I've been a fan of the SRS iWow audio adapter for my iPod Classic for a number of years. What this dongle did is make iTunes audio sound dramatically better. It tightened the bass, improved the treble and added a good deal of presence to my music with the largest difference being heard in acoustic or orchestral tracks. It also punched up the audio of videos to an extent.
This wasn't done by just increasing the volume, which would be the easy way. Instead, it added proprietary post processing to improve the sound. The downsides were that there were no settings outside of on or off, it was rather big and clunky, and it reduced iPod battery life by 26 percent.
At Macworld 2011, I met with Shawn Kamal, an engineer turned product marketing manager, who introduced me to the next generation -- now made smaller, totally redone and retitled the SRS iWow 3D (US $59.95). The product is now shipping in black, and there is also a bundle for $79.95 that adds four snap on color face plates -- the colors used are those of the majority of iPhone cases -- and a pair of ear buds that are nothing special.
Comparing the old and the new
I was very interested to compare the older iWow with the iWow 3D and hear if it was worth buying again, since there will be no special upgrade price for the new unit. The answer is an unqualified yes. The bass is tighter, the treble clearer, and the soundfield is much wider -- usually sounding like it's a few feet to the left and right of your head. The 3D effect is less than precise, but it is there and does make a big difference, particularly when listening to sound coming from a video -- especially an action movie. I couldn't hear specific sounds behind me, but the holographic effect was dramatic. In fact, I'd go so far as saying that it will make your headphones or speakers plugged into the iWow 3D sound twice as good as they do now.
To accomplish this huge improvement, the code was rewritten from the ground up using a new proprietary DSP. The old version's sound path was analog to digital for processing, and then back to analog to send out the sound. The new method uses digital to digital to analog, giving SRS greater control with only a 2 dB increase in volume, although it sounds like a bit more. The new technology also reduces the battery drain from that 26 percent drop with the original iWow to only 15 percent with the new device. Note that your headphones or speakers plug into the dongle which puts the headphone jack on the bottom of your device instead of the top.
The SRS iWow App
When plugging the iWow 3D into an iOS device for the first time, a screen will pop-up asking you to download the free supporting app and taking you to an install screen. The app, which is not universal (I'm told that one will be coming soon), gives you a lot of control over the device. There is a 50-second demonstration of music, switching the iWow 3D on for five seconds and then off for the duration of the clip, which lets you hear the difference provided by the device. The app then gives you options to turn the dongle on or off (which can also be done by pushing the white button on the iWow 3D), and it lets you choose between using headphones, speakers or a car stereo. Personally, I like using the speaker setting for headphones, but that's a matter of opinion. The car option is sort of interesting. Since car speakers are usually a few feet below the listening position, the sound stage is raised by a few feet to compensate. Another nice hidden feature is that if the genres in your iTunes library are set correctly, the iWow 3D will tailor the effect to the genre on the fly.
There is an advanced settings screen that will enable or disable Wide Surround, Deep Bass or High Treble. I prefer leaving them all on, but you might not. The app also has a music trivia game that gives you a bunch of multiple choice questions as game show theme music plays, and a progress bar shows you how much time you have left to answer. I asked SRS why they included the game, and the reply was a sheepish "because we could."
When plugging the 30-pin connector into a non-iOS device, the iWow 3D still works, but outside of turning it on or off, you have no control over any settings. It will default to headphone mode with all three advanced settings enabled. This is an excellent trade-off and allows me to use it with my iPod Classic.
Software for PCs and Macs
SRS also sells SRS Premium iWow for iTunes software that works on PCs or Macs running Snow Leopard ($24.99 for one license or $39.99 for three). You can download it for free and use it for a couple of weeks before the trial period times out. It offers settings for headphones, speakers or built-in laptop speakers. It can be adjusted for music or movies, and it can be set to auto-detect genres -- you can also choose them yourself. I'd suggest that you give this a try since it makes an impressive difference to the quality of anything that plays through your Mac and doesn't involve a network. I was told there will also be a bundle that will include this software along with the iWow 3D. I highly recommend these products to all music lovers. The difference is astounding and well worth the cost.