While the best way to evaluate the quality and fidelity of your speakers is to try them with songs that you know by heart, there are songs out there that are perfect for testing the limits of a hi-fi system, be it for their immersive spatial sound, the wide dynamic range or the cavernous bass that characterizes them.
Today we’ll look into how you can test every aspect of your stereo speakers, what to look out for when trying-out your system’s fidelity, and the best tracks to do so.
This list is by no means complete, but rather suggestions based on my personal experience and songs that have been used for years to test audio systems.
Why test your speakers?
If you’re a newbie in the audiophile world, you might be wondering why you should test your speakers in the first place. After all, you probably just spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on upgrading your hi-fi system. Is it not supposed to sound great from day one?
The reality is that all speakers are different. In a way, they have “soul”, a signature sound that defines how they reproduce audio frequencies and a song’s soundscape. Furthermore, how your stereo speakers interact with your environments varies significantly depending on your room’s size and furniture and the disposition of your speakers.
All in all, testing your audio system helps you understand if you bought the right speakers and whether you’re making the most of their quality. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in the process, but there’s no doubt results can take your listening experience and music knowledge to the next level.
What to focus on when testing your speakers?
In an ideal scenario, your speakers should faithfully reproduce the sonic texture of every song you play with pristine clarity from the highest to the lowest audible frequencies. Unless you invested tens of thousands of dollars in your hi-fi system and your listening room is acoustically treated to perfection, that’s never the case.
However, by making adjustments to your audio setup and room, you can create an excellent acoustic environment for your listening sessions, even if you didn’t spend a fortune on your new stereo speakers.
Let’s take a look at the most crucial elements when testing speakers:
Treble and bass fidelity: extremely high and low frequencies put a strain on your hi-fi system, so if your speakers can reproduce these frequencies with clarity, you’re already on the right track.
Dynamic range: the ratio between the quietest and loudest sound your speakers can reproduce without compromising the sound quality. Do you hear distortion when you increase the volume? That’s bad news.
Frequency range: frequency response of speakers should always be between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, which is the range of human hearing at its peak. Smaller speakers might not 20 Hz; something to bear in mind if you’re into heavy-bass music.
Midrange quality: while high and low frequencies can help you determine the limits of your audio system, midrange frequencies help you understand if your speakers can create a cohesive, pristine soundscape where you can hear all the elements of a track.
Tonal balance: that’s a very subjective aspect of audio, but essentially it’s how different frequencies interact with each other.
When a song sounds harmonious to your ear, it means all song elements are balanced and carefully blended. Your hi-fi system and the way frequencies travel through your room play a crucial role in tonal balance.
Surround sound: it’s how your speakers reproduce the space audio engineers created when mixing and mastering a song. Also, some tracks have a cinematic feel that your speakers should recreate by making the music immersive and enveloping, as if the sound was coming from everywhere.
Now that we clarified all the crucial elements that define the quality of a hi-fi system, allow me to suggest a few songs I and other (more authoritative) audiophiles regularly use to test the quality of their speakers.
These are our go-to songs for testing speakers:
- Limit to Your Love by James Blake
- The National Anthem by Radiohead
- Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
- Turn Your Lights Down Low by Bob Marley & The Wailers
- 20211130 by Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Flight From the City by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Limit to Your Love by James Blake
I can’t think of a better song to put to the test how your speakers reproduce low frequencies. Released in 2011, Blake’s “Limit to Your Love” features a granitic bassline that makes walls vibrate. If your speakers can’t handle it, it’ll just sound like a low-frequency mess.
The National Anthem by Radiohead
That’s one of the most popular tracks audiophiles use to evaluate their audio system and for all the right reasons. “The National Anthem” is an immersive aural experience, with sounds and melodies coming your way from every direction.
A blend of acoustic and electronic instruments, random elements, a chaotic crescendo accompanied by Yorke’s oversaturated voice and subtle changes in the sonic texture. I wonder how the mixing engineer working with Radiohead at the time survived this.
If your speakers can reproduce every nuance in this track, congratulations!
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
Everyone knows “Bohemian Rhapsody”, so there’s no need to dwell on it. From the quiet piano/voice intro to the rock extravaganza that follows to the intricate changes between crescendos, unexpected breaks, a cappella singing parts, and heavier elements, this song is as complex and diverse as they come, so a perfect test for your audio system.
Turn Your Lights Down Low by Bob Marley & The Wailers
The reason why everyone recommends this track to evaluate speakers is because of the way it uses space to create a cohesive texture. Each element is carefully placed within the spectrum, giving the impression of having the performers playing in front of you.
There’s no easier way to test the quality of your hi-fi system. Play this song, close your eyes, and feel the vibe of this masterpiece.
20211130 by Ryuichi Sakamoto
If you’re like me, you want your speakers to reproduce even the most subtle elements of a song, as sometimes that’s where the magic happens.
That’s the case with Sakamoto’s latest work, 12, in which the legendary composer uses his own breathing and delicate ambient layers to accompany his minimal piano pieces.
A fantastic album that requires a fine-tuned audio system to be enjoyed thoroughly.
Flight From the City by Jóhann Jóhannsson
In many ways, classical music is the quintessential test for your speaker. It’s often immersive, rich, and uses space to magnify each element of the composition.
I use this composition by Jóhann Jóhannsson to assess speakers’ quality because the build-up is so gradual it gives you time to absorb its sonic evolution while layers after layers are put together to bring to life an unforgettable piece.
I hope these song recommendations will help you evaluate the quality of your audio system with a critical ear.
However, ultimately, the only thing that matters is that you enjoy your music collection and that it sounds pleasant to you. So turn your hi-fi system on, pick a record, and immerse yourself in the music you love.
Have fun, and happy listening!