Review: Sonarworks Reference 4 Headphone Edition

An illustrated pair of headphones.

In a world full of less-than-ideal mixing environments, many solutions have come up to solve the problem of situations where access to a properly treated room and good reference monitors is not available. Sonarworks’ Reference 4 calibration software is one such solution, tackling the problem of such situations by providing calibration curves tailored to specific popular headphone models which iron out any frequency boosts inherent in such headphones to provide you with a flatter response. Read on to learn more about the software, its effectiveness, and its accessibility.

 

How It Works

 

Reference 4 is actually a collection of different versions of the same software, with each having its own purpose. Today, we will look at the most affordable version, the headphone edition which includes just the calibration profiles for popular headphone models and also throws in a standalone application which can apply the software ssystemwide.

 

Most consumer electronics color sound to a certain extent, with headphones being the most notorious culprits when it comes to production. Typically boosting certain frequencies to make the sound they are producing more appealing, these seemingly handy tools often become a stumbling block to those new to production who do not yet have the resources to invest into high end gear and treatment to create a proper listening environment. Sonarworks has quicly become a favorite for headphone producers around the world, offering a means by which one can eliminate this coloration to produce better mixes using headphones in place of monitors. So, does it work?

 

Reference 4 in Action

 

I tested this software using two very different pairs of headphones which had calibration profiles offered by Sonarworks. The first was a V-Moda Crossfade M-100 set, a pair which I quickly fell in love with as my preferred pair for casual listening but which I have mostly avoided due to their relatively boosted lows. The second pair was a Samson SR850 set, a very affordable, very nice sounding semi-open model which I have used most for headphone mixing, but which I personally still find slightly lacking in the lows.

 

I was curious to see how much of an effect Reference 4 would have on the sound of these two very different models. Would the end result be similar after being flattened out and would it be an improvement? The answers are no and yes. Both models still had a very distinct sound. They definitely didn’t sound alike, but there was a definite improvement. Reference 4 brought out what was lacking in the SR850s, and tamed the sound of the Crossfade M-100s to make them very usable for mixing applications. I spent some time listening to reference tracks with both models, and found things I’d never noticed in music I was very familiar with and discovered issues in previous mixes of mine which had been done on headphones without calibration despite the coloration still present between the different models. In short, I quickly discovered for myself the hype behind Reference 4, and wasn’t disappointed.

 

Accessibility

 

The download and installation went through relatively smoothly. The only tricky part at this stage was an option when first launching the installer which asks which version of Reference 4 should be installed. The buttons aren’t specifically labeled for each as far as which is the full version and which is just the headphone edition, but a message at the top of the page which was read out properly listed the options in the order that they appear. If you are still having issues, click one of the “Customize” buttons and a list will come up, shoing which components have been selected, and prompts you to select which you wish to install before pressing the “Install” button to proceed. You can figure out which version you’ve clicked on by tabbing through the checkboxes for each component, which correctly states which version it belongs to.

 

Once installed, you add the plugin at the end of your signal chain on your master track. When launching the plugin for the first time, you get some intro messages and buttons to continue, which can only be accessed with NVDA’s OCR feature on Windows 10. The screen isn’t properly updated when clicking on these buttons, but I’ve found closing and rescanning with OCR each time you press something to work well enough to get you through the first launch. The OCR approach works as well when selecting a calibration profile, however clicking on this will correctly open the file picker to load the voice profile from the installed presets which are installed for you at the same time as the plugin itself.

 

The navigation info given above applies to the standalone Systemwide version, however I recommend being very cautious when using this, since I had a spectacular time trying to close it and having it shut off all my sound (including screen reader) as it was set to redirect through the software which was now closed. Unless you plan to leave it as is permanently, such as if you have a setup you use for nothing other than mixing and are always listening with the same device, I’d recommend sticking to the plugin version from within a DAW if you use a screen reader. As long as you make sure there are no modifications to your sound from within your sound settings (such as an EQ preset) and remember to remove or bypass the plugin when you export or render your project, you are good to go.

 

Update: 06/03/2018

 

Though the initial installation is accessible if installing for just a trial, registering a license key requires clicking on a Sonarworks logo which is not accessible through any of the NVDA screen review modes or OCR. The steps to register are not accessible at all, as NVDA does not recognize the fields to enter your credentials and select which version you wish to register.

 

Final Thoughts

 

For those who can’t afford the time, space, or money needed to set up a properly treated room, Sonarworks’ Reference 4 software is definitely a great tool. Still know that there are some limitations to mixing on headphones, and it is up to you to get familiar with the response of your headphones to compensate for anything not covered by the software alone. With that said, Reference 4 is a solid investment if mixing on headphones is your only option.

 

To read more about Sonarworks Reference 4 and download a free trial, click here.

 

To view a list of all currently supported headphone models click here.

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