Jun 2, 2016

What are Your Favorite Test Tracks and Why?

I like to test out the performance of new headphones (or any other part of an audio system) when I get them. I prefer to do my testing using the best instrumentation for the job that an audiophile has: My ears.
As a result I strongly prefer listening to music with contents that target a something specific rather than a rocking out to a signal generator. I am always interested to hear what other audiophiles and headphone enthusiasts like to throw at their cans and what their reasons are for doing so.
Here's a few of my favorites:
  • "Bombaclaad Star" by Liquid Stranger - Has a great stretch just after the 4:00 mark where the beat changes to claps and the bass is low. Very low. So low, in fact, that many audio systems can't produce it at an audible level. I use this track to test out bass extension and it's a fun track to listen to while you're at it.

  • "Rock n Roll Chainsaw" by Maximum the Hormone - The album this song is from is mastered a bit treble heavy so this song makes it easy for me to listen to see if cymbals sound natural (like a cymbal instead of someone saying, "ssss") which is partially how I evaluate my high treble end. It has the added benefit of being one of the funnest tunes I've ever rocked out to.

  • "Hedwig's Theme" by John Williams - Right out of the gate there's a magical combination of chimes and bells. Again I'm looking for the natural sound of the bells in particular to prove out the high end of my new pride and joy. There's also plenty of opportunity throughout the rest of the track to evaluate instrument separation. Truly a joy to listen to if you're a big enough nerd for it.

  • "Magnificat 4. Et Misericordia" by Kim Andre Arnesen - I love this whole composition but this movement in particular. I test out female voice production with it since the accompaniment is subdued to the degree that you can easily distinguish between the two.

Please share some of your favorites! Sorry about the compression on the YouTube videos but I'm not sure how else to share tracks here.

Add a comment...
Fleetwood Mac - The Chain - Kind of all around everything, but mostly soundstage and imaging.

Mr. Oizo - Flat Beat - Bassssssss

Flight Facilities - Clair de Lune / Crave You / Sunshine - great production quality and lots of hidden subtlety (especially in the vocals of Sunshine)

High Contrast - High Society Album - More bass testing, I know this album inside out so its very revealing when a system/room has non-linear bass response or doesn't extend low enough.

Pink Floyd - Welcome to the Machine - This song has the ability to transport you to another planet filled with robots and machines. Really otherworldly on good speakers with good soundstage. Not quite the same on headphones.
I never use YouTube audio to test my headphones. Blasphemy to even suggest it.
Now that we talked about that.

The Prodigy - Breathe (Bass response)

The Gathering - In Motion # 1 (Treble response)

Mortichnia - Carrion Proclamation (Treble response/Percussions, bonus points for pinpointing a recording flaw on the CD on the right channel)
Mgła - Exercises in Futility I-VI (Percussions. If the drums sound mushy, it's your end, not the drummer)

Tristania - A Sequel of Decay
Selbst - ...Of solitary Ramblings ( SOUNDSTAGE!)

Epica - The Phantom Agony (Classic instruments/Heavy Metal/Opera Vocal)

Electric Wizard - Funeralopolis (Heavily down-tuned and over-driven guitars, if headphones are crackling, don't buy)

These are great tracks to check your headphones for quality, if you are a Metalhead. Make sure to NOT use YouTube. At the very least 320kbps mp3 encoding. Better straight from the CD or vinyl.
I use "Towerblock" by Frost* to test soundstage. Jem Godfrey did some amazingly bizarre stuff on that song with stereo. Part of the reason I like it is that the first time I heard it I seriously ripped out my IEMs thinking a shelf had come crashing down in my bedroom closet. It was so excellently done that I didn't realize it was the music.
I should note I managed that with an iTunes downloaded rip on my 1More triple drivers. I'm looking forward to testing it on my new Sennheisers.
The short list,

Steely Dan, Aja DSD 2.8 & Gaucho DSD 2.8 both for everything, depth, detail, stage

Adele, Hello FLAC 24/96 for vocals

Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly FLAC 24/192 1973 remastered for vocals... she is right there...

Here is the odd one, but so familiar to me for comparing "fluidity":

Fleetwood Mac, Bare Trees (yes, the song track Bare Trees from the album) FLAC 24/192 1972 remastered

In case you forgot:

Roberta Flack! :D

That's a magnificent track! It's among my favorite for imaging. The drum kit in that track is so precisely placed. The hat at far right the snare just to the left of it and the kick drum just to the left of that is so easy to pick out. The bass guitar at far left is clean and consistent and there's a subtle acoustic guitar just to the right of that. There's some other percussive instruments like a couple triangles and a tambourine at center left. The keyboard and backup vocal is dead center. And then to top it all off, as you said, Roberta herself almost like she's standing only a couple feet in front of me singing straight to me personally!

If I close my eyes and just listen I can almost see the whole performance if the system is up to it.
I think we can see the physical studio stage here, as it was recorded... as you said...

When I first listened (new rig),, it seemed somehow faked,, yes, cans off - back on,
it was so real...

Back in the day, I had a subscription to Stereo Review magazine. One day I saw an advertisement for Boston Acoustics speakers. They were giving away CDs titled "The Boston Bass Disc." I called the toll-free phone number and requested one. I eventually got one. I, along with most people, expected the disc to be bass-heavy rap music. Much to my surprise, the disc contained contemporary jazz from the Wyndham Hill label.

I was mildly disappointed, but the liner notes included an explanation of what to listen for. Upon a critical listen, the disc is full of transient bass. With good speakers or headphones, you can hear drums being struck and their heads vibrating, you can hear bass guitar strings being plucked and decaying. The music was also recorded well enough that treble and mid-range are well represented and their interplay could be quite difficult for inferior equipment to faithfully reproduce. Various behaviors were explained and sure enough you could hear them quite well with good equipment.


I got mine for free. :-)
1. Patricia Barber, Companion (XRCD). Live, excellent recording, great range.
2. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of The Moon, Black Triangle version -- need I say anything about this one?
3. John McLaughlin & Shakti - an incredibly detailed live recording with a great soundstage
4. Hot Tuna, Live At the New Orleans House Berkeley - amazing acoustic set recorded great.
I've used Alabama Shakes sound and color album here recently. Doesn't hurt I really enjoy there music.
I killed the Focal Elear with Architects "gravity" song. This super high end headphone was not able to reproduce the drums of the refrain... that simply vanish!!! Same issue for other headphones with weak 5kHz range. Really a go-no go test track!
I know that track well. If you ask me, it's poorly mastered which is an excellent thing to leverage when testing out your rig. The drums are definitely less forward than typical tracks in that genre which with the amount of signal in their frequency range can definitely drown them out.
I use the sound track from the film 'Blade Runner' that and then a range of jazz, rock and then of course john williams. is it 42 nominations now?
and i forgot a surround sound version of wish you were here and dark side of the moon.
Pretty much any track by Pendulum can give me an idea of how good my experience will be with certain type of headphones. Also i use Neosignal's 1000 volts, for testing the punchiness of the bass)
Beer Remastered - Approaching Nirvana
This song in my experience is a great test of the woofer.
Please, people. Listing things like "Beethoven - Moonlight Sonata"...
That's about as meaningful listing "Happy Birthday To You" or "Jingle Bells."

Beethoven was a composer. Moonlight Sonata was one of his pieces. This was from a time and in a world of music where the name of a piece was not synonymous with a specific recording of that piece. Otherwise, you could be referring to your nephew Jimmy playing it at his elementary school talent show that you recorded on your old camcorder.

When someone says "Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here", unless they state some live version or demo, we know they mean Track #4 on the 1975 eponymous album, recorded at Abbey Road Studios with Brian Humphries as Engineer or whoever/wherever/whatever.

If you're recommending a piece of classical music you like, you should also add some kind of details as to which performance/recording you're referring to.

Even if you say "Glenn Gould's performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations" there's more than one recording, performance, and mix of that.

Jazz Standards/Music/Performances work the same way too. If you just say "Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight" that really doesn't mean anything. Jazz Standards are played and performed hundreds, thousands of times over or even more and recorded just as many.

Anyways... sorry for getting off topic! In answer to the topic, Pink Floyd is definitely a great one for test tracks. Maybe it's because I listened to them so much when I was younger and still know them inside out, but there's a lot of work put into the mix. Echoes, Shine on You Crazy Diamond, ... even their post-Roger Waters stuff was mixed with a lot of care (though definitely sound like the eras they were mixed in. -- 1 second into "Learning to Fly" and you know it's the early 90s/late 80s for sure.)

Portishead's albums will forever be wonderful test tracks for me too. Glory Box and Roads off of Dummy.

Someone above mentioned Massive Attack - "Tears" (Teardrop), which is totally a great track too... but off of Mezzanine, Angel is the ultimate test track... huge dynamic range, bleeding distorted guitars at its peak, deep penetrating sub bass, snares that slap you in the face, and a sultry vocal track over the top.

Godspeed You Black Emperor - Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls or Sleep.
Sigur Ros - Vidrar Vel Til Loftarasa or Track #1 from ( )

So many good test tracks. But really, even if you have a track that doesn't have a huge dynamic range, great spatialization, and etc... as long as you know that mix really well, it's gonna be a good test track. If you're not getting to test in the comfort of your own home, bring some tracks where you know the mixes inside and out. Those will tell you more about what you're listening to than just an unrelative "This sounds really good!"
Not off topic at all. Very important points!
The Weeknd - High for this
@1:43 there's a very subtle 808 kick that's set in the back of the mix I use to test headphones' ability to extend in sub frequencies.

Toro y Moi - So Many Details
@3:33 All the instruments used in the song are playing at the same time with additional percussion and a boosted bassline. This is a great benchmark to test headphones' ability to articulate all frequencies with a very thick and almost overwhelming swell in the low frequencies. Most headphones fail this test and start to sound muddled. Great headphones are able to separate instruments without being distorted at moderate listening volume. This part of the song was poorly mixed, and if your headphones can resolve it, keep those headphones.

Herbert - The Audience
This test is mostly subjective, but once it passes the first two tests above, I use this song to gauge the potential of how much I may be able to enjoy my new headphones. The majority of the song is monotone with no key changes. It just has a straight driving rhythm that psychologically, your brain syncs up to. At the instant the key changes at the bridge of the song, it evokes emotion. The emotion is hard to quantify, but if the headphones make me smile, it's doing something new or exciting that's different from my other headphones to a track that I've heard a million times before. It also says something about the experience with new headphones, if the headphones help get me through the first 3 minutes of the song that was composed to be drab.

Danger - 6.24
This track I use to gauge imaging fidelity. There's a lot going on with this track. There are plenty of effects, acoustic and digital percussion, synths, nuances that try the driver's resolution. The high frequencies in this track have a sparkle only a handful of headphones can render. It's a great track to check out how isolated your headphone's stereo separation is and how wide its sound stage is. Trivial but, this is also the track that helped me discover silver cables actually do make a difference, albeit not justified by their price.

Other tracks for burn-in:
Beethoven - Moonlight Sonata
Claude Debussy - Clair Delune
Yoko Shimomura - Valse di Fantastica
Anything that Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote
Hanz Zimmer - Flight
Thanks for the reply with details. I'll have to give those a listen. I'm particularly interested in the last 2 since I already have testers for the things you specified in the first 2.
Good point about So Many Details! Great song, kind of iffy mixing– but as you said, it makes it a great litmus test for the phones.