12 of the best songs by The Beatles to test your hi-fi system

A black and white photo of all four members of The Beatles jumping in air
(Image credit: Getty Images, Fiona Adams)

Literally tens of millions of words have been written about The Beatles, covering everything from the minutiae of their recording sessions to the all-encompassing nature of their impact on popular culture. One book takes almost 50,000 words to get to the point where five teenagers leave Liverpool for the first time in 1960 for a series of performances in Hamburg.

So there seems little point in trying to add to those words here – everyone already knows, after all, that The Beatles rank alongside William Shakespeare and football where British contributions to global happiness are concerned. Instead, we’ll restrict ourselves to selecting a dozen of their recordings that happily combine a thorough examination of your audio system’s talents with the band’s customary knack for exquisitely, instinctively correct pop music.

Can’t Buy Me Love (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)

They have been recording artists for less than two years at this point, but already the development that would gather almost comical momentum is beginning to show. It’s upbeat, sunny and poppy, just as surely as most of their output has been until now, but Can’t Buy Me Love also demonstrates new confidence in their songwriting abilities and a knack for a catchy arrangement that can’t be entirely credited to producer George Martin. Momentum and rhythmic positivity are among the key elements your system must demonstrate to bring this recording to life, but the nature of the recording means control of treble frequencies is almost as important. 

‘Hardness’ or ‘splashiness’ are seldom welcome traits in an audio set-up, but this recording is just desperate to tip over the edge – high-end authority is essential. And management of the percussion, driving-yet-rolling in the already-established Ringo manner, is critical too.

Buy A Hard Day’s Night on Amazon

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help!, 1965)

The songwriting is maturing nicely now – this is perhaps the first example of John Lennon writing from a position that seems strongly at odds with what one might imagine a man in his position might be feeling (see also the title track of the album Help!). The desire to be taken as seriously as someone like, say, Bob Dylan, rather than be regarded as a loveable moptop fit only to be screamed at, is getting stronger and stronger… You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away is very midrange-heavy, so your system’s tonal variation and powers of separation need to keep competing elements distinct from each other while still delivering the recording as a unified whole.

There’s little broad dynamic variation here, but in the acoustic guitar and woodwind especially there are plenty of harmonic under- and overtones around the fundamental note to be revealed. Or not, if your system’s not up to the task.

Buy Help! on Amazon

Nowhere Man (Rubber Soul, 1965)

Slowly but surely, the sepia of The Beatles’ previous recordings is becoming Technicolor. And between the telepathic vocal harmonies, the remarkably aggressive lead guitar sound and better-identified and -defined drumming, the recordings are starting to sound less like ‘live in the studio’ affairs and are starting to utilise the recording studio as a greater resource. Lyrically, the journey from ‘sweet’ to ‘bittersweet’ is becoming more and more apparent, too. 

All of which means your system needs to demonstrate proper poise and balance where the frequency range is concerned, as this is a fuller sound than the band had previously enjoyed. Low-frequency control becomes an issue (this is one of McCartney’s first true show-off bass lines), midrange focus and fidelity are an even greater issue than before thanks to all that bounceback echo around some of the voices, and the primitive stereo separation is a proper test of focus too.

Buy Rubber Soul on Amazon

Rain (B-side, 1966)

The confidence and ambition are ever more apparent, the medicine has properly started to kick in, and The Beatles are trying to advance the art of the pop song exponentially – even if, as with Rain, they’re only courageous enough to do so as a B-side at this point. Nevertheless, it’s an outstanding song in every department – melody, rhythm track, inventive use of the studio and the effects available therein… John Lennon’s vocal performance lasts less than three minutes, and yet Liam Gallagher managed to turn a facsimile of it into a 30-year career. 

How does your system handle the sinuous bass line, the stop-start journeys around the drum kit, and the none-more-jangly guitar sound? There’s plenty going on that will trip up a set-up that can’t handle itself where rhythm, tempo and tonality are concerned, and it will need to know what’s what when it comes to the prolonged decay of sounds too.

Buy Rain on Amazon

Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966)

And now here are the 60s as everyone at 60 years’ remove understands them. It’s probably safe to say very few people had heard anything like Tomorrow Never Knows before the moment it was released, and certainly not when it was the product of what was definitely a boy band the last time anybody checked – “listen to the colour of your dreams” indeed. The Beatles lay it on with a trowel here: backwards tapes, guitar feedback, sitar drones, a drumbeat for the ages and a treated vocal intoning The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 

Need I say without undue emphasis that your system had better be able to establish some clarity and separation in what is a foggy hot-box of a mix? That it needs to be particularly attentive to the ‘soft’ attacks produced by running tape backwards? Probably not…

Buy Revolver on Amazon

Lovely Rita (Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)

If ever an album could be said to have a smell, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has a smell – the sulphurous tang of spent matches, in my opinion. It may have been billed as a ‘concept’ album, but really it’s a collection of quite disparate songs, the most engaging and exuberant of which is Lovely Rita. One of McCartney’s many ‘story’ songs with one of McCartney’s many indestructible melodies, Lovely Rita needs your system to have a proper grasp of soundstaging, good separation and focus, and the sort of tonality that can differentiate acoustic clanging from metallic clanging without difficulty. 

And it needs to have the sort of rhythmic positivity that makes the coda to the song sound like it should: that’s to say, like the perfect sample for a yet-to-be-recorded smash-hit hip-hop tune.

Buy Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on Amazon

I am the Walrus (Magical Mystery Tour EP, 1967)

No two ways about it: by this point, the boy band that conquered the world and became bigger than Jesus is an overt drugs band, and is rather pleased about it. I am the Walrus is an acid-fried slice of Lewis Carroll-inspired psychedelia, all glissando and portamento with extra-vivid nonsense imagery (“goo goo ga joob!”), detuned radios and an overall whiff of a playground game gone badly awry. 

There’s plenty for your system to be getting on with here – the tonality of the strings alone, as they glide and lurch from one note to the next, is a pretty stern test. And the fact that the stereo version of the song switches from ‘true’ to ‘fake’ stereo at around the two-minute mark (because radio extracts were added directly to the mono mix and were unavailable for the stereo version) will only really become apparent on a system with the sort of robust staging and stereo focus to reveal it.

Buy Magical Mystery Tour EP on Amazon

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles, 1968)

Apart from various members of various orchestras (and Yoko Ono), very few people appear on records by The Beatles who aren’t, well, The Beatles. Eric Clapton is one – his coruscating solo on the George Harrison composition While My Guitar Gently Weeps elevates the tune to the status of ‘essential’ in The Beatles’ catalogue. Its tone and sheer attack are testing enough for your set-up, which also has to be able to cope with the extraordinarily assertive hi-hat inputs from the drumkit without getting in any way sharp or edgy. 

The chugging low-frequency input from the bass guitar requires careful handling, too, and midrange resolution should be able to reveal just how difficult George always found it (or how unwilling he was) to remove the Scouse inflections in his singing voice.

Buy The Beatles 1968/The White Album on Amazon

Happiness is a Warm Gun (The Beatles, 1968)

The four members of The Beatles couldn’t agree on much by this point, but they each declared Happiness is a Warm Gun to be their favourite of the far-too-many songs on The Beatles. It’s pretty obvious why: it’s inventive, it’s alive with tricky time changes, it features utterly committed contributions from all performers, and it managed to get banned by the BBC thanks to its ill-defined but absolutely apparent undercurrent of (whisper it) sex. 

Rhythmic expression and a facility with tempo- and attitude-changes are among the biggest tasks facing your system here. Midrange fidelity gets a big workout too – and separating the contributions of the lead from the background vocalists while keeping each distinct and characterful isn’t easy either. It’s a stiff test of dynamics, too, with both broad shifts in intensity and constant tonal variations to attend to.

Buy The Beatles 1968/The White Album on Amazon

Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine, 1969)

Even at their lowest ebb, even when inspiration was at a premium and willingness even harder to come by, The Beatles seemingly couldn’t help but turn out direct, melodic and somehow unerring music whenever the need arose. Hey Bulldog emerges from a piano riff (and so is one of very few of their songs not built on a guitar part) and wastes no time establishing itself as one of those ‘big verse/bigger chorus’ Beatles tunes that somehow manage to avoid cliché and stay fresh even after the 100th listen. 

The attacking tone of the lead guitar is a great test of your set-up’s balance, and the square four/four rhythm isn’t as straightforward to describe as it might at first seem, either.

Buy Yellow Submarine on Amazon

Come Together (Abbey Road, 1969)

Has there ever been a more obliging song, where hi-fi systems are concerned, than Come Together? The opening track of the final-album-that-wasn’t-the-final-album in The Beatles’ catalogue is beautifully performed, exquisitely recorded, and so wide open that it can’t help but dish the details of your set-up’s abilities – for better or for worse. It’s a recording with a huge amount of space in it, and those spaces and silences need to be given just as much emphasis as the events of the recording themselves. 

There’s an extraordinary amount of detail just waiting to be retained and revealed here, too, from the fretboard noises of the bass guitar to the exact distance of the harmony vocal relative to the lead. And above all else, your system needs to present this as genuine performance, with the protagonists responding to each other, rather than as a collection of discrete occurrences.

Buy Abbey Road on Amazon

Don’t Let Me Down (Let It Be… Naked, 2003)

By the time the band had finished recording sessions for Let It Be, they were sick a) of the sound of it, and b) of each other. So the tapes were handed over to Phil Spector (still an icon to people like The Beatles, and not yet revealed to be a murderous head-case) and he was asked to get on with it. The result was the opposite of the ‘back to basics’ recording they had envisaged – the Spector treatment called for baroque orchestral arrangements and contributions from huge choirs. 

Early in the 20th century, Paul McCartney instigated an effort to return the album to what had originally been intended… which meant, in part, including Don’t Let Me Down. Perhaps the most straightforwardly soulful recording the band has ever made, it’s a stern test of midrange resolution, tonal variation and rhythmic expression – and plenty more besides.

Buy Let It Be… Naked on Amazon


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Simon Lucas is a freelance technology journalist and consultant, with particular emphasis on the audio/video aspects of home entertainment. Before embracing the carefree life of the freelancer, he was editor of What Hi-Fi? – since then, he's written for titles such as GQ, Metro, The Guardian and Stuff, among many others. 

  • podknocker
    More bottom of the barrel nonsense.

    Scratchy 1960s recordings, on ancient recording equipment, many in mono to really stretch your state of the art streaming amp. Garbage.

    The sound quality is horrendous on most, if not all of their material and I hate their music anyway.

    If you want to test your system, stream some new, 24bit, well recorded house/deep house, or trance stuff that's been meticulously produced to make the most of modern playback hardware.

    You might prefer the Liverpudlian monononsense from the 60s, but the new stuff is designed to have impact and use the full range of high fidelity components.

    We'll be asked to buy black and white Laurel and Hardy DVDs next, to test our 55" 4k TVs.

    'Just look how black and white those blacks and whites are'.

    This site is getting worse.
  • Rodolfo
    The magazine. our respected and valued host, as many or most forum members -and most other 21st century fans, now prefer watching rather than listening to music. Fidelity is incidental -at best; so, there's an embedded paradox here indeed.

    I recall -incidentally- an elegant, low-key presentation by Thiel Audio at the 1985 CES show in Chicago. They played a King's Singers' Eleanor Rigby to demo the joyful listening of a new model -at least while I was in that listening room. I still use that track and "standard" CD to enjoy and demonstrate, not challenge my "system".

    Cheerful watching and listening to all!