Friday, March 21, 2014

My Sony EX85LP story and custom EQ

Throughout my experience testing and using earphones, I've found more and more that I can't live without using equalization to flatten the response as best as possible. Finding a very neutral earphone that doesn't require any EQ is quite a challenge. There are a few very nice earphones that have excellent frequency responses and overall quality. However, I haven't found a single example of an earphone that I have been satisfied with using no EQ whatsoever.  Some are closer than others.

One of my all time favorites is the Etymotic ER4S. It has a very linear response overall, but lacks the lowest bass region, namely the sub bass below say 50-80hz. Things drop off quickly here and the sound becomes what some people describe as thin or light. There are also a few very small peaks in the mid treble and treble areas. As small as they are, once you hear an earphone without peaks, it's hard to go back to listening with them.

The PFE112 is another example. Without EQ they sound exceptionally detailed and coherent. The overall response is fairly neutral up to about 1khz. But as the ER4S lacks sub bass, the PFE112 had extra treble. There are a few peaks in the treble that add a noticeable rasp in a lot of material. Luckily, these peaks can be tamed with EQ, and the PFE112 turns into a very nice earphone. The one area it fails though is with distortion. The distortion levels are just at the point where they are slightly audible. At least in the sense that EQ will only get them so smooth and clear, before reaching a detail threshold. There always seems to be a level of micro detail depth that remains veiled. I still highly recommend these earphones and would gladly take them over some of the most expensive earphones out there, even with the distortion, because of their excellent response and easy EQ-ability. However, I am always on the search for the perfect earphone, whether it exists or not.

The TDK BA200 is another fine earphone, as is the Sony MH1. With a single bass cut EQ point, the MH1 turns into a very reference sounding earphone. But I'm here to talk about another Sony wonder. Actually, my first "serious" earphone at the time.

The Sony EX85LP.

Those in the earphone community will probably scoff at this point, as this is now a budget earphone that typically sells for $20-40 on amazon or ebay. However, I paid around $80 for it new quite a few years back. I was highly impressed by it's overall quality. At the time I liked the overly bassy response, as I felt it portrayed speaker-like bass better than most. And considering the bass, the treble details were surprisingly comfortable and detailed, albeit a little warm. This warmth and lack of super airy treble actually started me on my search for a better earphone, which led to a search for an even better earphone than that, and so on and so on. Now they sound bloated and muffled to my ears. Ha.

Yet here I am today, having the had the opportunity to try some of the most highly regarded universal earphones on the market; The  Westone 4R, Sennheiser IE800, Audeo Phonak PFE232, Shure 535, FitEar F111, etc., etc. And what do I find? They all require EQ to sound their best, or even to sound near flat. Some much more than others, despite their price. And a flat response is what I'm after. Target curves and graphs and all that fun stuff are for another post, needless to say that I prefer a flat response similar to the Olive-Welti curve.  So why am I telling you all of this? Because of the Sony EX85LP.

After applying EQ to even the most expensive earphones, I have found that some respond better than others. The ER4S handles EQ superbly, while the PFE112 indeed handles EQ very well to achieve a pretty flat response, but the bass can only go so far, before it is obvious that more doesn't necessarily mean better. It starts to show that is is simply physically incapable of more than a certain degree of bass without simply not sounding right. Luckily, I don't prefer any more bass than they can produce, nonetheless there is still the distortion. EQ can only push an earphone as far as it's specs allow in this regard as well. You can't equalize away any distortion, nor can you equalize away problems with noise isolation, etc. However, in my personal experience, if these other specification are all in check, there isn't much that EQ can't do for the most part.

An ER4S with a few minor EQ points is a veritable beast to be reckoned with. However, for some they aren't particularly comfortable or preferable in every situation, and they have a certain type of sound presentation most people might describe as in-the-head or having a small soundstage. However, they are my maximum isolation, reference monitors. The PFE112 have been my goto all around earphones. But lately the distortion has been starting to irritate me, keeping me wanting for that last bit of resolution. The MH1 do a great job, and I highly recommend them, but for me personally, I find the insertion depth to be inconsistent each time I use them. I spend more time fitting them properly than I'd like. In comes the EX85LP.

Ironically, these were the first major earphone purchase for me, and also ironically, these are still one of the most capable earphones I have ever heard.  What a bargain! Upon first listen, for those familiar with earphones that are technically more neutral, the EX85LP will appear overly bassy, and not particularly reference or accurate in the treble, despite this they sound soothing in a way. Anyhow, checking the specs and measurements over at the Rin Choi's excellent blog, you will find very low distortion levels, and no major deficiency in frequency extension.

However, the stock frequency response is definitely on the bassier, warmer side of things. With Rin's graph as a starting point, and some listening and comparing with other earphones, I have generated what I consider an EQ setting that greatly improves their accuracy. So much so, I was shocked the first time I really listened to them after applying the final EQ. The low distortion allows very detailed micro resolution and depth, and once the response peaks and troughs are rectified, they sound incredibly open and smooth and flat.

Keep in mind, everyone's ears are different, and there are different acoustic properties of the ear canal that can change from one person to another. However, a person's ear acoustics can affect an earphone whether it is flat or not, and this eq should bring the response closer to a flat graphed response.  I recommend trying it for a while, and see if it works for you. They give the more expensive earphones a good run for their money. I'd say if you don't mind using EQ, they are up there with the MH1 in terms of value, and easily compete with much more expensive earphones. They may not have that ultra smooth response of the ER4S, but nor do they cost $300. And they have a fairly nice large sound that remains relaxing once EQ is applied.

These settings are for any parametric EQ that allows precise manual entry, such as Accudio for IOS or AUNbandEQ for Mac OSX or any of the high quality free Windows or Linux EQ apps as well. You will need to precut the gain by 8db to account for the highest boost point. As this is for digital EQ, the quality of boosting vs. cutting is the same as long as the precut matches the highest boost point. And generating a corrective EQ based on the response's problem areas is much easier than subtracting everything else (geeky EQ stuff). Without further ado, here are the settings.

Sony EX85LP EQ
Hz 70 1310 2450 4560 6800 8740 14650 17590
dB -5 -1.2 7.8 -5.5 -8.8 6.1 -10.7 14
BW 4.75 0.6 0.8 0.4 0.28 1 0.4 1
Q 0.2 2.4 1.8 3.6 5.1 1.4 3.6 1.4
updated 05-02-2014

The bandwidth settings can simply be rounded to the nearest whole value if needed. If I find any improvements with the EQ, I will update these settings. As a starting point this should take the EX85LP to a new level that I didn't realize they were capable of. Never just a book by it's cover I suppose...

If you like this EQ setting of have any questions or comments, please let me know below.

UPDATE: I've found an even better way to EQ my earphones based on the available graphs. The updated settings above are even closer in accuracy and I highly recommend giving them a shot for a while. :-)


  1. Hi Luisdent ,
    I would like to thank you for taking the time to explain your IEM journey and thus benefiting others with your discoveries along the way .
    I have a crush for the er4s as well but as i wait for a cable replacement i needed a replacement IEM (excuse) and have been using these Sony EX85LP's .. through a hisound studio and have been taken back at how clean the sound is with a beautiful open soundstage .
    What a Bargain Discovery they are , just as you explained and i have yet to EQ them .
    They do deserve some head fi attention !
    But thanks again and please keep posting )
    Cheers Jono

    1. Yeah, I think they are a great IEM for the price. Comfortable, great resolution and low distortion (very low). However, they are a bit warm with the stock sound. Let me know how you like the updated eq if you get a chance to try it for a while.