Test tracks: 2.0 Stereo


These are some tracks that can be used as a first-check. These tracks are generally well-recorded and mastered, so they give you a first impression of what problems you might be faced with before digging into other tracks to look for details.

Artist: Jennifer Warnes

Album: Famous Blue Raincoat

Track: Bird on a Wire

Label: BMG International

Comments: This has been called the best recording… ever. (Don’t write to tell me that you think that the Beatles are better than Jennifer Warnes – I’m talking about the recording quality here…) Ask people who work in the pro audio industry (recording engineers and studio people…) and no one will not have heard this recording. Personally, I would estimate that I have heard this tune, on average, at least once per day, since about 1990. Of course, some days I don’t hear it at all, other days, I’ll listen to it 20 or 30 times… (No, I’m not exaggerating…) This track has lots going for it – great imaging, good timbre on each of the instruments and voices, nothing is overly compressed. And, on top of it all, the tune and its performance are great. If you don’t have this album, go out any buy it. Now.

Regarding imaging: I actually keep a “map” of where the instruments are placed in this recording (update: I’ve drawn the map, if you’d like to take a look. It’s at this posting.). The first tomtom is about 10 degrees to the left of centre; the backup vocal is about 15 degrees to the right of centre; there are different triangles – one about 15 deg to the left, the other about 25 deg to the right; the choir spreads far left and right, but behind everything else in the mix, and with a hole in the centre to make room for the lead vocal; the bongos are on the far right; the sax is just to the right of centre; the shaker is about 10-15 degrees to the left…. etc etc….

Regarding timbre: there are a couple of things to listen for. The first is the crack of the very first tomtom. It should have a very clean attack, which is immediately followed by the low end of the drum blooming behind it. It shouldn’t sound like a kick drum – it’s got high end on the attack and low end underneath it. The second tomtom, positioned to the right of centre, is similar. Both drums should feel like they’re surrounded by air – not constricted to a small space.

Artist: Robert Shaw, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Album: Stravinsky: The Firebird

Track: Infernal Dance of King Kastchei

Label: Telarc

Comments: This, like Bird on a Wire, is one of the historically GREAT recordings. This one is from the early days of digital recording, made using a custom-built recording system that had to be tweaked by hand at the recording sessions. It has been re-released on stereo SACD which sounds much better than the original CD release (both on the SACD and CD layer) due to better sampling rate conversion from the original 50 kHz recording. Lots has been written about this recording by the original recording engineer, Jack Renner – a “what to listen for” guide. Unfortunately, although I have a paper copy of this, I haven’t found it online, and I’m certainly not able to re-distribute it due to copyright issues.

Some things to listen for: the first attack of the orchestra. Stravinsky sometimes used the entire orchestra as a single percussion instrument. This piece is a perfect example of this – and it should feel like it – your tweeters should not sound like they’re working hard to reproduce the piccolo. The front desk of violins should sound close, but not grating. Also, the xylophone should sound distant (compared with the front strings) and about 10 – 15 degrees to the left. The brass should also sound distant, but all of the instruments, regardless of distance, sound like they’re in the same room.

Artist: Lyle Lovett

Album: Joshua Judges Ruth

Track: She’s Already Made Up Her Mind

Label: Curb / MCA

Comments: This is a good track for two reasons. The bass, when it comes in, sits underneath the whole recording and holds it up like a foundation of a house. It’s never overpowering, but always present. Also, if you have any problem with ringing or resonances in the upper bass / low midrange region in your speakers or room, the guitar will make them audible… This recording was made by the same guy that mixed “Bird on a Wire.”

Artist: Bette Midler

Album: Some People’s Lives

Track: Miss Otis Regrets

Label: Atlantic

Why: It’s a bright, but clean big-band recording of a great arrangement of this classic Cole Porter tune

Artist: Various

Artist: Minnesota Orchestra, Eiji Oue

Album: Tutti! Orchestral Sampler

Track: Dance of the Tumblers

Label: Reference Recordings

Why: Clean recordings with attention paid to the technical details

Artist: Densil Pinnock and Bill Coon

Album: Mona Lisa

Track: Corcovado

Label: Verve / ERC

Comments: I use this recording a lot because I recorded it, which means that I know what the intentions of the artists were, because I was one of them… This was a great CD to work on, because the producer and the duo gave me complete license to try whatever I wanted in terms of microphone technique, recording style, processing… etc. In the case of this particular track, there were three microphones on the voice (two condenser omni’s and a bidirectional ribbon) which were moved and balanced to get the imaging and timbre (no panning, and no eq!). There were 6 microphones on the guitar (yes, 6…) two on the neck for the squeaky left hand movements, two on the strings near the right hand and two for the body of the guitar. All 6 were condensers of various polar patterns. The feeling you should get with this track is the voice on the left, the guitar on the right (with the guitar neck a little further out than the body and picking), both of them slightly in front of the speakers. Oh, and the speaker locations shouldn’t be easily audible.

Artist: Les Idées heureuses

Album: Christoph Graupner – Musique instrumentale et vocale, vol.1

Track: Concerto pour basson, deux violons, alto et basse continue en si bémol majeur, GWV 340 (vers 1731) : III. Allegro

Label: Analekta

Comments: This is another one of my own recordings. This was done in a church, north of Montreal, with 4 microphones (Sennheiser MKH20’s with a separation of about 2 m as the main pair and B&K (now DPA Microphones) 4006 as the outriggers, each placed about 2 m on either side of the main pair) and no additional processing (no eq, no compression, no reverberation…. nothing) The sound should be spacious and a bit “phasy”, but the bassoon should be reasonably easy to locate in the centre. However, it will move left and right a little bit due to the spaced omni’s technique exaggerating small movements of the performer.

Artist: Claire Martin (no relation)

Album: Too Darn Hot!

Track: Black Coffee

Label: Linn Records

Comments: I use this track almost every day to check loudspeakers. It doesn’t have a huge crest factor, but it’s a good recording nonetheless. Tight, deep electric bass, nice job on the vocals, and generally a good recording. One nice thing about this is that, if you buy the SACD, you also get a multichannel version!

Artist: Helge Lien Trio

Album: Hello Troll

Track: Troozee

Label: Linn Records

Comments: None yet… but BOY is it good!!

Artist: Octarium

Album: Essentials

Track: Sing Me To Heaven

Label: ??

Comments: This is an excellent performance and a great recording of a beautiful piece of music. The interesting thing here is that Octarium is an octet (no surprise there), so you get a recording choral music with the added benefit of imaging, since there are so few voices to identify. The placement of the singers in the stereo sound stage appears to be well-thought out by the engineer with a great perception of distance and therefore depth in the reflections and reverberant tail.

Artist: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Album: Songs From The Movie

Track: Mrs. Hemingway

Label:  Zoe Records

Comments: This recording was done at Lyndhurst Hall at Air Studios in London, which is a very nice room indeed. The engineer did a great job of the overall presentation of the orchestra without it sounding in-your-face or too distant. There is a lovely breadth to the ensemble that never feels claustrophobic. The vocals are nicely recorded without just enough proximity effect to warm them up, and presented in front of the orchestra. Note that there is an audible noise floor in this recording. Also note that (at least in the Spotify version) there is an occasional weird distortion that sounds a little like aliasing around 7-10 kHz (for example – listen to the high end on the oboe solo at 00:06 – 00:08). I don’t know if that’s in the original recording or just an artefact of the Ogg Vorbis codec fighting with something in the recording (like noise shaping, for example?) because my “real” copy hasn’t arrived yet.

Artist: Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

Album: Swingin’ For The Fences

Track: Sing Sang Sung

Label:  Silverline


Artist: Jason Mraz

Album: We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.

Track: Butterfly

Label:  Atlantic


Artist: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Album: Shostakovich: The Jazz Album

Track: Jazz Suite No. 2: 6. Waltz II

Label:  Decca


Artist: Tower of Power

Album: Great American Soulbook

Track: Me & Mrs. Jones

Label:  Top Records


Artist: Cassandre McKinley, Stephen Angellis, Marty Ballou, Vincent Pagano

Album: Til Tomorrow (Remembering Marvin Gaye)

Track: I Wish It Would Rain

Label:  Maxjazz


Artist: Ray Brown, André Previn, Jow Pass

Album:After Hours

Track: All The Things You Are

Label:  Telarc International


Artist: Quatour Ébène

Album: Debussy, Fauré & Ravel: String Quartets

Track: String Quartet in F Major: II. Assez vif – Très rythmé

Label:  EMI Records / Virgin Classics


Artist: Hebrides Ensemble

Album: Olivier Messiaen: Chamber Works

Track: Quatuor pour la fin du Temps – I Liturgie de cristal

Label:  Linn Records



Artist: Michela Petri

Album: The Ultimate Recorder Collection

Track: Tartini: Sonata in G Minor – “Devil’s Trill”

Label: RCA Red Seal

Why: This is a wonderfully clean recording – it makes bad tweeters sound really bad…

Artist: Phillip Bush

Album: Ben Johnson: Microtonal Piano

Track: Alarum

Label: Koch

Comments: This is a strange-sounding track because it uses a piano that is tuned differently that that which we’re used to hearing. On the other hand, it means that the harmonics are also tuned differently. If you have any “intermodulation distortion” problems in your tweeters (this is distortion – or junk – that is caused by two different tones affecting each other) then this track will probably make things sound really bad… You should be able to listen to this track and hear a buzzing inside your ears – this is good. If you hear the buzzing in your speakers, you have a problem. Note however, that you might hear some very brief clipping at one point in this track… Just ignore it.

High Midrange

Artist: Joss Stone

Album: The Soul Sessions

Track: The Chokin’ Kind

Label: Virgin

Comment: This is a pretty aggressive-sounding vocal recording, although it’s clean. If your loudspeakers are “peaky” in the upper mids, this track is going to be pretty annoying.

Low Midrange

Artist: Elaine Elias

Album: Brazilian Classics

Track: Chega de Saudade

Label: Blue Note

Comment: If your loudspeakers have any kind of a bump in the 100 – 200 Hz territory, this track will sound terrible!


This is a collection of tracks that can be used to show off (and break…) your woofers and/or subwoofer(s). Beware: when I talk about “bass” I mean REAL bass. Not that silly pretend-bass 80 Hz oomph that you hear coming from a souped-up Honda with tinted windows as it drives down your street. I mean stuff an octave or two lower than that – it should make it feel like a giant is squeezing your listening room from the outside.

Link to Tidal Playlist

Artist: Paula Cole

Album: This Fire

Track: Tiger

Label: Warner Bros. Records

Comments: This is a great track for “testing” (translation: “breaking”) subwoofers. Then again, if you have a good system – or at least, properly protected one – you shouldn’t be able to break the sub – just go deaf trying… (N.B. I will not be held responsible for you causing your own deafness by trying to break your subwoofer… You’ll have no one to blame but yourself.)

Artist: Aaron Neville

Album: Warm Your Heart

Track: I Bid You Goodnight

Label: A&M

Why: Another great recording from George Massenburg – the kick drum is perfect…

Artist: Deadmau5

Track: Ghosts N Stuff

Comments: To be honest, I hate having to recommend that you buy anything by Deadmau5, but this is a good track for testing. The one thing to beware of is that one of the effects in the mix is heavy compressor pumping, so you’ll have to learn to ignore that…

Artist: Nora Jones

Album: Come Away With Me

Track: Turn Me On

Label: Blue Note

Despite the fact that this album has distortion all over the place – particularly on the voice, the low end of the kick drum in this track is worth hearing.

Artist: Pat Methany & Charlie Hayden

Album: Beyond the Missouri Sky

Track: Cinema Paradiso

Label: Verve

Why: This is just a good album – great recording of a great performance…

Artist: Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops

Album: Time Warp

Track: Theme from Battlestar Galactica

Label: Telarc

Comments: Okay, so this isn’t the most challenging piece of music in history, but the low end is nice on this recording.

Artist: The Minnesota Orchestra – Eiji Oue, cond.

Album: Minnesota Orchestra Showcase

Track: The Firebird Suite: Excerpt

Label: Reference Recordings

Comments: The early-80’s 50 kHz Telarc recording of the Firebird (get the SACD version with the better sampling rate conversion if you’re looking for it) is good. But the low end on this recording is better – or at least lower…

Artist: Herbie Hancock, John Legend, P!nk

Album: The Imagine Project

Track: Don’t Give Up

Comments: This whole album is worth buying, if only for the sound. The fact that the performances and the musicians are amazing is a bonus!

Artist: Tower of Power

Album: Souled Out

Track: Diggin’ on James Brown

Artist: Bill Champlin

Album: Mayday (Live)

Track: Bass Solo

Artist: Lady GaGa & Colby O’Donis

Album: The Fame Monster (Deluxe Version)

Track: Just Dance

Artist: Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

Album: XXL

Track: High Maintenance

Comments: Tight band, good (if closely-mic’ed) recording. Punchy mid-bass and, if you’ve got real woofers, REAL low-frequency content.

Air and “Openness”

Artist: Tonu Karljuste, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Album: Arvo Pärt: Te Deum

Track: Te Deum

Label: ECM

Comments: This is another recording with a great feeling of the space around the ensemble. It’s also very, very quiet… so if you have noise in your system, you’ll find it annoying with this track.

Artist: Trevor Pinnock & The European Brandenburg Ensemble

Album: Bach: Six Concertos for the Margrave of Brandenburg

Track: Any of them…

Label: Avie

Why: Air, space. This is the best recording of the Brandenburgs that I have ever heard. Just buy it.

Artist: Karina Gauvin, Luc Beausejour

Album: Bach: Little Notebook for Anna-Magdelena

Track: Willst du dein Hertz mir schenken

Label: Analekta

Comments: This was recorded in the same church outside Montreal as the Graupner track mentioned above. I didn’t record this, but I wish that I had… One of my favourite recordings. The voice is clean clean clean – and sounds like it on a great pair of headphones or loudspeakers. The upper end of the harpsichord sparkles, and you can get a real feeling of the size of space that they’re in. It’s not a big church – but it sounds great.

Artist: Scottish Ensemble

Album: Ravel / Shostakovitch

Track: Petite Symphonies a Cordes (Assez vif – tres rythme)

Label: Linn Records

Why: It’s good. :-)  It’s also on the SACD layer as a 4.1 recording.


Artist: AC/DC

Album: Back in Black

Track: Back in Black

Label: Atlantic

Comments: Okay, so this ISN’T a great recording, but it has some problems that, if you can’t hear them, your system isn’t performing up-to-snuff. One of the things to listen for here is the image location of the high-hat. Listen to the beginning of the tune, close your eyes, and point to the high-hat, but do this before the snare drum comes in. When the snare starts, keep paying attention to the high hat. If your imaging is good, you’ll notice that the high hat pulls towards the centre of your stereo image every time the snare is hit. This is an artifact of the original recording, the result of a technique called “gating” the drums. Normally, the snare drum microphone is “off” and automatically turns “on” when the snare is hit. The problem here is that, when it does turn on, other things (like the high hat) bleed into it, and are pulled to the position of the snare drum microphone.


Artist: Tonu Karljuste, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Album: Arvo Pärt: Te Deum

Track: Te Deum

Label: ECM

Comments: This a recording with a great feeling of the space around the ensemble. It’s also very, very quiet… so if you have noise in your system, you’ll find it annoying with this track

Artist: L’ensemble des idées heureuses

Album: Instrumental and Vocal Music, Vol. 1 (Graupner)

Track: Cantate “Ach Gott Und Herr”

Label: Analekta



Artist: Shirley Caesar featuring John P. Kee

Album: Stand Still

Track: Stand Still (Album Version)

Label: Sony


Artist: Steely Dan

Album: Two Against Nature

Track: Cousin Dupree

Label: Giant Records


Artist: Tower of Power

Album:Souled Out

Track: Diggin’ On James Brown

Label: Sony


Artist:  Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

Album: That’s How We Roll

Track: Rippin’ n Runnin’

Label: Telarc


Artist:  Rage Against the Machine

Album: Rage Against the Machine

Track: Take The Power Back

Label: Sony


Artist: Simply Red

Album: The Greatest Hits

Track: Money’s Too Tight – To Mention (2008 Remastered Version)

Label: Simplyred.com Ltd.