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Pro Audio Rethinks Critical Listening on Headphones

By Steve Harvey. The use of headphones for pro-level critical listening applications has increased in an effort to ensure that media translates to the medium in the best way possible.

Headphones were invented by Nathaniel Baldwin in 1910; while the sound quality has obviously taken a giant leap forward since then, the pro audio world is still finding new ways to make headphones sound as if their wearers are listening to open-air speakers instead. That’s not merely a commercial selling point, however; as many consumers’ content intake has shifted from sedentary listening and viewing to mobile, on-the-go enjoyment, headphones and earbuds have become crucial tools for the consumption of media. As a result, the use of headphones for pro-level critical listening applications has likewise increased in an effort to ensure that media translates to the medium in the best way possible. In recent times, pro audio has taken a variety of approaches to tackle that issue.

One approach is via crowdfunding. Kickstarter’s terms of use are clear: There’s a chance something will happen that prevents the creator from being able to finish the project as promised. And that’s precisely what happened with Ossic, the San Diego startup that promised “the world’s first headphone that instantly calibrates to your anatomy.” Ossic failed to deliver and shuttered its operations in May.

Related Stories: Headphones/In-Ear Monitors on Pro Sound News

Ossic raised $2.7 million on Kickstarter and another $515,970 on Indiegogo from more than 22,000 backers over a two-month period in 2016. The Ossic X headphone design incorporated eight playback transducers, six microphones and multiple sensors to generate a “3D” experience calibrated to each individual user.

The company, started by two former Logitech engineers, ultimately produced just 250 pairs of Ossic X headphones and delivered only 80, to its top-tier backers, leaving tens of thousands of investors in the lurch, their preorders unfilled. In a statement, Ossic’s founders said, “It would take more than $2 million additional dollars to complete mass production of the remaining backlog.”

Ossic’s implementation of the tech may have been unique, but it was not the first to offer individual calibration. AKG launched its N90Q headphones, “inspired by Quincy Jones” and aimed at audiophiles (read: expensive), in late 2015. Touted as “the first headphones with personalized sound,” the N90Q can, in addition to offering selectable soundstage settings and active noise cancellation, individually tailor the listening experience. AKG’s TruNote auto-calibration solution uses a pair of tiny mics in each ear cup to measure the average frequency response of a signal entering the wearer’s ears to generate “an accurate correction filter, all within a second.”

Sneak Peek: AKG’s N90Q by Quincy Jones Headphones, by Clive Young, July 1, 2015

In addition to the variations in response among all brands and models, an inherent drawback of headphones for critical listening is, of course, the total separation between the individual’s left and right ears. As a result, various software solutions have popped up over recent years that not only offer corrective equalization and other functionality, but equally importantly, they provide crossfeed to emulate the experience of listening to speakers in a physical space, where sound reaches each ear from both speakers. For those mixing in less-than-ideal acoustic spaces or in situations where loudspeakers are simply not an option, plug-ins such as Overhead by Mildon Studios, Toneboosters’ Isone and Redline Monitor by 112dB offer inexpensive solutions with basic functionality for monitoring on headphones in stereo.

For those seeking something a little more upmarket, the Waves Nx virtual monitoring plug-in re-creates high-end studio acoustics inside headphones, essentially offering a preview of how a headphone mix will translate to a studio environment with reference monitor speakers. And not just in stereo; Nx supports 5.1 and 7.1 plus monitoring of Ambisonics B-format audio for 360° and VR projects.

Nx’s calibration feature enables the user to select an EQ correction curve for specific headphone models from Audeze, Audio-Technica, AKG, beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Shure and Sony. The settings are based on a database of measurements and filter the extremes of each model’s response to create a common frequency balance. The optional clip-on, Bluetooth-enabled Nx Head Tracker follows the user’s head movements through 360 degrees.

Mixing Elton John for VR 360° on Headphones, May 23, 2018

Software developer Sonarworks very recently updated its Reference 4 sound calibration software with Sonarworks SR standardization technology, which it claims delivers accurate and consistent studio reference sound across speakers and headphones. According to Martins Popelis, vice president and co-founder of Sonarworks, coloration introduced by headphones or a room negatively impacts cost and productivity. “We estimate that at least one-fifth of the effort in the music industry is spent dealing with translation issues,” he says.

Headphone calibration is achieved using pre-measured profiles developed in the Sonarworks Lab. Speaker calibration is achieved in the room using Sonarworks measurement software and a dedicated reference microphone.

Innovations: Sonarworks Reference 4, by Martins Popelis, Feb. 27, 2018

Recording engineer Jared Kvitka, who has a mix/overdub facility in Arizona, has worked for more than a decade with Kevin Shirley and teaches at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. He comments, “Most upcoming engineers and mixers are using headphones.” If someone has a pair of Beats, for example, they simply select the relevant model from the list in Sonarworks. The software applies the correction curve and they’re off and running, he says.

“As an educator, my students need to understand about critical listening and translation of mixes,” he says. “Things sound great in their headphones, but when they listen in their car or send it to someone, it’s not going to sound the same.”

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Kvitka had already tuned his room and applied bass traps, quadratic diffusors and a ceiling cloud when he ran the Sonarworks analysis. The system is intuitive, he says, guiding you through the calibration process, which includes taking 37 measurements with the mic, via onscreen prompts.

The analysis produces a flat correction curve and also offers a custom alternative, which can be tweaked to the engineer’s taste by tilting the highs and lows. Predefined average simulations and target curves are also included.

The analysis and correction software offers a low-cost alternative for those, like students, unable to engage an acoustician or other professional assistance. “This was the first thing that I saw where it did the analysis and could apply a usable result based on the acoustics of your environment,” says Kvitka. “I don’t know that most people would have all the information they need to know to make that line as flat as possible.”

Waves Nx •

Sonarworks •