Don’t take the claims of headphone makers at face value. Use this playlist to test them out (and learn how to create your own playlist along the way).
One could argue that the only playlist you need is the one full of your favorite songs—which is completely true. If your music doesn’t sound good, then it’s a moot point. But it’s also a good idea to listen to some things outside of your normal rotation—things that may highlight features or inadequacies in those new headcans you just dropped a bunch of cash on.
Update, 6/30/21: Playlist updated and new track details added.
Why Diversity Is Important
Let’s say you listen to nothing but modern pop music. That’s cool—there’s a lot going on there! But if that’s all you use to test out some headphones, you could be missing out on a lot of details that you may not otherwise even realize are there. That’s why it’s good to branch out, even if only a bit, while you make sure these new headphones are the ones for you. You’ll be glad you did!
For example, you may be missing out on textures that don’t otherwise show up in your normal music. Or bass frequencies not commonly used in your normal style—or ones that are and you don’t even know they’re there because of your current headphones have lackluster fidelity. Tracking from speaker to speaker is important, and a sense of “being there” can easily be accomplished with a good set of headphones. By contrast, a lesser pair may not handle panning in a way that the artist or producer intended it, which can make a big difference in the overall effect or vibe of the track. In short, even if you don’t listen to a wide variety of musical genres it can be highly beneficial to sit down with a diverse playlist and test your new headphones to ensure you’re getting the most for your money.
Picking Your Songs
This is the fun part about building a playlist for testing headphone is, well, building the playlist. You get to explore new music (and old music!), broaden your horizons, and perhaps even learn to appreciate certain songs in a way that you haven’t before.
I spent many years as an Android device reviewer, and I ended up branching out into headphones and Bluetooth speakers. As a result, I built my own playlist for testing any audio device I reviewed, and I used the same playlist with everything so it made it easy to compare. That playlist changed and evolved over time, but I always kept the same ideas in mind: different styles of music, tons of textures, and varying types of performances. I’m a guitarist, so I very much approach headphones and speakers from a musician’s perspective. I personally listen to headphones the same way way I listen to new guitars, amps and pedals: from a variety of “angles.”
The goal is to get a feel for everything the headphones are capable of. You want to test the lower frequency and bass response. Where does it cut out? Is there a particular tone that you know is in a song but you can’t hear with these headphones? The same goes for the highs: are they defined without being shrill? Are they overbearing?
Balance and definition are the most important aspect of testing out headphones. You don’t have to be an audiophile by any means—but you absolutely have the right to be picky. Headphones can get expensive!
Here’s a copy of my current playlist on YouTube, and a quick breakdown of each song and why it made the cut:
- Owl City – Fireflies: This is the first song I listen to on every new set of headphones or speaker I test. Why? Because it hits ever range and every frequency. The chorus of this track will absolutely show you what a set of speakers (headphone or otherwise) can do. I actually hate this song, but it is by far the best I’ve found for really putting speakers through their paces.
- Buckethead – Swomee Swan: An instrumental and sonically-rich all guitar track with varying levels of intensity and multiple layers throughout.
- Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah: This is a live version of the song from Jeff’s Live at Sin-e album, which really showcases a lot of depth that headphones should be able to translate. From the articulate guitar playing and reverb to Jeff’s remarkable vocal range, this song covers a lot.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along the Watchtower: If you want to talk texture upon texture, All Along the Watchtower is a great song to listen to. There’s so much going on here, so hit play and soak it all up. Pick it apart. It’s a fantastic piece of songwriting in general, and Jimi’s version adds so much.
- Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody: Does this one even need an explanation? It has everything: acapella vocals with layers stacked on top of each other, vocal effects, and a music range that covers the gamut. Piano, bass, guitar, drums, and more are along for this wild ride.
- The Devil Wears Prada – Escape: This is where I personally combined my preferred listening with testing headphones. Escape is a heavy track that intros with storm sound—thunder and rain—with a synth fade in before the guitars drop the hammer. Musically, it’s not for everyone, but it will showcase some ranges you may otherwise not notice if you don’t listen to heavy music.
- Bassnectar – Bass Head: When it comes to bass response testing, there may not be a better track out there. Just give this one a listen and you’ll see why.
- Becoming the Archetype – O Holy Night: Another sway towards my preferred listening habits, O Holy Night is an amazing cover of a traditional Christmas song. More than just a heavy metal version, however, this song has piano, choir vocals, layered harmonies, and an ambiance that is unmatched. The production on this song is one of my personal favorites.
- The Birthday Massacre – The Dream: TBM is a goth rock/electronic band, so this track is all about texture. There’s so much going on here, between the synth and keyboards, guitars using heavy effects, strong drum/bass beats, and soft female vocals, this is one that you may have to listen to a few times to pick out everything going on. Plus, it’s just a great song.
- Rush – The Spirit of Radio: While I won’t get into my personal feelings on Rush (they’re the greatest band of all time), there are a variety of reasons why this song made the cut. The vocals hit ranges and frequencies most others cannot, with the guitar and bass perfectly balancing one another. Add in the bit of synth and subtle effects/textures throughout and you just covered a wide range of sounds nestled together in one amazing rack.
- MGK – Hold On (Shut Up): Note: This track contains explicit lyrics. It’s hard to think that you’ve covered all listening requirements on a headphone testing playlist without adding some rap or hip-hop into the mix, and this track from MGK delivers. Features prominent vocals, defined bass, and a good range of higher frequencies, Hold On is a killer track for testing varying levels of response.
- Johnny Cash – Man in Black: Country music. Even better, old school country music. This is simple track just for listening. In contrast to the other tracks on this list, there isn’t a lot going on here, which is precisely why it’s here. You can easily pick apart the various instruments and vocals, helping define the separation in the headphones.
- Make Them Suffer – Widower: This is a heavy track that again panders to my personal listening, but also isn’t on this list without reason. Low tuned guitars juxtaposed with piano really highlights what a set of headphones are capable of, while the very defined and heavy drums show response. The layered and varying vocals are also very good for picking apart definition.
- Toto – Africa: Science defined Toto’s Africa as the best song of all time, and who are we to argue with a scientific analysis that reinforces what we already know? This song is awesome. As such, it deserves a spot on any headphone testing playlist.
- Pink Floyd – High Hopes: I’ve mentioned textures and layers a lot throughout this piece, and there might not be a band on this planet that displays an aptitude for using this to their advantage more than Pink Floyd. Between the layers, effects, drums, various guitar tons, and Gilmour’s iconic vocals, there’s a lot to soak up here. If you’re into this one, you could also check out David Gilmour’s live version of the song from Gdansk. It’s amazing.
- Steely Dan – Deacon Blues: This song is used by audiophiles far and wide to test high-end audio systems. There are reasons for this above my level of understanding, but I figured if it’s good enough for audiophiles, then there must be something to it.
- The White Buffalo – Rocky: Man, this track just slaps. It’s a badass upbeat country folk track that I just can’t listen to enough. I love the Buffalo anyway, and this is my favorite song of his.
- Gojira – The Heaviest Matter of the Universe: This is an aptly-named heavy-as-a-tank track from one of my favorite bands of all time. Just a solid heavy metal track that I love to listen to and showcases some great elements in any set of speakers.
- Man of God – Exorcist: This song is unlike anything else on this list, because it’s a sort of hybrid metal-meets-trap that the creator has dubbed “deathtrap.” Basically, you get the musical style from trap with the vocals from deathcore and it works shockingly well. It’s also great to see what a set of cans can do.
- Spiritbox – Circle with Me: Spiritbox can’t make a bad song, honestly. The beautiful, pristine clean vocals juxtaposed with heavy riffage before getting into an in-your-face bridge really makes this track one to listen to just awesome to listen to whether you’re testing headphones or not.
So that’s my 20-song playlist for testing headphones and speakers, which you are of course more than welcome to use (and adapt) for your own testing.
But more than anything, this list is here to make a point: there is no definitive headphone testing playlist. You need variety, sure, but the best playlist for testing headphones is one that not only incorporates a variety of music, textures, and layers, but one that brings your preferred listening into the mix.
So, my playlist was showcased here as more of a guideline to help you build your own. Pick songs you like, but pull in different genres. Go back in time and listen to old music. Explore genres you may otherwise not listen to. You don’t have to change your musical tastes, of course, but broadening your horizons for the sake of getting the best headphones you can is a good idea.
Pick some songs with lots of layers. Pick some songs with few layers. Songs with textures, lots of effects, and a variety of instruments. Acapella tracks and acoustic tracks. Electronic, rap, rock, and country. Bass-heavy music, and treble-defining tracks—but don’t forget about the ever-important midrange. Make it versatile, but keep it tight. Have fun with it!
What About Pre-Made Playlists?
I talked about my playlist and how every song was hand-picked for audio testing, but that doesn’t mean you have to do the same. In fact, Spotify has an incredible 150-song playlist just for testing headphones. While this may be overkill for most people, there’s a huge range of music on this list.
There’s also a massive 614-song playlist just called “Audiophile Test Tracks” for your testing pleasure. But again, that’s a lot of music. I personally find fewer tracks that cover a wide range to be a better choice than hundreds of songs. With that many songs, it’s hard to compare different sets of headphones.
Otherwise, you can just do some searching. Many audio reviewers share their playlists and why they chose those particular tracks, which you could easily recreate.