This year’s Curious Arts Festival, in the idyllic grounds of Pylewell Park, Lymington, was retro heaven – despite excellent performances from several new artists. After enjoying a magnificent set by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera – faithful Roxy renditions with a Latin lick – we were treated to a an explosive gig from Dire Straits’ John Illsley, swinging like a true sultan.
And it that weren’t enough, I was lucky enough to shake the Godlike guitar hand of Dave Gilmour, who was in attendance. There aren’t many hi-fi aficionados who wouldn’t include the awesome Dark Side of the Moon on their shortlist of demonstration discs – I’m probably in the minority.
Personally I’ve always tried to avoid the more obvious demo albums (Dark Side included), but then many years as a tech journalist can do that to you; there are only so many times one can bear to hear the same old songs during demos.
And although the comforting familiarity of tracks such as Floyd’s Time allows us to make mental comparisons when choosing new kit, there’s always the danger of over-familiarity: do those speakers really sound as good as you think there are, or is Time playing tricks on you? Time is such a good recording that perhaps it is possible to make an audio silk purse out of a sow’s ear (although perhaps Pigs on the Wing would be a better suited!).
So if not Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zep II, what do I use as demo discs and how do I select them?
Firstly, as mentioned above, I avoid the demo clichés. That discounts Dark Side and a raft of 70s classics. Secondly, I like to have a number of new or recent releases: If we’re truly serious about hi-fi, serious about upgrades to our system, we should continue to buy the best new music too.
My third rule is that my demo discs must also include older music; not the obvious stuff and not necessarily anything from the 70s. Some of the best vocal performances are on cuts of vinyl from the 50s and early 60s – essential for rating a system’s clarity.
Fourthly, I mix up my styles, to ensure that there’s light and shade; something you might struggle with if you’re only interested in prog rock, for instance.
Finally, my demo LPs all have one thing in common: they’re excellent recordings. I’m a huge Fall fan, but Mark E Smith’s love of low-fi recording techniques doesn’t really allow quality hi-fi to shine – no matter how good the songs are. I also avoid punk and today’s punk-ethos bands such as Sleaford Mods (although I love their work).
I should point out that none of my current demo discs of choice – perhaps with the exception of Blue Lines – would make my list of top 50 LPs, and that’s essential. Like over-familiarity, too much fondness for a record can cloud your demo vision – not ideal when road-testing equipment upgrades. Plus, of course, if your goal is to show off your system to friends and family, it should be the kit and not your fave music that is on trial. After all, you can always pop a cork and dim the lights later on for 42 minutes and 59 seconds of Dark Side brilliance…
By Bigger Boat Chief of Police Rob Lane. This is an abridged version of a commissioned piece for the September 2015 edition of Hi-Fi Choice magazine.