Audio engineers optimize songs to sound good on most playback devices. They know how best to equalize and mix instruments and voices, such that the music sounds just fine in most scenarios and to most listeners. But obviously, balancing a tune to fit everybody’s taste is impossible, and playback devices have their limitations. However, you don’t have to put up with lackluster-sounding music, or some underwhelming tones, thanks to equalizer settings.
Ideally, how good the song sounds depends on your audio system’s quality, hearing capabilities, and the type of audio. But if you know your way around equalization (EQ) settings, you can bridge the gap among the three factors, and your music will shine in almost any gear.
Whether you’re new to EQ or looking for the latest tricks and recommendations, this guide is all you need to become a master of sculpting your sounds. Follow along as we discuss sound equalization and the best equalizer settings for different sound types.
Why Equalizers Exist
Equalizers have been around for a long time. For the older generation, the tiny little sliders that existed on Zeppelin record players may ring a bell, but EQ is now all-digital in modern devices such as smartphones and laptops. But why do equalizers exist? And why do you need to EQ your music if the professional engineers have already done it? Well, equalizers exist to give you the option to customize sounds for two main reasons:
1. To Alter Sounds To Your Preference
The human ear can hear sounds within frequencies of 20Hz to 20 kHz. But how much you can actually hear in between that frequency range varies with age, environment, and your ear physiology. Therefore, everyone hears sound differently with changing loudness preferences and expectations. Thus, the sound engineer will optimize music within the human-audible frequencies, but equalizers help boost or cut the frequencies according to your liking.
A good EQ gives you broader control over basic bass or treble tuning. You can tweak sound frequencies to focus on specific instruments, vocals, or elements of a song. For instance, when listening to a podcast, you can boost the frequency of lyrics to be dominant over other frequencies. That way, you won’t miss a word as the vocals become louder. Also, you can attenuate the imperfect frequencies or tone down high frequencies that cause rapid ear fatigue.
2. To Cover Up The Limitations Of Different Playback Systems
Music sounds as good as the interpretation of the sound signal by the playback system. While some audio systems sound better than others do, there is nothing perfect for all audio types. Therefore, even the best home theatre systems or In-Ear-Monitors (IEMs) need the help of an equalizer to smoothen the hardware quirks.
In most cases, several EQ tweaks will turn okay sound quality to excellent sound for most audio systems worth their salt. However, the EQ will only boost an already good audio system’s performance and can worsen the sound quality of a flawed playback system. So, consider the quality of your audio system, the type of audio, and the file compression type before sliding the EQ controls to their maximum.
What Is An Equalizer?
An equalizer is an audio processor that allows tweaking of sound frequencies to improve overall quality or decrease/boost specific frequencies’ dominance. They work within the human-audible frequencies of between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, with different equalizer types having varying sound control and accuracy. And as mentioned earlier, an equalizer helps balance frequencies to suit sound quality in different environments, listening methods, and personal preferences.
Old equalizer types are mostly hardware-based, with frequency-dedicated physical knobs for audio manipulation. A good example would be the three-tone knobs present on car stereos and instrument amplifiers for ‘bass,’ ‘mid-range,’ and ‘treble’ control. And these early equalizers still exist in many consumer electronics and advance more with many knobs and sliders in studio recording equipment and DJ mixers.
Even so, many people are more familiar with digital equalizers available on their laptops, smartphones, and music streaming services like Amazon Music. These built-in equalizers have more control sliders than the fundamental traditional equalizers but can’t match those in advanced studio equipment. But the baseline is, they give you the ability to personalize your listening experience and cover the aforementioned audio quality limitations.
What You Should Know About Equalizers: Understanding Common EQ Terms
Tweaking EQ settings is fun, but you won’t get far if you don’t know what is actually happening. The numerous sliders with labels do different controls to varying elements of sounds, and there are technical terms you’ll need to be familiar with. Let’s look at some of the audio terminologies you’ll encounter while EQ-ing with a digital equalizer:
Without going into the deep technical definition, frequency in “audio” terms refers to the number of complete cycles (vibrations) of a sound wave in a given time frame. The vibrations, caused by air movement as the speaker’s diaphragm moves back and forth, are what our ears turn into sound. And, frequency, measured in Hertz, indicates the number of complete vibration cycles in one second.
The more the cycles completed per second, the higher the frequency and consequently, the higher the pitch (notes) and vice versa. Meaning, bass or sub-bass notes exist within the low-frequency ranges, while mid-range and highs exist within higher frequencies. Technically, low-frequency sounds require more power; thus, bigger speakers are necessary, while high frequencies take less power and hence smaller speakers.
2. Frequency Spectrum/Range
Frequency spectrum or range refers to the frequencies audible to the ears, and in this case, the human ear. But as earlier noted, numerous factors limit our ears to perceive the whole 20Hz – 20 kHz spectrum, and an equalizer helps us boost the frequencies we like or cut out dislikes.
Every slider in an EQ controls two things: the center frequency and the bandwidth. The center frequency, indicated under every slider, shows the specific frequency each slider can adjust. In comparison, the bandwidth shows the control frequency range of each slider, usually the difference between center frequencies of adjacent sliders. Bandwidth shows the quality or fineness of frequency adjustment for each slider. In other words, a shorter range (narrow bandwidth) has a higher quality control than a longer range (broad bandwidth). For instance, the bass or treble knobs in car stereos have extensive bandwidth, thus lower quality control than digital equalizers.
Below is a breakdown of the frequency ranges in digital equalizers:
20 Hz-60 Hz: This is the frequency range for the first slider on the left side of the EQ. It’s super low of frequencies, and you’ll need a high-quality subwoofer to hear them or a pair of high-end IEMs. Only sub-bass and kick drum sounds exist here.
60 Hz-200 Hz: Also a low frequency range and is audible in most decent speakers and subwoofers. Again, the significant instruments within this low-frequency range are bass drums and other bass instruments.
200 Hz-600 Hz: This frequency range is the lowest of mid-range. Most low-end musical instruments like guitars and pianos reside here, with most small speakers reproducing this frequency range as a “woofy” bass sound. You’ll also hear low-end vocals and mid-bass instruments here.
600 Hz-3,000 Hz: Here, we’re right into mid-range frequencies. Vocals and most musical instruments such as guitars and snare drums fall here, with this frequency range being the most perceived by most people. Also, you adjust the sliders here to cut or boost the “nasal” sound in your music (the voice you make when talking while holding your nose).
3,000 Hz-8,000 Hz: This spectrum represents the upper mid-ranges, where most cymbals and hi-hats reside. If well adjusted, the music sounds great but can otherwise also ruin everything. Violins, upper range synths, pianos, and other upper range instruments play here. Also, most vocals have the bulk of their information within this range.
8,000 Hz and above: Theoretically, this range can go as high as 20 kHz for humans, so it is truly high-end of human-audible frequencies. Sliders under this frequency range will add a “sizzly” effect to songs as you crank them up.
See our article on Audio Frequency Spectrum Explained for more of an overview of this topic.
Each EQ slider alters the frequencies and the sound decibels-indicated with positive and negative values on each end of the sliders. Ideally, a tweak on either side of the sliders changes the loudness or volume level (measured in decibels) of that frequency within the overall sound output. Sliding to the positive side raises the volume while sliding to the negative side lowers the volume of respective frequencies. A pro tip here, equalizers are very sensitive, and it’s usually advisable you make minor adjustments slowly to avoid a sudden dramatic change to the audio.
Filters are added controls over boosting or cutting the frequencies. They either increase, attenuate, or pass specific frequency ranges to trim down extreme highs and lows. Simply put, filters eliminate the slider’s exaggeration on the frequencies to keep the spectrum within what you want. For instance, low-pass and high-pass filters tone down extremely low frequency or high frequency sounds. On the other hand, bandpass filters keep the sounds within a specified frequency range by attenuating anything outside that range.
Best Equalizer Settings
As helpful and convenient as it would be to have a single ultimate equalizer setting for all audio types, it’s simply impossible. The sounds in movies, games, and varying music genres are different and made with varying musical instruments. We’re sorry to also to tell you that there’s no one-size-fit-all EQ template for each sound type either. Instead, the best equalizer setting will depend on your personal preference and the quality of your audio hardware.
That said, digital equalizers come with predefined equalizer settings, known as presets, for specific sound types and different listening environments. For instance, there are presets for ‘Rock’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Pop’, among others, and you can set the sound stage to small, medium, large, or any other room size. And the good thing is, you can build your equalizer settings up from the presets or start from scratch (when all sliders are at the flat level, 0 dB point).
The golden rule while tuning the EQ is always to trust your ears. And making minor adjustments until you get to where you want. Also, it’s always good to first test the audio quality when the equalizer is at the “Flat” level, where your audio system interprets the sound as originally recorded with no frequency altering.
And to give your EQ-tuning journey a good start, below are the adjustments we found to better the sound of different audio types. We also have a bonus of the best equalizer settings that we found to better the sound quality of various audio types.
Best Equalizer Settings for Music
We know you have a favorite music genre and a preferred sound quality for it. Everyone does, anyway. And when it comes to the best equalizer settings for music, the genre significantly impacts what you can comfortably tweak. In fact, presets came about to help you know where to start for most genres, and most presets sound pretty good even without changing a thing.
The key to getting the best EQ settings for any music genre is to adjust the frequencies where most of its instruments and vocals exist. And, of course, focusing more on improving how they sound to your ears. For instance, if you’re a fan of bass or dance music, boost the lows to your favorite level and lower the highs to make the bass more dominant. And remember to keep the mid-ranges intact or alter minimally to maintain clarity. On the other hand, for lovers of high-pitched music like the Classical genre, lower the bass and the mid-ranges slightly to improve clarity and use a low-pass filter to keep the highs reasonable.
Below are some genre-specific equalizer settings tips:
Acoustic music: Pump the bass, mid-ranges, and highs slightly to keep the instruments and vocals as clear as possible, without going overboard or sounding unnatural. Below is our best equalizer setting for acoustic music.
Electronic music: Here, the bass is super important, and since vocals are not a primary focus, you can pump the high ranges a little bit. Check the below example, and tweak as you wish.
Piano and classical music: Most instruments for these genres are pianos, acoustic guitars, violins, and full orchestra. Here, the last thing you want to do is overdo adjustment on any frequency range, as you will undoubtedly affect the clarity. Boost all the frequencies slightly to keep the lows, mid-ranges, and highs at an almost equal volume, something close or better than our example below.
Pop music: For pop lovers, the aim is to keep the vocals and mid-ranges as clear as possible. Boost the mid-ranges over low and high frequencies, and don’t leave the low-mid and high-mid behind. Check the example below.
Rock music: Here, focus on getting as much detail of the electric guitars and bass drums as possible by boosting the low and high frequency ranges while keeping the mid-range adjustments as low as possible. Check the below equalizer settings example for classical Rock music.
Best Equalizer Settings for Podcasts and Audiobooks
To get the best vocals for your podcasts and audiobooks, focus on tuning the EQ to optimize human speech. Sometimes it can be tricky, considering people speak differently based on their gender, age, and tone deviations. From our testing, we recommend you target 125 Hz for adult male speakers, 200 Hz for adult females, and between 250 Hz to 400 Hz for children of any gender. A pro tip here, rather than directly boosting the mentioned frequencies, you should drown out the other frequencies as much as possible instead.
Best Equalizer Settings for Gaming
Finding the correct equalizer settings for gaming shouldn’t be as hard as choosing the suitable gaming headsets. Here, you only need to consider the type of the game and the sound improvement that would better the game experience. The focus for most games would be a sound that brings the feeling of being part of the action, where you’re aware of the game’s atmosphere and environment.
Keeping your ears alert for easy enemy-spotting is paramount in fighting games, while most story-based games require an extra feel of the surrounding. We found a boost of frequencies between 2000 to 4000 Hz achieving the sound goals for most fighting games, while a gain on the low frequencies bettered story-based plays. Check our best equalizer settings recommendation for gaming below.
Best Equalizer Settings for Movies
You cannot separate heavy bass sound effects with movies, but you can tune the EQ to boost the vocals and music while minimizing the possibility of rattling your speakers. Even so, some people like the movie sound as it is with some tweaking to improve clarity. In that case, boost the lows and slightly cut the higher midranges and the highs. For best results, slightly increase the lows and highs until the EQ curve forms a smile shape.
If the dialogue becomes unclear, consider cutting the lows and highs slightly and gradually boosting the mids until you’re satisfied with the quality. A word of caution here, keep any adjustment as slow and gradual as possible to minimize the possibility of distortion or bursting your speakers.
Harman Target Curve
The Harman Target Curve is a gold standard in the audiophile world for what is considered an acceptable tonality for a vast proportion of people. Sean Olive who founded the concept developed a study which aimed at developing controlled listening test methods which sound engineers could use to accurately predict a headphones sound most preferred by listeners. Since many audiophiles value the tuning of the Harman Target, they may purchase a headphone based on how close its frequency response tuning is to the curve. However, for those with headphones that may not be as close to the Harman Target Curve, parametric equalizer settings can be adjusted to mimic this target frequency response.
The perfect listening experience is highly subjective and changes with sound type, audio equipment, and environment. With a high-quality audio system and a relatively quiet environment, you can enjoy good sound quality without tweaking any frequencies. But in most cases, we lack one or both, prompting for using the equalizer to bridge the gap.
Once you master the art of EQ tuning, your listening experience will never be the same again. However, the suitability of specific equalizer settings will change as other factors change, and you’ll be making changes as frequently as you need to. All in all, we hope this guide has given you everything you need to become a master sculptor of your sound quality. Now, have fun as you find the best equalizer settings without the intimidation of technical jargons.
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