The 10 Best Tracks for Evaluating Audio Equipment

These tracks test the gamut of audio qualities

As reviewers, we rely on lab tests to evaluate gear, but we lean more on our collection of stereo test tracks, which have been accumulated, augmented, and pruned through years of testing experience. Most of these tunes are stored on computers as WAV files, on mobile devices as MP3 files, and numerous CDs. These songs are the kind that we can play through speakers or headphones to assess how well (or not) a product sounds.

Any audio enthusiast should put together a selection of tunes like this. It's convenient for checking pairs of headphones in stores, a friend's new stereo speakers, or the audio systems you might encounter at Hi-Fi shows. You can edit the songs if you like, cutting straight to the parts you want to hear for testing purposes.

Person listening to music on a mobile device via headphones
Lifewire / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

To get the best possible fidelity from songs, buy the CD (or digitize vinyl LPs) to create lossless digital music files. Or, at the very least, download the highest-quality MP3 tracks available—recommended 256 kbps or better.

Although your audio-test tracklist evolves over time, keep several staple tracks that you know well and do not change. The folks at Harman Research, who rank among the top audio researchers globally, have been using Tracy Chapman's Fast Car and Steely Dan's Cousin Dupree for over 20 years.

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Toto, 'Rosanna'

Toto IV album cover
Sony BMG Music

Scoff, if you will, at Toto's album, Toto IV, but this track's dense mix spans the audio spectrum. This is usually the quickest test we've found for judging the accuracy of an audio product's tonal balance—the relative level of bass to midrange to treble. Just 30 seconds of Rosanna will tell you whether a product is on the good or bad side of things.

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Holly Cole, 'Train Song'

Temptation album cover, Holly Cole
Alert Music

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

The tinkly percussion that dances across the front of the sound stage is a great test of high-frequency performance and stereo imaging. If your tweeter can cleanly and clearly reproduce the high-pitched chime, struck right after Cole sings the line, "…never, never, never ring a bell," you have a good one.

Use the studio recording instead of the live version.

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Mötley Crüe, 'Kickstart My Heart'

Dr. Feelgood album cover, Motley Crue
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 you judge the maximum output capabilities for products like Bluetooth speakers and 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, many headphones make this tune sound boomy, and that is just plain wrong.​

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The Coryells, 'Sentenza del Cuore – Allegro'

The Coryells album cover, Larry Coryell


The self-titled The Coryells, the eponymous 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 sound stage depth.

Listen for the castanets in the recording, as they are key. 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.

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World Saxophone Quartet, 'The Holy Men'

Metamorphosis album cover, World Saxophone Quartet

Elektra / Nonesuch Records

Metamorphosis is a great album by the World Saxophone Quartet, and The Holy Men is one of the best test tracks 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, you have a fantastic system. If not, don't worry too much because this particular listening test is pretty hard.

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Olive, 'Falling'

Extra Virgin album cover, Olive


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 down to a deep note that almost disappears 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.

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Wale, 'Love/Hate Thing'

The Gifted album cover, Wale

Maybach Music / Atlantic Records

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

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

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Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, 'Organ Symphony'

Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, 'Organ Symphony' album cover


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

The low tones in this track are so intense that they can easily destroy small woofers.

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-respecting audiophile or audio enthusiast should appreciate and own.

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Trilok Gurtu, 'Once I Wished a Tree Upside Down'

Living Magic album cover, Trilok Gurtu
CMP Records

We've found no better way to test stereo 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! Put on a pair of the best electrostatic or planar magnetic headphones, and you can hear exactly what we're talking about.

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Dennis and David Kamakahi, 'Ulili'E'

'Ohana album cover, Dennis and David Kamakahi


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

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, there are ways you can ​improve the system's audio performance.

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