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10 of the best songs to test your speakers

10 of the best songs to test your speakers

Every reviewer at What Hi-Fi? has their own carefully curated list of songs they use to test stereo speakers, spanning all genres and musical tastes. This is crucial for testing speakers, especially if they're new: it's best to use songs that you know really well to hear what the speakers are capable of.

By that token, you'll probably also have your own playlists for testing the various facets of audio performance, but what's the harm in adding a few more tracks?

As part of our best test tracks to trial your hi-fi system guide, we've put together a list of ten songs (along with some extra suggestions) that we use to test every aspect of a pair of speaker's performance, from treble and bass quality to the way they handle rhythm and dynamics. This is by no means a complete list – we’d be here for days if we tried to list every single song we use for testing – but it's a start.

To get you listening to these tunes right away, we've put together a playlist of these songs on our favourite music streaming services:

Radiohead - The National Anthem

To test overall balance

As is Radiohead’s wont, The National Anthem is a dense, multi-tiered wedding cake of a song, with acoustic and electronic instruments firing off in all directions – not to mention a brass ensemble that appears to have turned up to the wrong booking. Everything is dialled up to eleven, from the treatment on Thom Yorke’s vocals and the overdriven bass guitar sound, to the Theremin-y wailing in the background.

Your speakers must strike the perfect balance between organisation and attack, between dynamism and poise and, most importantly, between control and abandon, throughout the frequency range. Done correctly, this is a thrilling cacophony. Done badly, it’s just a cacophony.

Also listen to these:

The Cat Empire - Fishies

Hot Chip - Ready For The Floor

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Turn Your Lights Down Low

To test space

Bob Marley gets much of the credit for bringing reggae to a worldwide audience, but Island Records’s insistence on a high-gloss hi-fi sound made the traditionally rough-and-ready genre more accessible. Turn Your Lights Down Low demonstrates this beautifully: it’s such a spacious recording, with each instrument secure in its own area of the soundstage.

Your speakers must describe each player’s position on the stage and, most crucially, the space between them if the low-heat simmer and intensity of the tune is to have full impact. Not many songs use space as an instrument quite as effectively as this.

Also listen to these:

Nine Inch Nails - Right Where It Belongs

Jóhan Jóhannsson - By the Roes, and By the Hind of the Field

The Chemical Brothers - Das Spiegel

To test attack and decay

A more stop/start, truncated and altogether abbreviated collection of electronically derived sounds you’re unlikely to find – so Das Spiegel is a splendid test of your speakers’ discipline as far as attack and decay go. Aside from strummed rhythm guitar and blown melodica, every sound here has seemingly been designed to appear from nowhere and end just as abruptly.

From the four-square boom-bap of the drum pattern to the squeals, hisses and squeaks in the background as the tune builds, control needs to be martial. And the thrumming, almost unbroken bass sounds only add to the test.

Also listen to these:

The Dead Weather - 60 Feet Tall

Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring

Can - Spoon

To test rhythm and timing

Drummer Jaki Liebezeit establishes an irregular, complex cage for his bandmates to work within, and the result is a remarkably thorough test of your speakers’ ability to integrate a fiendishly off-kilter and disparate collection of instrumental strands into a cogent and unified whole.

At around 2:23, Liebezeit unleashes a volley of typically risky fills and pads that would be tricky enough for your speakers to manage, rhythmically, on their own. But there are burbling bass phrases, guitar picking and keyboard outbursts confusing things further - and that’s before you factor in the obtuse vocal inputs Damo Suzuki delivers in his second language.

Also listen to these:

Radiohead - 15 Step

65daysofstatic - Prisms

Anne Sofie von Otter - Baby Plays Around

To test midrange quality

Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s 2001 album with Elvis Costello, For the Stars, is a pitiless test of your speakers’ powers of midrange communication.

Not only is this open, spacious and relentlessly hi-fi recording loaded with miniscule details – of von Otter’s phrasing, of her tongue, teeth and palate noises - it also reveals some of the secrets of her breath-management.

It’s a hi-fi cliché, but in this instance it’s true: if your speakers are up to it, this will sound like she’s right there in the room, singing with equal quantities of emotion and control.

Also listen to these:

Tom Waits - I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You

Nina Simone - I Put A Spell On You

Max Roach - Lonesome Lover

To test treble quality

Jazz stunt-drummer Roach is bandleader here, and his impeccable hi-hat and ride cymbal playing is a decent test of treble fidelity in itself. But it’s saxophonist Clifford Jordan’s wailing, keening and strident playing that really separates the high-frequency men from the boys.

His squeals and flurries of upper-register notes need to shine, but not spill over into grating sharpness. From 3:00 to 3:12, he tests your tweeters’ ability to control a note while still retaining its grit and attack. Singer Abby Lincoln and chorus weigh in with some high-frequency fidelity examination of their own at 4:38, and again from 6:04 onwards.

Also listen to these:

John Williams - Theme from Jurassic Park

Bruce Springsteen - Terry's Song

George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue

To test dynamic range

The ability to shift from ‘very quiet’ to ‘very loud indeed’, whether it's a voice, a single instrument or a large-scale symphony orchestra in full attack mode, is an essential loudspeaker talent. And there aren’t many pieces of music as useful at demonstrating the dynamic potency of an orchestra as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Inside the first two minutes it switches from plaintive piano to strings/brass/percussion overload and back again several times – and each time it does, your speakers must make the switch instantly and without displaying any undue stress. Which is not as easy as you might think.

Also listen to these:

Ramid Djawadi - Light of the Seven

Mike Oldfield - Pran's Departure

Thundercat - Uh Uh

To test bass control

Massive show-off Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) delivered one of the more critically acclaimed albums of 2017 with Drunk. And on Uh Uh (a brief but exhausting exploration of the six-string electric bass guitar), he plays with such frantic virtuosity your speakers have no hiding place.

Bass extension, speed, tonal variation, and attack and decay all get the sort of examination that speaker engineers dread. What’s required here is well defined, well described variation in note tonality and intensity. In the right hands it’s a remarkably athletic piece of playing, but in less capable care it’s just a low-frequency mess of overlapping information.

Also listen to these:

Massive Attack - Angel

SBTRKT - Wildfire

Sergei Prokofiev - Montagues and Capulets

To test detail

The devil’s in the detail, apparently – certainly that’s where full enjoyment of a piece of music exists. And in a big symphonic set-piece like this there are numerous chances for your speakers to show off just how capable they are of picking up the nuances.

The sound of a flute-player’s embouchure, the rattle of a snare beneath a drum-skin, the blare of a trumpet as it sounds the charge, even the squeak of a timpani foot-pedal – tiny details like this are what makes a piece of music truly alive.

Do your speakers pick up on the tiny inputs of the triangle in the background of this piece? No? Put them on eBay and audition some new ones.

Also listen to these:

Hans Zimmer - Coward

Arvo Pärt - Tabula Rasa

Sex Pistols - Pretty Vacant

To test stereo focus

Though at the time considered a danger to British civilization, forty years on the Sex Pistols don’t sound like any kind of threat at all. They do sound brilliantly produced, though.

Given what he had to work with (guitar, bass and drums of a fairly rudimentary kind, and a vocal that, while compelling, is hardly a melodic paradigm), Chris Thomas’s production of Pretty Vacant is little short of miraculous. Full and widescreen, with the shape and layout of the drum-kit absolutely explicit, it thoroughly tests your speakers’ ability to form a coherent whole-stage image.

Also listen to these:

Pink Floyd - Money

Carl Orff - Carmina Burana: O Fortuna