When choosing a speaker, the little things can make a big difference. EQ happens to be one of these “little things”, which can turn your normal purchase into an audio-modifying machine. If you’re asking yourself what EQ is, then read on and be prepared to discover a whole new side to music.
What is EQ and what benefits does it bring to the average iPod listener?
EQ stands for Equalization. To put it short, that is the process of manipulating sound. EQ lets you have your say on what the music you are listening to should sound like. Thanks to preset EQ modes (such as “Surround”, “Jazz”, “Party”, and many others) that many speakers come preinstalled with, emphasizing bass or treble to achieve the sound quality that appeals the most to the listener is as easy as sliding a button.
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So, EQ manipulates sound but… what exactly is sound? Try to imagine sound as a series of vibrations that travel through the air within a given space (like the ripple effect you get when you throw a stone into the lake). The waveforms that reach our ears are perceived as sound. Yet, human ears cannot hear all of these frequencies (yes, it is different in the X-Men movies…) and will mostly perceive what falls in the range from 20Hz up to 20,000Hz, where 20Hz represents the low frequencies and 20,000Hz is the high frequencies. It’s a different matter when it comes to other animals, though. Dogs, for instance, hear a way much wider range (it is not only the X-Men, you see…), and that’s why Spot gets a bit…energetic, at times.
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So, where does EQ stand in all this? EQ plays an important role in listening, recognizing, and modifying all frequencies. Imagine you’re listening to Friday, but you find Rebecca Black’s voice just a bit too high-pitched… simply set your speaker’s EQ mode to low and tune the high-pitched sounds down a notch. And if you fancy Rebecca Black just the way she is, there’s still plenty of reasons to use EQ:
- To correct sounds that have been poorly recorded (yes, like that one video of your graduation ceremony recorded with your father’s old smartphone…).
- To play with the sound to achieve particular and unnatural audio effects (say, for X reasons, you want your best friend’s voice to sound like he is talking through a bullhorn. Well, you can with EQ).
- To apply gain (amount of positive/negative amplification) to audio…simply put, to increase or decrease the sound of certain frequencies (that is going to make Rebecca Black’s voice just easier to hear for everyone).
Now let’s get down to the facts: what’s the magic behind equalizers? Equalizers are equipped with multiple filters in order to realize different effects. Let’s go through each type of filter, see how it works, and what kind of funny and useful effect you can achieve with it.
High-pass and Low-pass Filters
High-pass and Low-pass filters are the simplest filter circuits used within equalizers. A high-pass filter (or low-cut filter) progressively reduces the level of any audio frequencies below a user-specified ‘cutoff’ frequency (frequencies above this point will be left comparatively unchanged).
On the other hand, a low-pass filter (or high-cut filter) reduces the level of frequencies above the cutoff point (frequencies below this point will be left comparatively unchanged).
While high-pass and low-pass filters are extremely useful for cutting (low and high frequencies respectively), a shelving filter will allow us to further shape high- or low-frequencies. In other words, a shelving EQ will apply an equal gain (positive or negative) to all frequencies beyond a preselected frequency, rather than applying a progressive gain change beyond a cutoff point. As such, the user will select the shelving frequency as well as the amount of cut or boost to be applied.
Peaking filters are used to accurately target individual frequency bands (like a sniper shot in the world of sound). This type of EQ allows you to selectively emphasize or attenuate a limited frequency band within the audio spectrum. It usually offers at least two controls (parametric or semi-parametric EQ) : one to set the gain and a second one to specify the centre-frequency of the band to be treated (to say, how much and where exactly the gain will be).
In addition to these, more advanced equalizers allow you to alter the width of the band of frequencies affected by the filter. This goes under the name of Bandwidth, Q, and sometimes Resonance.
Should you feel lost amongst all of these filters, waveforms, frequencies, etc… FEAR NOT. What concerns the average speaker user is just that all these filters are combined in preset modes. According to what filters are used and how (what frequencies are chosen as parameters) each EQ mode will provide a different sound effect and allow you to enjoy your music in a different way.
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Amongst the most common preset EQ modes you will find:
- Flat: known as Standard/Pass mode, too, it keeps the volume of all frequencies from drums to cymbals at approximately the same level. The result is a soft sound ideal for piano, sax, and guitar. It applies to ballad styles, background music, and small room settings
- Party: often referred to as Bass Boost/Bass mode, this setting makes the sound louder, deeper, and brings out the bass. As the name says, it is what you want to go with for a party to get that kind of throbbing bass club atmosphere where sound matters and it has got to be loud.
- High: the kind of mode that tweaks the treble and focuses on high-pitched sound. Ideal for vocals, wind instruments, and some electric guitars, too (note: I definitely would not recommend it if listening to Rebecca Black’s voice…).
- Rock: low and high ranges are made louder while the mid-range is mostly kept at its default level or even made quieter. Given that drums contribute to both the low and high range frequencies (as well as certain types of guitars) it is a preset mode to better enjoy rock music. You say Red Hot Chili Peppers, you say Rock mode.
- Outdoors: ideal for those environments where it might be hard to clearly listen to your music, it delivers more mids for a fuller, richer, and louder sound.
- Surround: the surround or movie mode delivers a 360° audio experience and the impression the sound is all around you and coming at you from all directions. Toretto’s 1970 Dodge Charger R/T has never sounded so close!
Other modes are POP, JAZZ, DANCE, etc. whose names are pretty much self explanatory and suit certain types of music better than others.
In case of doubt on which mode might suit your favorite song, you can refer to the chart below and see where each type of instrument stands and what mode is ideal to emphasize one sound or another.
Wrapping It Up
We talked about bass, treble, frequencies, what sound itself is, EQ modes, Rebecca Black, the RHCP, the amazing 1970 Dodge Charger R/T, and way more. Yet, only one thing really matters: you.
You are the one listening to it all, whether it is Rebecca Black’s high-pitched voice or the RHCP’s throbbing bass sound. You listen. You get to choose. That’s all EQ is about: A way to adjust the music itself to your liking, to personalize your audio experience, to make it yours. …and definitely a point to consider the next time you look online for a new speaker.