A few months ago I did a direct comparison of two major players in the headphone-monitoring world of audio plugins. The first headphone-monitoring plugin I tested was the Redline Monitor by 112db. The other was the Sonarworks Reference 3 headphone calibration system that was tuned to my Sennheiser HD 600 headphones with the provided preset. I chose the Sonarworks to the 112db as the clear winner. To read about my thoughts on these two headphone calibration systems, please check out my previous article on this subject.
Since then I have added the Waves NX-Virtual Mix Room headphone monitor plugin. The Waves NX focuses more on imaging calibration whereas Sonarworks focuses more on frequency calibration. The Waves NX actually monitors your position in the room using the camera on your computer to follow your head movements. This means that as you turn your head, the volume in relation to your ears changes in the headphones, much like real speakers do in a control room. This feature took me a little bit of time to get used to, however the realism truly is amazing. The Waves NX offers another calibration option as you can lock in the sweet spot, giving you perfect imaging no matter how your head moves.
Around late June 2017, Waves released the NX-Virtual Room monitor plugin with an updated version that adds EQ calibration. This is similar to the Sonarworks, however, I have found that Sonarworks is far superior in frequency headphone calibration to the Waves NX with the update in all around sonic accuracy. The only advantage I found with the Waves NX headphone EQ calibration is it is better at level matching. The Sonarworks has what is called Avoid Clipping, a feature that drops the overall listening level by a few decibels to prevent distortion caused by overdriving gain stages. The cause of the increased gain is from the Sonarworks plugin boosting the frequencies needed to create the perfect flattened audio spectrum. Avoid Clipping can be disabled with the flick of a switch located in the plugin or you can use it, and then manually makeup the gain from your hardware interface or monitors volume control. You really need to try both options out to decide which is best for you. However, the level matching is not a big issue in my opinion and only worth a mention. With the strength of the Waves NX imaging calibration and strength of Sonarworks in frequency calibration, using them together provides truly amazing results.
Using the Waves NX plugin with the Sonarworks plugin makes my life a lot easier as an Audio Mixing and Mastering Engineer at SoundBurst Studios. It creates some nice benefits. I can now mix off of my laptop computer when traveling. I can also mix either using the control room with the plugins disabled or the killer combo of these two plugins using headphones. Having two sonic references to A/B is a big plus.
I have found that the headphones when combined with these two plugins mentioned do get great results for a fraction of the money that I spent building my own control room. Good studio monitors can cost between $1000.00 and $25.000 dollars a pair. Then you have to factor in the cost of treating the room for acoustic imperfections and reflections costing from several hundreds of dollars to several thousands of dollars.
Since these two plugins can allow you to do all of your audio engineering under headphones, they are a perfect choice for home studio engineers who are concerned about neighbor complaints regarding loud music coming from studio monitors. The cost of a great set of professional headphones and the software plugins can easily be purchased for under $500.00. If you already have a great set of professional headphones you are mostly there. The software for both plugins can be purchased for well under $200.00 depending on upcoming sales and promotions.
Sonarworks provides a growing list of headphones that are calibrated for their system. My personal favorite as mentioned above, is the Sennheiser HD600. These headphones provide great comfort and clarity, however there are many great headphone options on this list for every engineer’s individual needs and preferences. For the money you can’t beat combining these two plugins when used with a set of professional headphones using Sonarworks calibration presets. Check out https://www.sonarworks.com/headphones for a list of headphones that have calibration presets from Sonarworks.
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.