Just moments after I wrote about the iPad 2’s RMAA test results I found an article in my RSS feed about MyTunes, a new app from SRS Labs. SRS is one of many sound enhancement technologies out there, and have lately been moving into the smartdevice market – first with a hardware version, and now with this software version. I downloaded it and played with it for a while (they only let you use the “premium” features for free for 10 minutes before you have to pay, but deleting the app and installing it again resets the timer) and that was more than enough to give me urges to take my iPad into the shower and hose it down.
Sound enhancements is one of those fields of audio that have always been rather messed up. Whereas RMAA can measure the base sound quality of a device in objective terms, sound enhancements are more about tweaking the sound signature to fit your particular taste and equipment. Some want more bass, some more treble, some less of both, and some will chase you with a fork if you as much as try to change the sound signature away from “how the artist intended it to sound”. More or less every brand has their own or license it from others, with e.g. Samsung’s DNSe, Sony’s DSEE, iriver’s licensed SRS and Cowon’s licensed BBE. Then you have all the brands that don’t have any “special” technology, just your average “pull on the frequency curve until it looks like a bunny”-equalizer. In the years I spent writing for anythingbutipod I was lucky(?) enough to try all of the above, and their effectiveness ranged from making me shed tears of joy to making me want to amputate my ears.
SRS fell into the latter category back in those days, but I was hoping that this had changed over the years. Unfortunately I was very wrong. As if the amount of marketing terms they use in their naming schemes wasn’t an indicator (WOW, iWOW, 3D, HD etc – why not just get it over with and call it iUbermodeRulesOMFG HD 3D MP9?), this is simply so far away from what I consider enhancements that even the best science fiction authors out there couldn’t come up with a propulsion technology to get me there in my lifetime. The equalizer distorted the sound the moment I touched it, and that’s not even counting the crackles that it shoots into your ear drum when adjusting the settings.
The “WOW HD” effect is supposed to improve instrument placement depending on what equipment you have connected, e.g. I chose “headphones” and “full size” for my Beyerdynamic DT-770. It does actually change the perceived placement of instruments and vocals (as well as adding a ton of annoying sibilance), but it’s sort of like reorganizing for the sake of reorganizing. “Ok, so that instrument is over there now, but why does Roger Waters suddenly sound like the snake from Harry Potter?” was more or less what I took from the whole experience. I often wish for more bass, less treble etc when I listen to certain songs, but I very rarely wish the drums to sound like they’re being player inside my appendix.
Just for the fun of it I tried to play a bit of Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut”, an album which was recorded using binaural recording techniques – meaning that they used microphones that mimic ears and capture the sound as your ears would, allowing for much better sound stage (ability to hear where everything was placed during recording) when playing back. It’s the same technology used for the virtual barber shop sound clip that more or less everyone has heard and gone “omfg” at by now. In essence, it’s an album that has the effect that WOW HD is trying to achieve built-in from the get-go. As you can imagine, applying the WOW HD effect to that album didn’t turn out too well. It simply rearranged everything again, as well as adding that layer of sibilance that made me wonder if I accidentally put a hamster maze in between the headphones and my ears. That simply proved that (as you’d imagine) there’s not really any system to when it “fixes” the sound, it just goes by its programming even if that tells it to walk straight off a cliff.
As with all audio enhancements though, this is a subjective opinion. What sounds horrible enough to warrant suicide for me might make other see stars in a good way. The app has gotten a lot of praise after all, though I can’t help but wonder if the people who praise it have actually tried the alternatives – and what equipment they’re using. When you’re used to the kind of possibilities that Cowon’s licensed BBE sound enhancements give you, this simply doesn’t cut it. I’m sure it will make some teenager with Koss Portapro headphones very happy, but the day this is adopted by people in general is the day I’ll pull a Farnsworth and leave you all to it.
Either way, the iPhone-sized app is free to try for 10 minutes, so there’s no reason to not try it. You might just find its sound tweaks to suit you, and if that’s the case, the $5 it costs to unlock the full version will be worth it.[iTunes via TUAW]