Headphone Evaluation: Test Tracks

I like The Brain Dance by Animals as Leaders

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I’m into a lot of the pretty extreme metal stuff, so these might be pretty out-of-the-ordinary for most audiophiles. However, they are songs that I know well and actually will listen to, rather than superbly recorded masterpieces that I don’t know well enough in order to evaluate gear effectively.

The top 10 I use for testing/demoing would be:

What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse – The Black Dahlia Murder
Broken Hands – Lamb of God
Reach Beyond the Sun – Shai Hulud
Scoop – Nasum
Death – Crystal Mountain
Of Mind - Nocturne by Tesseract
Esoteric Surgery - Gojira
New Noise – Refused
Blinded by Fear – At the Gates
Marianas Trench – August Burns Red

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August Burns Red has some really excellently mixed tracks. A lot of hard core doesn’t, just a wall of mush.

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100% Lots of very compressed and low dynamic range metal music, but there are a lot of good recordings too.

Sexy pic courtesy of @TylersEclectic

I don’t rely on a vast collection of recordings when comparing headphones, I listen mostly to prog-rock (often live) and fusion and found that the material below do a pretty good job of rendering my tonal and dynamics preferences. I consider these albums to be among the very best produced works of rockdom. All date back to the vinyl era but each has lossless versions that bring me equal satisfaction. As a collector I buy headphones on a regular basis and carry these albums on a USB stick when I go hunting for cans. In chronological order:

For frequency separation, female vocals and wind instrument (well, saxophone anyway) : Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd

For mid-bass and general vocals: I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project. A go-to for traditional prog.

For live performance and keyboard-generated bass and mid bass: ELP In Concert (rec. 1977 rel. 1978) Even if it was recorded in a giant stadium with an audience of 70,000 SQ is excellent and the rendition of a live atmosphere while retaining the essence of well-disciplined musical performance free of the wild jam-like distorted flights of fancy common at the day is quite unique, Good phones will convey this without effort.

For sheer dynamics: Moving Pictures by Rush. Certainly one of the best produced, most polished albums of the era. That allows good phones to meet the challenge of the fast-paced punchy power-prog without missing a beat while covering the whole FR spectrum from sub-bass to treble with a guitar-lead emphasis on mids. Suits hard-rock and prog-rock alike. Not a devoted Rush fan myself but I respect their impressive proficiency and what they’ve done on this album is sound quality test material at its best for the rockier genres.

The albums above are well-produced enough so as to be free of annoying artifacts. But when it comes to classical I mostly stick with 1970’s recordings so forgiveness of glitches is an important consideration. For this I use average recordings of Ode To Joy and various symphonies of eclectic origins just to ensure whatever I stumble upon still sounds alright. I think it’s pretty obvious that I don’t listen to classical music much except perhaps for Chopin. But in his case my tests with prog-rock translate well. The main condition is that silence remain silent which is more of an issue with what drives the headphones than with the headphones themselves.

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I’ve put together my list of test tracks here for reference so that anyone who has a chance to hear headphones I’ve evaluated can get a sense of what I’m talking about. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of what I use to test headphones with, just a selection of tracks that have a specific purpose. Also keep in mind that this is not necessarily going to match with everyone’s genre preferences, and for my part, this isn’t an endorsement of all the musical material either, even though I do like most of it. This list may change over time as I include more test tracks and remove others.

General testing:

  1. Sinne Eeg “We’ve Just Begun” - Female vocals and multi-layered brass section. Great for identifying texture.
  2. Steven Wilson “Three Years Older” - This whole album is good for evaluating electric guitar tone - Guthrie Govan’s guitar solos in particular.
  3. Molly Johnson “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” - Female vocals, upright double bass and good piano tone.
  4. Leslie Odom Jr. “Under Pressure” - Male vocals, well-recorded jazz orchestra.
  5. Eric Clapton “Change the World” - Slightly forward recording but with good layering and instrument placement.
  6. Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone “Ecstasy of Gold” - Testing acoustic instruments (strings).
  7. Adam Baldych “Spem in Alium” - More acoustic instruments.

Tonal balance:

  1. Tingvall Trio “Beat” - Listening for upper-midrange recessions, getting piano tones right.
  2. Michael Wollny Trio “Little Person” - Great for both piano tone evaluation and bass drum hits.
  3. Pain of Salvation “Stress” (from the Falling Home album) - Close-mic’d instrument and percussion balance. This will also reveal percussion compression issues between 5-6khz.
  4. Ulf Wakenius “When God Created the Coffebreak” - Testing upright double-bass tones and guitar tones
  5. Ostura “The Room” - Resident metal track. Good for evaluating distorted guitars. Reveals emphasis in upper mids. Also helps identify how the headphone handles busy passages
  6. Michael Buble “When I Fall in Love” - Identifies the balance for orchestral swells in the intro.

Listening for problem areas:

  1. Patricia Barber “Code Cool” - Checking for sibilance and issues between 7-9khz
  2. Patricia Barber “Just One of Those Things” - Another sibilance test track, also reveals percussion compression issues.
  3. Hans Zimmer “Why So Serious” - Checking for sub-bass extension
  4. Renee Olstead “Midnight at the Oasis” - Checking for sibilance and issues between 7-9khz
  5. Christian Scott “New New Orleans” - Reveals percussion compression issues, specifically tambourines. Also will reveal any shout, glare or peak issues for trumpets.

Identifying technicalities:

  1. Ulf Wakenius “Suffering” - Just the intro section, an individually isolated instrumental line. Listen for decay in intro tones. I often use this to help identify detail and image clarity.
  2. Yosi Horikawa “Letter” - Soundstage and imaging test track.
  3. Yosi Horikawa “Bubbles” - Another soundstage and imaging test track.
  4. Tool “Chocolate Chip Trip” - Yet another imaging test track.
  5. Michael Buble “La Vie en Rose” - Vocal harmonies reveal image separation capabilities. Try this with planar magnetic headphones.
  6. Pink Floyd “Dogs” - Great test track for tube amps. Listen for image placement, depth, and textural qualities.
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Thanks for the reference tracks. I hope I finally be able to internalize – i.e., learn how to picture – what is this sound stage every reviewer talks about.

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A post was merged into an existing topic: Hifman Sundara Open-Back Planar Magnetic Headphones - Official Thread

Thank you Andrew.

I sat down with Qobuz and created for every song a own playlist, named after your describtions of what you look after

I am going to give it a try next week with the new toy Syndrome motivation kickin in

not knowing many of those is a bit non ideal, though it should come with time and different chains

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I agree that when testing headphones with specific tracks, it is very important to know those tracks very well.

It is great to listen to all kinds of varieties to get a feel for the general sound of a headphone, but for specific listening and comparisons, know the track is very important.

I think everyone has their favourites due to having heard the tracks so many times.

From @Resolve’s list I only know the Yosi Horikawa tracks well, I think they are on most reviewers lists.

I wonder if Yosi knew he was writing music for audiophile reviewers to test headphones with… :smile:

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I was thinking the same😂 so I asked Google and there is a 15 minute Film about him, called Layered Memories Searching for Sound.
He explains for example, why he produced „Letter“
Won’t spoil here :joy:

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Dunno either but Jean Michel Jarre once said he wasn’t sure if his fans enjoyed his music as much as they seemed to enjoy recording his albums on tape royalty-free for reference purposes, which didn’t make him happy.

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@Resolve - thanks for sharing this!
Have been enjoying listening to Michael Wollny since you posted about him earlier, also.

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Hey @Resolve, just curious - do you have additonal tracks or specific passages that you use specifically as tests for detail retrieval?

Yes, I also use certain passages in those other ones to test for detail retrieval. The thing is, for detail, you should hear it for most music, I just find that it’s easiest to identify when comparing the representation of individual instrument lines. So there’s no one particular passage that reveals all the detail retrieval, but keying in on certain passages makes it easier for me I find.

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I use two tracks from Tony Bennett’s Beat Of My Heart (1957) album for testing. This is a ‘jazz percussion concept album’ and pretty different from his later pop and duets eras.

The tracks were generally recorded in a studio with lots of echoes. With enough resolution one can hear his singing and then a ghostly repetition of the lyrics.

Track #5: Crazy Rhythm – he sings on the right channel, with vocal echoes on the left
Track #11: Just One of Those Things – lots of drums and cymbals plus vocal echoes

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There is something going on in the song, I couldn"t tell before, with my other cans.
At 2:45 into the song, right after “the Chauffeurs would drive” - there is a very short high pitch note following “would drive”, around 2:48 which leads you further.

Can not cope with the fact, I missed out this tiny info over many years.

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That’s a great album. I’m going to look for the CD today. Thanks for reminding me of this gem!

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Lives in my car… the CD… not Robbie… though one could think, cause of the smell… cigarettes and Cocolate Milk

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Too bad it’s not available in GPM. This is what they have: https://play.google.com/music/m/B6l5bfxi3tjkbjimqo4vue6rery?t=Sing_When_Youre_Winning_-_Robbie_Williams

EDIT: I was kind of curious actually.