Bill Henderson recently told us about the SRS Labs iWOW 3D Audio Enhancer Adapter for iOS devices (see related posts for a link to his review). Bill found the iWOW 3D was a relatively inexpensive way to improve the audio quality of modest earphones. Everybody wants better sound without breaking the bank, so SRS Labs decided to offer a model that could be used with most any device, not just Apple devices. I was selected to give the iWOW-U Universal Audio Adapter a look. I was happy to see that I actually received the iWOW-U with replaceable faceplates.
Some of the differences between the Apple-specific and the universal models are obvious. The Apple-specific model has the Apple 30-pin connector, and the universal model has a 3.5mm male audio plug. The iWOW-U’s audio plug “securely attaches to the headphone/headset jack of any audio device to offer an amazing HD-quality listening experience for all music, movies, games or other audio tracks.” The other cable is a 3.5mm female audio jack for attaching your headphones or earphones.
It came with a silver faceplate installed. The front has a single button, an LED light (seen on right), and a lighted logo.
Because it plugs into the heaphone jack, the iWOW-U can’t draw power from your audio device. It comes with a standard microUSB cable to recharge the internal Li-ion battery. According to the product’s FAQs, you can expect about 5 hours of music from a charge, and you can use the device while charging it.
The SRS Labs audio enhancement adapters are designed to “dynamically locate and restore audio details buried in source material” that the smaller drivers in headphones and earphones may not be able to reproduce faithfully. They “deliver natural and immersive HD-quality sound with substantial bass enhancement.” They are designed to enhance the sound delivered to your headphones, giving you a higher-quality sound. In other words, they should make your headphones sound like they’ve gotten a sound-quality upgrade.
The Apple-specific iWOW 3D enhancer Bill reviewed was designed to work with music in its digital form, so it can process the data before your device has converted it to analog to send to your headphone jack. There’s even an iOS app from SRS Labs that lets you further adjust the sound. The iWOW-U has to work with most every device, so it can only receive the analog signal from the headphone jack – after your device has already processed the digital signal. The iOS app won’t work with the iWOW-U, even though I was using the iWOW-U with my iPad.
I tested the iWOW-U with a variety of ear- or headphones. (From left to right) I used the NOCS NS200 Aluminum Earphones, which I think sound pretty good for $70 earbuds; the JLab J5M earbuds, which sound a bit muffled and muted and lack a bass end ($35 at Amazon); and the Sony MDR-NC200D Digital Noise Canceling Headphones ($200), which I think sound great, with good bass response without compromising middle and high ranges. (I didn’t use the noise cancellation feature of the Sony headphones for this test.)
Just a note: If you use earbuds with inline controls for volume and taking phone calls, you should still be able to use those functions when plugged into the iWOW-U, which should just pass them along unchanged to your phone.
Even though the iWOW-U can’t work with the digital signal, and it can’t use the iOS app for further adjustments, the iWOW-U information says it has “professionally tuned presets let you adjust the audio settings to your liking and select speaker settings.” Turns out this is simply a selection between settings for headphones/earphones or larger car/home speakers. You simply do a quick double-press of the front button to toggle between these two modes.
I tested the iWOW-U with my iPod nano (latest generation). I decided to kill two birds with one stone in this photo by showing you the green LED that indicates the iWOW-U is in the car/home speakers mode. I couldn’t test the iWOW-U in my car, because I can only connect an Apple device to my car stereo using an Apple USB cable.
I also tried it with my iPad. Here, the iWOW-U is showing the blue LED, indicating the proper setting for headphones.
I listened to a variety of songs: rock, rap, orchestral, vocal, bluegrass, and acoustic. I listened to the same songs on both devices and using all three ear-/headphones. You can toggle the iWOW-U’s processing on or off, which I did as I listened to the songs. I found that turning off the iWOW-U lowered the overall volume of the song when compared to the sound levels with the headphone plugged directly into the device’s headphone jack and when plugged into the iWOW-U with processing on.
When processing was on, the volume was louder overall, without me adjust the settings on the iPad or iPod. The bass was much louder and boomy, and the treble was much brighter – sometimes painfully so, depending on the headphones being used. I found this to be true, regardless of the type of music. Sometimes, things in the middle range were slightly obscured. The harpsichord was almost drowned out by the strings in Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Bass in Eminem’s Til I Collapse and in various rock songs I listened to was overwhelming in some cases.
As you might expect, the “worst” headphones benefited most from the iWOW-U. The JLab J5M earphones sounded the “worst” to me when used alone, and they sounded better when I used the iWOW-U. They benefited from having both the highs and lows boosted, because they seemed to be lacking at both ends in my opinion. The NOCS NS200 earphones already did a pretty good job over the entire range by themselves, and I found them to be downright uncomfortable when used with the iWOW-U with many songs. The bass would just about rattle my bones, which I don’t enjoy, and the highs were shrill and harsh. I had flashbacks to a dentist drill with some of the over-bright sounds. I noticed the least change in the sound of the music when I used the iWOW-U with the Sony MDR-NC200D on-the-ear headphones. The Sonys already sounded great to me, with a good amount of base and clear, pleasing highs. I didn’t hear much difference at all with the iWOW-U, and I wouldn’t bother using the adapter with the Sony headphones at all.
Because the iWOW-U Universal Audio Adapter is limited to processing the signal after it’s already been converted to analog by your device, it seems to me they are limited to just boosting the bass and treble ends. This could be detrimental to the middle range, almost sounding as if that range were purposefully attenuated, in some songs. If you really enjoy a booming bass end and your headphones are lacking in that range, the iWOW-U will probably adjust the music to your liking. If you already have good headphones and/or you don’t enjoy a heavy bass end, you may not like how the iWOW-U adjusts the sound. If you have an Apple iOS product, you probably should consider the SRS Labs iWOW 3D Audio Enhancement Adapter that can process the digital signals for best results at the same price.