What are audiophile albums?
Audiophile albums are music albums where focus lies mainly on the recording quality. During the recording, mastering & production process, high-end audio equipment is being used. Audiophile albums will sound phenomenal on a decent high-end audio setup. They can be used as a reference to test equipment, or to showcase your system.
What are our favorite audiophile albums?
Regarding most audiophile recordings, unfortunately most of the time focus lies only on the recording quality and on the sound of such an album, not on the performance of the musician or the music itself.
The big problem with many of these audiophile albums, is that the performance itself is sometimes insufficient, even plain boring or that musicians are portrayed that nobody ever heard about.
Let’s be honest, the most important thing regarding musical reproduction is the performance, the musicality of the artist and how artists translate their emotions by means of their music, right?
Therefore, in this article we give you a list – including description – of our most listened albums at the time of writing this article.
We focus not only on audiophile recordings or audiophile record labels, but also on rock-solid performances by world-class musicians, where recording quality sounds good as well:
1. Audiophile albums you must hear
Anne Bisson – Blue Mind
Debut album of Anne Bisson, available on cd and 180g vinyl (one of the best audiophile pressings according to TONEAudio Magazine), released by Fidelio Audio, exclusively distributed by Elusive Disc and recently remastered on reel-to-reel tape, with magnificent sound quality. Characteristics are the warm midtones and the crystal clear, intimate and silky sweet voice of Bisson. Recording via: Neumann U67 (on double bass), Neumann U89 (voice), B&K 4003 (piano), Sennheiser MKH40 microphones, Raindirk mixer. Mastering via: MOON power amplifiers, DCS Digital & Weiss EQ. Analog Mixer: Raindirk, DCS & Weis converter, 24-bit 96 kHz, PCM 9000 for mastering and Moon amplifier for playback.
Mickey Hart, Airto, Flora Purim – Däfos
Long before world music became mainstream, ethnomusicologist and drummer Mickey Hart (also known for his work with The Grateful Dead) had a predilection for exotic rhythms. His album Däfos from 1985 received a cult following in audiophile circles since it’s release, was mentioned in the TAS LP list and received an extensive article in the same magazine (The Absolute Sound). This album was recorded in the Japan Center Theater in San Francisco without an audience. The spaciousness and live feeling of this recording seems so realistic that you get the feeling of really being there, in front of the stage, watching the different percussionists and instrumentalists perform, being able to follow their every move. This equisite recording quality seems no surprise when you know that a true legend recorded it: sound engineer Keith O. Johnson, who later started Reference Recordings.
Jon Hassell – Fascioma
Jon Hassell is no stranger amongst jazz lovers, got a name since the late seventies, gained in popularity with his recordings on the legendary ECM label and throughout his career has worked with highly established musicians such as David Sylvian and Brian Eno. On this album Hassell is joined by yet another established musician: Ry Cooder. Hassell’s trademark of the synthetisized trumpet is left behind on this album, deliberately chosen for a pure form, very atmospheric songs and jazz standard “Nature Boy” as opening track. Also pure of form are the recording techniques used. Everything is recorded completely analog by Tim de Paravicini of Esoteric Audio Research (EAR) with only the use of triode vacuum tube equipment, including all mic’s and preamps. Microphones were placed according to classic “Blumlein” configuration and no form of noise reduction, limiting, compression or equalizing was used.
Sara K. & Chris Jones – Live In Concert
Live album of “Queen of Audiophile” Sara K. and recorded during the B&W sponsored Nautilus tour in 2002. Sara K. signed to Stockfisch Records after her contract with Chesky Records had finished. The new contract was only one page, which says a lot about the trust Stockfisch has in their artists. For Sara K. this was one of the motivations for signing to the label, together with the fact that her accompanying guitarist would be Chris Jones, a skilled master of his instrument and on this album in top form. Characteristics of this album are the live feeling that makes you part of the audience, the beautiful voice of Sara K with a variety of timbres, and the beautiful, virtuoso guitar work of Jones. Recording quality is very high, for recording engineer and founder of Stockfisch Günter-Pauler that comes natural.
Doug MacLeod – There’s A Time
Beautiful, honest blues, brought by Doug Macleod and released on HDCD on Reference Recordings, the record label of sound engineer and legend Prof. Keith O. Johnson. Recorded live by himself in one single take in the studio’s of Skywalker Sound, without overdubs, compression or other recording enhancements. Recording chain was deliberately kept very pure and that reflects the sound of this recording. This album is very rich on (micro) details and when listened on the better high end audio setup, Macleod is literally standing in your living room, playing in front of you. Winner of 2 Blues Music Awards: Acoustic Artist of the Year & Acoustic Album of the Year.
2. Our personal favorite albums
These albums are not just meant to be audiophile albums. Focus lies on performance and musicality as well, and recording quality is also very good:
Art Ensemble Of Chicago – Full Force
A Belgian comedian once said in an interview that his life was very complicated. He explained he has a remedy for it: listening to free jazz. Because this genre is so complex, his life suddenly looks much more simple. Therefore, this album was not chosen for it’s accessibility, but for the spaciousness, naturalness and realism of the recording, where every instrument is beautifully portrayed in space, with a very natural and realistic timbre. Listening to the opening track explain these findings, at first with original percussion instruments and a kazou that imitates a bird flying by (seems to actually fly around in my listening room, behind the speakers), then to build up to the main part of the song, with saxophone and double bass functioning as protagonist and antagonist, until all members of the ensemble reach chaotic apotheosis.
James Blake – James Blake
This album is not an example of honestly produced instruments but rather a succesful combination of smartly crafted sounds that, together with the fragile voice of Blake, make for an hour of pleasant music listening. The presence of sub bass in this recording makes for an ideal test on bass control and extention. With the song “There’s A Limit To Your Love” – a cover of Feist & Gonzales – the sub bass comes fully into play and immediately shows the limits of your audio equipment. As a test track it could have been named more appropriate: “There’s A Limit To Your Speakers”. But probably Blake didn’t have this in mind when creating this beauty.
Suzanne Abbuehl – The Gift
Record label ECM spans it’s own universe of artists, albums and for the music lover also constant discoveries. One of my latest ECM discoveries is Suzanne Abbuehl with “The Gift”, her third album on the label. This very atmospheric musical journey distinguishes itself conceptually from her previous albums, with 16 compositions written herself. Abbuehl combines ethereal vocals with lyrics from 19th century poets such as Dickinson and Brontë as well as contemporary literary work from Sara Teasdale and Wallace Stevens. In her musical journey she is accompagnied by piano, flugelhorn, percussion and harmonium. A real gem that lets you completely dream away, in that typical ECM tradition.
Manu Katché – Third Round
Third album of drummer Katché on the legendary ECM label. Beautiful, seductive jazz that excells in interplay between the musicians, with drummer Katché as a driving force, where he not only seems to be in top shape rhythmically, but also musically. Every shimmering of the cymbals and every hit on the tom’s suck the listener deeper into the unfolding musical story. The drums are recorded with very wide stereo imaging, enhancing the performance of Katché. Accompagnied by Tore Brunborg on saxophone ; Jason Rebello on piano & Fender Rhodes ; Pino Palladino on double bass ; Jacob Young on guitar (track 2, 6 & 10) ; Kami Lyle on voice (track 9) & trompet (track 9 & 10).
Malherbe & Löhrer – Nuit d’Ombrelle
Multi-instrumentalist Didier Malherbe, with psychedelic freaks mostly known for his work as woodwind player with Gong, gained in popularity throughout the ninetees thanks to ethno-jazz formation Hadouk Trio, where he takes the doudouk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) to another level. Nuit d’Ombrelle has a different flavor, with stripped-down performance of only guitar, doudouk and a bunch of jazz standards that fill recording time. Quality of this recording is excellent, where the timbre of the doudouk and the guitar accompaniment by Löhrer sound very natural and realistic. A lush for your ears.
Magna Carta – Lord Of The Ages
I think no other hifi magazine ever used this album as a “reference”, but luckily hifi-opinions.com is not an ordinary magazine. In my opinion “Lord of the Ages” is one of the most beautiful folk albums – progressive folk to be more precisely – of the seventies. Very strong, both textual as well as musical, with lyrics that capture your imagination – for instance the title track – or that wonder about an ideal world – the lovely “wish it was” – with musicians that, mostly accoustical – are in top shape. The progressive character is subtly present, without getting really bombastic. This is a lost gem of recent music history, highly recommended to everyone who loves the beauty of life.
Musica Nuda (Petra Magoni & Ferruccio Spinet) – Live à Fip
Musica Nuda, the Italian duo which consists of Petra Magoni (vocals) and Ferruccio Spinet (double bass) is not very known outside of Italy, except maybe in audiophile circles. I would love to see this changed. It is stunning to see what a stripped-down (musica nuda = “naked music”) performance of only vocals and bass can achieve. The duo brings own work as well as covers of famous pop songs, like “Roxanne”, “Message In A Bottle”, “I Will Survive”, “Come Together” and “Day Tripper”. Recording quality is exeptional, with a very pronounced feeling of “I am there”, a very defined and virtuoso double bass and a beautiful, crystal clear voice, with steady tone, huge flexibility and amazing tonal range.
Ayub Ogada – En Mana Kuoyo
Debut of Kenian singer-songwriter from 1993 on world music label Real World Records, founded by Peter Gabriel, later again in the picture thanks to the song “Kothbiro” that was used in the soundtrack of the movie “The Constant Gardener, and afterwards covered by jazz keyboard player Kenny Werner on his album “Lawn Chair Society”. Folk Roots describes this album as follows: ‘A haunting, spiritual quality that is reflective, intimate, introspective and demonstrates an extraordinary sensitivity to dynamics’, and we can only confirm this. One of the most beautiful albums that Real World Records ever released.
Dino Saluzzi – Kultrum
Solo album of Argentinian bandoneon player and his debut on the legendary ECM label. Besides the bandoneon on this album Saluzzi also takes all percussion, vocals and flutes into play. A spherical journey through the South-American roots of Saluzzi, with hints of indiginous folk music and the tribe culture of the continent, beautifully recorded by Manfred Eicher and one heck of a performance, alternately very subtle or immensely powerful. Deep drums, rattling percussion, and shaman vocals, combined with bandoneon and flute create a mix of deep spiritual and ancient ritualistic music.
Feist – Let It Die
Debut album of Canedian singer/songwriter Lesley Feist. Rolling Stone Magazine describes the album as follows: “Feist brings uncommon breadth and individuality to the swoony indie lounge pop of her U.S. debut. Her hushed croon evokes the jazz tingle of Peggy Lee and her melodicism hearkens back to Tin Pan Alley, but Feist proves she’s a modern gal with a sparse yet varied sound that draws from chamber pop, chill-out, postmodern folk, Burt Bacharach and beyond. Feist’s own songs on the disc’s first half segue imperceptibly into a string of well-chosen cover tunes that confirm her nuanced good taste, particularly as she gently renders Ron Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart” and the Bee Gees’ “Love You Inside Out” as if they were penned by the same lovesick soul: herself.”