If you are like most people in today’s economy, you are always looking for ways to save a little (or a lot) of money. The same holds true in the audio world. It doesn’t matter whether you are happy with the earbuds that came with your iPod/iPhone or have invested in better quality headphones or earphones. If there is a way to improve your listening enjoyment without breaking the bank, you might want to check it out. SRS Labs has come up with a product that may provide a stepping stone to better sound until you can afford those to-die-for headphones or amp or whatever you lust for in the audio world. SRS is a company that sells the iWow iTunes plugin which lets you tweak the audio in ways the iTunes equalizer simply cannot. Some people love what the iWow does and some find this kind of manipulation distracting. It’s a personal preference. Now, SRS has taken this technology and put it into an iPod/iPhone device that allows you to take that iWow sound with you for your car, home speakers and portable headphones.
The iWow 3D Audio Enhancement Adaptor is relatively small attachment that connects to the Apple 30-pin port on an iPhone or iPod which – SRS claims – will dramatically improve the quality of your music. By connecting through this port, the audio signal remains a digital signal as it enters the iWow unit allowing SRS to do its thing before converting the signal to analog (what you hear). There is a free app available from Apple iTunes (iPhone/iPod Touch only) which allows further tweaking if you wish. The iWow will ask you if you want to download the app when you first plug it in, otherwise, it’s easy to find in iTunes. The iWow 3D is also available in a deluxe version which includes a pair of earphones and four differently colored faceplates.
I’m testing the iWow 3D with an iPod Classic, iPhone 3G and iPhone 4 with headphones and earphones. I did not test it on an iPod Touch or iPad (I don’t own either). The iWow will connect to any Apple product with a 30-pin connector.
Let’s first talk about the iWow 3D and the iPod Classic. Since the SRS app doesn’t work with a straight iPod, the iWow is just plug-and-play. I noticed immediately that there was a marked difference in audio quality when switching the iWow on and off. But that’s not a true test because the iWow turned off is not the same thing as plugging earphones directly into the headphone port at the top of the iPod. Frankly, when I compared the iWow to the iPod using this method, I preferred the iPod alone. I have always liked the audio quality of the iPod classic (although not as much as the previous iPod model, but that’s another story). The iWow just didn’t do it for me with this set up. The volume level was noticeably compromised using the iWow 3D. Things were just louder and more involving with the iPod only. So, if you have an iPod Classic, I would advise against the iWow.
The iPhone, however, was a different story. Before I talk about the audio improvements, let’s go over some practicalities in the real world. If you use most cases with your iPhone, it will need to be removed before connecting the iWow. This may be a problem if you don’t like removing the case. It would not fit my iPhone 4 and Speck case but I also have an iPhone 3G with a much thinner case, and the iWow fit that perfectly. Also, the iWow protrudes from the iPhone, so using it while on the go could be a hassle, depending on your use. It’s less of an issue just sitting on your desk or in your car. The battery life on the iPhone can also take a hit using the iWow, so you will may need to recharge a little more often.
Having said all that, the iWow 3D really shines on the iPhone. This is what this product was made for. As I did on the iPod Classic, I tested the iWow against an iPhone alone rather than just switching the iWow on and off. While there was still less volume overall as with the iPod Classic, it was very slight and not a problem. A word of warning here: I suggest you connect the iWow before inserting earphones. I got several loud surprises when I inserted earphones first.
The music comes alive on the iPhone with the iWow. Even without using the free app, the difference was dramatic. The sound just opens up with added clarity. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses. Everything is just sharper. That’s about the best way to describe it. But wait, there’s more!
Using the app lets you fine tune your preferences. While the SRS app lacks any full blown equalizer, it does keep things simple. Along with an on/off (enabled) button, there are three settings: Headphones, Speakers and Car. There’s also an Advanced button which is an equalizer of sorts. Here are three buttons also: Wide Surround, Deep Bass and High Treble. Wide Surround expands the soundstage making you feel more in the middle of the music, rather than on the sidelines. The effect is more subtle than dramatic. I prefer that. It’s so easy to over-process audio and SRS wisely avoids this. The same is true of the Bass and Treble buttons. They are slight variations. Although you could just press all three choices and then forget it, I actually like the Wide Surround and Bass without the Treble. To me, the Treble choice exaggerates any sibilance (that hissing “S” sound in vocals) a song may already have. So I chose to leave that button off.
Also included in the app are a Music Trivia game that tests how much – or little – you know. Strangely, if you are playing your music and then press the Trivia button, it plays its own soundtrack on top of your music. But, if you press the SRS Labs site button, you hear that same music, but your music will then fade out. Why the Trivia Game doesn’t do this and another button does is a mystery to me.
If you own an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad and want to upgrade the audio without spending wads of cash, the iWow 3D is a good choice with minimal setup. Even though its not insanely cheap, it is still way less expensive than an external DAC/Amp, premium headphones or massive automobile amps. The iWow will allow you to give your audio a kick-in-the-pants and – if you wish – also buy you some time while you save up for those major sound improvements later. Then again, you just might decide that the iWow 3D is plenty improvement enough.