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Consider a couple recordings you know really well but are nothing special, even bad. You want to hear how the system deals with them.
Another somewhat odd piece of advice is to not spend all the time listening paying close attention. Pull out a magazine article or do something else while you listen. This is not a substitute for close listening, but the way something sounds includes less-than-intense-focusing, too.
Caution: I have had high end dealers pre-adjust tone controls to make something sound impressive in their space. Ask, check the preamp/tone controls before starting.
1. Listen to their best Demo CDs. CD’s, not LP’s. You don’t know if the TT system/cartridge alignment/anti-skate is properly done, so eliminate that potential problem. Something great might not sound great.
BTW, having both CD and LP versions of these at home is a great way to refine your system’s balance, then knowing the CD’s separation, make final cartridge/tonearm/anti-skate adjustments, then compare CD to LP.
2. Separation: 3 guitarists playing together, side 2, tracks 2 and 3. And, the subtle differences of the guitar type/string type variations
3. Specific Voices
a. Casandra Wilson (including great musicians, lots of specific bass, and imaging).
If her voice wanders off center as frequencies change, no no.
b. Duet: Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer, incredible even if not your music type
hear/identify their individual and blended voices, are these great speakers or what?
c. Richard Burton’s voice, and a whole hellofalot of sound effects
d. Annie Lennox, Eurythmics, and Dave Stewart’s electronic manipulations
Rebecca Pidgeon, Rose in Spanish Harlem (from The Raven)
Diana Krall, Errand Girl For Rhythm (from All For You)
Pat Methany, Into the Dream (from Imaginary Day)
Chet Atkins/Mark Knopfler, Poor Boy Blues (off Neck and Neck)
These are a few of the selections I used to use years ago as I knew them extremely well and on many systems at shows, and that helped me when critically listening.
And yes, many of us recognize there are plenty of variables in auditioning. That's why most of my electronics lived at home before being purchased. But when you cannot, I have no idea why you'd want to listen to music that you are unfamiliar with while auditioning. For me, at least knowing the music removes one of those 50 other things...
Hey mc......think we’re birds of a feather here
Pretty sure the "reference" thing is a phase. Probably most if not all have to go through it. But it is kind of like going back and forth. You do that for a while in the beginning, just to be sure. Like it is hard to believe your own ears. (You see it all the time around here, some it seems refuse to believe their own ears!) After a while though you either move on or find yourself in a rut. I have no need to go back and forth. Heck I don’t even need to play the same track!
My great mentor Stewart Marcantoni, one of the best listeners I ever knew, hardly ever sat in the sweet spot. Hardly ever even stood still. Oh, he would do it. But you could tell it wasn’t his usual thing. Yet nothing got past that guy!
The "reference disk" is a phase. Like training wheels. They serve their purpose. Until you learn to ride.
Turandot with Pavarotti on London. Marriage of Figaro conducted by Vittorio Gui on EMI's HMV series. Clarity, dynamics, timbral accuracy and soundstaging galore. Marriage of Figaro is pure Blumlein-miked. If the stereo set up is good you hear the vocalists chasing each other upstage, downstage and around the room.