You’ve bought your new headphones and want to test how far they can take your listening experience to? You can test your headphones with audio from movies or video games, but professionally recorded songs are a much better choice.
Testing any pair of cans is better with certain songs, and my goal today is to recommend a couple that are perfect for the occasion.
How We Chose Best Songs to Test Headphones
We’ve all returned to the songs that were our favorites years (or decades) ago and, most of the time, we hear details that we never have seemed to notice before.
Obviously, we grow with our music and become more receptive to nuances, but more often than not, it’s the fact that we’re using a different set of headphones, which is providing us with a different listening experience.
Whether it’s a brand-new song from your fresh favorite or a song you’ve known for decades, you’ll want to pick a decent candidate to test your new pair of cans. To do so, we’ve used the following criteria:
1. Familiarity with the Track
The first and arguably most important element is familiarity with the song. If you know the song’s structure, even on its most basic level, you’ll know to differentiate verses from choruses, breakdowns from bass drops, and so on. This means that the change of dynamics shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Classics that are on a heavy radio rotation are familiar to most people and are therefore generally good choices for testing headphones.
You don’t need to be a massive fan of the song you’re using for the purpose of testing your headphones. The importance of you being familiar with it should outweigh the importance of music taste, at least until you’re done with the testing.
2. Tracks With Multiple Instances of Panning
In other words, multi-channel mixes with detailed panning are what you’re looking for. A non-panned mono-mixed track will assault you with noise with little to no headroom, and you’ll struggle to differentiate instruments from drums, let alone vocals, even on songs you’re very familiar with.
There are many ways to pan channels; for instance, old-school rock recordings have one guitar booming through the left channel, another through the right, and doubled lines pushing through the middle. You should look for a song that has multiple instances of panning for different segments while having at least one section where dominant instruments are holding channels dedicated to them.
3. Properly Mixed Tunes
The gap between a raw track and an over-mixed song stretches long and far, and you should lean towards the latter. The ‘rawer’ the song is, the harder time you’ll have to differentiate between the instruments, percussions, and vocals. In simpler terms, raw equals noise while well-mixed equates to precision.
In terms of enjoyability, many genres of music are meant to be experienced with a healthy dose of rawness, such as most styles of black metal, hardcore, and such. If you can, overcome your preferences for a bit and use well-mixed tunes to hear all the details with as much accuracy as possible. Good headphones will project these nuances even with poorly mixed songs.
4. Variety of Instruments and Noises
You don’t have to limit a track to actual instruments. A song can have animal sounds, claps, vehicle noises, and anything in between. The more noises and voices there are in a certain track, the more frequencies you’ll have for reference.
For instance, a set of headphones with a bass-heavy tuning won’t project the sounds of chirping birds, laser beams, whistles, or fireworks. The same headphones won’t project guitar solos, rock vocals, or cymbal hits perfectly, although you’ll enjoy your electronic music with them.
Best Songs to Test Headphones
1. Michael Jackson – Thriller
Aside from being an absolute masterpiece well ahead of its time, Thriller is a remarkably dynamic song that blends soul, rock & roll, and pop while defying genres at the same time.
If you’re watching the official music video, you’ll also get four minutes of cricket sounds, revving cars, and a short orchestral piece while Michael transforms into a werewolf.
It was mixed by Bruce Swedien, who famously mixed tunes for Paul McCartney as well; with the technology they had available in the early ’80s, Thriller is among the best-produced and mixed songs.
In terms of panning, it raised the bar for the music of its time. Not only is Michael’s voice split between several channels, but every piece of the drumkit, every howl, and screech have their own place. These little details are typically lost on poor-quality headphones.
Finally, there are a few ‘tamer’ sections where the drums and bass are accompanying the small speech, which is your opportunity to test how your cans perform in a minimalistic ambient.
2. Billie Eilish – idontwannabeyouanymore
Billie is easily one of the most popular young artists on the alt-pop scene, and virtually all of her songs are perfect for testing headphones for several reasons.
First of all, Billie uses her voice in a plethora of different ways, alternating between high and low registers while using her breath to emphasize bar breaks. Furthermore, Eilish is a master of blending singing, whispers, and gasps into melodies. If your cans are any good, you’ll hear these as separate instances right before they merge.
All of her songs are produced by her brother Finneas, who’s both an expert of his craft and has an easy time collaborating with Billie since they’re blood relatives (on good terms).
This specific song is great for headphone testing as its instrumentation is absolutely top-notch. The bass is as strong as it is melodic, and the live drums are noticeably different than programmed percussion this genre is generally famous for. You should be able to hear crashes, kicks, and snares with a bit of sustain on a good set of headphones.
Idontwannabeyouanymore could easily pass for a pan-checking song too. Billie’s voice is lurking left and right with every beat while you can audibly hear the rhythm section rev in one and drop off in the other headphone.
Billie Eilish’s vocal range alone is enough to make this song a good choice for testing any pair of cans while everything else is a welcome bonus.
3. Rick Astley – Never Gonna Give You Up
This is not a Rickroll; Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up is one of the best songs you want to use to test your headphones if you’re an 80’s music fan, regardless of genre.
First of all, with over a billion views, the chances of you not knowing it are slim to none. Aside from familiarity, it also seamlessly ties several music styles into a coherent piece that deserves a good pair of headphones to be fully appreciated.
Tons of money went into producing dance music during the period when this song came to be, and it’s among the better-produced and mixed ones. Produced, written, and mixed by the power trio Stock Aitken Waterman, these guys did an amazing job at accentuating the synth strings, bass, and drum machine.
You can make a really quick test to see the worth of your new headphones by skipping to the chorus. Do you hear the female backing vocals? They’re loud enough and in a totally different register compared to Rick’s. If you need to strain your ears, ask for a refund and order a new pair.
4. Eminem – Rap God
The very intro of this track begins with the sound of something burning, accompanied by a short speech, and piano. This is pretty elaborate for an intro to a rap song, but that’s just one of the many reasons why this tune was chosen.
With a thundering bass throughout its entirety, Rap God will test the treble of your headphones to its limit. The drops are massive and panned just perfectly, but the icebreaker here is Marshall’s supersonic rapping that someone described as “faster than my internet connection”.
The thing is, even medium-quality headphones do not offer consistency at higher tempos. While Rap God crushes bones, teeth, and ribs at 148 beats per minute, Eminem is dishing 9.6 syllables a second, which is roughly 576 BPM. Skip to this part and see how well you can hear what he’s saying.
You don’t need to understand every word, but you should be able to make a clear distinction between each syllable on good headphones.
5. Frank Sinatra – Killing Me Softly
Otherworldly acoustics for its time, one of the most iconic voices of the era, and a truly enjoyable piece in and of itself, Killing Me Softly is also a great song to test headphones.
Right after the intro passes, you’ll hear the rhythm section softly enter the stage, immediately panned left and right. The soothing acoustic guitar is very rich and detailed, and it wouldn’t hurt to return to the intro a couple of times.
Frank is dominating the tune, both lyrically and vocally, so it’s very easy to dismiss everything that’s going on in the background. Again, can you hear the backing vocals? They’re a bit more emphasized than in Rick’s song, though.
There are multiple instruments that are sporadically making an appearance during fills and breaks. If you’re hearing Killing Me Softly fluidly, you’re probably missing a bunch of details. It’s a brilliantly composed song that is meant to flow; however, if your headphones are versatile, you’ll realize it’s more of a classical masterpiece than an oldies jazz song.
6. Vangelis – 12 O’Clock
Vangelis’s 12 o’clock was not added solely for the sake of variety. Gospel songs are generally good at testing higher frequencies of speakers but are not as great for the lower end.
This track, however, features an eclectic collection of different voices, plenty of acapella work, and is moving across the entire frequency spectrum aside from the rock-bottom bass.
To properly gauge the value and quality of your cans with this song, try to locate the French horn parts. The mids are also present but very difficult to pinpoint on average headphones, as the high-end vocals devour them.
When you get to the end of 12 o’clock, the outro is much calmer and at a lower volume. Such a huge difference should be noticeable. Again, if the track is flowing and appears as if it’s merely fading out, your headphones may need a bit of additional tuning.
7. Iced Earth – Damien
Metal music, musicians, and producers are some of the hardest-working professionals out there, so leave it to them to create a track to capture the entire sonic spectrum and an onslaught of emotions with surgical accuracy and precision.
Damien was specifically chosen, despite not being as popular as Metallica’s Enter Sandman or Megadeth’s Trust, because it features a classical-esque intro, a thundering bass, an absurdly broad vocal range, multiple solos, and outstanding structure.
After the choir retreats, you should be able to hear a slight hum above, not beneath the acoustic guitar. For the panning test, wait for the distortion guitars to enter. If you can’t separate leads from rhythm, the headphones aren’t great.
The layered vocals are enough to make a distinction between low and high-quality headphones, though. If you’re still not sure, the refrain will probably be enough of a reassurance. The intro’s acoustics are now distorted; the kick drums play at double speed; the double-layered vocals are quadrupled, and the entire orchestration makes perfect sense if you’re using at least decent-quality cans.
You can use any of the recommended songs to approach professional critical listening easily. We’ve chosen songs with versatile sound effects and multiple instruments, layered vocals, multiple panning instances, and over-the-top mixing quality.
However, it ultimately boils down to personal preference. If you simply wish to see whether your new headphones are an upgrade or a waste of money, your best bet is to pick a song you know by heart and take notes of the differences you can hear.