full-scale orchestral music—best test of speakers’ potential?

Here’s a general observation made after visiting many rooms and listening to many loudspeakers at CAF: full-scale orchestral music, i.e. recordings of large symphony orchestras, provide the most demanding test of a speaker’s abilities.  I’d argue this for two reasons.

1. Audio systems attempt to create a simulacrum of an acoustic event in your living room.  That original event may have occurred in a tiny jazz club or a huge arena, and everything in between.  That is to say, the space in which it occurred may be very similar in size to your listening room, or it may be very different.  Given the size, on stage, of a full orchestra, and given the size of the auditoriums where they play, it’s very challenging for a system to reproduce the impression of that size in your living room—none are perfect, but some are better than others in providing the right kinds of cues.

2. Another variable here is that the music played may have been acoustic or electronically amplified.  Recordings of acoustic instruments and voice remove one extra step in the long chain of reproduction: we know pretty much what a violin should sound like, but what should a certain Gibson guitar through a certain Peavey amp sound like?

Massed violins playing fortissimo are the most stringent test of a speaker’s treble range.  In room after room, I heard rock, pop, jazz, blues, folk, etc. etc. reproduced really very beautifully, but often when an orchestral piece came on, it could sound harsh, steely, astringent, nails on chalkboard.  The fault of the recording, you say.  But a few speakers (I’m not naming names, to avoid that kind of argument), didn’t do that, and sailed through the test.

Agree with your observations but as I've delved into the world of hi-fi I often wonder if what we are really after is an exact reproduction of what was heard at the site of the performance or if it is a pleasing reproduction designed to be heard in someone's home.Those are different things and in a way, the latter sounds like a better approach to me.

Agree that a symphonic work is a challenge regardless of what the goal of the engineering/production was. Not to mention the often extreme dynamic range of symphonic music from super quiet to booming and loud in the same symphony.
What argument ? Takes 2 to make one, just tell us what you heard, please .
There are plenty of threads where people talk about the test tracks and test discs they use when auditioning equipment.  I see the kind of music I describe mentioned very rarely.  When I say "I'd argue" I was using the verb in the sense of "propose", "contend".
This test won't do anything for you if you don't listen to this kind of music. Other things will be more important.
Besides, no speakers can reproduce the full orchestra, not even close. It can't even be recorded well. Let's get real, shall we ?
No, I’d argue it’s the human voice. Especially a familiar one. Harbeth have long advocated using the voice as a reference, and who am I to argue?

Of course piano and violin are great tests too but there’s almost something spooky about hearing a well recorded voice. It goes beyond conscious analysis.

Bernard Herrmann used violins for the shower scene in "Psycho"-- Eeek, Eeek, Eeeek, Eeek!  Sometimes they do sound biting, no?

And if you choose a combination of components that make that pleasant, what is it doing to the signal? I dunno-- I think people pick what they like. 
I use piano music as one reference, among many. Not easy to record or reproduce in my estimation.  But, much of what I listen to, once the system is 'tuned' isn't necessarily audiophile stuff, and the sonics are all over the place. 
IMO, well recorded big band music is also a good test.  You have brash trumpets, saxes, and trombones.  Also, big drum sets with lots of cymbals.
The only reason I would use a full scale Orchestra music is the hear the massed violins. Do they all sound like actual separate violins playing together? Or as usual a think lump of sort’a violin like noise.Typically I like to listen to quartets, Classical and Jazz, Vocals Piano.Generally I use music I know extremely well.
keithtexas, is that your room ? Awesome. I would, without question, love to own that system. Movie soundtracks are generally excellent demo material. I like Roger Waters's " Amused to Death ". There is a bomb simulation somewhere during the middle, that, if you are not careful, could clip your amp and take out some tweeters, or woofers. Enjoy ! MrD.
Yes, I start with voice as well, the most natural instrument of them all. Then acoustic guitar and piano, then jazz rock, then bass.
If the system can't do voice it is either junk or out of tune. 
Sure, voice is crucial, and a speaker that can't do voice, well...
But there are speakers that do voice very well that struggle with full orchestra.  I've yet to come across a speaker where the reverse is true.
I start with voice too, Bob Dylan, if it sounds good and I can make out all the lyrics then something is amiss. 
If you can understand the lyrics (clear voices) and do large scale orchestral  well you are probably good to go.
Lorin Maazel Shostakovich 5th is a good test CD recorded by Telarc. Especially the last movement. Plenty of dynamics.
IMHO massed strings are the ultimate torture test for a loudspeaker vis-a-vis correct phase and coherence. My Walsh 5000s do a wonderful job with both massed strings and depicting the full power of a symphony orchestra with control and believable acoustic. Massed violins will sound wirey, phasey or gritty if phase is being distorted given the extraordinary overtone content therein. If your cables are mangling the signal, massed strings will reveal it. If you want to determine whether the recording is phase correct versus inverted, massed strings will always sound more natural and "correct" when the phase of the recording is correct (i.e. The Mercury Living Presence CDs sound noticably more spacious and natural when played at 180 degrees (flipped polarity).

Other torture tests for a loudspeaker are stentorian soprano and piano articulations. The former will bring out any cone/dome resonance and breakup modes; the latter is perhaps the most stringent test of a systems dynamics. 
@mamboni Very interesting observations.  I wish my preamp had a phase button so I could switch back and forth easily.
@mamboni +10

Phase trumps frequency response.

When one has listened on minimum phase error systems, almost any program will suffice to reveal phase errors in others. The tick of the stick on a cymbal or mixing a salad are equally as torturous wrt phase.

Massed strings on full orchestra add the level dimension which also taxes power supplies, drivers, boxes and rooms.

@twoleftears - that’s polarity, not phase ;-)
Mamboni great to see you posting again!  Hope all is well. 
I would agree that the best test track is at least an example of the type of music you listen to most of the time.
A system that has a small comfort zone is no system at all.
Unless you listen to one thing and it does it perfectly. Then it would be a perfect system.
With my recent upgrades I use the phase switch a lot. Now I can really notice the better sound of the correct phase.I would say with a top notch system, being able to flip phase with a press of a switch or button is a required system quality.

My apologies - you are correct in distinguishing polarity from phase. In my mind, a 180 degree phase shift is equivalent to a polarity flip; but they are not the same strictly defined. I'm using a Wyred4Sound STP-SE preamp which provides a "PHASE" button which does the 180 degree changeover. BTW the STP-SE is the best preamp I have ever owned - dead quiet, completely transparent - a true straight wire with gain.


Thanks for your concern. I just went through a very difficult four years. For two of those years I didn't listen to my system even once - dark times. I've been slowly rediscovering my system and my music collection over the last few months. As of now I'm back in the Audiophile saddle as it were: listening to Furtwangler conducting the VPO (1952 mono - the performance transcends the modest recording quality and mono - it is that good) performing Beethoven's Eroica and I'm getting chills listening to the first movement. The interplay between the strings and the horn trio in the Coda for me is one of the greatest musical sentences ever penned. IMHO the Eroica must have been a titanic earth-shaking work for it's time; I can only imagine the reaction of audiences of the day having their baroque and classical sensibilities shaken to the core by this truly romantic work.

For me, the music is always first, front and center. The equipment is merely mechanism in service to that higher purpose. For me, the Walsh 5000s humbly and dutifully produce beautiful music and never call attention to themselves, like true performers. No other loudspeaker sends me like the Walshs.

My personal regards - I trust that you prosper.
@mamboni Although I'm sure it must be simplistic in some regards, have you ever seen the 2003 BBC movie entitled simply "Eroica"?  It dramatizes the lead-up to and the first performance of the symphony. When trying to explain what Romanticism is all about, and how it differed from what preceded, I've found it rather useful.  You can feel it as well as think it.
Not to rain on your polarity parade, but have you listened with the phase inverted on both the electronics and the speakers?

Some electronics alter the sound with polarity inverted, some not subtly
Uh, it doesn’t matter whether the recording is in correct Polarity or if the system is in correct Polarity if you have a Polarity switch. If you don’t have a Polarity switch then it’s back to reversing + and - on speakers or amps. Even then you don’t have to know the Polarity of either the recording or the system. Besides, most CDs are in Reverse Polarity anyway so you might as well make the system Reverse Polarity and you’ll be OK.
For the challenged, once one determines the preferred sound, flip both electronic's polarity switch and speaker polarity to determine if the electronic's polarity switch introduced a coloration. Many do.
Makes us even. Most CDs are not inverted.
Didn’t you get the memo? I bet you think it’s random.

There are no standards for Polarity. - Old audiophile axiom
I might argue for a full-scale orchestra mixed in with artificially engineered sounds. The former covers a wide portion of the frequency range at varying degrees of complexity. The latter fills it out with the last bits that physical instruments (including the human voice) won't cover.
There are no standards for Polarity
That nonsense went out in the 60's. Studios and engineers were very cognizant of polarity and gear was wired so the studio maintained it. By the time CDs made their appearance, it was a non-issue.

A studio may have been Pin 2 or 3 +phase, but what went on tape was correct polarity.

You are orthogonal to reality. 
You all are underscoring an issue that is seldom considered:
YOUR acoustics (hearing).
It's unrealistic to assume that everyone's hearing transmits audio nuance EXACTLY the same - from our tympani's, our Cochlear complex, our auditory nerve canal and, finally, the brain itself - the most subjective (read: interpretive) instrument in the chain.
If we all possessed precisely the same personal audio delivery system, start to finish, there wouldn't be nearly so much room for our debates, would there?

"If music be the food of (life), play on!"  
You are orthogonal to reality.
Please provide laboratory test data to support that most CDs are inverted polarity relative to the master tape.

None that I checked ever were.

And, Mr. Kait, please answer a question that has always bothered me about the green spray you sold to absorb IR in CD players. Energy can’t be destroyed. So what did the green spray change the IR into? Heat? Nope. Heat is IR. Mass? Did the CDs get heavier with every play?
Well, for one thing I never said CDs were inverted Polarity relative to master tapes. So please don’t put words in my mouth. This sounds like a last ditch effort on your part to win an argument. If you don’t know what I mean then perhaps you should sit this one out.

you also wrote,
And please answer a question that has always bothered me about the green spray you sold to absorb IR in CD players. Energy can’t be destroyed. So what did the green spray change the IR into? Heat? Nope. Heat is IR. Mass? Did the CDs get heavier with every play?

>>>>> Here’s a question for you. How does the green pen around the CD outer edge absorb visible red laser light? Answer that and you might have your answer. The color green of the spray is actually a coincidence and unrelated to the green pen. Since the laser light is primarily infrared, I.e., invisible, the green pen complementary color trick won’t work on the IR part of the laser light, only on the visible red portion. I never said energy can be destroyed. I also never claimed anything regarding the operating principle of the green spray. You did.

I haven't seen that BBC program. But I think it is very difficult to describe the sounds of different musical styles [in words]. To paraphrase a certain US judge: "I can't define a musical style; but I know it when I hear it."
I happen to agree with Broockies. I've noticed how musical dynamics, particularly timbre in hifi is never truly reproduced from the actual concert-hall acoustics. Part of this is due to our auditory system response to the sound barriers with an audience, and the rest shared by the recording engineering and replication equipment. 

When I test drive a new component to upgrade my system, string instruments, especially the cello, seem to provide the best measure.  
I have yet to encounter a single set of speakers which can -even remotely- reproduce the sound of a full orchestra. Let me know should you find those.
I do agree that the best reference is human voice, and even better if you can get a good recording of the voice of someone you know. You will find that most speakers can't even get close to the original. Now, that doesn't mean that there are no good speakers out there, lot's of them sound really pleasant, so as long as you feel you can enjoy the sound, go with it. 
I'd agree that symphonic music is the best test of a system's capabilities, but like so much else in this hobby it's very subjective. Yesterday I listened to VTL electronics playing a 45-rpm recording of the first movement of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" into Vandersteen Quatro Wood CT speakers, with appropriate-level turntable, cart, cables, power conditioning, etc., in a generous-size listening room at my dealer (Stereo Unlimited in San Diego). Like "The Nutcracker," that piece is kind of ruined for me by having heard it too many times on too many crummy devices in the wrong places. But I must say it was *wonderful* in this near-ideal setup; the sound stage was vivid even if I moved out of the optimum listening position, and the drum-whacks were thrilling.

A writer in one of the magazines recently suggested closing your eyes while listening. It's hard for me to "visualize" the Berliner Philharmonie while I'm looking at a pair of speakers, even though I can detect violins on the left, basses on the right in the sounds I'm hearing, even on my own more-modest system.
In the last 50+ years I’ve helped  many with their system setups .As Elizabeth said valuable to hear if massed strings are just a lump .
MANY times I’ve seen folks buy expensive speakers , wire and everything
but the kitchen sink to get a smoother sound with classical when the
only thing wrong was the symphonic dynamics were causing their amp to clip.With some speakers that might be a 200 watts a side amp .
The number of variables that go into a sysyem are auch that I do not care if symphonic music is the hardest test as I have other listening preferences. 

For me, having Eva Cassidy sound like she is singing in my room is sufficient.  And the same with some of the Jazz I listen to.

I have listened to the Allman Bros Band “Live at the Fillmore” at least 4,000 times and know every nuance and know what it should sound like, given the many syatems I have heard it on.

The point being, if it sounds good on your system such that you are content, what other music sounds like is irrelevant.

Yes, there is always better gear, but at what price?  Marginal cost versus marginal gain, and most of us have a financial constraint.
The point is you could have stopped after you first sentence .

@Ihasaguy In other words, you're willing to settle for good enough, rather than great.

My point remains, that if you optimize your system for full-scale orchestral, it's a pretty sure bet that your Eva Cassidy or Allman Bros. will sound great too. 

IMO it is the source that lets the sound become separate.  So the speaker while is has something to do with it, if the source cannot separate the instruments, then the speaker won't do a great job.


Just wanted to know if you play the guitar since you mentioned the Allman Brothers Live at the Filmore.
Happy Listening.