No matter the car, I’d say that a vehicle’s sound system is one of the most important factors in its daily livability. A bad stereo can make or break a car, that’s why the aftermarket has been consistently coming in to save our metaphorical aural asses for the past 30 years or so. Sometimes it takes a minute to figure out what a sound system is capable of, whether it’s stock or upgraded. But to have the most fun appreciating a car system’s capability, you’ve got to have a great audio-test tracklist.
A sound system could do great with the pulsating beats of the latest pop hits, but then not render all the instrumentality and the sublattices of a sultry jazz tune. Whatever the case, we here at The Drive have come up with a list of tunes generated from the lot us driving hundreds of press and personal vehicles, that’ll put even the most expensive sound system through its paces. A sort of sound system, slalom, if you will. Here's a diverse set of musical ideas from the test-driving staff; you can open this playlist in Spotify (sans just a couple of tracks) at this link or scroll down to the bottom of this post where it's embedded.
Course A: James Gilboy’s multi-layered, complicated music
“Stuff like Equilibrium's Mana really tests how well sound systems handle layered instrumentals. Surprise, few of them do,” said my colleague James Gilboy. He’s right. Music is complicated stuff, this playlist has a variety of tunes from different genres, but one thing in common is that they have complicated, multi-layered instrumentation that some systems, might just mangle.
Course B: Kevin Williams’s low-fi course with bass that’s way fuller than it appears
I listen to a lot of electronic, house-inspired music. These songs are heavy on the 808 or 707 kicks, which are bass-heavy, and use nuanced samples of dubious quality that may get lost in translation on sound systems that can’t render all that obscure sample goodness. This selection of tracks is a good test of how well a sound system can render out the lower range of music, along with the highs of a not-so-good sample.
Course C: Tony Markovich’s rap and hip-hop challenge
Rap and hip-hop are always a good test of what a sound system can do. Tony’s course has sample-heavy music, complete with rappers, singers, and lots of subtle aural tricks in the backing track that can easily be lost or muddled in less good sound systems.
- Rae Sremmurd - Touchscreen Navigation
- Mac Miller - Programs
- Isaiah Rashad - Headshots (4r Da Locals)
- Jay Rock - King's Dead (ft. Future, Kendrick Lamar, and James Blake)
Course E: Jonathon Klein’s mega list of jams
When in doubt, throw everything but the kitchen sink at the stereo, right? Jonathan’s mega list of absolute bangers ranges from funky nasty pop R&B, to hip-hop, to sad emotional ballads, with some metalcore thrown in for good measure.
- Cardi B - I Like It
- Justice - Canon
- RTJ - Legend Has It
- Tyler Childers - Nose to the Grindstone
- Christone "Kingfish" Ingram - The Thrill is Gone
- Hugh Laurie - St. James Infirmary
- Tom Misch - It Runs Through Me
- Big Boi - Chocolate
- Hans Zimmer - Time
- Love - Everybody's Gotta Live
- Childish Gambino - Bonfire
- Ginuwine - Pony
- Pennywise - Affliction
- Pumpkin & Vin's Da Cuero - Louder
- Ice Nine Kills - Funeral Derangements
Course F: Hazel Southwell’s huge surround sound
Big sounds and lots of instrumental and sound movement is the name of Hazel’s two-song list. Hazel says that Staring In The Sun has a big surround sound, whereas Girls Aloud’s drum n bass inspired beats should be a real speaker test.
Course G: Robbie Bacon’s Rock, rock, and more rock (and some not rock, too)
Rock’s also a complicated genre, full of drums, guitars, and other instruments that can easily be mangled by less-than-stellar sound system. Oh, and there are some non-rock tracks in there, too.
Finale Course: The rest
Lewin Day: Get Free - Major Lazer. “Amazing melodies in this which really shine on a system with good clarity in the higher frequency range.”
Kristen Lee: The full Interstellar (2014) soundtrack.
Patrick George: “All of Random Access Memories, by Daft Punk.”
Stef Schrader: “One of my friends used Kim Petras' "Demons" for this and I immediately had to download the whooole [Turn Off The Light] album for the same reason. Then there's the familiarity test of '90s country... It's not particularly technical for a sound system, but if "Chattahoochee" sounds bad, I'm throwing the entire sound system in the lake."
Peter Nelson: “All of Sugar’s Copper Blue, but especially the song Changes.”
Andrew P. Collins: This Matoma remix of Notorious B.I.G.'s Old Thing Back (feat. Ja Rule and Ralph Tresvant) is so juicy; absolutely delightful to crank. It's also absolutely filthy so don't put this track on if your young kids or conservative grandma's in the car with you. But I did once get some validation on this suggestion as a stereo tester — I actually got to play it for a sound engineer at Capitol Records who agreed, indeed, it's a fun song to try through a sweet system.
Bonus: Scientific recommendations
In 2021 Car and Driver printed a list of audio-appreciation tracks recommended by Mark Armitage, head of the acoustical-engineering team at Bose's Michigan field office. You can check that out here.
Cambridge Audio has a page dedicated to songs recommended for testing hi-fi systems which you might also find interesting.
We’ve got a pretty wide selection of genres, tests, and songs to put a car’s sound system through its paces. Pick a song, and get to testing, y’all. And of course, leave us some more suggestions in the comments!