For a handy stocking filler that will put your hi-fi system through its paces, we've rounded up six of the best albums we've been enjoying over the last 12 months to add to your Christmas gift list.

And one of the best things about our pick of six is that there's certainly something to suit all tastes – from the legendary Leonard Cohen, to the enchanting Imogen Heap, for example.

All six of these albums will give your system a thorough work out and, more importantly, treat your ears to some of the best tunes around in 2014.

MORE: 9 Christmas gift ideas for music lovers

See all our gift ideas: Christmas Gift Guide

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems

Five stars

Duration: 35m 55s; Standout track: Almost Like The Blues

The demands that Popular Problems will place on your system aren't perhaps the most wide-ranging. But they're certainly stern. Cohen's voice is a subterranean rumble, dripping with texture, while his band are absolutely to the fore. So the album will require integration and resolution from your system. It also needs to swing, albeit gently.

MORE: Find Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems with Amazon

Imogen Heap – Sparks

Four stars

Duration: 59m 07s; Standout track: Propeller Seeds

Warm and organic, but busily electronic and with ample variation, the most recent album from Imogen Heap will ask much of your system. Delivered sympathetically by a skilful set-up, however, and you'll find it to be unlike any other release you've heard this year.

MORE: Find Imogen Heap's Sparks with Amazon

More after the break

First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

Four stars

Duration: 38m 10s; Standout track: A Long Time Ago

While there's little in the way of dynamic variation, Stay Gold instead offers a tasteful peak of intensity from the outset and seldom gets much quieter or louder. It's sweet sounding, however, and is heard to best on a set-up that's sympathetic to the warm, complex tonality of fiddles, picked steel-string acoustic and pedal steel guitars.

MORE: Find First Aid Kit's Stay Gold with Amazon

St Vincent – St Vincent

Five stars

Duration: 40m 09s; Standout track: Birth In Reverse

An album that is built, origami-like, of unexpected angles and unlikely materials, St Vincent's eponymous LP is a layered, painstaking production that demands extensive tonal and textural variation from your system - even in its simplest moment. One of the albums of the year.

MORE: Find St Vincent's St Vincent with Amazon

Mogwai – Rave Tapes

Four stars

Duration: 49m 10s; Standout track: Simon Ferocious

Rave Tapes is an album that will have inferior systems in a spin: with lots of texture, instrumental and tonal variation, as well as skyscraping dynamics and prodigious levels of detail to be uncovered. If your system can cope, however, you'll find plenty of powerfully-defined structures submerged beneath the distortion and clamour.

MORE: Find Mogwai's Rave Tapes with Amazon

Nils Frahm – Spaces

Five stars

Duration: 75m 10s; Standout track: Says

Nils Frahm musters the kind of intensity that really should be beyond one man equipped only with a treated piano, keyboards and a sequencer. With Spaces, Frahm demonstrates that he can be playful, soothing or abstract and it's an album that will soon find any flaws in your system's sense of timing.

MORE: Find Nils Frahm's Spaces with Amazon


See all our Christmas gift ideas for 2014


Julian Stevens's picture

Top albums for showing off your Hi-fi system

I know none of the above (though I'd probably feel like committing suicide listeing to Leonard Cohen).  How about:-

1.  Ricky Peterson's Night Watch, 24 bit remastered, produced and engineered by Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt.

2.  Brian Bromberg's Wood (recorded at Mad Hatter studios in 24/96).

3.  The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall, Feb. 1963.

4.  Michael Buble's debut album (produced by David Foster).

5.  Seal's Commitment (also produced by David Foster) and

6.  Dire Straits' On Every Street (engineered by Bill Schnee at AIR London).

TnA200's picture



Thanks for the alternate list, I didn't recognise a single artisit either and thought there must be other albums equally good for the purpose of showing off your HiFi system. Perhaps somebody was trying to be modern and hip... and forgeting that many people who are into HiFi might be perhaps a bit older... 

There are also many remastered classic CD's from an earlier generation that are also excellent test/show off your system. I've seen Private Dancer by Tina Turner is in many testing rooms for speakers and systems, as well as Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. Innocent Man by Billy Joel is pretty good too. No mention was made of so many great classical CD's!

Modern recording technologies and techniques really do make music shine if it is well produced and engineered. So there is no excuse for most CD's to not sound really good. Only laziness or the lack of a budget would sufice as an excuse. 

BigH's picture

Dire Straits you must be

Dire Straits you must be joking they are the most over played group, apart from Fleetwood Mac, by hifi dealers, people want to hear something fresher and newer not be bored to death by overplayed music. Not saying WHF choice is my cup of tea either but Ive heard most of them and Im the wrong side of 50. You must have heard Leonard Cohen? I never did like him until I started playing him on my new system, not sure if its the system or me but some of his albums are pretty good.

TnA200's picture



If it's an observation, then I'm not joking, just reporting what I've seen. Overplayed? Where there is smoke... so they can't be all that bad eh? Doesn't have to be our "cup of tea" to be good.

Fresher and newer don't equate to better. Mozart and Beethoven are not going anywhere anytime soon. And I enjoy them more now than at any point previously in my life... 

I'm not saying I'm down with the latest music, just not about to kick out older stuff because it is being accused of being "overplayed". 

BigH's picture

Well it seems a bit mixed up

Well it seems a bit mixed up this article, first it says testing your system and then it says showing off. There is a difference in my opinion. Some music will sound good on many systems that is not testing it. I don't agree with their list, its better than some of rubbish they play though, a good live album should have been included and a wider range, its just all modern stuff. Not saying fresher is better but I get bored to death listening to some music. Yes some classical would be good.  

tgmystero's picture

Best of the 6

St Vincent without a doubt. An extraordinary album and the freshest thing I've heard this year. First seen at Jools Holland's Maidstone studio I was amazed at how much deep bass i was feeling through my torso and then transfixed by the performance of Annie Clark on stage. Great vocals, frail sounding but powerful at the same time, agile guitar work and just a unique sound. Obviously I had to buy the album immediately and was not disappointed. Test your system and see just how low you can go. Personally I enjoy this the mostly in my car or in headphones (the neighbours wouldn't approve of the volume levels needed for full effect) just to get in close wth all the channel-swapping jiggery- pokery and subtle synth highlights. Played over and over there will be something that you missed on the previous listening and it's worth tweaking the system to bring something previously hidden to the fore.

criscaula's picture

6 of the best albums to test your system (Alternative List)

Sorry, but i strongly disagree with the list suggested by this article, althout this is obvious a matter of personal taste. In my opinion, the best albums for this purpose, not counting some massive overplayed groups or albums from the likes of Floyd and Led (i love them, but its also good to hear something new), should be: The Allman Brothers Band (At Filmore East); Derek and the Dominos (Layla and other assorted love songs); Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughan (In Session); John Coltrane (My Favorite Things); Wes Montgomery (Smoking at the Half Note); Keith Jarrett (The Koln Concert)... there are so many better albums than all mentioned above (with all due respect...)

Luis Mestanza Soldevila's picture

2014 releases.

Seems like some people didn't read the article properly and went directly to check the album titles and/or the artists and then putting their own preferences to what will test your system. Guys, the article is about 2014 releases, not 1963 recordings or 80's albums. 2014 releases. Keep that in mind, please.