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 the recordings tend to be less processed than other genres, they can sound more natural. Like these 14 compositions.
- 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 the 20-strong 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. Such as these 12.
- 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 25 of 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 30 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 18. 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 least 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 artist-specific test tracks
- Best Led Zeppelin test tracks
- Best Pink Floyd test tracks
- Best Radiohead test tracks
- Best John Williams movie scores for testing
Best test tracks by decade
- Best 1960s albums for testing
- Best 1970s albums for testing
- Best 1980s albums for testing
- Best 1990s albums for testing
Want to try Spatial Audio? Here are 13 of the best spatial audio tracks in Dolby Atmos on Apple Music
Tidal subscriber? These 16 hi-res Tidal Masters albums sound great