10 of the best Hans Zimmer movie scores to test your hi-fi system

best Hans Zimmer movie scores to test your hi-fi system
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We know some classical music fans look down on film music scores as some sort of dilution of the genre that doesn’t deserve serious consideration. We would respectfully disagree. At its best, such music can still stand on its own, without the support of the visuals, and take your mind to magical places. 

Few composers are better than Hans Zimmer at doing this. He is best known for his highly charged, almost hyper-dramatic pieces – and rightly so because this is among some of the most thrilling classical music the world has experienced. But you will also find some of his calmer, more contemplative efforts on this list, and we think you'll find them as beautiful and emotionally affecting as we do (...if your system communicates them properly!)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of Zimmer’s best material. He has a huge body of work that’s impossible to cover here. What we do have, in no particular order, are pieces we have consistently used during the testing of hundreds of hi-fi components over the years, to highlight their strengths and surface their weaknesses. All are challenging for a hi-fi system in their own way, but we’ve kept using them because the music is just so good.

The Battle (Gladiator)

This powerful piece of music, composed by Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, forms the backdrop for the dramatic battle sequence at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning epic from the year 2000, and it is a fitting way to start our list. 

The structure of this piece was supposedly based on the Viennese Waltz, but by the time Zimmer/Gerrard had finished, it had turned into something far more savage. The beginning is relatively gentle but it isn’t long before the horn section and driving momentum set the tone for what is one of the most stirring pieces of instrumental music around. 

As with a lot of film music, you don’t have to listen hard to hear the inspiration from well-known classical works, and here it is Holst’s Mars from the Planets Suite that comes to mind. While the two pieces of music share similarities, they certainly do not sound the same, and The Battle stands up very well in its own right.

There is everything here that you need to test your system to the limits, starting with varied and often wild dynamic swings, a frantic sense of rhythmic energy and a complex interplay between sections of a full orchestra. Your system needs to be highly resolving, expressive and surefooted in its handling of rhythms if this piece is to sound anywhere near its best.

We’re pleased to report that the quality of the recording is good too, so if there is any sign of harshness or unnatural aggression when you hear this piece, that points to a lack of refinement and composure in your set-up. The best way to enjoy The Battle is to play it loud and let the sound wash over you (neighbours and other household members permitting, of course).

See the Gladiator soundtrack on Amazon

Earth (Gladiator)

At just about three minutes long, this lovely, pensive piece of music is one of the shortest on our list. It follows the explosive The Battle on the Gladiator soundtrack but couldn’t mark a bigger shift in mood. 

Earth has a peaceful, almost solemn feel that is also tinted with melancholy. The Gladiator soundtrack as a whole is tinged with Middle Eastern influences and this piece is no different.

The opening has an enchanting calmness about it. It opens with plucked strings and these can often come across as soft when a system doesn’t have the precision to deliver leading edges of notes properly. The strings should sound sweet and textured; if they don’t, there is a shortfall of resolution at play. While the dynamic swings aren’t as explosive as they are in The Battle, they still prove a stern test of a system’s fluidity and expressiveness.

See the Gladiator soundtrack on Amazon

Like A Dog Chasing Cars (The Dark Knight)

If an alien came to Earth and for some reason was interested in finding out what Hans Zimmer’s music sounded like, there is a fair chance we would play them Like A Dog Chasing Cars. Even though James Newton Howard is co-credited with composing this track, it has all the ingredients we’ve come to love and expect from Zimmer’s music.

It’s bombastic and everything seems turned up to eleven, and you know what? We love it. Given the film the music was made for, it's no surprise that this turns out to be a dark, oppressive experience. It feels claustrophobic, yet underneath it all there's no doubt that Zimmer had fun with this one.

It might sound odd to say, but this could be described as 'classical heavy metal' due to its unstoppable sense of rhythm and dynamic crescendoes that can send even the best of speakers into a panic. Add some of the deepest, most powerful low bass we’ve ever heard on a piece of classical music and you have one of the finest test tracks available. We’ve been using it for testing hi-fi equipment for well over a decade and it remains a core tool in doing our job today. Most importantly, we still get a buzz when we hear it on a good piece of kit.

See The Dark Knight soundtrack on Amazon

Watch The World Burn (The Dark Knight)

If your hi-fi is doing a stellar job, this track should sound as dark and oppressive as music gets through it. It’s one of our regular test tracks, and it's surprising just how many components can’t get a grip on it. 

Watch The World Burn is dominated by masses of low-frequency strings and reflects its name superbly. As with much of Zimmer’s music, there remains a steady driving rhythm here that stops the piece from sounding sludgy, but if your system has trouble with bass dynamics or conveying rhythmic drive properly, this piece will come across as stale and perhaps lacking substance. If your set-up can resolve detail well and has a deft touch with timing, this one hits hard... in an understated ‘everything is terrible in the world’ way.

See The Dark Knight soundtrack on Amazon

Journey To The Line (The Thin Red Line)

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line follows the story of a group of young soldiers fighting the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II. This is no shoot-’em-up Hollywood blockbuster but a serious and thoughtful look at the horrors and implications of war. Zimmer’s 1999 soundtrack does justice to the subject matter by showing signs of subtlety and restraint that his later work doesn’t always exhibit (mostly because of the kinds of films it is intended for).

Journey To The Line sounds foreboding and even a little sorrowful. Unlike some of the other pieces we’ve chosen for this list, there is no trace of bombast here. While it grows into a large production full of orchestral power and scale, it never forgets to strike the right balance for the film it was written for. We hear echoes of this track on Inception’s Time (featured further down this list), but each track still retains a firm sense of its own identity.

See The Thin Red Line soundtrack on Amazon

Stone In My Heart (The Thin Red Line)

Another beautiful piece of music from The Thin Red Line OST, Stone In My Heart adds a good dose of elegance to Zimmer’s more usual rhythmic sensibilities and uses dynamic shifts to good effect. It’s a piece that tugs at the heartstrings as much as it excites.

Your system needs high powers of resolution to prevent things from sounding messy, as well as a fluid sense of dynamics to make the most of the music’s changing intensity. It helps if it can render an open and spacious soundstage, too, as that helps to convey the true scale and majesty of the composition.

See The Thin Red Line soundtrack on Amazon

Mombasa (Inception)

This is a fast, frantic and wonderfully exciting piece of music. Its foundation is built on energy and momentum and is just a perfect musical backdrop for the chase scene it soundtracks. There is a heavily percussive element here, and any system has to be able to deliver that with the punch and power necessary. 

Equally, that system has to have the resolution and control to keep track of the dense instrumentation, which is something that many can’t do. It is common for the components under test to wilt under the pressure and compress the track's dynamics while softening the impact of the drums, so that’s something to listen out for. Also, like much of Zimmer’s music, everything is underpinned by an irresistibly foot-tapping propulsive quality. If you don’t hear that, your system is doing something wrong. 

Unlike many of the other tracks here, Mombasa isn’t particularly bass-heavy (though there is a hefty drum beat in the mix), and that gives it a lighter feel, but you will still need to hear plenty of punch and authority for it to satisfy. This is another one to play loud.

See the Inception soundtrack on Amazon

Time (Inception)

This beautiful piece from Inception is built around five chords that are repeated. It starts quietly, with just a piano, and progresses into a grand and rather wonderful assault on the senses. The sense of scale and power towards the end, when the brass and string sections are in full flow, is truly majestic. It then calms to just a piano again, and some subterranean pulsating bass that can sound truly stunning on capable, large speakers.  

In a hi-fi sense, Time is a great test of resolution, dynamic punch and system composure when pushed hard, but musically it delivers an emotional impact that’s a match for anything on this list.

As with all our picks here, this is beautifully recorded with wide-ranging dynamics, nicely balanced tonality and impressive scale if played on a suitably capable system.

See the Inception soundtrack on Amazon

Cornfield Chase (Interstellar)

Interstellar's soundtrack was recorded at Temple Church in London (where the church’s organ, a 1926 Harrison & Harrison, is situated) and Air Lyndhurst Hall, where the rest of the instrumentation (strings, woodwinds, pianos and a choir of 60 people) was based.

Cornfield Chase evokes a sense of wonder and excitement, building, as many of Zimmer’s works tend to, from sparse beginnings to a complex mass of instrumentation at the climax. 

As with much of the music on the film's soundtrack, the sheer scale of the piece is awe-inspiring, and if your system is capable of delivering a spacious and nicely layered soundstage, then you are in for a treat.

This track is a tough test of system resolution and its ability to stay composed under stress, though; it is easy for confusion to set in. But what you want to hear from your set-up is a firm sense of momentum and the ability to follow instrumental strands without things getting muddled. That Harrison & Harrison organ, which forms the emotional core of the music, sounds truly majestic through a talented set-up.

See the Interstellar soundtrack on Amazon

Coward (Interstellar)

This is one of our favourite tracks from the Interstellar OST. It begins with a quiet menace underpinned by deep, brooding rumbles of bass before being slowly augmented by a relentless metronomic beat that drives the music hard. 

That steady beat is soon joined by swelling strings, hefty percussion and an organ that together communicate the sense of danger and urgency of the film scene beautifully.

A good system should be able to cope with the cascading dynamic peaks as well as deliver the quieter, but equally important, passages with the intensity they deserve. It is surprising just how many products fail to do this.

This is another one that deserves to be played loud. If your system has the reserves of power, control and insight to do this piece justice, it will just short of sweep you off your feet. The abrupt ending is also a stern test of a system’s ability to go from very loud to silent, something many don’t do so well.

See the Interstellar soundtrack on Amazon


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Ketan Bharadia
Technical Editor

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.