Review: BBE's SonicMax Pro music player app for iOS

BBE Sound has stepped into the iOS app world with BBE SonicMax Pro, an iOS music player that taps into your iPhone's music library and claims to restore the clarity, definition and natural warmth that can be missing from digital music. Recently, there's been a definite push to improve the quality of digital audio. Apple responded with Mastered for iTunes, but some feel that's not enough. And that's where BBE Sound steps in.

BBE Sound is known for its dedication to improving the quality of amplified sound, whether it be for consumers listening to music or professional musicians and sound engineers recording in the studio. BBE Sound is also the owner of the fantastic guitar and bass manufacturing company G&L musical instruments. So when it comes to the quality of sound in music, BBE Sound certainly has some truly credible experience.

But before I continue with my impressions, it has to be noted that for most of us, listening to audio is an incredibly subjective experience. I did not grow up listening to vinyl. My music came on cassettes, then CDs and then digitally. When I listen to a vinyl record, I can appreciate the audio tone that comes from it, but I don't yearn for that tone when I listen to a CD. It's just what my ears are used (conditioned) to. And so, when listening to music through different software enhancement music players, who can really tell which one produces the highest fidelity sound? Not me! Only those with trained ears seem to be able to. And yet, even they often disagree.

Regardless, here are my humble impressions. I tried out SonicMax Pro on my iPhone. I usually listen to music on my iPhone through the iOS Music app with my Ultimate Ears (Triple Fi 10) headphones. On the whole, I'm really pleased with the experience. However, it should be noted that where ever possible I make sure I use the highest fidelity audio format I can get my hands on.

With SonicMax Pro, there was a distinct change in the dynamics of the audio, but I would hesitate to say it was "better." It was... different. To do an evaluation, I listened to one track in the iOS Music app and then listened to the same track in SonicMax Pro. I then went back and forth again (and again) to listen to specific sections of the song to pick out what differences I could hear.

The first thing I noticed when switching to SonicMax Pro from the iOS Music app was that the low-end frequencies (bass) suddenly seemed more defined and present (boomy). Some may describe this as a warmer quality. I then switched back to the iOS Music app and realized that the bass was also "present," but in a more subtle way. When I concentrated on it, I could safely say that it was full, warm and present.

The next thing that struck me was the snare sound. In the two players, the snare sound really did vary quite a lot. With SonixMax Pro the snare pitch seemed higher and the tone broader, but the vocal seemed a few small steps back in the mix compared to the iOS Music app. Again, I wouldn't say it was better, just different. For the majority, I really do believe it's down to personal preference, and I think that's what SonicMax Pro is encouraging: for the listener to shape the sound to what pleases most.

SonicMax Pro comes preloaded with presets finely tuned for the device you're listening through (earbuds, headphones, external speakers and a dock). But you can customize the sound to make your own presets by adjusting the parameters (Lo contour, BBE Process, iSet KHz, Sound Field, Mach3 Bass and Mach3 Gain) for your own listening aparatus.

In essence, SonicMax Pro allows you to pull out of the sound what you want to hear: to shape it the way you instictively want it to be heard. And if you get lost there's a reset button to take you back to the (professionally adjusted) original preset.

One word of caution, though. In SonicMax Pro there is an on/off switch that leads you to assume that when you turn it to "off," the sound you hear is what you normally here through any other player (like the iOS Music app, for instance). It's like a built-in comparison test, but don't be fooled. When I switched it to "off," the track suddenly became flat and dull. However, and perhaps not so surprisingly, when I jumped straight back to the iOS Music app, playing the same song with the same headphones sounded anything but flat and dull. I can only assume that "off" means flat line EQ and not a true bypass.

At US$4.99, SonicMax Pro is worth checking out by those who are frustrated by the quality of digital music. But don't be fooled into thinking this will add all those lost bits of data that are cut off when music is compressed. In my opinion, what counts is the quality of what you put in, the quality of what's processing the audio and what you're listening to that audio through. If you're still using Apple's stock white earbuds, you may want to invest in a better set of earphones first, before you try anything else.

What headphones or earphones do you use? What audio formats are you using? How do you get the most out of your digital music? Let us know in the comments below.