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How to get the best headphone sound for you

Getting the best headphone sound for your music selection doesn’t have to be a difficult process if you follow a few simple guidelines.

The Tom’s Guide audio team uses specific tracks to evaluate the sound quality of the headphones we tested, and listening to these songs can help you find the right headset for you or the right settings for your audio devices.

Below you’ll find a selection of songs to play along with advice on what to look for or listen to while testing your own song. Of course, everyone’s music tastes are different, and we recommend making your own music choices as well to help you find the right headset for you.

Best headphone sound: personal stereo

Of all the audio equipment you own, they are probably the headphones you will listen to the most.

Many of us use headphones or earphones for routine tasks and activities such as commuting, walking the dog, or exercising at the gym. And since the business world has become a home/office hybrid for many people, many of us also use headphones as part of our daily work routine for online meetings or to block out the sounds of a busy office.

Best Headphone Sound: Man using headphones

(Image credit: Jabra)

If you’re considering one of the best headphones for audiophiles or the best headphones recommendations, you don’t need gold ears or special skills to judge the sound quality, just understand the type of sound you like and the choice of tracks that suit you. highlight the different performance characteristics of an audio product.

Whatever your audio device, it’s always a good idea to start with the best quality music available. When it comes to testing headphones, we use streaming services that can serve music files in the highest resolution, for example Tidal, Qobuz or Apple Music. We hope to be able to add Spotify HiFi to this list soon, but despite the announcement last year, the high-resolution level is not yet available.

Each section below covers the main areas of what to listen to when judging headphone sound quality, along with links to individual tracks to try through Tidal or play the entire playlist. We’ve also added our headphone playlist to Spotify.

These are all recordings that we know well and that we regularly listen to to measure the sound quality of the headphones in our reviews. They may not necessarily fit the tracks you would choose to listen to in person, but they will tell you everything you need to know about how a pair of headphones will perform.

Best headphone sound: Overall tonal balance

The overall tonal balance is to achieve harmonious sound over the entire frequency range emitted by the earphone’s speaker drivers. One of the hardest things to get right for any headphone manufacturer. Brands often have a sonic signature; this means, for example, that one manufacturer’s sound may produce stronger bass than another, but this may also depend on the market sector and the type of music for which a particular model is designed.

Sonic balance simply means that the low, mid and high frequency range is proportional to each other to provide an accurate representation of the music as intended by the artist and recording engineer. While the overall tonal balance is up to personal taste, you really don’t want the low end (bass) to be overloaded or sound disproportionate to the rest of the range, or the treble (treble) to come out too soon. results in unclear sound and no spatial detail.

To test the overall balance, you want a range that covers as much of the frequency range as possible. Orchestral works naturally provide the best distribution of frequencies, from bass notes to uplifting strings and flutes, for example, and contemporary soundtracks can be useful here.

Experience ‘Like a Dog Chasing Cars’ from the ‘The Dark Knight’ soundtrack; You should hear plenty of bass without being too overpowering. There’s also plenty of high-frequency detail to be heard, giving the piece its rhythm and a sense of chase.

Best headphone sound: sense of emptiness

To test a headset’s sense of space (or soundstage) you need a well-recorded track that can convey the sonic illusion that the performance is happening right in front of you. Getting it right is hard work, but a well-recorded piece gives the illusion that an artist is centrally placed in front of you. You should be able to perceive the vocals, the room, and the acoustics of each of the instruments, as well as other elements of the recording in an almost three-dimensional way.

Although headphones are on either side of your head, quality headphones should make you feel like the music goes beyond your limits or your headphones.

Live performances are a good test of whether your headphones can judge the size of an auditorium, but studio releases with good stereo space and soundstage feel include ‘Laura Mvula with the Metropole Orkest’ and ‘That’s Alright’ from the ‘Human’ album. By Rag’n’bone Man. Give them a try!

Best headphone sound: mid-range clarity

Midrange clarity is important for getting vocals right. Female vocals show off a headphone’s midrange performance particularly well, but male voices like Rag’n’bone Man’s ‘Human’ or Newton Faulkner’s Teardrops are useful for emphasizing the tricky range of low mid frequencies before moving into the bass range.

If the tonal balance is off, an artist’s vocal performance may sound muffled and distant, as if singing from a neighboring room, and may be disconnected from other performance elements. Meanwhile, if certain midrange frequencies are boosted, vocals can sound forward and too ‘big’ compared to other elements of the performance.

Vocals also require support from both the low and high frequencies, as vocals will sound thin or (again) muffled if there isn’t enough high frequency detail to sound natural and realistic, without a smooth transition to the lower register of the vocal range.

All you need is a track with a clear and distinct vocal line. One of our favorite songs is Oh Wonder’s ‘Livewire’, which combines male and female vocals to great effect. Another piece that has been tested and useful for establishing vocal and midrange quality is Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Helplessly Hoping’, featuring outstanding easy-to-follow harmonies and a wide soundstage. Or try Jennifer Warnes’ gorgeous ‘Ballad of the Runaway Horse’.

Best headphone sound: high quality and detail

The high frequency output of some headphones can be difficult to hear as they are coarse and harsh. You will know if a headset has this kind of low quality high-pitched sound because the sound will be so distracting that you will want to remove it from your ears immediately. The headphone may need some time to get used to the drivers sounding better – this is pretty common with high-end headphone drivers. In that case, give them a day or two with continuous music playing until the stiffness subsides.

Of course, the treble can also be retractable, meaning that some elements of a piece are muffled or inaudible. This is less irritating to the ears, but it means you lose the open feeling good high-end performance can bring, and the full sound your ears deserve.

To test the high frequency performance of a headset, we often use Miles Davis’ Tutu, which is a great demo track for revealing high frequency errors. Davis’ trumpet sound is full and challenging to listen to, but not in a way that will make your ears bleed. Everything on the track, from percussion elements to synthesized effects, must be brought out.

Best headphone sound: rhythm and tempo

As the saying goes: “time is everything”. If a performance sounds loose, erratic or monotonous, it’s likely due to bad weather and will result in low levels of engagement with your favorite music.

A pair of headphones needs to be able to keep time with all kinds of beats and understand opposing rhythms (polyrhythms) deftly enough to fit into a hard 4/4. Rhythm is the key to making music fluid and coherent and ultimately connecting with the listener.

Daft Punk’s Get Lucky may be one of our most popular tracks, but it serves as a prime example of what happens when a pair of headphones has a good beat – it really makes you want to do some moves and dance.

Best headphone sound: subtle dynamics

A great all-in-one test piece for any pair of headphones, Kate Bush’s watching you without me will tell you most of what you need to know about a pair of headphones – their timing, ability to show midrange details and track the tiniest dynamic fluctuations. Happy listening.


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How to get the best headphone sound for you

Getting the best headphone sound for your choice of music needn’t be a difficult process if you follow a few simple guidelines. 
The Tom’s Guide audio team use specific tracks to assess sound quality on the headphones we test, and listening to those songs can help you find the right pair of headphones for you, or the right settings for your audio devices.
Below, you’ll find a selection of tracks to play, plus advice on what to look or listen for as you do your own testing. Of course, everyone’s music tastes are different and we encourage you to also make your own music choices to help you find the right pair of headphones for you. 
Best headphone sound: Personal stereo
Of all the audio equipment you may own, headphones are probably the one you’ll listen to the most. 
Plenty of us wear headphones or earbuds for routine tasks and activities such as the commute to work, walking the dog, or working out in the gym. And with the working world now a home/office hybrid for lots of people, many of us also wear headphones as part of our day-to-day work routine for online meetings, or for blocking out the sounds of a busy office.

(Image credit: Jabra)
You don’t need golden ears or special skills to make a judgement on sound quality if you’re considering one of best headphones or best audiophile headphone recommendations, just an understanding of the kind of sound you like and a selection of tracks that highlight different characteristics of an audio product’s performance.
No matter what the audio device, it’s always a good idea to start with the highest-quality music material available. When it comes to testing headphones, we use streaming services capable of delivering the highest resolution music files, such as Tidal, Qobuz or Apple Music, for example. We’ll hopefully be able to add Spotify HiFi to that list soon but despite an announcement last year, its high-resolution tier isn’t available just yet.         
Each section below covers the main areas of what to listen for when assessing headphone sound quality, with links to individual tracks to try out via Tidal, or play the entire playlist. We’ve also added our headphone playlist to Spotify. 
These are all recordings we know well and listen to regularly to assess headphone sound quality in our reviews. They may not necessarily fit with the tracks you’d choose to listen to personally, but they’ll tell you all you need to know about the performance of a pair of headphones.

Best headphone sound: Overall tonal balance
Overall tonal balance is about getting a harmonious sound across the range of frequencies output by the headphone’s speaker drivers. It’s one of the most challenging things to get right for any headphone manufacturer. Brands often have a sonic signature that means one maker’s sound may output more booming bass than another, for example, but this can also depend on the market sector and music genre a particular model is designed for.
Sonic balance simply means that the range of frequencies from lows, mids to highs are in proportion to one another so that they give an accurate presentation of the music in the way the artist and recording engineer intended. Although overall tonal balance comes down to personal taste, you don’t really want the bottom end (bass) being overloaded or to sound disproportional to the rest of the track’s frequency range, or the highs (treble) rolling off at the top too early, resulting in a sound that’s unclear and lacking in spatial detail.
To test the overall balance, you want a track that covers as much of the frequency range as possible. Orchestral works naturally provide the best spread of frequencies, from double bass notes through to soaring strings and flutes, for example, and contemporary soundtracks can be useful here. 
Try out ‘Like a Dog Chasing Cars’ from the movie soundtrack ‘The Dark Knight’; you should hear plenty of low-end heft without it being too overpowering. There’s also plenty of high frequency detail to listen out for, which gives the piece its pace and a sense of the chase. 

Best headphone sound: A sense of space
To test a headphone’s sense of space (or soundstage) you need a track that’s well recorded and that can convey the sonic illusion of the performance happening right in front of you. It’s a tricky thing to get right, but a well recorded track will conjure up the illusion of an artist being centrally placed in front of you. You should be able to perceive a sense of space around the vocal, the room acoustic and each of the instruments as well as any other elements in the recording in an almost three-dimensional way. 
Although, the headphones are either side of your head, good quality headphones should make you feel that music is stretching beyond the confines or the earcups. 
Live performances are a good test as to whether your headphones are able to judge the size of an auditorium, but studio releases with a good sense of stereo space and soundstage include ‘That’s Alright’ from the album ‘Laura Mvula with the Metropole Orkest’ and ‘Human’ by Rag’n’bone Man. Give them a try!

Best headphone sound: Midrange clarity
Midrange clarity is important for getting the vocals right. Female vocals showcase a headphone’s mid frequency performance particularly well, but male voices such as Rag’n’bone Man’s ‘Human’ or Teardrops by Newton Faulkner are useful for highlighting the tricky area of lower mid frequencies before crossing over into the bass range. 
If the tonal balance is incorrect, an artist’s vocal performance can sound muffled and distant, like they’re singing from a neighboring room perhaps, and disconnected from the rest of elements on the performance. If certain mid frequencies are boosted, meanwhile, then the vocal can sound forward and too ‘big’ compared to other elements of the performance.           
Vocals also require support from the low and high frequencies, as without a smooth transition to the lower register of the vocal range, vocals will sound thin, or (again) muffled if there’s not enough high frequency detail to give them a natural and realistic sound. 
A track with a clear, prominent vocal line is all you need. One of our favorites is ‘Livewire’ by Oh Wonder, which combines both male and female vocal to great effect. Another tried and tested track useful for establishing vocal and midrange quality is ‘Helplessly Hoping’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, showcasing exceptional harmonies that are easy to follow and a spacious soundstage. Or try the superb ‘Ballad of the Runaway Horse’ by Jennifer Warnes. 

Best headphone sound: Treble quality and detail 
Some headphones can be difficult to listen to because their high frequency output is crude and harsh. You’ll know if a headphone has this kind of poor treble sound quality because the sound will be so uncomfortable that you’ll want to quickly remove them from your ears. It could be that the headphone needs some time for the drivers to settle in before they sound their best — this is pretty common with very high performance headphone drivers. In this case, give them a day or two with some music playing continuously until the harshness mellows. 
Of course, it can also be that the treble could be rolled off, meaning some elements of a track are muffled or can’t be heard at all. This is less offensive to the ears, but means you’ll miss out on the feeling of openness that good treble performance can bring and the full sound that your ears deserve. 
To test out a headphone’s high frequency performance we often use Tutu by Miles Davis, which is a great demo track for revealing any high frequency flaws. The sound of Davis’ trumpet playing is full-on and is a demanding listen, but not in such a way that it makes your ears bleed. Everything in the track should be revealed, from the percussive elements to the synthesized effects. 

Best headphone sound: Rhythm and timing
As the saying goes: “timing is everything.” If a performance sounds loose, disorganised or dull, it’s probably down to poor timing and will result in poor levels of engagement with your favorite music. 
A pair of headphones will need to be able to keep time with all kinds of beats and make sense of contrasting rhythms (polyrhythm) just as adeptly as they lock into a rigid 4/4. Rhythm is the key to music sounding fluid and coherent and ultimately making a connection with the listener. 
Daft Punk’s Get Lucky may be one of our more mainstream tracks, but it serves as an excellent example of what happens when a pair of headphones have good rhythm — they actually make you want to break out some moves and dance.

Best headphone sound: Subtle dynamics
A great all-round test track for any pair of headphones, Kate Bush’s Watching You Without Me will tell you most of what you need to know about a pair of headphones — their ability to time, show off midrange detail, and track the subtlest of dynamic fluctuations. Happy listening.

#headphone #sound


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