The perfect reference disc

February 3, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I wonder what the perfect reference disc would include.

Our first attempt, the Audiophile’s Reference, has sold thousands and served her audience well.

But the Audiophile’s Reference was in service of the accompanying book which was designed to help audiophiles perfect their home stereo system setups.

Once you’ve gotten everything right, then what?

I am wondering what it might look like to build what perhaps would be called a finished disc.

The ultimate checksum.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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58 comments on “The perfect reference disc”

  1. Hmmm …. using music as a test signal?

    I suppose the ultimate test file (what’s a disc?) would be a 20-20,000hz frequency sweep.

    After yesterday, I thought perhaps “Dreamer” from Crime of the Century, superb remaster, great music, appalling lyrics, one of the first 24/192 downloads I purchased.

    1. You can easily get a 20-20KHz sweep using REW. Copper magazine articles explain to you how to do so. You just need a UMIK mic.
      Sorry I didn’t explain Toole’s work for you; as you appear to be indifferent to learning anything yourself I will try to find a Toole for dummies version.

      I did not answer before as I was with my missus family. Her father sadly passed away and it wasn’t time for following up. We were with him his last days and moments and it was a very difficult time.

      Statistically, unless you die of an accident, you are likely to die of cardiovascular disease, cancer or dementia. As care for CV disease has improved dramatically, cancer and dementia incidences have increased significantly and will continue to do so. A rare, fulminant and untreatable cancer took him away. He lived his 95 years to the fullest.

        1. The final days were managed to make this a peaceful ending. Thank you.

          I once heard someone says that it is not the fall that hurts you, it is the impact. In these cases, it is not death that hurts, it is the dying.

          He was a good man. Truly.

          1. ‘CtA’
            Having lost both of my biological parents when I was two & a half years old I believe that the greatest pain (hurt) is simply the loss
            of that person to communicate with.
            Loss is something that we need to learn to manage more & more
            as we age.

  2. “Ultimate” is a loaded word, especially within the subjective world of home-audio.
    ‘The Audiophile’s Reference’ CD was specifically made as the other half to ‘The Audiophile’s Guide’…having typed that, I haven’t actually listened to ‘The Audiophile’s Reference’ CD but I’m guessing that there are some musical tracks on it that can be used as as ‘references’ when evaluating home-audio gear, specifically loudspeakers.
    There have been many ‘Reference Discs’ produced down through the decades; Sheffield Labs, Chesky, VTL, etc, etc, but more than not reference tracks are a very personal thing that each of us ‘pick-up’ throughout the years because we know, simply from familiarity, that those tracks will show-up, or show-off, certain flaws or strengths in the audio gear that we are evaluating.

    I can not imagine what a “finished disc” would consist of, or even how it would apply any sort of “checksum” to your whole home-audio system since dynamics, synergy, soundstage, imaging, PRaT, air, timbre, crossfeed, etc can be ‘checksummed’ by your hearing & your brain’s ability to ‘spatially conceptualise’.

    “Once you’ve got everything right, then what?”
    I’ll tell you “then what?”…you stop obsessing about your rig & you stop futzing around with it; because you’ve got everything right…right??
    Now is the time to pour yourself a strong one, sit down in the sweet-spot, light-up a doobie (optional), kick-back & just listen to the tunes that you love, on the rig that you’ve spent so much time, effort & money on…after all, it’s all about the music (not the test-tones); isn’t it??

    1. FR,
      You’re last paragraph made a point for me. For the last 5 years or so I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time chasing audio. From reading, from posting, and from critical listening. A few moments of satisfaction mixed in there.

      I recently stopped ‘excessing’ over all the posts, the YouTubes, the reviews and started letting other aspects of my life into the forefront.

      One last small change was made to my system for now. I’m now able to listen and enjoy…. Unencumbered by all the critical listening and audio thoughts of everything that could be improved or changed.

      So right now another ‘reference recording’ is not in my future unless it’s a recording of music that appeals to me.

      1. Perfect!
        Well said!
        I just took the same turn and feel relieved!
        Yesterday I felt the pull to get new speakers and somehow was able to come to my senses! It’s like withdrawal!

        1. Thanks Larryo2

          The sense of total enjoyment now is almost overwhelming. The sense of withdrawal is diminishing.

          I haven’t ‘thrown in the towel’ on changes in the future. By allowing the other things in my life to take precedence, the appreciation of the music and its current presentation is much more enjoyable when listening to the home system and most importantly more fun.

    2. FR,
      Couldn’t agree more. So much effort and without the reward of enjoying all that music what’s the point? However, some of us (most?) are on the OCD spectrum (I know I’m more toward the upper end) so there’s always that little voice “could it be better?” whatever that means. It does drive us to “perfect” the home audio listening experience, but must be tempered with the ultimate goal of listening without too critical an ear. My latest focus has been following the “What are you spinning now” thread to learn of new stuff for me. I’ll stream and then decide if the music is worthy of physical media. Must be great engaging music and the recording has to be “quite good”. Too much low fi swill out there to wade through sometimes. Anyway, good to not lose focus on the music after all.

      1. kc,
        It’s the difference in recording quality of the various CDs in my library that keeps the voice of reason in my head to deal with the ‘could it be better’ OCD voice.
        Once you’ve heard a well recorded tune come out of your loudspeakers that wow’s you, then you know that your rig is up to snuff & the more ‘average’ sounds that make you feel that there’s still room for improvement is actually the fault of a lesser quality of recording…something that you have no control over.
        There will always be compromise, whether you like it or not.
        This is the knowledge that you have to have to keep the OCD ‘voice’ at bay.

      2. KC I can have full sentiments to things you have said here.
        I think every audiophile or enthusiastic audio dweller really goes through the OCD stage and hopefully for most of us it is just a stage! 😉
        I know I went through it and it bloody well took me away from the music. Mind you I was just a budding/inexperienced listener at the time.
        Good post though. Just enjoy the music. I like that. 🙂

    1. Dan don’t forget Western.

      Whilst I may speak with forked tongue, I’ve been enjoying some recently, such as Gram Parsons’ album “GP”.

      Linn Records did a lot of DSD for 10+ years, many award-winning recordings. They did a series of 10 reference compilations called the “Super Audio Collection” from about 2005 to 2015. Mainly classical and jazz. They were available on SACD, now download only.

      Linn Records did it once a year, so the aim was provide a compilation of what they considered was a good audiophile selection from released material, whereas from the one download I purchased from PSA it was more a series of test tracks.

    2. This is where I am parked. How about a reference disc of Rock and a reference disc of The Blues. Even if you have to get local cover bands to produce it, if it is well recorded it would be more enjoyable for those of us you are not into Classical or Jazz.

  3. Please produce a reference USB memory stick for those of us who have ripped our CD’s and DVD’s, tossed our players, and now use a computer running Roon as the sole music source. I really need the setup stick and I would love to have the “ideal” stick, too. That would also alleviate your time constraint and allow you to add more genre specific titles to the reference.

      1. I didn’t realize downloads were available. Unless I missed it, the marketing says CD and doesn’t mention download. Where do you find the downloads? I would download if it is available. Are books available as pdf’s as well?

      2. usb drives, or any data format that can be accidentally left on train platforms or get lost in the post, basically died here thanks to something called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations), EU-wide legislation that came into force in May 2018.

        It was quite good timing because it forced all businesses to work entirely electronically, storing and sending data via secure servers, so when Covid arrived home working was really easy. Had Covid happened 2 or 3 years earlier, it would have been a nightmare.

        So to anyone still in business, any sort of paper or portable data drives have been avoided like the plague, which is why the idea of physical formats for digital music seem so weird.

        All that is left is vinyl, that requires extremely expensive de-encryption hardware.

        1. I computerize my office in the early 1980s and not having to store files was a pleasure. Especially when I retired I did not have the burden of storing paper files for years!
          I’ve stopped buying music and use Qobuz to hold recordings I enjoy listening to. My only regret is that internet transmission is not consistent
          And sound quality does vary! I’ve installed a line conditioner which has helped but still does not correct transmission problems.
          Nevertheless, as long as the music provides adequate masking for tinnitus I’m happy!
          Today I’m going to see if the local Jeep dealer has a car in stock with the
          McIntosh Tube system! Looks like I’m moving this crazy hobby to the road! I was however v v v impressed with the sound system in the Jag sedan even though it may never start!

          1. I got Tinnitus the day after I had dinner with London’s leading ENT surgeon. I used masking and it’s actually largely diminished and is so mild that I could easily hear the benefit when I plugged in a mains conditioner, improving low level transparency.

            My ceiling sound and light system is now fully installed. 50 units in total, I think 24 speaker/lights and 26 lights. Each one has a separate IP address. So I have 80 active IP addresses in my house, all of them rock solid. All done through wired access points. Getting data to an audio system shouldn’t be a problem these days.

            1. In So Florida the graphic display of electrical current is awful-when I hooked up the conditioner I was impressed with the results.
              I found an internet station in So America ( Batuta) that has good fidelity
              And no advertisements! It’s very good!
              Unfortunately, there are no remedies for tinnitus- mine came about post head injury along with a high frequency hearing loss , neither of which has changed over time!
              In short, music is my tinnitus masker!
              BTW if you can get JBS TV there is a recorded interview with Dr Jay Sommer a native of Eastern Europe born in 1927- I know him from my days in NY- super intelligent person.
              There is internet information about him.

  4. The perfect reference disc is as individual as one’s choice of a partner for life. The disc is the one whose music moves you and stirs your soul more than any other disc.

    1. Agree. And is also listenable time and time again over the years so you are intimately familiar with it. It is also helpful if it contains some challenging lyrics or congestion of musical instruments that will reveal improvements when you add a better piece of gear to your system.

    2. I actually agree with this quite a bit. For all intensive purposes we all have our own personal libraries and certain tracks that we know are very well recorded and that we draw reference to not matter what genre or feeling of music. 🙂

      If I made a personal track listing without being able to explain to the person why I chose these tracks, that person may or most likely may not get why I’m using these tracks in the first place.

      Music is too personal regardless of what cache of targeted FR the track accents well. 🙂

  5. It is very simple my reference disc is the one that gets the instant response from a new listener.

    The disc that never fails is Gretchen Peters Trio (Live). I take it to every Dem I go to, it puts every system into stark perspective. I need nothing else but this to instantly know if the kit I am listening to at any price point has what it takes to move me. Barry Walsh on piano is sublime

    1. That’s a good call, he’s an ideal husband because she does all the talking and he sits quietly and nods. They did a great show 5 years ago in London, hosted by the UK Americana Association, I was the only person not in cowboy boots and a lumberjack shirt. She’s back here March/April for a national tour and then the Netherlands.

      Her publicity shots must be 30 years old, but that’s OK.

      1. Yep, can’t wait. Booked for “The Stables” Milton Keynes UK on Tuesday 12th April. A few tickets may still be available. It has been a long Covid wait.

  6. I try to avoid these sampler type discs in favor of “What are you listening to?” type forum lists. One of the big issues I have with listening with other audiophiles is that they listen to the same thing every time I visit with them. The other oddity is that they want to schizophrenically listen to partial tracks from various albums all night.

    Some nice parts of the vinyl days was that you tended to listen to whole albums, and artists laid out an album as a whole piece of work.

  7. I think the reference list(s) should be CD quality only (maybe have a separate 96/24 copy). Some tracks can be used to demonstrate dynamics, typically live recordings that haven’t been excessively mucked about with.

  8. I have many disc’s that are called set-up reference disks. The most important part is to have a booklet or PDF to expound on what someone should be listening for.

    Otherwise it’s just a guess for the most part for the listener’s. Especially the parts that are music.
    – test tones – phasing – and the like are fairly straightforward concepts

  9. A reference piece with a Checksum? Now you’re sounding like Dr Toole and Dr Olive. To what end, Paul? Is the perfect system the goal of this effort just as the perfect system setup was the previous goal. Be very careful here. The successful creation of such a product could potentially remove all aspects of a manufactures ability to hype their gear. Checksums don’t leave any room for silly audiophile speak. It could take all subjectivity away and leave us no room to debate the merits of one component over another. My vote would be to produce this product but manufacturers, especially cable manufacturers, would hate it.

  10. My thought is that a definitive reference disc would always need to include at least one track of a full symphony orchestra. No other genre features 100 or so separate musicians with its unmatched complexity of musical waveform and spatial configuration, and few other formats contain as wide a spectrum of frequencies. No matter how many mics are used, jazz trio or solo cello can never reveal as much about imaging, frequency response, intermodulation distortion, and other vital aspects of natural sound reproduction.

  11. I can’t resist…

    A checksum verifies distinct matters (numbers). As we heard yesterday and a few days before, audio „fortunately“ knows no standards for anything surrounding recording, design, voicing, playback.

    Into this scenario you want to put a „checksum“ disc which should ensure everything went right with the setup? A disc which once more was recorded, mastered, monitored by the same non existing standards?

    It’s like verifying the length of a wall with a limb of a tree you find somewhere 😉

    1. Audio has lots of proper standards. If people wish to ignore them, they may end up hearing something completely different to what the musicians intended.

      “The circle of confusion” was the term used by someone who many here poopoo.

  12. In my opinion the perfect reference disc would include:

    Organ and orchestra
    A wide gamut of orchestral sounds and dynamics
    Mixing and production by Bis (SACD)
    A theme that stays with the listener

    There is such a piece, the Alpine Symphony by Strauss. In particular, the sunset section near the end and the thunderstorm that precedes it. There are several SACDs from which to choose. When in doubt, go with Bis.

  13. A ‘Reference’ recording doesn’t necessarily have to be the pinnacle of audio perfection, it just has to be a (relatively decently recorded) track that YOU know intimately well. I can judge equipment far better with a track that I have heard thousands of times and on dozens of systems than I can with the perfect recording I’ve only heard a few times.

    Now having said that and having worked in a store that sold Carver, B&W, Luxman & Alpine (Yes Alpine had reference CDs too), I’ve been exposed to the Demo discs for years and it is amazing how some of the ‘demo’ tracks do tend to become some of your favorite tracks…

    I was a judge at a sound-off (car audio) competition back in the 90s, and the track used for SQ was James Newton Howard and Friends – L’Daddy (essentially James Newton & Toto)
    and I have no idea why as the track seems to have absolutely nothing below like 65hz… which really angered the guys who had systems that could literally blow out their windows.
    But some of the stuff you saw by the DIY’ers in the glory days of the ‘Sound-off’ competitions. Wow.
    – One guy had the OEM Honda AM/FM cassette radio face that, when you pressed one button, the Honda face flipped down and the (can’t recall the brand) aftermarket CD player slid out from behind on motors. Here’s the amazeballs part – the OEM Honda volume knob and other buttons actually controlled volume and some functions of the aftermarket unit.
    It was actually a pretty fun time to be in car audio…
    We also one time added four 10″ subs and a ton of power to a basic stock system in a vehicle for a deaf customer. He absolutely loved it.

  14. Is that even possible. If you did create this disk you would be out of biz…
    But if you did create it I would name it the
    “JMB” disk.
    Jesus, Mohammad and Buddha.

        1. The producer doesn’t.
          Home-audio is a whole mess of compromise, always has been;
          always will be, since it’s the listener’s hearing that ultimately matters.
          Whether you measure your loudspeakers with a ‘Klippel Analyser System’ or whether you measure them with your ears, it will still be up to the buyer & the same can be said for a recording of music.

          1. Actually, it is a mess due to the persistent mythology generated by “subjectivists” that don’t take the tie tie really understand the sciences behind it.

            Maybe you should read Toole’s book too. It is good enough to be used by Doris when publishing Copper. Why shouldn’t be good enough for you?

            The questions of the PIR, average rooms, etc., they are all discussed in detail with the experiments that back up the data. He’s not some fool on the internet, the book is presented by the Audio Engineering Society. But then again, there are people that like to believe all sorts of things. As my old friend from Queen Square hospital in London used to say “If you ignore the literature, you will “discover” new things”.

            1. ‘CtA’,
              FACT: Home-audio IS subjective because everyone hears sound slightly differently & no matter how much you howl & wail against this fact, it not going to change…you need to get that through your skull.

              I don’t need to know what Toole has to say.
              I have my ears to tell me what sounds good & what
              doesn’t & I’ve been doing it all of my life & so have
              97% of the contributors here on this ‘Paul’s Posts’ site.
              You may wish to subscribe to someone else way of
              thinking, & that’s fine; that’s you prerogative, however
              I’ve had enough time on this planet & enough years in
              home-audio to be quite happy & successful in the way
              that I evaluate home-audio equipment.

              I think that John Lennon said it best when he sang,
              “One thing you can’t hide, is when you’re Klippel’d inside.”
              (Possibly misheard)

              Btw, I’m pretty sure that dementia will also allow you to discover ‘new things’…almost every day.

  15. Today’s perfect “record” for me, just today’s, is Mon Laferte singing Funeral. It is a break up song. Great orchestration and lyrics.

    Maybe tomorrow it will be a different one. For sure. Could be Eliane Elias singing Estate…

  16. Group, Years or decades or centuries ago before everyone heard the term covid a million times we had audio / stereo shows / conventions. At more than one of them Reference CDs/ movies were cuts or entire song, movie clips. So, with no more introduction we had Donald Fagen : the Nightfly, Elvis without background instruments singing ….. on a Martin Logan Evolution IIs, with VTL amps, and Tom Cruise’s TopGun, and Telarc’s 1812 with cannon fire… If your subs and amps didn’t explode or shutdown while you lost your hearing … Thus why can’t we use sample cuts that we are familiar with?? Some of us used to take a favorite CD and see what our reference music sounded like… My two cents… My Ref System: IRS Beta, Krell KCT Pre Cast to Krell 350FPB Cast…, fed by McIntosh 450t CD/SACD to a Mc D150 Pre/DAC to a XLR input on the KCT… BTW : Yes,, have the PS Audio M700s and 350 amp powering my Krell Resolution 3’s TV speakers fed via XLRs from a Krell Showcase pre that connects to a XInfinity via a TosLink…… and the IRS Gamma/Delta subs also driven by M700s…

  17. The ultimate reference track is a minimalist, near coincident pair recording of an acoustic concert you heard in the ten minutes prior. It should include instruments that are hit, plucked, scratched; and blown knife edges, reeds, cords, and lip armatures (brasswinds). I recommend high crest factor instruments like harpsichord, lute, banjo and ones with complex overtones like piano and cymbals.

    Mixed and mastered studio recordings vary too widely from the original sound of instruments both close miked and in the room; and have a tiny fraction of true stereo information – even if the capture and output are DSD – because you can’t mix, pan, EQ, compress, gate or otherwise modify the sound of an electronic signal in a one bit representation. Further, every knob or function used for mixing and mastering inherently causes temporo-spatial distortions, and not small ones!

    If you look at this from an informatics viewpoint, acoustic instruments represent a miniscule percentage of arbitrary waveforms such that electronic distortions can’t be duplicated by acoustic means; but OTOH acoustic sounds have a complexity and dynamic range that are difficult to impossible for audio to reproduce. At the heart of this matter is that human neural circuits are pre-disposed to grow, wire, and program in the patterns of Natural acoustic sounds of wood, skins, rocks, wind, liquid water and ice; and to decode the directional phase encoding of stereo information accomplished by those funny shaped appendages on the side of your head.

    This makes simian ears uniquely adapted to living in forests, canyons and caves, able to extract existentially utile information from sound arriving from any and all directions, especially reflections.

    Further, hearing is adaptive on time scales from milliseconds to a lifetime so you need to pin it down over a short interval to make meaningful comparisons – unless you have over 10,000 hours of listening to a specific reference sound, i.e. grand piano, cello, acoustic guitar, etc.

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