EQ To The Rescue!

I’ve been a user of equalizers ever since I discovered that it is the $0 fix to a lot of my system synergy problems.

If you listen to a wide variety of music, then you’ll notice that the effect on recordings are very big — sometimes very big that it requires a change of headphones. But changing headphones are only a part time solution, as with the different frequency balance that comes with another headphones, also comes the different character brought by that headphone. For instance, I really liked listening to the HD650 on some recordings, mostly due to the massive low end body that doesn’t exist on the HD800. But I’m also bothered by the less refined treble of the HD650 and the lost ambiance details on the HD650 compared to the HD800. What are my options? I prefer to use an EQ and stick with the HD800 than use the HD650 and deal with the inferior technicalities. If recordings are created equal (possible if you only listen to audiophile grade recordings), then you can get one optimum system for your music and get away without equalization. But for the rest of us, equalization is a necessary evil, though it is less evil if done on the digital domain.

I think most people are afraid to use equalizers due to the negative stigma that surrounds it, and sometimes we would rather choose a component that will give us the needed boost on a frequency area than use equalizers. In theory, signal modifications would produce degradations. But otherwise, how would you deal with the massive differences in recordings? In the case of my Zana Deux set up, I loved the sound signature of the Zana, except that I find it to not have enough treble presence for some of my classical recordings. Moving to the Grace m902’s amp or the 2-ch Beta22 will give me more treble presence, but it won’t give me the beautiful ambiance and holographic soundstage that I find on the Zana — and you can’t use EQ to get ambiance and soundstage performance. So I was very happy to use the Ipod’s Acoustic, Classical, or Rock equalizer settings to fix that. Is the sound less pure now? Yes, I can hear those EQ tweaks coming through the HD800, but in this case the benefit of getting a more ideal tonal balance far outweighs the so called “distortions”.

Recently I’ve also discovered how the Onkyo ND-S1 digital dock still passes through the EQ information that is set on the Ipod. My set up was using the Onkyo ND-S1 Ipod transport, to the Grace m902 DAC, and to the Zana Deux. There is no room for equalization in the chain, and if I want to change the tonal balance of the sound, the only solution I can think of is to do some tube rolling (but there is no treble happy tube that I’ve known of — most of the options focusing more on the midrange and bass areas), or get another DAC that’s noticeably brighter (which means more $$$, and I don’t even know if a treble happy DAC exists). It would’ve been easy if I had used a computer transport, for then I can use the equalizer in Itunes, but often at night my wife is using the laptop, and so I have to listen to the Zana through the Onkyo Dock transport.

So, the other day I plugged in the Ipod Nano 5th gen to the Onkyo ND-S1 and noticed that the same songs sound noticeably brighter than if I had used the Ipod Classic on the Onkyo dock. Supposedly these Ipods only serve as storage devices when used with the Onkyo digital dock, and surely the sound couldn’t have been that different between two storage devices. But I was hearing some significant difference! I went to examine if the different encoding is what makes the difference (I use ALAC on the 16GB Nano and WAV/AIFF on the 120GB Classic, due to storage space considerations) but found out that the different files format don’t make that much of a difference in sound. The next day, it occurred to me that the equalizer may be activated on one of the Ipods, and I was right. The Ipod Nano was on a “bass reducer” equalizer setting — hence the brighter and leaner sound. I learned one thing that day: the equalizers still work even if the Ipod is in a digital dock. Apparently the processing inside the Ipod applies the digital equalization before the data goes out to the Onkyo and to the Grace m902’s digital input.


EQ To The Rescue!
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33 Comments

  • Reply September 13, 2010

    Professor00179

    Very helpful – thanks! I have read one topic in equilization when I was viewing old head-fi threads. Majority of headphone enthusiasts is highly against any EQ and in their opinion people should not change anything. I cant really understand that since finding an ideal headphone in a limited budget (and [almost] everyone has limited budget to be fair) is nearly impossible.

    • Reply September 14, 2010

      Mike

      Thanks guys. I probably need to add the fact that EQ is not meant to make a Sennheiser into a Grado. While it works to a certain degree, first you have to make sure that the headphone you own is generally the "correct" signature that you want.

      On a slightly different sub-topic:
      I don't think the perfect headphone exists — hence the needs of equalization even with something like the HD800. I hope you can see that this is not a flaw of the headphones, but rather caused by the large degree of variations in recordings. To put it simply, on a bright recording, it would be nice to have a dark headphone/amp/source combo. But when the next track has a dark recording, then what sounds beautiful on the previous song will now sound overly dark and veiled. You have no choice but to put in equalization, or change to a bright headphone. But changing headphones also comes with a bunch of other character change, and so I may not want to change headphone because I love the character of this headphone so much, while all it needs is a tweak in the tonal balance. Like in the case of the Lambda Staxes — it's not perfect, but the owners love the Lambda sound so much. You're left with no option but to EQ in a bass boost setting, because even upgrading to the Omega2 won't give the same open sound that you get on the Lambdas.

  • Reply September 14, 2010

    Graham

    Great article! I think EQ is a great tool to tweak sound to your liking. I use a small ammount, +/- 1 or 2 DB on almost everything. Like you say, there is a stigma around it, mostly unwarranted although some EQ implementations like the built in one on the iPod are truly awful.

  • Reply September 14, 2010

    Djisas

    Sometimes different Headphones need different equalizations to bring the best of them, im not a big fan of complex equalizers as sometimes its gives to much work to fine tune the sound but if the sound is unsatisfying i have to give it a try to smooth things up…

  • Reply September 14, 2010

    David

    If you [the readers] are interested in equalizing headphones (or anything else) with precision, a parametric equalizer does a much better job that the built in iTunes EQ. Many parametric EQ exist in the form of VST plugins which allow them to works with all DAWs and many playback softwares including fb2k and J River media player.

    Examples of parametric EQ: Redline Equalizer, iZotope Ozone 4 (which is much more powerful than an EQ)

    The greatest advantages of parametric EQs is the ability to control the center frequency, how much gain you want AND the bandwidth, ie. the slope of the boost or cut with a much greater degree of flexibility and control than with a graphic EQ.

    • Reply September 15, 2010

      Mike

      Thanks for the information, David.

  • Reply September 15, 2010

    laon

    Hi Mike, I'm curious in your response regarding this little dsp I found, originally a forgotten foobar plugin ported to winamp dsp sps, here's a portable player I outfitted with it if you don't feel like installing anything.

    http://www.mediafire.com/?jogcvp8sn2837ar

    I feel that this is really good dsp for opening treble and mid a little, enough for warm headphone to get more enjoyable, for free. Though this is limited to my very crude setup, thus I really curious how is it with people with real setup.

    Oh but it's windows only program…

  • Reply September 16, 2010

    Mike

    Hi Laon,

    I probably need to get a Windows machine one day, as most of these plug ins are off limits to me on my Mac. πŸ™

    I don't think you have to worry about the side effects of the plug in. I mean, if you can't hear it, then it's all good, right? Give it a try for a week or two, and if the plug in has any ill effects, your ears would probably be able to pick it up after 1-2 weeks. Otherwise, it's all good. πŸ™‚

  • Reply November 5, 2010

    Pat M

    One iPod EQ setting that often gets lost in the din is the 'Latin' setting. I used to use 'Rock' as my go to for many years but then I realized it can get a bit fatiguing. Latin gives just the right amount of added treble and bass without affecting the mid range too much. Sometimes Rock feels like it's on steroids, particularly with today's hotly mixed recordings, although it does work nicely with older rock and roll recordings. The subtle touch of the Latin setting is my go to these days as it is so versatile.

    • Reply November 5, 2010

      Mike

      Thanks for the addition. I haven't noticed that Latin setting, but I'll give it a try.

  • Reply November 18, 2010

    LeninD

    Kudos again, Mike. I recently got myself a Sennheiser HD595, my first big open headphones. Althought I was expecting many differences since I was coming from a pair of Shure SE530 I was taken aback by how some songs sounded washed out. However, I started experimenting with EQ and got good results.

    Since I like you site so much I didn’t even bother to google EQ. I came straight back and re-read this post (I had forgotten about it).

    So, my only addition is a mention of a now discontinued product called Volume Logic. It was from Plantronics and it is an “extra” EQ that works within iTunes. I like it a lot. Sadly, currently it can only be obtain as a demo (I am not sure about that). But I am sure there are others out there, like Hear or iWow.

    • Reply November 18, 2010

      Mike

      Interesting.

      Just found out that Volume Logic is no more:
      No More Volume Logic
      Volume Logic audio enhancement software has been discontinued. However, Plantronics commitment to sound innovation continues. Our headset products feature the latest in digital signal processing like Audio IQ® intelligent headset technology.

      Also, iWow from SRS labs doesn't look very convincing. It is a dongle that attaches to your ipod line out, probably adds some audio processing and minor amplification.

      Haven't found the page for Hear for now..

  • Reply November 19, 2010

    LeninD

    As far as I can tell you can still download Volume Logic here:
    http://www.macupdate.com/info.php/id/13252/volume

    The is an iWow plugin for iTunes here:
    http://www.srslabs.com/store/store/comersus_viewI

    And Hear is at:
    http://www.joesoft.com/

    • Reply November 19, 2010

      Mike

      Thanks for the links. I'll be checking them out.

      • Reply November 20, 2010

        LeninD

        You got me thinking about other EQ-related stuff. For example, do you select eq. settings on the fly or do you use and store eq settings per song as iTunes allows?

        • Reply November 20, 2010

          Mike

          I normally listen to music on a per-album basis, so I don't have to adjust the EQ for every song change. Yes you can set the EQ for every song and upload that via Itunes, but then you're stuck to that EQ which may not work when you change headphones.So, I suggest to stick with one or two general setting that can improve the majority of ur playlists, even if that means missing one song or two.

  • Reply November 19, 2010

    donunus

    I have a question about the Ipods eq when used through the onkyo or wadia digital docks.

    Even when using something like the acoustic eq with some very loud recordings… the eq when used through the digital out wont have distortion in the sound? Or will it be basically the same effect as if one used the eq while using the ipods headphone jack. All my loud recordings clip when using the acoustic preset. The most extreme preset that I can use where I can't detect much in terms of clipping is the Jazz setting. Does it lose that clipping when going through the onkyo dock? Or is it still dependent on how loud the recordings are?

    • Reply November 19, 2010

      Mike

      The clippings will still be there, unless your recordings are quite mild in the first place.

  • Reply November 28, 2010

    Lionel

    Thanks Mike. Its a tool that many of us have looked at then disregarded for good or wrong reason. I have the HDD650 and the Grado RS-2 headphones that I use depending on music, mood, location , … but recently was bothered a bit by the 'laid back' trebble on the HD650 and was looking at an other Headphone Amplifier that would be brighter , but then what a bout the RS2 ! I thought about the Jade and its 2 outputs, one brighter. Your article reminded me of the potential EQ solution. I am using the classical setting (iTunes) (but keeping the bass where they were) and I am very happy with it, on symphonies for example where I did not like much the HD650 for that reason. More listening is needed to confirm the impression and check for potential degradation (soundstage for example) but happy so far.
    Lionel

    • Reply November 29, 2010

      Mike

      Sounds good, Lionel. I don't quite get this part though: "I am using the classical setting (iTunes) (but keeping the bass where they were) and I am very happy with it, on symphonies for example where I did not like much the HD650 for that reason. " πŸ˜€

  • Reply December 1, 2010

    Mike

    Yes, now that makes sense. πŸ™‚

  • Reply December 13, 2010

    FLACvest

    Very enlightening article to EQmeistros and non- alike! This is the proper type of information that unfortunately seems to be chased away from Head-Fi rather than embraced… πŸ™

    Big Thanks

    • Reply December 13, 2010

      Mike

      Big Thanks for the kind words, FLACvest. πŸ™‚

  • Reply October 23, 2011

    DodgersKings323

    LOL good to know, mine always had abrupt changes, they would look like rollercoasters πŸ˜› But really i’m happy with the flat setting on my Fuze.

    Rockbox was too much a PITA so i ditched it, also the SR60s were too fatiguing for me in the end so i sold them and bought better IEM

    • Reply October 24, 2011

      Anonymous

      Lol, alright man. πŸ™‚

  • Reply February 21, 2014

    George Hook

    I’ve searched and searched the Web for a coherent, knowledgeable take on the EQ and how to set it, and with this excellent overview, I’ve found it. Yesterday, I spent hours at my desk trying to figure out an EQ on PureMusic to go with your suggestions on rigging that software, and couldn’t snag it. But following your guidance on the EQ today, the whole gestalt just bloomed into my Shure phones. Nice work, much thanks.

  • Reply February 22, 2014

    dalethorn

    The Audioforge Equalizer app for Apple i-devices is the most effective and quickest to apply EQ I’ve ever used. Now I’d like to get something like that on a computer, Mac or PC (but preferably PC). Just 7 bands is all it has, but you can set the band frequency and amplitude, and even the bandwidth if you like.

    • Reply March 8, 2014

      Raskoln

      Audioforge describe that as compatible with iPod Touch but make no mention of iPod Classic. Do you know, Dale, if the Audioforge will work with the Classic?

      • Reply March 8, 2014

        dalethorn

        Audioforge Equalizer is strictly an iOS app with the required UI screen for entering the parameters. The iPod Classic has no graphic screen or ‘Apps’ as far as I know. But if I did not have Audioforge now and someone let me try it out on an iPod Touch latest generation, so I could hear what it does, I would do whatever it takes to get it.

        • Reply March 8, 2014

          Raskoln

          Thanks for that alas sad info. Big shame for me that the onboard iPod eq’s deal in extremes rather than subtleties.

          • Reply March 8, 2014

            dalethorn

            I’ve found that the onboard EQ’s really do help in a lot of situations. For example, with the Beyer DT770 Pro-32, the ‘Piano’ setting trimmed the peaky sound around 9 khz without disturbing the rest of the range. The ‘Rock’ EQ helped a lot to push down the excess midrange of the Senn PX200ii as well as the Beyer DT1350. I even used ‘Deep’ successfully on one headphone, but I forget which one and can’t look it up now.

  • Reply October 24, 2014

    Batman

    I know this is an old post, but the applet on this site kicked it to me so here I am. I usually find that i can bump the bass a bit, trim the highs a tad VIOLA! there are all those mids and imaging that got crowded out before. That said i usually don’t find i have to go to far either up or down in order to get the sound where i want it to be without negatively impacting it.

    • Reply October 24, 2014

      dalethorn

      If I remember correctly, Mike (who now runs the store) prefers a darker sound overall. I never thought I would go from the Sennheiser 600/800 sound to the darker side myself. It’s an amazing process, and good to see that other users make these devices work for them the way they want.

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