Readers have from time to time requested a list of the "test" tracks I use to evaluate gear. It's a long list, mostly recordings I've used for many years and heard on hundreds of products, and recordings I made myself or from sessions I attended. They work for me, but wouldn't necessarily help you. More than any specific tracks, I recommend starting with music you know best, favorite tunes you've listened to for years, and then listen to how the speaker, headphones, etc., you're considering changes, improves, or degrades the sound of your favorite tunes. Don't be surprised if the results are inconsistent; some tracks might be a lot better, and some might be a lot worse on different speakers and headphones. Try not to base a buying decision on just one or two tunes.
I want to determine how the review product colors or changes the sound of music, so a lot of my favorite test albums have minimal production, compression, processing, equalization, and so on. I want to hear as much of the unadorned sound as possible. Here are a few of my go-to albums that might be helpful to you.
Muddy Waters, "Folk Singer"
A fierce studio recording of the blues master from 1963, and Waters sounds incredibly present and vital; no wonder "Folk Singer" is an audiophile classic. Amazon sells the CD for $3.99 and the MP3 download for $9.49. Get the CD.
Kronos Quartet, "Pieces of Africa"
This CD will project a huge soundstage, and over the best speakers you'll be in the room with the string quartet. The African percussion and drums are unprocessed and natural. It's a gorgeous recording.
Ernst Reijseger, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"
Ernst Reijseger's soundtrack to Werner Herzog's film sounds almost holographic. The CD from last year features a choir, small string orchestra, and organ all recorded in a church. Again, there's a big soundstage, and the relative dynamics of the instruments are well preserved. The sound over the best headphones should appear to come from well outside your head.
Jacky Terrasson, "Reach"
Terrasson's piano trio, recorded by Mark Levinson in a small room, sounds like a piano trio in a small room. The piano, bass, and drums weren't close-miked, and no dynamic range compression was used; the recording sounds like the real thing.
Keith Richards, "Main Offender"
Rolling Stone Keith Richards' second solo record is remarkably dynamic and alive, thanks to its really punchy bass and drum sound. "Offender" sounds best cranked way up loud. Another $3.99 CD on Amazon.
Mark Nauseef "With Space in Mind"
A pure audiophile recording of massive drums, gongs, chines, cymbals, bells and a vast range of percussion instruments. This recording was done in a big, acoustically live space. There's a lot of extremely deep bass coming from these drums, you can just about feel the texture of their sounds. Uncompressed dynamic range is a rare and beautiful thing.
Alexandre Desplat "Birth"
This movie soundtrack was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London (where the Beatles made all their albums). The opening track's flutes, strings, delicate percussion, and large thundering drums are exquisitely mixed. The entire album is superb, and over great headphones or speakers the sound will leave you breathless!
Rosanne Cash, "10 Song Demo"
I've used this CD on countless reviews, and never tire of the music. Cash sings from the heart, and the minimal accompaniment only heightens the intimacy of the music.
Holly Cole "Temptation"
Ms. Cole sings a bunch of moody Tom Waits tunes, backed up by a stellar group. Lots of space and air circulating around Cole, and you occasionally hear her dog panting and accompanying her. This is another audiophile classic; listen and you'll see why.
Vlatko Stefanovski & Miroslav Tadic, "Krushevo"
Two masters of the acoustic guitar, performing duets in a huge acoustic space, the Makedonium Monument, in Krushevo, Macedonia. These two speed demons astonish with their fleet fingerings. The sound is pure and crystal clear.
The Persuasions, "Frankly A Cappella"
The Persuasions are an a cappella group, and this recording of the men singing Frank Zappa's music is a great way to see if your speakers or headphones sound natural. I admit it seems like an odd match, a cappella and Zappa, but it really works.