In my August 28 article, “The Good and Bad of a Very Accurate Audio System” I wrote about musical accuracy. Some systems, I wrote, exhibiting a higher degree of neutrality are more likely to present the recording as is, be it a high-quality recording or a poor one. I also wrote about starting a list of songs in my music library that were standouts in terms of their sonic characteristics.
One reader, Larry H, left a comment asking for my list of well recorded songs. While I started to reply to his request, and simply list the songs I had in my playlist, I hesitated. Just because I found certain songs to sound exceptional does not for a minute mean anyone else will. Because the total sonic picture is determined by more than just the recording, my list of songs might not sound all that special to someone else. So, I decided to outline how I created my list in the first place.
It stands to reason that before any piece of music can ever hope to sound extraordinary, the recording must be exceptional. But what is the definition of well recorded? Different meanings will apply to different individuals. I started with the four basic attributes of any audio system – imaging, dynamics, clarity and accuracy.
Because I tend to place imaging above the other three, my list of songs must image remarkably well.
I have divided my audio room into specific zones where imaging will occur. Area 1 has little depth and does not extend very wide laterally. I usually skip past these songs. Area 2 covers most of the front wall with little depth. Area 3 extends further both front to back and side to side and has very specific placement of instruments. Most songs are in Area 3. Area 4 is the best. Those songs have significant depth, height and the lateral dispersion beyond the side of the speakers extends about eight feet in both directions, from side wall to side wall. Instruments can be precisely identified in the room down to a couple of inches from up to about twenty-five feet away. If my audio room were wider, the lateral presentation would be even greater. But like everyone, I live within the confines of the space.
Because I also believe in the concept of true stereo, I believe all imaging should occur behind the speakers. I do not have a surround sound system and as much as many audiophiles prefer that type of presentation, I do not.
I want to get the feeling I am in the audience watching and listening to a musical group perform on stage. In a live context – whether a symphony orchestra or rock and roll band, instruments are presented in front of, not behind the listener. I also understand there are many audiophiles who prefer to be enveloped by sound from all sides, and that is fine, there is no wrong or right here. I simply prefer the musical presentation in front of me.
Next must have is dynamics. I need to feel the power but yet, I do not want to be overcome by it. I want nice, tight, deep bass but not thunderous or bass that rattles walls. Some may like that, but I don’t. Bass cannot overshadow midrange or mask transients. Frankly, I prefer a cymbal crash to a bass sound, but in any event, the bass should be almost visceral.
Clarity and accuracy are also required and, in my view, if a recording exhibits a high degree of the first two, the second two usually follow. As such, I need to hear the musical presentation with minimal distortion and with as quiet a background as possible. Instruments need to sound like they do in real life. Vocals should have a lifelike presentation and sound as if the singer is directly in front of me – better still, moving around the stage.
Naturally, if all of these conditions are met, it starts with the recording. However, the recording is not the only guiding principal. The equipment must also be capable of very accurately recreating what the recording presents. The room must be able to deliver that presentation with minimal detrimental and adverse effects like null points, comb filtering, standing waves and the other nasties lurking in our audio rooms. Aural greatness is achieved when all conditions – recording, system and room are interactive and at their collective best.
Any song that really surprises me at how good it sounds must meet all of these metrics. They must be able to deliver each one from start to finish. I want to be absolutely amazed by what I hear. I want my eyes darting around the room looking for instrumental placement. I want the feeling I am watching a band or orchestra spread wide before me on a concert stage.
I want to hear every nuance of a singer’s voice – excitement, sorrow, remorse, joy and all the emotions that make up the human condition. I want to be able to identify each instrument simply by how it sounds.
Sadly, my list is not all that long, at least not yet. It is a work in progress. A couple of them are part of my list of evaluation songs, the ones I know very well and use to make determinations on what my system is doing. The rest I found by sheer happenstance. A song played and I immediately thought “WOW!” So, in no particular order they are:
Rippingtons – “Built To Last (Orchestral)
Rippingtons – “Golden Child”
Sugarland – “Bigger”
Daniel Powter – “Song 6”
Five For Fighting – “Disneyland”
Shelby Lynne – “I Cry Everyday”
Andrew Neu – “South By Southwest”
Lisa Loeb – “Firecracker”
1987 DECCA Puccini La Boheme w/Pavarotti
Yes, that is not a long list. But then, I feel my standards are pretty high and at the time of writing, I had just started to compile my list. Add to that, most of these songs I discovered by accident – a song played, and I was instantly captivated by what I heard. How often does that happen?
Personally, I feel these lists have little value to anyone besides the person who created them. Debate could go on incessantly by someone who disagrees and finds any one of these songs not so special. Because it is a three-part process – recording, equipment and room, the sonic excellence will obviously differ between listeners.
In any event, this is my list of songs that stand out beyond all others. Hopefully, it will continue to grow. And maybe, this will spark more audiophiles to make a list of excellent songs of their own. Doing so can only lead to informed listening!