Searching for new speakers: my critical listening disc

I’m just starting the process of searching for a new hi-fi setup, as my venerable Sony kit that came home with us from London is starting to give up the ghost.

I’ll write some more on the process, but I thought I’d start out by listing the tracks I’ve put on my critical-listening disc, and why I’ve chosen these tracks.

Track listing

  1. Menuet pour la petit gnomide (from La Pierre Philosophale by Charpentier): this is delicate, light music for soprano, lute and two recorders. I’m listening for good handling of the high soprano line, and a good balance between the (much softer) lute and recorders.
  2. Chorale Prelude Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele (BWV 654 by J.S. Bach): in this performance by Lionel Rogg, the stunning low notes of the Leipzig organ are a nice way to test for good bass that’s strong but retains pitch. I’ve heard cheap subwoofers that have plenty of ‘woof’ but struggle to keep the music itself clear.
  3. Second movement, Symphony No 6 ‘Pathetique’ (Tchaikovsky): this performance by the St Petersburg Kirov Orchestra has a beautifully-warm string section balanced with crisp woodwinds, and I’m looking for faithful reproduction of that warmth, and good separation of the orchestra on the recording. This is stereo, after all.
  4. Praise the Lord (chorus from Solomon, by Handel): In the Baroque era, there was a (now out of use) woodwind instrument lower than the bassoon, called the serpent. Halfway through this electrifying performance by Paul McCreesh, the serpent enters, and it’s like a kick in the pants.
  5. Prelude in C major (#1 from the 48 Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach): This is the first of the two Glenn Gould recordings and, as well as warmth and clarity in the piano sound, I want to be able to hear Gould’s hummings and murmurings. It’s all part of the experience!
  6. Fratres for eight cellos (Arvo Pärt): The eight cellos begin this piece all playing harmonics, and the etherial, spidery sound is a real challenge (not only for hi-fi, but for the players, too!). It needs lightness and body at the same time.
  7. I sing of a maiden (from El Niño by John Adams): over the six minutes of this track the sound builds to an orchestral frenzy, and the balance between singers, chorus and orchestra needs to be clear and well-maintained throughout.
  8. First movement of Symphony no 5 ‘Trauermarsch’ (Mahler): This opens with the famous trumpet fanfare and almost immediately plunges into full orchestral texture, with plenty of low brass, timpani and percussion. This performance, by Daniele Gatti with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, has plenty of ‘space’ in it, and is a good way to see how well the recording environment is reproduced by speakers.