What Are Reference Headphones and Speakers (And Should You Buy Them?)

Two MR-4 Edifier Reference Speakers in White

Reference speakers, rather than being designed to make music sound good, are meant to make music sound exactly as it was recorded. This helps audio engineers identify and rectify flaws in the mix, but unless you’re an audiophile you probably won’t enjoy listening with reference gear.

While shopping for new speakers or headphones, you notice some fancy products with the word “reference” in the description. They look slick and have a price tag to match, but what does “reference” mean, and is it right for you?

What Are Reference Speakers and Headphones?

Reference speakers and headphones are speakers designed and tuned to reproduce a recording as accurately as possible. This is crucial in audio recording and music production because it means that any flaws you hear are problems with the recording itself and not a result of the speakers.

Part of what makes a reference speaker what it is comes from how they are tuned. These devices have a “flat” response, which means that the speakers don’t “color” the frequency emphasis of the recording. Consumer audio gear is usually tuned to provide you with a specific sound stage or to emphasize certain frequencies in ways that are not present in the original recording.

Not just this, but the very physical construction of a speaker can add timbral and tonal flavor to playback that can flatter the recording. This is why reference gear can command higher prices. Not only are they aimed at a professional audience who earn a living from music production, but they also need high-quality components and careful design to meet their needs.

Who Should Buy Reference Audio Gear?

Two types of people should consider buying reference audio gear, and we’ve already covered the first one. In other words, if you’re recording and mixing sound for music, podcasts, film scores, or any other professional use case, then you really need to have reference speakers. Just like video editors and graphic artists should have a color-calibrated and accurate monitor, you need the audio equivalent.

Edifier MR4 Powered Studio Monitor Speakers

Edifier’s MR-4 monitors may not win any visual design awards, but they’ll fit right in to home studios or a professional setups. At 42W RMS you blowthe roof off your house, but you will get reference audio for accurate mixes.

The second type of customer who might find these speakers appealing is the so-called “audiophile.” These are discerning listeners who care about reproducing the original recording with minimal loss in quality and without altering it in any way. In other words, if you’re an audiophile you want to hear the music the way the person who mixed it intended.

AKG Pro Audio K361

The AKG Pro Audio K361 offers the perfect balance of budget and acoustic detail for anyone making the step to professional audio mixing, or the word of audiophile music appreciation.

Why Do Reference Speakers Sound “Bad” Sometimes?

If you’ve tried listening to music or other recordings on reference audio gear, you may have come away somewhat unimpressed. It seems weird to think that high-end, often expensive speakers can make music sound “bad,” but it makes perfect sense in the context of reference speakers.

As we mentioned before, the sound tuning of speakers meant for home users often flatters the recording in several ways. It could be tuning that emphasizes aspects of certain music genres, or it might simply be that a certain loss of detail in the audio on these speakers hides flaws in the recording.

With reference speakers or headphones, what you’re hearing is the recording “warts and all,” and in some cases, this can lead to a flat, too-realistic rendition of the recording.

Another factor is that reference speakers, in particular, are often “near field.” In other words, they were designed to be listened to at close range before the natural reverb of the room can influence the sound. Typical consumer-grade speakers are designed for the medium- or far-field since you want the music to fill the room or to sound good for multiple listeners. Not just a single audio engineer sitting in the sweet spot.

RELATED: What Is Adaptive EQ, and How Does It Affect Audio Quality?

What to Buy Instead

If the two main use cases don’t cover you for reference speakers or headphones, then you’re better off taking your money elsewhere – but where?

For discerning listeners who want their music to sound as good as possible, the best overall choice is to get a good set of bookshelf speakers. They’re relatively compact and provide room-filling, detailed sound.

While you can certainly use bookshelf speakers with your computer, often using dedicated PC speakers is better for mixed usage. You may listen to music one minute, gaming the next, and watch movies later. Computer speakers have advanced significantly, so if you’re still using an old set, it’s worth considering.

Debates about the right headphones often open a can of worms, and the truth is that there’s no such thing as a universal headphone recommendation. Modern all-rounders from companies like Sony and Apple are usually more than enough for most people, and come with great features such as active noise cancellation and high-quality wireless audio.

Alternatively, you can opt for an audio-focused wired high-impedance set. The number of options is quite staggering, but that’s why we have so many excellent buying guides to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

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