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The Ultimate Headphones (and Earphones) Test

Personal Recommendation(s)

From time to time, I receive emails asking for advice on new headphones. As this page seems to be the starting point of most inquiries, I will post my answer below.

As an engineer and professional sound designer, I am looking for a flat frequency response. In my opinion, headphones should sound transparent. If they depart for the ideal flat response, I can tolerate a little emphasis on both the bass and treble extremes: this means that I can listen to my source material at lower levels, and have the headphones simulate the sound I would be hearing if the levels were higher (the human hearing sensitivity at both spectrum ends drops drastically when the sound becomes quieter). Lower listening levels are the secret for sustained hours of work. As I am often wearing headphones several hours a day, comfort and durability are key factors for me. I am lucky to be working in a quiet environment: so, my headphones do not need to block external noises. Rather, I want to understand someone talking to me occasionally, without removing the headphones. An open design represents the best choice in such a case. Compared to closed headphones, open headphones offer a flatter frequency response too, and are much less fatiguing during long working sessions. The price-quality ratio matters to me. I wish I had an unlimited budget...

I've been trying different headphones for 20 years. For a couple of years now, I have set my mind - and ears - on the Sennheiser HD-600. They offer indisputable sound and build quality around USD 500. This may represent a lot of money, but it is a wise investment. Quality headphones will become your best friends over the years - or decades when used with care - which contrasts with the portable electronic equipment they are often connected to. They will also offer you the greatest listening experience that no loudspeaker will ever be able to achieve for the same price. Treat yourself; your ears are worth it! ;-)

Other alternatives worth considering are:

  • Beyerdynamic DT 990 (approx. USD 400): these would have been my favorites, if they came with a serviceable cord (I often break cables by moving around while forgetting I am wearing headphones). If you are a careful person, these are incredible performers, with an unrivalled level of comfort.
  • Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro (approx. USD 300): if you are confused about which kind of headphones is better for you - open or closed, neutral or bass-boosters - take a look at the Custom One Pro: by means of an ingenious variable bass reflex cavity, they are all of these... in one single design!
  • For those looking for a cheaper alternative than the headphones mentioned above, nothing beats the Superlux HD668B (approx. USD 50): they are surprisingly good for headphones for their price! HD668Bs are semi-open, so they will provide you with a bit of isolation, and they come with a replaceable cord, which is ideal for me as you already found out!

If you are looking for earbuds, not headphones, try the MEE audio M6 PRO (approx. USD 50). They blew me away!

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10 of the best tracks to test your headphones

You'll likely use your headphones more than any other piece of hi-fi equipment. At any one time in the What Hi-Fi? office at least half of us are using them, and not exclusively due to our questionable personalities (though this figure will spike, depending on who's talking).

We're well aware there is personal preference in what you want from your headphones – even we aren't precious enough about hi-fi to assume the success of companies such as Beats is reliant only on good marketing. But by and large there's no reason you ought to expect a radically different performance to that of your amplifier and speakers. (We've also suggested best songs to test your speakers.)

You may already have your own playlist to test equipment before you buy it – if not, it's a worthwhile exercise – but we've put together this collection of ten tracks to help highlight what we believe to be the most important aspects of your headphones' performance. If they're found lacking in any department, you may want to consider an upgrade.

Find the accompanying playlist on Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify or Tidal

Explosions in the Sky – Wilderness

To test overall balance

Why? Balance isn't always an easy one for headphone manufacturers to get right. Quite often we find them overloading the bottom end in an overzealous attempt to keep their product from sounding lightweight or rolling off the treble to avoid any sharpness nearer the top of the frequency range.

In order to test the overall balance, you want a track that covers as much of the frequency range as possible. You'll get that from a lot of orchestral works - but more contemporary pieces can work as well, such as this from Explosions in the Sky. There's plenty of low-end heft in Wilderness's percussive pulse, while some of those guitar harmonics will reach high into the treble frequencies.

View Explosions in the Sky at Amazon

Fleet Foxes – Fool's Errand

To test midrange quality

Why? By and large, the midrange is where you'll find your vocal lines: pretty important, then. Clarity is, of course, a primary concern, as are stability and warmth. If there isn't enough midrange support from lower frequencies, vocals can sound thin and lack human quality.

Finding a track with a clear, prominent vocal line is all you need do, but it's even better if it includes such gorgeous vocal harmonies as Fool's Errand from the latest Fleet Foxes record. Robin Pecknold's voice ought to soar, flanked by those luscious harmonies without disappearing into them.

View Fleet Foxes at Amazon

To test bass control

Why? We mentioned some brands' tendency to skew the balance toward the bottom end, which we understand suits a certain section of the market. But if that's what you like, it is perhaps even more important those bass frequencies are articulate and suitably agile.

It isn't enough for your headphones to make your earlobes wobble if you can't actually hear what's going on down there. A track with a moving bassline will either drive or confuse a performance, depending on the aptitude of your kit. Darkside's Paper Trails has the added benefit of testing a vocal line deep into the frequency range, which will really highlight the clarity of the bass - or lack thereof.

View Darkside at Amazon

Pharoah Sanders – You've Got to Have Freedom

To test treble quality

Why? Coarseness in treble frequencies is probably one of the first things you'll notice in headphones because it'll make your ears hurt. If that's happening once you've given your headphones a day or two to run in, you'll end up wanting to bin them altogether. But sometimes it can go the other way - perhaps in an attempt to rid a performance of any sharpness, manufacturers will roll the frequency range off at the top end.

Either way, you aren't getting the rich treble frequencies you and your ears deserve. This particular track from Pharoah Sanders finds his saxophone in full-on attack mode. Without making your ears bleed, it ought to sound like a mother goose being prodded with a knitting needle, and you should accept nothing less.

View Pharoah Sanders at Amazon

Havergal Brian – Symphony No1 in D Minor (The Gothic)

To test level of detail

Why? It's rare we really criticise a product for lack of detail alone, but when we hear something particularly insightful it can really make a difference. The term itself is pretty self-explanatory: it's about digging deep into what is being performed, rather than how.

Large-scale orchestral pieces, with a grand range of instruments and timbres, will highlight just how much insight is being delivered. This particular symphony, written by Havergal Brian, is a veritable behemoth, spanning the piccolo to the timpani via two harps and a children's choir. Live recordings are another decent test: hand-claps are one of the more difficult sounds to reproduce.

View Havergal Brian at Amazon

John Martyn – Small Hours

To test space

Why? Space may appear a peculiar concept when it comes to sounds being played directly into your ears, but a claustrophobic performance can be the enemy of deeper listening. You don't want instruments to sound detached from one another, but each line should have space to breathe.

Again, live performances are a good test as to whether your headphones are able to judge the size of an auditorium - or you can go a step further with this album closer from John Martyn. It was recorded outside, so there is no excuse for Martyn's guitar to sound at all boxed in.

View John Martyn at Amazon

BadBadNotGood – Speaking Gently

To test rhythm and timing

Why? Anyone who was ever in a school band will know how infuriating it is to play with somebody who can't keep time – if you didn't know that, it was probably you. The same goes for hi-fi, and your headphones should be able to make sense of polyrhythm just as adeptly as they lock into a rigid 4/4.

This particular track from BadBadNotGood's album IV offers a simple, solid beat as it opens, before sprawling into a freer percussive mindset. Timing also feeds into how instruments interact, how they question each other and then answer. If the performance sounds loose, disorganised or dull, it's probably down to timing.

View BadBadNotGood at Amazon

Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

To test dynamic range

Why? As good as your four-year-old nephew may be at playing the recorder, you probably don't want your headphones to play like they're at a school assembly. A dearth of dynamic range will give you a flat performance, sometimes sounding almost like a rehearsal, undermining any emotion on the original recording.

Pick a piece where small- and large-scale dynamics fluctuate as they do in Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa and you'll hear whether your headphones are up to the job. It's often the smaller-scale dynamics that make the greatest impression: those are what will give voices their expression, which will be especially important if you use your headphones for watching films and TV as well.

View Arvo Pärt at Amazon

Ólafur Arnalds – Ljósi∂

To test subtlety

Why? Getting you out the door and enthused for your run is one thing, but if you use your headphones for anything else then a little subtlety and restraint will be as important as that drive.

This Ólafur Arnalds piece, from his album Found Songs, is a lesson in refinement, with piano keys wanting to be stroked rather than hammered, violin weeping rather than in the midst of a full-on gin-sob. If your headphones can render this as well as they do Black Sabbath, it'll really pay off in the subdued moments of tracks before they end up letting fly.

View Ólafur Arnalds at Amazon

Joe Goddard – Lose Your Love

To test excitement, enthusiasm and drive

Why? All of this may seem like arbitrary box-ticking if your headphones' performance doesn't make you want to move. Really, this kind of enthusiasm and drive is a combination of timing, low-end stability and a good grasp of dynamics - but we have heard products seemingly adept at each of these that ultimately fail to enthuse.

You can insert your favourite groove-laden track here, but we've opted for Lose Your Love from Joe Goddard's 2017 album Electric Lines. If your headphones are doing it right, you'll be anticipating the beat dropping, and you'll look unhinged to your co-workers as soon as it does.

View Joe Goddard at Amazon



Bass test beats

If you plan on producing or mixing with these headphones, try bouncing out an unfinished track and compare the sounds of your reference tracks and unfinished session. This will give you a clear view of what you can expect while casually listening vs. analytically editing your mix.

Songs To Test Headphones Buyers Guide

We are keeping our guide short and to the point because we feel this weeks reviews have been quite thorough, and do a good job of highlighting key song characteristics which will give any set of headphones a good run for their money.

What To Look For When Buying Songs To Test Headphones?

The most vital piece of criteria is clearly defined dynamics within the piece itself, slow emptier intros should create a distinctly different ambiance than a fueled refrain.

Good song arrangement characteristics which can also help to test this are crescendos and diminuendos, musical breaks, drop-outs, cutouts, fades (in and out), acapella vocals, and solos.

Having a good range of different frequencies in the song is also a good margin to measure your response
to the different areas of the frequency spectrum. You need to have bass and treble frequencies in the song to discern this.

The more instruments layered and how well you can pinpoint each is also a good benchmark for how balanced your sound is. Your middle needs to have a good definition to hear the nuances within the song properly.

Fast tempo songs will help you assess how efficiently your speakers respond; to delegate workloads and perform well at faster speeds is tougher.

Panned instruments or tracks will help you assess how good your stereo sound capabilities are a decent set of headphones should pick up on even micro-adjustments to the panning sending the sound left and right respectively in accordance to the signal given.


There is a tonne of songs which employ dynamics to help define the areas of their song structures. A commercial record will usually have a build towards its chorus and many artists incorporate a break- down of some form as well. These elements are idyllic for testing your headphones.

Poor quality headphones can often struggle with the bass end because, as we have explained before, you need a decent surface area to vibrate to produce bass frequencies and a set of headphones driver is limited by space. Songs with strong bass-lines will help you identify how well your work in a heartbeat.

Of course, the songs you want to listen to is entirely subjective and down to preference and there is a genre we haven't covered here but we have made an effort to educate along the way. Hopefully, today's reviews will have given you sufficient insight to choose your own tester tracks.

Expert Tip

Test these tracks through a decent sound system, as you test your headphones make a note of parts you can hear within and see if they are as apparent with your headphones on. Some nuances may even be more noticeable through an awesome set of headphones.

Did you Know

Many modern songs use sub-bass frequencies, without the correct set of headphones you simply

Bass... Can U Hear Me?

100 Hip Hop Basslines to Show off Your Subwoofer.

Bass. It’s the sonic foundation of music. The layer of sound that creates heart-pounding sonic energy, makes you nod your head and instantly helps you recollect a song after only a few seconds. Musical bass notes can also reach below the limits of human hearing (about 20Hz) where you are no longer hearing the sound but perceiving it through a sense of touch. You’re literally feeling the music.

Not all bass is created equal though. To get the most out of your music, you need a quality format like CDs, high-res streaming files or vinyl, as well as capable full-range loudspeakers , or better yet, an SVS subwoofer, to re-create the full dynamic impact and extreme low frequency extension present in music, especially rap and hip hop.

Hip hop started as, and remains to this day, the soundtrack of the streets. The graphic lyrics and melodic beats can transport you to the street corner, nightclub, concert arena, or the studio with stories and prose set to infectious beats. What defines those beats? Bass of course.

Hip hop music has woven itself into the fabric of nearly every industry globally like no other genre before it. Many of the drum beats, horn notes, high hat hits and piano keystroke combinations strung together over the last 40+ years have created iconic sounds that are recognizable within seconds of hitting your ears. Not to mention the number of classic rock, jazz, blues and EDM tracks sampled within various hip hop songs.

We recently asked the SVS Facebook and Instagram communities what hip hop and rap tracks they turn up when demonstrating their SVS subwoofer, and the response was overwhelming! We’ve narrowed the list down to 100 Hip Hop “Bass Bangers” and created a playlist on our YouTube channel so you can enjoy all the dancefloor-shaking, room-rumbling fun on your system at home. We also included links to both posts at the end so you can get the full list of suggestions.

This is not meant to be a “Best of All-Time” playlist, just a collection from the SVS community. Have more suggestions? We’d love to see them in the comments.

While this post is about recommending and discussing great subwoofer demo tracks for hip hop music, if you are interested in learning how to choose a subwoofer based on sound quality, check out 5 Things to Listen for When Choosing a Subwoofer.

Hip Hop “Bass Bangers” Playlist

  • Put On , Young Jeezy
  • Pop The Trunk , Yelawolf
  • Shook Ones , Mobb Deep
  • Real Muthaphuckin G’s , Eazy E
  • Nuthin But A G Thing , Dr. Dre
  • Violent , Tupac
  • Da Blow , Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz
  • Hussle & Motivate , Nipsey Hussle
  • Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It , Ice Cube
  • Late Night Tip , Three Six Mafia
  • Everybody Looking , Gucci Mane
  • Middle Child , J Cole
  • This Is How We Do It , Montell Jordan
  • On My Level , Wiz Khalifa
  • Blueberry Yum Yum , Ludacris
  • We On Fire , Hot Boyz
  • What You Gon Do , Lil Jon
  • Mo Murda , Bone Thugs N Harmony
  • Notorious Thugs , Notorious BIG
  • Come And See Me , Ludacris
  • Lost , Gorilla Zoe
  • Humpty Dance , Digital Underground
  • 6 Foot 7 Foot , Lil Wayne
  • Just A Lil Bit , 50 Cent
  • Ballin , Logic
  • Mr. Me Too , Clipse
  • My Shit Bang , E40
  • Ric Flair Drip , Metro Boomin
  • Super Bass , Nicki Minaj
  • Gangstas Paradise , Coolio
  • Gz And Hustlas , Snoop Dogg
  • Rack City , Tyga
  • Blow The Whistle , Too $hort
  • Too West Coast , Ice Cube
  • Ya’ll Know Who I Am , Ice Cube
  • Hood Mentality , Ice Cube
  • Love In This Club , Usher
  • What You Know , T.I.
  • Its Going Down , Yung Joc
  • Patron , Yung Joc
  • A Milli , Lil Wayne
  • Play , David Banner
  • Grindin , Clipse
  • Nonstop , Drake
  • Mask Off , Future
  • Goin Dummi , Future
  • LSD , ASAP Rocky
  • Swing My Door , Gucci Mane
  • So Many Tears , Tupac
  • Bourbon And Lacs , Master P
  • South Side , Lil Keke
  • Air Force Ones , Nelly
  • Big Poppa , Notorious BIG
  • Doggystyle , Snoop Dogg
  • Where Is The Bud , Three Six Mafia
  • New Level , ASAP Ferg
  • Wow , Post Malone
  • Worldwide Choppers , Tech N9ne
  • Summertime , DJ Jazzy Jeff
  • What Happened To That Boy , Baby
  • Bia Bia , Lil Jon
  • Boyz N The Hood , Eazy E
  • No Lie , 2 Chainz
  • Born Stunna , Birdman
  • Trouble , Major
  • Goldie , ASAP Rocky
  • Hate It Or Love It , 50 Cent
  • Throw It Up , Lil Jon
  • Money In The Grave , Drake
  • Clout , Offet
  • Homicide , Logic
  • Forgot About Dre , Eminem
  • 2 Of Amerikas Most Wanted , Tupac
  • Lay Low , Snoop Dogg
  • All There , Young Jeezy
  • Im Supposed To Die Tonight , 50 Cent
  • Dipset Anthem , The Diplomats
  • Bad Boyz , Shyne
  • Get Throwed , Bun B
  • Chunk Up The Deuce , Lil Keke
  • Adrenaline Rush , Twista
  • Front Porch , Twista
  • Diamonds & Wood , UGK
  • Country Shit , Big KRIT
  • Freaky Things , Ludacris
  • Some Cut , Trillville
  • No Problem , Lil Scrappy
  • Kill Us All , Twista
  • Fire , Twista
  • Bank Roll , Lil Boosie
  • BM JR , Lil Wayne
  • Tha Mobb , Lil Wayne
  • Beat Without Bass , Lil Wayne
  • Country Ass N***a , Nelly
  • 24’s , T.I.
  • Smoke A N***a , Juicy J
  • What Da Hook Gon Be , Murphy Lee
  • Welcome To Atlanta , Jermaine Dupri
  • Area Codes , Ludacris
  • Bass Ackwards , Tech N9ne

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