There are audiophiles out there who believe that hi-fi can only really be tested by using classical music. While we don’t agree with that sentiment, there’s no denying that the use of real, physical instruments rather than those of the electronic variety can be really helpful for comparisons.
Provided the recording is made with suitable care, criteria such as stereo imaging, tonality and dynamics are also well served by such classical music. The recordings tend to be less processed than other genres, and so can sound more natural – particularly when it comes to instrumental timbre and the acoustics of the recording venue.
As a genre, classical tends to be more instrumentally complex than your average pop or rock tune, and therefore demands more of the hi-fi it's being played on with regards to definition, control and organisation. If you’re new to the field or just want a taster of the kind of classical music we use during our testing, here are some of the finest examples...
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
Don’t let the track's quiet beginning fool you; it isn’t long before this piece bursts into life to become one of the most vivid and dramatic pieces of music that we know. The first performance of The Rite Of Spring was claimed to have caused a riot, and when you take a listen to its feral composition it’s easy to understand why.
As such, it’s a stern test of your hi-fi, from detail resolution and stereo imaging all the way through to rhythmic ability. If your set-up can make a hearty meal of the seismic dynamic shifts and massive crescendos (and you'll know if it does; you'll feel it), you’re in for a treat – particularly if you can turn the volume up loud. This is half an hour’s worth of some of the most challenging, and indeed compelling, music ever made.
Arvo Part – Tabula Rasa
After the dramatic excess of Stravinsky, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa feels like an ocean of calm. This piece has two movements that use a pair of violins, a prepared piano and a chamber orchestra to deliver some of the most emotionally affecting music we've come across.
Each movement uses repetition that builds from subtle beginnings into something that’s bold and immensely powerful. Thus, it’s a fine test of system dynamics and clarity. The dense instrumentation can easily sound messy, while the violins can push all but the most refined tweeters into edginess. There’s a lovely sense of space here, too, which many systems will struggle to capture.
This piece has an underlying religious feel, it inspires contemplation and even a little sadness, while all the time pulling at the heart strings in a way little else can manage.
John Williams – Jurassic Park
After all the seriousness of Tabula Rasa, let’s move to dinosaurs. John Williams is the maestro of large-scale movie soundtracks and we think the theme to Jurassic Park is one of his best pieces ever. And considering he’s written the memorable soundtracks to the likes of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman, that’s saying something.
It's majestic and powerful, and asks a lot from a system when it comes to scale and authority. A good level of detail resolution is a must if things aren’t to sound confused, but your system will also need to excel in dynamics and be composed at high volume levels if you really want to enjoy this piece at its best. If you have larger speakers, the growling bass is a real treat.
This is perhaps about a commercial as classical music gets, but it’s entertaining and fun – and in our book there's nothing wrong with that.
Dvorak – Symphony No.9 New World Symphony
People of a certain age in the UK will forever associate Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 with a famous Hovis bread advert. But the piece was written in the 1890s and is about his feelings and experiences of being in the United States – which is why it’s often referred to as his New World Symphony.
This is beautiful and melodic music that demands a system to have a strong grip on dynamics, scale and detail. But it’s not just about your set-up having muscle; a great deal of finesse is required for the music’s emotional message to come through. If your speakers are positioned well, you should get a sharply focused and layered soundstage with the orchestra clearly laid out in front of you.
Mahler – Symphony No.2
Mahler himself may divide opinion, but we can’t get enough of his 2nd Symphony. This is demanding material filled with dynamic shifts and drama. It’s a fine test of system’s control and composure, with all aspects of sound quality put under the microscope. Your set-up will need to be insightful and organised to handle the dense mass of instrumentation. The ability to convey the interplay of instruments is vital, as is the ability to deliver a full dose of scale and authority when required.
As with most of our other selections on our list, any system limitations in terms of stereo imaging and tonality will be readily highlighted here. We find this a gripping piece of music that excites and intrigues.
Hans Zimmer – Like a Dog Chasing Cars
We make a point of testing equipment with music that most of our readers are likely to be familiar with, and we suspect there won’t be many who haven’t come across Hans Zimmer’s encyclopaedic discography. We’ve been using his movie soundtracks during testing for years – not only does their make-up tend to be perfect test material, they are rather entertaining too.
Regular readers will know that we have a fondness for Zimmer’s Gladiator and Inception soundtracks, but here we’ve chosen another favourite, The Dark Knight OST, and in particular the track Like A Dog Chasing Cars.
Lack of vocals apart, this is as perfect a classical music test track as we know. It thunders along, requiring plenty of punch and power from the hi-fi handling it. The dynamic swings are savage, made all the more demanding by the music’s insistence on being played loudly. A special mention should be made of the low frequency aspect of this recording: at times it’s as deep and powerful as we’ve heard on any other piece, and consequently is a stern test of bass definition, weight and attack.
Ólafur Arnalds - Raein
After the caffeinated bombast of Hans Zimmer we turn to the achingly beautiful and delicate Raein by Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds. This is from the consistently excellent Found Songs album, a review staple for a number of years now.
Unlike most of the music we’ve recommended so far, this neo-classical piece is all about subtlety and finesse. If your system doesn’t resolve low-level detail well, or deliver subtle dynamic shift with skill, you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. It requires a system to sound fluid and with the knack to be able to reproduce music in a cohesive way. Clarity is important, as is the ability to convey the track’s gentle momentum.
This is music to listen to quietly. Many speakers struggle to convince at lower volume levels, so it’s a good test to see whether your system is up to the admittedly challenging task.
Debussy - Clair De Lune
Comprising only a solo piano, this piece of music would appear a doddle for systems to reproduce – but, alas, it isn’t. In our experience, we find that most struggle to capture the harmonic complexities of the piano well and to deliver the instrument’s dynamic envelope properly.
Even if a system does have the insight to do these things, it’s the ability to get the temporal relationship between successive notes right so that the melody flows as it should.
There are subtle variations of force and timing in the way the piano keys are played that makes this piece so hard for some equipment to reproduce. This lovely piece of music is arguably the simplest one here, but many a hi-fi component that has entered our listening room has struggled to do it justice.