There are many controversial conversations about applying EQ on audiophile forums. Some audiophiles are totally against using equalizer settings, and it could potentially damage a pair of headphones. While others think there is absolutely nothing wrong with using EQ settings.
So after some hours of research, here is what I learned about the equalizer and how it affects headphones.
Can equalizer ruin headphones? At normal listening levels, using an equalizer will not damage a headphone. However, when the audio you are playing through the headphones is extremely loud and is near exceeding the headphone’s loudness limit, an equalizer boost can possibly cause damage to the headphones.
Let me explain, in detail, how using EQ affects headphones and why equalizer alone cannot ruin headphones. And then I’ll follow that up with instances where EQ can be detrimental to your headphones.
And finally, I’ll give you some tips on the most effective way to EQ your headphones to sound their best. Let’s get into it.
Why Equalizer Is Not Harmful to Headphones
Before I get into why using EQ cannot ruin your headphones, let me first briefly explain what an Equalizer is, in much simpler terms, just so we are on the same page.
An equalizer (or EQ) is a tool that is used to boost or reduce the loudness of a specific frequency or a range of frequencies in audio.
A simpler way to look at EQ is to think of it as a volume control for the different frequency ranges in an audio signal. For instance, when you boost the lower frequencies using an EQ, you are essentially increasing the volume of only the lower frequencies.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way let me talk about why EQ, whether by boosting or cutting some frequencies, can’t ruin headphones.
Every headphone has an important component known as the headphone driver. This is a tiny little component inside both the left and right earbuds. Headphone drivers receive audio signals in the form of electrical current from the device it is connected to. And then, it converts that audio signal into sound waves.
I talked a bit more about headphone drivers in my article on how bass can damage headphones, which is quite similar to this topic actually. Feel free to check it out.
Every headphone driver has a limitation known as the excursion limit. The excursion limit of a headphone driver is how far it can travel from its resting position. Not to get too technical, the excursion of a headphone driver is how far it can move to push sound waves in the air.
The excursion limit of headphone drivers directly relates to how loud the headphones can play. If a headphone driver has a high excursion limit, it means it can play audio much louder than a headphone with a low excursion limit.
Fortunately, most headphone drivers have very high excursion limits than we’ll ever surpass with normal listening. My point is, most headphones can get extremely loud. And at normal listening levels, or even at our loudest listening levels, we barely reach the headphone’s loudness limit or excursion limit.
You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about headphone driver’s excursion limit and how it relates to equalizers.
The point I’m trying to make is, using EQ, specifically boosting some frequencies, will definitely increase the overall volume of the audio you are playing through your headphones.
However, that added decibels as a result of boosting some frequencies will not have any negative effect on the headphones. It won’t exceed the headphone’s loudness limit.
You can boost any of the frequency bands to the max with any EQ software or hardware device, and you won’t break the headphones.
You may end up damaging your ears first due to how loud or harsh the audio is playing through the headphones, but the headphone will remain undamaged and in good condition.
So, in essence, at normal listening levels, an equalizer will not ruin headphones. Cutting or boosting some frequencies won’t exceed a headphone’s loudness limit.
Extremely Loud Audio and EQ Boost Can Damage Headphones
As I mentioned in the previous section, at normal listening levels, using EQ will not negatively impact the headphones.
However, if you are playing extremely loud audio through the headphones, an EQ boost could damage headphones.
But how loud is extremely loud?
Extremely loud is when the audio playing through the headphones is too loud, you can’t wear the headphones. Not only because you’ll feel uncomfortable listening at such a high volume, but you also risk damaging your ears.
If you are playing at extremely loud volumes and the loudness is pretty close to the headphone’s limit, the extra decibels added by an EQ boost could potentially damage the headphones. The extra volume added by an EQ boost can cause the overall volume of the audio to surpass the headphone’s loudness limit, causing the headphones to blow.
This can definitely happen, but it’s a rare situation. You are probably never going to listen to music through headphones at such extremely loud volumes.
And also, I’m yet to hear about someone who damaged his headphone using an equalizer. It just doesn’t exist.
The Best Way to EQ Headphones
There are no rules to EQing headphones, honestly. You can use an EQ however you want as long as it sounds good to you. However, there are best practices on how to use an equalizer to get the best possible out of your headphones.
The best way to EQ headphones is to cut frequencies instead of boosting frequencies. What do I mean by this? Let me explain with an example.
Let’s say you want to boost 100Hz by 5dB. Instead of boosting 100Hz, the best practice is to reduce all the other frequencies by 5dB. This will make 100Hz 5dB higher than all the other frequencies, and you’ll get the same results as boosting the 100Hz.
But why should you cut rather than boost?
Well, the amplifiers built into devices like laptops or phones are not that powerful. So by boosting frequencies, the final volume may be more than what the amplifier can output. And this leads to digital clipping. The signal coming from your device will be already distorted before it gets to the headphone.
Digital clipping is quite common when you use third-party EQ apps or software on phones and laptops, which is why you should learn how to EQ by cutting rather than boosting.
You might think your headphones are damaged when digitally clipped audio is played through them. Not knowing that the audio is actually distorted and there is absolutely nothing wrong with your headphones.
In summary, using EQ, whether boosting or cutting frequencies, will not cause any damage to headphones. Not unless you are playing audio through the headphones at an extremely loud volume, and then you boost some frequencies.
The chances of this ever happening are slim. That’s because we usually don’t listen to music through our headphones at extremely loud volumes that can possibly damage our ears. So you can go ahead and use EQ without worrying about possibly ruining your headphones.
However, I recommend you apply EQ by cutting rather than boosting frequencies. You’ll get a much cleaner, non-distorted signal from your audio device.