The 12 Best Tracks to Test Headphones With
Buying a new pair of headphones can be a daunting task, especially when you consider the hundreds of different options available in the market. Sure, you could go with the best-reviewed option, but how do you know if it’ll be good for the kind of music you listen to?
Audiophiles usually have a dedicated playlist that they use to test headphones with. But, if you don’t, here’s our collection of tracks to put a new pair of headphones through its paces.
1. Bohemian Rhapsody Remastered (2011) by Queen
From the echoes of the chorus to the multi-layered harmonies and the instantly recognizable opera sections, Bohemian Rhapsody is more than just a song; it’s a story told in sound waves that have reverberated throughout generations.
Freddie Mercury’s masterpiece was remastered and released in 2011, upgraded for streaming, with more nuanced instrument sounds and better clarity. If you want to test the full range of your new headphones, this is the song to go with.
From its mellow beginnings to Mercury’s high notes during the operatic section and, finally, May’s solo as the song switches lanes into rock-and-roll territory, this track will help you test the full range of your headphones.
High-end headsets might be able to pick up those tiny mistakes that were left in intentionally when the song was first recorded, including the slightly out-of-tune piano!
2. Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
Renowned for its incredible bass riff, Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes is arguably the most recognizable song to have released in the early 2000s.
The deep bassline poses a great test for headphones, while the mix of different instruments, coupled with the bassline consistently playing in the background, will help you test your new headphones’ dynamic response.
3. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards by Tame Impala
This is a great song to test your new headphones’ overall sound field. The arrangement lets you hear from all directions, and good headphones should be able to replicate this perfectly.
From the slight variations of the bass line to the electric organ’s nuance, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards is a great track that you can use to gauge the overall clarity and response of your new headphones.
The song may sound “dirty” with layers mixing improperly, especially as it nears the end, on low-quality headphones. However, on high-end cans, the track is more nuanced, clear, and just sounds so much better.
4. Heroes (2017 Remaster) by David Bowie
Heroes is a phenomenal song by David Bowie that is great for testing your new pair of cans. If you want the best quality headphones that don’t cost a fortune, it’s important to test them properly.
Ideally, you’d want to make sure that they can handle changes in musical intensity seamlessly. Heroes is a great track to test this. From the faint sounds of the lead guitar to the piano keys, topped with the consistent pitch variation in Bowie’s voice, this is a fantastic track to put your new headphones through the paces.
By the end of the song, you should also be able to hear the unique juddering effect that the song’s renowned for!
5. Lemon by U2
U2 is one of the greatest bands of all time, and Lemon is easily one of their best songs. It showcases Bono’s full range of vocal prowess, and is beautifully supplemented by the Edge’s guitar.
The robust bass that underpins the song is a great way to test out how your new cans are performing, and the heavily processed music makes it a fantastic track to test your new headphones with.
6. No Time for Caution by Hans Zimmer
No Time for Caution may seem like a simple instrumental on the surface, but there’s a lot to notice, if you listen closely. Hans Zimmer’s masterpiece continues to add on instruments as it grows in intensity until the hairs on the back of your neck begin to stand.
The song starts slow, with a simple drum beat, until the air’s suddenly punctuated with an organ. Violins soon join in, and before long, you’ll find it difficult to make out different instruments as the entire orchestra kicks into gear.
It’s a phenomenal track to test headphones, as it’ll help you gauge the midrange response and the bass levels of your new cans.
7. The Chain (2004 Remaster) by Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain is widely regarded as one of the best songs they ever recorded. From its majestic guitar chorus to the deep bass line and the accompanying drums, The Chain is a great track to test the versatility of your new headphones.
Keep an ear open for the harmonies in the background and the powerful vocals, as well as the fantastic guitar solo. At its peak, Fleetwood Mac was the epitome of “soft rock” in the 70’s, and the remastered version is a great track to test your new headphones with.
If you have headphones with high impedance, you’ll be able to hear all the instruments with pristine clarity. But, to really make the best of such headphones, you also need a high-impedance output port.
8. Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer
Lisa Gerrard, Klaus Badelt, and Hans Zimmer’s masterpiece from Gladiator is a great track for testing your headphones. The haunting vocals of Gerrard’s voice, coupled with the clear dynamic detail and the faint piano in the background will really strain your headphones.
The song suddenly changes midway, as new percussive instruments fill the soundstage, which will help you gauge your headphones’ overall dynamics and ability to handle changes in musical intensity.
9. Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode
Enjoy the Silence is easily one of the best tracks ever produced by Depeche Mode. From its disco undertones to its synth-pop vibe, the song perfectly highlights the power of David Gahan’s vocals and the accompanying musical prowess of the rest of the band.
From Gore’s rich, low voice to the deep reverb and the over-reliance on electronic effects, Enjoy the Silence is a fantastic track that you can use to gauge whether your new headphones are able to catch all the sounds in the background or not.
Played through a good pair of headphones, it’s going to sound great. If you don’t hear the music right, you might want to try a few tips to improve the sound quality of your headphones.
10. Paper Trails by DARKSIDE
If you want a track with a really moving bassline, check out Paper Trails by DARKSIDE. The vocals also fall towards the deep end of the frequency range, so you can better gauge whether your headphones offer clear bass or not.
Played through a good pair of headphones, it’s going to sound great. If you don’t hear the music right, you might want to try a few tips to improve the sound quality of your headphones.
11. Rainbow In The Dark by Dio
If you’re a fan of rock and roll or even heavy metal, Rainbow In The Dark by Dio is a great track to test your new headphones with. Ronnie’s high-pitched vocals, coupled with the sharp distortion of the electric guitar and that iconic riff will really push any pair of headphones to their limits.
The chorus is also punctuated with a gorgeous keyboard riff until you hear just the drums before it all boils down to an unbelievable solo by Vivian Campbell. Now, you’ll be hearing the riff, the drums, and that iconic solo altogether.
Good headphones are able to present the sounds with great clarity, especially the part with the pinch harmonics.
12. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (All Parts) by Pink Floyd
Shine On You Crazy Diamond is arguably one of the best tracks to test your new headphones, simply because it covers everything you need across nine parts.
From a dynamic soundstage to varying instruments to unbelievable guitar sounds and even a trumpet, nothing comes close to this one if you want variety. The “twang” of Gilmour’s Fender to Wright’s keyboard riffs, the varying frequencies will pose a great test for your headphones.
The later parts really elevate the song, as it all boils down into a crescendo of different instruments being played in true musical harmony. If you want to test the dynamic grip of your headphones and how well they can handle sudden frequency changes, try this.
Find the Right Headphones for You
Modern headphones often require users to strike a balance between sound and function. These tracks will help you decide which headphones offer the right balance for you. You can check the tracks out on your new headphones using the links above, or our dedicated headphone checking playlist below.
In addition to your potential headphones’ sound quality, you might also want to look at other features, such as connectivity, noise cancellation, battery capabilities, or if it’s solar-powered.
10 of the best tracks to test your headphones
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You’ll likely use headphones more than any other piece of hi-fi equipment. At any one time in the What Hi-Fi? office at least half of us are using them (and not exclusively due to our questionable personalities).
We’re well aware there is personal preference in what you want from your headphones – even we aren’t precious enough about hi-fi to assume the success of companies such as Beats is reliant only on good marketing. But by and large, there’s no reason you ought to expect a radically different level of performance to that of your amplifier and speakers. (We’ve also curated some of the best songs to test your speakers.)
You may already have your own playlist to test equipment before you buy it – if not, it’s a worthwhile exercise – but we’ve put together a collection of tracks that will highlight what we believe to be the most important aspects of your headphones’ performance.
Find the accompanying playlist on Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify and Tidal
- Our guide to the best test tracks to trial your hi-fi system
- The best headphones and audiophile headphones you can buy
Explosions In The Sky – Wilderness
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi?
Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
To test overall balance
Balance isn’t always an easy one for headphone manufacturers to get right. Quite often we find them overloading the bottom end in an overzealous attempt to keep their product from sounding lightweight or rolling off the treble to avoid any sharpness nearer the top of the frequency range.
In order to test the overall balance, you want a track that covers as much of the frequency range as possible. You’ll get that from a lot of orchestral works, but more contemporary pieces can work as well, such as this from Explosions In The Sky. There’s plenty of low-end heft in Wilderness‘s percussive pulse, while some of those guitar harmonics will reach high into the treble frequencies. Prefer something jazzier? We can’t recommend Black Country, New Road’s Instrumental enough for the purpose of testing overall balance (and, of course, just purely enjoying).
View Explosions In The Sky at Amazon
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Helplessly Hoping
To test midrange quality
By and large, the midrange is where you’ll find your vocal lines: pretty important, then. Clarity is, of course, a primary concern, as are stability and warmth. If there isn’t enough midrange support from lower frequencies, vocals can sound thin and lack human quality.
Finding a track with a clear, prominent vocal line is all you need do, but it’s even better if it includes such vocal harmonies as those so consistency delivered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Helplessly Hoping is a prime example, and your headphones should have the midrange detail and roominess to capture the lusciousness and layering of the harmonies while keeping a hand on the melodic strumming beneath. You certainly shouldn’t feel as though you’re helplessly hoping for more insight.
View Crosby, Still, Nash & Young at Amazon
Darkside – Paper Trails
To test bass control
We mentioned some brands’ tendency to skew the balance toward the bottom end, which we understand suits a certain section of the market. But if that’s what you like, it is perhaps even more important those bass frequencies are articulate and suitably agile.
It isn’t enough for your headphones to make your earlobes wobble if you can’t actually hear what’s going on down there. A track with a moving bassline will either drive or confuse a performance, depending on the aptitude of your kit. Darkside’s Paper Trails has the added benefit of testing a vocal line deep into the frequency range, which will really highlight the clarity of the bass – or lack thereof.
View Darkside at Amazon
Pharoah Sanders – You’ve Got To Have Freedom
To test treble quality
Coarseness in treble frequencies is probably one of the first things you’ll notice in headphones because it’ll make your ears hurt. If that’s happening once you’ve given your headphones a day or two to run in, you’ll end up wanting to bin them altogether. But sometimes it can go the other way – perhaps in an attempt to rid a performance of any sharpness, manufacturers will roll the frequency range off at the top end.
Either way, you aren’t getting the rich treble frequencies you and your ears deserve. This particular track from Pharoah Sanders finds his saxophone in full-on attack mode. Without making your ears bleed, it ought to sound like a mother goose being prodded with a knitting needle, and you should accept nothing less.
View Pharoah Sanders at Amazon
Havergal Brian – Symphony No1 in D Minor (The Gothic)
To test detail levels
It’s rare we really criticise a product for lack of detail alone, but when we hear something particularly insightful it can really make a difference. The term itself is pretty self-explanatory: it’s about digging deep into what is being performed, rather than how.
Large-scale orchestral pieces, with a grand range of instruments and timbres, will highlight just how much insight is being delivered. This particular symphony, written by Havergal Brian, is a veritable behemoth, spanning the piccolo to the timpani via two harps and a children’s choir. Live recordings are another decent test: hand-claps are one of the more difficult sounds to reproduce.
View Havergal Brian at Amazon
John Martyn – Small Hours
To test spaciousness
Space may appear a peculiar concept when it comes to sounds being played directly into your ears, but a claustrophobic performance can be the enemy of deeper listening. You don’t want instruments to sound detached from one another, but each line should have space to breathe.
Again, live performances are a good test as to whether your headphones are able to judge the size of an auditorium – or you can go a step further with this album closer from John Martyn. It was recorded outside, so there is no excuse for Martyn’s guitar to sound at all boxed in.
View John Martyn at Amazon
BadBadNotGood – Speaking Gently
To test rhythm and timing
Anyone who was ever in a school band will know how infuriating it is to play with somebody who can’t keep time – if you didn’t know that, it was probably you. The same goes for hi-fi, and your headphones should be able to make sense of polyrhythm just as adeptly as they lock into a rigid 4/4.
This particular track from BadBadNotGood’s album IV offers a simple, solid beat as it opens, before sprawling into a freer percussive mindset. Timing also feeds into how instruments interact, how they question each other and then answer. If the performance sounds loose, disorganised or dull, it’s probably down to timing.
View BadBadNotGood at Amazon
Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa
To test dynamic range
As good as your four-year-old nephew may be at playing the recorder, you probably don’t want your headphones to play like they’re at a school assembly. A dearth of dynamic range will give you a flat performance, sometimes sounding almost like a rehearsal, undermining any emotion on the original recording.
Pick a piece where small- and large-scale dynamics fluctuate as they do in Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa and you’ll hear whether your headphones are up to the job. It’s often the smaller-scale dynamics that make the greatest impression: those are what will give voices their expression, which will be especially important if you use your headphones for watching films and TV as well.
View Arvo Pärt at Amazon
Kate Bush – Watching You Without Me
To test dynamic subtlety
Really, this Kate Bush masterclass in songwriting, delivery and production can tell you most of what you should know about your headphones – their ability to time, capture midrange detail and, ultimately, track the subtlest of dynamic fluctuations. It’s a great overall test track that we couldn’t overlook for this article.
The reciprocating synths, metronomic drums and bent pizzicato double bass notes interlink to create a delicately textured rhythmic gauze ideal for testing your system’s timing and rhythmic knack. But it’s the dynamics of this track that are truly illuminating, with acres of reverberant space and tonal shade as Kate Bush switches between soft crooning, softer whispers and murmured ‘secret messages’ with words sung backwards.
View Kate Bush on Amazon
Ólafur Arnalds – Ljósi∂
To test subtlety
Getting you out the door and enthused for your run is one thing, but if you use your headphones for anything else then a little subtlety and restraint will be as important as that drive.
This Ólafur Arnalds piece, from his album Found Songs, is a lesson in refinement, with piano keys wanting to be stroked rather than hammered, violin weeping rather than in the midst of a full-on gin-sob. If your headphones can render this as well as they do Black Sabbath, it’ll really pay off in the subdued moments of tracks before they end up letting fly.
View Ólafur Arnalds at Amazon
Farruko – Pepas
To test excitement and drive
All of this may seem like arbitrary box-ticking if your headphones’ performance doesn’t make you want to move. Really, this kind of enthusiasm and drive is a combination of tip-top timing, low-end stability and a good grasp of dynamics. If a piece of equipment ticks those boxes, it’s most of the way to being able to enthuse when a song demands it to.
You can insert your favourite groove-laden track here, but we’ve overcome our instinct to pick that Eurythmics song to go for a more contemporary (and undoubtedly more Marmite) suggestion – Farruko’s Pepas. If your headphones are doing it right, you’ll be anticipating those beat drops, and you’ll look unhinged to your co-workers as soon as it does.
View Farruko at Amazon
- 40 of the best 1990s albums to test your speakers
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- Closed-back vs open-back headphones: which is best for you?
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, and tips for choosing an accessory – an article on PT
You put on your headphones, turn on your favorite tracks, and all the extraneous noise immediately disappears: the sounds of the city, the chatter of colleagues, or a quarrel between neighbors. For many, this helps to concentrate on work, sports and just gives joy. However, under certain circumstances, listening to music with headphones can significantly impair your hearing. We learned how to reduce risk factors and check if you are injurious to health.
Headphone loudness and safety tests
The sound of speakers can be measured using applications such as a sound level meter, but with headphones the situation is more complicated. This feature is only available on the iPhone. But what about the owners of other smartphone models? There are several ways to help determine if you are harming yourself while listening to music.
To understand how music affects your hearing, you need to measure your baseline tinnitus. To do this, take a break from using headphones for 2-3 days. Then, in a quiet and peaceful environment, insert earplugs into your ears, lie on your back, close your eyes and focus on hearing. Relax as much as possible, concentrate on breathing, stay still. You should pick up a very slight ringing in your ears – this is your baseline.
The next day, resume using your headphones as usual. Repeat the test in the evening. If the ringing in your ears gets louder, turn down your headphone volume by one or two units.
Remove the headphones while the music is still playing. Hold them in front of you at arm’s length and listen. If you can hear the music clearly, turn the volume down.
Look at the volume scale. Turn it down if the sound level is above two-thirds. Audiologists advise setting the volume to a maximum of 60%, listening to music for no longer than 60 minutes, and then taking an hour break. During this time, the receptors of the auditory system will rest and recover from the vibrations. To reduce risks, do not use the gadget for more than 2-3 hours a day.
Photo: pexels. com
Pay attention to how well you hear people around you. Are you asking too often? If you notice the following symptoms, be sure to contact an otolaryngologist:
- ringing, clicking, hissing or buzzing in the ears;
- the need to constantly increase the volume;
- difficulties in recognizing the interlocutor’s speech.
The sooner a person sees a doctor, the better the chances of stopping hearing loss. Even for those who do not experience problems, a preventive examination is recommended at least once every two to three years.
Exactly how loud music affects hearing
Inside each cochlea (a part of the inner ear) are hair cells that process sounds and transmit information to the brain. The more of them, the better the hearing. They are destroyed due to injuries, taking certain antibiotics and loud noise. Constantly listening to loud music with headphones often causes their death and thus damages hearing.
Five hearing impairments caused by loud music on headphones
- Tinnitus. This is a consequence of severe stress on the hair cells.
- Sound distortion. A person misunderstands what the interlocutor says.
- Hyperacusis. A person experiences severe discomfort from loud, but tolerable sounds for the surroundings.
- Diplacusia. The same tone is perceived by the ears in different ways.
- Hearing loss. The organs of hearing get tired and cease to actively respond to sound. Dullness of hearing can last from a few minutes to several days.
After a break, hearing is restored. However, if you continue to listen to music that is too loud, hearing loss may become permanent over time.
WHO states that sound above 85 decibels damages hair cells. For comparison: 30 decibels is the ticking of a wall clock, and 120 is the noise of a jackhammer. Many studies confirm that prolonged listening to music at a volume of 90-100 decibels significantly increases the risk of hearing loss.
Which headphones are the safest for hearing?
Background noise often causes the sound to be turned up to dangerous levels. And if the sounds from the outside are not audible, then listening to music too loudly is not at all necessary. Choose headphones with good noise cancellation. There are two types of such devices.
- Active noise canceling: cuts out any outside noise with a dedicated microphone.
- Passive Noise Canceling: Designed to eliminate noise.
Convenience. Earmuffs should fit snugly around the ears and not cause discomfort. Otherwise, due to long-term wearing, you may get a headache.
Sound quality. With high-quality headphones, you can enjoy different shades of music and distinguish instruments even at low volumes.
In-ears or “plugs”, open or closed
In-ears , unlike vacuum headphones, are not inserted deep into the ear, but are placed as standard. They tend to isolate sound well due to their tight fit to the ear, but often do not hold as securely as earplugs.
The in-ear headphones are tight, give better performance, but are considered more dangerous. Doctors say that plugs can provide excessive sound pressure and increase the risk of infections. Therefore, if you prefer in-ear headphones, pay special attention to their cleanliness and volume level.
Even safer for your hearing – open and closed headphones (on-ear or full-size). Headphones with open speaker system give a realistic sound, but provide less noise isolation. True, this can be a plus if you are walking in them on a busy street: you can hear the sound of an approaching car. Closed headphones fit snugly, have excellent sound, suppress extraneous noise. However, they are most often bulky, and if you wear them for a long time, you can get tired. This is a great option for the house, but not for the street.