To Equalize Or Not To Equalize?

When one of our engineers finished school, he started working with mid-level touring acts as a front-of-house sound engineer. Back in those days, it was all mixing boards, knobs, buttons and wires instead of the neat little interfaces we have on Macbooks today. One day, he showed up for a rehearsal and heard something he didn’t quite like. He went ahead and adjusted the 2.2kHz bang by approximately 5dB and was promptly fired before being told “Never, ever touch the EQ man, unless I tell you to!”

These words have stuck with him throughout his career. After coming to grips with the fact that he’d offended a sensitive genius that day, he began to understand an important audio lesson - everything is totally subjective. And because they’re so subjective, someone who was as inexperienced as he was at the time needed to understand that the subjective opinion of the man in charge was the only opinion that mattered. 

This brings us to the old saying about equalisers and high-end audio: “The ideal system is a straight wire with gain.” This means that audio chains should do nothing to your sound other than increase its volume. There’s a good reason for this: anything we put in the chain between the source and the speaker affects the sound through phase shifts, and introduces distortion and time smearing. 

Any equaliser (EQ) boost greater than 3dB throws so much phrase shift and time smear into the output that the original intention of the recording is often lost completely. This is why equalisers in HiFi systems generally aren’t used. But if you are going to use one, remember to attenuate instead of boosting. 

But what should you do if your equaliser makes your music sound better to you? Well, you’re the person in charge of your own sound system, which means that your subjective opinion is the only one that matters. If you prefer adding an EQ to your system, by all means, go ahead and do so. There are a few things you could do to help you find the perfect sound without accidentally injecting unwanted distortion into your music. Test these out with an A-B comparison with and without EQ.

Next, you need to be sure you get the positioning right. A change of only a few degrees or inches can make a huge difference to a sound system. Positioning is everything, so experiment first before relying on artificial means of controlling your sound. 

Also be sure to look at ways in which you can fix your room. Effective audio treatments that look good are possible, so try treating your room before investing in an equaliser by using your furniture and decor strategically. The rule of thumb for music set-ups is to use absorption from the first reflection point backward towards the speakers, and have feature reflective materials from that point to the back of the room. By scattering reflections, you make the room feel more lively and create reflections that actually reach your ears but are so low in energy that your brain ignores them. 

You could consider using two subwoofers. Room nodes produce standing waves that could lead to diminished bass response. By using multiple subwoofers that fire at non-square or non-parallel angles, you can eliminate standing waves and increase bass response throughout the room. If adding a second subwoofer is not possible, try moving around the subwoofer you currently have. 

Try to avoid presets. So many of today’s systems have EQ presets such as “Pop”, “Rock” or “Jazz”. However, these presets don’t allow for nuance, or likes and dislikes. These algorithms are equally as likely to diminish your audio enjoyment than they are to increase it. 

Remember that sometimes, recordings simply just sound bad. Use a good variety of tracks to test your system, but keep in mind that sometimes, recordings can’t just be fixed by a decent room or sound system. 

Whether or not you use an equaliser is entirely up to you. They can make a great difference when integrated properly, but can be just as much of a hindrance if they aren’t. Thankfully these days, we have plenty of technology and materials available, giving us a far more holistic approach to finding the perfect sound. 

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