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.
- Our guide to the best test tracks to trial your hi-fi system
- The best headphones and audiophile headphones you can buy in 2022
Explosions In The Sky – Wilderness
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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 (opens in new tab) enough for the purpose of testing overall balance (and, of course, just purely enjoying).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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