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SRS Labs iWOW-U smartphone audio enhancer review

Review by Dan Seifert on Thursday July 12, 2012.

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Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets aren't known for providing the best audio quality music and movies, and the compressed files that many people listen to these days only make matters worse. SRS Labs, a company that has been synonymous with quality sound for nearly two decades, is looking to change that with its new iWOW-U product. A follow-up to the iWOW 3D for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, the iWOW-U provides audio enhancement for virtually any mobile device, including laptop computers. At $70 and up, the iWOW-U is not a cheap, throw-away accessory, so we put it to the test to see if it is worth the cash.

The iWOW-U is about 178mm (7in) from end to end (though the main part is only about 57mm (2.25in)) and weighs 18g (0.63oz). It has a standard 3.5mm plug on one side and a 3.5mm jack on the opposite end. The body of the unit features a single button, an indicator LED, and a micro-USB port under a covered flap. The faceplate can be removed and replaced with a different colored option if you opt for the model with various color faceplates. On the back of the iWOW-U are simple instructions for operating it and enabling the sound enhancement.

Essentially, the device works by taking the sound output from a mobile device, applying digital processing and enhancements to it, and then sending the enhanced sound to the headphones (or speakers) that are plugged into it. The iWOW-U doesn't draw on a device's battery to function, but it does have an internal battery that needs to be charged through the micro-USB port from time to time. Unlike the older iWOW 3D, the iWOW-U does not require a special app or software to function, so it can literally be used with any device that has a 3.5mm headphone jack and accepts standard headphones. Additionally, the iWOW-U's plug supports inline remotes for basic send and end functions and play/pause controls, as well as volume control. The single button on the front of the iWOW-U controls power (hold down for the 3 seconds to turn the device on or off) and switches between "headphone" and "car stereo" mode. The LED light is blue when the iWOW-U is in headphone mode, and it is green while it is in car stereo mode. To switch between the modes, you just hit the button twice in a row, while a single tap enables or disables the audio enhancements.

I tested the iWOW-U using an Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S III with both high-end over-the-ear headphones and basic headphones that are similar to what are bundled with most smartphones these days. I listened to both locally stored music and music that was streamed from Pandora (with high quality sound enabled) and Google Music while testing the iWOW-U. I also watched a few movies and TV shows on the mobile devices with the iWOW-U enabled to see if it made a difference there as well.

Between the iPhone and the Galaxy S III, my test results were largely the same. The iWOW-U enhances the low-end and the high-end of music at the same time, and unlike the Beats Audio enhancements on HTC devices, it doesn't drown out the music with too much bass. Depending on the style of music, the iWOW-U can enhance the high-end a bit too much, however, causing the sound to be sharp and uncomfortable. Mid-range sounds like piano or vocals can also get drowned out by the enhanced highs and lows that come when the iWOW-U is enabled. I noticed that the effect was much more pleasing with classical music than with harsher music like metal or dubstep, and the iWOW-U made the music more immersive when it wasn't piercing my ears. The two modes, headphone and car stereo, are very similar, but the car stereo mode has a less pronounced bass boost effect, which makes it good for some bass-heavy genres of music.

When used with high-end headphones, there is a noticeable hiss or hum sound when the iWOW-U is on and there is nothing currently playing on the device. There is also an uncomfortable click sound when the unit is engaged. As far as making the sound better, however, I preferred my high-end headphones without the enhancements, because they sound very good already (which is the reason I bought them, after all). The iWOW-U produced sound that was far too processed for my taste, and the enhancements didn't sound natural to my ears.

On the other hand, when the iWOW-U was used with cheaper headphones, the enhancements were generally welcome. Though it did produce some harsher sounds than I would prefer in some genres of music, overall, the iWOW-U enhanced the clarity of the music when it was used with cheap earbuds. It was easier to pick out various instruments than before, and though it still sounded "processed," it didn't sound as unnatural as with my high-end headphones. Don't be fooled, however, while the iWOW-U does make audio better with cheap headphones, it definitely won't make them sound as good as a high-quality pair of cans.

I didn't really notice too much of a difference between locally stored music and streamed music with the cheap earbuds, but when used with the high-end headphones, the iWOW-U did seem to have more trouble with the streamed music. That's to be expected, as streamed music generally has a lower bitrate and therefore lower sound quality than locally stored music. Of note, however, is that I did not like the iWOW-U for watching TV shows or movies that have a fair amount of dialogue. The background hiss was much more prominent during an episode of HBO's The Newsroom because it wasn't being drowned out by a variety of other sounds. Needless to say, Aaron Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue was much easier to follow along with when the iWOW-U was disabled.

You can order the SRS Labs iWOW-U from the company's online store or through various retailers now. The basic silver version will set you back $69.99, while the model with five different colored faceplates costs $79.99. The question is, is it worth it? If you happen to have high-quality headphones already, then no, I would say it is not. If you are using the included headphones that came with your smartphone, then the iWOW-U does have some value, but you might be better off just investing in a higher-quality pair of headphones or earbuds than bothering with the iWOW-U. Though the internal battery does last a long time, it eventually will need to be recharged and the iWOW-U is yet another thing that you have to carry with you when you are on the go.


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About the author

Dan Seifert
Dan is MobileBurn.com's Editor-in-Chief. Based in Poughkeepsie in New York, Dan can be found on Twitter as @DCSeifert.

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