You’ll have no trouble finding tracks to try out with your high-end headphones or IEMs. There are tons of dedicated playlists available that give you a great selection of unique mixes that help bring out the best qualities of your HiFi setup. These tracks can span music history, from Miles Davis to Bjork. A lot of these playlists might even have some crossover, as certain tracks have become the definitive headphone-testing music. With this list, I want to introduce some new music that I’ve been using to test headphones recently that might help expand your own HiFi testing playlists. The year has just begun, so keep an eye on MajorHiFi for future entries.
If you haven’t heard of The Smile, you’ve definitely heard of at least two of their members. The latest album from Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead’s side project “The Smile,” is full of tracks that sound intoxicating over good headphones. Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” is an album you see a lot on headphone-testing playlists, and Wall Of Eyes resembles a lot of its production. I recently tested this album with The Composer from Austrian Audio, and it made the instrumentals feel extra jumpy on tracks like “Under Our Pillows,” adding to the transparency of Greenwood’s hypnotic composition. The specific attack and clean tone of his guitar, mixed with Yorke’s reverberated vocals and a deep vibrating bass create a wonderful synthesis of musicality that your headphones and IEMs will easily engage you in.
With the last entry, it was the arrangements and production that made it a great album for headphone testing. This latest album from the synth-pop group “Future Islands,” it’s one main aspect. Sam Herring’s vocal performance in this album by itself is a good indicator of what frequency ranges your headphones can handle. The dynamic range of the vocals spans from the mid-bass, all the way to the upper-midrange, with tons of detail and intricacies to be revealed to you through good headphones. If your headphones can replicate the spectrum between his deep gravel to his burst of shoutier melody with balance and crispness, you might have yourself a good set of cans. Tracks like “The Tower” stand out as having some of the most intimate vocal performances from Herring, and the album also has a deep enveloping bass throughout its runtime.
I tend to receive some of the most informal and enjoyable listening experiences of testing headphones with ambient music. The ethereal nature of the genre communicates a lot of immersive elements that are integral to headphone testing, and that’s best shown on the latest EP from “Billow Observatory”. A lot of its instrumentation is minimalist, but it’s the texture that the many reverberant drones bring out that listening with good headphones will help completely transport you somewhere else. “Soliton” uses the entire spectrum of sound to entice you in its spacey environment, which certain open-back headphones will wrap around your head, from left to right, up and down, and forward and behind.
This is a very recent single from the alternative R&B group Hiatus Kaiyote, and I was entranced by it as soon as I first heard it. The exceptionally clean bass groove, mixed with the tight snap of the snare rim immediately tickles my eardrums through a pair of Meze 109 Pros. Then that crisp female vocal comes in and just oozes expressive detail that could be a new reference for me. There are also these layered vocal harmonies that open up the soundstage and spread out the mix, showcasing great scope.
Great movie scores are a must when I test headphones. The music for this film struck me when I saw it in theaters, and I couldn’t wait to hear how it sounded over headphones. Joe Hisaishi is one of the best composers working today, with his best work scoring the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The original soundtrack has hit streaming recently, and have been reveling in it for many of the headphones and IEMs I’ve been testing.
There’s a strong focus on solo piano on this album, and the performance is incredibly well captured. This piano possesses a full spectrum of sound, with the full gravity of the performance being enhanced by a great pair of headphones. Each note that he strikes should feel like the most important note ever recorded. You get some beautiful orchestration too, which certain headphones can add precision to. All of these different instruments should feel like they’re coming from their own separate origin and form a scene of sound around your headspace. Having a good tonal balance is also very important when the music starts to form a climax towards the end of the album.