Provides: Sound enhancement processing for any audio on your Mac
Developer: SRS Labs
Minimum Requirements: Intel-based Mac running OS X 10.5 or higher
Price: $29.99 for the full version; free for the limited functionality trial version
Availability: Out Now
SRS Labs, a leader in audio post processing software and hardware, recently announced the release of their Audio Essentials app for the Mac. With functionality similar to what SRS has delivered in the iOS app MyTunes Pro, Audio Essentials promises to deliver better, richer, and bigger sound to your Mac’s built-in speakers, external speakers, or headphones. But does the app live up to the hype?
As Apple pushes the Mac App Store, it will become progressively more difficult to discover apps like Audio Essentials, which would never make the cut (grabbing and rerouting the Mac’s audio is likely a violation Apple’s restrictive guidelines). Available as a direct download from SRS Labs’ website, you can grab a limited-functionality (but still quite good) free trial, or go for the full version that delivers additional features. Check out Appletell’s coverage of the product launch for full details.
During installation, Audio Essentials requires an additional install of a freeware product called Soundflower. Although the installer handles the process for you, the requirement for this auxiliary software is something of a surprise—there is no mention of it anywhere, even on the system requirements page.
Tweak Your Sound
Once installed, the main (and very Tron-esque) Audio Essentials window is very easy to learn: a power button, two knobs for controlling the type of audio playing and the type of speakers you are listening to, and a button for Advanced options. Speaker/audio choices include music, game, movie, or voice, and external speakers, laptop speakers, and headphones, respectively; each choice is labeled with a clear and obvious icon. If you want more advanced options, the Advanced drawer contains sliders for adjusting the 3D aspects of the sound (how “wide” it appears to be), as well as sliders for adjusting Trubass response and a Definition setting that can clean up otherwise muddy audio. The Definition feature is especially useful on highly compressed MP3 files.
Although they aim to solve different problems, Audio Essentials and the MyTunes Pro apps perform much the same task: they make your music sound better. Audio Essentials is primarily designed to compensate for sub-optimal speakers, like the built-in ones on laptops or the lousy earbuds Apple still ships with every iPhone and iPod. The various modes each apply different types of adjustments at varying levels. For example, the default settings for music and voice both get the full spectrum of 3D improvements and bass/definition enhancement, while games and movies get modifications to just the bass response and definition (the advanced sliders let you finely control all settings regardless of mode).
In use, Audio Essentials does not disappoint. The default modes are best for quickly switching between listening modes, while more advanced users may want to customize the settings. Unfortunately, these settings cannot be saved as new defaults, so you may want to write down the slider values (0-9) for each of the settings if you wish to recreate them. The 3D settings make an enormous difference in the perception of the sound playing—adjusting the 3D space level lets you fool your ears into thinking the sound is coming from several feet on either side of your computer, rather than from two speakers directly in front of you. While the bass adjustments can never alter the physics of tiny laptop speakers/earbuds, the Trubass definitely brings out bass that otherwise would be lost.
Rated on the sound quality alone, Audio Essentials would be an easy five stars.
Despite stellar audio performance, Audio Essentials is not without flaws, some of which are major. At the level of nitpicking, SRS Labs talks up the app’s “intuitive” interface, but the close/minimize window buttons are straight up Windows icons, both in style and their placement in the upper right hand corner of the window. In fact, the product page even lists the app’s compatibility as “…virtually all media players, including Windows Media Player and iTunes…” Clearly, some elements of the Windows app, which was released almost a year ago, have been carried directly into the Mac version. The button to control preferences even has a pop-up tooltip labeled “Options,” which is the standard Windows nomenclature for what Apple always calls “Preferences.”
On a more serious note, the required installation of Soundflower can cause both user confusion and also some dangerous volume variations. As mentioned earlier, there is no notice that the supporting app is required. Although a fine app in its own right, Soundflower is a specialized tool for complex audio tasks like rerouting and recording audio. It installs new virtual options for sound output in System Preferences, and it is not quite as polished as Apple’s audio functions. During testing, there were often times that sound continued to play through external USB speakers after headphones were plugged in, necessitating a trip to System Preferences to change the sound output. In addition, the system alert volume did not seem to take its volume from the Audio Essentials or Soundflower settings, and instead played alerts and systems sounds at full volume. This is not only inconvenient, but could also be dangerous when headphones are in use.
The Audio Essentials for Mac app is a decidedly mixed bag. On one hand, it delivers SRS’s amazing abilities to make audio sound richer, bigger, and better than you would expect from compressed digital music files on tiny speakers. On the other hand, the entire setup feels a bit like an unfinished hack project. Apple may be partly to blame, with their move to lock down OS X making it more difficult to capture audio playing on your Mac. Soundflower is definitely a power user’s tool, while Audio Essentials’ audience is the user who wants an easy way to control audio output without fancy external speakers and complex software.
If you listen mainly with headphones, you might want to consider the iWow adaptor, which applies similar effects to music and is much easier to use. If you are stuck with your laptop’s built-in speakers as your primary audio source (road warriors come to mind), Audio Essentials can be a useful upgrade that does not add extra weight to your gear. Grab the free trial download and give it a whirl.
Buy SRS Labs Audio Essentials for Mac