Here at Sonarworks, we think that it’s paramount that sound craftspeople can trust their monitors, which is why we created Reference software. We analyzed the listening preferences of more than 68,000 audio creators and have based our software on their consensus of what is required of accurate monitoring. With Reference applied, your monitors or headphones will produce a flat frequency response curve, however, we allow for some leeway, should you prefer a slightly hyped frequency response—your own House Curve.
Headphone and speaker manufacturers want listeners to enjoy listening to their brand. Each brand develops a “family sound” which is the overall personality of their monitors/headphones that applies to every model and every price-point. For instance, Sony and Beyerdynamic headphones are known to slightly hype the high frequencies and slightly dip the mid-bass. Sennheiser has opted for a mostly-flat frequency response and luxurious, comfortable designs. Bose speakers are known for their enhanced bass and treble output.
Certain brands are revered for classical music, others for home theater, others for hip-hop, and some for their purity and accuracy. Certain monitors may be appropriate for particular listening situations, but what about creators? Creators, as we know, must produce content that plays well on all systems. From experience, we know that a flat frequency response from a monitor system for mixing ensures excellent translation to all playback systems.
A Preference for Reference
The graph above shows how our users customize the frequency response of the Reference software. Roughly ⅔ of our users prefer to use our suggested target curve (SR), as shown by the longest line. SR was designed to ensure both a detailed and tonally uncolored sound. At the same time, it’s evident that a portion of our user base has chosen frequency responses that vary slightly from flat. Let’s find out why something other than flat might make sense for some!
Fifty Shades of Flat
Reference 4 software allows the user some target curve customization. Some of our users have asked for a full-fledged parametric EQ, however, we purposely want to keep these options limited. The goal is to start from a flat reference curve and then apply some gentle, wide-band tone control if you prefer. You can read about optimizing the settings in Reference 4 in this blog post.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular custom curve produces a bass-boost of 3dB to 6dB below 100 Hz. Listener preference tests performed by Harman Research also have shown that people generally prefer the same thing with roughly a 6dB spread in the low-end. Trained listeners tend to prefer a neutral (or subdued, depending on whom you’re asking) bottom end, while the casual listener tends to prefer up to 6dB more bass.
If you regularly produce or mix club music genres, a slight bass boost may feel natural and familiar to you. Jazz, rock, and classical producers may prefer a more flat low end. As long as your monitor system begins with a flat frequency response, adding a gentle and wide bass boost to your monitor system shouldn’t pose a translation problem to most other playback systems. Just remember that others may experience less bass than is presented by your monitor system.
The ever-popular U-curve (smiley-face) is the second most-preferred EQ curve. There are many reasons why people would prefer this. Our SR target provides a neutral sound at a listening level of 83dB SPL, yet many people prefer to listen at a lower level. At lower listening levels, our brain perceives the sound as having less bass, so an EQ with boosted bass provides the missing bass. Home stereos often come equipped with a “Loudness” button that adds an extreme U-curve for listening at low volumes.
The preference for the treble boost of the U-Curve can be explained in two ways. First, there’s the taste aspect—extra treble provides a sense of more clarity and detail. This improves the intelligibility of music and speech and often helps performers who wear headphones while recording. So the boost may be more enjoyable to casual listeners and a bit of a sonic microscope for recording artists. Secondly, there’s the reality that just about everyone over 20 years old has some hearing loss, so many casual listeners and engineers require the extra sparkle up top to hear properly.
Jazz music may feel extra-sparkly with a treble boost, but loud club music may prove to be too harsh with a treble boost. Like with the bass boost, if you start with a flat frequency response and add a slight smiley-faced curve to your monitors, you may feel more comfortable, but keep in mind that others may not experience the same “hyped” sonics you hear while mixing. You may actually need to over-correct and produce mixes that feel too bright in your monitors so that others hear a suitably bright mix.
What’s Best for You?
We recommend you start by applying a flat frequency curve to your monitors—our SR target curve. You may then prefer to alter that curve with Reference’s Bass Boost and Tilt control section to add a slight bass boost, tilt, or U-Curve. Feel free to customize your settings by listening to your favorite reference songs and fine-tuning this house curve to fit your preference.
Sonarworks Reference will provide a flat frequency response from professional headphones and most monitors which are properly set up in a well-tuned room. If you feel you aren’t getting what you want from your monitors or headphones after proper setup and tuning, you may simply prefer monitors with a different personality. Perhaps a different design, for instance, ribbon tweeters vs. dome tweeters, or open-back vs. closed-back headphones. Frequency response is the single most important factor for dependable translation, but speaker/headphone personality will certainly affect your personal connection with your monitor system.