This is a good question since Apple’s settings menus have no descriptions at all about what each of the EQ settings is going to do. Some of them are obvious like “Emphasized Bass” but is it immediately obvious to you what “Folk” is going to do?

After some experimentation, I’ve settled on “Electronic” being what I would consider the best all-around EQ to use — especially for the AirPods Max.

I like a lot of things about the AirPods Max, but I always felt like they needed more bass. They handle it well when the source has a bunch of it, but their stock tuning aims to be more neutral in this area than I normally prefer.

The Electronic setting does hollow out the mids a little, which is not ideal but otherwise provides a useful V-shape EQ with punchier bass and slightly enhanced highs. It doesn’t make the AirPods Max overly bright but gives a little more sparkle, and makes music a lot more fun.

I use this EQ any time I’m on bluetooth, but it’s unnecessary when I have my external DAC hooked up since I make my EQ adjustments there.

Customized EQ controls are always preferable to a list of presets, which sadly is all Apple provides.

The closest runner-up in Apple’s presets is Hip-Hop. I find it similar in what it’s changing, but it doesn’t add as much of that rumbly deep bass that Electronic does so it isn’t my preference.

Headphone Accommodations Explained:

This is another area of fine tuning your audio you can explore. When the feature first came out there were a million articles calling it “secret features”. Let’s not get carried away.

Apple provides 3 choices here: Balanced, Vocal Range, and Brightness.

  • Balanced Tone makes adjustments across the entire frequency range, essentially boosting quiet sounds and making them easier to hear amidst everything else. This is also lowering the dynamic range of the audio, as EQ does, so audio purists would probably shy away from it.
  • Vocal Range enhances the midrange, where human voices often fall, in the attempt to make it easier to understand speech and singing. In some cases this can also make instrumentation sound a bit more detailed.
  • Brightness enhances high end frequencies that a lot of people have trouble hearing, especially as they age. We all lose some of our hearing throughout life, and the upper frequencies are usually the first to erode. This setting aims to boost those up so they sound closer to what they used to, or for those who just like a very airy, bright quality to the instrumentation.

You’ll also notice there are 3 levels of severity for each of this settings that allow you to control how strongly you want these effects to be applied. I generally find the “Slight” option is plenty, and that music starts to sound over-processed (and less realistic) with anything higher.

One last important note for this section is that the difference between a standard EQ and these settings is that the Headphone Accommodation settings are making dynamic adjustments based on that particular song, moment to moment. They may apply a greater amount in one moment than another to create the desired effect, which is different than standard EQ that is applying set effects regardless of the song.

Why Not to Use with Music EQ:

In a word, overprocessed (again). Technically any form of EQ is lowering the dynamic range — the difference between the loudest and softest parts of the music. For a lot of people this isn’t a big deal when EQ is the only thing doing that, but the Headphone Accommodations settings are also doing that, just dynamically.

Where the Headphone Accommodations are making on-the-fly decisions about sound effects to boost, EQ is doing its thing all the time.

With both these filters happening at once, two things can potentially happen:

  1. The filters can conflict with each other. If the EQ is trying to boost certain frequencies that are not part of what the “Balanced” Headphone Accommodations (HA) are looking at, the latter may be boosting other frequencies in that moment that work against the EQ’s effects sounding as obvious. For instance, what if HA are boosting quieter midrange frequencies that now reduce the contrast with boosted bass, making the bass sound not-so-boosted?
  2. The effects can stack and sound overprocessed. If the EQ is already boosting certain frequencies and then HA boost them even further, they can begin to sound unnatural. Instruments can end up sounding overly sharp, shrill, or unbalanced against the rest of the track. Bass can become muddy or bloated.

As a result, the general advice is to use one or the other, but not both at once.

EQ and Headphone Accommodations Are Not The Same Thing.

Just because folks may advise you to use one or the other doesn’t mean they are interchangeable. An EQ is trying to accomplish different things than Headphone Accommodations.

HA, for instance especially on Balanced mode, is mostly boosting quieter frequencies to bring them more in line with the rest of music. It’s covering the entire frequency range, and is not boosting sounds that are already at decent volume.

An equalizer, on the other hand, is boosting set frequencies no matter what. In some ways this may not be ideal, but in other ways it’s probably exactly what you’re after.

For instance, if you want more bass, an EQ is more reliable because it will boost the bass even if Headphone Accommodations would’ve decided the bass was already “adequately” loud. HA would not have helped you here, but the EQ will still provide the boost that you’re after because it isn’t dependent on the song.

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