How To EQ Your Headphones

Equalizing (also known as EQing) is a way for you to customize your listening experience by adjusting the tonal qualities of your headphones. This can be done using a physical equalizer or EQ software. Both of these methods will allow you to control the level of a range of frequencies, either increasing or decreasing their effect.

What is Equalization (EQ)?

Equalization is the process of customizing the sound profile by making changes to the prominence of particular frequencies. Audio is a spectrum of frequencies, and each headphone (or speaker) has a unique presentation for these frequencies. For example, some may have more elevation in the bass range, while others may have more accentuated treble. An equalizer allows you to adjust the levels of these frequency ranges to tune the frequencies by either boosting them or lowering them.

The amount of EQing you need to perform will depend on the quality of the headphone and the way it is tuned. High-quality open-back headphones, for instance, will typically require less EQing than cheap closed-back options.

Why Should I EQ My Headphones?

Equalizing a pair of headphones can elevate your listening experience in several ways, including:

Customizing the Sound Qualities

Depending on your music preferences, you may find yourself needing to boost or cut certain frequencies in order to enhance your listening experience. For example, if you enjoy bass-heavy music, you may need to slightly boost the lower frequencies of your headphones if they have a flatter response in the lower register. Fans of jazz, for example, may need to raise the level of the high frequencies to get more detail out of their headphones. There are no right or wrong moves here. How you equalize your headphones is entirely up to you.

Improving the Sound Quality

In some cases, the default frequency response of a pair of headphones may not be ideal for what you’re trying to enjoy. For instance, if you listen to various music genres and notice that your headphones perform well in one genre but not in another, equalizing your headphones can help you tune the headphones to perform best for whatever practice you’re using them for. You may even wish to EQ them differently depending on whether you’re producing music, simply listening to it, or gaming.

If you opt to use software to EQ, you can create profiles that you can easily switch between depending on your intended use. While some physical equalizers allow the same function, it isn’t something that’s available on all equalizers.

Fixing Unbalanced/Uneven Frequencies

You might come across a pair of headphones that ticks all the boxes for you but perhaps is a little too sharp in the higher frequencies, for example. Using equalization, you can reduce the harshness of this frequency band, leveling out the frequency response to help you achieve a more balanced and natural sound. In many cases, equalizers can turn a good pair of headphones into a great-sounding pair.

headphone eq

Ways of Equalizing Your Headphones

There are several ways of incorporating an equalizer into your signal chain in order to alter the frequency response of your headphones. Some examples include:

Equalizing using an Equalizer App

There are loads of equalizer apps available for smartphones, tablets, and even computers, which can be used to adjust the frequency response of your headphones. Some of these apps are available for free but can be limited in terms of features, so if you’re serious about sound quality, it’s worth investing in a paid app that’ll give you complete control over your headphone frequency response.

I personally tend to use Peace APO, a free software program that can easily help you adjust your EQ without the need for additional hardware. Though there are also a number of options for mobile devices too.

Equalizing using onboard device settings

Most smartphones, tablets, and computers can adjust the outgoing audio signal’s frequency response using an EQ function within your Settings features. These are generally fairly limiting, offering a 3-band equalizer at best or sometimes only allowing you to select from a series of EQ presets. I’d recommend checking these out before purchasing an app, especially if you only need some minor adjustments – you might find just what you’re looking for in your device’s Settings.

Equalizing using an external/hardware equalizer

If you’re familiar with using an equalizer and know exactly what you’re looking for, using an external unit can be a great way of achieving the results you’re looking for. These types of standalone equalizers require some know-how when it comes to installing and operating them, but the upgraded advanced control offers a wider range of possible adjustments. In addition to this, hardware equalizers can sometimes impart their own tonal characteristics, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on what you’re looking to accomplish.  

How To Equalise Your Headphones

If you’re unfamiliar with the process of equalization (EQ) it can be pretty overwhelming at first. However, the following steps can be followed to make the experience a little less confusing. You may not achieve the results you’re looking for on your first attempt, even if you’re experienced with equalizing, so it’s important to do as much as you can and take breaks for your ears to acclimatize until you notice additional changes you might want to make.

Before you get started, select a piece of music you’re really familiar with, and not in terms of song structure. We mean a song you know well enough to pick up the differences in sonic qualities when listening on different devices. This will help you to make the best EQ decisions faster. A reference track also doesn’t necessarily need to be a piece of music; it can also be a well-recorded podcast that you’re familiar with or a frequency sweep or pink noise track.

Identify the frequency response of your headphones

Each pair of headphones has its own frequency response, which determines how it replicates the audio signal passing through it. Listening to the headphones for a while, preferably across several styles of music and media will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of the device’s frequency response. I like to take notes during this process, identifying changes I’ll want to make at a later stage once I start working with my reference material.

Always begin with a flat EQ

A flat EQ also referred to as a normalized EQ, is achieved by setting all the parameters to zero, so the EQ is not boosting or cutting any frequencies yet. This allows you to hear what tonal artefacts the equalizer may be dropping onto the music, as well as giving you a fresh baseline to work from as you can hear the natural frequency response of your headphones and the equalizer together.

Identify the frequency bands you want to adjust

While listening to your reference material, identify which frequency bands may be coming in too hot or getting buried in the mix. Compensate for these imbalances by making small adjustments to your equalizer. If you’re using a computer with a DAW installed, you can pull up a frequency spectrum display to show you the weak spots in your frequency response. However, this should be done with caution, as the visual display should never be used as your only reference – use your ears too. If you’re on a smartphone or tablet, you may be able to find a frequency spectrum analyzer app.

Begin to make adjustments

Start by making really tiny adjustments to the EQ, even if you think you can dive right in and start twisting knobs. Starting with small movements will eliminate the possible need for going back and forth to fix mistakes at a later stage. As you make these incremental adjustments, listen to how the overall sound of the reference track is affected, and make your way around the frequency spectrum accordingly.

Experiment with presets

While some prefer doing the work themselves, it’s never a bad idea to take a look through the EQ presets available on your device. You may be lucky enough to land on a preset that alters the sound just as you want it, or it may only require fine-tuning. Scrolling through EQ presets also shows how the equalizer behaves since not all equalizers are clean and transparent.

Save your settings

If you’re using a digital equalizer, it’s never a bad idea to save your progress, even if you haven’t reached a sound you are happy with just yet. Being able to recall your user-created preset avoids the need for equalizing your headphones every time you want to use them.

Fine-tune as you go

As mentioned above, it’s unlikely that you’ll find your perfect frequency response in one sitting. Equalizing is a process that can take several sessions until you find what you’re looking for, so play around with it and have fun.

By following the above steps, you should be able to effectively EQ your headphones to suit your personal listening preferences.

If you’re looking to make your headphones louder without necessarily altering their tonal signature, refer to our guide on increasing headphone output levels.

If you have any questions about EQing headphones, don’t hesitate to drop us a comment below, and we’ll do our best to further refine your knowledge around equalizing.

Matthew Cox - Author
Written by
Matthew Cox

Matthew is an audio engineering graduate with a strong passion for post-production, recording engineering, and audio technology. Matthew is also an experienced musician with over a decade of experience in recording, touring, and performing. Matthew enjoys studying the inner workings of audio equipment and acoustics theory.

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