Realphones aims to put all the software tools you need for perfect headphone monitoring in one neat package.
There are now many 'room correction' systems, which will measure the acoustics of your control room and attempt to flatten them out in software. The same principles can be applied to headphone monitoring — arguably, with fewer compromises — but there seems to be much less choice. Sonarworks' Reference system has thus cornered a large part of the market for headphone correction, and Toneboosters' Morphit was the only alternative I knew of. Now, there's a third contender...
Realphones, from Russian developers dSONIQ, closely resembles Sonarworks Reference in many ways, but there's one key difference. Whereas Reference is designed to work equally well with headphones and loudspeaker-based monitoring systems, Realphones is targeted purely at the former. But, unlike Reference, it doesn't just correct for the deficiencies of your headphones: it includes optional binaural processing that attempts to recreate the experience of listening on loudspeakers in a control room. So you could think of Realphones as combining the functionality of Reference with that of Waves' Nx (albeit without the head-tracking), or the old Focusrite VRM Box.
I'm not sure whether Sonarworks will feel more flattered or alarmed by the similarities between Reference and Realphones, but these similarities are too obvious to go unnoticed. Like Reference, Realphones is available both as a plug‑in (in VST, AAX and Mac AU versions) and as a 'system-wide' utility. This latter interposes itself between your operating system and audio interface, so it looks to music software like a stereo output device, and is certainly the easiest solution if you never need to switch to loudspeakers. With the plug‑in version, of course, you need to take care to avoid inadvertently bouncing mixes through Realphones.
There's no Sonarworks-style visual indication of what EQ curve is being applied to your headphones but, to compensate, Realphones does have one or two nice features that aren't available in Reference. The system-wide utility has a built-in music player that could be used to house your mix references, and all versions boast a comprehensive set of mix checking tools. As well as the expected mono button, these include the option to audition only the Sides signal, separate left and right channel mutes, channel swapping, right-channel polarity flipping and a three-band DJ-style crossover that can be used to solo or mute the low, mid and high frequency bands. I could wish that they had gone still further and made the system-wide version a plug‑in host in its own right, so that you could use your own choice of analysis tools, but this would be a huge development job.
Like Sonarworks, dSONIQ supply generic correction profiles for various popular models of headphones; these are averaged from measurements taken from multiple test samples, so reflect the broad character of each model. If you want correction that's accurate to more than ±3dB or so, you can send your specific pair of headphones to their labs, where they will generate a custom measurement file for you. Again, this mirrors the identical service provided by Sonarworks. At the time of writing, the list of headphones for which a generic Realphones profile is available isn't quite as comprehensive as the Sonarworks equivalent, but it's still pretty impressive, clocking in at over 90 models. Pricing varies depending on how many of these you need access to, with the 'full fat' Ultimate Pack offering unlimited choice and the most affordable Lite Pack including only generic Open and Closed profiles, rather than anything specific to a particular headphone model.
As with Sonarworks, it's possible to apply less than 100 percent correction, but there are also a couple of other controls relating to headphone correction that are unique to Realphones: Presence and Pressure. Everyone's head is a slightly different shape, and headphone earpads deteriorate with use; Pressure is intended to compensate for perceived changes in headphone timbre due to tighter or looser fit. The audible effect is of a very gentle shelving EQ, bringing up the bass and low-mids at positive settings and attenuating them at settings below zero. I never found I wanted to shift this away from this centre position.
The Presence control is supposed to recreate psychoacoustic effects caused by our own bodies, heads and outer ear, which take place in a diffuse field but are missing on headphones. The effects of this control are most apparent in the upper mid-range; I found that the default 75 percent setting gave everything an unpleasantly gritty, sibilant edge, and I much preferred it backed off a bit.
Creating a level playing field between Realphones and Sonarworks requires Pressure and Presence both to be set to zero, and Realphones' other processing modules to be turned off. Doing this reveals that although the two packages usually pull in the same direction, there are differences in the detail. For example, the generic profile for the Oppo PM‑3s in both cases attenuates the lower mids and applies a broad treble lift, but Realphones places more of an emphasis on the 2kHz region, while Sonarworks seems to focus its efforts a little higher up the spectrum. Likewise, both packages agree that the Audeze LCD‑X need a bit of a boost in the upper mids, but Sonarworks applies it a touch more vigorously. Headphone calibration is not an entirely objective matter, and neither is right or wrong — but both are, in my opinion, a worthwhile improvement on the unprocessed sound.
However, that wasn't the case with my Shure SRH1840s. I think of these as being pretty neutral to start with, and the generic Sonarworks SRH1840 profile echoes that assessment, changing very little below 8kHz or so. By contrast, Realphones altered the sound of the cans substantially, and not for the better. The 'corrected' SRH1840s sounded dull and honky.
The additional psychoacoustic processing in Realphones is divided between three related modules called Binaural Room Simulation, Binaural Sound Source Positioning and Speaker Simulation. The first lets you choose a room and monitor position from a drop-down list: currently this is populated only by the three options available for the unnamed 'Moscow film studio'. An Ambience slider runs from 0 to 200 percent, the centre position mimicking the amount of room reflections a real-world listener would hear. Thus, if you mute the Ambience or reduce it to zero, switching between the monitor positions only has an effect if the Speaker Simulation module is active.
The choice of virtual speaker can be set to follow the selection made in the Room Simulation module, so that switching to the C position in that module automatically loads the NS10 emulation in the Speaker Simulation module and so on; but it doesn't have to. There's a total of 12 options to choose from, including several other pairs of Yamaha monitors, BBC LS3/5As, Auratones and various consumer systems. The amount of speaker simulation can be varied using a wet/dry control labelled Speaker Response, and you also get another pair of more obscure controls labelled Density and Warmth. Density is supposed to compensate for the absence of the low end that we feel rather than hear when listening loud on speakers, while Warmth is intended to mimic the subjective low-mid buildup that arises in real rooms due to off-axis radiation from the speakers, and room reflections.
Finally, the Sound Source Positioning module feeds the output of the emulated speakers and room into your ears via a generic head-related transfer function (HRTF). You can vary the apparent angle of the loudspeakers, and a control labelled HRTF Focus "converts diffuse sound field coloration to free sound field coloration". In practice, the most obvious effect of this is that the sound field seems more evenly distributed at high settings: at zero, there's a tendency for sources within a stereo mix to bunch together at the extremes or in the middle. In a product that is otherwise very comprehensive, I was a little surprised that there's no option to load different HRTF files; you are limited to the generic supplied profile, with no real way of knowing how well that suits your own hearing. However, one very neat touch is the inclusion in the mix-checking section of a single-speaker button. This is different from just hitting the mono button, which produces 'phantom centre' mono with its attendant bass rise.
The control set is completed by a basic three-band EQ, just in case all the other tone-shaping facilities weren't enough for you, and an output limiter. A row of five slots at the top of the interface can be used to store snapshots of the entire setup, which is great when you want to quickly switch to, say, a mono Auratone to check vocal balance.
In use, there were times when I felt that Realphones offers almost too much control. For example, I understand that settings such as Density, Warmth and Pressure all simulate entirely different, and perfectly real, real-world phenomena. In practice, however, their audible effects tend to be quite similar, especially at low levels. With obscure and relatively subtle controls such as these and HRTF Focus, it can be hard to know what the 'right' setting actually is — especially as, in some cases, the settings that dSONIQ recommend as starting points for some controls didn't work for me.
You can send your specific pair of headphones to their labs, where they will generate a custom measurement file.
In other words, it takes some confidence to work effectively with Realphones, because you need to set it up by ear, rather than just relying on recommended settings or considering what each control is supposed to do in theory. To arrive at settings that will work for you, it's pretty much essential to tweak the controls while listening to reference material you know well. And with so many different parts of the monitor chain being modelled and corrected in so much detail, it's no surprise that some combinations of settings can make music sound over-processed or cloudy.
However, I don't want to exaggerate the difficulty here. A couple of hours playing around will definitely get you into the right ballpark, and in no time you'll have the five snapshot slots populated, ready for those instant switching moves that can be so revealing. I didn't get the opportunity to try a pair of individually calibrated headphones, but apart from the Shures, the generic profiles I tried all struck me as very plausible, always nudging the sound of the headphones in a direction that I perceived as subjectively more neutral — even if this wasn't always exactly the same flavour of neutrality that Sonarworks applied to the same headphones.
Once I'd got the room and speaker simulation set up to my satisfaction, I also found these features genuinely worthwhile. It's been a long time since I cranked up my Focusrite VRM Box, but I remember it being a very useful aid to ensuring that mixes would translate between systems, and the same is true here. Without the head-tracking that is used in products like Waves Nx, you don't ever really feel like you are actually sat in a control room in front of a pair of speakers, but that's not really the point, and I tend to feel that head-tracking undermines some of the strengths of headphones as a monitoring tool anyway. The extended (compared with Sonarworks) mix-checking options on offer here are also really handy, and match those available on almost any large-format console or hardware monitor controller.
All in all, although it's new to me, Realphones already feels like a very mature and sophisticated product, which simultaneously compensates for the foibles of your particular pair of phones and recreates many of the positive aspects of loudspeaker listening. Indeed, dSONIQ's Alexey Khaiminov is insistent that combining these effectively is only practical in a package like Realphones where the same measurement and calibration methodology can be applied systematically. If you have to mix on headphones, Realphones has the potential to make a real difference.
- Effective headphone frequency correction.
- Versatile speaker and room simulation.
- Very useful 'master section' mix-checking functions.
- Feels like a mature and polished product.
- Can be used as a plug‑in or as a stand-alone system-wide application.
- Some of the controls are quite obscure.
- There seem to be one or two bad apples among the headphone profiles.
- No way of visualising the correction curve that's being applied.
- It would be nice if user HRTFs could be loaded.
Realphones is a heavyweight package that combines headphone correction, speaker simulation and virtual control-room acoustics to powerful effect.
Realphones Lite Pack £59. Professional Pack £79. Ultimate Pack £145.
Realphones Lite Pack $65. Professional Pack $89. Ultimate Pack $165.