At CNET we test audio gear all the time, and rock music is essential for hearing what a speaker, soundbar or amp can do. Here you'll find some of my favorite songs for testing audio devices. From singer-songwriter confessions to dance floor jams to music for your 3 a.m. listening session, there's something for every music fan. And every music system.
If Alt-J's 3WW had a chocolate bar equivalent, it would be Cadbury's Marvelous Creations: it too fuses disparate elements together -- chocolate, pop rocks and jelly beans -- into a surprising whole. The track's deep bass bed is a test for smaller speakers in particular, and details such as the subtle shaker egg can test how well your system unravels musical elements.
Australian "world music" aficionados Dead Can Dance crafted one of the best songs of their careers in Yulunga (Spirit Dance). It's no pop song -- more a 7-minute vocal drone -- but it's so lovely that you'll want to listen to the very end. The best-sounding systems can deliver a massive sense of space and ensure the various drums boom and shake without losing control.
You can tell straight away from the "alien saxophonist standing on a lake" cover that this isn't your typical po-faced jazz record. So where does Kamasi Washington's triple album Heaven and Earth go next? With a fantastic bossa nova cover of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury theme of course! This huge-sounding track is danceable, as the best jazz should be, and includes lots of little details such as the percussion mixed to the extremes of the sound stage. If you're mulling over this or Charlie Parker's "lost" album Both Directions at Once, get this one. The future of jazz is in Washington's good hands.
The future of rock and roll is not yet another band that sounds like Led Zeppelin, it is ceaseless experimentation, of blending different sounds and genres into new forms. Today, this is artists like St Vincent, Alt-J and Mitski. Mitski's Your Best American Girl may be the most straightforward "rock" track on her modern masterpiece Puberty 2, but it's also the most affecting. It mixes quiet and loud in a way that hasn't been done this well since the Pixies invented it, and it blends this with haunting vulnerability. Listen for the click track at the start followed by her little "hmph." Note: This is a pretty stringent test for bright systems -- the distorted vocals of the chorus may upset audiophiles, but if your system can play this song without you wanting to turn it off, it can play anything.
Like most Iron and Wine records He Lays in the Reins is impeccably recorded. You can almost imagine Sam Beam confessing into a sea shell at the Grand Ole Opry while the band plays around him. Listen for details like the right-speaker shaker egg and the surprise appearance of an opera singer at the 1:45 mark.
If you can only use one song to test a new stereo system or pair of headphones, let it be this Nick Cave track. Listen to how the vocals mix with the similarly deep bass line -- both should be intelligible. A sufficiently detailed system will even highlight the occasional "backmasked" echo effects on some of Cave's lines.
Fifty years after the both the 13th Floor Elevators and the Beatles broke up, the psychedelic music they helped invent is still alive and well. The Oh Sees have released an album a year through most of the 2000s, and if you like your rock a bit weird and a bit heavy, Smote Reverser is an excellent place to start.
Sentient Oona starts with a pair of natural-sounding drum kits in the left and right channels, and slowly builds to some guitar histrionics and Hammond B3 SKROOOONKs!!. The lead guitar at 1:33 is pretty bright, but if it makes you want to leave the room or throw off your headphones you might want to try and temper the midrange somehow. Try a rug or some smoother-sounding headphones.
This song is not only catchy and good fun, but it's also our go-to treble response test here at CNET. It features prominent left and right tambourines which, on a well-balanced system, sit in the middle of the mix while on a bright system will sound like a percussion solo.
One of the simplest songs on this list -- just Ben Harper and his acoustic guitar. With a good pair of speakers, it sounds like Harper is in the room with you, and it's kind of eerie. On a couple of occasions Harper moves his head slightly and you can hear the vocals phase or "lose focus" for a moment.
Not an audiophile recording by any stretch -- it's straight rock 'n' roll record -- but what you're listening for are the titular vocals in the chorus. Are they steely and distorted? While some people like the heightened presence boost that speakers such as the Revel Concerta 2 can bring, they can make pop tracks like this well-nigh unlistenable.
The live version of this song was a staple of FM radio, but the studio cut is tighter and arguably funkier. That bass drum is the real tester here, deep and yet punchy at the same time. It will sort out flabby-sounding speakers and wireless subs pretty quickly.
This funky song kicks along amiably for its first two-and-a-half minutes but after that the real test begins -- a descending bass synth scale ending on low D (37Hz). Listen here for the vocals and percussion effects; are they clear, or is the bass overtaking everything else? Is each note in the scale the same volume, or do some sound soft or blow out? If they waver, it means that your system is accentuating some bass notes at the expense of others.
What is that percussion effect in the left channel? Is it a pair of tapped knees, Buddy Holly-style? Or is it, as is the popular theory, an instrument case? This is not an audiophile recording -- there's too much reverb for that -- but it's an enjoyable song nonetheless, especially when the chorus kicks in.
Audiophile pop recordings are still alive and well even if Random Access Memories feels a little out of time. The hit track Get Lucky is the danciest song on the album and a system with tight bass and an expressive midrange will present it at its best.
One of the most intimate vocal recordings in the whole of the Pixies' seven-album catalog. If you listen with headphones or with a set of speakers with a decent soundstage, you'll hear that the vocals are not mixed in the middle like most records but at the right (Kim Deal) and left (Black Francis' yelps). The song's full-range electric guitars (and background tinkling piano) are also a great gauge of irregular frequency bumps.
Volumes have already been written about this album and its final track. Nevertheless, this is arguably one of the best songs ever written, and the 2017 remix by Giles Martin presents it in the best light possible. Come for John Lennon's snarky lyrics and stay for the squeaky chair at the end.
Is this Andrew Bird's most poppy song yet? With tight production and typically oblique lyrics Puma is a great test of your system's ability to produce punchy bass while keeping the rest of the frequency range in check.
Bohemian Rhapsody, Stairway to Heaven, Thick as a Brick. Ever wonder why "they don't make 'em like they used to?" Well, they do, they just don't get on the radio anymore. Super Furry Animals' Receptacle For The Respectable, Mastodon's The Czar and The Decemberists' The Island are just three more modern examples. Steven Wilson's 12-minute song cycle neatly bridges both the new and old prog epics with ultracrisp production and tight musicianship.