Very usable for people who prefer to mix with their headset to get more reliable results. Provided that the model is supported by Sonarworks.
Usable for people with ‘budget’ speakers, have sub optimal acoustics or want to have ultra linear sound. Using the measurement microphone takes some effort.
Having a good reference always has been the boon of any audio mixer that wants a decent and reliable mix. Most of the time there are multiple factors that come in to play that will skew the ideal conditions. Acoustics, speaker design and other factors will cause the output to sound different as recorded. Funny thing is that human ear can adjust to those difference fairly easy but then psycho-acoustic will a big factor giving the listener the true sense of the sound. The quest for the true audiophile is to get the closest to such a linear system so a 1:1 representation of the original recording is achieved. For the mixer it is the most convenient way to create consistent mixes without having to get used to a new setup. Thanks to the technical innovations of the last decades the need for crazy expensive setups has come to an end. Sonarworks Reference 4 is one of these innovative solutions that will enable speakers or a headset to sound more linear and thus more neutral.
How it works
Sonarworks reference 4 in short is a plugin that you can put between your audio source and speakers or headset that negates any frequency and phase changes that make your speakers or headset make sound different than an absolute linear system. The plugin can be in the form of a virtual audio driver you can patch between your audio source and audio interface or a plugin in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) as the last slot on your monitor mix(es). This also means that if you use this tool you have to relearn listening to your current setup. Note that this plugin doesn’t alter your amplifier so the output still will be limited by the power it can provide. It will never totally fix acoustic problems in a room with speakers but as a last resort to try and get a better sound it should be helpful.
Why would you buy an expensive headset when this software will make a cheaper one sound perfect? Expecting everything sounds perfect with this software might be asking too much from the product. It will sound more linear so the very expensive headset and a cheaper one will sound more similar. But there are still a lot of differences why the expensive headset will sound more consistent and transparent than a cheaper one. A quote from gear junkie Marc was: With Reference 4 even a Beats headset will sound reasonable (!).
Since measuring headsets in a reliable way can be a challenging endeavor Sonarworks took it on themselves to measure a large collection of headsets. If (one of) yours is in the list you’re in luck and can use the headset version of the software. If it’s not on the list you can request Sonarworks to measure your headset. Who will pay for the cost when you send it over there I do not know though. The list of Headset models can be found on the Sonarworks website. https://www.sonarworks.com/reference/headphones
If you want to use Reference 4 for (stereo) speakers you will need the Studio version with or without the measurement microphone. You can use your own reference microphone but then you will have to get it calibrated properly and save that calibration in a format the measurement software can read. The microphone that comes with the Studio version is already calibrated and you can use the printed code one the microphone to fill in during the configuration of the measurement.
The process of configuring for measuring is quite elaborate. It’s very helpful that the configuration is in a number of steps so you can avoid information overload. The steps of measuring your room with the measurement microphone will take a while. Run though the checklists and configuration. You then have to hold the microphone at 37 steps at the indicated spots by the configuration software while listening to ping pong sounds and frequency sweeps. It almost resembles playing with a Nintendo.
What was surprising is that a 2nd measurement run gave quite different results and the software configuration software behaved differently. Another thing is that I use additional sub woofers and it doesn’t seem like you can use them while measuring.
While using the systemwide version or the plugin you have to chose between the headset or speakers profile. You will have to get used to a total new sound which can throw you off for a bit. For the plugin version you can use both profiles for a separate instance each at the same time for monitoring and headset mixes. If you use the plugin(s) in a DAW you might be wondering if it uses a lot of CPU. During testing it seemed to be reasonable. If you use multiple instances it will cause a bigger load. Just make sure you switch it off so it will not be included in the mix-down process.
Just one thing you might overlook is the fact that the plugin version is a 2.4 VST version. Since Steinberg are abandoning their support from 2.4 end of this year. You most likely will be able to use it but on the long run Sonarworks will have to make a VST 3.x version which will have support from Steinberg.
There are a few downsides. First one would be that during installation the system restarted without noticing me it would restart. The second one would be the place the plugins are installed at. This is a problem that like many other plugin developers they dropped the ball. The ability to install it at the place the user wants it to have is a must. Edit: “This feature exists in installer, not by default, but under Customize.” The third one would be that there were some audio problems using the Microsoft Edge browser for playing online videos. This could be cause by my own hardware setup but it is worth mentioning it.
All in all, the software is quite mature. Configuration is rather simple regarding that it is quite a sophisticated product. You have the options of using the system version or a plugin in your DAW which is nice. The CPU load seems to be very reasonable. If you’re not sure if this will help you, you always can apply for a trial version and test it out.