Sonarworks Reference 3 Plugin Review: If you’re experiencing translation issues, having trouble with hearing certain frequencies, or finding it difficult to effectively equalise your instruments with your current headphones then the Sonarworks treatment could come to your rescue… it is super affordable, easy to use, can increase your workflow, and could very well save your bacon/sanity in long mix sessions. It comes highly recommended from TPAWB.
Since their founding in late 2011, Sonarworks has been on a mission to measure the sonic failings of professional audio playback devices and offset their reference fallacies with a simple in-the-box custom equalisation curve. By artificially compensating hardware faults with a dedicated software solution, the user can have a much more accurate basis for which they mix and monitor their music and, ultimately, increase productivity due to less time being needed to adjust the mix for translation. With Sonarworks legacy, reference (neutral) quality playback means reference, and, most importantly, it is available for an affordable price.
Versions. Ordering, and Compatability:
Before purchase Sonarworks kindly offer a 21 day free trial of their ‘Reference 3’ headphone equalisation plugin. Once you have evaluated its performance you can go ahead and purchase the download only plugin for the super affordable price of €69.00. However, if you choose to go down this route then you will need to bare in mind that currently Sonarworks currently only have 8 ‘average’ calibration curves and that you will need to own a pair of the headphones listed. If you don’t see your headphones in the list then Sonarworks offer an incredible service for €20.00 in which they custom measure your headphones, produce your very own unique Reference 3 equalisation curve, print your headphones independent frequency / harmonic distortion measurement graph, and send the headphones back to you - now where else can you find a service as good as this? Nowhere, that’s where. But… If this still isn’t enough to sway you, Sonarworks will sell you a brand new pair of Superlux HD681 headphones with the Reference 3 plugin for the meagre sum of €45.00 - outstanding, although all shipping on orders currently stands at €24 to the EU, $30 to the US, and €32 for the rest of the world. Please beware that if you do go down this route then the frequency calibration curve is an average and not a custom and with the Reference 3 plugin you won’t have access to the other headphone frequency calibration curves like you would do if you purchased the Reference 3 plugin on its own.
If you do purchase a pair of the custom calibrated headphones, or indeed send you headphones in to be custom calibrated, Sonarworks send you a physical copy of the Reference 3 plugin, and your custom curve, on a nice 1gb Sonarworks branded USB flash drive. This drive contains the respective install files for both Windows and Macintosh systems with individual installers for the VST, AU, RTAS, and AAX plugins, so no matter what DAW you’re working with, no matter how old, you’ll still be able to make use of the Reference 3 plugin (Windows XP and above or Macintosh 10.5 Leopard). During install I did notice a small issue, and this was that I had to copy the install files from the USB to my HDD/SSD in order for the fixed install path to be located and succeed. Other than this you will need to locate and safely copy your independent .swhp calibration curve to a memorable place on your system as you will need it every time you load the plugin in the external filesystem as simply saving the settings within the plugin interface does not save the equalisation curve to the ‘presets’ recall directory - slightly irritating. Another more irritating fact is that when you purchase the plugin it will only work on one computer system. If you are someone who flicks between two or three different systems them you will have to buy an extra licence at the discounted rate of €20.00. This is disappointing, but still it won’t exactly break the bank.
The Measurement Process and Minor Reservations:
Sonarworks understand that measuring headphones with a simple binaural microphone won’t accurately mimic the ear/brains perception of frequency response, other factors come into play such as the seal created by the headphones, the distortion created by the skin and cartilage density of the ear, distance to eardrum, and natural shape of the ear cannel. For this reason Sonarworks have their own patent pending unique rig that takes these variables into account to produce a super accurate ‘real world’ +/- 0.5dB frequency response that is natural to the ear, and not the diaphragm of the microphones capsule. The resulting negative curve to be loaded into the Reference 3 software is fundamentally based on the frequency response. There is an issue here, albeit minor, and this is that Sonarworks preamps and A2D conversion does not take into account the frequency response of your audio interface or converter system so, technically, it can only fix one part of the signal chain. In order to dispel a seemingly conflicted outlook, often audio interfaces are engineered to be flat or, in rarer cases, sculpted to aid the mix process, and, whilst you may think that this renders the calibration less useful, it has to be said that you will be getting a resultant curve from a truly neural signal path that can actually accurately present audio in the way that the manufacturer of your audio interface/converter system intended - much more useful than you may think! It is, however, important to understand that, currently, Sonarworks’ Reference 3 correction does not have the ability to amend the impact of distortion characteristics across various output levels. In order to best compensate for this Sonarworks perform the calibration at a reference sound pressure level of 83dB - the level universally accepted in production houses and mastering studios.
On a slightly unrelated note, there is clearly room for Sonarworks to expand their software range. Whilst it’s understandable that this would not be included within the Reference 3 plugin, it would be excellent if Sonarworks could develop a standalone audiophile music player for Mac or Windows where the calibrated equalisation curves could be used in a standalone platform that doesn’t require the use of a DAW to function. Having this could generate a significant amount of interest and I’m sure that more users would want to send their headphones in to Sonarworks simply to explore their sonic possibilities. As previous said, this is an unrelated note and has not affected this review rating.
When loaded into your chosen DAW, or even Video editing program (we have tested this with Final Cut Pro), you’ll need to make sure that the plugin is on your master channel and that it is the last in the signal chain - suffice to say that you don’t want the plugins equalisation effecting your resultant mix or being bounced down! With that said, I can say with confidence that the Reference 3 plugin is super easy to use. Overall it has a very clean and clear, appropriately labelled, and intuitive graphical user interface - within five minutes you’ll be a Reference 3 pro, guaranteed! Now, if you’re concerned with latency, Sonarworks have added a section within the advanced tab that allows you to amend the ‘filter phase type’ from ‘Min’, to ‘Mixed’, to ‘Linear’. When set a ‘Min’[imum] I measured the latency as being an insignificant 1.13ms (50 sample) at 16bit 44.1kHz, this means that you can comfortably use the Reference 3 plugin during tracking without any fears at all. During mixing you’ll want to change the setting over to ‘Mixed’ so that you can have a better quality audio signal, but still at this level I was measuring a respectable 20.41ms (900 sample) delay. For playback and final reference listening I would recommend going up to the highest ‘Linear’ setting which, admittedly, yields a high 63.49ms (2800 sample) delay. Although every time that Sonarworks ‘Reference 3’ plugin opens, by default, the ‘Min’ filter phase type is selected, please make sure you select the appropriate setting - this goes without saying.
Within the Reference 3 plugin you have some invaluable tools to help with the mix process, such as an option to monitor the audio in mono, or you can even apply a whole host of equalisation curves to simulate how the track mix will sound on some of the worlds most famous hi-fi and pro audio headphones or speakers… on it’s own this is an excellent tool that can help you roughly assess the translation of your final mixes, but it’s best not to actually mix with these simulation settings on, it generally defeats the purpose of the plugin. Regardless, when the compensation equalisation/correction is turned on the difference is striking, it’s certainly as close to neutral you can get. The plugin seems to make mixing a lot easier because all the frequencies are on a level playing field, giving your an ears-access to common built-in frequency blind-spots such as the low-mid trebles and recessed areas such as high trebles. Whilst it’s typical for headphone manufacturers to sharply decrease the treble extension past 5kHz, the plugin counteracts this phenomenon and, because this is an area that’s almost always misjudged and hyped by amateur/semi-professional producers in their final mixes, this tool can save a hell of a lot of pain or a potential remix even though it does sound a little bit harsh with poorer quality headphones. Thankfully, if a ‘reference’ frequency response does your head in, Sonarworks have inbuilt a very simple equaliser to fine tune the signal to your liking whilst still remaining the integrity of the output.
The Sonarworks headphone calibration process and Reference 3 plugin can have a dramatic impact on your production technique - for the better. With an ‘as close as you can get’ custom reference platform you can increase the accuracy and translation of your mixes without spending super amounts of money on various playback mediums, essentially one pair of headphones can do two jobs - critical listening, and casual listening, and the whole process seems to work well! The entire platform is super affordable and, with only a couple of minor niggles outlined above, The Pro Audio Web Blog awards the Sonarworks Reference 3 plugin with four and a half stars.