How Good Are Your Headphones? This 150-Song Playlist, Featuring Steely Dan, Pink Floyd & More, Will Test Them Out

Pho­to via Adaman­tios at Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Back in the Mad Men hey­day of high-end home stereo, audio­philes could buy records full of sound-but-not-exact­ly-music, specif­i­cal­ly engi­neered to test the lim­its of — or sim­ply show off — their per­son­al sys­tems. Less tech­ni­cal­ly obses­sive but still proud hi-fi own­ers could drop the nee­dle on one of the albums known almost as well for the rich­ness of its sound as the artistry of its music, such as Frank Sina­tra’s In the Wee Small Hours or Charles Min­gus’ Min­gus Ah Um. The web­site, What Hi-Fi?, includes both of those 1950s land­marks on their list of twelve of the best vinyl test records, which goes on to men­tion Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Talk­ing Heads’ Remain in Light, and Radio­head­’s In Rain­bows, all worth a lis­ten no mat­ter your set­up.

But what if you lis­ten, as so many of us in the 21st cen­tu­ry do, not on vinyl through speak­ers but on dig­i­tal data inter­net-streamed through head­phones? Spo­ti­fy (whose free soft­ware you can down­load here) has assem­bled a 150-song playlist designed to give you a sense of how well those head­phones are serv­ing you, bring­ing togeth­er the work of such audio-con­scious artists as the afore­men­tioned Neil Young (a vocal crit­ic of today’s music for­mats), David Bowie, Suzanne Vega (known as “the Moth­er of the MP3”), Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and those con­sum­mate stu­dio genius­es Steely Dan (albeit not “Dea­con Blues,” long their audio­phile-pre­ferred stereo-test­ing song). Mixed in with the big­ger names, you’ll also hear from musi­cians less wide­ly known but no less ded­i­cat­ed to craft­ing rich and var­ied sound­scapes.

You don’t have to be Neil Young, though, to object to the very premise of the playlist, argu­ing that inter­net-streamed music, which first under­goes dig­i­ti­za­tion and com­pres­sion, can offer noth­ing but a bad­ly sub­stan­dard lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence — let alone when through a pair of head­phones, and often cheap ear­buds at that. But as all the best record­ing and mix­ing engi­neers know today, you should­n’t release an album unless you’ve first lis­tened to it close­ly through some­thing hum­bler than your ultra-high-end stu­dio mon­i­tors or fan­cy pro­fes­sion­al head­phones, mak­ing sure it sounds accept­able on every­thing all the way down to lap­top and cell­phone speak­ers. Bear in mind, a music fan who’s nev­er giv­en a thought to audio qual­i­ty might well, when they’ve test­ed their cheap ear­buds with this nev­er­the­less son­i­cal­ly scin­til­lat­ing playlist, find them­selves want­i­ng to hear not just more, but bet­ter.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Steely Dan Wrote “Dea­con Blues,” the Song Audio­philes Use to Test High-End Stere­os

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

Suzanne Vega, “The Moth­er of the MP3,” Records “Tom’s Din­er” with the Edi­son Cylin­der

Neil Young on the Trav­es­ty of MP3s

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • TToz says:

    Yeah, you real­ly do not have to be Neil Young to clear­ly real­ize that Spo­ti­fy SUCKS big time. I mean, let’s be seri­ous, it does not even take Flac files and good sound cards to real­ize how crap­py their sound qual­i­ty is. Just take a 320 kbps MP3 file (that has been con­vert­ed from an orig­i­nal Flac source) and com­pare it with Spo­ti­fy and you will just real­ize how ter­ri­ble the qual­i­ty is. You don’t need no spe­cial head­phones to real­ize that.

  • Peter Wray says:

    Hey — inter­est­ing arti­cle and I’m going to start lis­ten­ing to the playlist as soon as I have a few hours — maybe days — free. I’m won­der­ing if any­one can elab­o­rate on how these songs were select­ed and why they were specif­i­cal­ly select­ed for head­phone lis­ten­ing.


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