Want to hear how good your headphones can sound? Play great sounding music!

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.

dalethorn's picture

I'd recommend also the Epiphany Recordings Concert and Test Sampler. The various test tracks are well made and reliable.

Negakinu's picture

but the new Devin Townsend record "Ghost" sounds, recording-wise, absolutely stunning to my ears. If you like Pink Floyd, later Ulver, Björk, Porcupine Tree, Tangerine Dream and even postrock like Explosions in the Sky or GY!BE, go check it out ASAP! :)

He has a lot of videos online of the recording process as well. Very interesting if you're into the whole production thing. http://www.youtube.com/user/poopynuggeteer#p/u/7/qElSbeHnz_c

dalethorn's picture

I sampled several of the Chesky jazz tracks (other artists, not Chesky), and while the recorded quality was very good, I got the impression of a "bottom of the barrel" sound, just slightly. That was using the Sennheiser HD-800. Maybe that's supposed to be the correct sound, but I think the mic placement(s) could have been better. I also sampled several tracks from the men's a capella group, and while the sound this time was very clear and crisp, the harmony was minimal compared to (just an example) Beach Boy type harmonies. I have heard many barbershop and religious recordings growing up, and many of those had great harmonies as well. Also a problem with the a capella group is the disconcerting ad-lib beginning each track, which would have to be removed to make this listenable. A better example of a capella IMO would be the Nylons.

All of the copyright notices I saw were 2005, as though the Chesky project has been discontinued. Anything going on currently?

SAS's picture

I felt the fidelity at the frequency extremes was better with the sound field recording then with the binaural version.

As far as the spatial effect goes... with headphones that do something to re-create the sense of space as through loudspeakers -- e.g. HD 800, LCD 2, or Ultrasone -- I thought the sound field recordings gave a more precise and even more spacious ambience. When using most headphones -- especially IEMs -- the binaural version was better.

doublea71's picture

Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has put out some nice sounding recordings. The early work of Santana on MFSL sounds quite nice to me.

indrel's picture

I recommend the Carmen Gomes inc. recordings on the Sound Liason label from Amsterdam.

here is the review that made me discover the label.

I've been among the prophets saying that high-resolution downloads are the future of audiophile music sales. Surely it will benefit the majors to make high-quality downloads a first choice rather than an MP3 extra, but I believe that individual artists can benefit as well. Most new-to-the-scene performers have little money for middlemen and disc manufacture, yet can get things together for the Internet.

Frans de Rond and Peter Bjørnild have taken this approach with Sound Liaison, producing recordings available only in 24-bit/96kHz downloads that mirror the master recording. And man, are they ever sweet. I've seldom heard recordings that were so successful in both performance and sound aspects.

De Rond hails from the Netherlands, where he studied double bass at The Royal Conservatory in The Hague while concurrently studying recording techniques. Bjørnild also studied double bass, moving to the Netherlands to continue studies at The Hague. Since graduating, he has played almost every type of music, from classical to jazz. Together de Rond and Bjørnild bring two pairs of golden ears to their label. Bjørnild claims that, "a recording should be as realistic and beautiful sounding as possible. As if, when closing your eyes, you find yourself in the best seat in the hall."

The partners discovered a fine recording hall (Studio-Eleven, Hilversum) and set out to record amazing musicians in this great acoustic place in front of live audiences. It's a daring feat; one take and no place to hide, but the abilities of the musicians involved make it seem easy. I chose to talk about the first album by Carmen Gomes Inc. It was a tough choice because all of the three current albums were worthy of review.

Carmen Gomes has won many awards in the Netherlands and surrounding areas. Like so many new European singers, she sings in English -- excellent English, I might add. She's formed a group called Carmen Gomes Inc., with Folker Tettero on guitar, Peter Bjørnild on double bass, and Marcel van Engelen on drums. Her style is bluesy and intimate with a sexy voice that's sweet as dark tupelo honey, and her interpretations are unerring. The musicians play to her and to each other, and the ensemble is so tight that the four musicians breathe and move as one.

There are some standards on the set that knocked me over with their fresh approach. Any singer can misplace a few accents and rhythms and come up with something that's original, but perhaps also uneasy and a little strange. Not Gomes, who has taken the songs to their bones and then restructured them to suit her style. Thus "Fever" doesn't sound like a cover of Peggy Lee; it sounds like a brand new take on a familiar song. You emerge from hearing it not thinking it's better or lesser than Lee's version, but that it's a valid new interpretation that could have come first.

The same approach works on "Angel Eyes," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "I'm on Fire." Most of the rest, including the title song, "Oblivion," "Time Will Tell," "Gasoa Blue," and "The Sea," are Gomes originals that fit right in with the standards. The recording achieves exactly what Bjørnild set out as his goal. It can provide the best seat in your listening room. Go to the Sound Liaison site, listen to a few samples, download an album, and see if you don't agree that this intimate effort is one of the best and best-sounding jazz vocal albums to come along in many a day. By the way, the small audience applauds enthusiastically enough after the last chords of a song die away, but the attendees never interrupt or make themselves known while a song is going on. No doubt they were completely mesmerized into silence, as was I.

Be sure to listen to: On "Dock of the Bay," Gomes creates a languid, bluesy version that is a little bit reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry while still coming across as quite original. It'll cast a spell over you.

Carmen Gomes Inc.- SSS no.1