When I first went to audio engineering school we were taught to never mix audio on headphones, it’s not even be possible what with imaging and depth perception and so on. As a proud owner of a really great pair of Dynaudio studio monitors I thought well my monitor side is taken care of now. Well that part is true I do love my Dynaudio studio monitors a lot, but recently a game changer came into full view. The idea of actually being able to mix audio on headphones is now a reality. In the past it was most looked at as a final check to hear if something was out of balance, it was looked at as fairly important but never to surpass your dedicated studio monitors. As of today I still recommend having a good set of studio monitors that are placed in an acoustically treated room. But, it can be said that mixing on headphones can be done, and done real well. I recently sat down with what could be considered two of the top-heavy weights is this field and put them one to one against each other. Two audio plugins that claim to change the way you mix. My goal is not to go on and on with technical aspects, but to just give you my view on what worked for me and what doesn’t, so hear goes the shootout!
First I downloaded the Redline Monitor from 112 dB. The plugin was easy to use, very straightforward and the setup took about six seconds. I was taken back by how the imaging was perceived through my Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. I also found that I was not getting any ear fatigue after hours of mixing. The plugin has really just three knobs a few switches and little is needed to change from the default. I found that when using it along with my studio monitors, that the mixes were coming out better. The sound in my headphones was very natural and without real noticeable phase issues. After using it for about a month I found myself very happy and glad to have found this wonderful tool, I love the simplicity. When I mix I just want to concentrate on the mix. The formats for this plugin are VST (32 bit & 64 bit) AU (32 bit & 64 bit) RTAS (32 bit) AAX (32 bit & 64 bit) for both Mac and PC. Street Price $69.00 USD
Second I downloaded the Headphone Calibration 3 from Sonarworks. One of the first things that I noticed was that the plugins GUI was not too exciting. There are about thirty or so pre-calibrated popular headphones already set up as presets. Which are called headphone profiles, wow that’s cool I thought let us see if my trusty Sennheiser HD 600 headphones are in there and low and behold they are. The accuracy is +/- 3 dB on the frequency response if your set is in the profile. Now for an extra $100.00 USD. Sonarworks will tune your headphones for even more accuracy of +/- 0.9 dB. frequency response. I would need to ship them to Europe for that, I elected to not have my headphones shipped to Europe and I decided to take it for a spin. On the plugins GUI I noticed lines on a graph showing you your headphone frequency response and the Headphone Calibration’s plugin correction of that response. I find it interesting but as an engineer my whole feeling is what does it sound like, not look like. I get paid to mix music, the visual is nice but not a game changer. Well my first take was a much tighter sounding bass response that is easier to critique and to make adjustments. Again I found no real phasing issues but a true natural sound. The ease of use was similar to that of the Redline Monitor. I used the Sonarworks plugin for a few weeks and really liked what I was hearing a lot. The formats are in AU, AAX Native, RTAS, and VST for both Mac and Windows. Street Price $99.00 USD or $199.00 USD if you want your headphones fine-tuned for accuracy at Sonarworks.
In conclusion I found the Sonarworks Headphone Calibration 3 the ultimate winner. I felt that the imaging along with the adjustment of the frequency response was a knockout punch that delivered the goods. Both of these products are very good indeed and they will help your mixes a lot. I have a real nice set of headphones with the Sennheiser HD 600 going through an Apogee DAC. So my experience could also be dependent on the gear that I am using. Sonarworks claims to get similar results on less ideal gear. I can see it, but I have to hear it. This shootout was done on what I have. I do have one gripe with both plugins, and that is when you are using it you are inserting this into your DAW (most likely last in the signal chain, in your Master 2 Buss) It is possible to forget to bypass it until after you have bounced down your final mix. That is a disaster if it happens and you send it out, ALWAYS BYPASS BEFORE mixing it down on a bounce. If they decide to put a disable option on it when you click bounce that would be very impressive. I will be using this on just about every mix that I do along with my trusted Dynaudio studio monitors. However it is getting closer and closer to one day just using the headphones alone, also a note of importance and that is when traveling and having the Sonarworks Headphone Calibration installed on a laptop computer, I can see a Producer or Engineer getting some quality work done mixing on the go with this wonderful tool. There are trial versions of both of these great plugins on there websites. I recommend trying them out and see for yourself what you like.
The winner of the shootout is the Sonarworks Headphone Calibration 3
Drew Puzia is a multi-award winning Mix Engineer at SoundBurst Studios in Las Vegas. Drew is certified in Audio Engineering from the world renowned Berklee College of Music. His experience spans over three decades in the music industry and he has recorded and mixed countless musicians in many genres of music.