What is the most challenging music to play on a stereo?

If you really wanted to test the ability of a stereo, what type of music would you choose?


Vocalists. Any genre. Do the male voices suffer from a buzzy midrange distortion? Or do they sound rich, clear and authentically human?  Are the sibilants spitty or hashy?  Or are they just like you hear when somebody's talking to you? The same goes for saxophones.

Big Band Jazz and Romantic Era Orchestral music can be good tests, as well. Big Band can test the system's ability to punch. Classical has a good chance of showing off a system's ability to create spaciousness and a believable soundstage.


For a long time, I wondered why folks that were into classical had the most expensive systems…. by a lot. An orchestra goes from playing a single instrument at near the level of perception to the entire orchestra overwhelming the ears to differentiate the wall of sound and everything in between. After having season tickets to a great symphony orchestra for over ten years… no question… classical.

I would agree with @ghdprentice that overall, a classical symphony is the biggest challenge. But as I do not listen nor attend a lot of classical music, I use piano and vocals as my “challenge” for a system, as I am very familiar with many vocals and what a piano should sound like.


Rock ----three guitars, drums and organ.  It is great to listen to in the car but not on a great sound system.  

A grand piano is a brutal test, especially for loudspeakers and phono cartridges. As the pianists hands descend down the keyboard, does the timbre and tonality of the instrument change? A very dynamic piano performance that has been well recorded is a real challenge for phono cartridges. The sound of stylus mistracking is extremely amusical.

Another is densely recorded large ensembles of either singers (as in choirs) or orchestras. How much inner detail can you hear? For great recordings of choirs (and pipe organs), look for LP’s on the Ark label, recorded by speaker designer Robert Fulton. Beautiful, delicate voices captured in very natural sound, each voice clearly separate from the others. And Robert captured the huge "shuddering" sound of pipe organs in large spaces (cathedrals), the sound of the lowest bass pedals more felt than heard (assuming the system plays that low. The 32 ft. pipe produces a 16Hz tone!)

J.Gordon Holt’s first priority in h-fi was reproducing the human voice free of what he called "vowel coloration", a term I immediately understood when I first read it. Many (most?) loudspeakers fail this test miserably. I recorded my 2 year old son's voice using a small diaphragm condenser mic plugged straight into a Revox A77 to use for loudspeaker evaluations. Talk about a brutal test!

Two channel stereo is an irretrievably broken format limited to the typical music you hear played at hifi shows (lame). A system has to be painstakingly assembled at high cost and will generally sound acceptable in only one spot in a room, the "sweet" spot.

Scrap this sham and start over with an immersive audio system.

Click the link below for more info:

Audio Engineer explains why "Why Dolby Atmos is Definitely Going to Supersede Stereo"

We’ve been waiting for a replacement for stereo for decades,” says Jan ’Stan’ Kybert, the engineer responsible for installing the Dean St. Studios facility. “It’s an ancient technology. With music you want to feel something, like with a Saturday night or Sunday morning record. They make me feel ‘Saturday night’ or ‘Sunday morning’. That feeling has been lost with stereo now, and it’s not stereo’s fault, but with Dolby Atmos that feeling is there. It’s bigger, more exciting and wants to make you move, be more intimate, more relaxed or whatever. Everything it does it does it on a richer level.”

I'd use the type of music that I listen to, which is rock. I don't care about a system's ability to play Diana Krall etc etc etc 

badly recorded music over classical. Classical recordings tend to be well done and so they can sound decent and enjoyable on even cheaper systems. Then there is sound chaos that sounds sweet on a car radio but need a lot of tweaking on a serious home hifi setup to avoid headache and ear-bleed. 


Vocalists. Any genre. Do the male voices suffer from a buzzy midrange distortion? Or do they sound rich, clear and authentically human? Are the sibilants spitty or hashy?


Vocals are the most challenging. We hear human voices every day for a reference. Do they sound natural in your system? (Allowing for a slight touch of reverb.)

For something different, visit a piano dealer. While someone playing, listen from 5 ft away. 15 ft away. 25 ft away. It will be educational.

Getting both vocals and a grand piano right would the ultimate success.


FYI, there is a global listening party for Metallica's new album in movie theaters being played in Dolby Atmos on Thursday April 13th, don't miss it:


To me, it's all about the recording technique/mixing, etc. But in general, I would say piano.

It depends on what you are testing. There is no one genre that does it all. In terms of low bass performance nothing beats the right organ piece. In terms of imaging nothing beats a great string quartet recording. In terms of dynamic performance, percussion pieces and NIN. If you want to get a divorce, Slipknot. 

CD’s (lp’s are subject to any possible/minor alignment errors, a particular cartridge’s sound). (turn your ac system off).

Vocals: I listen at home; take these CDs to Showrooms; then listen again at home.

There are dynamic portions, but I want to hear Richard Burton’s voice. It is easy to ’know’ if it is ’off’.


Next, Barbra Streisand/Donna Summers Duet: No More Tears. The similarities and subtle differences of their voices is amazingly revealing.


Next, my beloved Cassandra Wilson, her voice better be ’right’.


Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams: lots going on, sparkling highs and fading footsteps, channel separation, and again her voice better be right.



Dynamics/Range/Extension: this can be a trap, accurate may not be best for your ears/room/pleasure. One way to be objective is to play test CD, and measure/document with a SPL meter rather than your ears. Test CD, at listening position, ear level. Make a chart, write results down.


Amazing Bytes Test Tones, tracks 9 to 38


there are others, luckily I got this when it was free, expensive now.

Extension: same thing, it can be a trap, more might not be best.

My JSE Infinite Slope Model II were always impressive at shows, finally got a pair, they were the most accurate speakers I ever owned (my friend has them now, restored). Joseph Audio uses some of the original Modafferri patents now)


But, after a while I missed the sound of my less accurate vintage 4 way horns, with L-Pads to adjust for/in the room and for your particular preferences. (hard to get right, but when you do ,,,)

Canons ....boom, but balanced to other frequencies?





Pipe organ music with long sustained lower octave notes is a serious challenge to a system 

I would imagine something like death metal or the rap music that you hear coming out of cars that have the 60" subwoofers.

Plenty of good suggestions - but here is my question - what design in your equipment should you seek to eliminate all of your issues?

Happy Listening.

Tonality - Human Voice. Male or female, It shouldn't sound tubby, chesty, cupped, or nasal, Emmy Lou Harris Eva Cassidy, Aaron Neville, Mark Knopfler (His voice turns to mud on a lot of systems)

Dynamics - A big symphony, Beethoven's 9th is the first that comes to mind

Detail - Acoustic guitar. Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. "Beyond The Missouri Sky"

Soundstage - Any well recorded live album, regardless of genre, classical, jazz, rock. Dan Hicks "Where's The Money" on a goodsystem will put you in The Troubador circa 1972. The first time I ever heard Magneplanar Tympani IIIs biamped with Audio Research D-76s and D52s with this album was life changing.


The most challenging anything to do it that which you do not like. Polka? @elliottbnewcombjr  glad you are still here, you seemed pretty down the other day 

A wide variety of non-audiophile records. You want to hear the shortcomings, where the illusion fails. Something that is demanding on bass will not reveal midrange anomalies and vice-versa.  

I recall decades ago Bud Fried(IMF and Fried speakers) told me the hardest instruments to get right in order are male voice, female voice and piano. Voice because we are so familiar with it and male voice is harder because it goes lower than female where speakers often do poorly. Piano because it is wildly dynamic, sudden peaks of 39 dB and more. So I would find opera with both voices and and orchestra to reproduce and separateerful choice. and a powerful piano concerto another pow

To my ears the more resolving the stereo is, the harder rock is to play at louder levels. Distorted guitars come off as grating in many recordings from the decades that rock and roll dominated the airwaves. In the 70s and 80s most of this music was recorded nearfield and optimized for auto radio play. This also caused poor bass recording. Some of the newer rock recordings have steered towards a more audiophile recording mentality. Examples... Nothing but Thieves / Broken Machine and Chevelle / Niratias. I use equalization in my system to add bass and smooth grating higher frequencies in many older rock recordings and bypass the e.q. when not needed.

what design in your equipment should you seek to eliminate all of your issues?

Change all to most and I would say get a system that uses a minimum of a dedicated center channel and two subwoofers ( a 3.2 setup) instead of just two channels. Even Frank Sinatra used a center channel:

Frank Sinatra's Classic Hi-Fi System | KCRW Music Blog


@edcyn   Vocalists. Any genre. Do the male voices suffer from a buzzy midrange distortion? Or do they sound rich, clear and authentically human? Are the sibilants spitty or hashy?



Vocals are the most challenging. We hear human voices every day for a reference. Do they sound natural in your system? (Allowing for a slight touch of reverb.)

Big +1.

Vocal has to be the most challenging music to play on a stereo. Vocals in any audio system, regardless of cost, are far back away and empty void. I visited many audio shows hoping ultra expensive audio systems might be close to the original music. But nothing was really even similar to the real music. So, I made Wavetouch audio system that produces human voice sounds like the human voice.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaBy9CcGoTE

Alex/Wavetouch audio

@roxy54    You nailed it.  Massed violins.  Far too often they sound like mush, even on costly systems.  Especially on digital.  It seems the digits have trouble resolving multiple HF sounds that are all playing the same tune.  If you can hear individual instruments on your system then it's tops.

After that, solo piano.  Does it sound like a piano?  Too often, not entirely.  However, poor piano sound is often down to the recording.  Miking a piano is very difficult.  Too many close mike.  That is not what is required.

Those who said 'vocals' are incorrect.  The human voice has tones in the middle, easy part of the range.  Most systems reproduce them realistically.

Iron maiden.  Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, at full volume pushing to and maybe right up to over over 110db..

The Cd's I audition with are:

1. Classical - 1812 Overture - Sir George Solti - Chicago Symphony Orchestra - London Decca - 417-400-2 [Full orchestral range, plus bells and canon booms]

2.  Joan Baez Greatest hits - in particular "Diamonds and Rust")  - A & M Records - CD - 0510

3.  Sarah McLachlan - Wintersong - Arista records - 82876 - 81504 - 2

Mumblecore or solo zither. Or maybe anything you're familiar with? It doesn't matter what sort of music you play to test a rig other than you know what the hell it's supposed to sound like, and can then judge if the rig is playing it accurately. 

It's just like movies, you'll never learn anything about movies by watching the best movies ever made you'll learn a lot about movies by watching bad ones. Listen to poorly recorded music distortion that couldn't be fixed see if the speaker reproduces distortion well  (that's hard). Square waves, industrial "music" that is blown out, is a great test.

I agree/forgot Piano,

1st a great piano RECORDING (hard to get right), then how does it sound?

Solo Piano

String Quartet

Female Voice.

Many, if not most systems have problems with sibilance. Female voice and violins commonly bring this out. Only the great systems can cruise through these without biting. Great does not mean expensive. I just heard a system built around Harbeth P3s that was wonderful. Piano due to it's complexity and sustain.

A good RECORDING is the best bet. Since all recordings are "processed" in some way by the time we get them, I would seek out something by Mayorga or other direct-to-disc recordings since they are the least processed. Loving to hear Baez do Diamods and Rust is nice, but how much "stuff" was done to the recording to get that voice so crystal clear and those dynamics so balanced?

As I was told all my life when trying to decide something, CONSIDER THE SOURCE...

To each their own, but I would start with a quality recording and go from there.


I have found over the years that a great test of a hi fi system is music that combines four things: full bodied vocals ( solo & harmonies), acoustic stringed instruments ( like acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, stand up bass etc), amplified instruments like guitar, bass guitar , keyboards) & drums.  Not many systems can do this well at realistic volumes in a decent sized room especially when these sound components are all playing together. These very varied sounds & dynamic shadings often tend to get pushed together & loose their inner detail & nuance. 

A perfect example of this are the first two Jackson Browne albums which both sound very good on Qobuz if a good album copy is not available. 

Metallica’s Hardwired... to Self-Destruct album is like a tester for any system ability, you can check almost everything including very important index of dynamic range, however this Album-tester is not for tube based amps, very few of them could handle that kind of dynamic. 

The Chariots of Fire theme by Vangelis is one I play for others. Love it !

Happy listening 

Definitely vocals - trying to make Tiny Tim's voice sound better is definitely a step in the right direction

Your system and the music you play on it can be the very best money can buy and still fall very short if your room acoustics suck. Over the many years that I spent chasing the best sound the one and only real lesson I learned was to get your listening room properly tuned to your ears and the system playing the music you enjoy. Every room is different and a simple change of your listening position or speaker placement can make a huge difference. Softening the room so you eliminate reflective noise is probably the most beneficial change you could make. Most of us are not able to dedicate that much space and design engineering to our rooms yet we spend massive amounts of money on our systems. You can put a Hemi engine in a VW but that does not make it any better. Get your room right. 


Over the many years that I spent chasing the best sound the one and only real lesson I learned was to get your listening room properly tuned to your ears and the system playing the music you enjoy.


A now deceased friend who was very wealthy built a gorgeous home and began setting up a very fine system with MacIntosh pushing the power. I don't  remember all the peripherals but it certainly was big bucks all the way. He was never happy and asked me over for some advice. OMG, it was horrible!

People who live in glass houses should never seek great sound. The entire front of his living room was thick plate glass 12 feet high and probably 40 feet across. The music he enjoyed got lost chasing each other around the entire room. Much against his partners  chagrin I told him to have heavy drapes installed that he could close when he wanted to sit and listen. He did what I said and they both hated it but he invited me back after the installation. You can't have your cake and eat it! They wanted to have the view while listening. When he drew the drapes, probably about a $20K install, his system came to life and became fully satisfying to both of them and me. The moral is, before you go spending gobs of money fixing your system, spend some time and effort fixing your room. Very possibly you will find it Fugly but it sure could sound way better.

You should play the music YOU LIKE!!  

I don't care one whit how opera sounds, because I hate opera!!  Some of the best sounding new music made today is country, but I hate country music too!  I love 80's synth pop and rock, so my system better make that sound real good.

And then there's always Steely Dan!!