Monday 21 December 2020

As We Hear It: A High Dynamic Range Christmas Playlist by Allan Folz

A High Dynamic Range Christmas Playlist

[Guest Post by Allan Folz]

For this Christmas I'd like to share with Archimago and readers the albums that have become a large part of our family's holiday tradition.

In the old days, when all our music was on CD's I'd load up the 5 disc changer with these albums the Sunday after Thanksgiving and they were almost the only holiday music we'd have for the next month. Streaming wasn't a thing in the early Internet years. You listened to the albums you had and you liked them.

I bought all but one of these CD's more than 20 years ago and got them largely by (some really good!) luck of the draw. For the longest while I thought they were my favorites because they were such a constant part of our lives from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Later, after I learned about dynamic range I realized it made perfect sense that they were my favorites.

After getting more deeply involved in the hobby I discovered that all my favorite albums had a high dynamic range. This was interesting to me because I had formed my opinion on my favorite albums long before I'd learned about album dynamic range. Only after looking at the dynamic range of my favorite albums did I realize that almost always the common element was a high dynamic range. The corollary also held true. The albums I bought that were disappointing once I got them home and had a few listens had a low dynamic range.

This gave me an idea for an objective comparison. Christmas songs are standards and everyone sings the same ones, albeit with differences in instrumentation and musical style. In a way, Christmas albums are like one-design sailboat racing. It’s not about the songs themselves, it's about the performance of the songs. Our enjoyment comes directly from the vocalist and musicians (obviously) and the producer (not so obviously). I am pleased to share my list of Christmas favorites. I've found them to be well-produced and objectively of a better-than-typical dynamic range. I hope maybe they will give you some fresh ideas for holiday music this season.

Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas

DR album avg, track min & max: 12 (10-14)

The album itself is probably first on anyone's list of Christmas albums and needs no introduction. There are a few versions that have been released over the years and obsessive types will probably want to do their own research. Maybe someone can talk JoshM into doing a TBVO of this album for Audiophilestyle.

Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas

DR album avg, track min & max: 12 (11-14)

My wife and I danced to the Neville Brothers' Take Me To Heart from their album Family Groove at our wedding. So, picking up Aaron Neville's Christmas album seemed like a necessary thing to do. This has 11 tracks that are a nice mix of traditional standards and a little bit of New Orleans soul and Zydeco cross-over. My favorite example of each would be O Holy Night and Louisiana Christmas Day. Of course every track features Aaron Neville's smooth falsetto coming through front and center. His voice is the star of the album and the producer does nothing to get in the way of it.

Jewel, Joy: A Holiday Collection

DR album avg, track min & max: 9 (7-13)

This might be our family's favorite holiday album. The DR numbers are unremarkable and if that's all you knew about the album you'd probably decide to skip it. However, Jewel's voice has an airy, angelic quality on this album that is given full rein on the recordings. The album was released in 1999. While that was maybe not the popular peak of her career, it was certainly within her performance peak and I believe it shows most of all on the Ave Maria track. Other beautiful songs are O Holy Night, Silent Night, and less common Face of Love. When I originally had the idea for comparing the DR's of a bunch of Christmas albums I thought this was going to be the leader of the bunch. This is a great reminder that numbers don't always capture the whole story.

Ave Maria The Ultimate Sacred Christmas Album

DR album avg, track min & max: 13 (11-16)

This album draws heavily from Handel's Messiah and features many famous operatic singers doing Christmas classics. There are two Ave Marias and two Hallelujahs. What's not to like? Pavarotti singing O Holy Night is magnificent. Even lay people will appreciate his virtuosity. My personal favorite is track 8. The Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral sings See the Conquering Hero Comes with a moving organ accompaniment. 3:55 was not long enough. This track was one where you are left wishing for those 8 and 12 minute movements. I could not pick just one favorite album, but if somehow I could only listen to one album for Christmas season, this one would be my choice.

Great Songs of Christmas with Mario Lanza

DR album avg, track min & max: 11 (5-16)

Based on the copyright on the CD pressing, this is a compilation of original recordings from 1972, 1976, and 1979. The recordings were remastered wonderfully and don't give any indication of being from another era of music production. On the other hand, this should not be entirely surprising. The 1970's were the peak of analog recording technology. If the masters were archived properly they absolutely should sound as good as (or better) new.

This album features Mario Lanza, Marian Anderson, Placido Domingo, The Vienna Boys Choir, and the Royal Philharmonic and Chorus. Like the Ave Maria album, this album consists of famous operatic singers doing many popular Christmas songs in a classical style. I find it a more interesting change from typical pop-standards. My favorites here are Placido Domingo singing Panis Angelicus and Mario Lanza singing I Saw Three ShipsThe latter makes me think of Charles Dickens' England and a time before technology with more human contact and relationships. This album features the Royal Philharmonic's version of the Hallelujah! chorus from Handel's Messiah. Imagine producing a Christmas album without the Hallelujah!


Bonus pick:

Pink Martini, Joy to the World

DR album avg, track min & max: 10 (8-12)

This is a relatively new addition to our Christmas collection. It was released in 2010, which was when I purchased it. Pink Martini is a Portland original that gained considerable international exposure and acclaim since their founding in 1994. Like all their albums, Joy is an eclectic mix with a number of Christmas and seasonal classics from around the world. It has a warm, jazz club aesthetic that does equally well sipping wine next to a glowing fire or hosting a dinner party with a house full of friends and family. My favorite track  here is the finale, Aulde Lang Syne. Their rendition is a samba parade with choruses in English, Arabic, and French.

If you have family favorites with exceptional dynamic range, or a unique style or unusual instrumentation let us know in the comments. I love hearing new renditions of old favorites and streaming services today mean these are almost always available to give an immediate listen.

Merry Christmas to Archimago and all of us in fellowship of love of music and truth in advertising.


Thank you Allan for sharing a part of your life and family tradition with us! "Take Me To Heart" is a really sweet song, man. Merry Christmas and may your home always be warm and be blessed with beautifully recorded music as these.

It's amazing how another year has passed. It literally felt like only a couple months ago that we spoke about a list like this... In the blink of an eye, it has indeed been another year!

Every year since 1996, I've brought out Amy Grant's Home For Christmas (DR12 avg, 10-14 range). That year, I was stationed at a rural hospital placement during the "rotating internship" part of medical training and for the first time in my life did not see family during the holiday period. It's amazing in times of solitude, how songs are able to speak deeply. "Grown-Up Christmas List" will always remind me of that year... And of course a reminder that there are much much more meaningful things in this world than just the toys.

Friends, even if this Christmas and New Years are ones of solitude, have a peaceful, loving, restful, safe, Merry Christmas and Happy 2021...


  1. Thank you for posting this! For those on Qobuz, here is the playlist I put together to give these a listen:

  2. Thank you Allan and Ray,you are keeping good company with your posts in these strange and lonely times. Merry Christmas to all!

  3. Good evening, Ray. Thanks so much for this! We're listening to it now...and loving it.

    Have a very Merry Christmas, everyone!

  4. Thank you for your posts! And for sharing your favorite albums and playlists! Merry Christmas!

  5. Hello Archimago, enjoyed your blog very much this year. I wish youy a Merry Christmas, and a better New Year!
    I also wanted to point you to this guy, because every time I see him, I think of you. Both seem very down to earth, precise and no-nonsense. Maybe you have seen this, maybe you don't like being directed to something :-) But still, I only mean it well: the guy is Tech Ingredients, he looks to be a physics teacher? Hope you enjoy this.
    Rop (from the Netherlands)

    1. Thank you Rob for the note and link. Very cool project on that YouTube video! Will have to give it a try at some point :-) and check out some of his other projects/videos.

      I'm no physics teacher but I do live in the medical world which this year has taken up a huge amount of the airwaves/digital bandwidth. In that regard, I wish everyone health and safety this winter. The vaccines are rolling out and since I work in a couple of facilities with the elderly and long-term compromised patients, I got my Pfizer vaccine recently. Smooth, no issues. Since it's a new mRNA technology, they monitor for about 15 minutes to make sure no unexpected reactions. Have to get a second booster in 21-28 days. For me and colleagues so far, not much different from a typical flu shot.

      Hope the health system where you are can get the job done smoothly and let's get back to a more normal way of life in 2021...

      Merry Christmas to all.

    2. I love that guy! Easily a top 5 channel on YouTube.

      Funny story: way back in Jan 2020 I told Arch I was going to do two guest posts this year: one was a "High DR Christmas" and the other was "DIY Yard Speaker."

      I never got around to the yard speakers write-up, and 2020 was definitely the year for DIY yard speakers. My speaker project was largely drawn from that episode. It was so easy and sounds so much better than you can imagine. Take a corro-plast yard sign (um, preferably a-political -- ours kids sportsball sign-ups reminder with a nice graphic ;), attach an exciter and voilĂ ... discrete, virtually theft-proof, yard speaker for ~$30.

      The sound is much better than you'd expect. It's definitely better than any portable "boom box" or bluetooth rechargeable speaker at twice the price (admittedly not an apples-to-apples comparison). Lower end is somewhat missing, which is actually a feature, because it causes the sound to not carry and won't annoy the neighbors.

      For background music hanging out in the yard, whether gardening, grilling, or pool-side, I swear by mine.

      Also check out TechIngredients DIY Voight Tubes and I'd be remiss not to mention be sure to search his channel for hydrogen balloon.

      Merry Christmas! And thank you everyone for the kind words. It's nice seeing my guest post is appreciated.

    3. * I don't have a pool, but if I did I'd have a corro-plast panel speaker on the side. ;)

    4. Very cool and thanks for the link Allan on the Voight!

      That guy has quite the hobby room with great tools around. Amazing set-up.

      Hey, maybe next summer you can get me an article on that "DIY Yard Speaker" ;-). Hope you had a great Christmas Day and cheers for 2021!

  6. In that case, also a big thanks for your professional work. All over the world a lot of people earn great respect.

    1. All the best to you and yours RoP,
      A very difficult year indeed with all kinds of tough decisions and sacrifices made all around the world.

      Take care and stay safe...

  7. thank you, this is exactly what I was looking for

  8. Happy 2021, Archie and the gang, who make this the nicest audio spot around.
    I'm wondering, what are your audio wishes for the next year?
    I'm hoping for more surround reissues of 4-channel classics from the 70s and 80s, and not to get tempted into any more useless equipment 'upgrades'.