Test Records and Demo Discs, Part Two

Test Records and Demo Discs, Part Two

Written by Rich Isaacs

In the days before digital music, the primary medium for sound reproduction was vinyl records. Sure, there were some who preferred reel-to-reel tapes, but they were in the minority. The turntable was king, and it had to be properly set up. Any audiophile worth his (or her) salt owned at least one or two test records specifically designed for that task.

Over the years, I’ve collected a disproportionate number of such discs (it helped that I worked in record stores for much of my adult life, so I could obtain the ones I wanted at reasonable prices).

In the first part of this series (in Issue 205), the focus was on test records issued by record labels themselves. In this installment, albums from equipment manufacturers are featured. It’s only logical that phono cartridge makers would produce test records to show off their products. Among the biggest names in the 1960s and 1970s were ADC, Empire, Grado, Micro-Acoustics, Ortofon, Pickering, Shure, and Stanton. I have owned cartridges from half of those companies.

ADC (Audio Dynamics Corporation) was known for their XLM and ZLM series cartridges, which were optimized for low-mass tonearms. ADC cartridges used an “induced magnet” design not unlike those from Grado. They had excellent detail when used with the right equipment. Although you can still find listings online for them, the company is no longer in business. They did produce a test record, but I haven’t got one.

Empire produced more than just cartridges – their Troubador line of turntables (with arms) set a standard for performance and elegance (they were massive units finished with a golden hue), and their Grenadier line of two- and three-way column speakers were designed to look like round or hexagonal end tables with marble tops. Those products are worth Googling if only to see their design. I could not find any evidence of an Empire test record.

Grado cartridges use the moving-iron principle in their design and are held in high regard. However, due to reports of hum problems when used with a Linn turntable (my analog source), I have never tried one. (Editor Frank Doris said he used various Grados with a Linn/Syrinx arm combination in the 1980s and never had a problem.) I don’t believe they produced a test record either.

Micro-Acoustics used a unique electret system (as opposed to moving-magnet or moving-coil) for generating the signal from the stylus. The units contained a passive solid-state circuit coupled to the electret generator. I owned a Micro-Acoustics 2002 cartridge in the late 1970s and can attest to its superb transient response. The company also manufactured cutting styli for mastering lathes.



Micro-Acoustics TT 2002 Demonstration Record (1976)

This one tests for transient and tracking ability because, as they say on the cover, “good tracking isn’t enough.” The first side contains tracks with both musical and computer-generated tones. The second side features musical selections intended to show your cartridge’s performance in both areas. There is quite a bit of information provided on the back cover.


Ortofon is one of the oldest and most respected names in phonographic reproduction equipment. They currently produce cartridges with a cost ranging from under $100 to over $10,000! I owned an Ortofon cartridge (can’t recall the model) maybe 40 years ago. They currently offer a test record, but at $50 or so, I have resisted purchasing one.

Pickering was a pretty big name in cartridges when I was starting out in hi-fi 50 years ago, but at one time, they made more than cartridges. My dad had a mono system from around 1950 consisting of a Garrard turntable (not the sought-after 301, darn it), a Bogen tube (integrated) amp, and a single floorstanding Pickering 180L speaker that measured 48" H x 10" W x 10" D. It was a folded-horn, variable-port design in which he had placed a newer 8-inch Wharfedale driver. While in high school, I was at a local Radio Shack store and noticed a matching speaker priced at $15 in the back room. The serial number was within ten units of my father’s speaker! I snatched it up and had my first stereo pair of speakers (albeit with mismatched drivers). I never owned a Pickering cartridge, nor am I aware of any test records under their name.



Rich's Pickering 180L speakers.





Shure Audio Obstacle Course Records (1967, 1973, 1982)

Shure was probably the biggest name in phono cartridges well into the 1980s. They also were famous for their microphones (and headphones). Shure’s point of focus with cartridges was on trackability, and their products performed admirably in that area (as well as others).

The trackability tests on their albums involved recordings of various solo instruments (e.g., orchestral bells, bass drum, etc.) at four increasing levels. A chart was provided on the insert where you could enter the levels at which your cartridge began to mis-track (if at all).

For me, the best thing on these records was the phasing test. Before Shure’s records, the phasing test on most test records used bass tones recorded in phase. You were required to listen to the tones, then switch the positive and negative leads to one speaker and listen again. Whichever configuration resulted in stronger bass was the correct one. What a pain! Instead, the Shure records presented a recording of a man speaking the words, “My voice is recorded in phase, and should appear between the two speakers. My voice is now recorded out of phase, and should have a diffuse and directionless quality – it should not appear between the two speakers on a correctly phased system. If opposite results are obtained, the system is out of phase.” This was brilliant. You could even record that track on a cassette and test your car stereo – or any other system lacking a turntable – without having to change connections.

With each iteration of the V15 cartridge, a new Obstacle Course record was issued. Along the way, Shure also made test records that were not intended for the consumer market. These featured sine waves at various frequencies and were designed for use in conjunction with an oscilloscope.

The next installments in this series will feature test and demo records issued by other stereo equipment manufacturers, labels, and publications.

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