I have a playlist of songs that I listen to very often on all my audio products I review. I am so familiar with them that it helps me to determine the quality and character.
Updated on 2 Dec 2020, these are the reference music tracks I use and what I look out for:
Eagles “Hotel California” (live)
A standard track for reviewing audio products, listen for the sound staging. Does it sound like it’s in a spacious venue, does the individual instrument and audience applause sound separated and with depth (positioned near and far) or packed together? Is the kick bass defined, the percussion shaker distinct among the mix? Do the vocals sound natural, or too “clean” without extension?
Daft Punk “Get Lucky”
Normal players/headphones would make the song sound with overpowering bass and vocals while other instruments would be less detailed, like Nile Rodger’s guitar. His playing is mixed into the tracks so it takes a good audio product to bring out the distinct flavour. It’s not about whether the guitar track sounds forward or not. Rather, it’s about whether the guitar track is distinct amidst the mix without getting obscured by other instruments.
Robert Len “Brasilia”
This is an excellent hi-res hi-def reference track to determine how the audio product handles the full spectrum – horns for mid-range, bass for lows, oboe for low-treble, guitars for mid-treble, triangles and percussion for upper treble.
Earth Wind & Fire “Boogie Wonderland”
Use this track to test the speed of the audio response. There are a lot of instrumentation layers in this infectious pop track. Does it sound snappy or a little messy due to the slower decay? Also, some audio products tend to mess up the main male vocals and counter-female vocals. The bass line is tight and not too bloomy, the upper frequency like the cymbals and brass should also not be too harsh, the vocals sibilance should also be clean. A good audio product will let you hear as many instruments easily.
Andrea Bocelli “Amapola”
The intro started with a more rounded lush strings, and when Andrea started his line, it should sound a little more brighter. Notice the subtle reverb after his line. Once the full orchestra comes in after his chorus, does the audio product handles the intensity well or does it sound messy?
Kenny G “Going Home”
This is a very nostalgic track, and I owned the CD album since 1990. I use this track to test how the audio product handles the sizzling saxophone. Also, listen to the Rhodes piano tone to determine how the product handles mid-range.
Sam Smith “Pray”
This is one of my recent additions to my reference playlist. I use this track mainly to check the sub-bass response as it kicks in at around 53-sec mark, and subsequently when the full chorus sings with Sam, does the audio product sound compressed or still roomy. A good audio product would not sound too pushy, but it is getting more difficult to find quality masters on commercial pop tracks as the engineers want to make their tracks as loud as possible.
Shelby Lynne “Just A Little Lovin’ “
I heard this track during one of a media event promoting a high-end speaker, and I fell in love with the mix. It’s a laid back track with no excessive peaks, which makes it a fabulous track to turn up the volume to the max, and see how your audio product handles the load. There are only 4 instruments: drums, electric bass, guitar, keyboard, and of course the vocal. See if you can hear the timbre of each instrument and feel the subtle room reverb.
Billie Eilish “Bad Guy”
Most people use this track to test the bass response, but I look for something more. Pay attention to whether you can hear the upper frequency responses lurking in the mix. A good headphones should allow all frequency to play out rather than letting the bass overpower the mix. Also, pay attention to Billie’s voice: does it sound muffled?
Yiruma “Sunset Bird”
Yiruma recorded and mixed this song with quite a fair amount of reverb, and being a piano track, the midrange pretty much takes centrestage. Listen with your headphones and see if the song sounds overwhelmingly warm and fat (strong midrange), or does the piano sound clear with tame reverbs (recessed midrange).
One of my new jazz favourites, it tests the speed of your headphones. There is so much musical action in all the three – yes, just three – instruments. Can your headphones keep up with the details? Can you feel the immersion, separation and the stage? Does the bass guitar sound defined or just boomy? Does the drums sound clean or shimmery?
There is no right or wrong in picking your reference tracks. Be sure that these tracks should be in the best audio resolution and offer insights into the frequency response of the audio product. As always, everyone has different listening preference and sensitivity. Most importantly, you must like the audio product and get the best value out of it. Sometimes, you don’t have to pay top dollar for great products. Good luck, and if you have any questions, ask Chester!