The Sonarworks Reference plug-in makes a difference that is out of all proportion to its modest price, and is capable of turning an unremarkable pair of headphones into a serious mix tool.
Systemwide is an app that routes your computer audio system through the assigned profile. That means that any general computer application (like iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, etc) can be played through your speaker correction curve. You can also choose between a flat response, or customize the bass and tilt settings, or even simulate different headphones, studio monitors, and consumer speakers included in the app.
Play back a professionally mastered mix through your phones, toggle the calibration and I guarantee you will be pleasantly amazed. The Systemwide and Plugin GUIs allow you to view your headphone profile as well as simulate what other listening scenarios might sound like. Without mentioning specific manufacturers, Sonarworks offers simulations such as “Japanese white cone Studio monitors” and “Popular consumer headphones” from a company founded by “a famous Dr. Rap Artist.”
Coming up with a meaningful and repeatable measurement of the frequency response of an individual pair of headphones is likewise anything but straightforward, given the complex interactions that take place between drivers, earcups, skull and ears. Sonarworks have met this challenge very successfully, and the key factor that makes Reference so useful is their proprietary measurement technique, which really does allow it to compensate for frequency-response variation in a way that we perceive as flat.
We reviewed the Headphone version of Sonarworks’ Reference 3 software last year, but it also offers a similar version for speaker calibration. Both were previously only available in plug-in format, but Sonarworks listened to user feedback and added the Systemwide app a few months back, which allows you to run all your system audio through the software without the need for a plug-in host.
Despite my initial apprehension, I can honestly say that I do believe almost everyone can benefit from using the Sonarworks speaker and headphone calibration system. For inexperienced users, you will start off on the right foot; mixing to as neutral sounding speakers, or headphones, as possible. For experienced engineers who work on the road or in different studios, this is an invaluable tool. Simply run the Reference Measure app in your new environment and use the plug-in on your master bus.
The Reference 3 plug-in provides many useful features, like graphs of the before and after frequency responses, the correction curve, as well as more esoteric information like dynamic range limits and phase-response graphs for those who desire to view such information. This effective plug-in may be used in a very simple plug-and-play way, or you can delve under the hood for finer tweaking, experimentation, and useful feedback about your system.
My room already has a decent amount of acoustic treatment in it to begin with: I have panel absorbers above, behind, and on both sides of me, as well as floor-to-ceiling bass traps in the front corners of the room. Still, the Reference 3 App and plugin greatly improved all aspects of my monitor environment and, the difference was not subtle. Even laptop warriors who only work on headphones or with small speakers will find Reference 3 to be highly useful.
I personally feel Sonarworks Reference 3 is the better of the two for a couple of reasons.
1. The ability to trial Reference 3 for a very small price without having to buy the full bundle.
2. The easy step-by-step setup of the software. The experience of the setup really gave me confidence in the software’s ability as the measurement process was very intuitive and also displayed the correct measurements between my monitors and listening position.
It felt like the plugin peeled away the nonsense in the headphone response, delivering a much flatter and, arguably, less engaging sound. That's what we need for proper monitoring, though, so job done.
Overall, both plugins do great work, but the speaker option is definitely the most impressive of the two, going some way towards resolving room problems in a simple and transparent way.
Now that I have measured my project studio room and calibrated it with this software, I can’t imagine ever working without it. An incredibly vivid, detailed soundstage is now present, stereo imaging is excellent, and every aspect of the sound is delivered with wonderful focus and clarity.