How to get the best headphone sound for you

Best headphone sound: male hands holding generic headphones
(Image credit: Philips)

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.

Best headphone sound: male wearing headphones

(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 Teardrop 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.

Next: Sony's WH-1000XM4 headphones are great — here's how I made them sound even better.

Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.