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Audio Essentials can improve your Mac's sound, but needs some work

Im not an audio purist. My desire is that whatever Im listening to should sound good, where good is defined somewhat subjectively as pleasing to my ears.

SRS Labs is a part of the increasingly popular consumer audio-enhancement market: The company uses digital trickery to make the audio you listen to sound better, through effects that accentuate bass presence, maximize stereo separation, eliminate volume spikes, and perform other acoustic modifications. Audiophiles object to such effects, saying that they artificially detract from what the audios original creatorthe musician, the movie soundtrack producerhad in mind. But again: I just want things to sound good.

SRS works its audio magic in various third-party hardware devicessuch as the iWow 3D ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) and iWow-U ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice )and the company offers an iTunes plug-in that competes with Bongiovi Acousticss Digital Power Station ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). But with its Audio Essentials software, previously for Windows PCs and newly available for the Mac, SRS looks to improve the audio for any sound that your Mac can generate.

Overall, its merely okay.

Because of how it works and what it does, its necessary to evaluate Audio Essentials on a couple different criteria. The first is the app itself, and the second is the audio quality it generates. Lets start with the software.

The software itself

(Image Caption: Audio Essentials doesn't exactly look at home on your Mac. The app is functional, but not a delight to use.)

Its lacking. First, though you wouldnt know it unless you dived into the apps online FAQs before installing, Audio Essentials requires that you install Soundflower, a free, third-party utility for the Mac that can reroute your computers audio. Soundflower tucks new sound input and output devices into your Sound preference pane; whether youre actually using your Macs built-in speakers or the headphone jack, it will always claim to be using Soundflower (2ch) as its output device.

On its own, thats not a huge deal. But Soundflower can muck about with some sound behaviors that you normally wouldnt even think about: In my testing, at least in tandem with Audio Essentials, Soundflower played my Macs alert sounds louder than it shouldat full, ear-splitting volumein certain setups, like when I connected an external speaker to the headphone jack. And I also found that Soundflower got confused when I use USB-connected audio devices, routing some audio to my laptops built-in speakers instead of the USB device.

But lets suppose you have a more vanilla audio setup for your Mac, and Soundflower doesnt give you trouble beyond muddying up your Sound preference pane a smidgen. The Audio Essentials app itself is, unfortunately, still problematic.

When you launch the app, youll see a virtual power button (for turning the SRS effect on and off), Windows-style close and minimize buttons at the upper right, and two large round dials. You use the left dial to switch the audio type youd like Audio Essentials to optimize for: music, gaming, movies, or spoken word. You use the right dial to choose whether youre outputting your audio to your computers built-in speakers, to headphones, or to connected speakers, so that the app can best target its SRS audio-modifying magic to your exact setup.

Click on the Advanced button, and you can adjust various sliders that control settings like 3D Center Level, 3D Space Level, and 3D TruBass Level. When you mouse over those settings, Audio Essentials helpfully explains a bit more about what those controls actually do. The app uses different presets depending on your audio source and output device selection.

While you can edit those defaults, however, you cant save your adjustments. Thats rather shortsighted. For example, I found that Audio Essentialss default settings for external speakers emphasized bass way too much, unlistenably so. I dialed the bass level down dramatically, but it kept resetting itself until I disabled the apps Auto setting for Default Music Genre, which was otherwise attempting to adjust the audio settings for each new song that came up in iTunes based on the tracks genre setting. The app can recall your audio settings between launchesbut those custom settings are forgotten if you change to another audio type or output device on either of the two dials.

Audio Essentials also includes virtual VU meters, which I normally wouldnt bother to mention. They merit a brief reference here only because theyre lousy; they only lit up in my testing when I dialed the volume up very loud, well beyond the volume level necessary for comfortable listening.

The audio

The default external speaker setting is too bassy, but how does Audio Essentials make your Mac sound overall?

As with much in life, it depends. The app certainly improved the sound of my Macs built-in speakers to my ear, when listening to my music library in iTunes: Upper bass was more audible, and music in general sounded punchier, and less muffled than my laptops speakers sound unmodified.

If you connect cheaper speakers to your Macsay, speakers for which you paid less than $50youll likely appreciate Audio Essentials effects, too. On a pricier speaker that I frequently connect to my Mac, the Philips Fidelio Docking Speaker DS8500/37 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), Audio Essentialss impact was, at first, not at all beneficial. Adjusting the faders to minimize bass boosting and making a few other tweaks did result in an effect that I mostly enjoyed.

You may like the Audio Essentials effect; you may not. Fortunately, a free trial version of the app is available so that you can audition its adjustments to your ears content. The trial version lacks options like automatic music genre detection; a headphones preset; options for identifying the current audio typegames, movies, spoken word; and an intelligent volume equalizing option.

Macworlds buying advice

Certainly, step one is to download the free version and determine whether you appreciate Audio Essentials effects. If you do like the apps audio tweaks, the full version is probably warranted for its finer-grained controls. But be warned that the app leaves plenty to be desired. A significant overhaul, with savable presets and a more Mac-like interface, would be music to my ears.

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