I don’t know how many times I have heard people say this about vocal recordings, especially those that are accompanied by a solo instrument or a small ensemble. They want you to put on something with a bigger, louder, more complex sound. Yes, I admit I have heard plenty of systems that sound pretty good on vocals, small jazz or small classical ensembles, but then fall apart on loud rock music, big band music or powerful symphonic pieces.
Likewise, I have heard systems that sounded very good on loud, big, complex tunes and were very disappointing on vocals and smaller pieces. For me personally, if a system can’t get voices right nothing else matters, but getting voices right isn’t the only thing. The problem is still after all these years that I like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other rock groups from that era. I also like big band music which is very demanding, and I like most Russian classical music. So, I want a system that can let Billie Holiday or Judy Collins sound alive in my room, but I do want the rock bands to do so as well.
Still, it just isn’t true that most any system can get small ensemble and vocal music right. Very few systems can actually let singers come to life right there in the room with you. Even fewer can get both female and male singers right. I’ve had several speakers in for review that cost over $10,000 and one pair that cost $60,000 that sounded just magnificent on female vocals and tenors. Then I would put on Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra or Louie Armstrong and they just didn’t sound right at all. Of course this can also happen with other components other than speakers, but most often in my experience with speakers. By the way if a system has this problem with vocals of course it will also have it with instruments in these different frequency ranges.
This is why I so often use Rob Wasserman’s album Duets when I start evaluating a system or reviewing a component. Side two of the LP has four consecutive songs that will tell you a lot about your system and which are fun to listen to as well. The first cut on side two is Wassermans’s duet with Jennifer Warnes performing “Ballad of the Runaway Horse.” I have to admit of the four songs this tells you the least about your system but it’s one of my favorite songs and I’ve listened to her sing it on other albums for so many years that I feel very comfortable with evaluating systems from listening to her voice. On this duet with Wasserman you get the chance to see if her voice sounds, alive and correct while also evaluating if his bass has the correct tone and air around and within it.
The second cut on side 2 is “Gone With the Wind” with Wasserman and Dan Hicks. This is a rather bizarre performance, arrangement and recording. It’s not often these days that the person putting the tracks together doesn’t place the singer dead center in the recording. In this cut you have Hicks placed to the right of center to start the number and then at points along the way there are male voices that seem to come from behind and to the side of the right speaker. This is a great cut for evaluating the male voice in different vocal ranges and for evaluating soundstaging.
The third cut “Angel Eyes” features Cheryl Bentyne and Rob Wasserman and is by far the most difficult cut on the LP for a system to handle. Yes, it’s only female singer and a solo instrument, but what a voice it is. When playing this cut at audio shows it is amazing how many systems just can’t handle this cut. This cut is especially difficult but not impossible to get right with multi-driver speakers. It takes a very coherent and really well timed aligned speaker for her voice to stay focused from her almost whispering to what near the end should be a voice that swells to being very loud, very big and surrounded by air. Then there is the possibility that the system will get her voice right, but not be able to keep Wasserman’s bass from being over powered by Bentyne’s voice.
The last cut on side 2 of the LP is “Over the Rainbow,” with Stephane Grappelli as the guest artist (the bonus track on the CD is “Autumn Leaves” and I don’t care for it at all). What a treat this performance is; it is without a doubt my favorite instrumental version of this standard. It brings such an incredible beautiful end to this great LP. Again it is simply a bass and a violin and I know people say almost every decent system will sound great on this cut. Truth is that any decent system will sound good playing this. Still, only a few systems let the bass and the violin play together in a coherent space and still have their own individual space. With a great system each instrument produces a different sensation of air, resonance and decay in its own space. On my system it is also possible to hear that the space of the violin is about thirty inches above the bass.
Now, don’t miss understand me, I don’t quit evaluating a system with this LP. I have to hear it with some big band and some 70’s rock as well as some Prokofiev, but I am seldom surprised by what I hear on these genres after listening to side 2 of “Duets.”
Well, I didn’t start out meaning for this column being about Wasserman’s LP. It just seems to illustrate my point so well. So there you have it; my second pet peeve “that would sound good on any system.” My answer is; no it won’t! It might sound nice on any system, but it won’t sound good enough on just any system.
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