Whether you love them or you hate them one thing is for sure, they help you hear the capabilities of a hifi rig just a little better. Its also one of the more discussed audiophile subjects, but never really seems to change much. Yes folks. I’m talking about audiophile songs at hifi shows.
I place very little blame on the show exhibitors themselves. They want their systems to sound the best, the logic to overplay these tracks is sound. It can also be worse from both sides of that worn out coin. At a recent show someone brought in a grainy execution of Led Zeppelin and played it on a high end system that I have heard pristine playback from many times. I knew something wasn’t right… and the next audiophile favorite confirmed it.
Like many creative pathways in life, these songs have become a tool of sorts. Capable of providing additional information that isn’t available on lesser tracks. All this complementary consultation aside, some of the songwriting can be a be a touch dusty – but not always. Most of the singing and performance is usually up to par, but odd subject matter or cliché metaphors may put a speed bump in the road of many listener’s enjoyment, especially if your tastes tend to lean to the outer rim of mainstream music. But most times (for those who attend shows) the cause of discomfort is simply burnout. Too many of the same tracks heard too many times with little variety squeezed in-between.
That being said, this top 10 can also double as a great list of test tracks for any system, provided you find a good copy, high fidelity source or capable reissue.
#10 Take 5 – David Brubeck
Its Jazzy, its digestible. It sounds like the soundtrack to an unnamed Oceans’ movie. The first few seconds of this Dave Brubeck track should sound familiar to anyone who listens to modern media in a few of its forms. There is also plenty of “room” left on the drums to give it some extra spacial air and placement. Take 5 is only one of many Jazz favorites that graces the hollowed halls of audio shows, but its does so with such frequency that we though we would drop it in at the sacred #10 spot.
#9 Europa – Santana
If you strip away some of that classic Santana distortion in the opening of Europa, one might never pick up that this artist played Woodstock. Things get back to classic rock about 3/4th of the way through, but this audiophile track takes a page from more easy listening, unoffensive core of the hobby. All that said, the guitar tone itself is sharper and more defined on this track than much of Carlos’ early recordings.
#8 Peel Me A Grape – Diana Krall
While any wide array of Mr. Costello’s better half could hold a slot here on the top 10, Peel Me A Grape seems to float into the show ether more often that not. Diana’s vocals are usually mic’d very close, and her smooth delivery makes for a good baseline for female vocals in the midband.
#7 Random Access Memories – Daft Punk
Including the chart topping Get Lucky, most of the songs that appear on Random Access Memories sound fairly alike in the way they were produced. For audiophiles, that means the bass is boosted, for every song. Engineers went a bit big on the low end of this entire album and between the beeps and boops and robot sounds lies a pretty creative album that is one of the bigger stretches away from jazz and classic rock mainstays. Its a good sounding album overall and great for showing off how tight your low end is on a top tier system. Other favorite tracks include Giorgio by Moroder, Lose Yourself to Dance and Give Life Back to Music.
#6 Money – Pink Floyd
A heap of spatial recognition never hurt any good audiophile track. While ringing cash register sounds from every direction might feel a bit gimmicky, this track is still very well put together for something created in 1973. The Dark Side of the Moon album is of course the very fulcrum of the lonely audiophile metaphor, but don’t let that sway you. Just call up a few friends, turn down the lights, grab your copy of the Wizard of Oz and hit play after the lion roars for the third time.
#5 No Sanctuary Here – Chris Jones
Unfortunately, a well produced guitar tone and tight bass doesn’t manage to save the odd backing vocals and slightly off kilter chorus from itself on this show favorite. Balanced and very “intimate” sounding, No Sanctuary plays the part well however. There isn’t too much excess noise to get in the way of the selected instruments within the sonic field. A few minutes with this track and the rest of your audio weekend will have “Hmmmm… Hmmmm…” echoing within the halls of your mind into perpetuity.
#4 Keith Don’t Go – Nils Lofgren
Predominantly played as a live track off of the album Acoustic Live, Nils’ work here reflects some of the same high production sensibilities as any solid studio recording. Stage performances provide a whole host of additional issues all their own, so high honors go to this track for cracking into the critical hive mind of the audiophile in any case. Quick footwork on Mr. Lofgren’s part delivers a solid selection of acoustic guitar fancifulness along the way, and is almost a spiritual musical halfway point between the previous No Sanctuary Here and our #3 pick.
#3 Tin Pan Alley – Stevie Ray Vaughan
Far from our favorite SRV track, this 9 minute laid-back, guitar-centric bluesy statement does deliver plenty of well-documented Stratocaster guitar tone, pushed upfront and free from too much augmentation. Its raw, delicate and masterfully played, but a touch sleepy compared to classics like Crossfire, Pride and Joy or even the epic VooDoo Child cover. But again, the sonic field is also less crowded, less compressed and overall clearer in terms of instruments and their imaging.
#2 Money For Nothing & Brothers In Arms – Dire Straights
Built out from the era-defining Money for Nothing, this entire album along with the title track can be found nearly any given Sunday at an audio show. Ushered back into the audiophile consciousness by a MoFi Original Master Recording reissue, the focus here is again dynamic guitar work along with maximum fidelity across the board. A closer look at the MFN lyrics reveals a few unpleasant verbal themes that don’t really fit within our modern day ethos, but perhaps relay a sonic snapshot of the time, place and attitude of classic rock Britain in the mid 80s.
#1 Hotel California (Hell Freezes Over) – The Eagles
Its easy to see why this version of the west-coast metaphor-laden warning is appealing. Revised with careful planning and modern-day gear, high production value rings out proudly from the first punctuated bass drum thump. The elongated, flamenco-style solos are fuller, closer and much less tinny than their original counterparts. The song itself is a cryptic story with much to tell, but after enough replays sometimes leaves the listener wondering if maybe two verses is enough.
Bonus: Fields of Gold – Sting
For Sting’s second appearance on this top 10 (he also sang backup vocals on Money for Nothing) the methodical ’93 release just barely shoehorned out Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat for the bonus spot on our top 10. A moderate tempo and Sting’s bass sensibilities help craft a test track that is articulate in the low end but still balanced overall. Easily digested, this track will never be substituted for an alarm clock ringtone, but can let you know if your system has full control over its facilities or is just winging it on the fly. For an audiophile double bonus track, we would remiss not to mention the even more laid-back version by Eva Cassidy.