The curse of the Demo Disc…

It’s the same talking to audiophiles. Ask any customer to name their favourite records and they’ll get to three with no problem. Anything past that and the ‘credibility’ issue starts to intrude. A lot of them start searching for ‘real’ records that reflect their sophistication and the depth of their knowledge, their audio credentials or just simple street cred: The records that get mentioned in reviews and yes, the records that get played in demos. If they’re not careful they’ll end up selecting equipment that plays records they don’t particularly like. But it can get so much worse. They could make that selection based almost entirely on a ‘demo disc’. You know – that disc that sounds good on anything… They can compound the problem by then using the same disc(s) to set up the system – resulting in a system that sounds great on just one or maybe a couple of discs, a disc or discs they may not even like! Worse still, because demo discs sound good on everything, many of them actually make lousy set-up material. Just as they obscure or smudge the inadequacies in a system, they smudge the inadequacies in its set up too.

The scenario I’ve described is both exaggerated and slightly tongue-in-cheek. After all, who can you laugh at if you can’t laugh at yourselves. But like all the best jokes it contains a hard kernel of truth and I suspect that we’ve all enacted at least some part of the tale at some point in our audio journeys. Even the most hard-bitten salesman started out as a star-struck customer. Okay, maybe not Lenny or Andy… but everybody else.

Whether I’m assessing equipment or setting it up, the first disc I play is always the Duke Ellington/Ray Brown album, This One’s For Blanton. A Pablo recording dating from 1972, featuring just piano and double bass, its sound quality is perhaps best described as challenging. Being less polite, I’d suggest that unless the system is really well sorted it’s a record that has the ability to sound actively offensive, from glassy brittle top-end to boomy, indistinct bass, fractured rhythms to a complete absence of ensemble playing. In fact, get a system really wrong and this disc sounds like a recording of two musicians warming up, each playing completely different music. Which is exactly what makes it such a valuable tool. Ruthless in revealing system and set-up issues, the impact of changes made is immediately, obviously, sonically and musically apparent. ‘cos there’s serious musicians and a serious performance buried in there somewhere. The better the system the more obvious that becomes.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue. In selecting a system and setting it up, what are you aiming to achieve? Do you want the best possible sound – or do you want the most music from the most records? If it’s the former (and that’s fine) then a major part of that equation is going to be the choice of material played. You will play not just the best sounding recordings, but the ones that sound best on your system. There are plenty of gear-heads out there, guys (and isn’t it always guys?) for whom music is a means rather than an end. That’s entirely their prerogative. Back in the day, I delivered a pair of speakers to one august reviewer (a man who these days styles himself “the most important man in audio”) and he literally had 10 records – and two of those were test discs!