When I was given the green light to expand coverage of headphones a couple years back, there were a few realities I had to accept: not all headphones were equal regardless of price or performance. This was a fact that separated passable hi-fi from more audiophile offerings, and that’s the way it’s always been.
We try to review as many relevant headphones as possible, but a company called Sonarworks is aiming to bridge the gap between physical and fidelity with True-Fi, a digital sound-processing (DSP) app that takes your meager headphones and transforms the sound into something much more for discerning ears on a relative budget. Whether it’s clever engineering or witchcraft, this is something not seen on a consumer level, until now.
A Passion For EQ
I got an ears-on preview of the tech when I attended CES 2018. It was an impromptu occurrence that started at the Sennheiser booth and me getting invited to have a chat with product VP Janis Spoģis, where we sat down and talked shop about the current state of personal audio. Needless to say, he and CEO/co-founder Helmuts Bēms were enthusiastic that True-Fi was finally being unveiled to the world, and for good reason because it took Sonarworks over five years and $5 million to develop this from scratch. Not a small feat considering this technology has since existed inside recording studios and professional equipment that costs thousands of dollars. Janis was excited and it didn’t take long for the private demo to win me over as well.
So what’s the big deal? It’s not hardware but rather software that identify what headphones you’re wearing and accordingly matches the internal EQ properties for cleaner and organic sound. Higher priced consumer headphones already strive for an untainted profile that is flat and unequivocally balanced to be as accurate as possible, but most headphones below a certain price point don’t bother. The majority incorporate some kind of “enhancement” like overboosted bass response or sloppy driver arrangement to compensate. It’s a fallacy that has divided listeners from all walks of life.
Even a Child Could Do It
Since True-Fi is a desktop app (Windows 7/MacOS 10.9 with Android/iOS coming soon), you only need to pay $79 one time for a permanent license, install the program, and bring a pair of (ideally) compatible headphones. The entirety of the experience has a simple style that keeps navigation and calibration uncomplicated. The main window displays a soundwave graph (dB/Hz profile) of a referenced headphone with an orange line overlay, which shows whatever adjustments are active. For instance, you can specifically personalize the bass volume and the current gender and age of your ears, the latter is interesting because it attempts to dial in the expected health of the listener’s hearing capacity. You can also turn True-Fi on or off with the big orange I/O icon sitting at the bottom.
When I say the layout is uncomplicated, I really do mean there’s nothing to it and that’s a good thing for streamlining the process for novices. The visuals help but the device settings are equally unfussy where to can switch your output device (which takes over the system speaker options) and toggle miscellaneous settings, a couple are more obvious like Launch on startup and artificially lowering the volume to reduce clipping, while things like sound capturing and an ‘exclusive mode’ lock out external tweaks.
Listening: It’s A Small Miracle
Sonarworks says that in order to get the most out of True-Fi it helps to already have headphones that are supported and certified to work the best in conjunction with the software. This is where things can sour a bit depending on expectations so we’ll start with the good; we borrowed the Beats Solo3, Sony MDR-XB650BT, and a Sennheiser HD 700 for reference.
For cheaper entrants like the XB650BT and Solo3 the True-Fi did indeed improve the quality to a noticeable degree, and softened up the harsh edges while clearing up spatial obscurities that would normally be present. A lot of the unsavory attributes that these lower tier units exhibit were almost eliminated for something more neutral in finer details to an impressive effect. Granted, it won’t directly compete against high-end headphones but it does allow the sound to breathe more than I could have dreamed — like night and day.
The Sennheiser HD700 is an incredible piece of hardware. Even before throwing True-Fi into the mix these are an excellent pick that doesn’t need a lot of conditioning in stock form — the app only provided a minor but welcome bump up in clarity. This wasn’t too surprising considering the default profile is so damn good, but the highs resisted mild hints of distortion while the lows sounded a smidge deeper for the subtle effort. The consensus is that the fantastic audio of the HD700 came out a little better, and that alone will satisfy the discerning purists, but the results weren’t as profound compared to the cheaper examples tested.
It’s worth noting that unsupported models — despite not being documented in the database — will still operate with True-Fi with hit or miss performance. I had an ASTRO A20 Wireless Headset on hand and they actually did work (albeit piggybacking off of a existing profile) with many of the same characteristic balances shining through. The changes tuned out prominent bass for leaner accuracy, but it generally matched what I’m accustomed to outside of gaming sound. I was lucky that the A20 sounded as good as they did but the EQ frequency curve might actually end up being worse in other instances. Fortunately, there might hope as Sonarworks says they’re always adding more brands and models to their compatibility log, it may just take them a while to get around to your favorite headset.
The concept of True-Fi is arguably revolutionary for headphones that fail to deliver by themselves. Quality has been a universal goal that goes beyond the realm of audiophile and for anybody wanting to enhance their listening enjoyment, and this could very well be a viable solution without going broke. It should be technically implausible to improve mediocre headphones, but somehow, Sonarworks have pulled it off here. For avid listeners that’s an uncanny wonder all its own.