SRS iWOW 3D: The iPhone gets a swift kick in the buds

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have insisted that no ear buds in the sub-$1,000 price range sound better than my trusty Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10vi headset. I would have been wrong. I still insist that no buds I’ve tried sound better than my 10vi buds — and I have tried many, many pairs — but now I add the caveat, “when coupled with the iWOW 3D.”

I recently mentioned SRS in passing within my review of the HTC Arrive, and I’m certainly glad I did because the team at SRS saw my review and reached out to chat. They also decided to send me an iWOW 3D to play with, and to be frank, I was skeptical at best. Sound is a funny thing. Just about everyone fancies him or herself an expert when it comes to sound, it seems, and while I would deny it if you asked me on the street, I’m the same way. Deep down, I think of myself as a sophisticated audiophile with a discerning ear that can rival even the most experienced sound hounds. The truth is that I do have formal training as an audio engineer, but that hardly qualifies me as an expert. The sound quality of recorded music and the quality of headphones delivering said music, like so many other things in life, is largely a matter of opinion and personal preference. But it’s also science.

There are many factors that might make one pair of headphones better than another. The materials used, the components used, the shape, the fit and countless other factors combine to reproduce sound in a very unique way. While this topic is of considerable interest to me, it is also far too complex to cover here. What matters is that in the end, those of us who might refer to ourselves as audiophiles have put a great deal of time and effort into finding headphones that suit our particular taste. Once said headphones have been identified, we will almost certainly swear up and down that they’re “the best.”

I landed on the Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10vi headphones — at least where ear buds are concerned. For my taste, it doesn’t get any better unless you’re willing to part with an obscene amount of cash for custom buds (and I’m not). The unique shape fits perfectly in my ears and in my opinion, they reproduce music from a wide range of genres better than any other buds I’ve tried. With one or two exceptions, I find the difference between the 10vi buds and competitive offerings to be fairly substantial. As such, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that a tiny $60 accessory could have such a dramatic impact on the sound delivered by my precious 10vi buds.

SRS describes the iWOW 3D as follows:

The iWOW 3D is a premium plug-and-play audio enhancement accessory for iPad, iPhone and iPod, designed to retrieve and restore audio cues that are buried within the original source audio, to provide an immersive three-dimensional sound stage with renewed depth and clarity, as well as improve bass response for any speaker configuration.

I describe the iWOW 3D as a swift kick in the buds.

Forgetting all the jargon, here’s what you need to know: the iWOW 3D lumps its magic into three realms of signal processing. The first is “wide surround.” This does exactly what it sounds like it should do — it effectively spreads out the sound and creates a wider audio image that is truly impressive. Think of it as the difference between a two-speaker sound bar and a real surround sound setup.

The second thing it does is fix bass frequencies and delivery. You might not have known the bass was broken on your current headphones, but it is. Apple offers some great EQ settings in iOS that help in some respects, but the results are often muddy and they never sound quite right with each different genre of music. The iWOW 3D’s bass enhancer makes bass sound massive, but not to the point where your speakers will be crackling. It seems like the perfect bass tweak and if you crank the volume up to about 75%, your head very well may explode — but in a good way.

Finally, the iWOW 3D finesses the high and mid-range frequencies to compensate for all that new-found bass. The result, when all three effects are combined, is sound more impressive than I ever thought I would hear coming out of a cell phone. It’s pretty remarkable. There’s a free companion app that allows users do enable and disable each of the three effects individually, but I could easily live without it. All three effects are on by default and that’s the way it should stay.

While there’s plenty to love about the iWOW 3D, there are also a few problems of varying degrees that I have with the gadget. First, there is a big white indicator light on the front of the unit that lets you know when it is enabled. Indicator lights are great, but this one is huge and annoying. A tiny white LED on the side would have been sufficient.

Slightly more important is the hiss. Like many powered audio devices, the iWOW 3D emits a low-level hiss when connected and turned on. It’s faint and you can’t hear it at all when music is playing, but it’s annoying at first during parts of a track that are silent or very quiet. It’s also annoying at first while watching movies or TV shows. I say “at first” because after a while, it gets to a point where you adjust to the sound and forget about it unless you intentionally concentrate on it.

Last but certainly not least is an Apple-imposed limitation: while connected through the iWOW 3D, in-line remotes and microphones will not work. This means you can’t pause or skip backward or forward with button clicks on your headset’s remote, and you can’t talk on the phone until you unplug the device. This is Apple’s fault, as the 30-pin dock connector does not make these functions available, but it’s a pretty big limitation nonetheless.

Those qualms aside, I’ve really enjoyed the iWOW 3D in the couple of weeks I have been using it. So far I’ve had three other people check out the device as well, and the results have been the same in each case. Eyes widen, jaws drop ever so slightly, and the listener is wowed.

But hearing is believing. The SRS iWOW 3D can be ordered from SRS’s online shop for $59.99.

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