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The Best Equalizers - Outboard Analog Hardware EQ's for Mixing & Mastering

TL;DR - Best Budget Pick: DBX 231s - Best Overall: A-Designs Hammer 2
With all of the digital EQ's out there that come pre-installed as plugins in our recording software, attention has dropped away from the superior sound of a warm analog equalizer snuggled in your rack between your compressor and preamp. It's understandable. Why buy a hardware EQ when you have a free software option already? Well, there are plenty of reasons...

Emulation is simply that... a game of pretend... a simulation of the real thing.

Software can pretend to replicate the circuitry of hardware.  It can even filter itself to act as if it's producing the subtle, pleasing artifacts of analog recording equipment.  In the end it's still, relatively, cold and lifeless.

Does that mean software EQ's suck?  Not by a long shot.  They are fantastic.  But they lack what can't be simulated accurately.  They don't feature the harmonic distortion transistors and tubes can offer.  They dissociate you from the process of mixing, which can be very hands on.

We get it.  Outboard equalizers aren't nearly as sexy as a preamplifier or effects processor.  They imply effort and technological sophistication instead of the feeling of instant results a compressor gives off.

I say to let everyone think that and feel that way.  Meanwhile you'll have a secret weapon in your signal path as a recording, mixing, and mastering engineer that gets you more results and more business than your competitors.

Heck, it's even nice to have an EQ for your car stereo system and your home entertainment system, and it's a thousand times nicer to work with one in the studio.  So let's cut to the chase, glance at the options and point out what to look for, and then run through our recommendations for each type at various price levels.

best equalizers

Let's talk about EQ's in general, including the types available, why the top studios prefer hardware options, and what you should consider before making a purchase.

What Are Studio Equalizers?

Equalizers are a type of circuitry used as a controllable filter through which an audio signal is passed.  In our case we're talking about music in live venues and recording studios.  This filter is designed to control the volume of specific frequency ranges, either boosting them (increasing the amplitude) or cutting them (reducing the amplitude).

What Types of Equalizers Exist?

You have two main types of equalizers these days:

  • Hardware - rackmount, desktop, & 500 series
  • Software - VST & AU plugins for DAW's

Of those two main categories there are two sub-types:

  • Parametric
  • Graphic

The two have significant differences in how you use them but can both be used to achieve the effect you seek.

best parametric equalizer

Parametric EQ with curve visualization

Parametric EQ's tend have far fewer bands (frequency ranges) you can control, but these bands can me moved up and down the frequency spectrum.  Their bandwidth (or Q) can be adjusted to encompass a broader group of frequencies or made to be thin for laser-like precision.  The Q is sinusoidal like a bell curve without rigid boundaries.  You center frequency and the bandwidth, and then boost or cut.

best graphic equalizer

Graphic EQ with curve visualization

Graphic EQ's typically offer 15 or 31 bands per channel, far greater than the 3 to 5 you find on parametric equalizers.  These bands, on the other hand, are static not only in the spectrum but in their bandwidth.  Your choice is only to boost or cut.  Your consolation prize is that you can make many changes at once without having to bounce the track for a second pass.  The Q on each band is typically 1/3rd of an octave although options with fewer bands will set the Q to 2/3rds of an octave.

If you're here, you know how to use an equalizer so we'll cut it short there and move on.

Why Are Outboard Analog EQ's Desirable?

Besides the fact that clients are wow'd by the visual impact of a ton of gear with knobs, sliders, switches, and lights all over them (this is incredibly important for gaining and retaining studio business), and besides the fact that it's far more enjoyable to mix with your hands as well as your ears (plugins tend to make you mix with your eyes, which is really bad), there are actual sonic quality reasons to go with outboard EQ's over software versions.

hardware eq internals

You'll see talk about transistors and vacuum tubes.  You'll hear subjective jargon words like "warmth, fullness, color" and others.  It's all true.  What it boils down to is the saturation.  The active electronics impart a very subtle and pleasing harmonic distortion to the signal.  This ends up boosting the harmonics above the normal range you expect to hear which creates a sense of fullness. When an entire song has each track featuring this warmth, you get an extremely full sound.

It's hard to explain.  You've likely noticed that modern digital mixes sound extremely crystalline, to the point where you can "see" through the gaps in the stereo field.  Analog mixes (and even more so with recordings captured on tape first) aren't "see through" like this because this harmonic distortion basically fills the gaps.  Listen to old recordings from the early 70's or before, or check out any newer record that intentionally recorded on tape and was mixed outboard and you'll hear what I'm talking about.

saturation example

Stream a few samples of the newer John Mayer album, Battle Studies, here and you'll hear it immediately.

What To Consider When Making a Decision

The decision on which EQ to pick if you're only going to grab one seems tricky, but you can guide yourself along by asking:

  • What will I be using it for?
  • What is my work environment like?

By this I mean, do you intend on using it most heavily for live performances, recording, mixing, or mastering?  "All of them" is an acceptable answer as well, which is why we have the second question too.

Let's start with live performances.  You don't necessarily want or need a lot of bands with tight Q's because that type of laser precision won't help in a bar, stadium, or auditorium.  You want wide curves that allow you to quickly create a pleasing sound.  The same goes for recording if you're in a garage or a room with very little acoustic treatment.  You want broad actions that vastly improve the overall sound versus digging into specifically tight frequency ranges.  Mixing results captured in these environments should be considered the same.

For the above applications I suggest a parametric EQ with 3 to 5 bands.

If you're recording in a very controlled acoustic environment that is capable of capturing a dry, natural signal then you may prefer a graphic equalizer.  When mixing clean results like these in an equally treated mix room you'll be in a position to make very precise decisions about which frequencies to adjust.

For the above uses I recommend a graphic EQ with 15 to 31 bands.

A mastering engineer is going to be working in an impeccable mix room, but can't control the quality of the material sent in for mastering.  Sometimes they will need to make precise fixes, but mostly they are adjusting broad swaths of the frequency spectrum to unify the feel of the songs across an album.  This type of work will benefit from both types of equalizers.

Helpful Equalization Articles

We and others have published many fine pieces of content to help you get the most out of your equalizer.  Here our some of our favorite suggestions for beginners.  These would be good to bookmark and study while you wait on the arrival of your new outboard EQ.

These will give you the frame of reference you need until your mind and ears become familiar with the frequency spectrum in this context.


Now lets look at specific recommendations with our quick equalizer reviews...

hardware equalizer reviews

Hardware Equalizer Reviews

As always with our review posts we don't only list the best of the best, because those are often unavailable.  There's nothing worse than getting your heart set on a piece of gear and waiting 3 years for it to appear on the used market only to be outbid while you were at work or asleep.

These are the best parametric and best graphic equalizers that you can readily find right now.  We also make sure to include the top choices in each budget range so nobody is left out.  You can maximize your returns on quality at any step with the right purchase and some practice

Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, and make your purchase.

Let's do it!

Project Studio Recommendations

We'll start with the affordable options (and avoid the cheapest that are a waste of everyone's time!) that are perfect for the home recording studio or smaller mixing and mastering project studio.  Then we'll take a peek at the big boys, which I recommend you take the time to check out to get a frame of reference.

Best Parametric Equalizers

These are most useful for broad and smooth changes to your sound but are also capable of precise adjustments.  Musicians with less than stellar recording and mixing environments may prefer this style.  They remain useful for the lifetime of your ownership for sure.

Golden Age Project EQ73

gap eq73

The Golden Age Project EQ73 derives its name from its goal of providing the same warmth and clarity that's found in the classic Neve 1073 at a significantly lower price.

What's nice here is that while this appears to be your basic three-band EQ, the outer bands are actually low and high-shelf filters. The middle band can reach from 100 Hz all the way to 10 kHz, which is all you need when combined with the shelves that can act as roll-offs too.  The knobs are stepped, meaning you can't target frequencies between those labeled, but they are chosen specifically to offer the best equalization options.  The shelves allow up to 15 dB in volume change while the middle band's bell curve can adjust up to 18 dB.  Each band has a bypass switch for full control.

The sound of this EQ can be described as warm and punchy, which could be alternately described as pleasing with smooth transitions.  It is one solid channel of mono goodness, perfect for vocals, guitar, synth, and anything else really.  This classic Neve sound has appeared on countless top albums over the decades.

The one thing you want to be aware of here is that the input and output of this unit is designed to be used with insert jacks.  This mean the signal goes out of your preamp or interface, for instance, passes through this EQ, and then returns to the first piece of gear through a TRS cable.  Your options end up being using it with any gear or a mixer that has an insert jack or using a TRS to TS split cable.  This way you can run it like normal or patch it into your patchbay.  It's not a big deal but be aware so you aren't caught off guard and needing to order a cable or signal splitter later.

Daking EQ 500

daking eq 500

I made the choice to make sure I mentioned at least one 500 series option for you lunchbox users, and I settled on the Daking EQ 500.  The Daking Mic Pre/EQ was such a hit that they made the 4-band EQ section available by itself.

Each band has a 16 dB boost and cut range.  The top and bottom bands are high and low shelfs (fantastic) while the middle two are your Low/Mid and Mid/High bands.  They feature a tiny bit of crossover that's convenient for precision work.  If you look closely you'll see each pot has an "Out" setting at the lowest frequency available to it.  This is the bypass for each band.

The coolest thing about this EQ is that the Q's are proportional to the magnitude of the boost or cut.  So as you start with a slight boost at 1 or 2 dB the bandwidth of the boost is wide.  But as you move on up to the maximum of 16 dB the Q becomes more and more narrow.  This feature makes this equalizer insanely useful in all possible applications.

Daking calls the sound "sweet."  I have no clue what that means.  I hear the warmth of no-noise transistors and balanced outputs.  If I had to describe it, I'd say it leans over to the color side but is still fairly transparent.  It's more up the middle than towards either extreme.  Once again, that makes it extremely versatile on almost any signal.

Best Graphic Equalizers

For those who wish to make precise changes to their tracks and have clean enough recordings for it to be useful will benefit from a graphic equalizer as well as the other style.

DBX 231s

dbx 231s

Ah yes, the trusty DBX 231s.  DBX has been around forever and has specialized in affordable gear that is rugged enough for the road but performs well enough for the studio.  Their compressors and EQ's find their way into a ton of studios due to this performance to price ratio.  It's mid-level gear at entry level prices.

Not only is this bad boy a stereo equalizer, but both channels have 31 bands.  Each band has a Q set at 1/3rd of an octave and can manage up to a 12 dB boost or cut.  You can actually switch it to 6 dB if you want to get more detailed in your adjustments.  It also features an output meter that will let you know if you're driving the gain too hard or not enough for your gain staging.  You have your choice of XLR or TRS inputs and outputs too.  Convenient!

Some folks have complained about self-noise in these units but that's not been my experience.  Of course, using a power conditioner, proper grounding of your rack, and correct gain staging are critical if you expect any piece of gear to perform at its best.  Most of what I've heard is people dropping all of the sliders down and then cranking up the monitors to listen for noise.  Everything has a noise floor thats well below any problematic level with the right gain settings.  I suspect a lot of the complaints come from well-meaning but not-so-knowledgable amateur users (usually people not using a preamplifier with their mics and compensating with the gain on the EQ) due to the low price point.

For anyone playing gigs or mixing live events, this is your rugged money-saver that you can beat up and not worry about.  For budget studios, this will get the job done for mixing and mastering if you're doing your part of the deal right.  If you can spring for the Rane below, then by all means do it.  If you can't, you've found your winner right here.

Rane ME-60S

rane me-60s

The Rane ME-60s is the update to their ME-60 model (and is two ME-30s units combined) that helped make quite the name for the company.  Studio engineers discovered that these more affordable counterparts outperformed the "big boys" for a lot of tasks, of course based on preference.  But that says a lot when very trained ears get excited about a piece of gear.

This EQ takes up 2 rack units to accommodate stereo (two mono's actually) channels.  With each of the 30 band's average Q at 1/3rd octave, this makes for a nice piece for precision mixing and mastering, especially when there's an imbalance in panned tracks that needs some fixing.  With balanced XLR and TRS jacks, you can be assured your signal is staying protected from any noise, outside or inside the Rane.

The ME-60s, unlike its predecessor and the Daking above, features a constant-Q bandwidth design.  Each band gives you up to 12 dB in boost or cutting, or you can drop it to 6 dB for more decisive work.  It also features the convenience of low and high cut filters that reach fairly high and low.  It features a bypass if you want to impart its color to your signal without actually equalizing and input gain controls so you can drive it to your taste.  There's an overload LED indicator as well so you know if you've driven the signal too hard.

This is one of those options that sits right at the curve before you get diminished returns for higher spends.  It's great for the conscientious buyer looking for the best value for their money.  If you don't mind spending more for incrementally smaller gains, then proceed to the options below!

Professional Studio Recommendations

Now we take a look at the options where the only factor that matters is quality.  The clients and labels don't care about expenses, they care about results!  And it's up to you to bring the heat.  If that sounds like your situation than check out these options separated by task, followed by some honorable mentions you can explore that we left out for the sake of brevity but are still worth a look.

Best EQ's For Recording & Mixing

Any experienced engineer could use any of these for any task, but these are the ones we prefer specifically for broad sweeping recording and mixing tasks.

API 5500

api 5500

The API 5500 is one of the most coveted EQ's in the game.  It all started in 1967 with the 550 EQ console module found in all of the big studio mixing boards.  It broke a lot of new ground with its op-amp gain stages, proportional Q's, and having almost twice the headroom of every other EQ even up to the present.  As the emphasis on consoles shifted to racks thanks to the decreasing financial barrier to entry, API made this studio standard available in this dual-mono option.

API flat out says that you can use this bad boy for tracking, mastering, and mixing.  It's ready to tackle anything.  I've read that lots of engineers prefer a handful of these to use as their bus EQ's.

Each channel features four bands, separated between Lo, Lo-Mid, Hi-Mid, and Hi.  The boost and cut range starts at a 1 dB increment for a maximum of 12 dB cut or boost, but you can change that to a 0.5 dB or 0.25 dB increment for some seriously high resolution mixing.  You can take this level of precise action from 40 Hz all the way up to 20 kHz.  The one lacking feature I'd like to have seen on here is a low and high cut or shelving, but you can take care of that at any point so it's not a big deal.  It would just be bonus points to an already perfect machine.

Best EQ For Mastering

I'm going to include the one obvious choice here that remains in the realm of sanity in regards to pricing.  There are others that are just as good, but to call them better is to argue which flavor is better...  you're only arguing about preference at that point.  But this beast sits at the sweet spot of the intersection between value and cost.

Manley Labs Massive Passive

manley labs massive passive

What to say in what order!?  The Manley Labs Massive Passive is exactly what it says, a passive stereo equalizer with 4 bands per channel and high and low pass filters.  What does passive imply?  It means the electronic components inside of it don't require electricity to energize them.  They simply impart the sonic qualities to the signal running through them.

In other words, the inductors, capacitors, and resistors in this beast perform their work in a completely transparent fashion without any extra coloration, which is what you need in the mastering stage.  What it also means is that you're extracting energy from your signal in order to impart these characteristics to the signal.  What happens is that a boost to any frequency is actually a cut to all others (and remember at the start of this article we said that cutting is always preferable to boosting!).

That means you'll need a very powerful amplifier that's cleaner than any you've ever experienced.  The amp in the Massive Passive features 6 tubes to pull this off while improving harmonics, stereo depth, and the sense of "pleasantness" that can be heard simply by running through it in bypass mode.

Another interesting feature is that each band works in a serial fashion instead of in parallel like other EQ's.  With each band having the possibility of completely crossing over each other, you may boost the same frequency twice.  Instead of those two boosts being summed together at once, you'll have the first boost applied alone and then the second boost applied separately.  It's not that different but it should be mentioned.

Each band can be switched between boost and cut modes as well as your typical bell shaped Q or turned into a shelf!  So if you don't want to run a complete cut, you can shape a roll-off with the shelf switch and the bandwidth knob.  You have 44 frequency options at around an average 1/4th octave bandwidth that can be adjusted.  This is a mastering equalizer, so you know it has nearly zero noise (invisible with proper gain staging) and huge headroom to make your initial push in the loudness wars.

If you're here hunting for a mastering EQ, this is it, no questions asked.

Honorable Mentions

There are more worthy options out there for you to investigate but we had to trim it to our top favorites. If you want to see a bit more, check out these below.

equalizers honorable mentions

Each is numbered above and can be mapped to the list of links if you want to learn more:

  1. Chandler Limited's Germanium Tone Control
  2. Black Lion Audio's AM/CHA1
  3. Drawmer's 1961 Vacuum Tube EQ
  4. Empirical Labs' Lil Freq
  5. The Portico 5033
  6. The GML 8200

Those are all fine choices at varying price points.  Having read this far, you'll understand how each is used and can shine on all of the possible applications.

Conclusion

There are as many benefits to performing some (or all!) of your equalization outboard as there is to applying compression.  From cleaning up your signal before it turns digital to imparting some analog warmth during the recording phase, to juicing up each track during the mixing phase, and even equalizing your buses, master output, and mastering... there's always a use for one of the best studio equalizers.