Some great suggestions here, thanks.

However, with one or two exceptions, there's very little here in the way of excellently recorded orchestral music, which I think presents a unique test for loudspeakers.  Mercury Living Presence has some good stuff but the application of modern recording techniques has raised the bar substantially.  

Any recommendations in this genre would be appreciated.
I use different kinds of music to explore various performance characteristics of speakers, ie:

  • Well-recorded acoustic jazz to explore timbre, detail/speed & soundstage
  • Well-recorded large scale classical and choral to explore time, detail/speed, soundstage, and dynamics
  • Well-recorded blues, Afro-pop, reggae, electronic/chill to explore overall tonality, bass depth/impact & dynamics

One of my favorite torture-test tracks in the 3rd category is Donald Fagen's "Morph the Cat" (title track of that 2008 recording). The opening note is a huge transient built up of countless bass instruments & other things in the studio. Few other cuts show just how large & loud a speaker can get (in a hurry).
For overall 1 disc to have (if you can find it) I choose Opus 1 (1st) test CD .. amazing breadth of music and well recorded .. Tiden barogue (unsure of name/spelling cut) I have found glaring distinctions from 1 system to another .. and while its not my "relax a bit CD" it allows me to quickly size up a systems strength for placement, depth, stage width & especially detail.
An all out dynamics and bass challenge would be Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band "Life in a bubble" (HDTracks & others) if your not hooked by the 1st track .. you need to turn it up louder.
The one orchestral recording I’ve been taking to every audio show and have used for (almost) every equipment review for the last 5 years is a 2010 recording on the RCO Live label, an SACD. It’s Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 (his last) with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. I use the first movement—it’s just 8 minutes long and, once you get to really know it, it seems to have most everything needed to judge gear.

• There’s a wide variety of instrumental solos: are they correctly scaled and is the timbre/tonality correct?
• High treble: the glockenspiel notes that open the piece and recur throughout. Are they focused, with a precise attack, and can you tell that lower pitches are produced by larger pieces of metal?
• Deep bass. There are some exposed bass drum hits a few minutes in. Can you tell how large the drum is and are you getting a sense of the volume of the instrument? Is the decay natural and free of overhang?
• Dynamics: There’s one major orchestral climax halfway through - does it crest gracefully?
• Imaging: Do you get a realistic degree of localization to soloists and orchestral sections?
• Soundstage: This recording has excellent front-to-back layering of the players - are you hearing it?
• The Concertgebouw (the hall) in Amsterdam is a great place to hear and to record music in. Do you get both a sense of immediacy and of music in the air around you? The acoustic is both clarifying and atmospheric - the equipment should let that come through.

One other point worth making: The performance is quite good (Haitink was the first conductor to record all the Shostakovich symphonies) and I never get tired of it.

There are plenty of other recordings of large-scale orchestral music that I find helpful, and I’m sure you’ll discover your own. But do give this one a listen.

Andrew Quint
Senior Writer
The Absolute Sound
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