on Court And Spark the butterscotch of her first phrase strikes such a contrast to the atonal introduction of Hancock’s keyboard that it seems like lowering yourself into a warm spa on a cold winter’s morning.
The tune continues its soothing mood until later when Wayne Shorter recalls the introduction by use of his squeaky sax during the bridge. Again, Jones is tasked with sanding the burrs off his tone as she continues the familiar lyrics and as a whole, this interpretation of the iconic Joni classic is a very satisfying one.
On track two, when Tina Turner steps up to the mike, I expected something completely different than what I heard. Although I was only vaguely familiar with the song, I was mesmerized by the jazz sensitivity she displayed and immediately concluded that an entire album of Tina Turner singing jazz would be a classic keeper indeed. For her to shelve her iconic hard rocking soul in order to channel the sweetness of Joni gave me an entirely new appreciation for the woman’s art. A fantastic cut backed by musicians that complement both Joni and Tina perfectly.
Both Sides Now, is a foray into what Jazz means to Hancock. Known for his interpretations that often leave just a single thin thread connecting the playing to the original composition, here, he takes the well-known Mitchell classic so far afield that it, for me, is virtually lost. Were I to have heard it untitled, though, I must admit that I would have liked it very well indeed. His band cooperates seamlessly to deliver an appealing tune. It’s just not Both Sides Now to me.
The titular cut featuring Corinne Bailey Rae is stunning! Long a fan of her singing, this track brings the memory of times when this song played on cheap car radio dash speakers as we “cruised” through our post pubescent youth, and yet here it is back; modernized, jazzed up, and yet very true to the original.
The all instrumental Sweet Bird totally belongs to Wayne Shorter. I have not generally been a huge fan of his playing preferring, rather, Houston Person for instance, to Shorter’s often more jagged and staccato sax playing. Yet, here, he excels! His “noodling” near the end of the track produces un-earthly saxophone tones that cannot help but be respected, produced by a virtuoso sax player and adding another dimension to the instrument. Hancock uses his piano as if he were literally teasing and pulling the notes out of him and their collaboration is seamless.
To have Joni Mitchell show up to sing Tea Leaf Prophecy plants such an anchor into the middle of this album as to re-center us, the listeners, in a poured concrete reminder of why we are here in the first place. This IS, after all, a Joni Mitchell album, and by God, here she is to set the standard. I believe that every other artist featured on this album raised their performance a notch knowing that Joni was in the house. Like Tina Turner here, Joni Mitchell proves her immutable talent at crossing over to jazz as seamlessly as if she had been doing it all her life.
After such a stunning line up so far, the producers must have felt that we needed a little breather, a respite from the giants, so they threw in “Solitude” to let the mind relax for five minutes before they make Luciana Souza stretch it to its limits with Amelia.
I think that Souza’s interpretation of this more obscure Mitchell work is better than the original. Maybe it’s the sensitive interjection of Shorter’s sax accompaniment that interplays with Souza’s voice as in a vocal duet, or maybe it’s that she just carries the tune and the tone in such a powerful manner that you can’t take your ears away from it. The engineers mixed the track so skillfully as to make it appear that Souza and Shorter are occupying the same space at the same time. Masterful.
The next two cuts, Nefertiti and The Jungle Line don’t do it for me. I don’t think they belong on this, otherwise, classic and mostly lyrical album. I know jazz listeners are supposed to keep an open mind and be willing to stretch their comfortable envelope, but I’d be happier to do that on a different album at another time, not in the middle of an otherwise solid Joni Mitchell vibe. Cohen is a respectable artist in his own right and I respect his work. It’s the producers that I disagree with here, placing his narrative musings into this album.
When Hancock returns to Joni Mitchell with his instrumental version of one of my favorite songs, A Case Of You, the album returns to its mission. This track might be his most sensitive piano of the whole album. He doesn’t take the melody to Mars or try to impress us with unrelated ramblings. He just provides us with some solid jazz playing that never lets us forget the essence of the classic tune we came here to hear. Even Shorter is reserved and plays the tune with plenty of interpretation, and although he approaches the ceiling a couple of times, he keeps it in the room. This is a superb classic instrumental jazz cover.
The last track ends the album with an upbeat vibe that makes you just want to take a road trip in a fast car with a good stereo down to Mexico. Sonya Kitchell does her own thing here but never forgets Joni with her phrasing and intonation. Another solid winning track.
This is one of the most satisfying jazz albums I have ever heard. I am going to add it to my CD collection so I can hear it in lossless original quality. This is a review of the “Expanded” 2017 re-issue that includes extra material not issued on the original. In my view, the extras are worth the extra few dollars. Never mind that the 2007 10 track issue was one of only two jazz albums that ever won the “Album of the Year” (2008) overall Grammy. That’s no small potatoes.
Blue Coast Music dot Com
The disks I have reviewed above encompass source material ranging from the analog-only fifties, to DDD recordings that do not see an analog circuit until they pour through some hopefully well-engineered DAC and out through your speakers. All are examples of performance or engineering artistry at its best, in my opinion, and all can demonstrate the capabilities of various systems, speakers, and rooms.
There are many long-standing debates about the superiority of one format over another and whether some voodoo magic accessory provides enough improvement to justify its cost. One of the fiercest debates is the now nearly 40-year old analog vs. digital discussion, with devotees of either medium launching near rabid defenses of their favorite source.
I have decided to take a side and throw a lengthy and potentially sleep-inducing defense of my preference out for your consideration in a sister article on this blog titled Squiggles or Pits? and encourage you to wade in.
Meanwhile, I hope that we can all agree on the premise I proposed at the start of this entry, that badly engineered, poorly miked and mixed, haphazardly equalized, or overproduced source material will disappoint the critical listener, no matter how carefully assembled the playback system might be.
Toward that end, I have tried to represent, here, examples of the exact opposite in performances and recordings. I have assembled reviews of source material that will improve the enjoyment of nearly any audio system and make great systems sound their best and deliver the level of satisfaction to the listener that was anticipated when the big checks were written.
Therefore, I want to add one more recommendation to the list, but one that isn’t a particular recording or artist, but rather a dedicated group of performers and engineers who, together, make every decision based on achieving sonic excellence. In my opinion, one of their greatest contributions to our wonderful hobby is the free dissemination of tools that let you experiment with alternate formats in front of your own speakers or inside your favorite headphones and decide for yourself what format sounds best on YOUR system.
On their website, they offer a painstakingly well recorded track, repeated in nine different resolutions and formats in one huge download. It includes DSD, WAV, FLAC and MQA with encodings that range from “CD Quality” at 44.1kHz/16 Bit all the way to 192/24 and DSD256. Not only does it allow you to directly compare formats on your own system to determine the capabilities of your DAC and see what formats you can support, but it allows you to decide just how deep you want to dip into your wallet, because there’s no sense in paying for higher resolutions than your system can resolve.
For my system and after extensive testing, I find that the 24-bit/96kHhz FLAC recordings are at a level beyond which I just cannot hear any difference, no matter how carefully I audition them.
Most of their releases are not only available as high-res digital downloads, but optionally as Super Audio Compact Disks (SACD) for systems so equipped.
They offer a plethora of styles, genres, and artists, all recorded as “naturally” as possible, often without headphones, overdubs, or digital effects. This is music in pure form and recorded and engineered with love and care for the performances and the process by experienced and dedicated professionals.
And lastly, in the tradition of old-time record shops in Times Square, where, if you were interested in a particular record but just weren’t sure, they had listening booths wherein you could play the record in its entirety through headphones before you committed to buying it. Unlike some other hi-res download sites, Blue Coast Music doesn’t just give you a 30-second snippet of a track you are interested in. Rather, in a pop-up window, they play any track, every track, beginning-to-end, so you can decide for yourself before you buy. If you have a love for good music and decent playback system, I believe Blue Coast Music might give you some material to let you enjoy it a “bit” more. Cheers!