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Room 2053
Alexis Park Hotel


What Our Reviewers Will Be Listening To

Greg WeaverDoug SchneiderJames SaxonDave DuvallSteven R. RochlinGreg SmithMarc MickelsonJohn StaffordTony FafogliaTodd WarnkeMike Masztal

Greg Weaver

Well, I thought about it and thought about it and at some point I decided to not think about it so hard. Why worry, just emulate the Boy Scout motto and be prepared! I will be carrying 24 different discs, and about 5 albums, with me to this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Variety of this magnitude should allow me to task just about any system I encounter to a point that will expose any weakness(es). I tend to lean heavily on the use of the human voice, and other midrange instruments like the piano, to do critical testing of a system. Here are just a few of the old standards in my "pet stack" that will be making the trip with me, along with a very general reason for using each of them.

First, The Healer, by John Lee Hooker (Chameleon D2-74808). John Lee surrounds himself with a very diverse cast on this 1989 triumphant release, the likes of which include Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and Los Lobos, to name but a few. This is just damn fine music! If a system doesn't make me wanna' tap my foot and move while this is on, it's time for the next exhibitor.

Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth (Club/MCA 10475) is a great source to test for layering throughout the soundstage, as is Postcards, by the Turtle Creek Chorale (Reference Recordings RR-61). To examine system to room melding, I will be using Amused To Death by Roger Waters (Sony Legacy CK 64426 gold pressing). This Q Sound recording is a good way to sample how well a system is integrated with the room. Familiarizing myself with this aspect of the exhibitors room/ system synergy allows me to be more or less critical of performance, accordingly.

The sheer soul of the piano shines through on Horowitz - The Last Recording (Sony SK 45818). This is one fine recording of the piano, as is Ivan Morovec Plays Beethoven (VAIA 1021). These recordings really tax a system to sound natural.

A relative new comer to my list is Mark Silent Bear - River Drum Child (Mapleshade MS 04252). This recording has become an absolute staple. I'm now relying heavily upon this disc as I was fortunate enough to sit in with Pierre Sprey at Mapleshade Studios back in February of this year while it was being recorded. I mean, literally, sit in the studio. Not in some room somewhere monitoring on headphones or speakers; but actually in the middle of the studio while the artists were creating the music. You wanna' talk about an invaluable reviewing tool?

One more from the list I have to mention is Daylight Again by Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic SD-19360). This is a wonderful recording of the harmony of three (sometimes more, including Art Garfunkel) voices. I have loved this music from the first time I played it in 1982 and it continues to cast its spell on me today.

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Doug Schneider

Some audiophiles feel the need to use squeaky clean, pristinely recorded, audiophile approved discs for system evaluation. You know the type of discs I'm talking about. The ones that allow you to do an audiophile "sound effects demo" replete with spot on imaging, depth out the ying-yang, layering (whatever that really is), soft tinkling highs and so on. Exhibitors love these discs too, mainly because they know that their system will sound just fine playing it. As a matter of fact, most systems, including not very good systems, sound quite acceptable playing this type of music. If the system doesn't sound good, then there is something REALLY wrong but that's rare. These discs are usually listener neutral too. Completely inoffensive, bland, lifeless, and without a hint of musical soul. The musical version of Wonder bread.

One of my favorite demo discs is Sarah McLachlan's The Freedom Sessions. Freedom is a musically compelling and involving disc that is raw, undisciplined, transparent with a live-feel that is rare among commercial discs today. The tracks are actually demo and unused tracks from the very good, but somewhat less compelling, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Sarah's screaming guitar backed by a full-range drum assault on "Ice" lets me know if a system sounds real. Many systems just don't cut it realistically on this track.

The soundtrack to Dead Man Walking has become a staple in my collection for assessing vocal reproduction. The richly textured voices of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, among others, are well recorded, full bodied, and incredibly detailed. Furthermore, the entire disc is wonderful.

I still love listening to "Angel Eyes" sung by Cheryl Bentyne on Rob Wasserman's Duets. I've heard some say that on this recording her voice sounds like razor blades on their system. I've found that it doesn't sound like that on many good systems.

Finally, Blue Rodeo's "Five Days in May" from their best-selling Five Days in July disc has incredible space, space, all over the place, something I'm looking forward to hearing again in Vegas.

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James Saxon

Unlike my more adept and ambitious SoundStage! colleagues, at CES I plan to focus on a single aspect of audio playback: reproduction of the human voice. After six weeks of living petulantly with the Merlin VSM-SE with BAM, during which time I experienced tremendous doubt, anxiety, and ultimately, satisfaction, I have learned a great lesson. If a loudspeaker can portray a vocalist with the richness of tone that mirrors reality, it will win my affection no matter how cantankerous it may be otherwise.

By fortune, the first disc I listened to with the Merlins was the vocal soundtrack to Dead Man Walking (Columbia CK 67522), which I had bought in Atlanta in September, and which fell to hand. In defiance of placement, lack of break-in, cabling and component mismatch, and other importer misunderstandings, the speaker wrenched my heart from the moment Bruce Springsteen began to sing. I realized I was in the presence of potential greatness. Unfortunately, after cut 1 of the disc, I moved on to other types of music where disaster struck. Nothing else sounded harmonious. Hours later, needing re-affirmation, I played Bruce Springsteen and then the rest of the DMW soundtrack. Again, the music was so captivating, I knew the VSM-SEs (then, without BAM) deserved the sweat-and curse-filled efforts I was making to understand them.

After many long and costly telephone conversations with Bobby Palkovic, the Merlin magician, I began to appreciate not only the trade-offs of his design, but also the choices of other speaker-builders who tout their loudspeakers as the "world's best." For instance, a notable Italian two-way, which uses drivers similar to the Merlins, gives astounding lows and big dynamics, but reproduces voice with a wispiness that starves the ear. The reason for this, I am told, is that most two-way speakers are overly ambitious to produce deep bass, a prime marketing "hook." The result is a frequency dip, or as my friend Roberto would say, a "suck-out" that robs a voice of fullness and warmth, despite giving it impressive leading edge definition.

Not only two-way speakers suffer from ambition-induced anemia. Many a Class A pretender forgets the human voice in search of the last organ octave. I have owned a few speakers that could do voice, as well as bass, but not many. Usually I am disappointed at home after having been impressed at the Show. This year, in order to separate the promising from the hopelessly fouled-up, I plan to infiltrate my sainted copy of Dead Man Walking into loudspeaker demos at CES. If my jaw drops like it did with the Merlins, I'll know the potential is there. If not, I can rest easy, knowing the VSM-SEs exist and they're mine.

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Dave Duvall

I, like many of you, have been to a number of audiophile expositions, and have developed shortcuts and habits to help enjoy, yet effectively cover a show. One of the most beneficial lines of thought to me is to take along a variety of CD's that I know intimately well. Two things get accomplished. First, I've got something from a variety of genres, so I can play music that is complimentary to the atmosphere of the room. Second, with the amount of time you have in any one room, and the fact that all you can really judge is the sound of the system as a whole (colored by the usually smallish room), it's fruitless to try to analyze a setup for more than how it makes you feel about the music being played. Therefore, here's the lineup (subject to free agency and injuries) that I'll be listening to during the audio circus in Vegas. I'm not going to tell you "because this one has pristine highs" and whatnot. I'll be using these cuts because I know quickly when they sound "right" to me (spoken as a true subjectivist).

  • Blues - Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band - Dirty Pool: "Flooding in California" (Evidence Records ECD 26088-2) (HDCD encoded).
  • Rock - Pink Floyd - A Momentary Lapse of Reason: "On The Turning Away" (Columbia Records CXK 53180, CK 53189) (From the box set "Shine On").
  • Classical - New Symphony Orchestra of London: Alexander Gibson, Conductor; "Gnomus" (from Pictures at an Exhibition) off Witches Brew (Classic Records LSCCD 2225).
  • Crossover (the best I can call it; is it Country? Is it Popular? Is it Rock?) - Cowboy Junkies - Lay It Down: "Just Want To See" (Geffen GEFD-24952).
  • Jazz - Diana Krall - Only Trust Your Heart: "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby" (GRP Records GRD-9810)

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Greg Smith

Unlike most people, I've got a secret weapon for making the accumulation of demo music easy. I make my own CDs. About a year ago, I sat down and listed the fourteen tracks I was using the most for figuring out what was good or bad equipment. I With the best possible versions, I cut myself a single disc. Since then, I've gone through three iterations of this arrangement, with a song substitution or two each time. The goal is to put this single collection, sit and listen for 74 minutes, and afterward know a substantial amount about the system I'm listening to. To slip into this lineup, I need to have heard the song at least a hundred times. I don't use anything for equipment evaluation unless it is totally and utterly familiar.

While I pretty much pick songs at random for show listening, there's a definite order when I'm listening at home. The first few tracks let me get settled in and adjusted to what I'm hearing. "Things She Said" from Toy Matinee (Reprise 9 26235-2) is the opener; in addition to being fairly challenging, it has the benefit of never being silent. Quite helpful when I'm just starting and am not sure if the CD player is even connected right yet -- ever blow something up when you turned the volume up high because you didn't hear anything and that was just the quiet part at the beginning? I have. Next is "Too Late" from the Alan Parsons Project Gaudi. (the version I use is from the just released Definitive Collection, Arista 07822-18962-2) In addition to being a favorite, this also has distinct left and right guitars so I can verify the channels are wired correctly. The next three recorings are helpful because they have both good and bad parts. "Red Rain", like the rest of Peter Gabriel's So (Geffen 9 2408802), generally sounds good but it contains some subtle flaws you only pick up on systems with decent resolution. The Eagles' "Pretty Maids All In A Row" from Hotel California (only the DCC GZS-1024 version) is wonderful overall, but the way the noise at the beginning fits into the quiet opening lets you hear a lot about the high-frequency character of the equipment you're listening to. "Crazy On You" from Heart's Dreamboat Annie (DCC GZS-1058) is recorded right at the edge of the CD standard level, so has fantastic dynamics. There are also a number of downright unpleasant aberrations in the middle that I listen for.

And so it goes for another nine tracks. There's a mix of reference level recordings that go along with the sometimes problematic ones. Two tracks I find particularly challenging are my usual picks for brief listening at a show. The Toy Matinee song "Last Plane Out" is a positively brutal recording. It gives a heavy workout to the entire frequency spectrum while still having plenty of details that get lost if a system doesn't deal well with high power or deep bass. "Secret Silky World" from David Baerwald's Triage (A&M 75021/5392 2) is more subtle, with lots of ambiance that doesn't make it through on substandard equipment. Regardless, it still packs a huge wallop with sub-30Hz bass energy and stunning transients. Other albums I find myself often utilizing include Kevin Gilbert's Thud (PRA 60401-2) and the MoFi version of Robbie Robertson. (MFSL UDCD 618)

The new collection I'm making for CES is going to include at least one new song I discovered over the summer. Marillion's "He knows you know" features a stunningly strong vocal recorded over a wide dynamic range, not to mention some fantastic musicians playing a killer tune. The song is from their Script for a jester's tear album, and I'm still scouring the world looking for the best mastering available. If past incarnations of my demo CD are any indication, I'll be listening to it at least once a week, so I want as clean a copy as possible.

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Marc Mickelson

Diversity is the word that describes the musical goody bag I'll be bringing to the CES--rock, pop, live, jazz, vocals, country and western.

Number one on my list is also number one (or darn near it) in my heart: Television. I've written about this CD until I'm blue in the hand; follow me around at the CES and you'll get to hear it. I'll be lugging Marshall Crenshaw's My Truck is My Home because it sounds hyper-live and thus will challenge systems that can't reproduce it at healthy levels. I'm also bringing Danilo Perez's Panamonk -- the work of a fine jazz pianist -- Roseanne Cash's 10 Song Demo for female vocals, Guy Clarks' Boats to Build for male vocals, and finally Walter Becker's 11 Tracks of Whack as a sonic softball. Any system that makes it sound hard or boring will be highly unrecommended.

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John Stafford

When packing music for demos, my motto is: you can never bring too much. I am a spur of the moment listener and I don’t like to only bring a couple of disks. Generally speaking, you’ll hear someone else’s music on a system before you are asked to pick something and I choose what to put on based on what I think is either very right with the system or very wrong. For example, if I am hearing some prodigious bass, I will put something on that will make sure the bass is detailed. If I think I hear some harshness in the mids, I’ll put something on that exaggerates that problem. You get the idea. While I am likely to pack a suitcase exclusively for CDs, here are a few tracks that I invariably go for when I want to check out a system:

Oscar Peterson - We Take Requests

This is a multipurpose CD for checking soundstage, balanced highs, and detail in the bottom end. My favorite track is "You Look Good To Me." This track has some great ‘bowed’ double bass to start things off that can really separate the men from the boys. Most speakers will go low enough to check the bottom end, and the speakers that go very low will give that much more detail if they are doing it right. If they aren’t, the bottom end will fall apart. There is air galore on the drum kit and the highs will shimmer very nicely if played correctly and hurt your ears if the system is overly bright. The soundstage is also huge on this disk when played on the right system. The piano, unfortunately is over-damped and sounds like it may be a second or third generation tape. You can’t have everything, I guess.

Joni Mitchell – Misses

"The Wolfe That Lives In Lindsey" is also on the album Mingus, but I only have her two greatest hits disks called Hits and Misses so they’ll have to do. Joni’s voice reaches out and grabs you if the mids and imaging are working correctly on any song, but it seems to work for me particularly with this one. Joni is immediately right of center and the guitar is immediately left of center and if they aren’t, something’s wrong with your imaging. Also, there is a fair bit of hammering on the guitar that goes glassy if the highs aren’t up to snuff. Besides, it’s a cool song with wolves howling ‘n stuff.

Mighty Sam McLain - Give it up to Love

It’s not uncommon to hear the title track for this song as a demo because it just about always sounds good. I like the last track "Lonesome Road" to check for speed, detail, and dynamics. The guitar work is pretty spectacular and the you can practically see the strings vibrate if things are working right.

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Steven R. Rochlin

IASCA 1997-98 Competition CD: This CD contains music excerpts from various Mapleshade, Chesky, Reference Recordings, a few bass music tracks and more! HDCD and non-HDCD tracks combined with some very well recorded acoustic music of various types really help me to understand a system's music reproduction capabilities. Also included on this CD are system linearity tracks, a pink noise track (i might be doing RTA at the show), and quite a few fun deep bass syntho-pop. We should all be in for a good learning experience.

All Star Percussion Ensemble (Golden Sounds GSCD005): Here's a classic percussion CD which last year made a few manufactures wanna know what CD it was (so they could buy a copy for themselves!). It contains classical music by Bizet, Beethoven, Pachelbel and Berloiz arranged for percussion instruments. Amazingly well recorded in a beautifully appropriate concert hall gives one a very good sense of depth and resolution. Being a drummer/percussionist myself there's no hiding a systems shortcoming in some respects when auditioning this CD. The air, the natural depth, the hall's acoustics, the was bells, chimes, xylophone, tambourine and more sound. Here's a CD i humbly recommend to all my percussionist buddies.

Prodigy Fat of the Land: Ok, so the recording quality isn't 'audiophile, 'though sometimes you just wanna rock and get away from listening to only 'proper audiophile' music. Call it "Steve's rage time." All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Though i must admit the fast bass and techno-rhythms can really test a system, especially if the amplification doesn't have the chutzpah to keep going when the going gets tough! After a long day of work, one needs a good jump start at times. No better music to jump start me then this one (well, maybe Metallica or better still Napalm Death. But NO manufacture i know could handle Napalm Death :-{(+ ). Breath the pressure, come play my game i'll test ya. Psychosomatic addict insane! Come play my game! Just remember that in the end what really matters is that you ... ENJOY THE MUSIC

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Tony Fafoglia

Norma Waterson Norma Waterson: The first solo album by this legend of British folk music. Norma could sing the phone book and I'd listen. This album features backing by Norma's husband, also a UK folk legend Martin Carthy (who may be one of the best "real" guitar players alive), and their daughter Eliza Carthy (yes, proof that talent is genetic). Throw in a couple of other blokes named Richard and Danny Thompson, plus songs by RT, Elvis Costello, Hunter/Garcia and Norma, and you got yourself a fine album. The production is by John Chelew and Larry Hirsch, so the sonics are warm and uncluttered.  I'd kill for this on 180gm LP.

Rubin Gonzales Introducing: If I told you that the best Jazz piano player in the world may be a 70+ man living in Cuba, you'd think I was crazy. Then I'd play you this CD and you would beg me to loan it to you for a month. Here's the amazing thing -- this is his recording debut! I guess living in Cuba didn't help his notoriety, but better late than never I say. In fact, the guy doesn't even own a piano.

I don't think there's a record I've listened to more than this in the last few months. The World Circuit recording team has done an excellent job of capturing Rubin in what I'm sure were less than optimal circumstances. Soundstage freaks will eat this up. Some native audiophile labels should listen and feel humbled. This may be my fave of 1997.

Don Byron Bug Music: Anyone who associates clarinet with squares like Mr. Ackerbilk and Pete Fountain needs a heavy dose of Byron. On this album Don interpets the music of Raymond Scott, John Kirby and Duke Ellington. Actually, this is the latest of his projects for the Nonesuch label, including a great tribute to Klezmer pioneer Micky Katz from two years ago. The playing and sonics on this CD are astounding. But what's even a bigger kick is how Byron and his ensemble make this music, which is mostly from the 1920's through 1940's, breathe with life. There's none of the preciousness of revival groups like the Beauhunks or ineptitude of Gen-X psuedo Lounge dorks. I think this may be one of the great Jazz records of the decade. I mean anyone who can make a warhorse like "St. Louis Blues" exciting to hear again deserves an award in my book.

Shostakovich Jazz Music:   This was Shostakovich's take on American jazz music that he was enamoured with in the 1930's. As digital recordings of large ensembles go this is a good one to my ear. Lots of space and dynamics and nice instrumental timbres. Although influenced by jazz, this music is not quite like anything else I've heard and that's probably why I like it so much. It has a sense of sadness, elegance and beauty that only a Russian like Shostakovich could bring to it. Also, as a bonus you get a storming version of his Concerto for "Piano and Trumpet."

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Todd Warnke

Ah, CES. Las Vegas. Equipment, music and booze. But most important, a chance to get away from the sub-zero conditions of Denver in mid January and enjoy a bit of Sun and Sin. Anyway, what music to bring? This is a very delicate question. It has to be music I know intimately. Music that I enjoy since I’ll be hearing a lot of it over a 4 day period. And most important, music that I can put away for several months after I get beck, because after hearing snippets of each album about 15 gazillion times I’ll hate it for awhile.

First up, Arvo Part’s Fratres on Telarc. Each track is torture test, but the first will do quite nicely. The opening percussion is set about 30 feet back and slowly rises in volume. The strings, in the foreground, come in slowly as well. The reverb from the church is quite evident but cannot become overpowering. Very good test track.

Next, the jazz disks. Let’s start with Gil Evans Out of the Cool. The recording, a Rudy VanGelder from 1960, is excellent, even if it is starting to show some age. The opening track, "La Nevada", in my estimation, is his finest track, even including his work with Miles. Solos on trumpet, bass trombone, bass and guitar follow the opening theme which includes piano, maracas and flute. Texture, rhythmic drive and imaging are all put to severe test. The second jazz disk comes from Keith Jarrett’s At the Blue Note set. The fourth disk holds a track so good that it justifies the whole box set. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette start with "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and after 3-4 minutes segue into the Jarrett tune, "The Fire Within". The gentle and lyric Styne/Cahn opening tune is beautiful, the transition highlights Jarrett’s soft touch and speed. The closing tune has fantastic bass work by Peacock and equally compelling and musical work by DeJohnette. Once again, rhythm gets a work out, as does speed and treble purity.

Female vocals are covered by Jane Siberry and kd lang from the Siberry album, When I was a Boy. "Calling All Angels" features a duet by both singers that can stress the ability of any setup to resolve and separate 2 similar vocals. Oh, and the fantastic, if artificial, sense of space and depth is a kick on a great setup as well. I’m also bringing Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s Peace Beyond Passion, first, to shake some life into the show, and second, for the vocals and bass playing.

That’s it. Oh, I’ll bring some fun stuff too, such as John Zorn, P.J. Harvey and Zepplin’s recent Live at the BBC release, but that’s mostly to clean my ears of all the Little Mary and her Lute crap that passes for "music" at CES. See you there!

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Mike Masztal

Ottmar Liebert, VIVA!, Epic EK 66455. One of my all-time favorite CDs.

Ricki Lee Jones, Traffic From Paradise, Geffen GEFD 24602. One of RLJ's best since her first album. Although her style tends to be schizophrenic between albums, this one is mostly acoustic with tuneful songs like "Stewart's Coat" and "Running From Mercy." Guest artists include Lyle Lovett, Leo Kottke, David Hidalgo, and Brian Setzer. Excellent recording useful in evaluating spatial resolution and micro-dynamics.

Robben Ford and the Blue Line, (Untitled). Stretch Records STD 1102. Robben got his start as a jazz guitarist in Miles Davis' band, eventually went the blues route. His band includes bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tim Brechtlein. A dynamite recording with songs in the jazz-blues vein Robben's a pretty cool singer, too. Can your system rock? Listen to these guys and find out.

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