It takes more than a good set of ears to identify great sound. To evaluate the wireless speakers and headphones in our Ratings, the guys in our test lab (photographed above) use musical tracks that spotlight the qualities found in a top-notch sound system. To help you perform your own tests, they agreed to create a sample playlist, complete with links to each performer's official YouTube page, so you can hear for yourself the specific details cited in each song.
Before you snatch up your wallet and rush off to the store, though, track down good audio files. YouTube might have launched the careers of Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen, but the site's videos are not going to win any awards for sound quality.
We suggest that you start with a WAV, AAC, or MP3 file at a bit rate of 256k or higher. (An original CD will do, as well.) If you're shopping for in-ear headphones, make certain they're positioned properly in each ear so they seal the music in and the white noise out. And, finally, keep the volume at the same level throughout your tests. That's the only way to fairly assess each product.
If possible, consider bringing two music sources, too. With two smartphones, for example, you can quickly shift from one speaker to the next to compare the sound quality.
So what songs made our great sound system playlist?
Led Zeppelin: “Whole Lotta Love”
On excellent audio equipment, you’ll notice an echo throughout the whole song, not just on the part where Jimmy Page sings, "Woman, you need love." And, if the speakers are set up correctly, allowing you to position yourself midway between them, essentially forming the peak of an imaginary equilateral triange, the song's trippy soundboard sound effect will begin to circle your head, demonstrating the magic of proper channel separation.
Check out the stretch between 3:00 and 3:15 in this YouTube video of the song.
Ingrid Michaelson: “The Way I Am”
In the simple arrangement of this love song from the album “Girls and Boys," you should be able to hear the sound of fingers moving along strings, Michaelson's breath between the lines, even the singer's lips opening and closing as she forms the words in the lyrics.
Check out the stretch between :45 and 1:15 in this YouTube video of the song.
Diane Schuur: “Travelin’ Light”
Listen carefully to this live recording, from “Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra," and you can actually hear the vocals and the horns resound off the walls of the performance space.
Check out the stretch between 1:35 and 2:35 on this YouTube video of the song.
Fabio Biondi, Europa Galant: “RV315 L’Estate: III. Tempo Impetuoso d’Estate (Summer in G)”
The strings in this Vivaldi piece, from “Le Quattro Stagioni (Vivaldi—The Four Seasons)," are being played at breakneck speed, but on a quality sound system, each note will be distinct. On average equipment, by contrast, everything blends together, making the audio sound somewhat slurred.
Check out all 2:30 on this YouTube video of the song.
Dixie Chicks: “Sin Wagon”
On better equipment, the guitar, fiddle, and cymbals in this busy arrangement, from “Fly,” will each be easy to hear. On lesser models, those same instruments will lack definition.
Check out the stretch between 2:50 and 3:15 on this YouTube video of the song.
Eidtor's Note: This article was adapted from the July 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.