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Writer's Favorite A/V Demo Material By Home Theater Review

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What good is a great home theater system if you don't take the time to show it off once in a while? Or maybe you're currently shopping for new gear and want some great demo material to put the products through their paces. We asked some of our reviewers to offer up their favorite demos in both the video and audio realms.

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Andrew Robinson

Moby, Play, "Everloving" (CD, Track 14)
I use this track a lot - it has a lot of great movement, as well as texture and spatial cues. It also showcases dynamics both in the macro and bombastic sense. Good systems capture the fluidity and delicacy of the high frequencies as they dance about in a truly three-dimensional space, whereas less-than-stellar setups will often recess the highs while becoming a bit muddy down low, missing out on the kick drums altogether.

Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells III (CD)
This album truly has it all. From the moment you press play, the entire 60-plus-minute experience will showcase just where your setup falls in the spectrum of so-called greatness. There is so much to like and to talk about with this album that a short blurb really can't do it justice. Suffice to say, it is one album that should be on every enthusiast's demo list.

Barenaked Ladies, Gordon, "I Love You" (CD, Track 10)
This fun, jazzy track has a lot to like. From stand-up double bass to snappy snares, this pop ballad is well-recorded and well-executed, not to mention fun to listen to over and over. There are numerous vocal tracks and harmonies, and each is placed very distinctly - as in not front and center - within the vast soundstage. Throw in a nice dynamic crescendo at the bridge, and you have a pop recording that manages to be both enjoyable and informative at the same time.

Pearl Harbor, Chapter 27 (BD)
While not a particularly exciting scene, given the 40 minutes of realistic war action that precedes it, this scene in the U.S. president's War Room, among his advisers, is very telling in terms of your system's video quality, specifically in its contrast and black level/detail. Across from the president sits one adviser who, throughout the film, has been on the side of wrong. In his medium close-up shots (shoulders up), you should see clear separation between his suit and his surroundings, emphasizing his shoulder. Believe it or not, most video setups (even calibrated ones) make him look more or less like a floating head, which is wrong. Great displays not only have the chops to resolve his shoulder, but will also show you the fibers and weave of the gentleman's suit itself. Also, there are three shots of the president's legs; in the third and final shot, you should clearly see a small Scottish terrier. However, in the previous two shots, the dog is also present, although many displays miss this. This is an excellent test of black-level performance and contrast for any display.

Jerry Del Colliano

Audioslave, Audioslave, "Show Me How to Live" (DualDisc, Track 2)
This now hard-to-find DualDisc is a 20-bit recording of one of the better rock-and-roll records in recent history from super-band Audioslave. This is a "crank it up and let your system rip" type of demo. Pre-sell the sound of the snare drums before you hit play, and don't be shy with the volume, as what you are trying to highlight is coherence and control at concert levels. Trust me, there is a reason why audiophiles play Tiny Tim on vinyl at regional shows. It's because their bookshelf speakers can't put out. If you have a system with efficient speakers and a nicely tuned subwoofer, you will blow people away.

No Doubt, Rock Steady, "Hella Good" (CD, Track 2)
Don't laugh: this track is as good a bass demo as you will find. Ripped onto my server from compact disc at 1440 AIFF, this track has an extended low end that is rich yet tight. The audio goodies and effects nicely show off the highs, too. Overall, it's a great mix. Special thanks to audio guru Bob Hodas for turning us on to this classic demo.

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here, "Welcome to the Machine" (SACD Track 2 or Immersion Blu-ray Disc)
One thing that gets me these days is audiophile companies that do demos with music that is not within mainstream listeners' frame of reference. What good are these demos? You listen in a new room on strange gear to music you've never heard before. It's an audiophile sales fail. People who buy high-end audio at any price level know Pink Floyd and especially this track. I personally use the SACD, as I paid a fortune to get it, but others suggest that the Blu-ray is even better. Both have a James Guthrie mix. Note: this is the first demo that ever blew up my speakers, but those speakers weren't very good (Dalhquist DQ10s), and I didn't have a subwoofer cooking. Listen for the slow build in this track with the rumbling, warbling bass. Pre-sell the sound of the guitars when they come in (at 0:44) and how they elevate above the soundstage. The left-to-right imaging on this track is excellent in surround or stereo. You can let this track play, but I always recommend that you roll it off after the first chorus. As chef Thomas Keller from the French Laundry says, "Always leave them wanting a little more."

Ken Taraszka

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Chapter 22 (BD)
I love this scene where Captain Jack Sparrow finds the Dead Man's Chest and is flying across the island on that huge wheel. The sound effects are excellent, the dynamics are huge, and it has wonderful musical filler and vivid visuals. It's a generally exciting scene. Arrows fly around the soundstage in every way imaginable. I find all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies to be extremely well-recorded, and all make for great demo material--but this is a personal favorite of mine. The scene ends with the sound of the beating heart of Davy Jones.

Fight Club (BD)
I love the film Fight Club and also find its soundtrack to be pretty solid. The scenes that flash through time have amazing sound effects and dynamics, with plenty of low end to test your subwoofers, lots of pans across the soundstage, and a great film behind them.

XXX, Chapter 1 (BD)
I love the opening scene of XXX for a demo, starting from the arrow blowing across the stage and nailing the door, the subtle sound of the lock picks, and then opening into a room with Rammstein playing Du Hast. The scene ends with Jorge blowing out the flame on his absinthe, and you can almost feel his breath. This scene has it all, from quiet subtlety to massive volume and tons of action. The blowing out of the absinthe is only a short two minutes in, so it is also a reasonable length for a demo.

Pink Floyd Immersion Boxed Sets (BD)
Jerry Del Colliano is right about the Immersion boxed sets of Pink Floyd. I have both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, and both are excellent. You know the music and you've heard the audio a million times before, so in HD, things only sound better. Using familiar music is key to an excellent modern-day demo.

Puscifer, V is for Vagina, "Rev 22:20 (Dry Martini Mix)" (CD, Track 10)
Musically, one band I love for demos lately is Puscifer (featuring Maynard Keenan of Tool/Perfect Circle). The albums are full of discordant piano, deep, tight bass, and amazing soundstaging and imaging, as well as gigantic dynamic swings. "Rev 22:20 (Dry Martini Mix)" is a personal favorite of mine. If your system can go deep and play fast with huge dynamics, this song will prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. If it can't, then this track will let you know. All of the Puscifer albums and EPs are recorded incredibly well.

Terry London

Ike Quebec, Bossa Nova Soul Samba (Blue Note Records, CD)
This is some of the sexiest, most romantic jazz ever recorded. It features the great tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec, with Kenny Burrell on guitar, the great Latin drummer Willie Bobo, plus a bassist. Sonically, it's a rich and warm presentation, which tests a system's timbres and high-end extension.

Jimmy Cobb Quartet, Jazz in the Key of Blue (Chesky Records, CD)
I use this disc to get a take on a system's ability to create a realistic soundstage with great center fill. It features Roy Hargrove on trumpet, and he should be right in the middle of the other players, who sit in front of him. Also, if a system has great transparency, you can hear him turning his head when he's blowing at different angles into the mic. Great music and a great recording.

Johnny Griffin, The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk (Riverside Records, CD)
My all-time favorite tenor sax player is the late, great Johnny Griffin, who passed away a few years ago. I had the great pleasure to hear him live over forty times when he would come back to his hometown of Chicago to do gigs. So I have the absolute reference of what he sounded like in person, and I use this excellent recording to see if a system will present his timbres/tonality and the size of his horn in a realistic way. This is great hard-bop music with the still-active bebop legend Barry Harris on piano.

Brian Kahn

Super 8, Chapter 3 (BD)
The train crash scene starts with spoken voice across the front channels, which allows you to check for naturalness. Once the crash happens, there is a lot of information in each channel, good for checking a system's ability to remain uncongested. The scene finishes with deep, powerful bass notes that can give your sub a good workout; lesser subs lack impact and definition.

Godsmack, Changes, "Batalla de los Tambores" (DVD, Track 11)
This track features dueling drum solos, which are very dynamic across the midrange and down to the low bass ranges. With a system that is well-balanced and dynamic, the drums will have a fast attack and impact at different notes; on a system with good resolution, you should be able to easily discern the various beats being played by each drummer without either overwhelming the other.

Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra, Exotic Dances from the Opera, "Dance of the Tumblers from the Snow Maiden" (Reference Recordings HRx Disc, Track 1)
This piece features bells that can be very lifelike. The bells can come off sounding a bit hollow or flat with less-capable tweeters. It's also good for a large and detailed soundstage.

Michel Jonasz, La Fabuleuse Histoire de Mister Swing, "Le Temps Passe" (CD, Disc 2, Track 2)
This track offers good, natural-sounding bass notes from drums and male vocals. It's a simple recording that also provides very solid imaging.

Paula Cole, This Fire, "Tiger" (CD, Track 1)
This one is good for checking whether female vocals and dynamics meet your standards. You'll know if things sound right when you are listening to a well-tuned system. If things are off, you will hear it right away.

Holly Cole, It Happened One Night, "Train Song" (CD, Track 3)
This track has good acoustic bass; the notes should be coherent and detailed, with good decay. I find that many systems tend to blur the details of the strings at the lower frequencies.

Elvis Presley, Elvis Is Back, "Fever" (DCC Gold CD, Track 4)
This rendition of "Fever" is very well-recorded. On a good system, you can easily hear the minute details of Elvis' cufflinks clinking around, as well as other various background noises. The King's voice and each backing instrument should be solidly placed within the appropriately-sized soundstage when a system is firing on all cylinders.

Adrienne Maxwell

The Bourne Supremacy, Chapter 1 (DVD)
The opening sequence of The Bourne Supremacy is one of my favorite demos to test a display's ability to produce deep blacks and fine black detail. The scene begins with a series of quick cuts as Jason Bourne gets glimpses of his past in a dream. There are several quick fadeouts that show black level and can wreak havoc on an LED/LCD that's trying to use local dimming. Bourne then awakens in a dark bedroom and steps out onto a dark patio, with the beach, ocean, and moonlight behind him as he talks with Marie. A good display will reveal a ton of fine elements within the dark background, including a fence and the texture of the trees. A TV with great contrast will still bring out the brightness in the actors' faces while retaining the purity of the deep blacks around them.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Chapters 2 and 4 (BD)
All of the Pirates BDs are loaded with eye candy to test and show off your HD display, but I still turn to the original during my evaluation sessions. In Chapter 2, we first meet Captain Jack Sparrow as his boat whimpers to dock and he begins to seek a replacement ship; it provides a great demo for color and skin tones, and there are a number of camera pans to test the quality of a display's de-judder function. Chapter 4 captures the arrival of the Black Pearl on a dark night, and it's another good test of black level and black detail, as well as skin tone reproduction in low-light levels.

Flags of Our Fathers, Chapters 2 and 5 (BD)
In Chapter 2, we flash back to a nighttime battle scene where Doc must treat a wounded soldier, leaving Iggy alone (ultimately to his peril). The scene is very dark, and smoke continually blows in the background. It's a great test of black level and black detail. In Chapter 5, we find many of the men sitting on the ship's deck on a dark, foggy night. A lesser-quality display will often reveal noise and color shifting in the backgrounds - instead of an all-gray palette, you can see hints of red and green in the transitions, which indicates that the display cannot accurate reproduce all the shades of gradation between black and white.

Big Bad Love: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (CD)
The film is mediocre, but the soundtrack is one of my favorites ... and it offers a number of tracks that can test the quality of your speaker system. In "Long Way Home," Tom Waits' raspy vocals will test whether the system's midrange has any substance, while the low-end bass will tell you how much control your subwoofer has. Steve Earle's vocal wailing in "Goodbye" can easily turn bright and grating through lesser tweeters; ditto for "Junior's Place" by Junior Kimbrough, which is a bright, dirty recording from the start.

Immortal Beloved, Chapter 15 (BD)
Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in Dolby TrueHD. Need I say more?

Now it's your turn. What are your best demo tracks and scenes and why are they your favorites? How do these suggestions rank? Use the comments system below to weigh in with your thoughts. We want to hear what you have to say.

Additional Resources
• See more original content like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• Read more Blu-ray software news from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore reviews in our Blu-ray Player Review section.

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