Recently I posted a video review of Sonarwork’s Reference 3 room calibration software. This brought forwards some questions about how it compares to IK Multimedia’s room correction system ARC 2. I own both copies so I have put together a comparison of both.
Both companies supply measurement microphones that are similar in design. ARC 2’s software is bundled with the microphone alongside a small mic clip and hard case. The Sonarworks microphone comes with no case or clip (not a deal breaker in my opinion) that is available to purchase in two different ways.
You can either purchase the Sonarworks microphone for €49 giving you the ability to measure your room with a 21 day free trial version of the Reference 3 software. The other option is to purchase the Reference 3 software bundled with the microphone.
When starting the measurement process in Reference 3, a microphone calibration profile needs to be loaded. Sonarworks have microphone calibration files unique to each microphone available to download via their website. This is so the software and microphone can work in perfect harmony.
ARC 2 does not require a unique microphone serial number, however it does ask you to confirm which of the two ARC microphones you are using, as ARC 1 users can crossgrade to ARC 2 without having to repurchase a microphone.
Although these microphones look identical, the ways in which they need to be positioned for the measurement process differ completely.
Reference 3 requires the Sonarworks microphone to be horizontal, facing towards the stereo centre. ARC 2 requires the IK Multimedia mic to be pointing at the ceiling vertically. Two very different approaches which leads me to believe that both softwares have two very different methods of crunching numbers.
Outside of the measurement process I find both microphones work quite well in recording acoustic guitars. I’ve even found a use for one of them as a talk back microphone; so don’t think once you have measured your room you have a useless microphone collecting dust in your collection.
These are the prices as listed on the respective brand's websites
- Reference 3 bundled with microphone - €269
- Reference 3 (Software only) - €229
- ARC 2 bundled with microphone - €299.
Sonarworks claim in their marketing that Reference 3 is "the most accurate speaker and room calibration software". IK Multimedia on the other hand are slightly more modest with "trust your ears".
I usually don’t read too much into marketing blurb, but in this case I chose to read their descriptions closely to see what both companies had to say. These types of products can be quite difficult to get your head around without physically trying them and hearing the results for yourself.
Both products are quick to setup, taking less that 15 minutes to complete. They both have a stand alone measurement application that runs in your operating system and both have a separate plug-in that you run in your DAW for opening the measurement/correction file.
In terms of usability I find Sonarworks reference 3 to be the better of the two as it walks you through exactly what needs to be done in terms of measurement positions and microphone placement. It shows you in realtime the position of the microphone in your room. It’s very clever as it will not take a measurement until the microphone is in an optimal position.
ARC 2 sadly gives you a link to their .pdf manual from which you have to sort of guess the microphone positions and trigger the measurement yourself. I am sure you don’t have to be millimetre perfect with this kind of thing but it did leave me wondering whether or not I measured the room correctly.
Both softwares have an optimum audio level from which they need to reach to work at. I ran the measurement process for both systems back to back and found that Reference 3 needed more volume to the microphone/software than ARC 2. I am not sure if that is at all relevant but it is another difference between the two.
The final measurement stage of Reference 3 lets you save the calibration file. It also displays the frequency dips and peeks in your room quite clearly. ARC 2 only gives the option to save the profile with a speaker symbol to represent your monitors.
Both the plug-in components are to be inserted as the last plug-in in the master track chain. In Pro Tools Reference 3 is categorized as an EQ where as ARC 2 is located under OTHER.
Both plug-ins add about 500 samples of delay into the chain. Reference 3 however increases up to 3559 samples when the clever filter phase is set to linear; this is where the two room corrections differ quite dramatically. ARC 2 features a software monitor control interface, the ability to adjust the curve to suit your taste and a virtual monitoring system. Reference 3 offers the same features but ARC 2 doesn’t offer any further properties to tweak.
In my opinion the room correction setup for ARC 2 really stops at inserting the plug-in component and loading the calibration file. I feel ARC 2 is all about just that… insert ARC into the DAW and forget about it… start mixing.
Reference 3 features some options for users to tweak the performance further such as the phase relationship within the stereo image and some calibration limits. There is even a mix control for dialling back the correction, similar to parallel processing.
The End Results
I have blind tested both the calibrations in my room with some tracks I know very well. When switching between the two I noticed Reference 3 had a very well defined low end and upper mid range clarity. ARC 2 also brought a focus and clarity to the upper mids but didn’t quite refine the lows as well as Reference 3.
Of course, these observations are mine, in my room, with my music with my monitors. They are unique to me.
I personally feel Sonarworks Reference 3 is the better of the two for a couple of reasons.
- The ability to trial Reference 3 for a very small price without having to buy the full bundle.
- The easy step-by-step setup of the software. The experience of the setup really gave me confidence in the software’s ability as the measurement process was very intuitive and also displayed the correct measurements between my monitors and listening position.
ARC 2 may provide the same outcome as Reference 3 but I feel Sonarworks have created a product that goes about the software room correction process in a new and totally trustworthy way.
Sadly both these products are for stereo systems and not 5.1 although we understand that Sonarworks have got plans for a 5.1 version in the future.