As followers of my personal social-media pages know, I post something almost daily (Doug SoundStage Schneider on Facebook, Doug Schneider on LinkedIn). Sometimes I’ll deliberately choose a provocative topic that’s sure to stir up emotions to spur a lively discussion. Anything about MQA, analog versus digital, tubes versus transistors—these and such other topics fire audiophiles up. Other times I’ll choose a product, a company, or a person to write about. I recently wrote a complimentary post about Taylor Swift’s success on Facebook, for instance. Occasionally, though, I’ll post a question simply to get people’s thoughts and opinions on a subject.
I posted one such question on August 10 on Facebook and LinkedIn: “Here’s a question for everyone into hi-fi, whether working in the industry or as an enthusiast: If you could use just one song to evaluate a stereo system with, what song on what format (i.e., CD, file with resolution indicated, vinyl, etc.) would you choose?” I explained that the reason I asked for both song and format was that a song can sound very different on different media and in different formats.
This question occurred to me after I read a post on LinkedIn in July by Harman’s Sean Olive, which began, “Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ was one of the original tracks we used to test loudspeakers at the National Research Council of Canada in 1988, and we continue to use it today at Harman. Why? Because it’s one of the most sensitive test signals to hear problems in loudspeakers and headphones.”
Sean Olive began his career at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), which is where Floyd Toole conducted his groundbreaking research correlating loudspeaker measurements with listening impressions. NRC is also where we, at SoundStage!, began measuring loudspeakers, in 1999, and still measure them today. “Fast Car” was the first hit on Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album, released in April 1988. Olive started using that song for listening evaluations of loudspeakers soon after its release.
In that post, Olive elaborates further on “Fast Car”:
It consistently produces the largest effect size and F-statistics in listener training and product benchmarking tests on headphones and loudspeakers, meaning that listeners can clearly hear and discriminate between the products and formulate strong preferences when using “Fast Car.”
The key factor is its wide and dense spectrum which means any resonances, distortions or bandwidth limitations in the product will be excited and easily heard. The evidence also appears in listener training tasks where resonances (distortions) are added to different tracks of music and listeners have to identify the frequency band where the resonance is centered. “Fast Car” produces the highest percentage of correct identifications along with pink noise.
Immediately after I read Sean Olive’s post, I mentioned it to SoundStage! Access senior editor Dennis Burger, who made it the topic of his September editorial. It made me wonder whether any one song, “Fast Car” or any other, could be used effectively to evaluate speakers, components, or systems. I ought to pose that question to Olive someday. For now, I wanted to hear my followers’ opinions.
My post on LinkedIn did not generate an immediate response, but within seconds, numerous replies started flowing into my Facebook feed. The first was from one Peter Kuthesis, who wrote he’d choose Brian Bromberg’s cover of “Sanford and Son,” a song composed by Quincy Jones for the 1970s sitcom of the same name. Streaming, he wrote, would be his medium of choice for this song. I knew about the song from the TV show—I used to watch it when I was young—but I didn’t know about Bromberg’s version. I later found that it was released in 2009 on an album titled It Is What It Is.
Marc Toupin wrote next, “My go-to song to test a piece of hi-fi gear is ‘You and Your Friend,’ by Dire Straits, on CD.” Carlo La Rosa added, “‘Cousin Dupree’ off the Steely Dan album Two against Nature. Either CD or streaming is fine.” Mark Jones stated matter-of-factly, “45 rpm, 12 single LP, Thomas Dolby, ‘I Scare Myself’.” Dennis Burger put, “One song is tough. I guess I’d have to go with Björk’s ‘Hyperballad,’ usually from Qobuz. Or the original CD release.” David C. Snyder declared, “I have a different take. I almost always start with a good mono recording. If a two-channel system can’t deliver the goods with mono, stereo is off the table. Period. Listen to ‘Can’t We Be Friends?’ by Ella Fitzgerald, on Qobuz.”
There were dozens of other responses by the end of that first day. One of the most detailed came from our main UK writer, Jonathan Gorse:
Probably Kate Bush’s “The Kick Inside” from her debut album of the same name. It’s pretty much just Kate on piano, but it’s got everything in there I need to tell me whether a system can deliver. Soaring dynamics, rich piano timbre, the speed and dynamics of those hammers on strings, a glorious female vocal, with Kate at the very peak of her powers. It’s a wonderfully clean and dynamic recording on my original vinyl copy, slightly less dynamic range on the later remasters. Best played at the level it would be [heard] if the piano were live in the room—then you’d really see if your system can cut the mustard. It’s all about the emotional impact of that song; it’s there in the grooves, but can your system convey it?
By the next morning, there were a couple of dozen more responses on Facebook—there will undoubtedly be many more by the time you read this. But there were only 11 comments on LinkedIn. This was disappointing; I’d hoped that the industry folks I’m connected with there would each share their insight into what works best as a test track and name their favorite. Since I have many followers on both platforms, I chalk up the discrepancy to LinkedIn’s businesslike nature. People are reluctant to let their hair down on LinkedIn and freely express thoughts and opinions. On Facebook no one seems afraid to say what they think, so they let loose.
Still, I received some interesting song suggestions on LinkedIn. The first came from Richard Bowden, now retired, formerly general manager of Bay Bloor Radio, a prominent Toronto hi-fi dealer. Richard wrote, “There are so many great tracks. The one that I often use is ‘Third World Man,’ from Gaucho, most likely on Tidal. . . . I’m so familiar with it that I can compare [how it sounds] in my mind.”
Because Facebook generates such open discussions, there were also some party-poopers. Speaker designer Andrew Jones wrote, “I would never judge a system based on listening to just one piece of music.” A few responders concurred, so he wasn’t the only one thinking that way. Trying to soften Andrew up, I replied, “But imagine you were forced to. You know, gun-to-the-head scenario. Remember, this is for fun.” As of the time of this writing, end of day, August 11, he is yet to indulge my prodding. Richard Bowden attempted to elicit a response, too: “I’m sure you have a favorite song that keeps popping up.” (You can just about hear the c’mon.) Still, no go.
Mark Block, a dedicated, active follower of mine, liked Jones’s response, but after he saw my reply, he played along:
I agree with Andrew that one track is not an evaluation. Choosing one is almost painful, not fun. But gun to my head right now? I’d say Diana Krall’s “Just You, Just Me.” It’s a great test for neutrality. The vocal shows up any peaks and dips in the midrange, and the close miking should be apparent with breaths and lip noises that make Diana seem to be right there. The violin solo shows up any hints of screechiness in the low treble, and it’s got drums, cymbals, and bass that are perfectly in balance. I’ve also noticed that it shows up dynamics, or lack thereof, in speakers/amps—not dynamic range per se but what we audiophiles call “inner dynamics” (much to the chagrin of Brent Butterworth and Dennis Burger). So as not to piss off Brent and Dennis, I’ll call it “jump factor,” which this track has in spades. What it doesn’t have is a wide, natural soundstage, and I’m a soundstage nut.
But I concede that Andrew Jones is right about this. After all, you should never evaluate a stereo system based on the playback quality of a single song. Besides, why would you when you can easily play as many as you want? Nevertheless, I found his response disappointing—I just wanted to find out what songs people gravitate to. As Richard Bowden said, there must be a song Andrew uses the most, and I think people might want to know what it is. Happily, most responders did choose one, which gave my social-media exercise a side benefit. Carnell Greer summed it up well: “Looks like I have my weekend playlist sorted out.”
Like Sean Olive, I too have used “Fast Car” in auditions since its release for its ability to reveal a system’s true character. But if a gun were put to my head, I’d be more inclined to use another song from that year: “Misguided Angel,” from the Canadian-pressed CD of The Trinity Session, by Canada’s Cowboy Junkies. The deep bass in this song, which comes from the drums, the bass guitar, and the room itself, reveals the lowest frequencies a loudspeaker can reproduce as well as how well balanced the bass region is with the higher frequencies. (I made a video about this a little over six months ago.)
This recording beautifully captured the musicians’ positions and the acoustic space of the recording venue, a large church in downtown Toronto, and “Misguided Angel” can clearly expose imaging capability and soundstage scale. It is quite natural sounding, too, so it’s also a great tool with which to assess overall tonal balance. Finally, it’s a wonderful song that is easy to listen to repeatedly, an important quality for a song used as an evaluation tool—the last thing you want is to dread listening to a song yet again during an evaluation. Having heard Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” played over and over as a demo track at hi-fi shows, for instance, I can’t stand listening to it anymore.
So, if I asked what one song you’d pick above all to evaluate a system, what would you say? Do connect with me on one of my social-media pages with your answer—I’d love to know, as would those who follow me there. My posts on this topic on both Facebook and LinkedIn should remain there indefinitely. Undoubtedly, by the time this article is published, many more will have chimed in with great additions to this unique weekend playlist.
. . . Doug Schneider