A Simple Guide to Equalisers

Equalisers are an interesting topic. Many people will steer clear of them while others love the option to customise every song, album, pair of speakers or pair of headphones to their own personal tastes. To help you make an informed decision about whether to use an equaliser and how to use an equaliser, here are some key facts.

Impact on Sound Quality

Firstly, electronic equalisers like those in iTunes and in your iPod will generally reduce the quality of the sound. Depending on the headphones or speakers you’re using and depending on how loud you listen to the music, you may not notice the difference so don’t necessarily write off the use of an equaliser based on this fact – you need to decide based on the merits for and against. For some people, a slight reduction in quality might be worth the improvement to the overall tone of the sound. There are also some ways to use an equaliser that are less likely to impact on the sound quality – I’ll discuss these later.

The main reason that equalisers decrease sound quality is the power required to boost audio output by even a small amount. A 3dB increase to the sound (or selected frequency) actually takes double the power! This generally means that you’re pushing the limits of the in-built amplifier of your computer or portable player which leads to a thing called clipping. Without going into detail, clipping refers to the top of the sound wave being cut off because the amplifier doesn’t have the power to create it. It’s a little bit like accelerating in your car until the engine hits the redline and the power disappears, resulting in a rapid loss of performance and potential damage to the equipment.

To minimise the impact on sound quality, you can employ a technique that’s often referred to as subtractive equalising. All this means is that you drag the sliders down rather than push the sliders up – I’ll explain.

iTunes EQ

See the image on the right? That’s the standard iTunes equaliser panel and it’s typical of most EQ setups where the sliders are sitting in the middle at “0dB” meaning that there is no change to the standard amplification of each frequency. If you move a slider up by 1 “notch”, you’re increasing that frequency by 3dB and asking the amplifier to provide double the power at that frequency. The result is generally distortion around that frequency. It’s much easier to set an EQ by increasing the frequencies you want more of, but you’ve probably gathered that this will hurt the sound quality.

EQ settings from -12dB

Here’s the alternative: rather than increasing the frequencies you want more of, decrease all the rest! The simplest way to do this is to start by dragging all of your EQ sliders down to the bottom (-12dB). At this time you might need to turn up the master volume of your device to get the sound back to an enjoyable level, but this is fine because the master volume doesn’t decrease quality. Now you’re ready to adjust your EQ. Start using the sliders to increase the frequencies you need up to a maximum of 0dB. Avoid going above 0dB for any frequency because it will instantly decrease sound quality.

All sliders increased (Maximum 0dB)

Once you’ve got the sound the way you want it, try to increase the sliders so that the shape of your EQ stays the same, but so that the highest slider is right on 0dB (see the last EQ image).

Note: one slight issue you might face with this technique is a lack of maximum volume. If your headphones or speakers are hard to drive and you need nearly 100% volume to get the sound you want, this technique may lead to insufficient sound levels. If that’s the case, you might want to look into extra amplification or different headphones or speakers.

The final dilemma you might be facing is which slider to increase to get the sound you want. The next section should help…

What Does Each Frequency Change?

So you’ve opened your EQ settings and you’re ready to perfect the sound signature for your ears only, but where to start? Which slider to slide?

In the end, it’s all experimentation for the fine details, but here are some clues about where to start. (I’m using the iTunes frequency points as a reference to make it easy for comparison.) I’d recommend using the following information by listening to a range of tracks that you’re familiar with. See if you can identify what’s “missing” from the sound based on the descriptions below and then add a little at a time to see if it helps.

32 Hz – This is subwoofer territory – the bottom end of the bass range. As much as we all love it, sometimes it’s better to drop it out or leave it flat if your speakers can’t this depth of bass. Bass is difficult for amplifiers to sustain so you can give your amp some breathing room by dropping this away if you can’t hear it anyway.

64 Hz – This is the part of the bass that we feel as much as hear. This is a great frequency to boost if you want to feel a bit more bass vibration. Increasing this will give your music more kick at the bottom end.

125 Hz – This is musical bass. If you’re listening to melodic bass guitar riffs, this is where the action is. It’s a good frequency to increase to emphasise the musicality and accuracy in bass rather than the rumble or the mass of the bass.

250 Hz – Although there’s no simple definition of bass vs midrange vs treble, I think of 250 Hz as the crossover point between bass and midrange. At 250 Hz we’re starting to increase the bottom end of male vocals and the lower range of instruments like guitars. Beware though – increasing the midrange sliders can very quickly make your music sound muffled or “canned” (like it’s being played through a tin can”. I would rarely increase this frequency, but might consider reducing it slightly to open the sound up a bit and make it more “airy” and spacious.

500 Hz – Like 250 Hz, 500 Hz is the realm of muffled sound. It covers male vocals and the middle of instrumentation. It’s impact on most music is a sense of muffling – like you’ve covered everything in cotton wool.

1 kHz – This is the realm of vocals, instruments like guitars and saxophones and the snare drum. It can bring brightness to the midrange, but can also start making the sound a bit tinny.

2 kHz – Around 1 – 2 kHz is where we start venturing into the realm of treble. We’re still in the world of vocals and instruments here, but we’re getting towards the top-end so it’ll cause vocals to sound a bit more nasal and increase the perception of the texture of voices – things like breathiness and raspiness. It also can make sound very tinny.

4 kHz – This is the frequency that’s most prominent in sounds like “sh” and “ssssss”. It’s also a part of sounds like cymbal hits and the upper end of a snare drum’s sound. Adding emphasis to the 4 kHz range can very quickly make music harsh on the ears and unpleasant to listen to. That said, using it carefully can bring clarity and brightness to vocals and percussion.

8 kHz – This frequency is pure treble. This is what is most prominent if you turn the “treble” dial up. It influences the very upper end of sounds like “sh” and “ssss” and it has a major impact on percussion such as snares and cymbals. It is great to use to add brightness to the sound, but can also get uncomfortable if overused.

16 kHz – Given that 20 kHz is considered the upper end of human hearing, this is obviously the pointy end of the treble band. It mostly affects cymbals and similar sounds, but it also picks up the brightness and detail in the texture of certain instruments. For example, increasing the 16 kHz slider (and/or the 8 kHz slider to a degree) will enhance the sound of the plectrum hitting the strings of a strummed guitar. Like the 8 kHz slider, the 16 kHz slider is a great way to add brightness and tends to be more gentle on our ears. That’s not to say it’s not just as loud, but generally it doesn’t sound as harsh. Incidentally, 16 kHz is also at the end of the hearing range where we lose our hearing first so we might appreciate a slight boost to this area as we get older and lose our hearing.

I hope this has helped you to get more from your music collection, favourite speakers or portable player!

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Quincy Jones AKG Q460 Review

As per my recent post “When Branding Meets Audio“, more often than not, musician-endorsed headphones seem to be below average quality. It seems almost safe to say that in the majority of cases, the musician branding is done to make up for crappy, mediocre headphones

Quincy Jones AKG Q460

I was hoping the Q460s would break this trend and they certainly look promising…

Straight out of the box, the Q460s look and feel great. They’re light, made of nice materials and have a great carry case that’s compact and solid. The package also includes 2 different cables – a really short, plain cable and a slightly longer one with volume controls for iPhones and certain iPods. The cables are bright green to match the Quincy Jones branding, but my headphones are the black version (as pictured).

When I first listened to these, I made the mistake of coming straight from my Audio Technica AD900s which have a very clean, balanced and lively sound. In comparison, the Q460s seemed muddy and lifeless, but that’s not entirely fair to them. Listening to them clean (i.e. having not listened to anything else for a while) is a different experience and while they’re not perfect, they’re not as bad as I first thought.

Quick Specs

Impedance:  30 Ω (portable player friendly)
Frequency Range:  8 Hz to 24 kHz
Max. Input Power:  30 mW

Bass

Attack: The attack from the Q460s is punchy, but not entirely sharp. I always use “Take the Lord Along with You” by Wayman Tisdale for this test because it’s a bass guitar instrumental with plenty of lively bass activity. The Q460s handled TTLAWY without too much trouble, but it’s not the best I’ve heard it sound.

Rating: 6 / 10

Mass: The mass of the bass in the Q460s is truly impressive. For a little pair of on-ear headphones, the bass is epic while still controlled. Listening to “Who Could It Be Now” by Luciano (feat. the Jungle Brothers), the bass is massive, but well placed. It doesn’t drown other frequencies, but gives you the full impact of the track. The bass output from these headphones is very realistic – they create the feeling as well as the sound so a smooth bass guitar not both sounds and feels right.

Rating: 8 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The mids and vocals are a mixed bag with the Q460. Certain vocals and instrumentals sound warm, rich and smooth, but some others sound a bit harsh and forced at the upper end of the midrange. Jamie Cullum’s “These Are the Days” is quite unpleasant (for a set of good headphones) because of the upper-end raspiness of his voice. The tone of his voice just seems too forced through these phones. Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy and Amy Winehouse also edge into this slightly harsh territory on the Q460s. On the other hand, “Tin Pan Alley” by Stevie Ray Vaughan is smooth and lush and sexy with Stevie’s guitar sounding as silky as ever, and Nas’ rapping on the Illmatic album sounds clean and punchy over the top of the beats behind him.

What this really means, is the the vocals and mids will sound great on some of your tracks, but may sound a bit edgy on others. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this is an area that can make the listening experience a little less than perfect.

Rating: 6 / 10

Detail

Detail isn’t the strong point of the Q460s. They’re not super sluggish, but they’re also not detailed. There are certain mid-range frequencies that really shine through and surprise with their clarity, but other sounds get lost in the mix. The Q460s are a smooth and rounded sound rather than an accurate detailed sound. That’s not to say it’s bad – some people will no doubt prefer it to the sharpness of more detailed phones, but for me it’s a tiny bit too smooth.

The top end frequencies are very subdued in the Q460s and some tracks really sound like they’re missing something – like there’s a hole. Interestingly, adding the standard treble boost equaliser on iTunes or iPods / iPhones brings an extra sparkle to the Q460s that makes them quite lovely. I don’t like having to use equalisers because it introduces noise and distorting into the sound and also means constantly changing settings if I change headphones, but if you were permanently using the Q460s with you computer or portable player, a permanent EQ setting can create a really enjoyable portable listening experience.

Side Note: where possible, if using EQs on electronic devices such as iTunes, iPods and iPhones try to create your EQ so that nothing is above the central line. In other words, if you wanted the 16kHz frequency 3 clicks louder, don’t raise it by 3, but drop everything else by 3 clicks. It makes EQ setting a bit more fiddly, but the sound quality will be better and will just mean turning up the master volume a tiny bit more.

Rating without EQ: 4.5 / 10

Rating with EQ: 6.5 / 10

Staging

Whenever I listen to closed cans, I expect a restricted soundstage. It’s a rarity to find closed cans that can create an open, wide soundstage. It is possible, however, to have good sound placement within the closed space created by closed cans.

The Q460s place the sounds quite well, but all of the placement occurs in a very tight area. The sounds are placed in a band that runs from one ear around the inside of the front of your head to the other ear. In other words, the stage is as wide as your head and has a narrow range of forward depth – it doesn’t really extend out in front of you very much, but it’s not bad as such. The sound placement is accurate and clear and instruments are clearly defined in most tracks even if they’re not spaced a long way apart. Listening to the “What is Hip” by Tower of Power (Sheffield Labs, Direct Plus! version), it sounded like all of the horns, rhythm, organ, vocals and guitars were crammed inside my head, but I never felt like anyone was on top of anyone else – and that’s a busy recording!

Rating: 5 / 10

Overall

At full price I think these headphones are a little pricey, but if you can pick them up on sale or second hand they could be a good option if you like your music smooth and lush with plenty of body in the bass. They’re a much better option than some of the alternatives like the Beats range by Dre so check them out before buying any other musician-branded headphones.

They’re comfortable, well made, look good (even in the green) and have a great, compact carry case.

I would recommend them for:  Hip-Hop / Rap, Electronica, some Rock (listen to them first), mellow Jazz

I wouldn’t recommend them for:  Acoustic, upbeat Jazz , Blues, Pop

Overall Rating: 5 / 10

Apple iPhone Earphones (included in retail package)

Standard earphones as provided with the iPhone 3GS

Standard earphones as provided with the iPhone 3GS

Reference Review: this review is only provided as a reference. By looking at my comments and thoughts about a product you are familiar with, you can better gauge how my tastes match yours. I hope it helps.

This review is for the standard earphones provided with the Apple iPhone 3GS. These headphones include a microphone for phone calls, but I won’t be referring to that at all – this is all about the sound from the earbuds. As with all earbud reviews, I tested these earphones with the foam socks on for the sake of comfort.

The first impression of the iPhone Earphones in one word is “muffled”. The top end disappears into a muddy nothingness and lacks detail and clarity. The bass is OK and the vocals are clear and forward. The vocal prominence probably makes sense for a telephone headset and it doesn’t hurt the sound style at all. Here are some specific ratings:

Bass

Attack: These earphones have only a moderate attack. There is a bit of punch, but it’s not as potent as it could be. At a comfortable, moderate volume you can feel a little bit of the bass as it hits your eardrum, but it’s not “punchy”. As a result, the bass lacks definition and can get really muddy.

Rating: 4.5 / 10

Mass: Similar to the attack in the bass, there is some mass or body behind it, but it’s not as solid as it could be. Listening to “Whatever Lola Wants”, there’s a definite presence in the bass, but it’s not as full as it should be.

Rating: 5 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The vocals and mids are the most pronounced element of the sound signature for these earphones, but the upper end of vocals trails off into the muddiness of the treble. The result is a smooth and easy-to-listen-to sound, but a definite lack in clarity and detail. A lack of clarity and detail means a lack of excitement and that probably sums up the iPhone earphones… unexciting, but ok.

Rating: 5.5 / 10

Detail

You’ve probably already gathered that detail is not the strong point for the iPhone earphones. They are muddy at the top and muddy at the bottom. There’s no harshness, which is nice, but there’s no excitement either. They’re bland and a bit mushy. Listening to “Cheers Darlin'” you can hear parts of the very fine background accompaniment, but not the full picture. It sounds like an electronic sound rather than strings played col legno (where the wood of the bow is used to hit the strings and create a percussive sound). The iPhone earphones provide a solid wall of sound with no major gaps, but you can’t hear the individual bricks (so to speak).

Rating: 4 / 10

Staging

The staging for these earphones is quite narrow and not particularly well defined. This is largely due to the muddy top-end which just can’t give enough cues to our ears to define the placement of each instrument. There is some perception of separation, but it’s not wide and clearly defined like higher quality earphones.

Rating: 2.5 / 10

Note: Although I haven’t written it yet, I do plan to share more about how we hear sound and how different elements of sound reproduction, recordings and compression affect our perception of the sound. Check under Categories for more information and let me know via the comments section if you want to know something specific.

Overall

As you’d expect for a standard inclusion telephone earphone, these don’t set the audio world on fire, but they are better than many other included earphones. You’re probably only reading this as a reference to better understand my reviews of devices you’d actually buy so I’ll cut to the chase. These earphones don’t make me want to clean out my ears from muddiness or plug my ears with cotton woll from harshness. The sound is all a bit soft around the edges, but it’s bearable and easy to listen to if you’re not listening critically.

Rating: 4.5 / 10