Ask LH: Should I Use An Equaliser When I Listen To Music?

Ask LH: Should I Use An Equaliser When I Listen To Music?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m curious about iTunes’ equaliser setting. Should I turn it on and use the included presets when I listen to music? Or should I listen to it “as the artist intended”? I’m kind of confused as to why it’s there. Thanks, Adjusted Audio

Photos by me and Jon B

Dear Adjusted,

This question isn’t a black-and-white issue — in fact, it depends entirely on your preferences. But we have a few suggestions for you to get the most out of your music. If you want to know more about how an equaliser works — whether it’s the built-in equaliser in iTunes or a system-wide one — we recommend checking out this explainer from our friends at the How-To Geek. We’ll be taking a more practical approach here.

Rule #1: Do What Sounds Best To You

Chances are you’ve seen people argue about this subject before, claiming that flat output is “the way the artist intended”. But it’s important to remember that no one can tell you what you think sounds good. If using iTunes’ “Rock” preset helps you enjoy the music more, then don’t let anyone tell you differently.

That said, we don’t generally suggest using those presets. In our opinion, equalizers are best used to correct minor flaws in your speakers, headphones or setup (or, in rare cases, a specific album that doesn’t sound very good). Here’s what we usually recommend trying.

Before You Equalise: Check Your Hardware

Ask LH: Should I Use An Equaliser When I Listen To Music?

Before you start moving sliders around, consider what your music currently sounds like. If it sounds fine to you, then there’s no need to mess with anything. But if you think your music could use a little extra bass — or some better definition at the high end — attempt to solve it at the hardware level first. Try rearranging your speakers so that they’re pointed toward you and are at ear level (or at least elevated a little bit).

If your music has more obvious problems, maybe it’s time for a new pair of speakers or new set of headphones. They don’t necessarily have to cost you an arm and a leg — there are excellent speakers and headphones out there for low prices. While they may have minor flaws, they might give you a better starting point than a truly cheap and nasty set.

Correct Subtle Flaws With Your Equaliser

Ask LH: Should I Use An Equaliser When I Listen To Music?

Once you’ve found a pair of speakers or headphones that you like, chances are they won’t be perfect. For example, I liked the Shure SRH750DJ headphones better than anything else I tried, but their mids drowned out the highs a bit. So, with an equaliser, I turned the mids down just a tad to brighten up the high end.

Similarly, if you wish your headphones were a little bassier, you can turn the other frequencies down a little. With a few subtle tweaks, you should be able to get your setup sounding near perfect to you.

Equalise Down, Not Up

Ask LH: Should I Use An Equaliser When I Listen To Music?

Note that you don’t want to turn frequencies up when you equalise. Why? When you turn certain frequencies up, they can get distorted and lower the quality of the sound. So, instead of turning certain frequencies up, we recommend leaving those frequencies at 0 and turning the other frequencies down. That will save you from having that annoying static or buzzing you get when you turn a frequency up too high with a software equaliser.

(So again: if you wanted more bass, you wouldn’t turn the bass up — you’d turn the other frequencies down just a little, thus leaving the bass proportionally higher than the other frequencies).

Again, all of this is really personal preference, and whatever sounds good to you is what you should use! But this is where we’d recommend at least starting your tweaking experiments. Play around and see what sounds best to you — and if it sounds fine without it, then you can just leave it flat (which is what I generally do). Good luck, and have fun!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I have a question relating to turning the sliders down rather than up. Does this decrease volume in any way? I’ve tried it and can’t really tell.

    • It decreases the volume of the frequencies you select but overall no. I used to do it on a set of PC speakers I had the bass was very boomy and a bit echoey at higher volumes so I dropped the bass a bit at the mid to low end and it worked a charm.
      The problem with increasing the volumes to much is at higher levels you can start to clip the signal into your amp which then makes it sound even worse.

  • If you want to hear the music “as the artist intended”, go to a concert. Let the performer mix the sound.

    • May have been true 20 years ago. But these days the way the artist intended is a polished produced digital track.

    • There is still a sound tech/engineer involved in mixing live music as well, you know. It’s not a case of hearing everything flat and raw. The acoustics of the venue among other things are all taken into account as well.

      The only way to hear it “as intended” is the studio recording and even that may not be precisely true to the artist’s original intent as it will be mastered and produced by someone other than them in most cases.

  • Ok, as a producer of electronic music and a fan of all genres, here’s my thoughts.

    1. Get a nice set of speakers. No amount of ‘knob twiddling’ is going to make crappy speakers sound great. If they can’t play heavy, clean bass or crisp, defined highs, you’re not going to fix that with EQ work.

    2. If you watch any major broadcast on TV, or 80% of DJs, you’re see them wearing these:
    Headphones like the pair above play back the sound basically as if you’re in the studio when they’ve recorded it. With nothing boosted or reduced.
    The way the artist intended is not what most people are hearing through your speakers. No artist creates their music using a car speaker for reference. And only the new kids to the game use their BeatsByDre. Because these are not neutral sound. They accentuate certain frequencies.
    However, I certainly don’t expect people to listen to my music with the same set of headphones as I will. So I generally release a version with slightly less bass to account for the bass that’s added by almost every set of cans sold on the market. My point is, that unless you tell the artist (and his mixer) what set up you’re using and they adjust their track accordingly, you won’t hear it exactly as intended.

    I could go on all day but the point it it’s really up to you and don’t let anyone tell you that adding EQ isn’t how the artist intended. Half the time the Label masters it and they don’t get much say on the final sound of their track. And unless the artist says “this release was mastered specifically for these particular speakers”, you won’t hear exactly what they intended anyway

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