Test Tracks: What not to play!

This is a collection of tracks that, whether you (or I) like the music or not, should not be played to demonstrate the capabilities or qualities of your playback system.


1. Anything by Sting on SACD.

Why: Personally, I love Sting’s music, but his recordings and mixes are terrible and, in my case, therefore disappointing. There are resonances all over the place – particularly in the vocals. The spatial capabilities of multichannel – particularly when it comes to delivering a coherent sound field, are completely ignored, unfortunately…


Artist: Fun

Album: Some Nights

Tracks: Some Nights

Why: Have a listen to the drums when they come in. That’s what distortion caused by clipping sounds like.

Artist: Johnny Cash

Album: Unchained

Tracks: Unchained

Why: Don’t get me wrong – I love Johnny Cash. I always have. But the vocals cause the track to clip occasionally. For example, have a listen to the track at 1:02 on the word “I” in the line “I am weak”. You’ll hear the distortion show up as a brief noise in the hard left and right, at exacly the same time as the vocal in the centre. Whether this is in the original recording or its just the Ogg Vorbis codec freaking out on the Spotify version, I don’t know… I’ve only hear the Spotify version to be honest.

Update: It seems to be in the original recording, since it also shows up on Tidal. The easiest way to listen for the problem is to hear how the “I” (mentioned above) seems to suddenly be in a very wide stereo – this is probably caused by the left channel and right channel distorting differently – so the artefacts decorrelate what would otherwise be a correlated, mono signal.

Artist: Norah Jones

Album: Come away with me

Tracks: All of them

Why: I like the tunes and the performances on this album, and the kick drum on “Turn me On” is great. However, there are massive distortion problems on the vocals all the way through this album. I don’t know what happened, but it sounds a little like someone was clipping the mic preamp on the vocal microphone. What mystifies me is that this album won a Grammy for Record of the Year which is awarded not only to the artist, but to the producer and engineer – both of whom should have known better.

Anything with auto-tune

Personally, I’d like to start an anti-auto-tune club. If everyone agreed to not buy albums with auto-tuners on the vocals, maybe the studios would stop using it…

Artist: Metallica

Album: Death Magnetic

Track: All Nightmare Long

Label: Warner, Vertigo

Comments: This thing has no dynamic range to speak of and it clips all over the place. Look at it in a DAW display and you’ll be amazed that it’s recognisable as music…

  1. Interestingly, listening sessions I attended recently had just three tracks prepared for auditioning over a two-day listening period, and guess what? Two out of three were those covered above!

    On the second day all we listened to was ‘An Englishman in New York’, over and over again to the point that a) I wanted to run from the room screaming and b) I now have no recollection whatsoever what the third track on offer was!

  2. Hi Andrew,
    I should add some more tracks to this list! “Any recording that was made using an auto-tuner” should definitely be in there. I keep trying to decide whether Metallica’s Death Magnetic should be there, or if, instead, it should be considered as the most artistic square wave in the history of music…

  3. Oh yes, you really should add some more essential non-listens – will be fun spotting all the over-used hi-fi demonstration stuff!

    Was fun watching/hearing some of Europe’s finest hi-fi journalists picking out subtle nuances as those two tracks were played through a variety of set-ups and this then that was tweaked, when all the while I was thinking ‘But they’ll sound horrible whatever you do!’

  4. Hi Mathias,


    We should be a little more specific. The disc you’re referring to was done by the UK division of B&O. And, as far as I remember, Kipper was part of the group who selected the tracks for a disc, using tunes from other, commercially-available discs. In other words, I wouldn’t say that he “produced music for B&O”… :-)

    Also, we should be careful not to blame the wrong people for things. You can’t blame the producer for a bad mix or bad components within it. You can blame the recording engineer or the mixing engineer for that. If you don’t like the tune’s arrangement, or the decision to use a synth solo instead of a guitar solo in the middle of a tune, or the choice of drummer, you can blame THAT on the producer. Think of the difference more like the photographer and the makeup artist (where the recording engineer is the photographer and the producer is the makeup artist). This reminds me of an old joke: “Q: How many record producers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Ummmm… what do YOU think? …”

    This engineer/producer confusion issue is one that is close to my heart, since I once read a review of a disc that I engineered – and saw that the producer got all the credit for my work. (of course, if it had been a bad review, I wouldn’t be complaining…)


  5. Will a bad recording sound worse in a better system, e.g, when there is distorsion on a male voice? My impression is that a bad recording/low bit rate can be played in headphones but not in speakers. Why is that? Jan

  6. Hi Jan,

    This is an interesting question – but I think that it might be two different questions. I think that the answer to the first question is “it depends”. Of course, a “bad recording” can be bad for lots of reasons. However, if we look at your example of distortion on the voice, it might be that a bad loudspeaker sounds makes the bad recording sound better than a good loudspeaker. For example, if the bad loudspeaker has a lower output in the upper midrange (which is where the harmonics generated by the distortion on the voice will primarily show up) then the problem in the bad recording will be attenuated by the bad loudspeaker. Of course, there are also examples where the bad loudspeaker will make a bad recording sound even worse. Hence, my answer – “it depends” – it depends on the characteristics of the artefacts that make the recording bad, and how they interact with the characteristics of the loudspeaker that make it worse than a better loudspeaker.

    Interestingly, I have certainly heard cases where a good loudspeaker can make a recording sound worse than it is. Specifically, it is not difficult to buy home loudspeakers (or headphones) that have more bass at lower frequency ranges than some studio monitors. As a result, you might hear content or artefacts in the low end that they did not hear in the recording or mastering studios. Had they heard it there, they might have decided to remove the low end problems. A good example of this is Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” album. This has a very low frequency ringing/rumble in it that sounds very much like the sound of a tapping foot causing a microphone stand to vibrate and shake a microphone. On “normal” loudspeakers, this is inaudible (as I suspect it was in the studios where it was recorded and mastered) but on large loudspeakers with unusually low low-frequency ranges, this is very audible, and very annoying.

    As for low bit rate codecs through headphones, I suspect that this is a different question. Of course, we are still talking about the quality of the headphones (John Watkinson has often said that if you can’t hear the difference between 128 kbps MP3 and uncompressed 44.1kHz/16 bit, then it’s because your loudspeakers aren’t good enough). However, listening under headphones results in a very different spatial presentation of two-channel stereo recordings that *may* influence the audibility of CODEC artefacts. This is also dependent on the CODEC and specific bitrate we’re talking about, since some CODEC’s at some bitrates do M/S based processing rather than dealing with two independent audio channels.

    So, after all that – I guess that the answer is “maybe”…


  7. Thanks for this! I realize the importance of putting precise questions.

    Maybe not a topic for this forum, but the questions are triggered by my new system: Beoplay V1 40, BL9, Overture, Oppo DVD, NAS, and NL/ML with the delay box.

    I believe I hear distorsion in treble range, such as male voices and strings.
    Can I trust the NL/ML and delay boxes forHi-Fi?
    Regards, Jan

  8. autotune is ugly says:

    I found the comments on “annoying” low bass and “good recordings made to sound bad”particularly interesting as I struggled with this when mixing an electro upright bass for a CD . The frequency range is ,of course ,very different between car speakers, ear buds, computer speakers and my more expensive monitors (that really only reach 48 Hz); but the varying dynamic range is what really killed me with this “direct in” only recording of this strange instrument. A subwoofer may exaggerate a very low frequency that I would not hear in my mixing room (or that sounds good to me there.) It is really important to go for car rides with your mix, in the living room, through your friend’s living room, computer subwoofers, ipods and your friends’ studio monitors.
    I fixed my problem with multiband compression, but next time I will spare the extra input and mic his amp.
    I use DI on electric bass for “convenience” and back up only. For electric bass guitar, if I am short on inputs and mics, I would rather mic the amp in another room with a SM58 (yes I am serious) than use a DI. This will give all the bass guitar one needs in home listening and ipods and is guaranteed to disappoint audiophiles with really nice speakers. With a SM58 mic I am rolling off the extreme lows. Oh well, maybe I will get the next grammy for “most convenient recording.”

  9. Leo Cerny says:

    I would include most of U2 and Faith No More recordings – good music, terrible mastering.