We listen to a lot of music during the course of the working day. Morning, afternoon and evening (and usually lunchtime too), the What Hi-Fi? test rooms in London, Bath and Reading are regularly pumping, while our desktops are often also alive with the sound of music. As the song almost says.
Both by nature and by design, the What Hi-Fi? reviews team uses many different types of music when reviewing products, both in terms of genre and recording quality. So we have compiled lists of test tracks that reveal the true nature and ability of a product more effectively than others. There are those that are generally great for putting your system through the wringer, and those that are ideal for testing certain elements of your system – some very obviously highlight timing and rhythmic ability while others divulge how convincing a stereo image is, for example.
It's all music that we a) find especially helpful when considering aspects of the way a product performs, and b) like – because who would sit for hours listening to something they don't? Some of it is vinyl-specific, some of it centres around a particular instrument, and some of it is just all-around useful.
So if you have a new component in your system you wish to test drive and are looking for inspiration for the material to do it with, or you suspect your system is lacking in a certain sonic area, we hope one of these lists will come to your aid...
Best songs for testing specific kit
- Best tracks for testing speakers
A list of 12 songs (along with some extra suggestions – we just can't help ourselves) that we frequently use to test every aspect of a pair of speakers' 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 all use for testing – but it's a very solid start.
- Best tracks for testing headphones
By and large, there's no reason you ought to expect a radically different kind of performance from that of your amplifier and speakers, but the intrinsic intimacy that headphones offer means that openness, space and clarity are arguably even more important. Here's a collection of 10 tracks that will highlight what we believe to be the most important aspects of your headphones' performance.
- Best vinyl test records
Some records are of more use than others when it comes to finding out just how good your turntable can sound. And, obviously, some records come with better songs on them than others. Here we've compiled a list of 15 vinyl albums that, to us, manage the by-no-means common feat of ticking both boxes: great sound, great tunes.
Best songs for testing specific sonic elements
- Best tracks for testing treble
It might not always move you in the same way as dynamic range, and it probably isn't as sexy as bass, but how well your system handles treble frequencies can be the difference between class-leading, tonally even-handed hi-fi and a splitting migraine. There are plenty of tracks that can highlight a coarse or rolled-off treble right away, but we'd bank on few doing so better than the 10 we have here.
- Best tracks for testing bass
Bass quantity isn't everything, so expect many of these 28 songs to showcase bass subtlety and agility too (as well as some that should, if you have floorstanders and/or a subwoofer, rattle your rib cage!). All of these bass test tracks will help when it comes to figuring out how your set-up handles low-pitch frequencies.
- Best tracks for testing vocals (midrange)
For many people, midrange performance is the most important and also the easiest to scrutinise. After all, it's the frequency band where many vocals and instruments fall into. We’ve chosen 23 songs with exquisite vocals by exquisite vocalists (so no Beethoven here, I’m afraid), whether it’s for their brooding baritone or their delivery's dynamic pyrotechnics.
- Best tracks for testing dynamics, rhythm and timing
Many of the What Hi-Fi? reviews team would say that many audio products live or die by their ability to time well and capture a song's rhythm. Timing, rhythm and dynamics make up musicality, and if a system cannot convey that then it cannot entertain. These 22 tracks will call them out for it.
Best genre-specific test tracks
- Best classical tracks
Some people believe that hi-fi can only really be tested by using classical music. While we don’t agree with that sentiment, there’s no denying that the use of real, physical instruments rather than those of the electronic variety can be really helpful for comparisons. Stereo imaging, tonality and dynamics are also well served by classical music, and as the recordings tend to be less processed than other genres, they can sound more natural.
- Best dance and electronic test tracks
On the other hand, the use of synths and electronica has made for some of the most creative and immersive music out there, with the likes of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Aphex Twin (all of which feature on our list) the genre masters that have made electronic music ideal for testing timing, bass depth and stereo imaging.
- Best jazz test tracks
Walk around a hi-fi show and jazz will be among the most prominent genres used to demo kit – it tends to be popular with the hi-fi crowd, yes, but like classical music tends to showcase sonic transparency and imaging very well. Regardless of whether or not you know your Basie from your Bird, there's no denying the hi-fi potency of some of the best jazz recordings.
- Best rock and metal tracks
A collection of heavy music that runs from the compressed and grungy to the epic and lavishly produced. (Remember, there's no such thing as a bad test track!) Every track will thoroughly test your system in at least a couple of regards, as well as give you a great excuse to rock out.
- Best pop test tracks
Which songs from pop's extensive and varied oeuvre could you play to test your system? Well, many. Many. But we've picked out the best we can think of and explained why they're a match for even the most gifted drivers. The list spans 50 years of the genre, too, so there's no danger of 1980s synth-and-jangle overkill.
- Best piano test tracks
Given the instrument’s ubiquity in modern and classical music, we hope you agree that piano music deserves its own list. Piano pieces are telling of many things, but perhaps nothing so much as dynamic subtlety, an inherent skill of piano playing. We can tell you now that rarely do we finish testing a piece of hi-fi without serving it up one of these many piano masterclasses.
- Best hip-hop albums for testing
From the crisp drums of West Coast '90s rap to the deep bass of Southern hip-hop, from the lo-fi sound to more experimental beats, here we have a varied selection of hip-hop greatness. Not all tick the traditional boxes when it comes to hi-fi sound and high production levels, but they nevertheless offer tests of timing, dynamics, vocals and bass.
- Best live albums for testing
Big, open sound and precise stereo imaging – the point of live albums is to be able to put the listener in that gig as convincingly as possible. If your system (and the live recording) is revealing enough, you should be very aware of the room in which it took place, not to mention the energy and effort of the performer(s) on stage.
- Best-produced recordings for testing
While a badly produced recording isn't bad for testing exactly – it'll certainly tell you how revealing or forgiving a system is – the best-produced ones will allow your system to sound the best it can be. Here we've included groundbreakers, some gleaming sound-check classics (consider this your Steely Dan disclaimer) and, hopefully, a few you may not have considered as studio masterworks before.
- Best movie soundtracks for testing
Not to be confused with movie scores, soundtracks are usually defined as a curated catalogue of music, most of which was composed or produced prior to the film's production, which is nevertheless used to accompany the action onscreen. Think the classic pop-rock accompaniment to the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies or the '90s alt-rock that goes with Trainspotting. Whatever comes to mind, great soundtracks can be as eclectic, innovative or ground-breaking as the motion pictures they accompany.
- Best movie scores for testing
Now that you know what a soundtrack is, you won't be confusing it with a movie score, that is, music specifically composed to go with a film and reflect the on-screen action. Whether you think of Vangelis, John Williams, Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard when you hear the term, there's no doubt that much of the industry's real innovation and visionary talent is being employed in this particular musical field. If you want expressive, orchestral numbers (and all else in between) produced to the highest standards by some truly ingenious people, head straight to the movies.
- Best British rock tracks for testing
Nothing tests a system like a great rock track, and while we may be a little biased, the Brits’ natural inclination towards experimentation and progressivism lends itself perfectly to a rich culture of challenging, complex and occasionally deranged musical output.
- Best video game soundtracks for testing
Video game music has changed so rapidly that it's all but unrecognisable from its earliest incarnations. When composers such as John Williams and Ennio Morricone were working on some of the great movie scores of the time, video games were still using the bleeps and bloops of primitive chiptune tech. Now, however, game soundtracks have become one of the most creative, innovative and expressive fields of musical endeavour anywhere in the world. You'd be a fool to miss out.
- Best songs for running
Yes, this is still a vital category for testing, albeit in a slightly different way. Normally with test tracks, you're listening for certain compositional elements to distinguish how the music is conveyed by your hi-fi, speakers or headphones. Here, however, it's about how the songs themselves make you feel when you're ploughing through a tricky workout or scaling the side of Helvellyn in nothing but a pair of running shorts and some JBL Reflect Pros.
- Best summer tracks for testing
Not quite as genre-defined as other playlists we've put together but themes of sunshine and relaxation run deep throughout. Expect to find an assortment of bright, vibrant sounds across pop, hip-hop, electronica, and more to relax to, dance to, or just sit and listen to. Bask in the sun or brighten up the gloom.
Best artist-specific test tracks
- Best Led Zeppelin test tracks
Easily one of the most influential, important and downright irrepressible forces in the history of rock'n'roll, Led Zeppelin have continued to command an unerringly loyal fanbase since their early days in the late '60s. In terms of influence, they're in the same league as The Beatles or Chuck Berry, paving the way for practically every rock outfit, good bad or ugly, that has come since. There was simply no way they were to be deprived their own tracklist. Turn it up!
- Best Gorillaz test tracks
In choosing the Gorillaz to have their own What Hi-Fi? playlist, we wanted an artist with a varied, eclectic back catalogue that benefited from talented performers and an ear for sharp production. Far from a joke cartoon outfit such as The Archies, Gorillaz has been co-creator Damon Albarn's chance for true experimentation, and over the course of eight studio albums and countless incorporated genres and influences, he's certainly done just that.
- Best Pink Floyd test tracks
There would be no hi-fi testing without Pink Floyd. Okay, that's obviously a gross exaggeration, but it is fair to say that one of Britain's greatest-ever musical exports is ideal fodder for the process of ensuring your speakers, hi-fi or headphones are up to the task. Floyd were always a grown-up, sophisticated outfit for those with refined taste, yet they remain accessible, listenable and hugely varied in terms of their overall output. From Time to Comfortably Numb, your system is in for a treat.
- Best Boards of Canada test tracks
Boards of Canada craft experimental, ambient electronic music with a penchant for invoking feelings of longing and nostalgia, mixed with more ominous tones. Showcasing a range of magical sounds courtesy of their collection of analogue synths and tape machine, Boards of Canada have produced some excellent music for testing out just how capable your system really is.
- Best Radiohead test tracks
Radiohead, a little like Massive Attack, Nick Cave or Floyd above, are somewhat synonymous in the hi-fi world with the whole concept of test tracks. Go to a large press event or exhibition such as the Bristol Hi-Fi Show and it's all but guaranteed you'll hear at least one Radiohead song floating out of a pair of speakers making their proud debut. In terms of experimentation, innovation, meticulous production and expressive musicality, few artists come close. Their reputation is well deserved.
- Best John Williams movie scores for testing
The godfather of movie scores remains undiminished in his esteem. Hans Zimmer has taken over the master mantel more recently, but John Williams' legacy is assured one hundred times over. It's the variety of Williams' compositions that really strikes you: from the dread of Jaws to the heartrending sophistication of Schindler's List, here is a man who could do it all. Simply in terms of range, you'd struggle to find a finer back catalogue.
- Best Elton John test tracks
Our Elton John test playlist was somewhat inspired by the great man's final performance at Glastonbury, as we reasoned that it would be a nice way to tie his career together and give Sir Elton a send-off of our own. Not only that, but EJ has literally dozens of remarkable songs to choose from, all of which bring something new to the table. There's musicality, texture, emotive weight and creative flair in abundance, making the Rocket Man a perfect test track muse.
- Best Guardians Of The Galaxy test tracks
With Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 streaming on Disney Plus, we've compiled our own Awesome Mix Tape, featuring songs used in the movies that we consider to be great test tracks for your system. Say what you like about Marvel movies, director James Gunn really nailed it with his selections across the Guardians saga.
Best test tracks by decade
- Best 1960s albums for testing
No decade is as tinged with nostalgia as the '60s. If the '80s are characterised by the Gordon Gekko mantra from 1987's Wall Street that "greed is good", the '60s are defined as an age of free love, romance and peerless musical output. While those associations may be a tad rose-tinted, you can't argue with how great, or important, that last connection turned out to be. The Beatles, The Stones, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, The Beach Boys, Otis Redding, Leonard Cohen, it really was a music-lover's paradise.
- Best 1970s albums for testing
The '60s is rightly thought of by many as being the Golden Age of modern music, yet there's a strong case for that accolade being applied to the decade that followed it. In terms of the collective musical community working at its peak, little compares to an era that saw the emergence and/or flourishing of the likes of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, to name but a few.
- Best 1980s albums for testing
The '80s, love them or hate them, were a time like no other. Lazily placed within a reductive framework of Thatcher, Reagan and yuppyism, the musical legacy has been similarly boiled down to its bare essentials. You'll either associate the decade with hard rockers like AC/DC or overwrought synth-pop from acts like Hall and Oates, but there's so much more in the shades in between. Fugazi, Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, New Order, Prince, The Cure, Bobby Womack, the '80s really were the place to be.
- Best 1990s albums for testing
By far the most underrated of all the decades (and, arguably, the last great era in music since the irrevocable decline took hold), the '90s are something of a paradox. On the one hand, boy and girl bands such as Take That and The Spice Girls dominated the world stage, yet the Cool Britannia swagger of Brit Pop also swept across nations. In America, the Seattle sound explosion made the likes of Nirvana a new type of household name, while singer-songwriters Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley pioneered a new stripped-down sound. Hip-hop, meanwhile, enjoyed some of its finest ever years courtesy of Lauryn Hill, 2Pac, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. Something for everyone, then.
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