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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater

Special Feature

Test & Sampler Discs

December 2003

Reviews by John Sunier

A stack of test and sampler discs has been building up on my desk for many months now, consisting mostly of SACDs. There’s now 15 of them, so I think it’s high time to cover them in an article. But now that I have begun working with them I realize that only a few are really test discs and the rest are just samplers - though very good ones. That means most of them are provided at bargain prices. I recall a friend back in the early LP era whose entire small collection consisted of nothing but samplers. Back then they were mostly 99 cents each or given away. While it wasn’t as easy to skip over a disliked track on vinyl as it is today on digital discs, the samplers still provided a wonderful variety of music and were seldom boring. The same goes for those below. A very functional use of the SACD samplers (strange there’s not a single DVD-A sampler except one throwaway from DTS!) is to allow an A/B comparison of an SACD track with the same selection or performer - or even the exact same performance - on a standard CD in your present collection to decide if the improvement is worth re-investing cash in the same music again.

Two good DVD-A test discs

Since all of these are either SACDs or standard CDs, let me mention first the two DVD-A test discs I keep returning to. Many of you are already familiar with them. First is the Telarc 1812 Overture, DVDA-70541. Yes, it’s not quite as good a performance as the earlier Telarc 1812s and the DVD-A is not quite as good sonically as the simultaneous SACD version, but it had the additional room to include all sorts of setup tests. The pink noise test tones going around the six speakers are announced by a small child’s voice instead of the usual announcer. (My two cats went nuts the first few times I played this, looking for the little boy behind whatever speaker the voice came from; they had been birthed in a home with such a small boy.) The disc is two-sided and on the DVD-Video side the same speaker test tone series allows setting levels for your Dolby 5.1 playback. Sometimes you will find the two formats require slightly different settings - very frustrating. However, using test tones from a disc this way is to be preferred over using the test tones many AV preamps and receivers generate themselves.

The other excellent DVD-A test disc is Chesky’s The Ultimate Surround Sampler & 5.1 Set-Up Disc - CHDVD221. Not only does it feature both Dolby 5.1 and 5.1 MLP test sequences as well as 96K stereo PCM, but it also includes Chesky’s own 6.0 option which uses side/height speakers fed by the center and LFE tracks. In addition there are speaker phase, response, bass management, delay and alignment tests, plus eight selections from the Chesky catalog - including one of the wonderful Bucky Pizzarelli tracks, a lengthy movement from David Chesky’s own choral work The Agnostic, and an amazingly in-your-room appearance by The Persuasions singing a Beatles hit.

Two rather odd standard CD test discs...

Boston Audio Society Test CD-1 (CD-R):

This is a CD-R available only from the BAS, so if your player won’t handle CD-Rs you are out of luck. The note booklet is very complete, with interesting details on each of the 35 tracks. The 11 music excerpts at the beginning come from both amateur recordings and from material issued on small classical labels such as Afka and Titanic. One track demonstrates the addition of a small amount of Lexicon reverb to a dry hall acoustic and mentions that this is frequently done with many recordings. In the excerpt from the St. Saens Organ Symphony the lowest organ notes rattled one of my subwoofers seriously at normal volume. There is also a track from a recording of an excerpt from the Verdi Requiem, made in Boston Symphony Hall by Peter Mitchell, which has a much greater dynamic range than most commercial recordings. It was recorded 22 years ago with an early 14-bit PCM-on-videotape format. An excerpt from the local Boston audiophile radio series Shop Talk is also on the CD.

One of the tracks was recorded in seven channels and then processed with Lexicon’s Logic 7 matrix for two channel reproduction. It is supposed to be reconstituted to seven channels when played back via a Logic 7 decoder, but can deliver a good surround field with other options such as ProLogic II - which it did for me. However, the most realistic surround field was created by leaving my Sunfire preamp in stereo mode and turning on Sonic Holography - sounds on the At Christmas track appeared distinctly in the rear and on the sides though those speakers were disabled. There are some test tracks from a Tom Holman test CD, but the BAS runs the frequency sweep backwards - starting at 20KHz. There are index numbers every .5KHz and a table in the booklet that allows you to “find out how badly you’ve treated your hearing over the years” by noting when the tone becomes audible and what frequency it is. Something seems to have gone amiss in burning this CD-R because I could get any sort of signal out of several of the sweep tracks

Jabberwocky, St.Saens Organ Symphony, Bach: Concerto after Vivaldi, Bruckner: Sym. No. 4, At Christmas All Be Merry, Soler G minor Sonata for harpsichord, Schumann: Kreisleriana, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, Verdi: Requiem, Shop Talk on WBUR, Stereo & mono pink noise, surround sound pan, third-octave bands of pink noise, Hollywood Edge tests, downward sweeps, picket fence test, multitone test, low-level crackle and chime tests, frogs!

The Chamber of Horrors for Audiophiles - Tacet 54 Standard CD:

This is a fun test disc that has been out for a few years from the German audiophile label now doing the classical DVD-As which exploit multichannel options more than any other label by placing players solidly at their individual speakers for chamber music - in other words a quintet each having their own speaker location. I seem to be the only reviewer who thinks this is a good thing, but never mind. On to the present CD: Tacet means a rest or silence in music and its choice for the name of his label shows that CEO Andreas Spreer likes paradoxes and contradictions. This disc is full of them and many will raise a smile in the listener.

First of all it has 99 tracks and Speer says if CDs allowed for more than that he would have included even more error examples. Things start off with five error-free concert selections from Tacet releases, recorded with old Neumann valve mics. The final of Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 and the Allegro from Schubert’s Trio in B Minor are among them. The first of the errors section is devoted to Digital Errors. There are samples of differently quantified resolutions - ranging from 20 bit down to 4 bits (which of course sounds terrible). Various sorts of CD errors are compared with various DAT errors. A sort of scratching sound is the main DAT error, indicating that if you hear this on a CD the fault is not with the CD but with the original master from which it was made. Digital clicks are next covered. From one to 100 samples are missing from a 44.1K recording; depending on the error correction abilities of your particular player you may start to hear clicks sooner or later. There are examples of acoustic clicks such as the clicking keys on a clarinet soloist of the string bassist’s string hitting the fingerboard. LP Errors are next - all too familiar to those of us who spent the better part of our lives with vinyl. I skipped thru these tracks in a hurry.

Errors of Pitch come up next - an interesting area to which some listeners are extremely sensitive and others never notice serious problems of wow or flutter. This is one problem that seldom shows up in digital reproduction anymore. Cassette Errors include playing back a tape processed with one noise reduction type using a different type of decoder, and problems of head and tape alignment. The Editing Errors are interesting in using the same brief excerpt with different overlaps so that the edit point can always be identified. The final section of 26 separate tracks is on Errors in Sound Engineering. Some of the examples are analog dropouts, growling from 50Hz mains interference in Europe, overuse of limiters and noise reduction software, tape heads out of alignment, and lastly the unforeseen problem of outside noises such as car horns, planes, dogs and so on interfering with an otherwise excellent recording. For Spreer this is a real Chamber of Horrors. I would recommending listening to this disc on good headphones because many of the errors to be detected are extremely subtle. Purchase Here

Here are the SACD samplers, and by the way every one is hybrid - meaning compatible for playback on any standard CD player:

DMP Multichannel Reference SACD - SACD-16:

I’m doing this one first in the SACD series because its final track is one of the few sources of good test signals and ID for all channels, using pink noise. The second music selections from the DMP catalog are well-chosen and several feature the use of the LFE channel for what CEO Tom Jung specifies as a rear/height channel, but can also be fed to one or two side/height channels as a mono signal to both (if one each side). The first selection is from the overhead-miked Gaudeamus SACD, and there are also tracks with big band and a terrific percussion track. Contents: Ubi Caritas, Autumn Leaves, Shiny Stockings, Carioca Blue, Bach’s Lunch, Knockin’ Myself Out, Tsunami. Purchase Here

Multichannel SACD Sampler - Sony Music CA 3634:

This one says For Promotional Use - Not for Sale -but I’m not sure if that means just this reviewer’s disc or the entire run. Sony’s SACD Project put these eight multichannel SACD tracks together from several different labels: Telarc, DMP, Delos, Chesky and Omega (Vanguard). The selections are extremely varied and many are lengthy tracks of as long as nine minutes (the lovely Adagio from Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet). Others include Jerry Goldsmith conducting his music for Twilight Zone, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, jazz pianist Warren Bernhardt, and a closing rouser from Spyro Gyra.

The SACD Stereo and Multichannel Demonstration Disc - Groove Note GRV1013:

The note booklet for this disc is simply the standard Sony/Philips brochure “The Compact Disc was a good idea,” which is enclosed with many SACDs. The disc has either 11 or 14 tracks depending on how you look at it. The three multichannel tracks are a separate program and in order to play them you will have to stop most players and set them up for multichannel playback if they were set for stereo. These three tracks are: one from the Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble on DMP, Fantasia on Greensleeves by cellist Teresa Perez on F.I.M. And a selection from the DMP Gaudeamus SACD. The stereo tracks (besides these three): Anthony Wilson Trio - Chitlins Con Carane, Bill Cunliffe Trio - Ireland, Linda Rosenthal - La Paloma, Luqman Hamza - Feeling Good, River of Sorrow - High Mt. Flowing, Jacintha - Autumn Leaves, Florestan Trio - Debussy: Piano Trio - Finale, Bennie Wallace - When a Woman Loves a Man. Purchase Here

An Introduction of SACD - Chesky SACD204:

This earlier stereo-only but hybrid SACD sports a dozen pop and jazz tracks from the Chesky catalog featuring the following artists: Christy Baron, David Johansen, Livingston Taylor, Dave’s True Story, Paquito D’Rivera, McCoy Tyner, Jon Faddis, The Conga Kings, Rebecca Pigeon, Clark Terry and David Chesky. Purchase Here

Concord Jazz Sampler Audio CD Sampler - SACD-1032-6:

A brand new sampler provides a terrific intro to the massive recent SACD release program of this label. I was surprised to learn that multitrack masters existed for nearly all of Concord’s library going back to their beginnings. I had always thought that their highly-prized-by-audiophiles recordings were purist two-track. Every one of these 13 tracks is a winner, combining the increased resolution of DSD with the greatly added excitement of involving surround mixes.

Selections: Jim Hall - Beija-Flor, Tania Maria - Come With Me, Rosemary Clooney - Straighten Up and Fly Right, Poncho Sanchez/Mongo Santamaria - Watermelon Man, Gen Hararis -= Listen Here, Carmen McRae - My Handy Man, Tito Puente - Aregin, Stan Getz Quartet - Blood Count, Mel Torm with Rob McConnell - Love Walked In, Cal Tjader - Serengeti, Art Blakey - In Walked Bud, Charlie Byrd Trio - O Nosso Amor, Michael Feinstein - Spring Will be a Little Late. Purchase Here

Super Artists on Super Audio - Channel Classics Sampler CCS SA SEL 2603:

Another recent hi-res sampler, this from the small but very active Amsterdam label who jumped into multichannel DSD with both feet early in the game. The 73-minute disc features 17 tracks of works by 15 different composers and involving a dozen of their stable of performing artists. As with most classical labels, their take on the surround field is for subtle ambience - an impression of the performing space and no more. As with Naxos’ artists, these performers may not be known to you but that doesn’t mean they are not at the same level of artistry as the big-selling celebrities on the major labels. The titles and CD numbers for each of the albums is given.

Selections include Vivaldi, Franck, Rameau, Monteverdi, Schumann, Telemann, St.-Saens, Piazzolla, Mozart, Britten, Ravel, Couperin and Carissimi. Performers include: Netherlands Bach Society, Trevor Pinnock, Pieter Wispelwey - cello, Florilegium, The Locke Consort, The Gents. Purchase Here

The last four samplers all come from the Telarc organization...

Telarc SACD Sampler I - Multichannel Surround - SACD-60006:
Telarc SACD Sampler II - Multichannel Surround - SACD-60007:

Each of these discs has 15 selections which are primarily complete sections or movements on their own without fadeouts. The first disc is primarily jazz and pop ending with three classical selections, while the second volume is mostly all classical. Of special interest among these classical selections is a spectacular, tonal new13-minute work titled Rainbow Body. An interesting technical departure here is that Telarc’s mastering engineer didn’t equalize the levels of the 15 tracks to match up, because it was felt that degrade the fidelity of the original tracks. So the tracks are arranged roughly with the loudest at the beginning and getting gradually softer as the disc continues, so the user can slowly raise the volume level as it goes along. The album titles, shots of the covers, and a list of all the performers on each one appear in the booklet. If it is a sizeable ensemble, the performers heard on the particular track appear in bold type.

Selections on I: Moanin’ - Monty Alexander, Badia - Weather Report celebration, Nature Boy - Philip Bailey, Feelin’ Fine - Spyro Gyra, Give Me One Reason - Junior Wells, Anthony’s Blues - Michel Camilo, Harcourt Nights - Oscar Peterson & Michel Legrand, Pride and Joy - Kevin Mahogany, Simple Gifts - Erich Kunzel, September in the Rain - Erich Kunzel, Across the Universe - Erich Kunzel, Cuban Landscape with Rain - LA Guitar Quartet, DUPRE: Gloria from Magnificat VI, VAUGHN WILLIAMS: excerpt from A Sea Symphony, ORFF: O Fortuna, from Carmina Burana. Time: 67:18 Purchase Here

Selections on II: PURCELL: Rondeau From Abdelazer - Empire Brass; PROKOFIEV: Death of Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet - Cincinnati Sym.; THEOFANIDIS: Rainbow Body - Atlanta Sym.; LECUONA: Malaguena - Kondonassis, harp; Sel. From Canticum Canticorum - Tapestry; HOVHANESS: Sel. From Mysterious Mountain - Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; BEETHOVEN: Excerpt from Ninth Sym. - Atlanta Sym. & Chorus; Parade of the Charioteers from Ben Hur - Erich Kunzel; String of Pearls - Erich Kunzel; GRIEG: Sel. From Holberg Suite - Rotterdam Ch. Orch.; HANDEL: La Rejouissance from Music for the Royal Fireworks - Boston Baroque/Pearlman; MAHLER: Excerpt from Sym. No. 6 - Philharmonia/Zander; STRAVINSKY: King Katschei’s Dance from The Firebird Suite - Cincinnati Sym.; Theme from Sleepy Hollow - Erich Kunzel; Ensemble Galilei in Celtic music. Purchase Here

Super Audio CD Sampler - RQR - PentaTone Classics 5186 044:
Super Audio CD Sampler - PentaTone Classics 5186 043:
[Both samplers were released November 25.]

Both of these samplers originate with Polyhymnia International, a company founded in l998 as a management buy-out by key personnel of the former Philips Classics Recording Center in Holland. The first sampler employs four-channel recordings made in the 1970s by Philips for possible release on quadraphonic LPs. But it was soon realized that none of the matrix quad formats were technically viable and that surround approach was less than a success with the public. So these early four channel tapes sat on the shelves until now, when they can be released as 4.0 multichannel SACDs on the PentaTone label. Top-flight classical artists are involved in these recordings which have for the most part not been released on standard CD before - though if only released in that format many would make quite a splash. The performers include The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, I Musici, Orchestre de Paris, BBC Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra, Concerto Amsterdam, Sir Colin Davis, Eliahu Inbal, Josef Krips, Sir Neville Marriner, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Daniel Chorzempa, Alan Civil, Severino Gazelloni, Werner Haas, Stephen Kovacevich, Arthur Grumiaux.

Selections on the RQR (Remastered Quadro Recordings) sampler include movements from symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann, and St.-Saens; concertos of Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi, Handel; and music of Wagner, Rossini and Russian liturgical chant. Purchase Here

After the initial series of RQR releases - which continue - PentaTone moved on to brand new multichannel recordings, mostly in 5.0 format as befits the label’s name. 15 of these are sampled on the second SACD disc. The performing artists include the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Russian National orchestra, Kent Nagano, Marco Boni, Yakov Kreizberg, Mari Kodama (piano) and many others.

Selections for this disc: MOZART: Movt. From Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Movt. From Quartet in F for Violin, Oboe, Viola & Cello; BEETHOVEN: 3rd movt. of Appassionata Sonata; MENDELSSOHN; 3rd movt. of Violin Concerto in D Minor; SCHMIDT: Orch. Music from Notre Dame; MAHLER: Adagietto from Sym. No. 5; BACH: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; SCHUBERT: Ave Maria; RACHMANINOFF: Vespers sel.; TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade for Strings - Waltz, 3rd movt. of Piano Concerto No. 1; HANDEL: Hallelujah Chorus; RICHTER: Andante from Sinfonia a Quatro in B Flat. Purchase Here

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