Optimizing Sound Quality: A Step-by-Step Guide for Headphone Aficionados

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The Answer

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A person wearing over-ear headphones while standing outside on a sunny day.
Photo: Rozette Rago

How to Improve the Sound of Your Headphones

Published January 4, 2023

If you recently purchased a pair of headphones and discovered that it doesn’t sound as good as you hoped—maybe you notice too much bass or not enough high-end detail—don’t rush to return it. You might be able to improve the sound through a tool in your headphone’s smartphone app called EQ.

EQ (which stands for equalization) is the method by which you adjust the loudness of one or more frequency ranges to create an overall sonic landscape that suits your taste. Many headphone manufacturers now offer apps that include the ability to make EQ adjustments to compatible headphone models. These adjustments may be in the form of broad, generic presets that change the relative volume of low-, middle-, and high-pitched sounds. Or they may be more robust, providing virtual sliders that let you raise or lower specific frequency ranges to fine-tune the sound. You can usually save these EQ settings to the headphones, so once you find your desired sound profile, that’s what you’ll hear no matter what device you’re connected to or what music app you’re using.

Some third-party EQ apps are designed to work with any headphone pair, but we generally don’t recommend them for several reasons. First, many require you to play your audio through the app in order to get the customized sound profile, which means you can’t listen to DRM-protected files or streaming services. Second, the third-party app must be installed on a playback device for it to work. So your headphones might sound better when paired with your phone running the app, but when you connect to a laptop or tablet without the EQ app, your sonic problems resurface. Plus, many of these third-party EQ apps require subscriptions, or contain ads, or harvest your listening data—or all three. Services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Deezer have EQ controls built in, but that means you have to customize the sound for each service. If you have the option to use a manufacturer’s EQ app designed for your specific headphones, that’s definitely the better way to go.

A well-designed EQ app can compensate for fit issues, differences in the acoustics of your ear, or varying hearing abilities and preferences. Unfortunately, it can’t fix badly designed headphones that use poor-quality components. The headphones need to be able to reproduce the EQ changes you make, which not every pair of headphones or earbuds can do. This is why many headphones we test don’t end up as a recommendation, even if they have an app with some EQ options. But it doesn’t hurt to try the EQ function (if there is one) before giving up on that new headphone pair completely.

Find the right EQ for you

People have a lot of opinions on what constitutes correct headphone tuning. Studies by Harman and Knowles are the closest the subject has to scientific data, but even thorough research can’t reflect the needs and tastes of every individual. Ultimately, what matters is that your headphones sound right to you. As such, we’re going to abstain from discussions of the Harman or Knowles curves and how headphones should supposedly sound, and instead focus on small changes you can make to address common flaws.

When making EQ adjustments, you should listen to pieces of music that you know really well. If the headphone app allows you to adjust specific frequency ranges, make small changes to one range at a time, constantly replaying the same sections of your chosen track. Not all headphone apps have the ability to adjust specific frequency ranges; they may use broader terms like bass, midrange, and treble. Even if the app only offers generic presets, it’s worth giving them all a listen. Modes labeled “live,†“classical,†“theater,†or “rock†are all over the map in how they actually sound, so the word may not be truly representative of what the preset sounds like. You may happen upon a sonic profile you really enjoy.

All this might feel a little daunting at first, but if you’re a music fan, the potential improvement is absolutely worth the effort. Plus, as we mentioned above, most headphones allow you to save your EQ settings, so this is usually a process you only need to do once.

Bothersome bass: 20 Hz to 200 Hz

Most folks instinctively know when they hear too little bass in a song. The music loses its oomph or feels like it lacks a foundation. Resonant instruments like piano and upright bass might sound flat. In those cases, bumping up a few decibels in the lowest bass range (20 hertz to 40 Hz) usually does the trick.

But what if the bass sounds blurry or bloated? When we talk about bass notes sounding bloated, we usually mean that the low notes are too loud and/or have a reverberant quality that can obscure male vocals. This is often caused by too much (or too broad) of a boost in the low frequencies. Try bringing down the bass level a few decibels around the 60 Hz mark. If the app lacks frequency-range markings to use as a guide, start a little above the lowest frequency range you can adjust in the app.

This headphone app from 1More has a lot of adjustment options. You can raise or lower the line at 10 different frequencies ranging from 32 Hz to 16 kHz, or you can select from a variety of preset sound modes.

Missing midrange: 200 Hz to 2 kHz

Sometimes headphones sound as though something is missing in the middle. Guitar solos that usually pop feel quieter than usual, or male vocals seem like they don’t have the same presence. These are called recessed mids. In these cases, it can help to bring up the middle frequencies to around 400 Hz to 500 Hz.

Harsh or hidden highs: 2 kHz to 20 kHz

High frequencies (also referred to as treble) represent the top third of the human hearing range. Headphone manufacturers occasionally try to balance out too much bass or create an initial impression of increased detail by adding a narrow boost, or spike, in the high frequencies. When done judiciously, this can lend some crispness to the sound, but when the highs are overemphasized, the effect can range from sounding mildly harsh to being piercing and painful. If you instantly want to turn down the music when the high frequencies kick in, that’s a bad sign.

The ranges that are most commonly overboosted are 2 kilohertz to 3 kHz and 7 kHz to 8 kHz. When 2 kHz to 3 kHz is overboosted, female vocals have a harsh, almost nasal quality; when 7 kHz to 8 kHz is overboosted, “s†sounds have a whistle-like quality, nylon or natural strings might sound like they’re made of metal, and drum hits can have a tinny quality.

Conversely, as we age and lose hearing ability, high frequencies are generally the first to go. Many signs of hearing loss might indicate that you need to get your hearing checked and consider hearing aids. But sometimes, all we need is a little bump in the highs to increase overall clarity or make lyrics easier to understand.

When adjusting the treble, gradually increase or decrease the level as needed to find the point where higher frequencies sound crisp and clear but not biting. If a headphone app allows you to make precise high-frequency adjustments, the best practice is to start at around 8 kHz and go up or down in frequency from there. Human hearing goes up to 20 kHz, but the sounds that impact our ability to understand speech top out at 8 kHz, and the highest note of the highest-pitched instrument in an orchestra, the piccolo, maxes out at 5 kHz. If you don’t have frequency-range markings, start a little bit down from the highest frequencies you can adjust, then move your way up or down in pitch until you get the detail you need.

All of the above

It’s not uncommon for headphones to have more than one flaw, so don’t be afraid to adjust more than one frequency range. Just tackle one problem area at a time. Remember that balance is a ratio, so if you raise the intensity of one range and find that it sounds distorted, try lowering the volume of other frequency ranges instead.

Do you have more questions about how to use headphone EQ controls? Let us know in the comments section.

This article was edited by Adrienne Maxwell and Grant Clauser.

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