If, for the first time in your life, you invested in a pair of professional headphones, it’s perfectly reasonable that you’re trying to figure out whether you made a good investment or not by testing them out: after all, what sounds good to you might actually not be how the music is supposed to sound like, right? Well, that’s kind of wrong.
When choosing and testing a new pair of headphones, there’s one question that matters, and one only: does the music you like sound good to you?
Obviously, this is a question we could delve much deeper into, depending on what we’re expecting from our new cans: is the bass accurate? And what about the soundstage, balance, and articulation? Still, the ultimate judge is your personal taste, and everything else should come after that.
Testing new headphones with songs you know by heart is always the best practice, but there are certain tracks that present multilayered productions well suited to test the capabilities of headphones and stereo speakers.
In this article, I want to share a few tracks I’ve been recommending to anyone who wanted to test the limits of their new pair of cans. The accompanying playlist can be found here.
Why you should trust me?
Here are some of my favorite tracks for testing new headphones:
- We Have a Map of the Piano – Múm
- The National Anthem – Radiohead
- Hyperballad – Björk
- Tell Me Lies – The Black Keys
- Return to Forever – Chick Corea
- Storm – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
- Uh Uh – Thundercat
- Symphony No. 9 – Antonín Dvořák
To test spatiality: We Have a Map of the Piano by Múm
A perfect blend of acoustic and electronic elements, with delicate vocal melodies accompanying the listener into a dreamy soundscape.
With “We Have a Map of the Piano,” Icelandic indietronica band Múm created an immersive sonic experience that requires perfect reproduction to be enjoyed fully: perfect imaging, speed, and articulation.
Here, the sound moves and melodies evolve organically, and if your headphones can capture those movements, you’re in for a treat.
To test detail levels: The National Anthem by Radiohead
Already featured in my list of the best songs to test stereo speakers, Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” is a force to be reckoned with: a dense mix of horns, electronic effects, and a prominent bass line, all layered over Thom Yorke’s vocals, this is a song that can easily turn into a noisy mess if your cans can’t reproduce it clearly.
Your headphones should be able to separate all the components, present the bass with clarity and depth, and highlight each melodic element as it evolves and blends with others. All those fine details should turn into a cohesive soundstage and a mesmerizing crescendo of sounds.
To test dynamic nuances: Hyperballad by Björk
You can’t go wrong with Björk. For years, the Icelandic producer has pushed the boundaries of how emotional electronic music can be, and she’s done so by creating intricate, multilayered compositions that expand and evolve relentlessly, just like in the haunting “Hyperballad.”
Here, subtle ambient textures gradually become more intense and complex, introducing more layers as the song progresses, with Björk’s emotive and dynamic vocals shifting from soft to powerful.
Listen to how your headphones cope with the interplay between electronic and acoustic elements as the track reaches its climax: they should handle that intensity and carefully reproduce the delicacy as much as the energy within this unique piece.
To test warmth: Tell Me Lies by The Black Keys
I’d recommend trying out “Tell Me Lies” to anyone interested in the timeless vibes of rock, blues, and similar genres. The band does a lot with analog in the studio, and from the stereo effect to the authentic overdrives, here you can hear the soul of rock music in all its majesty and find out if your headphones can recreate such warmth.
The Black Keys traditionally gravitates towards an analog sound that your new cans should recreate perfectly if you dig the unpolished, raw vibe that is part of the rock and blues’ aesthetic.
The gritty guitar riffs should sound smooth, creating a cohesive and timeless atmosphere created in the way they mix with the drums. The initial riffs (coming from the left side) and the subsequent layers should give you a clear idea of how your headphones can maintain accuracy and spatiality even when sounds are less than polished.
To test timing and articulation: Return to Forever by Chick Corea
Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” is a 1972 fusion track that demands audio equipment that can handle its complex arrangements with precision and clarity. Its intricate rhythms, rapid tempo changes, and ever-changing harmonic structure make it an absorbing piece, and one that shouldn’t be compromised by less-than-perfect audio equipment.
From the subtle beginning to the crescendo of drums and electric piano and the lunatic vocals and instrumental climax at the end, your headphones should handle the sudden changes with grace, offering a pleasant and consistent listening experience throughout the evolution of the composition.
To test dynamic range: Storm by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Expansive and cinematic, the opening track of the phenomenal Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is the embodiment of borderless rock music.
Powerful orchestral arrangement, relentless rhythmic evolution, ambient textures, guitar-hero moments, and a multitude of nuances and sonic details are all here in these 20 minutes of post-rock extravaganza.
Throughout the first half, “Storm” subtly and gradually intensifies, with orchestral elements, electric guitars, and percussive sounds working in unison. The mid-track peak is its zenith, and where your headphones should be able to preserve the clarity and separation of instruments while expressing their dynamic range.
Downscaling once again from grandiose to tranquil towards the end, “Storm” is a sonic journey that requires performing headphones to be appreciated fully.
To test bass control: Uh Uh by Thundercat
In my recent article on the best bass-heavy songs, I described “Uh Uh” as the “baptism of fire of your sound system.” The same applies, if not even more significantly, to headphones.
The bass guitar here is a juggernaut, with fast-paced scales and arpeggios exploring the lower end of the spectrum thoroughly.
Low-end speed and control here are of the essence: the bass guitar should sound like a living thing, moving on top of the drums and in symbiosis with the vocals and piano texture: clear, prominent, and hypnotizing.
To test balance in classical music: Symphony No. 9 by Antonín Dvořák
I love this magnificent composition because it forces the headphones to reproduce the full spectrum of orchestral sound, and truly shines only when you can appreciate its vigorous energy, evolution, and rich textures.
The solid brass sections, the delicate nuances of the strings, and the precise articulation of the woodwinds, all work together to bring to life a dramatic symphony, defined by dynamic shifts and emotional crescendos and diminuendos.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 requires top-notch balance and spatial accuracy from your headphones, where each element of the orchestra is carefully placed within the soundstage. The result is a cohesive whole and an unforgettable sonic experience for the classical music aficionados.
I hope you enjoyed this list. As I said, there are plenty of tracks you can use to test your gear, but first, start with the music you love and know well, which will show you right away if your new headphones enhanced the beauty of those songs. Next, give the songs mentioned above a try.
Do let me know in the comment section below if you think there are other tracks audiophiles should use to test their new headphones!