When some hi-fi publications cover industry trade shows such as High End, held each May in the beautiful Bavarian metropolis of Munich, they write up listening impressions and deliver subjective assessments of how a component or a complete system sounds. I’ve done it myself, often. I’ll listen to a new system in an unfamiliar room, playing music I’ve never heard before. How futile an exercise is that? Sure, it paints a picture for readers who want to sample fancy new gear from a distance -- when I miss a show, you can bet I pore over the SoundStage! team’s coverage and pictures like a hawk -- but I could care less about the old jazz recordings that reverberate through the Munich Order Center, where High End is held. It’s all about the music, isn’t it? The music is the frame of reference -- or it’s the lens through which we evaluate whether or not we love the sound pouring from a stereo system. Diana Krall may be a talented pianist and singer, but she’s more likely to drive me into a coma than have me on the edge of my seat.
And so it is that I consistently and unapologetically play 80 to 100 tracks of the music that I love, that moves me, to take the temperature of the loudspeakers, amps, and DACs I review. Not one of these tracks is audiophile-grade material. There’s nothing high-resolution, nothing from HDtracks, nothing from 2L. Just a dumpster fire of gold, pyrite, and obscurity. But having listened to these tracks hundreds of times, through dozens and dozens of components, I’m pretty sure I know what they’re supposed to sound like -- or, perhaps more important, what they’re not supposed to sound like.
In no particular order, then, here are five tracks that I’ve listened to through almost every component I’ve reviewed:
I think Hans Zimmer is the best composer of film scores the world has ever seen. The native of Frankfurt, Germany, has a knack for reinvention and creativity that allows the majority of his signature scores to stand confidently on their own merits, perfect complements to the films they support. While I adore many of Zimmer’s film scores -- for Gladiator, Crimson Tide, The Rock, The Dark Knight, Interstellar, etc. -- it’s his music for director Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) that demonstrates his uncanny ability to transport the listener to another world. “Journey to the Line” is a nine-minute meditation on the jungles on Guadalcanal, the South Pacific island that hosted one of the most brutal campaigns of World War II. Unlike the more bombastic approach Zimmer later adopted for Gladiator (2001), “Journey to the Line” is at first delicate and ruminative, with a brooding, foreboding quality. His use of Asian instruments and sweeping strings over a foundation of monstrous drums that sound and feel like artillery fire makes for a melancholic atmosphere -- it’s an incredibly emotive piece of orchestration. If I’m feeling what a speaker or amp is throwing down, it’s surely doing something right. Played loudly through a pair of full-range speakers in an otherwise silent room, this Zimmer masterpiece is one of a few tracks that stirs my pot almost every time I play it.
At the other end of the spectrum is “Little Lion Man,” from Mumford & Sons’ live album, The Road to Red Rocks (2013). This album is a peach. The band’s fusion of folk rock with alternative rock and addictively up-tempo hooks propelled them to multiple Billboard Music Awards, and a Grammy for their second studio album, Babel (on which “Little Lion Man” first appeared). Between the spaciousness of the outdoor Red Rocks venue, the energized crowd, and a hugely infectious chorus, I almost always wind up singing, then screaming along. There’s Marcus Mumford’s addictive singing. There’s Winston Marshall’s homey banjo. There’s a dramatic finish that begs to be turned up to 11. Play it loud, play it true, and you may find yourself hopping around your listening room, as I do.
Cleveland rapper Kid Cudi marches to a different beat. His influences include The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, underappreciated alt hip-hop groups that I grew up listening to. He broke out in 2008 with a track from his double-platinum first album, Man on the Moon: The End of the Day. “Day N Nite (Nightmare)” is remarkable not only for its catchiness but for its sound. The intro bass line is seriously deep -- driver-excursion galore, man -- and hot on its heels is Cudi’s closely miked, beautifully imaged voice. Unlike so many other popular rap singles, “Day N Nite (Nightmare)” is concise and immaculately manicured: There’s zero flab on the bass synth, and no grain or hash in Cudi’s voice. It’s a must-listen for anyone who enjoys hip-hop, especially the off-the-beaten-path variety. It’s different, it’s dynamic, and Cudi doesn’t sound like anyone else. There aren’t many pleasures greater than watching a two-way bookshelf speaker struggle to keep up with this track’s bottom end.
Let’s go emo. Ben Gibbard, formerly of Death Cab for Cutie, led The Postal Service in producing one platinum-certified solo album, Give Up (2003), and then was, effectively, never heard from again. Give Up is a quirky amalgamation of nerdy electronica, Gibbard’s silky signature vocals, and uplifting lyrics. As an eager, bright-eyed kid entering his freshman year of college in fall 2003, it was the perfect soundtrack. “Such Great Heights” is the toe-tapping standout track, marked by a boisterousness and optimism that never veer into the cloying. Gibbard’s lighthearted lyrics and the cheerful beat rarely fail to put me in a good mood. It’s not the best recording in the world, but I’ve found that when I put on a track such as “Such Great Heights” and am not digging it, it’s usually not my fault -- it’s the gear. This is a classic album, a piece of ephemera that perfectly captures a moment in time.
Finally, a guilty pleasure: Coldplay. My affection for Chris Martin’s singing began with Coldplay’s first two albums, Parachutes (2000) and A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002), but it was their third studio album, X&Y (2005), that really did it for me. “Swallowed in the Sea” was never released as a single, and I don’t know anyone who likes it nearly as much as I do, but I’ve played this track through every piece of equipment I’ve reviewed for SoundStage!. Martin’s introductory vocal is a lovely, dainty thing, the first minute featuring unusually little instrumental support. The dimensionality and palpability of his voice make it a favorite of mine to test the imaging and soundstaging of a pair of speakers. This track also offers an abundance of texture and detail, and I’ve found that some amps and DACs have a hard time unearthing it all.
While I recommend checking out one or all of these tracks, I don’t necessarily think that any of them are particularly noteworthy cuts to audition hardware with. Listen to what you love -- it’s probably also the material you know best -- and don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.
. . . Hans Wetzel