If you want to find out how good your sound system is, the worst way to do it is to play your favorite jazz albums. Your emotional connection with the music will likely distract you from evaluating the sound, and you may like those albums in part because they make your system sound great. What you need to test a stereo is albums that might make it sound not-so-great: recordings with elements such as deep bass, clear vocals, and extreme spaciousness that can push your audio gear to its limits.
I’ve been reviewing audio products for almost 30 years now, and I’ve amassed a collection of recordings that have proven especially useful in separating the great audio products from the good ones and the good ones from the lousy ones. Here are the 10 jazz albums I most often use to test audio products—and the things I listen for in them.
Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes for You (ECM, 1985)
For years, I assumed the title track of this album was recorded in a cathedral, but no—it was just a studio in Brooklyn (Rawlston Recording Studios, to be precise) with some skillful engineering and great-sounding reverb units. It’s one of the best tests I’ve found of an audio system’s ability to mimic the sound of a large performance venue. The echoes of the four trumpets and drummer Phillip Wilson’s snare should make your living room sound like it’s about 30 feet high, and you should be able to pick out the positions of the individual horns in the stereo soundstage. Wilson’s splash cymbal is also a great test of a tweeter, the treble-dedicated driver found on most good speakers.