$Free (until early 2019)
PAT PILCHER dons the cans to test out Sonarworks True-Fi. So was it just another case of snake oil, or does this offering actually have merit?
There is no limit to the amount of snake oil peddled by the Hi-fi/AV industry. From stupidly priced HDMI and USB cables to magic plugs designed to clean up audio, the amount of BS peddled is phenomenal.
So, when I stumbled across Sonarworks True-Fi, I was somewhat sceptical, if not downright dubious. It turns out that in this case, my doubts were misplaced.
Sonarworks claim their app can massively help to improve headphone audio. The theory goes that installing and firing up True-Fi can deliver something approximating studio level accuracy to cans via an Android (or iOS) phone.
Sonarworks has been around for PCs for some time, and its sound-processing gear is in use in over 20,000 recording studios. While they may be a credible player, I was still suspicious and wondering if they were simply pushing outrageous claims and peddling said reptilian oil to somehow make a fast buck. After all, every product development department has their day, and True-Fi could just be a highly public marketing department brain fart.
Here’s the thing: It does work and it isn’t digital smoke and mirrors.
True-Fi exploits existing Sonarworks tech called Reference 4 that uses digital signal processing that allows audio engineers to replicate different speakers, or remove ‘sound colouration’.
Sonarworks seem to have done the impossible and migrated their sound-processing tech and compacted it into a teensy Android or iOS app. The app maps out the frequency response of more than 289 different headphone brands/models and employs some audio processing magic to compensate for the variations across the audible sound spectrum from each model.
In theory, this means that the tech knows where there are dips and bumps in the audio characteristics of each catalogued set of cans. Armed with these pre-known audio characteristics, the app can flatten or boost sounds so they gets more accurately reproduced.
So, if that’s the theory, did it work?
As lovely as it would be to say that True-Fi transforms any pair of ho-hum headphones into magical ear wear, that isn’t quite the case. What it did do though, was a great job of correcting the annoyances of many headphones (and my hearing) in a crazily easy fashion.
I lined up three pairs of cans to test. First up were the amazing Sony WH-1000XM3’s, these were followed by an ageing pair of Beats Studio 3’s, and some Apple EarPod wireless earbuds. With each test, I selected the relevant headphones in the app and answered questions about my age, gender and so on. I then pointed the app at some high bitrate classical, dub, trance and rock Mp3 tracks to put each set of cans through their paces (the True-Fi app can play music stored on a phone or via spotify). The results varied from good to startling.
Donning the Sony WH-1000XM3’s, I found a layer of highs that had previously not been present. Their already excellent soundstage also felt significantly more expansive and detailed. While the extra treble was a definite bonus, I found that electronica I tested sounded over-processed. This is probably in part due to lo-fi sample loops being used and fiddled with too much in the studio. Firing up some trinity roots saw my noggin bathed in some warm and fluid-like bass and then rudely slapped back to earth by kick drums and snares packing some real punch.
Beethoven’s 9th – always a good test – also delivered the goods as the choir filled my loaf with the ‘Ode To Joy’, I was transported back to the Michael Fowler Centre as the NZSO did its thing.
So, the verdict? Snake oil or sonic nirvana? With the WH-1000XM3’s, True-Fi took what was already great and mostly polished it into a dazzling state. In some instances, audio felt a little too processed and artificial, but the overall result impressed.
Things were even better with the Beats Studio 3 wireless cans. Beats are an exercise in marketing over audio quality in that they typically offer up less than stellar highs, and a waffly/boomy low-end that often obscures mids. Pairing them with True-Fi saw their audio lifted to offer up crisp highs, tighter, more controlled bass and a soundstage that seemed a lot more expansive.
The toughest test of all, however, was a pair of Apple’s Ear Pods. Feeling like I was stuffing a couple of tiny and very expensive golf tees into my ears, I fired up True Fi and my test tracks. Earpods are more about convenience than decent audio, and in testing them after both the Beats Studio 3’s and Sony WH-1000XM3’s, their sound seemed thin and brittle. This was probably an unfair test as no app can create audio information the earpods cannot transmit. With True-Fi enabled some much-needed clarity was noticeable in the mids while detail in the highs became more pronounced. That said, the distinction between default playback and True-Fi on the EarPods was at best subtle. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by how much chunkier their bass response felt. This isn’t anything to sneeze at, as below 100hz, there isn’t much that Apple’s earpods can deliver. With True-Fi switched on, their audio felt significantly warmer and lows/lower mids had more heft.
This might not be a magic cure-all for fixing what ails a bad pair of cans but it can take a couple of average to boring mid-range headphones/earbuds and really help them shine.
With a pair of high-end cans, such as Sony’s WH-1000XM3’s, True-Fi will eliminate some of their quirks. That can be both a blessing and a curse as you may find that what attracted you to them in the first place (natural sounding audio) has gone (replaced with synthetic sounding samples). Still, given True-Fi is free until the beginning of 2019, it is a no-brainer for any smartphone toting headphone wearing Witchdoctor fan wanting to wring the best out of their ear-gear.