Choosing Reference Materials
By Chris Heinonen on
Over on the side of my site, at least if you aren’t using AdBlock, you’ll see a window with a list of the reference materials that I use for evaluating products. You’ve probably noticed that most reviewers go back to the same music and films, over and over again, when they review things. Why do we pick the titles that we do, and what makes a good piece of reference material? Other reviewers probably have different thoughts, but these are the reasons I pick certain material.
Familiarity. At one point in my life, I listened to REMs Automatic for the People every single day for multiple years. I would put it on and drift to sleep while listening to the album every night, and often listen during the day as well. After all this time, I’ve become so familiar with the album that when I hear something new in it with a new component, it catches my attention and lets me instantly realize there is something I need to listen for.
Thanks to my older son, I’ve watched Cars on Blu-ray so much that when Cars 2 came out, I could instantly notice the CG model for Mater had slightly changed. I can watch either of those films on a projector or display for review and instantly notice when a scene looks different in some way. I might not enjoy Cars 2 as much as I enjoy REM, but it provides me a very useful reference point to evaluate displays.
More Examples: Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City Music Hall Blu-ray, The Downward Spiral SACD
Quality. The single best sounding CD that I’ve listened to is the Mobile Fidelity release of Sea Change from Beck. The clarity is outstanding, the soundstage is large and lets you precisely pinpoint instruments, and the small details that are audible put most CDs to shame. It’s an album that I only like listening to, as opposed to loving the REM album, but it also lets speakers and other components show what they are really capable of. Not every album you listen to has to be the highest quality, but when I see people review with overly compressed albums like Lady Gaga, I wish more reviewers paid attention to recording quality.
Most 3D content still seems to be done in post-production, or was done more as a way to make money than to actually utilize 3D. Unlike those films, Hugo was shot natively in 3D, and has many scenes that really show off what a good 3D projector or display is capable of. They’ve avoided many of the mistakes that were made in early 3D titles, or in 3D conversions, and have many scenes that are challenging for a 3D display to pull off. It is my go-to disc for live action 3D content.
More Examples: Wish You Were Here SACD, Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, Avatar Blu-ray
Ability to Relate. Many times I see reviewers use small jazz bands, or vocal choirs, or other material that I have never heard of. Their descriptions of the music make it sound phenomenal, but I also have no ability to relate that to my experiences. There are many classic, well known albums out there that people are familiar with but also well recorded. The recent 45-RPM release of Rumours from Fleetwood Mac fits into this vein. Everyone knows most of the songs, and if you describe something off of it, people can easily relate to that. Of course your readers heavily influence this item, but not everyone listens to jazz or classical, as some writers seem to think.
More Examples: Pet Sounds SACD, Time Out SACD
Dynamic Range. This plays a big factor with video and audio. Too many modern recordings are heavily compressed, and so as much as I love Radiohead, they don’t do a wonderful job of showing off recording quality. I can go back to an album like Dire Straits Brothers in Arms and get much better dynamic range, which is a better test for speakers, and sounds better. Many Blu-ray films are getting amazing transfers thanks to the Arri Alexia camera. Its only a 1080p camera, but it allows for a huge dynamic range in images, which Skyfall might show off better than anything. Bright lights shine against black backgrounds, and details come across clear and detailed, even in the shadows. This lets projectors and displays with massive contrast ratios shine, and show what a display can do.
More Examples: Drive Blu-ray, Tron: Legacy Blu-ray, Tigerlily (MFSL) CD and Vinyl, Ride the Lightning CD
Real World Example: I’m not good enough to pinpoint the sound of an electric guitar and say what make and model it is, or what kind of effects they might be using on it. I did grow up playing the piano, and played some acoustic guitar as well, so I can hear those instruments recorded and have a good idea of what they should sound like, and if the recording is doing a good job. Blood on the Tracks on SACD has many sections of wonderfully recorded guitar where I can hear all the intimate details on the best systems.
I also can’t look to most films and think that is what something in the real world looks like, as they often go for a certain look, live or post-processed, to give you a feeling in the image that matches that of the film. A documentary like Samsara, which was shot on 70mm film and transferred over at 8K resolution, can provide you with absolutely stunning, totally natural images. You can see skin tones, green leaves, reddish earth, and more, knowing what they look like from real life and then compare that to what is on screen.
More Examples: Live at Massey Hall 1971 CD and DVD-Audio, The Piano Soundtrack CD
I’m sure your choices for reference materials will vary from mine, just like taste in movies and music is a personal choice. However, I hope this provides some insight for you into why I’ve picked certain titles when I evaluate a product, and why I keep coming back to certain titles over and over again. Some of it is love for the material, and some of it is trying to find the best material to highlight the pros and cons of products that I’m testing.
Do you have different choices, or issues with titles that I picked? Let me know about it in the comments, I’m always on the lookout for new titles to add to evaluate gear.
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