10 Favorite Test Tracks for Evaluating Stereo Equipment

Popular Recordings We Use to Evaluate Stereo Equipment

Some of us audio reviewers can be known as "measurement guys" – someone who relies on lab tests (at least in part) to evaluate gear. But truth be told, we rely a lot more on our collection of stereo test tracks, which have been accumulated, augmented, and pruned through years of experience writing these audio reviews. Such songs are the kind that we can play through speakers or headphones in order to quickly assess how well (or not) a product sounds.

Of course, most or all of these tunes are stored on computers as WAV files, on mobile devices as 256 kbps MP3 files, and on numerous CDs scattered around the house, office, or computer bags. It's a rare day that we don't play at least a few of them, just to get an immediate answer to almost any audio performance question that might arise.

Any audio enthusiast should definitely put together a fantastic group of tunes like this. It's convenient for when you want to check out pairs of headphones in stores, a friend's new stereo speakers, or the audio systems you might encounter at Hi-Fi shows or the best buying guides. You can even edit the songs if you like, cutting straight to the parts you want to hear just for testing purposes. There are a number of sound-editing tools/software, available as a free download for mobile devices and computers/laptops that you can experiment with.

On order to get the best possible fidelity from songs, be sure to buy the CD (it's also possible to digitize vinyl LPS) in order to create lossless digital music files. Or, at the very least, download the highest-quality MP3 tracks available (recommended 256 kbps or better).

Take note that while your audio test track list is expected to evolve over time, it shouldn't change willy-nilly. The guys at Harman Research – who easily rank among the top audio researchers in the world – have been using Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" and Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree" for over 20 years now. A great song is a great song, no matter the decade!

1
Toto, “Rosanna”

Toto IV album cover
Toto IV album cover. Sony BMG Music

During the past couple of years, this has become the first test song we usually put on. Scoff if you will at Toto's album, Toto IV, but the dense mix on this track so completely packs the audio spectrum! This is usually the quickest test we've found for judging whether an audio product's tonal balance – the relative level of bass to midrange to treble – is accurate or not.

There's nothing in particular to listen for here, but just 30 seconds of "Rosanna" will tell you whether a product is on the good or bad side of things. (We used to use Steely Dan's "Aja" for this purpose, and it's still a good choice.)

2
Holly Cole, “Train Song”

Temptation album cover
Temptation album cover. Alert Music

We purchased Cole's album, Temptation, back in 1995, when it was first released. Ever since then, "Train Song" has been one of the first three test tracks played when we've evaluated an audio system. This song starts with some intensely deep bass notes, which can easily push lesser speakers and subwoofers towards distorting the lows.

The tinkly percussion that dances across the front of the soundstage is a great test of high-frequency performance and stereo imaging. If your tweeter can cleanly and clearly reproduce the super high-pitched chime, struck right after Cole sings the line, "…never, never, never ring a bell," then you've got a good one. Be sure to go with the studio recording over the live version.

3
Mötley Crüe, “Kickstart My Heart”

Dr. Feelgood album cover
Dr. Feelgood album cover. Warner Records

This tune from the Mötley Crüe album, Dr. Feelgood, uses so much dynamic compression that the readout on your sound pressure level meter (or the needle on your amp's output meter) will barely move. And that's a good thing, because the steady level lets one judge the maximum output capabilities for products like Bluetooth speakers and/or soundbars.

But listen for the way your system reproduces the bass and kick drum during this song. The groove should sound punchy, not loose, bloated, or boomy. Sadly, meany headphones make this tune sound boomy, and that is just plain wrong.

4
The Coryells, “Sentenza del Cuore – Allegro”

The Coryells album cover
The Coryells album cover. Chesky Records

The Coryells – a self-titled album featuring jazz guitarist Larry Coryell and his hyper-talented sons, Julian and Murali – is one of the best that Chesky Records has ever done. And that's saying a lot. This particular song is a favorite for judging soundstage depth.

Listen for the castanets in the recording, as they are key to cluing you in. If the instruments sound like they're coming from 20 or 30 feet behind the guitars, and if you can hear them echoing off the walls and ceiling of the large church where this recording was made, then your system is doing a fine job at playing it right.

5
World Saxophone Quartet, “The Holy Men”

Metamorphosis album cover
Metamorphosis album cover. Elektra/Nonesuch Records

Metamorposis is a great album by the World Saxophone Quartet, and "The Holy Men" is one of the best tests for stereo imaging and midrange detail that we know of. Each of the group's four saxophones – all four of which play nonstop through the entire tune – is positioned at a certain place within the stereo soundstage.

You'll want to be able to pick out each saxophone individually and point to it (yes, in the air). If you can do that, then you've got a fantastic system. If not, don't worry too much, because this particular listening test can be pretty hard!

6
Olive, “Falling”

Extra Virgin album cover
Extra Virgin album cover. RCA Records

If you want one of the best bass tests in existence, go for Olive's Extra Virgin. We often use the song, "Falling," when testing for the best subwoofer placement. The synthesizer bass line is powerful and punchy, dropping way down to a deep note – one that tends to nearly disappear when played over mini speakers or bad headphones.

Know that this is a harsh-sounding recording if you're listening to the mids and treble. So it might be worth making a custom version with the treble rolled off -6 dB at 20 kHz.

7
Wale, "Love/Hate Thing"

The Gifted album cover
The Gifted album cover. Maybach Music/Atlantic Records

Headphones can sometimes be marketed as a "hip-hop thing," with many popular models designed specifically with hip-hop in mind. Most hip-hop mixes are – in our opinion – too elemental to tell you much about an audio product. However, rapper Wale and singer Sam Dew make an exception with the song, "Love/Hate Thing" off the album, The Gifted. Both of these men have smooth voices that shouldn't sound rough on any good system.

But the best part of this track is the background vocals repeating the phrase, "Keep giving me love." Through a good set of headphones or speakers, these vocals should sound like they're coming at you to the sides (45-degree angles) and from a long distance. You should feel some tingles along the spine or prickles on the skin. If not, a new set of headphones might be in order.

8
Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”

Test CD - 1 album cover
Test CD - 1 album cover. Boston Audio society

This may be the best deep-bass test ever. And we don't mean the booming, headache-inducing, hip-hop or heavy rock type of bass. We're talking about the subtle, beautiful bass emitted by a massive pipe organ, with its deepest notes reaching way down at 16 Hz. This recording from Boston Audio Society's album, Test CD-1, is not to be played without caution.

The low tones are so intense that they can –and will – easily destroy small woofers. So you'll want to enjoy it through some monster subs, such as the SVS PB13-Ultra or the Hsu Research VTF-15H. This track is absolutely spectacular and something that any self-titled audiophile or audio enthusiast should hear and own.

9
Trilok Gurtu, “Once I Wished a Tree Upside Down”

Living Magic album cover
Living Magic album cover. CMP Records

There's no better way we've found to test stereo soundstaging and envelopment than this cut by Indian percussionist, Gurtu, with saxophonist, Jan Garbarek. When listening to "Once I Wished a Tree Upside Down" off the album, Living Magic, pay attention to the chocalho shaker chimes.

If your speakers are top-notch, the sounds of chimes will seem to swirl around and even materialize right in front of you, almost as if Gurtu were standing between you and the speakers. And this isn't hyperbole, either! Put on a pair of electrostatic or planar magnetic headphones, and you can still hear exactly what we're talking about.

10
Dennis and David Kamakahi, “Ulili’E”

'Ohana album cover
'Ohana album cover. Dancing Cat Records

From the Kamakahis' album, 'Ohana, this is a gentle, lovely recording of slack key guitar and ukulele behind two, rich male voices. Those who listen to this song through lesser sound systems may not be so impressed. If this is true, it can mean there's a problem with your speaker's upper-bass reproduction, or that your subwoofer's crossover point is inappropriate, and/or the positioning of your speakers/subwoofer needs improvement.

Reverend Dennis's voice is especially deep, which can sound bloated on most systems. This recording – the detuned strings of the slack-key guitar in particular – should sound amazing. If it doesn't, then you've got some work to do to improve your system's audio performance.