Our guide is here to help you find the tools and build the skills to decide on the right pair of headphones for you.
Perhaps you are new to the headphone world and trying to make your first purchase. Or maybe you are looking to upgrade your current pair of headphones. Clearly, you have to figure out which headphones are the perfect ones for you.
How do you choose the best sounding pair of headphones to buy?
I’d love to tell you that there is a clear-cut, objective, and simple way to answer that question. Unfortunately, I can’t.
There may be nothing more subjective or complicated than the topic of sound quality. Our personal expectations, experiences, biases, and preferences all combine to make one pair of headphones our favorite, even while they may be dismissed by others. Often poor-performing headphones have a more universal agreement, as bad audio tends to sound bad to most folks. However, in the world of many decent performers, it’s up to the individual to determine what they prefer.
Any sort of audio assessment is a learning process.
The purpose of this article is to identify some tools, terminology, and audio characteristics to help a potential purchaser differentiate between headphones. For industry professionals and dedicated enthusiasts, there are specialized measurement tools available to graph the frequency response of headphones and IEMs. Performing these measurements is beyond the scope of the average consumer, although we will take a look at how to interpret the graphs.
Ultimately, there are no better tools available than the ears on your head, once you learn how to critically use them. So let’s dive in and figure out how to perform our own headphone audio quality test.
Mobile Apps to Test Sound Quality
A simple place to start is with some basic headphone test apps. If you are trying out different headphones in a store, it’s almost certain you have your phone loaded up with your favorite music (or streaming service) in your pocket. Why not come prepared with a full suite of test applications as well?
- Headphone Check (iOS – Free) – Starting with the very simplest tool, Apple users may want to check out the appropriately named Headphone Check app. Its sole purpose is to ensure that the Left and Right channels are properly oriented.
- Left Right – Stereo Test (Android – Free) – An Android app with the same functionality as Headphone Check.
- Ultimate Ear – Headphone Test (Android – Free) – A more complete toolset to test high and low frequencies, stereo, binaural, and the golden frequency (1.618 Hz).
- Earphones Test + (Android – Free) – A unified set of tests including frequency sweeps, pink noise, music, voice, stereo, and some Android device compatibility tests including buttons and headset wiring.
- Audio Tester (Android – In-App Purchases) – Tests stereo, audio delay (useful for Bluetooth), and frequency range.
- Headphone – Test Your Headset or Bluetooth (Android – Free) – Test bass frequencies, 360 degrees 3-D sound, and the microphone.
- Mic Test (Android – Free) – Test the quality of the headset’s microphone by recording and playing back your voice.
By using some of the more fully-featured apps above, you’ll be able to listen to frequency sweeps through the entire audible spectrum. This way you can hear which frequencies are boosted, and identify which sounds the headphones simply can’t reproduce. On a very basic level, things should sound relatively balanced, and the headphones should be able to reproduce very low, and very high frequencies in order to provide the best audio experience.
Web Apps to Test Sound Quality
Additional testing tools are available through websites and streaming services.
- The Ultimate Headphone Test – Original Audiocheck Test Tones (Spotify) – Ten test tones including high and low frequencies, binaural, spectral flatness, dynamic range, driver matching, polarity, and burn-in.
- The Ultimate Headphones (and Earphones) Test (website and YouTube) – Includes frequency response, spectral flatness, dynamic range, quality, driver matching, wiring, and binaural tests.
You must keep in mind that all these artificial tone tests will only tell you so much about a pair of headphones. Who spends their valuable time listening to frequency sweeps anyways? All you really care about is how the headphones sound reproducing music. Specifically, how they sound playing the types of music that YOU listen to.
In a perfect world, every pair of headphones would be an excellent jack-of-all-trades, able to play back any music genre with aplomb.
In the real world, some headphones do certain styles better than others.
Do you primarily listen to death metal? EDM? Acoustic folk? Classical?
Those vastly different music styles all have unique playback requirements. A pair of headphones with a boosted low-end response may perfectly fit your EDM-loving tastes, while they may be a poor choice for an acoustic folk music listener.
The true test must be performed while listening to your favorite music.
Music Characteristics to Look Out for During Sound Quality Check
Ask a hundred headphone enthusiasts what they listen to (and for) when they evaluate the playback quality of headphones, and you’ll likely receive a hundred different answers. And this is how it should be. While it’s very interesting to try recommendations from others, it’s pretty difficult to objectively assess what you are listening to if you aren’t familiar with the source material.
Regardless of your musical tastes, a good starting point is to classify audible characteristics within the music.
Music characteristics for evaluating headphones
|Characteristic||Definition - What do we listen for?||Negative Descriptors|
|Sub-Bass||The lowest end of the theoretical audible frequency spectrum between approximately 20 – 60Hz, where the sounds are more felt than heard. Seismic. Extension. Drop. Depth. Impact. Boom. Weight.||Roll-Off. Shallow.|
|Bass||The lowest range of audible frequencies (approximately 60-250Hz). Bass is often described as imparting depth to the sound, with weight and impact. Bassy implies that the lowest frequencies are emphasized. Control. Speed. Articulate. Agility. Clarity. Fullness. Punch. Warmth.||Flabby. Thick. Boomy. Thin. Bloated.|
|Midrange||The center portion of the audio spectrum (between approximately 250Hz and 3kHz) is often referred to as ‘Mids’. Upper Midrange refers to audio frequencies between approximately 3kHz and 5kHz. Human vocal reproduction and many instruments reside in the midrange frequencies. Quality. Vocals. Natural. Realistic. Body. Liquid. Full. Musical.||Inorganic. Unnatural. Recessed. Hollow. Harsh. Nasal. Grain.|
|Treble||The upper portion of the audio frequency spectrum is between about 5000 – 20000 Hz. It contains the highest audible frequencies of voice or instruments such as cymbals. Clean. Sparkle. Sizzle. Extension. Open. Delicate. Splash. Airy. Articulate. Sweet. Resolving.||Sibilance. Coarseness. Painful. Rolled-off. Recessed. Muddy. Veiled. Piercing. Edgy. Aggressive.|
|Balance||Highs and lows. No portion of the audio spectrum drowning out the other frequencies. Equal weight, volume, and impact.||Inaccurate. Weighted. Unbalanced.|
|Detail and Imaging||A strong midrange and treble, as well as a fast transient response, conveys the most subtle elements in the music. The ability to create the perception of physically locating a specific instrument in a horizontal space created within the music. This differs from Soundstage, as imaging is a sense of progression between left and right channels, rather than depth. Handclaps. Texture. Resolving. Fast transient response. Separation of instruments and sound. Distinct. Nuance. Attack and decay.||Congested. Dense. Boxy.|
|Soundstage||The ability of the equipment to create a perception of space (width, height, and depth) in the music, within which the instruments and vocalists are located.||Compressed. Muddy. Blurred.|
|Rhythm and Timing||Interaction of instruments. Tight. Controlled. Ordered.||Loose. Disjointed.|
|Dynamic Range||The difference in decibels between the loudest signal and the quietest audible sound. Emotion. Power. Subtlety. Excitement. Chills. Energy.||Thin. Weak. Flat.|
The nine characteristics above, much like this entire process, are going to be influenced heavily by your own perception and understanding. And certainly, none live in a vacuum, and the characteristics greatly influence each other. At first, it may all seem like too much information, or too subtle to perceive, but let me assure you that, with practice, things do become clear.
Better performers stand out from their peers. Start with the easy stuff like bass response and you’ll quickly notice which headphones are more or less adept.
Recommended Audio Tracks for Sound Quality Testing
As we discussed, nothing beats using the music you know and love, but sometimes we need a starting point. So I asked those hundred headphone enthusiasts what they listen to, and what they listen for, and assembled the list below based on their responses.
Link to our Spotify playlist: Headphonesty – Headphone Audio Quality Test Tracks
|Bassotronics||Bass I Love You||The Future Is Bas||Sub-bass|
|Explosions in the Sky||Losing the Light||The Wilderness||Sub-bass|
|Rasta x Coby||Mala||Single||0:26-3:40||Sub-bass||This song has really deep bass, and will sound like subwoofers on your ears on good headphones.|
|Scann-Tec||Snova | Snova||Unytt||2:40-2:55||Sub-bass||The perfect track to weed out less than stellar amps and headphones in the 20-30hz region.|
|Cage the Elephant||Ain't No Rest for the Wicked||Cage the Elephant||1:00||Bass|
|Daft Punk||Giorgio By Moroder||Random Access Memories||Bass||In the beginning, it is almost impossible to separate the bass, I haven't succeeded to hear the bass as it was meant to be heard.|
|Enigma||Sadness Pt 1||MCMXC a.D||Bass||There is a kick in the background which can sound muddled and hard to hear on bad systems.|
|Marvin Gaye||What's Going On||What’s Going on||Bass||That double bass in the background is really hard to get right... I still haven't heard it sounding right, despite it being OK sounding.|
|San Holo||They Just Haven't Seen It||New Sky||0:34-1:00, 2:48-3:41||Bass||A great song to test bass speed, this song has a really fast bass... Bad systems may not be fast enough at separating the bass in this song.|
|Lorn||Acid Rain||The Maze to Nowhere||Bass, Soundstage||Neat deep synth bass with some texture throughout, there are rain effects and finger-snap sounds that should sound like they're placed way out into the room.|
|Daniela Andrade||Crazy||Covers Vol. 2||Midrange||These are the only vocals that really gave me goosebumps because of the headphones it was playing out of and not the song itself (ZMF Verite for those curious).|
|JFDR||My Work||New Dreams||Midrange||Female vocals.|
|Radiohead||The National Anthem||Kid A||Midrange||Lots of details in mids, good mids are a requirement for this song.|
|Beatles||Come Together||Abbey Road||Treble||The treble on this song is hard to get right, and only almost flat response headphones will sound good with this song, especially in highs.|
|Bjork||Hunter||Homogenic||1:42||Treble, Midrange||Very powerful voice she has. Perfect for testing vocal and treble from the instruments.|
|Colonia||Red Light Zone||Vatra i led||Everything except the beginning||Treble||This song shows how detailed your treble is... It will also show if your headphones are too bright or not.|
|Katy Perry||Rise||Rise Remixes||0:59-1:36, 2:15-3:11||Treble||The treble on this song is really important and it shows how airy your treble is... With airy headphones, you'll get a sense of huge space, on non-airy headphones this song will be boring.|
|James Blake||Limit To Your Love||James Blake||0:55-end||Balance, Bass||Similar to Mala, but with more non-bass details to separate, could go for balance.|
|Lost Frequencies||Are You With Me||Are You With Me||Balance, Dynamic Range||Overall balance in this song, I even find this song having some dynamic range... For an EDM song this is weird... But I find a lot of tropical house songs having great dynamics.|
|Mamamoo||Decalcomanie||Memory||Balance, Treble||Throughout, it's Kpop's strongest vocalists diva-ing it out over a pretty thick background track for several minutes.|
|Skillrex||Bangarang||Bangarang||Balance, Treble, Bass, Detail||I don't particularly care for the song, but Bangarang by Skrillex is a go-to. The reason is the audio is literally everywhere, from soft/smooth noises to sharp snaps, all manner of bass and treble and mids going off separately. It's good to judge how the headphones are balanced, whether sibilance might be a prominent issue or not, how tight it is, separation of sounds, the speed/snap of planars/electrostats, and so on. It's often one of the earlier songs I'll choose to get an idea for how a headphone sounds.|
|The XX||Intro||XX||Balance||This song is an adventure with good headphones... Idk how to define this song, but it sounds "big" on good headphones that have bass.|
Detail and imaging
|Claudio Abbado,Lucerene Festival Orchestra||Mahler Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection||V. Im tempo des Scherzo - Mahler Symphony No. 2 / Debussy La Mer||29:10 - 33:48||Detail and Imaging, Separation||This section starts with a very soft choir passage, and eventually build up to a huge symphonic climax at the end.|
|Coldplay||Midnight (Kygo Remix)||Single||Detail and Imaging||This song is full of details, such a good production for an EDM song... Bass, mids and treble all seem to be done right.|
|Dire Straits||Love Over Gold||Love Over Gold||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage||Notice how the instruments are turning around you, in the front of you as well as behind you.|
|Ellie Goulding||High For This (Kygo Remix)||Single||Detail and Imaging||This song is full of details, such a good production for an EDM song... Bass, mids and treble all seem to be done right.|
|Deadmau5||Strobe||For Lack of a Better Name||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage||With a good pair of headphones, you will be taken to a 10 minute trip of relaxation and adventure, which is why this song is really popular in our community... Bad headphones? Nah, it will be bad.|
|Eagles||Hotel California||Hotel California||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage||These are great songs for testing the details, imaging, and soundstage by the way... This is due to their excellent production and overall quality.|
|Eagles||Wasted Time||Live at the Summit, Houston, Texas, 1976 (Fm Radio Broadcast)||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage||Excellent production and overall quality.|
|Eric Prydz||Opus||Opus||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage||Basically Strobe v2.|
|Evanescence||My Immortal||Fallen||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage, Midrange,||Instrument separation, vocal realism, soundstage|
|Pink Floyd||Money||The Dark Side of the Moon||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage||More great songs for testing the details, imaging, and soundstage due to their excellent production and overall quality.|
|Pink Floyd||Welcome to the Machine||Wish You Were Here||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage|
|Steely Dan||Negative Girl||Two Against Nature||Detail and Imaging, Soundstage, Bass, Sub-Bass||The descending bass-line intro will test how low you can go without roll-off, the imaging and sound-stage throughout.|
|Toto||I Will Remember||Tambu||Detail and Imaging||Intro and ending, there are constant ghost notes on loose snare drums, like the official music video shows drummer playing hitting the snare. This is barely heard when the audio compression are not standard. This rock ballad using very little amount of guitar playing, but has top-notch composition.|
|Above and Beyond||Satellite||Acoustic||5:15||Soundstage||Recorded in an orchestral hall, two drum sets in the beginning. You can really hear the space and where the instruments are in relation to the hall.|
|Alice In Chains||No Excuses (Unplugged)||MTV Unplugged||Soundstage, Imaging|
|Dire Straits||Money for Nothing||Brothers in Arms||0:00-1:00||Soundstage||It starts off in the back, but comes fast to the front of you... It shows you soundstage.|
|Nils Frahm||An Aborted Beginning||Spaces (Special Edition)||Soundstage||This is basically from an album that is all about soundstage, so yeah, this is a good song to test soundstage.|
|Nirvana||About a Girl||MTV Unplugged||Soundstage||Great soundstage, great overall production.|
|Sarah McLachlan||Elsewhere||The Freedom Sessions||Soundstage|
|Talking Heads||Burning Down the House||Speaking in Tongues||Last ¼||Soundstage||Depth and width of the soundstage, pay particular attention to the hand drums, the wind instruments are also a nice touch in the last 1/4 of the track.|
|Tchaikovsky||1812 Overture||TELARC Edition||12:01-15:00||Soundstage, bass response, and layering||They use actual cannons to record this song, and during this time period they fire cannons from different directions. In good layering earphones/headphones/speakers, the bass is impactful, yet do not cover up the rest of the music. You can also identify clearly where the cannons are being fired precisely in some good system, i.e. left/right, or even front/back, and the height.|
Rhythm and timing
|Bijelo Dugme||Bitanga i Princeza||Bitanga i Princeza||Rhythm and timing||This song is very rhythmic with great instrument separation.|
|Dire Straits||Sultans Of Swing||Dire Straits||Rhythm and timing||A bit faster than Bitanga.|
|Dream Theatre||Strange Deja Vu||Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory||Rhythm and timing||Throughout, lots of complicated drum and guitar lines, lots of shifting time signatures and rhythmic devices.|
|Dimitri Shostakovitch||Symphony No. 5 1st Movement||Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 and Festive Overture, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, 1998 Recording||Dynamic Range||It starts out very soft, turn it up so that it's comfortable, and... wait. At around the 7:30 mark a low percussive piano line begins with the french horns playing in their pedal register, there should be some impact from that piano and horn growl, and then it just builds and builds with more brass and percussion to a grotesque march at around 9:30 and then big brass takes over, before everything then slowly fades into softness again. Listen to it from beginning to end, if you don't get goosebumps I'll give you a full refund for your time spent.|
|Dire Straits||Man's Too Strong||Brothers in Arms||Dynamic Range||This song goes from really quiet to pretty loud, which can shock you at times.|
|Explosions in the Sky||Logic of a Dream||The Wilderness||0:53-1:57||Dynamic Range||The whole track is a step function.|
|Purity Ring||Heartsigh||Another Eternity||0:00-0:30||Dynamic Range||The very beginning has an amazing mix of build-up, treble, and then a punch to the bass. I feel like it also has a terrific soundstage that it sets up immediately. The first thirty seconds of the song usually tell me what I need to know.|
|John Rutter||Pie Jesu||Rutter: Requiem and 5 Anthems by Turtle Creek Choral||Dynamic Range, Balance, Sub-Bass||Throughout the song, most of it is a solo female vocal with choral backing and pipe organ pedal tones that dig down to 16hz.|
|Joseph Collier||Feel||Djesse Vol. 2||Dynamic Range, Soundstage, Midrange, Rhythm and Timing, Balance||This track contains so many elements one would need to compare differences between equipment. A great go-to track IMO.|
|Ramin Djawadi||Light of the Seven||Game of Thrones OST Season 6||Dynamic Range|
|Sinead O'Connor||The Last Day of our Acquaintance||I do not want what I have not got||2:30-4:30||Dynamic Range||This track has always been a favorite. Sinead slowly grows in intensity and emotion from a whisper, and when those drums kick in it is pure magic.|
Testing Other Aspects of Headphones
Unarguably, the most important aspect of testing headphones is in their ability to reproduce music. That is their very raison d’etre, after all. However, since we have to wear them, and we want them to last, things like the build quality and comfort also come into play and can’t be ignored.
For example, the HEDDphone, from Heinz Electrodynamic Designs (HEDD Audio) are undoubtedly one of the finest sounding pair of headphones I have ever had the pleasure of auditioning. Their unique AMT drivers convey incredible dynamics, a sense of space, and outstanding resolution. The build quality is exemplary, reminiscent of the luxury automobiles crafted in their German homeland.
Sounds perfect. Right?
At 718 grams (1.6 lbs) the HEDDphone are the most massive headphones I have ever encountered. Donning them almost doubles the width of your head, and long-term listening sessions require neck muscles rivaling The Rock. If somehow the weight was cut in half, they might be my end-game headphones. As is, they were a really fun loaner pair that I wasn’t too devastated to see returned.
When testing headphones, you have to look at the big picture. Ultimate sound quality isn’t the only thing to consider.
With headsets, microphone quality may be an important consideration for you. With Bluetooth headphones, codec support, signal range, stability, battery life, noise-canceling, and multi-point pairing are all aspects to be weighed in your decision.
Interpreting Frequency Response Graphs
While it is not possible to perform headphone measurements without specific (and often very expensive) testing equipment, more and more, you will find measurement graphs on packaging and included in reviews. What must be understood is that these graphs, while appearing like objective results, can easily be manipulated and subjectively interpreted in a variety of ways. For further detailed information on how I perform measurements, please check out this article.
In general, measurement graphs appear like the example above, where an audible frequency sweep tone (from low to high) is played at equal volume and a microphone captures the headphone’s ability to reproduce the sounds. The x-axis is the frequency and the y-axis is volume.
I’ve noted approximately where we delineate between bass, midrange, and treble frequencies. Additionally, the general location of where male and female voices also appear on the graph.
The equipment and usable range of the microphones will differ between testing rigs. Different hardware measurement setups do some things better (and worse) than others. The scale on the graph may be different between measurements, and the graph line may be more or less smoothed. A graph may be raw (unmodified) or compensation may be applied that alters the shape of the line depending on a particular target curve (Harman, diffuse field, etc).
None of these crucial elements are immediately evident by just looking at a graph.
Measurements are only comparable if performed on the same equipment using identical methodology. Otherwise, measurements can only be interpreted generally, such as if a particular frequency range is recessed or prominent.
Sound quality assessment often entails comparing new headphones to the ones that you know best. If a particular trusted website or reviewer has measured a headphone that you know well, then you are likely to gain some insight from their measurements of other headphones, as you can relate the measurement differences to the headphones you are familiar with. Remember though, that insight is limited to the data that the graph provides.
The objective proponents in this hobby place a lot of importance on measurement graphs. Ultimately however, it’s the subjective interpretation of the graphs that wins out, and at best, graphs should only be used as a small piece of all the available information on a pair of headphones. The graphs tell us almost nothing about all those important musical nuances we were listening for (soundstage, detail and imaging, rhythm and timing, dynamic range, etc).
It turns out that the only way to test headphones is to put them on your head and listen to them.
Shocking, I know! It’s that sort of revelation and wisdom that you read my articles to receive!
Seriously though, there’s no replacement for experience. The more headphones you listen to, the more you will understand your own preferences, and what to listen for. Starting with a basic app that plays an audio spectrum sweep is an easy first step to identify boosted or missing frequencies. But then it’s time to put on some jams and listen.
Really listen. Identify the parts of the songs that you know best. Where the bass note seems impossibly low. Where you hear the intake of breath of the singer before they start to sing or when you can hear the sounds of their fingers on the strings. Listen to see if you can locate the position of each band member on stage. Listen for the quietest sounds you can identify building into a crescendo of sound.
Give our list of test tracks a listen while reading the comments. See if you can identify what the original poster hears in the music. Immerse yourself in some of the lingo and descriptive terms for audio. Start identifying your favorite songs that illustrate those audio characteristics. Most importantly, decide what you like best in music, and what’s most important to you.
Some listeners will be ‘all about that bass,’ while others will prioritize an expansive soundstage, or vocal warmth, or a zillion other aspects in music reproduction. There is no right or wrong answer. And it’s why there’s no single ‘best headphones ever’ award, or anything but the ‘best sounding headphones’ FOR YOU.
You’ll always be comparing new headphones to your current favorites. And don’t let anyone tell you differently, but our collective audio memory is terrible. The guy that says “I haven’t heard those headphones for a while, but I listened to them once in a store, and this is how they sound and compare,” is not to be trusted.
You need to swap back and forth between headphones, listening to the same song, and from the same source, in order to reliably identify differences. We’re really good at fooling ourselves into believing something instead of hearing it.
My advice? Listen. Really listen. Then decide what the best headphones are for you.