As The Verge’s resident headphones obsessive, I hear a few questions quite often: what are the best Bluetooth headphones, where can I find those $1,000 cans for less than $100, and what music do you use for testing in your reviews? The first question will be answered in an upcoming This is my next feature, the second is daft, and the third forms the subject of this article.
The obvious thing to say here is that there’s no right or wrong answer, there aren’t distinct categories of “proper” or “good” music, on the one hand, and unworthy junk, on the other. So long as it can still be described as music and not noise, any genre should be able to illustrate the major strengths and weaknesses of a pair of headphones. So the simple advice is to just listen to the music you like: it’s essential that you’re already familiar with how the material should sound (or how you prefer it to sound) in order to fairly assess the effect on it from the new equipment. Headphone testing is often analogized to wine tasting, in that it’s all subjective, but that shouldn’t lead to the specious conclusion that all opinions are equal. There can be subjectively experienced objective truths.
My approach to headphone reviews is deliberately lazy. If some terrific, otherworldly pair of headphones requires tons of special equipment, an anechoic room, and perfectly mastered recordings, well, it can just stay in that other world. Readers of The Verge are best served by reviews that treat the gear as they would: which means testing via plebeian sources like Soundcloud and YouTube as well as higher-quality 320kbps MP3s and Tidal’s “Master Quality” setting. The equipment I usually use is a Schiit Jotunheim (a combination amplifier and DAC) when I’m at my desktop and a DragonFly Red or Astell & Kern Kann when I’m on the move. Yes, I’m ready for the era of no headphone jacks on phones.
Let’s move on to the music itself: while most genres will do a good job, I do find some styles and particular recordings are better than others. Fortunately, my favored genre of complex electronic music with plenty of bass is popular nowadays and thus provides plenty of variety, experimentation, and diversity. Multilayered productions from the likes of deadmau5 and Squarepusher might not be everyone’s cup of lemongrass tea, but there’s no denying their ability to stretch a pair of headphones.
Here are 10 of the highlight tracks I go to when sampling a new pair of headphones, and the reasons why I favor them:
“Hunter” by Bjork
If you’re short on time and want to test an audio system as quickly as possible, Bjork’s genre-straddling music is the way to go, and “Hunter,” the first track on 1997’s Homogenic, is my favorite. The song opens with a good test of the soundstage of a given pair of headphones: there are drum beats ebbing and flowing on either side of the listener, and the sense of distance between them is a good marker for how expansive the headphones sound. But that’s just the start. The real beauty of “Hunter” is that you’ve got all sorts of instruments mixed in Bjork’s affecting vocals, and once you’re used to the song, you can use that familiarity to determine which of those elements is made more prominent by the headphones. When Bjork builds up to the soaring “how” in “I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me” at 1:40 into the song, you should get chills. No chills? Headphones can’t be that great.
“Acid Rain” by Lorn
This is the newest must-listen track in my collection and the reason for that is simple and obvious, arriving at 21 seconds into the song. The bass drop. On a good pair of headphones, it feels like a shovel stabbing deep into hard dirt. It’s quick, deep, penetrating, and almost physical. The feeling of it lingers for a second even after the sound is gone. The recurrence of that bass hit is what makes me love the song, and I guess the confession I have to make is that I don’t test with some clinical set of tunes that don’t thrill me. I know some people do that, I don’t. The purpose of headphones, as I’ve expressed previously, is to serve as instruments of joy.
Just to underline the outsized importance of good bass to the appeal of any headphones, here’s another track designed to test it. 40 seconds into this song, there are three bass hits: one is slightly to the left, one is slightly to the right, and the third has a whole different texture to the first two. That nuance of distinct positioning and subtle detail is lost on mediocre headphones. The sense of depth and impact is also missing from overly serious “high-end” headphones that are simply too light on bass (I’m looking at you, MrSpeakers Aeon and Grado… well, every Grado headphone).
“Aljamiado” by Renaud Garcia-Fons
Because I like both bass and puns, here’s my favorite acoustic bass player: Renaud Garcia-Fons. “Aljamiado” is the first track from his 2011 album Méditerranées, though I really want to recommend the whole thing. If you’re a fan of string instruments, Garcia-Fons is the perfect guide through a vast diversity of them in an album that progresses like a tour of the Mediterranean region. Instruments are strummed, hit, tapped, thumped, and in a variety of other original ways exploited to produce a twinkling array of exotic sounds. I use this and much of the rest of his prolific recordings to look at how clean and sparkly the treble response of a pair of headphones is, and how it balances against the deeper notes coming from the bass.
“Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin
How can you not include Aphex Twin in any test of headphones? The classic “Windowlicker” has all sorts of subtleties interweaving in its recording, which can be squashed and rendered as a bit of a noisy blob by weaker headphones. Good headphones bring out the little electronic pops and squeaks, and they build up the tension toward the song’s culmination, and the best headphones convey the full unsettling nature of the mad vocals. I have two relatively recent albums from Aphex Twin, 2014’s Syro and 2016’s Cheetah, and I often listen to them from start to finish. An essential thing to remember with headphone reviews is that there are no shortcuts to final conclusions: single tracks can only tell you so much, and you have to listen to entire pieces of music to be sure of your impressions.
“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine
Aggressive drums, screeching guitar, indomitable Zach de la Rocha vocals, and a cowbell. Need I say more? Rage Against the Machine and Metallica are my go-to sources for deliberately distorted guitar and strained, screaming vocals. One thing I noticed with the former band is that its eponymous 1992 album sounded really thin and weak through the otherwise excellent Beyerdynamic T51i on-ear headphones. The same was true with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1999 Californication: the more mangled and trashy the sound from the musicians was, the more important it was that the headphones could precisely recreate it. Good and full bass reproduction, which is often thought to be a thing primarily of interest to hip hop and electronic music fans, really helps in heavier music genres too.
“Paper Moon” by Booka Shade
For the moments when I want to kick back, German house duo Booka Shade are a great pick, and “Paper Moon” from their 2006 album Movements is a very nice track for testing the imaging (sound positioning) of headphones. The music dances all across the soundstage, and a headphone’s ability to keep up with and properly represent that playful dynamism becomes easily apparent.
“Dragonborn” by Jeremy Soule
Yes, the Skyrim soundtrack is kind of a cliché for music testing, but that’s because it’s pretty badass. For review purposes, I can’t think of many other widely available and popular choir pieces, and the “Dragonborn” track here has both male and female parts. It’s an aggressive, driving song with a defined crescendo that should be unmistakeable and unmissable. If your headphones can play back this track without getting you hyped up, throw them away immediately and acquire a pair of Koss Porta Pros (at least).
“Breathe Into Me” by Marian Hill
This track has gotten under my skin, primarily because of the angelic vocals of Samantha Gongol. There’s some finger snapping and a deep bassline in the background, but it’s the wistful singing that is the undeniable star of the show. Good headphones will (a) retain the strong backing bass and (b) present the full, airy beauty of Gongol’s vocals. I’d recommend the 2016 ACT ONE album by Marian Hill for anyone else thirsting for more of the same. Deep bass plus soft female vocals is kind of a worn-out trope in electronic music, but it is done very well in this case. I doubt any headphones will make Marian Hill sound awful, but poorly tuned ones are liable to spoil the balance between the low backing notes and high, expressive vocals. As usual, the first test is to decide if the headphones are making you feel the music the way you usually do.
“Wild Monk” by Osamu Kitajima
Like Renaud Garcia-Fons, Kitajima is one of my favorite discoveries from branching out into hearing more unfamiliar music. His style is heavy on string and wind instruments, so any headphones that sound inorganic or digital will definitely be exposed. The 1978 album Masterless Samurai is my favored Kitajima piece, and “Wild Monk” is just a fun, dynamic track that really tests the treble reproduction of any sound system. It’s worth noting here that trying out higher-end headphones will inevitably lead you to exploring more obscure artists and acoustic acts like Kitajima: there’s an inevitable draw toward real instruments to test the full extent of a pair headphones’ realism.
This list could, in fairness, extend into infinity. I’ve got 3,000 tracks on my computer at home, to go with however many millions Tidal has access to. And one of my most loved sources of new music right now are the multitude of chillout and trip-hop music channels playing 24/7 on YouTube. I’m still learning and discovering new things — like Willow, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s daughter, who has a beautifully distinctive voice — and the most essential aspect of the reviewer’s job might just to be to retain that thirst and curiosity. Both for new music and new headphones.
Reviewing headphones takes time and a diversity of music sources and varieties. You can’t fall in love with a person over just a few fleeting minutes, and you shouldn’t expect to be able to fully understand and fall in love with a pair of headphones that quickly either.
Unless it’s the Sennheiser HD800 S, those are just breathtaking from the first note.