Price £299 Speakers & Headphones with Microphone (£89 upgrade from Ref4) |£99 Headphones only (£39 upgrade from Ref4)
Sonarworks is synonymous with calibrated sound, whether via headphones or studio rooms and monitors, and its Reference 4 software is revered and used by engineers and producers around the world. Last year saw a development of the mission statement, with the release of the SoundID brand and SoundID Listen. Where Reference sits in the pro and creator end of the market, SoundID was aimed at music consumption through headphones and the consumer listening experience. We’ve now come full circle, as Reference gets a slightly new name and SoundID branding, a handful of new features and a refined UI. So, is this just a fresh lick of paint or something deeper?
Check your ID
SoundID Reference is available in two versions: one for headphones and speakers, and a second for just headphones. Reference comprises three parts; a standalone app that processes all system-wide audio, a plug-in version for use inside a DAW, and a room calibration app called SoundID Reference Measure. Together, Reference can flatten the frequency response of headphones, and it has average EQ curves for over 280 models. Suppose you want to take things a step further. In that case, you can purchase individually calibrated headphones direct from Sonarworks, which will give you an accuracy of +/-0.9dB, including separate curves for the left and right ear.
The reason for calibration is to offset any peculiarities in any individual playback system and listen to music using a flat profile. The theory goes that by compensating for the differences between different models, ironing out any frequency response bumps, you can make mixes that will translate better to other systems.
Alongside using Reference for headphone listening, you can also use it to calibrate your room and speakers, although you’ll need a special measurement microphone for this. If you opt for the full version, it comes with Sonarworks’ XREF20 microphone with a unique calibration profile for added accuracy. You can also purchase the mic separately for £69 or use any other measurement mic.
The Reference Measure app remains largely the same with some minor cosmetic tweaks. Setup is still a smooth and easy-to-follow process that should take around 20 minutes. It takes over 30 measurements from around the listening position, then spits out a unique file that you can load into the standalone app or plug-in versions. Once again, listening through a flatter response can help you make more accurate mix decisions without accidentally compensating for the room’s issues. Of course, it’s at its best when used in conjunction with good acoustic treatment. Even then, it can help smooth out frequency response irregularities that arise from differences in speaker design.
We test the generated curves in both a treated room and an untreated bedroom, and the results are astonishing. We’ve been using Reference for years and would find it hard to go back to an uncalibrated sound now.
Visually, the core functionality of the GUI in the app and plug-in is the same as in previous versions. A graph in the middle shows various before and after curves, plus Input and Output meters and a Dry/Wet dial to control the adjustment amount. You can also choose between Zero Latency, Mixed and Linear Phase filters, with increasing amounts of latency displayed alongside. The overall look is a little less cluttered and sharper, though. For instance, the mono button now just a symbol underneath the Output meter. There’s also a helpful new swap left/right button under the Input meter, a practical tool to help give a new perspective on your mix’s balance.
One of the major new features is the target modes. With these, you can choose from Flat, Custom or Translation Check. The Flat mode is self-explanatory: the software’s EQ adjustment compensates to create a theoretical flat response.
The Custom mode has a new editable EQ that you can use to tailor the final sound to your preference in real-time. This may seem to go against the idea of flattening out what you’re hearing, but sometimes a flat response can lack a little vibe. Using smooth EQ lifts can add some weight or brightness back in, while keeping the more intricate correction curves. You can click and drag to create new EQ nodes and choose from low or high shelf, and parametric bell curves. Significantly, there are also handles on the left and right that you can move to bypass the calibration; ideal if you want to only focus on specific areas, such as the low-end.
In use, we found editing nodes to be a little sluggish on the app version, but this isn’t a major issue as it’s not something you’ll frequently be doing. However, we find we miss the tilt EQ from the previous version, and it would be nice to have control over the shelf slopes for more precise editing.
Perhaps more exciting is the long-requested Translation Check mode, which adds 20 profiles for checking how a mix might sound on different systems. These include in-ear and over-ear headphones, studio speakers (Mixcubes and NS10M), smartphone, TVs, laptops and cars. Some of these profiles are based on specific pieces of hardware. On the other hand, the smartphone profile is an average of several handsets to give a more general sounding simulation. A helpful description accompanies each one, and you can create a favourites list you can then cycle through as you check your mix. This was loosely included in earlier versions, but it felt like a bit of an afterthought. In this version, it’s much more integrated, extensive and valuable.
Elsewhere, the preset system is slicker and easier to use. It allows you to save the same profile multiple times with different target modes and then select between them using MIDI messages. You can now set up a controller to switch modes quite easily. Searching for and adding new headphone models is a breeze, and there’s a new login system that does way with complex serial numbers. Unfortunately, the presets don’t seem to be interchangeable between the app and the plug-in, so you may need to set them up twice.
If you’re a Windows user, then you get two new drivers to help with your audio routing, taking the total up to four. These are a Windows audio device insert that’s applied directly to your selected output device and should provide lower latency. And a Virtual ASIO driver that allows you to set Reference as an output device from your DAW.
This release is a more refined version of what went before. Small touches help to make it feel closer to a seamless workflow. For example, when it asks if you want to create a new speaker profile, it automatically opens up the measuring app. The way the target modes are built into the preset system so that you can quickly switch between them is also a time saver. That said, the core correction functionality remains the same, so if you’re happy with the sound of Reference 4 and don’t feel the need for the extra features, then you may choose to wait to upgrade.
If you’re a newcomer to Reference, though, or if you want improved PC driver performance and multiple translation profiles, it remains a superb piece of software that has become an essential tool for studios worldwide.
Minimum System Requirements
- OS X 10.12 or later
- Windows 7 or later
- 2 GB RAM; 1024×768 display
- Plus audio interface with phantom power and XLR cable for calibration
- Speaker and headphone calibration software
- Standalone app, DAW plug-in (AU, VST, AAX) and measurement app
- Can be purchased with calibration mic
- Profiles for over 280+ headphone models
- Zero Latency, Mixed and Linear Phase modes
- Cleaner and resizable GUI
- New Translation Check mode with 20 target profiles
- New Custom Target EQ
- Simpler login and preset systems