Special Features

A Sampling of Sampler Discs

14 SACD and other audiophile samplers with a variety of music, performers and technologies.

Published on November 17, 2009

A Sampling of Sampler Discs
A Sampling of Sampler Discs

I recall in my college years a friend whose entire LP collection consisted of sampler discs, which then mostly went for 99 cents, as well as some that were free. Sampler albums have been with us ever since.  Some of those below are currently available at reduced prices. Most of the 14 I’m going to survey herewith are from audiophile labels intending to showcase not only their repertory and artists but also the sonic quality of their tracks – especially those in the hi-res SACD format.  My sampler stack has been building up for some time now, so don’t be surprised if some of these may have been issued some time ago:

SHOWCASE – Acoustic music in authentic environments – Opus 3 stereo-only SACD CD21000 – 14 tracks by Benny Waters, Eric Bibb, The Tiny Island band, vibist Lars Erstrand, Kjell Ohman (The Hammond Connection), Gosta Rundquist Trio, Cirrus, The Swedish Jazz Kings, Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble, Stockholm Guitar Trio, Omnibus Wind Ensemble, Zetterqvist String Quartet, Live at Vatnajokull:

This is Swedish perfectionist-recording engineer Jan-Eric Persson’s independent label, and has been offering a variety of acoustical music beautifully performed and skillfully recorded since LP days. These are all pure two-channel masters recorded originally with vacuum-tube purist mikes – usually in a Blumlein arrangement, going to an analog tape deck.  Opus 3 believes in recording only in natural acoustic environments such as churches and auditoriums rather than sound studios. These tracks date from 1976 and 1994 thru 1999 and show the variety of material the label provides. It is just one of many excellent sampler and demo discs the label has done, a couple of which I have used for years in checking out components. Most of the tracks are shot but complete selections or movements. There is a paragraph about each of the selections in the note booklet. The final track is an amazing 13-minute version of Ravel’s Bolero for pipe organ and percussion, recorded in a reverberant church in Iceland.  That one alone will put any audio gear to the test.

THE BEST OF…AUDIOPHILE CLASSICS – Opus 3 multichannel SACD CD 22080 -
BACH: Toccata & Fugue in d minor; BRAHMS: Allegro from Trio in A minor; SCHUBERT: Andante from Trio in B Flat Major; CHOPIN: Largo from Sonata in b minor; RAVEL: Pavane (guitar quartet); LARSSON: Ballad from Concertino for Doublebass; ZAPPA: Inca Roads; BEETHOVEN: Larghetto from Sym. No. 2; RUTTER: Candelight Carol; ASTRAND: Rauk Part 1 (percussion):

These are all more recent Opus 3 recordings and all multichannel as well as stereo. Some were still recorded to analog tape, with four tracks going to a Genex digital recorder. There is no special information on the ten tracks, but the covers of all the albums they are taken from are shown in the booklet along with details on the performing artists and the date recorded.  All are enjoyable selections and none the usual overdone choices except perhaps for the opening Toccata and Fugue in d minor. The sound of Stefan Lindgren’s piano is very rich and natural in the Chopin selection, and the Omnibus Wind Ensemble has fun with the Frank Zappa selection on track 7.  Ravel’s Pavan for a Dead Princess is from one of the several albums Opus 3 has released of the exceptional Stockholm Guitar Quartet. Their instruments cover a wider range than most guitar quartets where all four players use the same type of guitar. There is good surround ambience on all the tracks, but on the closing percussion selection the idea was to surround the listener completely with the instruments of the Global Percussion Network.

THE ABSO!UTE SOUND SACD SAMPLER – Telarc multichannel SACD-60011, 57:35 – PURCELL: Rondeau; ORFF: Carmina Burana excerpt; HANDEL: Hornpipe; MARTINU: movt. from Sym. No. 2; DEBUSSY: Sel. from Iberia; RAVEL: General Dance from Daphnis & Chloe; RODRIGO-YORK: En Aranjuez; PROKOFIEV: Sel. from Romeo & Juliet; TRAD.: Praise to the Lord the Almighty; BERLIOZ: March to the Scaffold; HIGDON: movt. from Concerto for Orchestra; NIELSEN: Presto from Sym. No. 5; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Sel. from A Sea Sym.

Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound magazine, cherry-picked these 14 tracks from the sizeable Telarc classical catalog to provide a personal hi-end  sonic tour of the superb hi-res surround sound put out by Telarc’s engineers, in some very compelling musical selections. Any of these would be great for equipment testing purposes. There’s a large paragraph of information on each track about what to check on sonically and musically. For example, on Andrew York’s unusual arrangement of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto Aranjuez, the LA Guitar Quartet is arranged in a circle around the listener – one to a speaker. The huge dynamic range of the Berlioz March to the Scaffold is discussed in its section. There are also shots of all the album covers and recording details.

SOUND & VISION SACD SAMPLER – Heads Up & Telarc multichannel SACD-63012, 67:48 – Icarus – LA Guitar Q., Flesh on Flesh – Al Di Meola, Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down – Eric Bob/Rory Block/Maria Muldaur, Raise Your Spirit Higher – Ladysmith Black Mambazzo, The Twelfth – Manhattan Transfer, Viven – Hiroshima, The French Fiddler – Oscar Peterson/Michel Legrand, Hallelujah I Love Her So – Monty Alexander, Why Are People Like That? – Junior Wells, Let’s Go Back, Junior Brown, Teen Town, Jaco Pastorius Big Band, Funky Tina – Spyro Gyra, I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face – Tierney Sutton, Village Gait – Yellowjackets, Cocowalk – Michael Camilo

These 15 hi-res surround tracks were chosen by Sound & Vision magazine’s Entertainment Editor Ken Richardson in much the same way as the Absolute Sound Telarc sampler above, except that this one reflects the pop, blues and jazz side of Telarc and Heads Up, versus the classical selections of the other sampler SACD. Richardson reports that his publication is concerned about both vision AND sound, and wants people to set up a decent separate set of speakers – not to depend on the tiny tinny speakers and fake surround effects built into most video display screens. He hopes these surround demo tracks will help sway people.

These are some great tracks, beginning with the lovely Ralph Towner tune Icarus, in its very surrounding transcription for guitar quartet. It’s also the theme for the public radio program New Dimensions. You’ll be tickled by the country-flavored strings on The French Fiddler, with Oscar Peterson on piano.  Kevin Mahogany sings the Ray Charles standard Hallelujah I Love Her So, and the slide guitar work on the Spyro Gyra track is something to hear. The booklet again has photos of each album cover and complete details on personnel and recording.

TELARC CLASSICAL SACD SAMPLER 6 – Telarc multichannel SACD-60013 – Selections of RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, BENJAMIN BRITTEN, MICHAEL GANDOLFI, BOCCHERINI, BRUCKNER, JEANNE DEMESSIEUX, PROKOFIEV, PUCCINI, BRAHMS, VIVALDI, BORODIN, ALBENIZ, MUSSORGSKY & CHERUBINI

The latest Telarc classical sampler presents a cornucopia of great demo material in multichannel hi-res surround, at least some of which will probably persuade the listener to go out and obtain the entire album from which the track came – that’s the idea of these sampler discs. Along with the chestnuts such as a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Borodin’s Polvtsian Dances, there are plenty of unusual choices which illustrate a wide variety of keyboard, guitar, orchestra and choral sounds. I could see some of these selections ending up being the favorite classical selection of some listeners – such as the glorious Adagio from Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, or the lovely Dawn on the Moscow River by Mussorgsky. Telarc makes good use of the .1 channel and its surround channels usually add more to the experience than just a slight ambience.

THE SUPER AUDIO SURROUND COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 – Linn Records multichannel SACD AKP 284, 64:16 -  Artists: Ian Shaw, Richard Rodney Bennett & Claire Martin, Martin Taylor, Sarah Moule, Girl Talk, Barb Jungr, Haftor Medboe Group, Scottish Ensemble, Scottish Chamber Orch., Artur Pizarro, Emma Bell, Concerto Caledonia, Alison McGillivray, Wm. Carter, Ian Bruce.

The Scotland-based label has long had a reputation for the highest fidelity in all their recordings, and the 17 tracks here present a nice mix of classical, pop and jazz selections. Their girl singers – Sarah Moule, Claire Martin, Barb Jungr and Emma Bell, all have lovely voices, beautifully reproduced with startling presence. The Scottish chamber ensembles shine in their classical selections, especially the movement of Mozart’s Flute Concerto.

MCINTOSH DEMONSTRATION REFERENCE DISC “For the love of music” – Delos/TopMusic -HQCD8007.4 – Works of STRAVINSKY, KODALY, DVORAK, BIZET, COPLAND, VIVALDI, PIAZZOLLA, MUSSORGSKY, BEETHOVEN, BERLIOZ, GLIERE, TCHAIKOVSKY & SHOSTAKOVICH

This sampler was made for the Hong Kong label using licensed recordings from the U.S. Delos International label. It is a promotional disc for the distributor there of McIntosh components and the note booklet has no information on the music, nor are the performers identified. The sonics are a cut above the usual CD because this is a HQ (High Quality) special pressing, which nevertheless plays on any CD deck. The selections are about half typical hits from the various composers – the gun ballet from Billy the Kid of Copland, the March to the Scaffold from Berlioz Sinfonie fantastique, the Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures – and half more unusual selections such as a movement from Kodaly’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello and an attractive arrangement for sax and orchestra of Piazzolla’s Libertango.

FIM SUPER SOUND! (Vol. 1) – FIM XR24 066 (xrcd24), 62:38 – Habanera Fantasia from Bizet’s Carmen, Autumn Yearning Fantasia – gusheng, I’m a Fool to Want You – Yamamoto Trio, A Song for You – Monteiro Trio, Ida Y Vuets – flamenco guitar, Alone I Ascend to the West Chamber – harmonica & orch., Amazing Grace – Gary Karr, doublebass, Born Free – Monteiro Trio, The Horse Racing – erhu, JK Drum Improv – Jim Keltner, Clair de Lune – harp

If you don’t happen to have any leather-bound CDs in your collection, here’s your chance!  All three of the Super Sound Limited Eidition series of samplers from First Impression Music are leather bound and employ the advanced xrcd24 process from JVC in Japan (but not the latest K2HD proprietary FIM process). Label CEO Winston Ma speaks in his introductory notes about many audiophile recordings being sonically excellent but not having much musical value.  He has licensed numerous classical recordings for audiophile reissue as well as originating many recording sessions of his own to remedy this.  This sample brings us 11 of them. The instruments featured on many of the tracks are not what one usually hears on samplers: Flamenco guitar, harmonica, doublebass, harp, and Chinese instruments guzheng and erhu. The opening Fantasia from Carmen, with Harold Farberman conducting the Northwest Sinfonietta in a real percussion knockout, is the only straight symphonic selection of the 11. The super-popular audiophile jazz vocalist Jacintha is heard in Leon Russell’s A Song For You, and a drum improvisation by Jim Keltner from Sheffield Records’ well-known Drum & Track disc is also part of the sampler. For some reason U.S. doublebassist Gary Karr is exceedingly popular in Asia, and his version of Amazing Grace comes from one of his Japanese albums, Super Double Bass.

FIM SUPER SOUNDS! II – FIM XR24 067 (xrcd24) – The Magnificent Seven, Shenandoah, MOZART: Divertimento in D (excerpt), MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante (excerpt), The Rose, With a Wave of My Sleeve, Take Five, Limelight/Gone with the Wind,  Autumn in Seattle, Taichi Concerto for Guqin & Piano (excerpt), Intermezzo from Carmen

The first FIM Super Sound sample was so well-received that a second and third came about shortly, again offering 11 tracks which the label feels excel in both musical value and sound. There are fairly extensive notes this time on each of the tracks. For example, the background on the Stanley Black Film Spectacular! album, from which the theme to The Magnificent Seven came, refers to the extremely separated, highly equalized sound of the master, which was created using the 48-channel Phase 4 Decca technology of the time.  FIM had to fine-tune the sound with additional equipment to fill in the center hole and achieve better fidelity. Shenandoah comes from an album titled Nature’s Concertos, and uses nature sound recorded binaurally with a dummy head, so it is suggested one listen to that track on headphones at least once. Another Sheffield Labs album is tapped for Amanda McBroom’s tune The Rose, and the biggest-selling audiophile jazz album ever, Jazz at the Pawnshop, is the source of Paul Desmond’s Take Five.  Harold Farberman’s percussion group returns on this sampler for the closing Intermezzo from “Carmen.”  The xrcd24 sonics are tops thruout. There is also a section in the notes on the technical side of the xrcd24 process.

FIM SUPER SOUNDS! III – FIM XR24 073, 58:26 (xrcd24) – COPLAND: Fanfare for the Common Man, Peace in the Heart, LISZT: La Campanella, Maqam: Prelude & Dance, ALBENIZ: Austurias, Caesar, Sway, A Rose for Me, The Moon Represents my Heart, Il est ne le divin enfant, Sing Joy, Red River Valley

Again, extensive notes and details are provided in the booklet on each of the dozen tracks in this leather-bound sampler. The opening track is another of Keith Johnson’s masterful recordings for Reference Recordings, the Copland fanfare that opens his Third Symphony. The Liszt piano work, performed astoundingly by Nojima, is also from Reference Recordings. Both these tracks set standards for superb reproduction of classical music. Chinese music again on tap for the track Prelude & Dance, but Western ears shouldn’t be put off by that – the selections are always tuneful and fascinating – none of the garbage-lid-banging Chinese opera sounds here! Caesar is from James Newton Howard’s album for Sheffield Labs, the track with the French Christmas carol will be right in tune with this upcoming holiday season. The closing arrangement of Red River Valley was made by Harold Farberman especially for FIM, and matches his percussion group with the Colorado String Quartet.


30TH ANNIVERSARY SAMPLER – Reference Recordings RR-908 (HDCD), 76:14 – SUSATO: La Morique, ENESCU: Romanian Rhapsody #1, FRANK: Mestizo Waltz, LISZT: Prelude on B-A-C-H, Prelude in D, Paraphrase on “Rigoletto,”  RACHMANINOV: Sym. Dance #3, ARGENTO: For the Angel Israfel, DANIELPOUR: Dies Irae from An American Requiem, SKROWACZEWSKI: Concerto Nicolo (excerpt), TAVENER: Icon of Eros (excerpt), SATIE: Gymnopedie #1, RESPIGHI: The Pines of Rome Finale

This sampler comes from one of the leading audiophile labels, which has been around since 1976, always seeking a goal of recreating the sound of real musicians making music in real space. While not into either surround sound or SACD, Reference has issued many LP and 45-rpm 12” pressings, and all of their CDs are encoded with the HDCD process (High Definition Compatible Digital) which they helped develop.  Although they play back fine on standard CD players without decoding, proper HDCD decoding adds a noticeable clarity, increased ambience and wider dynamic range.  Some of the label’s efforts are now available as 176.4K downloads for music servers.

The Minnesota Orchestra performance of the Romanian Rhapsody #1 is its first release here. The first of the two pipe organ selections is from the album which the phenomenal 17-year-old Felix Hell recorded for Reference.  The second is a 1976 recording by Keith Johnson of the great Virgil Fox playing at a live concert at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. The Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dance is one of the orchestral blockbusters of this sampler, and ties in well with one of the others – the concerto by conductor Skrowaczewski, which uses the same Paganini theme also used by Rachmaninoff in some of his works.

CEDILLE ON THE MOVE – High-Energy Tracks from Chicago’s Classical Record Label – Cedille CDR 8002 -  Works of ADAMS, COLERIDGE-TAYLOR, SCHULHOFF, VIVALDI, GRAINGER, KROMMER, PANN, DIAMOND, VORISEK, LISZT, BLACKWOOD, MOLIQUE, SCHUMANN, HUYDTS, WHITE, LEISNER, MENDELSSOHN

Cedille Records was founded by a Chicago-based music lover to promote fine musicians in and from Chicago by issuing their efforts on high-quality recordings. They did an earlier sampler disc in 2004, and this is their second.  The 17 tracks on this packed disc survey a wide variety of repertory, and not the usual sort of selections you might suspect on a sampler. Cedille says most of the programming ideas come directly from the various performers themselves, and they cover a wide area.

It opens with a track from John Adams’ Road Movies transcribed for violin and piano, then moves on to a Rondo from a program of orchestral and chamber works by renowned African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor. Another violin-piano selection is Percy Grainer’s own transcription of his Molly on the Shore, played by Rachel Barton Pine. The chamber music vibes are expanded to quintet size for the upbeat perpetual-motion sound of the Finale from David Diamond’s Quintet for Flute, Piano and String Trio. A different view of Liszt’s tone poems is provided by the two-piano version of his Mazeppa – an excerpt played by duo-pianists Georgia & Louise Mangos. A real find is the movement from Joseph White’s Violin Concerto, which is taken from a Cedille CD of Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th & 19th Centuries. The closing track is the rousing Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, with the Pacifica Quartet.

Our final two samplers are both SACD and come from the enterprising German label Tacet:

Das Mikrofon, Vol. 1 – Tacet multichannel SACD S17, 75:58 – HAYDN: Quartet Op. 74 No. 1: Satz; J. STRAUSS: Egyptian March; BEETHOVEN: Sonata in d minor Op. 31 No. 2: Satz; ROSSINI: Petite messe solennelle (excerpts); BACH: Partita in d minor BWV 1004: Giga; The Art of Fugue: Contrapunctus 9; CPE BACH: Sonata in c minor: Satz; KERLL: Toccata Terza in a; MOZART: Sonata in C KV330: Satz; Fantasie in d minor; SCHUBERT: Quartet in G Major: Satz; WOLF: Heibt mich nicht reden; MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio Op. 66 No. 2: Satz; RODGERS: Blue Moon

Tacet’s CEO Andreas Spreer points out in the note booklet that for these two SACDs the main feature is not a musician, composer or musical theme, but the condenser microphones used to record the selections.  His notes go into details about the choice of mikes and setup.  Spreer is partial to tube microphones, and he uses two different binaural dummy heads on various tracks.  The Neumann head is used together with other standard mikes on the three excerpts from Rossini’s lovely Petite messe.  The soloists and chorus are accompanied by piano and organ rather than orchestra.  On the last track – a jazz quartet playing Blue Moon for only a minute – he used a variation on the dummy head, built around a curved plexiglass form.  The selections feature various chamber ensembles, vocalists, chamber orchestras and keyboardists – including pipe organ.

Das Mikrofon, Vol. II – Tacet multichannel SACD S49, 74:00 – This One is for Trunk, St. Martin, Walk Like a Cat, Salad Dressing Blues, Homage to Toshiko Akiyoshi, Free Spirit, Someday My Prince Will Come, A Foggy Day, Con Alma – The Georg Rox Quartet

As you can probably tell by the above titles, this Tacet sampler covers the jazz genre, as the first did the classical. It also carries the focus on the microphones further by offering a final set of three short jazz quartet selections which are repeated many times using different mike setups.  The first, on Someday My Prince Will Come, about 15 different omnidirectional mikes are used. Then on Gershwin’s A Foggy Day 14 different cardioid-pattern mikes are compared. Finally, using Dizzy’s Con Alma, nine figure-8 mikes are used. The note booklet boasts detailed descriptions of each mike and selection, with photos.  I’ve auditioned a number of recordings over the years using the Jecklin mike setup, but had never seen what it actually looks like. There is even a 1927 condenser mike, a boundary-layer mike, and a Schoeps spherical surface mike, which Andreas Spreer feels represents the state of the art in microphone inventiveness. Since both of these samplers are stereo as well as multichannel I take it the mike demos apply primarily to the two front channels (although the notes say nothing about that). Perhaps the comparisons would be more specific if you selected the stereo-only option on the disc, and/or listened to the tracks via headphones instead of speakers. The performers are top German jazz musicians and make the music samples enjoyable listening and to compare.

 – All reviews above: John Sunier




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