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Want to hear how good your headphones can sound?

Editors Note: When I invited CNET's Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg to write an article for InnerFidelity, he thought for a bit and made this suggestion: since InnerFidelity is about getting right down to the nitty-gritty truth about how a piece of personal audio gear sounds, why not make some recommendations for reference quality sounds to start with. Great idea! I think I'm going to have to write a similar article with my reference tracks one of these days --- not surprisingly, his list and mine contain some of the same albums.

Click on the album images to go to the source page. Rightio Steve, we're listening!

Why Reference Tracks?
What does good sound sound like? Most of the time that's a very subjective, very personal call. We like what we like. Most, probably 99%, of all recordings are EQ-ed to sound "good," or cool, or to somebody's estimation of what good sound sounds like. Today's studios are designed not to have a sound per-se, they sound dead, that way it's easier to control the reverberation and "space" added in the mix. There's no real there there.

Dynamic range (soft-to-loud) compression has been around for decades, it's just that the vast majority of recordings released over the past ten years have been compressed to sound "loud" all the time. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this, if it serves the music. That's fine, just as long as you understand most recordings don't sound natural, transparent, or have any semblance of actual depth. If you're trying to discern what a headphone, headphone amp or DAC really sounds like, you can get there a lot quicker listening to recordings that aren't compressed, EQ-ed or processed in any way.

The producers' goals for the recordings gathered here were to have them sound as realistic as possible; I worked for Chesky Records as a Producer for more than 10 years, so I have firsthand knowledge of their sound. As for the music, it's all good, but I can't guarantee every track will be to your taste. The sound transcends mere hi-fi, and when you listen to these tracks over the best gear you will feel the music.

"Bass Resonance Test" Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests, Volume 2 - Chesky Records

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_bestofchesky.jpg

This track features a solo acoustic bass, played in a large studio. It was recorded with a mic positioned three feet away, so you hear the bass in an actual space (it's not from a pickup or played through an amplifier), so it should really sound like a stand up bass.
"Drum, 6 feet, live studio" from Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests, Volume 2 - Chesky Records

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_bestofchesky.jpg

This track features drummer Richard Crooks playing his kit, which was six feet away from the mic in an empty and very "live" wood paneled studio built in the 1940s. It's a big space, 100 feet long, 60 wide and 30 high. This track is an incredibly dynamic recording; go ahead and try to play Mr. Crooks' drums at realistically loud volume. Good luck!
"Gears" from With Space in Mind, Mark Nauseef - M·A Recordings

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_spaceinmind.jpg

Another drum recording, but this time with a much bigger set of Chinese and Sonar drums. Again, the recording was done in a big, acoustically live space. There's a lot of extremely deep bass coming from these drums. You can just about feel the texture of their sound.
"Rainy Night In Georgia" from A Cappella Dreams, The Persuasions - Chesky Records

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_persuasions.jpg

You are not going to find too many vocals on rock or jazz recordings that haven't been massively compressed and screwed around with in various ways, but here you get the best a cappella group around, sounding completely au natural. If they don't, it's time for an upgrade!
"Oh Death" from David Johansen and the Harry Smiths - Chesky Records

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_DavidJohansen.jpg

David Johansen (New York Dolls, Buster Poindexter) made a couple of audiophile recordings for Chesky Records in the early 2000s. He and his tight little band were really excited to record "live" in a NYC church, and it sounds like you're in the first pew. It's a simple as that.
"Trojans of Vundo" from Takes Flight at Yamaha, Attention Screen - Stereophile

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_attentionscreen.jpg

Each of Attention Screen's jazz-rock improvisations were captured live by Stereophile magazine's John Atkinson. His recording delivers a very dynamic drum sound, freak-out guitar theatrics, a potent fretless bass, and a very natural sounding piano.
"Minor Blue" from Dance of the Night Creatures, Thurman Green - Mapleshade Records

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_thurmangreen.jpg

Trombonist Thurman Green leads his sextet through a freewheelin' live in the studio session. It's in-the-moment jazz, and the sound is as realistic and natural as you're ever going to hear from a CD. There's a lot of "space" between each musician. Recorded to two-track analog tape, the sound is sweet and very clear.
"Izlezi, Vido" from Krushevo, Vlatko Stefanovski & Miroslav Tadic - M·A Recordings

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_VlatkoStefanovski.jpg

Two masters of the acoustic guitar, performing duets in the Makedonium Monument, in Krushevo, Macedonia. The guitars are not close mic-ed, so you'll hear their sound filling the space of this acoustically interesting monument (no artificial reverb was used in this recording).
"C Blues Suite (Part C)" from Man From Plovdiv, Milcho Leviev - M·A Recordings

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_milcholeviev.jpg

It's rare to hear a recording of a piano that's not close-mic-ed, which is, when you stop and think about it, a really weird way to hear a piano (with the mics sitting a foot or less over the strings). This time you'll hear Milcho Leviev's gorgeous Bosendorfer Imperial Grand filling the space at Harmony Hall, in Matsumoto, Japan.
"Stank" from Explorations in Space and Time, Lenny White, Jamey Haddad, Mark Sherman - HDtracks.com

image: http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/110712_blog_guttenbergpicks_spaceandtime.jpg

Lenny White, the drummer from Return to Forever, joins Jamey Haddad, and trained classical percussionist Mark Sherman for an improvised all-percussion session in a church in Brooklyn, NY. This recording is available in a special binaural version that was made with a Neumann KU-100 "dummy" head with microphones implanted in the head's ear canals. When played over a good-quality full-size or in-ear headphones, the binaural version will give a stunningly accurate, wrap around the head 3D reproduction of the original soundfield. Dynamics are awesome! Explorations is available as high-resolution 176/24 and 88/24, or standard 44/16 downloads from HDtracks.

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