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Restore the splendour of sound

Restore the splendour of sound
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First Published: Mon, Aug 25 2008. 01 01 AM IST

Product: Creative Xmod; Price: Rs7,999; Function: 24-bit crystallizer dynamically expands compressed music for volume gain with enhanced high and low tones
Product: Creative Xmod; Price: Rs7,999; Function: 24-bit crystallizer dynamically expands compressed music for volume gain with enhanced high and low tones
Updated: Mon, Aug 25 2008. 01 01 AM IST
For audiophiles and gadget vendors, the art and science of revitalizing MP3 music is the Next Big Thing.
Where’s the volume? Almost all music in MP3 format sounds rather bland. You miss the deep rumbles of resonating bass sounds, and the sparkles of high trebles. All instruments and voices hurtle at you like nameless passengers from a crowded train. You often crank the volume knob painfully high to hear the sounds a little more distinctly, and then hastily pull it down for the next track. You rummage through your equalizer-settings or sound effects just to get the right volume and clarity of sound. The irony is that sound-equipment and high fidelity on personal stereos have gone far beyond the range of human hearing. Ipods, home theatre systems, speakers, and noise-cancellation headphones have commoditized high-fidelity sound. Yet, everyone is straddled with a growing collection of vapid MP3 music. It’s like driving a Ferrari with four flat tyres.
Throwing out the baby: The problem is squarely with MP3 music. To fit more songs into a compact disc or an MP3 player, a lot of audio details within each music track are thrown away to make files smaller. In fact, the files get squashed in size because the tonality and range within the music is literally compressed. Users can unknowingly or insensitively compress music to almost a twentieth of its original. Owing to this and other factors while digitizing or ripping music, an MP3 file sounds rather “low volume”, too.
Loudness war: The other problem is even more alarming. With each passing year, the music industry records, produces, performs and broadcasts music with even more loudness.Play any music and it must explode through the speakers or your headphones like a burst of firecrackers. Each album tries to drown out the sound of other albums to grab the listener’s attention. In the last 20 years, this loudness war has turned into an assault on the ears: High fidelity has been abandoned. Extreme loudness has led to ear-splitting distortions and even destruction of delicate sounds within recordings. Researchers at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles in the US are concerned that all this could possibly harm the hearing of listeners, particularly children. Read more about this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war
Since audio-tracks have preset loudness, you tend to bring the volume down, resulting in a muffled and indistinct barrage of noise. Or, you could push the knob up to barely hear the subtle details in a deluge of deafening sounds.
Product: Creative Xmod; Price: Rs7,999; Function: 24-bit crystallizer dynamically expands compressed music for volume gain with enhanced high and low tones
Creative Xmod: This pocket-sized marvel sits between your playback device and your speakers or headphones. Its manufacturer, Creative, claims it can “intelligently restore the highs and lows for rich, crystal clear music.” Using a proprietary technology called the 24-bit crystallizer, it attempts to dynamically expand the compressed music, offers you a volume-gain control, and tries to fill in the missing jigsaw pieces in the soundscape. Creative has been criticized for claiming that the Xmod takes an MP3 beyond the quality of an audio CD, though there may be sound grounds for this. Since sound is based purely on perception, and each track may be different, results vary by track and by listener. Nevertheless, your MP3 music will overall sound much better and distinctly clearer than before. As the audio on broadcast TV and radio is highly compressed, the Xmod can enhance these, too. The device works out-of-the-box and requires no software drivers. It draws its power from the USB port of your Mac or Windows computer. Alas, this also makes it less portable, as it requires an optional power adapter to connect to your iPod, home stereo, radio or television. The second exciting feature in the Xmod is its ability to take two-channel stereo sound and reproduce it as surround sound, creating the illusion of extra speakers in the room for the listener. Compatible headphones can even recreate the illusion in your ears. The effect is doubtlessly thrilling. In India, the Xmod sells for an estimated street price of Rs7,999. Internationally, the price at various online shops ranges between $55 (Rs2,326) and $80.
Koss SSR1:If true portability is what you want, then go for the Koss Surround Sound Receiver. This curvaceous device runs on two AAA batteries, connects between any portable MP3 player and headphone. It creates a surround-sound experience from any recording, and also offers basic amplification and volume control for those low-volume MP3 tracks. Available online from Koss.com for $39.99 plus shipping.
{Product: Koss SSRI; Price: $39.99 plus shipping; Function: Creates a surround-sound experience from any recording (Photo)}
Koss EQ50: Just wish to equalize and amplify your music? Go for this portable amplifier that runs on two AAA batteries, offers you a three-band equalizer, and opens and enhances the sound quality to a certain extent. Available online from Koss.com for $19.99 plus shipping.
{Product: Koss EQ50; Price: $19.99 plus shipping; Function: Three-band graphic equalizer amplifies sound (Photo)}
Boostaroo revolution: Runs on two AAA batteries, uses patent-pending circuitry to enhance and expand digital audio, and actively splits the sound so you may connect two headphones to share your listening experience. Available from Boostaroo.com for $49.99.
Boostaroo portable audio amplifier and splitter: It’s exactly what the name implies. No knobs to fiddle with, plug in up to two headphones, and adjust the volume from your MP3 player to compensate for the volume gain. Available from Boostaroo.com for $29.99.
Product: Targus SoundUp; Price: $39.99 plus shipping; Function: Enhances sound for iPods, MP3 players, mobile phones
Targus SoundUp: You may also consider this sound enhancer for iPods, MP3 players and mobile phones. The upside: It works with one AAA battery, and offers two headphone slots, so you may listen to music with a friend without sacrificing amplification or volume. It does provide some basic sound-enhancement: The SoundUp “separates and reprocesses digital music files, providing a three-dimensional sound envelope”. Well, not quite as well as the Xmod, but decent enough for most use, or those on a budget. You may directly order it for $39.99 plus shipping from the online shop at Targus.com.
BBE VG360 Sonic Maximizer:Saving one of the best for the last: This device ushers into your home the same technology used in recording studios, auditoriums, and by some leading musicians. It delivers a rich, vibrant quality of sound. Though small, it is not portable as it needs a power adapter. The VG360 is available from Bbesound.com for $129 though you may find street prices at around $99. Some models in the newest generation of mobile phones have started to ship with surround sound. Ditto for emerging models of MP3 players. Ordinary televisions, car audio systems, DVD players, and general consumer electronics are also embracing this trend. To find out which device at home or in your car ships with this enhanced support for MP3, check out the websites of two competing technologies. The first is Srslabs.com, which claims it ships its technology in more than a billion devices already. The other is Bbesound.com, which has recently moved into high-definition audio as well.
Given the dangers associated with the “loudness war” in music, caution is advised in using the above portable amplifiers and sound-enhancing equipment as incorrect or negligent use may cause temporary or permanent ear damage. Adult supervision is strongly recommended for children.
Mouse to the Muse
Use free software to normalize your music for good
You can pump up the volume of your MP3 music using a portable amplifier but it does not solve the problem of enhancing the sound. You can, however, permanently fix this using free software. For a start, download and install Audacity (available for Mac, Windows and Linux) from ‘http://audacity.sourceforge.net’
The site tells you how to enable MP3 support. I almost always clean up the sound with “noise removal” and bring clarity and depth to the music through “equalization”. You’’ll find Web-based help on these and other commands.
So far, Audacity cannot transform two-channel stereo music into a digitally enhanced surround-sound experience. However, the Sonic Audio Sandbox software adds thump and surround-sound to anything playing on your computer: music, video, movies and games. Get a suitable version for yourself from ‘www.srslabs.com’. Prices range from $15 to $29.9.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 25 2008. 01 01 AM IST
More Topics: Gadgets | MP3 | iPod | Music | Gizmos |