Using Bad Recording to Evaluate a System


Once I went to a dealer to audition a speaker, brought a few CD's. One of them was a CD of a group I like but has rather low quality recording.
Well, I put that CD in and cued up a track, and when the music ended the dealer asked why I was using such a horrible sounding recording to audition. (I think he looked kinda slightly pissed. Maybe because the music sounded shrill and irritating the whole time???)
Yeah, why?
Here's what I think: an audio system should make listening the music a pleasant experience. The better your system can reproduce, the more enjoyment you get regardless of recording quality. Saying that 'my system is so good I can only play my audiophile discs' is basically saying something is wrong with my system. Yes, nowadays I tend to play my 'audiophile' CDs much more than regular ones, but that's because of the music AND the excellent recording quality, but when I play my regular or lower recording quality CD's, I find that, although the shortcomings are more obvious, my system can reproduce the music as an enjoyable presentation, and I enjoy it more than when I used to in prev. lower-res/quality/musicality systems.
yr44
I dunno how one can get the most out of really quality recordings without creating a system that shows flaws in less then ideal media, I know some systems are ofcourse more forgiving then others, but a true Audiophoole system will not give you the best of both worlds Imho one must decide wich direction to take and build accordingly. My system is pretty brutal on bad material, but when it is good WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAH
Many of my favorite recordings sound rather mediocre so I'm in full agreement with your observations. Playing mediocre recordings forces one to deal with that old analytical/musical conumdrum, finding and keeping the perfect balance can be very elusive! Its relatively easy to make audiophile recordings sound good, much more difficult to make the mediocre ones sound good.
In my experience, the best systems reveal EVERYTHING on a recording--the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you have a system that makes everything sound good--even the worst recordings--IMO it's probably grossly colored.
If you want a system that editorializes things that's your business. As for me I think it's an anthema to the whole idea of anything that purports to be fidelity. I have used bad recordings to evaluate equipment, but, with a very different objective. I wanted to test how faithfully the equipment reproduced specific known anomolies. Systems that are capable of demonstrating the bad are usually better at celebrating the good. More often than not a good performance can perservere and still be enjoyable despite problems elsewhere.
Well, let me (sorta) take Yr44's side: I think it is useful to play bad recordings when evaluating a system - as long, of course, that you also use some really good recordings. Why? I think that there are many systems that sound fine on really good recordings, but exaggerate the flaws of bad recordings. For example, a system with a peak in frequency response around 10kHz may sound very detailed with excellent recordings, but make some bad recordings sound totally awful. So, I don't think this is necessarily about picking a system that "editorializes" but about getting different perspectives on what it does.
I think you may be on to something here. The never ending upgrade path has been an interesting journey, where, at first, improvements made good recordings sound so much better, but bad ones became worse. But as I drastically improved my digital source, good recordings sound even more detailed and refined, while at the same time, the bad ones become more enjoyable, less harsh. There is a very interesting review here on Audiogon that really addresses this issue in a review of Triangle Volante speakers.
http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?rspkr&1116803821&read&keyw&zztriangle
Yr44, I like your method. I assume besides the 1 bad CD you also take a good one. For me, the music has to serve me. I don't want to be limited to Rebecca Pidgeon/Spanish Harlem/Chesky or the like. The best 2 words I could use to describe my taste would be "relaxed detail". I think someone could write a story about Goldilocks and the three stereo systems. This one is too bright, this one is to dark, etc. We all go for the middle one in regards to our own ear. Even if I thought yours was the brighter one, I bet we could make it brighter or darker but it's in the middle for you and that's all that counts. Viva la difference! Good luck.
I agree with Chadnlz. You can't have it both ways. I go for the warts and all approach.

But it is a choice some would rather have a less revealing system that glosses over the harsh recordings.

It's a matter of choice. Choose your poison.
Familiarity with, and an appreciation of, the recording on various systems is much more important than the inherent quality of the recording itself. Whether you want a my-fi system that "improves" the sound, or a system that doesn't, is an aestetic decision that is totally independent of your audition material.
I can not see the utility of building a system that only sounds good with a minimal number of recordings. Sure, its fantastic when great music is recorded supremely well but that doesn't happen all that frequently. I need a system that can make me shake it with less than exalted material. Yr44, I'm with you. I would take whatever music I like for auditioning, and ask the dealer to keep his opinions on the suitability of the recordings to himself.
Hey, if most of your recordings are mediocre to bad (i.e., the music you like is generally recorded that way), why not get a system that makes them sound all right? You save some money and you enjoy the music -- isn't that what it's all about? The downside is that your good recordings may not sound as good as they could; as long as you don't buy too many good recordings, you're in great shape.
Hey, if most of your recordings are mediocre to bad (i.e., the music you like is generally recorded that way), why not get a system that makes them sound all right? You save some money and you enjoy the music -- isn't that what it's all about? The downside is that your good recordings may not sound as good as they could; as long as you don't buy too many good recordings, you're in great shape.

That sounds like great advice to me. A highly resolving, big-bucks audio system is going to reveal all the flaws in your recordings. If you think they sound bad now, just wait until you hear how they sound after you've spent the equivalent of a Toyota Camry on a highly resolving audiophile system.

Nevertheless, the salesman was being elitist, and more than a little rude. Shop elsewhere. But, be honest with yourself and with your salesman about the music you listen to and about your goals for your system. You may be able to get a really satisfying system by spending less. The folks who frequent AudioCircle.com are experts at this.

Onemug,

Yep, I brought all kinds of CD's, all I was very familiar with and listened in multiple environments.

Racarlson, you articulated it better than I did! :)
I *do* hear the flaws as resolution increases, but the enjoyment, IMHO, with a really excellent system, is still there, not thrown out the window (together with your money). But maybe that's just me.
Question on this subject from a newbie who is thinking of getting into vinyl. Is vinyl less prone to bad recordings than digital? Or is a bad recording a function of what happens in the studio?

Thanks.
You're doing it the right way. I have done this in the past, too, brought recordings that I kknow are harsh. They can reveal harshnesses in a system when you only have a few hours to evaluate a bunch of equipment. There is much high-end equipment that is harsh sounding in and of itself. Using only the best recordings will not reveal this. You will figure it out eventually, when you get home and live with the stuff for a while (then we'll see it here for sale). I agree with Arni - the very best equipment makes great recordings sound their best, but also allows poor recordings to be listenable. Many of the components I have heard seem to be a trade-o0ff between harshness and resolution - the more resolving, the harsher the sound. I don't think this has to be the case, and I'm trying to find the exceptions to the rule.
Be honest to yourself about what your goals really are. If you are more interested inthe gear than the music, that's cool. Many people collect watches, cars, etc., not because they make great timekeepers or transportation, but because they are fascinated by the technology and artistry that went into each piece. HiFi is no different, and if that's your goal, fine. But if yo0u just want to hear your favorite music the best way possible, then you must test equipment with that music. When a snotty salesman questions you, just explain with complete confidence what you're doing. Tell him flat out that only a fool would buy a system based only on audiophile recordings. Tell him there are a lot of high-end pretenders out there, and that you're into iot for the music, not the gear (if that's your goal). I find this is the ultimate elitist move. No audiophile seems willing to argue against the "it's all about the music" thing; by saying this, you've outsnobbed him, and now he has to admit you're right.
any great loudspeaker plays pretty much everything well. you have just exposed a poorly designed loudspeaker. you are right to do what you did. many will disagree but, but virtually most of the music worth owning is a far cry from audiophileville
I had a very similar experience at a hi-end shop. When the owner asked me why I would use the particular cd to demo his speakers I said "if I can't enjoy this cd then these speakers are no good to me." He had no problem with this concept. I've owned several components and speakers that rendered certain cds unlistenable. In fact I once converted my music system to home theatre and it took me six months or so to realize I wasn't listening to music. Why? Because it sounded crappy. I don't think it's impossible to build a system that sounds good with poorly recorded music and audiophile recordings. I see it as a labor of love.
I take along the music I listen to and enjoy which includes good and not so good recording quality. While it would be nice if all recordings were of equal high quality...it ain't gonna happen.

I think that many audiophiles go through the AUDIOPHILE phase at some time in their learning process...at least I did. In this phase recording quality and components become much more important to the audiophile than the music...it can be a somewhat confusing time to go through.

At home, I sometimes dip into my bag of tricks...tone controls!, works wonders on some of my early rock recordings.

Dave
I enjoyed reading this thread ... very good points. I myself have gone from a very mid range system to a much higher end multi-channel, high resolution digital system in the last few years. I now go through my collection of older redbook CD's and just can’t quite re-capture some of the magic in terms of range, depth and clarity. Why? I spent a ton. It was there at one point... I swear it was; or maybe it was me.

Have I been corrupted?

I try to keep in mind that my expectations have changed as my system has gained fidelity. I am getting hooked on 24 bit 5.1 recordings ... even some of the older stuff comes alive. I am now torn between working the system end to re-capture OR reinvesting in 24 bit recordings that have been remastered. The list is pretty limited.

I will say this ... I am getting picky in my old age. I do still listen to "Let it Bleed" and "Zep I" even if it doesn’t have the range and clarity of Diana Krall. For that reason I think you need to listen to the bad with the good when auditioning new equipment; at least bring a few of your older less "glossy" recordings. I do think certain systems/components make older recordings sound worse. That being said, I wont bring along AM radio broadcasts to evaluate either.

Nothing pisses off a salesman worse that having him cue up Deep Purple Made in Japan after he just blew you away with Vivaldi. Even better ... old Neil Young with Crazy Horse on a burned CD (ouch).

Do it ... just for effect.

Sorry Kurt

Really good, well balanced systems shouldn't make a poorly recorded albums sound unlistenable, they should just expose them as over EQed, heavily compressed, noisy, no soundstage, obviously faked reverb, sloppily edited, etc. It should show the flaws, but not highlight them. If your system sounds brutal on tons of records, then something is wrong with your system.

Sogood51 makes a good point about tone controls. Your system should serve your music collection, not the other way around.
ONHIWAY I liked what you said the best. I was auditioning the Sony ES601(5 disc) versus the Rotel 965LE with a song that had some hi-frequency glare that only showed up on the Sony. What really helped at the time was I had a mild migraine at the time so this really accentuated the problem. The Rotel still sounds good in my modest system.
On of my favorite "take to audition" artists is P.J.Harvey.
Talk about strange sounds emanating from auditioned stuff.
I explain how her voice, scratchy and screechy as it is, with bad miking and all is a genuine test of a system's capabilities!! This is from her first three albums. (Her later albums are too processed to use)
If she sounds all smoothed out.. you know the system is trash!
Good point Guenther , I agree with you and Tvad . Its a damn if you do damn if you dont scenario in high end. I have a car stereo from hell for my poor recordings { usually classic rock I grew up on } and high resolution systems for my well recorded jazz ect . There was a thread a year or so ago that asked had moving into a high resolution stereo changed your musical listening tastes. Im presently listening to a classical disc that before I began ascending at such a frightning pace in this art , would not have been caught dead listening to. I like it now and have moved into so many unusual genres I cant count them any more . Highly resolving systems make bad recordings sound like the junk they are sonically . No way around it .
One of the reasons I like my system so much (MF 308cd, MF Trivista Int. Amp, Nautilus 802s, all silver wiring, dedicated 20 amp lines and BPT 3.5) is that the old cds sound rally good. Cds from the 70s (Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, & Cat Stevens sound amazingly good). I thought it was the upsampling and the speakers, but don't really know. Why would anyone want a system so "accurate" that most everything sounds lousy?
I agree with the original post in that a system should enhance enjoyment of all recordings regardless of their 'fidelity'. Some folks feel this is an oxymoron, but I have developed a system which I think does exactly this. I might offer a different slant and suggest that, when a disc is marred by poor recording quality, one can only focus on the lack of fidelity in the majority of systems. Perhaps it is much easier for a system to reveal the flaws than going the extra step and revealing the musicality behind these flaws. I think a properly developed system can be 'ruthlessly revealing' AND more musically satisfying for ALL recordings.
I think a properly developed system can be 'ruthlessly revealing' AND more musically satisfying for ALL recordings.
In my experience, the primary issue with bad recordings is brightness and edge in the upper mids and highs. Do we agree on this as a basic premise?

If so, then I would propose that any system which magically makes these recordings more musical does so by either attenuating the highs (which therefore reduces resolution and transparency), or does so by shifting the focus of the frequency balance to the lower mids and bass region (thereby reducing the neutrality of the reproduction). Either way, a compromise is required. One may prefer the sound of what the compromise creates, but in my view "ruthlessly revealing" and "more musical" (a description open to wide interpretation) almost never co-exist.

If you've got it, Centurymantra, then we should all come over to hear it so we can copy what you've done, because you appear to have discovered the Audiophile Holy Grail. :)

I think Centurymantra pointed in the right direction, but for myself I have to say part of the enjoyment of a "badly recorded" disc is just that. Experiencing the trashy recording quality of P.J.Harvey's Eight-Track Demo as if one was actually listening to her cheap recorded copy of some songs she demo'd is way more exciting than having it all prettied up.
So perhaps SOME crummy recordings DO SOUND BEST all crummy.
The Rolling Stones come to mind too.
Of course listening to Maria Callas on a concert taped on a 3" reel toy recorder is not quite as fun... (8^Q...
>>"Well, I put that CD in and cued up a track, and when the music ended the dealer asked why I was using such a horrible sounding recording to audition. (I think he looked kinda slightly pissed. Maybe because the music sounded shrill and irritating the whole time???)
Yeah, why?"<<

>>"Here's what I think: an audio system should make listening the music a pleasant experience. The better your system can reproduce, the more enjoyment you get regardless of recording quality. Saying that 'my system is so good I can only play my audiophile discs' is basically saying something is wrong with my system"<<
>>>>>
That is why for the preamp and power amp I prefer tubes.

Reading a few of the posts here one could come to the conclusion the audio system dictates the music source listened to.
jea48 has just hit the nerve. if your system is dictating the purchase of music based on sonic characteristics and not the material itself, your stereo is hi end in name and cost only.
I think TVAD said it best. My goal is to listen to what was recorded, not to remix the highs with my system and make it sound more warm and fuzzy. I still enjoy bad recordings even though my system doesn't hide the bad aspects.

I tend to take well recorded music to audition (it reveals what a system can do more than bad recordings) and mediocre material. The badly recorded stuff goes in the car. ;)
most remastered recordings do contain changes and enhancements to the original recorded sides. equalization is the rule not the exception.
Onhwy61 nailed it.
FWIW, I can see the benefit in taking recordings that are less than optimum for a couple of reasons.

1) Taking a SOTA recording of music you love....It will sound great on many systems AND you love the music so much you will be inclined to listen to the music more than the sound of the system.
2) I have collected some recordings that have special problems that are exacerbated (or glossed over) by some components and speakers, mostly the latter. The way these problems show up in a demo can help me speed up the evaluation process.

Might not work as well for someone just starting out.....
Robm321
>"My goal is to listen to what was recorded, not to remix the highs with my system and make it sound more warm and fuzzy. I still enjoy bad recordings even though my system doesn't hide the bad aspects."<
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Have you ever listened to a good tube Audio System. Mine is not warm and fuzzy.
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Newbee is your system warm and fuzzy?