Music is like food. We know what we like, and consuming what we like again and again gives us comfort and satisfaction. Familiarity is also helpful when it comes to choosing music to test a new component in your hi-fi system: you know what to listen out for, and isn't it all the more rewarding when you hear something in a track you've been playing for years for the first time?
We at What Hi-Fi? regularly use music that we and you are familiar with, and we reference them in our reviews so that our descriptions of how a product sounds are more tangible. Many form part of our best test track playlists.
But we also have lesser-known songs up our sleeves that also make for strong test tracks, away from your undeniably excellent Stevie Ray Vaughan, Radiohead and Daft Punk test-track classics. So if you are looking to shake up your Sunday afternoon listening sessions with some fresh tunes but find the whole music discovery thing daunting, this list is an offering from us to you...
- Check out the official What Hi-Fi? playlist
BADBADNOTGOOD – Earl (ft. Leland Whitty)
BBNG's music released since 2014 is on all the streaming services, but its seminal second LP from 2012 – a mix of original compositions and covers – is only on Bandcamp (opens in new tab). Earl is the Canadian alt-jazz's two-genres-removed cover of the eponymous track by American rapper Earl Sweatshirt – a bass-deep stomper that will test just how deep your system's bowels are while later laying its organisation skills bare. If your system is spacious and controlled and able to convey textures, especially in the lower regions of the frequency range, the piece's dense, frenetic instrumentals will be traceable, rather than merely sounding like the musical equivalent of mashed potato.
This record also gets kudos for its liner note: "No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album. This album was recorded in one 10-hour session. Thanks to our friends, family, loved ones and anyone who fucks with us."
- See BADBADNOTGOOD's BBNG2 (opens in new tab) on Bandcamp
Nordic Giants – Mechanical Minds
As with much of the English post-rock duo's compositions, and indeed many of those from similar bands such as This Will Destroy You, pg.lost and God Is An Astronaut, Mechanical Minds (from the band's second EP Build Seas, Dismantle Suns) lives and breathes on its to-and-fro-ing between fine instrumental flurries and crashing percussive climaxes.
Dynamic expression is key to hearing the slow-burning builds that define the pair's cinematic compositions at their most effective, and a fair dollop of low-end clout is required to communicate their virtuosic, thunderous drums-manship.
- See Nordic Giants' Build Seas Dismantle Suns (opens in new tab) on Amazon
Dark Rooms – I Get Overwhelmed
Anyone who recognises I Get Overwhelmed will probably have seen David Lowery's exquisitely beautiful supernatural drama A Ghost Story, as it not only appears on the soundtrack composed by Daniel Hart but is as much a character in the film as an audio accompaniment, owing to the fact that AGS is largely dialogue-less.
The memorable song from which the rest of the score borrows is actually by Dark Rooms, a band fronted by Hart – the second track on their 2017 album, Distraction Sickness. And, just as exquisitely beautiful as the movie, the track is a particularly great test of a soundstage’s openness/spaciousness and frequency-spanning insight. It has a bit of everything: dynamically varied instruments of both the real and synth kind, soaring vocals and woodwinds, underpinned by a seismic bass and rhythmic pattern.
- See Dark Rooms' Distraction Sickness (opens in new tab) on Bandcamp
Timber Timbre – Beat The Drum Slowly
If you don’t feel well and truly under Timber Timbre’s spell within the opening 30 seconds of this enchanting country and western piece – the percussion here is, as the song title promises, so slow at first that it lulls its listener, while the ascending arpeggio is equally hypnotic – your system isn’t doing its job.
You should feel like you’ve been on a journey as the raucous synths and marching-band percussion draws the track to a close after five minutes, such is the cinematic and narrative quality of the Canadian band’s music, but you’ll only feel that if your system has the dynamic elasticity to convey the builds, and the midrange transparency and clarity for you to be drawn to Taylor Kirk’s smokey vocals in the spotlight.
- See Timber Timbre's Hot Dreams (opens in new tab) on Amazon
Jordan De La Sierra – Music For Gymnastics
Under the mentorship of Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath, pianist and post-minimalist composer Jordan De La Sierra recorded his 1977 masterwork Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose – based solely on a scale of seven notes – in a five-and-a-half-hour live session in a small studio in San Francisco. After the initial recording, the tapes were played within the walls of the city's Grace Cathedral and the echoes and reverberations captured by audio engineers to mix in with the studio performance.
The result is four movements (Music For Gymnastics is the first), each over 20 minutes long, that in De La Sierra's words reflect "an inner, more intimate exploration of an infinitely spacious, microcosmic realm". It's certainly ethereal, and the way it to's and fro's between precise piano playing and vaguer space-affected notes, manipulating the shape and space of music as it does, makes for a beguiling listen – though only if the detail and spaciousness of the harmonics and sonic reflections come through a system's delivery.
- See Jordan De La Sierra's Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose (opens in new tab) on Amazon
A.R. Rahman – Chaiyya Chaiyya
As the story goes, Spike Lee was recommended Indian Hindi-language thriller Dil Se (1998) by a film student and “really liked” the famous Bollywood song Chaiyya Chaiyya composed by A.R. Rahman that features in it, which is why he used it for the opening and ending scene of his 2006 thriller Inside Man, helping to bring its South Asian fame to western shores.
The catchy track’s infectiously rhythmic, upbeat elements are a true test of a system’s musicality – you should feel compelled to spring up and dance to this one as soon as that driving beat kicks in, and especially when it drops.
- See A.R. Rahman's Dil Se (Soundtrack) (opens in new tab) on Amazon
Dr. Alimantado – Best Dressed Chicken In Town
A bona fide classic for reggae diehards but probably not for those who only flirt with the genre. The title track of Jamaican DJ Dr. Alimantado’s debut 1978 album – the first album released by Greensleeves Records, and engineered by Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Gussie Clarke, King Tubby and Scientist – is a reggae groove stomper that, like the rest of the record’s material, is a solid test of a system’s bass depth, liveliness and rhythmic control.
The track’s musical foundation, its lurching chords should remain jaunty beneath his echoed vocals and experimental cuts.
- See Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town (opens in new tab) on Amazon
Cheekface – "Listen to your heart." "No."
Just as The Streets’ Mike Skinner’s deadpan vocal delivery relies on a system’s midrange transparency to be most convincing, it’s almost impossible to fully appreciate Cheekface’s talky tunes without the quips of singer Greg Katz intact with every last drop of sarcasm.
The Los Angeles indie trio, now with three albums under their belt in as many years, pair joyously ironic lyrics with catchy pop-power melodies, and this opening track from their sophomore record wonderfully encapsulates that refreshing, humorous approach to music.
- See Cheekface's Emphatically No. (opens in new tab) on Bandcamp
Mercedes Sosa – Ramírez: Gloria (Carnavalito Yaravi)
If you haven't heard the legendary late Mercedes Sosa's 1999 rendition of Ariel Ramírez's famous 1964 Misa Criolla, well, quite frankly you are missing out.
The Argentinian folk singer's vocal is as stirring as the material demands – dramatic in one utterance and delicate in the next, as if she were born to deliver the labyrinthian folk composition, which is almost as instrumentally compelling as it is vocally. The album demands a listen in full really, but Gloria is an example of its eclecticism in just over eight minutes.
Only systems talented in dynamic subtlety and able to convey scale will do it justice.
- See Mercedes Sosa's Misa Criolla (opens in new tab) on Amazon
After more test tracks? Here are 12 of the best songs to test your speakers