So hopefully you've installed the speakers and gone out for a drive. The car's quieter and the music sounds good, so all is well. But what if you want to get the absolute best from your system? If you do, you may be pleased to know that there is still a little more you can do on top of it all and I hope this post can help you get started with this and introduce you to what's involved in a formal listening test.
Perhaps not surprisingly a whole industry has grown up around formal listening complete with products, competitions, discussions - and a lot of hype and mystery
. Hopefully this post will strip away the hype and give you the confidence to tackle this yourself with the satisfaction of getting the most from your new speakers and system. But there's no rush. New speakers will need to bed in before they sound at their best (a bit like you used to have to run a car in for the first few thousand miles) Allow about 10-20 hours use to bed the speakers in and get them sounding their best (good excuse to go for a drive. Or two. Or three). Then you can think about tweaking your system to make it sound 'right' in the rather restrictive environment that is the inside of an SLK.
To do this in Silkie I compiled a few tracks on a USB stick to allow me to listen. Really listen. The playlist and reasons for the tracks are attached and I'll look at this later on, but first I'll outline the process in case this is new to you or you don't know where to start.
- Make up a selection of music you know and know well and add other tracks you may not know so well (see my notes and playlist below)
- Try and choose quiet tracks, vocal tracks (male and female), instrumental tracks and busy tracks so you can see how the speakers cope with different types of music.
- Old music can be especially revealing even today - some of the tracks I use are 20 to 50 years old!
- Speech can be very revealing - good quality podcasts or studio radio programs are best here.
- Play music that is as high a quality as possible (use a lossless format or use 256kbps MP3 files or better).
- Don't use Bluetooth for the tests. It's not good enough quality. Instead use a USB stick, an iPod or a CD as the source.
- Initially set the audio controls for a 'flat' response - tone controls at zero and any equaliser set 'flat' or disabled.
Listen carefully at a reasonable volume. Listen for:
- Good bass, with the drums kicking in and keeping their sound separate from the bass notes of a bass guitar or synthesiser. With the right music drums should sound punchy, not loose.
- Clear vocals so you can hear the words
- Detail in the music (such as picked notes on a guitar, cymbals that ring rather than tizz. Piano notes that sound right.
- On quiet pieces listen for studio noises (fingers on strings, squeaky seats, breathing - even the reverb of the studio itself)
- In your well-known songs do you hear things you've not heard before?
If you think it necessary to tweak or make adjustments to the sound (a little more bass here - less treble there) make small adjustments at a time and re-listen. Most modern head units will have a basic equaliser and you should make most of your adjustments on this rather than with the tone controls as the adjustments will likely remain set once you've made them and are happy with the sound. You can always play with the tone controls separately to suit the mood when you're driving.
I mentioned above that you can also use unfamiliar music as a way of listening too. If you look online (as I did) for lists of test tracks that others use you can usually see why the tracks were chosen and I've attached a few lists of test tracks I used with this information together with the source of the list:
BMWBlog Test Tracks Listening Notes
Dire Straits - Money for Nothing
Mark Knopfler’s opening guitar riff is one of the most famous of all time and that, and the ensuing drum intro, can test the quality of any sound system. There are also some great background vocals by Sting, and listening for the clarity of them can tests the merits of the speakers.
Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars - Uptown Funk
With old-school, James Brown style funk, great brass instruments and catchy lyrics, Uptown Funk can test all levels of your speakers. There’s a lot going on in this song so if you’re able to pick everything out, then you’re listening on good speakers.
Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
A true rock and roll ballad, Bohemian Rhapsody is filled with great instrumentals and even lyrics. Listen for Freddie Mercury’s timeless vocals and for the hard-hitting end to the song. A great system can make this truly classic song really come alive.
The Eagles - Hotel California (live Acoustic)
The song is a classic and fantastic, but the best version for speaker testing is the live version from the “When Hell Freezes Over”. The incredible guitar intro and bongos that lead into the song make it the best song for testing all levels of sound. Plus it sounds magnificent.
The Who - Baba O'Riley
With the fantastic, fast paced intro that moves from left to right, and the introduction of all of the different instruments, Baba O’Riley is one of the best songs to test the fidelity of speakers. Listen for the intro movement and for each instrument as they are introduced throughout the song.
GM Engineer Test Tracks Listening Notes
Alicia Keys - No One
Listen for clarity in Alicia's vocals and spacious background sound.
Joan Baez - Diamonds and Rust (original)
Listen for strong vocals, and for the instruments to be set across a wide sound stage
Johnny Cash - Bird on a wire
Listen for the clarity in Johnny's distinctive voice, and his guitar to sound natural and free of any coloration.
Lilo & Stitch - He Mele No Lilo
Listen for the ambience and staging as the children's chorus is offset by powerful bass.
Norah Jones - Don't Know Why
Listen for Norah's voice to sound natural, and centered in front of you.
Radiohead - Packt like sardines in a crushd tin box
Listen for the punch from the percussive bass, and the ring of the steel drums.
The Eagles Hotel California (live Acoustic)
Listen for the clarity and dynamic range during the opening guitar solo, and of course the powerful drum beat.
Livewire Test Tracks Listening Notes
Dennis Kamakahi and David Kamakahi - 'Ulili E from the album OHANA (Family)
slack key guitar and ukulele behind two, rich male voices.
Holly Cole - Train Song - Live 1995
deep bass notes, tinkly dancing percussion is a great test of high-frequency performance and stereo imaging.
Olive - Falling
This is a harsh-sounding recording if you're listening to the mids and treble but the synthesizer bass line is powerful and punchy, dropping way down to a deep note
Saint-Saëns - Symphony No. 3: "Organ Symphony"
This may be the best deep-bass test ever. Not the booming, headache-inducing, hip-hop or heavy rock type of bass but the subtle, beautiful bass emitted by a massive pipe organ, with its deepest notes reaching way down at 16 Hz. Mind your woofer!
Toto - Rosanna
Dense mix packs the audio spectrum! Quickest test for tonal balance is accurate or not. Just 30 seconds of "Rosanna" will tell you whether a product is good or bad
Trilok Gurtu - Living Magic 1991- track n°3 Once I Wished a Tree Upside Down
no better way to test stereo soundstaging and envelopment. Listen for the sounds of chimes will seem to swirl around and even materialize right in front of you
Wale Ft. Sam Dew - Love/Hate Thing
Most hip-hop mixes are too elemental to tell you much about a system but Wale and Sam Dew make an exception with the song. Both have smooth voices that shouldn't sound rough. But the best part is the background vocals repeating the phrase, "Keep giving me love."