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Top of the Charts: The Songs the Sound Engineers Use to Tune Your Stereo

·2-min read
Photo credit: Illustration by Alexander Wells - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Illustration by Alexander Wells - Car and Driver

From the November 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

What's blasting from your car speakers, and more important, how does it sound? For sound-system engineers at the audio-equipment manufacturer Bose, a playlist is more than tracks that slap. To test stereos, they need songs representing a variety of sounds and recording techniques to make sure new systems can re-create a song with the depth of the original recording.

To have a common reference point, Bose engineers all over the globe share a master playlist. "Every system engineer knows these tracks inside and out," says Mark Armitage, head of the acoustical-engineering team at the company's Michigan field office. "It makes for a universal language we can use when testing and tuning."

Armitage says the 54-track Bose playlist is updated periodically, and engineers can use it alongside a smattering of their personal favorites or recent Grammy winners. He walked us through a few selections from his test list.

Mono Pink Noise

"The least fun track [Literally noise—Ed.] and also the one we use most. It shows you where your center image [the imaginary center stage of the recording] is, and it's full bandwidth, so you can hear frequencies that aren't aligned properly."

Holly Cole Trio, "I Can See Clearly Now"

"This track is quite centered, and the first part of it is very mono channel. The deep-male-vocal equivalent is Johnny Cash's 'Bird on a Wire.' "

Bruno Mars, "24K Magic"

"Features a lot of instruments that are spread wide across the soundstage, from the high tweeter notes all the way down. It's very full."

Winterplay, "Billie Jean"

"It's a simple, clean female vocal accompanied by an upright bass. A lot of times the simpler things show soundstage details that are harder to hear in something that's super-busy."

Tom Petty, "Learning to Fly (Live)"

"The crowd starts singing along, Petty's voice drops out, and if the system is done right, you get a real sense of how big that auditorium is. If not, it tends to collapse and you lose that giant space."

Dave Brubeck Quartet, "Take Five"

"Listen for the hi-hat and the cymbals from the intro. Cymbals are hard to record and reproduce, and this has a nice, natural sound with excellent instrument spacing."

Steely Dan, "Hey Nineteen"

"Has a lot of detail and sharp, clean hits that show how well the music's temporal alignment is coming to you. With each speaker a different distance from the listener, tuning a system involves making sure all sounds arrive to ears at the same time to sound clear and natural."

Straight No Chaser, "Homeward Bound"

"All a cappella, the vocals span all the way across the stage, and you can independently hear each person singing."

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