Sonarworks Levels The Playing Field – CES 2018

A lot of pixel-based text has been spilled on the subject of DSP for headphone applications and growth in the consumer marketplace is not showing any signs of slowing down either. DSP was at the forefront of many audio companies’ presentations at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas show this year with a wide variety of surround, “reality” or other binaural-ish experiences. While quite a bit of that development at the current point of consumer consumption has been focused on shaping and preserving a listener’s preferences in terms of frequency response for any one headphone, I was shown a unique, more evolved approach on that subject from a company called Sonarworks this week.

What if instead of merely storing your favorite sound onto a headphone, you could store it remotely and then download it to ANY headphone? The biggest hurdle in that process would be of course that most headphones sound quite different from each other. So a baseline would have to be established first, then the frequency augmentation applied. This is much of what Sonarworks has been doing for recording studios in the past few years. They measure the original sound of a studio’s playback system where it is mixed, and allow those individuals to take that exact frequency response with them to other sources. In theory this could be a pair of headphones, another studio’s rig or even a producer’s car.

The proof-in-the-pudding came in the form of a demo between a pair of Marshall headphones and the classic HD650 from Sennheiser. During the A/B test the source was also separated, showing off the company’s software app called True-Fi on both computer and mobile platforms. The ironic thing here was that while most A/B tests hope to point out the differences, the desired takeaway in this listening session was similarity. The result? Pretty freaking good. The comparison was very close in terms of frequency response, but wasn’t able to completely morph one headphone into the other. Being intimately familiar with the HD650, there were still differences I could make out from the headphone..after all, the way a headphone reproduces waves is more than just frequency response. Its a big part no doubt, effecting the perception of sound in so many ways, but its not everything. The reviewer in me found the demo completely captivating for this reason alone. It enabled the listener a comparison to hear characteristics that would otherwise be clouded by the response curve.

This baseline is exactly the kind of thing one needs for a true application of preferences, rather than doubling up on the dice roll frequency of any given system. Once the slate was cleared, the Sonarworks apps then applied two clever variables (but any curve could be applied), the highly preference-based bass boost (or cut) and composition on the high end for hearing loss. For the demonstration at CES the software allowed for a on/off comparison for each headphone, for both the flatline DSP and the series of user-based customizations. Toggling this option for the Sonarworks DSP did showcase a sizable improvement for the Marshall headphones “stock” sound.

The company is looking to expand their reach with partnerships across the board. While the reality may still be a long ways off, a future where consumers plug in their headphones (or even loudspeakers) and a profile is immediately applied to the hardware’s DSP with little-to-no effort may prove to be a game changer for some who long for more personalization across any transducer. The consumer experience is easy to imagine. Buyer Tom wishes his home pair of over-ears had more bass, so he applies the internal EQ on his iPhone to compensate, but when he switches to his workout pair of in-ears the effect is overpowering from the same playback device. The more universal approach of this type of software option provides an easy solve to simplify the “more bass” variable that plays such a big role in headphone selection for many mainstream and audiophile shoppers. Are we now getting a peek into the void of a dystopian audiophile future where only software matters and hardware is reduced to a few slender options? Only time will tell. If this year’s CES is any indicator one thing is certain, smart options will evolve and things continue to sound better, get smaller and become more convenient.