Let's face it: These days, computers easily perform astronomical feats of calculation, display millions of colors on inexpensive monitors, and even make creating digital video movies a snap. Yet in the area of sound computers are still stuck in the stone age; compare the speaker built into your Mac with the speakers on even an inexpensive home sound system and the Mac clearly comes out the loser. But your Mac's sound doesn't need to be stuck in the dark ages -- not with simple, yet effective sound gadgets such as SRS Labs' $30 WOW Thing.
The WOW Thing is a colorful plastic box about the size of a Sony Walkman. Connect one end of its mini-jack cable to your Mac's sound out (speaker) port and the other to the WOW Thing, then connect a pair of headphones or external speakers and prepare to be... well, wowed.
The WOW Thing box sports a simple interface with in-line controls. The Off/On switch speaks for itself; there's also a Bypass/WOW switch to let you toggle between normal and enhanced sound. Knobs let you adjust the amount of WOW sound, bass, and volume. (SRS Labs' TruBass simulates a deeper bass sound without the need of a subwoofer.)
Because the WOW Thing uses standard audio cables and doesn't require you to install any software, it works on both Macs and PCs. However, the WOW Thing doesn't offer any USB support, so you're out of luck if you have USB speakers.
At this point, you may be asking yourself how exactly this thing works. Ready? The WOW Thing uses psycho-acoustics techniques, playing with how the brain perceives sound rather than how it truly acts in the physical world. This is similar to the 3-D sound created by some sound cards, which can give the impression that a sound is coming from behind you even though the only speakers connected are directly in front of you. The result is music streaming into your ears that is richer and has more depth than what you would normally hear from a computer. This is in contrast to other technologies that change phase, or shift the timing of sound coming out of each speaker, to enhance the listening experience.
If you're now wondering what psycho-acoustics are or why you should care, consider the source of the music you listen to. Psycho-acoustics are particularly well suited for MP3 files, because the compression scheme used in MP3 necessarily throws out musical data in order to obtain a small file size. Once encoded, MP3 files often end up with some low- and high-range sounds tossed out -- those at the extremes of our hearing. The WOW Thing adds back much of what is cast out. This enables an MP3 file to sound almost identical to its original, CD-quality counterpart. Even if you primarily listen to CDs, it's worth turning on the WOW Thing since it makes the music sound warmer and richer.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The WOW Thing's small size and even smaller price tag make it a must for anyone who spends time listening to music on a Mac, especially those who enjoy grooving to MP3s. While its dark, translucent-blue color doesn't actually resemble anything that Apple produces, the WOW Thing still looks cool on the desktop and can't be beat for the price.
RATING: PROS: Small; great price; easily adjustable and customizable. CONS: Doesn't work with USB speakers. COMPANY: SRS Labs (800/525-9444, http://www.wowthing.com ). DIRECT PRICE: $30.