Weekly survey: What are the best tracks to test headphones, earbuds, and speakers?

Every once in a while, you need a new set of headphones. Or earbuds. Or speakers. This is a very important and possibly a very expensive decision, so you want to make sure you get the best-sounding gear for your budget.

Since you’ll be mostly listening to music on your new purchase, chances are you have a bunch of go-to songs that you use to test out prospective audio equipment. What are those songs–and why?

The way I see it, there are two ways to go about this. First, you can test your favourite songs, tracks that are so familiar that know every nanosecond of the song. Does the equipment reproduce the recording better or worse? Or just different?

Second, you can choose a song just for its sonic characteristics. It may not be something you listen to all the time, but the recording is so good that you know it’ll expose any flaws in what you’re looking to by.

I use both methods. In the first instance, I often go with “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. A proper version of the original recording is loaded with subtleties that can only be heard with high-quality gear. (Hint: Listen for the buzz on the last note of the bass riff. The clearer and more defined the buzz, the better.)

For the second phase of my testing, I used “The Man’s Too Strong” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album. Listen for the range of dynamics (the differences between the loud and soft passages) as well as the deep bass that comes in with the chorus. Despite its deepness, the bass note is very smooth and pure. If it sounds good, then consider purchasing whatever you’re using.

So here’s my question: What songs do you use to audition audio gear? I’m looking to write a column for Global News on the subject this weekend, so I can use all the input I can get.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38011 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

12 thoughts on “Weekly survey: What are the best tracks to test headphones, earbuds, and speakers?

  • The Gloaming by Radiohead. The bass distorts on many headphones. Lots of clicks and glitches with static to test the dynamic range. Soundstage then puts it all together and if Thom’s vocals and backup vocals still ring out over all that while keeping it all separate then you’ve probably got a winner!

  • No excuses by Alice in Chains. Opening drum intro has excellent dynamic range and the incoming guitars have precise strumming. A good speaker will hit all the marks, provide precision within the ranges and sound great at any volume level. This is the song ive used for years.

  • The Blue Nile, specifically Tinseltown In The Rain from A Walk Across Rooftops. According to some rumours, it was even made to test out Glasgow’s Linn Music’s high end systems, though to this day Paul Buchanan denies it. Still, has everything you would want for this purpose.

  • Collective Soul – Heavy

  • Gaia by James Taylor (Hourglass). So much going on here. So well recorded. You float along with piano, the James Taylor voice and some fantastic little soprano sax hits. Then there is a great sonic surprise at the 4:10 mark. The staging, space and tone that is produced is one of my absolute go-to’s for speaker testing.

  • I use “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads as the type of song that I know inside out. There’s so many layers and so much going on, that if the new headphones or speakers catches all, or most of it, then I can proceed to song 2: “La Villa Strangiato” by Rush. I mean, come on. The subtitle is “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence”. I find this is a great song to test the sonic capabilities of any new product. When I got my SONOS system in my house, it was the first song I played to test the true power of the system. All I can say is Mission Accomplished.

    If anyone ever needs to test the sound on a complete system (ie, home theatre, using both TV and Sound), there should be only one stop: a few years back, Beck filmed a version of Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” on a movie soundstage at 20th Century Fox in LA. He employed a 157 piece orchestra to re-imagine the song. The video results are jaw-dropping. I mean, there’s a freaking yodeler somewhere in there. As well as some guy playing a saw blade. If any readers have never seen this, stop what you’re doing and go watch it NOW. It’s a feast for the senses, and thus, arguably the standard for, well, sound and vision.

  • The opening track on the Stabbing Westward album Darkest Days is a good one. Opens with a tasty bass riff, but also has a xylophone melody over top that is nice and crisp. Quite a contrast in dynamics.

  • P.S. – I said xylophone but I guess it is more accurately a glockenspiel.

  • Robbie Robertson somewhere down the crazy river or Tocatta from Fresh Aire 3 by Mannheim Steamroller

  • We used to use My God Called Me This Morning, by Fairfield Four, from the Standing In The Safety Zone album. Great dynamic a cappella male vocals. The live version of Hotel California from Hell Freezes Over has a big, round impressive bass drum sound. One Headlight by The Wallflowers has a great sounding snare. And the one that was originally described to me as a piece of music that begs to be turned up louder than you probably should… Louis’ Revenge from the Soundtrack to Interview With The Vampire.

  • The Great Gig in the Sky by Pink Floyd/Clare Torry


Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.