Vinyl to Test Your Equipment

When you’re out there looking for new equipment whether its a turntable, speakers, amp or all three, you need to test it. Once again I called on the experience and expertise of the Facebook groups I below too and once again they came through with flying colors. I’ll start with a collection of some general considerations when you are selecting one or more test albums.

There are albums out there that are actual “test” or “demo” albums. Their only job is to test various aspects of your system. For example, the Shure Audio Obstacle Course. The sole purpose of this LP is to test the tracking of you stylus. It uses progressively louder and more challenging sounds to determine if your stylus can continue to stay in contact with the record groove – continue tracking properly. If you play this LP and hear no distortion, then your stylus is tracking properly. Other test LPs include Cleartone Trackability Test Record which tests left and right speaker assignment, anti-skating adjustment, concentric groove for eccentricity check, azimuth adjustment and wow and flutter test. The Hi-Fi News Analogue Test LP is a similar album and is very highly regarded as an entry level audiophile test LP. There are others that you can find at The Needle Doctor .

The focus of this What HiFi article (12 Best Vinyl Test Records) is to explore music albums that can be used to test equipment that you are considering adding to your system.  It gives details as to why each of these discs tests your system and what you should be listening for. I’ll let you review this list at your leisure. What I found interesting is the number of those of this list that my community members also cited.

You may find some of the albums on the What Hi-Fi list a bit challenging to find in good condition, so try the CNET list of new vinyl recordings that they put together for testing your speakers. These are not necessarily new recordings. Many are remastered audiophile recordings.   Noise Addicts provides a shorter list with some overlap. The most notable being Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon.

Before I get into the list of other suggested albums, the community provided some more general recommendations. They presents two primary ideas. Listen to what you know. Do this for a couple of reasons. First, to ensure that you simply like the reproduction of an album you are very familiar with. Second, there will be elements that you can anticipate so you’ll know how well the test equipment is performing. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear things you’ve never noticed before.

“Music that YOU listen to, enjoy and think you know well. It’s the albums that sound good to you now that when you hear on a really great system will have things that really pop out.”
“Something you’ve heard 1000 times and you’re very familiar with.”
“Something that you are very familiar with, your favourite album.”
Beyond music that you know well, there were suggestions about the type of sound to test with.

“Voice is the acid test.”
“Something with Female vocals”
“I would, and still use, different LPs of different styles and different production to get the clearest idea of what the speakers sound like. Never go by one particular LP. Variety yields the best results.”
“I used to sell stereos and the customer would ask me which sounds better. I would tell them you buy what sounds best to you. I would talk quality and reliability but sound is personal taste. Only thing I would suggest is something that starts out soft to see if you are getting turntable noise then crescendo to a loud heavy bass intensive to test subs then back. Stairway to Heaven comes to mind.”
“Something Classical.”
“…a well recorded album with clear human voice and acoustic instruments.”

And this great detailed response…
“I doing a demo test you are looking to get a handle on two things, the absolute performance as a hi fi setup and to compare to what you have at home. Second to see how it fits with your own tastes with your favorite music. For the first you want to train yourself a bit – go to a live concert of large scale acoustic music in a good center front orchestra seat or front balcony and then buy a recording of the same piece that has had good reviews. Piano concertos of the early 20th Centrury from Rachmaninoff Ravel or Prokofiev Examples, Beethoven 9th symphony, Tchaikovsky orchestral suites and ballets, Mahler and Bruckner symphonies.Listen at home and go back to a live performance again – if available to reinforce how it should sound vs. how well it works at home, so you can then go to the demo and see how much closer you can get with the equipment being auditioned. For the second part pick among your favorite music selections that you think challenge a system for bass and dynamics and for resolution and presentation of spatial details..And for exposing tonal imbalances, particularly in vocals.”

There was also reference made to specific high quality labels.
“Pretty much anything on the Telarc label.”
“Telarc 1812. Saint-Saens S3, Organ.”
“Any Windham Hill recordings.”

Japanese Pro-Use pressings were often mentioned favorably, as were original analogue recordings …”The Analogue Productions pressing of Yes, Fragile is a great one. ”

And this response advising against audiophile recordings.
“No audiophile recordings! Use something complicated. If that works, the well recorded stuff will work as well. But not the other way around.”
“Recordings of acoustic instruments. Not music coming out of other electronic instruments. For example: Piano, acoustic guitar, drums, and the pipe organ.”

So what did my audio community recommend? Pink Floyd topped the list for most times suggested. Not surprisingly, Dark Side of the Moon was the most cited Pink Floyd album, but others simply said anything by Pink Floyd. I must agree with this choice. It presents a huge range in musical and acoustic sounds.
Steely Dan – Aja was mentioned numerous times and “I have an amazing pressing of Can’t Buy A thrill from Steely Dan that I use most often.” Other repeated mentions were Alan Parson’s Project – specifically, I Robot and The Turn Of A Friendly Card, or most early Alan Parson recordings. Physical Graffiti By Led Zeppelin received numerous nods for putting your equipment through its paces as did Dire Straits, Supertramp, Crime of the Century, Rick Wakeman, Myths and Legends….. Merlin the Magician, The Cars Candy-O and specifically, My Best Friends Girl from their debut album, Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

“Jimmy Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” is the quietest and best sounding recording I’ve purchased lately so I might also use this in the near future…That Hendrix is so “quiet” was quite a surprise and somewhat ironic!”

To fill the bill for testing with vocals and the female voice,
“Joni Mitchell’s Blue is always my first choice. If it doesn’t pass that test, it’s not worthy of further listening.”
“Sade – Promise.”
“Loreena McKinnett, The Book of Secrets.”
“Diana Krall: “the girl in the other room”. Sublim jazz.”
“Mariah carey dreamlover”
“Blue Raincoat by Jennifer Warnes”

For acoustic instruments and vocals,
“Loggins & Messina live.” and Simon and Garfunkel
Paul Simon was mentioned often,
“Paul Simon Albums are particularly well engineered and make great speakers sound their best.”
as was Cat Stevens. I think this is a solid choice too “Anything by Jack Johnson. Good clean bass and highs… with clear vocals.”
“Santana Abraxas. The opening sequence of chimes is extraordinary.”
I personally like Cowboy Junkies – Trinity Sessions on vinyl and CD to test equipment.

A number of great jazz recommendation including, not surprisingly, Miles Davis Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um, John Abercrombie Timeless. Stanley Clarke Journey To Love. Patricia Barber’s albums (first three-four). Bj4 by Bob James and any early Earl Klugh album. Herb Alperts Tijuana brass – Whipped Cream and other delights was mentioned a couple of times – new album to me, so I’ll be on the look out. “…all the brass…ive used it adjusting speakers and setting eq settings..awesome..or even some percussive Santana!”
“Vintage – Original pressing – John Coltrane “Soultrane”
“Waltz for Debbie, Bill Evans”

I was surprised that more classical recordings weren’t mentioned. That said, the following were put forward in addition to the recommendation of any Telarc recordings. I love this recording and purchased a copy for my son when he got back into vinyl – “Yo Yo Ma Bach Unaccompanied” Another couple of classical recordings mentioned included, “Vivaldi Fours Seasons: Academy St. Martins in the Field. Neville Mariner with Alan Loveday; The Planets, Holst, Japanese Pro-Use pressing.”

There were others mentioned, but I’d never finish this article, because someone mentions a new album or track daily.

Find three or four good quality albums that you are very familiar with and that contain distinct vocals and isolated acoustic instrumentation – piano, guitar, sax – your personal preference. In addition to recordings with distinct isolated sounds, go for some more complex recordings with multiple layers.

My four choices –

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Steely Dan – Aja
Yo Yo Ma – Bach Unaccompanied
Joni Mitchell – Blue