Hello and welcome to the complete guide to headphone equalizers – how & why.
In this article we enlighten the topic around headphone equalizers. We begin by discussing what problems they solve for audiophiles and audio professionals. Then we look into hardware EQ’s vs software EQ’s and finally how you can apply them manually or automatically. Let’s start out by asking the question:
We use headphone equalizers to solve a problem. Those problems may vary in accordance with the motivation you towards the music you are listening to. Here are the two main categories of people and the individual problems they face with headphones.
If you look at the frequency response chart for typical headphones you come to realise that they are everything but flat. There are a variety of reasons to why that is:
For once, the proximity of headphones to your ear lead to an increase in perceived high frequencies. High frequencies, while traveling through the air, lose energy faster compared to low frequencies. Consequently, the closer you are to a speaker the louder the higher frequencies. To counterbalance that phenomenon many headphone manufactures work with a high-frequency roll-off.
Another reason is the simple fact that bass sells. On headphones we don’t feel the bass as much as we do with a good set of speakers. To give a pleasant bass experience nonetheless, some headphone producers boost the bass response accordingly.
As some headphones fail to reproduce the lowest bass frequencies, the manufacturer compensates by boosting the higher bass frequencies. That too can lead to an imbalance in sound.
A flat frequency response curve means that the sound is neutral or in other words, that which you hear is as close to the actual sound as possible. As a mixing engineer or music producers working with the actual sound is essential. Would you wear coloured glasses while painting a picture? No, of course not. Similarly, you don’t want to wear coloured headphones while mixing. Imagine you mix a track on your headphones and it sounds great to your ears. Later, you go up to a local DJ and ask him to play your mix. Too your surprise it sounds horrible! The lows are too weak and the highs hurt in your ears. Why? Your headphones have a slight bass boost and a roll of at the highs. You mixed accordingly but on every other sound system it just doesn’t bite. What a bummer.
Most Headphones are designed to be used a wide variety of music genres. You on the other hand are only listening to your favorite genre and find that the headphones are not ideal for your genre. For example, the EDM music producer you like mixes aggressive highs. The headphones you bought recently also have a bump in the higher frequency range. Now the mix sounds too harsh for your ears.
The other reason to use a headphone EQ as an audiophile is to sculpt the frequency response according to your personal taste. You can’t get enough of that 50-100 Hz range? You want more presence in the mids? You shall have it! In the end your personal preference is what truly counts.
Lastly you might want to change the frequency curve due to personal impairments. Maybe your right ear is less responsive to high frequencies due to intensive smartphone use. Also, for many people there are age related changes in our hearing that you might want to counterbalance with a headphone eq.
We discussed the why and now look into how we can eq our headphones according to our personal needs and circumstances. Let’s make some useful distinctions to break down this problem further.
Hardware Headphone Equalizer
In our day and age it is generally easier and cheaper to acquire audio manipulation tools on a software level as plugins or programs. Nonetheless there are some benefits from work with hardware. The warmth of an analog signal processor is one example as to why many people are willing to invest the money. Even though digital algorithmic EQ’s improve with every generation, working with a hardware equalizer can still create a more authentic sound. Often headphone EQ’s come in combination with a headphone amp. Together they can enhance the listening quality of your headphones dramatically.
Below you see a comprehensive pro/con list about hardware headphone equalizers and below that a couple of reviewed product to give you a quick overview over the market.
Brief Market Overview
Bravo Audio V3 Tube
The Bravo Audio V3 is a tube headphone amplifier and EQ in one. The transparent design and lighting makes it attractive to the eye but more importantly the tube amplifier adds analog warmth to your signal. On top of that a 3 band shelving EQ allows you to enhance the sound according to your taste. This product is suitable for audiophiles and the price is comparatively affordable: Find out current prices and read amazon reviews
Syba Sonic SD-DAC Stereo
The Syba Sonic SD-DAC Stereo is another 3 band shelving EQ plus amplifier for headphones. It’s a small device ideal for audiophiles who would like to amp and eq their music according to their personal tastes. It has overall good reviews but is a little bit more pricy than the Bravo Audio V3. Find out more
Nobsound NS-10P Mini
The Nobsound NS-10P Mini is a pre-amplifier for headphones. Beside an appealing design the NS-10P brings a high- and low-shelf equalizer to the table to shape the sound to your personal taste. The visual tube adds analog warmth to the signal. Please be aware that this is a pre-amplifier that needs to be used with an additional amp or active speakers. For more information on the price and reviews click here.
The Shure SHA900 is a device for true high-end Audiophiles. The inbuilt digital audio converter delivers the purest sound for high-quality headphones and earphones. It is USB driven, which let’s you use it with laptops as well as phones as you have the option to input analog and digital signals. The SHA900 comes with a 4 band parametric EQ with five tweak-able presets. Is it worth the $900? Find out for yourself. Click here for more info and reviews.
Manual Software Headphone Equalizers
The next distinction we make concerns software headphone EQ’s mainly as most hardware EQ’s are manual though often not precise enough to make a science out of it. Software headphone Equalizers on the other hand are more detailed as they work with either a parametric EQ or multiple bands graphic EQ. With parametric EQ’s you can sweep the frequency manually and alter bandwidth (‘Q’) and gain precisely. Graphic EQ’s have up to 30 bands or more which also allow for high precision.
Those two types of EQ’s enable surgical or broad frequency manipulation of a signal which is exactly what we need to battle the problems we discussed above.
How to eq your headphone sound manually?
As said before, eq’ing your headphone sound can become a science or even obsession in and of itself. As this is a broad stroked article let’s not go too much into detail but rather let others do the talking. Below, you’ll find a table that points you to articles which discuss how to manually solve these issues in more detail.
|Rugged frequency response
|Test signal sweep + manual EQ
|Step by step
|Rugged frequency response
|Reference music + manual EQ
|Detailed forum post
|Rugged frequency response, personal taste
|Schooled ear + manual EQ
|Train your ear software
|Hearing analysis + manual EQ
|online hearing test
Automatic Software Headphone Equalizer
The most thought through all-in-one headphone equalizer currently on the market for music consumers is the True-Fi app by sonarworks. It solves all problems mentioned above. Sonarworks pre-analysed hundreds of headphone frequency curves for you to choose from. As you can see in the picture to the left, in grey you see the original frequency curve of the MSennheiser HD 800 and in orange it displays the corrected one. Just give it a free test to see how the currently rugged frequency curve of your headphone sounds compares to the flattened one. Really listen for the details in the music while doing so. Beyond that, the app helps you to personalise your sound by boosting the highs depending on your age and gender profile. Lastly a simple bass boost allows you to give it the kick you are looking for.
Automatic Software Headphone Equalizer
For Music Professionals
For music professionals, mixing and mastering engineers sonarworks has come up with a solution that has so far received widespread positive feedback. Reference, is a DAW plugin as well as systemwide app that eliminates all common inaccuracies of uncalibrated frequency curves for headphones and speakers. Sonarworks analysed the frequency response of hundreds of headphones as you can see in the picture below. Flipping the frequency curve of your headphone enables you to listen to a pure and flat response. In the mixing process that helps you to make accurate decisions as what you hear is what you actually get in the end. It takes a while to get used to it but once you get the hang of it, you really notice an improvement in our mixes. On the website you can do a free test (or install a trial) to experience the change in sound in your headphones right now. Check it out!