SRS Labs iWow-U
SRS Labs, www.srslabs.com
Adds space and eq to sound; works with multiple devices
Some frequency emphasis unwelcome
US$69.99 + Shipping
SRS Labs, the company responsible for the many Wow audio enhancement products – such as the iWow 3D for iOS devices – recently added the US$69 iWow-U (U as in universal) to its repertoire. Intended for use with headphones, speakers and car audio systems that feature an input jack, it’s a one-button dongle about the size of a USB flash drive with a 3.5mm input jack dangling from one end and 3.5mm output plug hanging from the other. As you can likely guess, the presence of these common 3.5mm connectors means that you can use the device with portable music players, tablets, mobile phones, computers and home audio components.
(The iWow-U comes in silver. An US$79.99 iWow-UF model comes with four additional, interchangeable faceplates in red, blue, pink and black.)
To turn the iWow-U on, press and hold the single silver button for about three seconds. The device offers two modes – headphones and car. When headphone mode is engaged the single LED glows blue. When car mode is on, the LED is green. The device is tuned – emphasising different frequencies – for these two modes. To switch between the two, press the iWow’s button rapidly twice in succession.
The iWow-U carries a rechargeable battery, which SRS claims is typically good for five hours of operation and takes 90 minutes to charge fully. To charge it you use the included USB to Micro-USB cable, plugging that cable into a charger such as the one you charge your iOS device with.
Bringing the wow
Like other iWow products, the iWow-U does three things. It increases the volume of the original output, emphasizes particular frequencies and widens the stereo soundstage so that you perceive more space and depth in the sound. As I’ve mentioned when reviewing other SRS products, it’s audio trickery – some like it and others don’t.
To get a better idea of what the iWow-U does, I ripped a copy of Tony Bennet and k.d. lang’s “Exactly Like You” from CD as an AIFF file and copied that file to my new iPad. I then attached the iWow-U to the iPad and strung a 3.5mm audio cable between the iWow’s output jack to my MacBook Pro’s audio input port. I played the first verse of the track – once with the iWow switched on and again with it switched off – and captured the results with HairerSoft’s Amadeus Pro. Using Amadeus’ analysis tools, I could see what the iWow was doing in each case.
Volume, equalization and space
The waveforms showed me that the track using the iWow effect was significantly louder than the untreated track. When I pulled up the waveform statistics sheet for each track I discovered that, with the device switched on, the effected track was nearly 10dB louder than the track without the effect. (On my iPad I found that to be equivalent to about two clicks of the Volume Up button.) This is important for a couple of reasons. The first is that humans generally register louder sound as better sound (up to a point, of course). So you might get a certain amount of pleasure out of simply turning up the stock volume without the effect. The other is that if you’re already listening at a comfortable level, when you switch on the effect you should turn down the volume so that you’re not getting too much of a good thing.
Amadeus’ sonogram feature shows you which frequencies are most intense. Using this tool I could see that the iWow pumped both the track’s top and bottom end. This was evident when listening to this and other tracks. In nearly all cases I like the sound it produced, but if there’s any hiss on the track the iWow makes it louder. For example, I listened to a 256-kbps AAC version of The Beatles’ “Come Together” with both some old reliable Sony MDR-V6 over-the-ear headphones and an Etymotic hf2 headset with custom-fit earpieces and I could definitely hear hiss when I switched on the iWow. On the other hand, when listening to a live Peter Gabriel track, I turned on the effect and discovered that the audience was clapping in time with the music – something I hadn’t heard before.
And you can hear that kind of thing not only because of the effect’s frequency fiddling but also because of the virtual space it adds to the music. The clapping was somewhat separated from the sounds that previously covered it up (cymbals and percussion) making it easier to discern. And this is a typical experience with these iWow devices. Switch them on and the music opens up to the point where it sounds dull and cramped when you turn off the effect.
Although the iWow-U is primarily intended for listening with portable devices, I gave it a go with an episode of Game of Thrones through my AV receiver and the Sony headphones. My surround-sound speakers are a better listening experience, but when I’m forced to watch TV with headphones, I’ll seriously consider throwing the iWow-U inline when I do. I really enjoyed the big sound produced by this little device.
Macworld Australia’s buying advice.
Each and every time I write about an SRS product, I issue this caveat (and I see no reason to stop now): This effect is a trick and clearly artificial. Then again, there’s nothing entirely natural about recorded music – decisions that affect sound are made throughout the recording, mixing and mastering process. A lot of people like the effect – I count myself among their number – but others, who prefer sound as it was originally intended to be heard, may not. For this reason, it’s worth your while to audition the SRS sound before buying the iWow-U (or make sure that you can return it if you don’t care for its sound).