In order to truly test a pair of headphones, you need to listen critically to some music, probably a lot, over and over and over again. The best headphone test tracks are songs you know really well.
But if you want to check out what tracks the professional reviewers use, this is the article for you. I’ve asked the top headphone reviewers on the web what their top headphone test tracks are, and why.
Before we get going, if you’re curious about the value of high-end headphones, or have questions about headphones in general, first check out Are Expensive Headphones Worth It?, What Are The Best Headphones?, Noise Cancelling Vs. Noise Isolating Headphones, and How To Compare Headphones.
It’s worth noting, up front, that these are tracks we use in the process of reviewing, but never as the only music we use to judge a pair of headphones (or other audio gear). These are best thought of as a starting point, and something to use for consistency, more than the sole arbiter of quality.
Steve Guttenberg – CNET.com
Steve Guttenberg reviews audio gear for CNET, and has written for Home Theater, Home Entertainment, and many other web and print publications. Steve sent me two of his favorites. Here’s what he has to say about each:
Amber Rubarth, Sessions from the 17th Ward (Chesky Records)
This is a “binaural” recording, made with just one pair of microphones placed where the ears would be in a dummy, human-size head. In other words, Rubarth’s vocals and all the instruments were recorded live with just that one pair of mics. On the tune “Good Mystery” the percussion on the right and cello on the left will appear to come from well outside the headphones. The degree of openness will vary depending on the headphone design.
Rubarth’s recording is available as a CD or standard or high-res download from HDtracks.com
Alexandre Desplat, Birth (soundtrack) (New Line Records)
This sumptuous film score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road Studios should take your breath away. On “Prologue” the soft to loud dynamic range is impressive, and you should hear the full tonal range, from deep tympani beats to high percussion with equal clarity.
Check out Steve’s CNET blog, The Audiophiliac.
On to Brent Butterworth, Lauren Dragan, Tyll Hertsens, and more…
Brent Butterworth – About.com
Brent Butterworth reviews headphones and stereos at Stereos.About.com. He’s written for just about every consumer electronics magazine, and was Editor in Chief of Home Theater and Home Entertainment magazines. When I asked him about his favorite test tracks, he went all out and wrote a whole article about it. His picks range from Mötley Crüe (“The groove should sound punchy, not loose or boomy.”) to Holly Cole (“’ “Train Song’ has been either the first or second test track I play when evaluating an audio system.”) to Wale (“Rapper Wale and singer Sam Dew both have smooth voices that can — but shouldn’t — sound rough through some headphones and wireless speakers.”) and more.
Check out the rest of this thoughts at My 10 Favorite Stereo Test Tracks.
Lauren Dragan – TheWirecutter.com
Jose Gonzalez – “Heartbeats”
Acoustic, close miked song. Gives me a great sense of the high end and attack/decay of headphones. This is where any headphone that sounds muffled will show itself.
Massive Attack- “Teardrop”
The little record pops and clicks mixed with a low end that comes in later in shows me how balanced a headphone is. Can it handle both ranges at once? This is also where headphones that have too much low end show themselves as well as boom and sizzle. If I have to turn up the volume so high to hear the bass that the snare hurts my ears, that tells me a lot.
Kanye West- “Love Lockdown”
Bass. Pure and simple. I never need to get more than 15 seconds in. If there is no pitch to the bass, or I only hear a whump or overtone, I know what is lacking in a product.
Robyn- “Dancing in my own (Rex the Dog Remix)”
The wall of pop sound. This piece is really busy, so it shows off the headphone’s balance really well.
Queen- “Killer Queen”
I listen to how clean the snaps are, and then the mix of vocals give me a really great of idea of how the midrange performs.
Tori Amos- “Jackie’s Strength”
Now we’re getting into the detail work. Here’s where I listen for richness of sound. The piano is really well recorded in this piece, and should have a great warm Boesendorfer sound. You get some sense of space in this recording, so it’s nice to hear depth in higher quality headphones.
After that, I’ll start switching around to other music I know well if I need to confirm or investigate some sound aspect more in depth. This often means Muse, Led Zeppelin, Bjork and whatever pops into my head at the moment. But usually by this point, if I’m still listening, it can only mean good things. If something is blatantly terrible, it’s shown itself by now.
Tyll Hertsens – InnerFidelity.com
Tyll runs the InnerFidelity.com, and he reviews lots of headphones. His first pick is not what I expected:
My favorite test track, the one I simply couldn’t do without, is pink noise. It allows me to immediately suss out the the overall tonal balance of headphones.
All my test tracks and why I use them are on this page.
I’ll highlight two that are a bit unusual:
Carlos Heredia’s “Chachipen” on the Chesky album Carlos Heredia – Gypsy Flamenco.
The thing about this track is that it’s very dynamic with a lot of hand clapping, foot stomping, castenets, and guitar strums, but there’s very little low bass energy. On systems that lack dynamic punch this track sounds thin and lacks weight; on a good system the dynamic punch of this track will pop and eyeball out.
Good imaging is hard to come by on headphones. Most headphones don’t image well to start with, and most tracks don’t image all that well even if the headphones are capable. A good track to listen for good headphone imaging is Santiago Vazquez’ track “Quejas de Bandoneon” off the album ”Sera Una Noche.” Penny whistle, tablas, accordion, guitar, cello, and goodness knows what else populates this marvelously recorded track. Recorded in a church 100 miles from Buenos Aires, the sense of space is spectacular.
Check out the rest of Tyll’s picks at Comparing World Class Headphones.
Me! – Here!
I’m going to include myself on this list, since, well, I wrote this article and I review headphones. I’d put all the other people in this article way above me, but I have been reviewing audio and headphones for a while (for myriad publications). I’ve used these tracks for years, partly because they are good, and partly because they were my introduction to audio reviewing when I first started at Home Theater magazine. So I’ve lost count how many speakers and headphones I’ve heard these songs on, but it’s got to be several hundred at this point. These were all found on the Burmeser II test CD, though you can find them on other CDs and if you must, MP3 (the latter isn’t ideal because of the compression).
Radka Toneff - “Moon is a Harsh Mistress”
This song, just her vocals and a piano, should sound very open and haunting. I listen for sibilance in her voice, the timbre of the piano, and any harshness in both.
Paco de Luca - “La Barraca”
This live track should have lots of fast attack on the percussive hits on the guitar and hand clapping, plus the overall timbre of the guitar.
Hans Theesink - “Call Me”
A bluesy number, this is a good test of a lot of audio aspects: The fullness of the bass of the tuba (yes, a tuba), how forward or buried Theesink’s voice is in the mix. Perhaps most important, the snare drum can sound especially harsh on many headphones, as they have a peak right at this frequency, and it’s a frequency that makes me cringe (literally).
There you have it, a bunch of music to use to test headphones. But don’t forget, music you know is still the best. These should just be helpful additions.
Check out How To Compare Headphones for more on testing headphones.