Audio Essentials can improve your Mac's sound, but needs some work
At a Glance
I’m not an audio purist. My desire is that whatever I’m 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 audio’s original creator—the musician, the movie soundtrack producer—had in mind. But again: I just want things to sound good.
SRS works its audio magic in various third-party hardware devices—such as the iWow 3D ( ) and iWow-U ( )—and the company offers an iTunes plug-in that competes with Bongiovi Acoustics’s Digital Power Station ( ). 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, it’s merely okay.
Because of how it works and what it does, it’s 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. Let’s start with the software.
The software itself
It’s lacking. First, though you wouldn’t know it unless you dived into the app’s online FAQs before installing, Audio Essentials requires that you install Soundflower, a free, third-party utility for the Mac that can reroute your computer’s audio. Soundflower tucks new sound input and output devices into your Sound preference pane; whether you’re actually using your Mac’s built-in speakers or the headphone jack, it will always claim to be using Soundflower (2ch) as its output device.
On its own, that’s not a huge deal. But Soundflower can muck about with some sound behaviors that you normally wouldn’t even think about: In my testing, at least in tandem with Audio Essentials, Soundflower played my Mac’s alert sounds louder than it should—at full, ear-splitting volume—in 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 laptop’s built-in speakers instead of the USB device.
But let’s suppose you have a more vanilla audio setup for your Mac, and Soundflower doesn’t 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, you’ll 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 you’d like Audio Essentials to optimize for: music, gaming, movies, or spoken word. You use the right dial to choose whether you’re outputting your audio to your computer’s 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 can’t save your adjustments. That’s rather shortsighted. For example, I found that Audio Essentials’s 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 app’s 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 track’s genre setting. The app can recall your audio settings between launches—but 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 wouldn’t bother to mention. They merit a brief reference here only because they’re 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 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 Mac’s 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 laptop’s speakers sound unmodified.
If you connect cheaper speakers to your Mac—say, speakers for which you paid less than $50—you’ll likely appreciate Audio Essentials effects, too. On a pricier speaker that I frequently connect to my Mac, the Philips Fidelio Docking Speaker DS8500/37 ( ), Audio Essentials’s 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 type—games, movies, spoken word; and an intelligent volume equalizing option.
Macworld’s buying advice
Certainly, step one is to download the free version and determine whether you appreciate Audio Essential’s effects. If you do like the app’s 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.