Gadget Review: SRS iWow 3D Audio Enhancer for iPod, iPad and iPhone

In the search for better sound from portable devices, such as iPods, a number of add-ons (or plug-ins, literally) are available. There are several small headphone amps that you can use with an iPod or other portable music player, and then there’s the $70 SRS iWow 3D. This device plugs into the dock connector of your iPod, iPhone or iPad, and has a headphone jack for you to plug in your headphones or earbuds.

I tested the SRS iWow 3D on a number of devices, and with several different headphones. SRS claims that this device “Deliver[s] natural and immersive sound with deep, rich bass,” and that it “Dynamically locates and restores audio details buried in source material.” It does indeed change the sound of your music; the question is, is that change good or not? I think this type of device is something you will either love or hate, and that there’s not much middle ground.

First of all, the SRS iWow 3D does provide a feeling of surround sound, or what the company calls “immersive” sound. It’s actually quite impressive; there is a noticeable separation among instruments when it is on. While I wouldn’t call it surround sound – which SRS does not – it is more spacious. I don’t know exactly how this voodoo is worked, but some of it involves equalization and a change in overall volume. When you connect the SRS iWow 3D to your device, you press a small LED-lit button to turn it on; if the LED is off, it is merely passing the sound through without altering it. You can instantly notice that the volume is slightly increased, so to compare, you need to adjust the volume to try to hear both signals at the same loudness. The high end and low end are noticeably increased, and there is an overall augmentation of bass, something that portable players often lack.

In my tests with Beyerdynamic DT 990 32 amp headphones, I noticed a bit of hiss at the high end, with some types of music (this was more prominent with orchestral music than rock or pop); it seems that this treble boost is too much for some recordings. Jerry Garcia’s voice on Ripple sounds less smooth; the drums on U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday are too punchy; and the bass on Brian Eno’s Just Another Day is almost distorted; and Bob Dylan’s voice on Desolation Row sounds processed and hissy.

On the other hand, when I plugged in a pair of Sennheiser PX 100-II i headphones, Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road sounded much better through the SRS iWow 3D; Lou Reed’s voice on Pale Blue Eyes stood out much more; and the acoustic guitar background on Bob Dylan’s Forever Young took on much more space.

(Note that most of my tests with classical music showed that the device, at least with good headphones, doesn’t help much.)

I performed the above tests first on an iPod classic. If you have an iOS device, you can use SRS’s iWow application to choose the type of output (headphones, speakers or car), and choose from advanced settings, such as Wide Surround, Deep Bass and High Treble. This gives you a bit more flexibility in the way the sound is rendered, and you can adjust these settings to fit your headphones. Results were a bit better using the device with the app.

My verdict is this: if you have good, relatively expensive headphones, the SRS iWow 3D won’t improve the sound of your music, and the adjustments it makes may not work with your headphones. However, if you use earbuds or portable headphones, notably with limited bass response, the SRS iWow 3D will give them a much better sound. Also, if you use an iOS device, the SRS iWow app will give you a bit more control over the sound.

This said, I think each listener will need to decide if they like the type of sound this device provides. You should ideally test this with your headphones to see how you feel about the sound.

One note: the LED on the device is bright, and, together with the actual signal processing, the SRS iWow 3D uses up a fair amount of battery life. SRS claims that this reduces battery life by approximately 18%. That’s a lot, if you use your iPod for several hours a day, and could be a deal-breaker.