SRS Labs iWOW-U audio enhancement accessory review

Many OEMs are bundling headphones with their smartphones and tablets these days, and it’s no secret these headphones tend to be lacking. After all, they come with the cost of the phone and are not meant to be high-end professional quality beasts. SRS Labs looked to solve that problem with the iWOW-U audio enhancement accessory.

The device is a small piece of tech that’s used as a buffer between your device (smartphone, tablet, or even laptop if you wish) and your headphones. Your audio is processed by SRS Labs’ drivers and the end-result sent to your headphones is supposed to be better sounding music, dialog and the likes. Does this $ 70 accessory live up to the hype or should you opt to spend that $70 on a new pair of headphones altogether? Let’s find out together.

 

Design

There isn’t much to this little guy on the outside. It’s small — important because it’s supposed to stay attached to your smartphone for as long as you’re listening to it — and it doesn’t have many buttons. The device has a 3.5mm headphone jack for plugging your headphones into, while the 3.5mm jack goes into your device of choice’s 3.5mm port. The connections aren’t gold-plated, but the silver should be just fine for the types of people this device is aimed for.

The face of the device features one button and an LED indicator which lets you know if the device is turned on and which mode — either car stereo mode or headphone mode — it’s in. The audio enhancement effects can also be switched off, and this is noted by an illuminated SRS logo while the main LED light is off.

On the side of the dongle is a microUSB port used to charge the device. Yep, this thing is battery operated and you’ll need to keep it charged in order for it to process your audio for better sound.

One cool little feature is the ability to change the face plate. Mine came with Silver pre-installed, and four more colors come inside the box to fit the tastes of pretty much anyone. You’ll get Pink, Teal, Red, and Black. We appreciate SRS not gouging its users to buy these extra face plates with a $60 price tag. The face plates are easily removed and attached so switching them out on a daily basis is no difficult task.

Does it work?

Well… yes, and no. Yes because it definitely does enhance audio playback on some of those lower-end headphones. A pair of cheap Skullcandy earbuds I have sounded muddier without the accessory than with it. It especially enhanced sounds on the low-end of the spectrum (bass and treble) while the highs stood out only a tad more than usual.

The sound was more full overall and I didn’t feel like the music was being packed into one compressed line and pushed through a keyhole. I must say that certain tracks had the tendency to drown the mid-range out in favor of the lows, though better mixed tracks would have made that a non-issue.

The problem doesn’t come in function, but in price: for $60 I could buy a better pair of headphones than an accessory to make crappy headphones attempt to sound like better headphones. I wasn’t expecting some huge improvement, but the gains I did get from the i-WOWU could have been closely emulated through the use of an equalizer.

For that fact, it’s probably best for someone who has a phone without an equalizer to use these (which shouldn’t be us Android users since Google Music comes with an EQ, as well as many other apps in the Play Store), but I don’t think I could justify spending $60 on this little guy. What I can get from Sennheiser, Audio-Technica and the like for comparable or even cheaper prices makes this a very hard purchase to swallow.

I will say that I did not have a chance to test this unit out in a car (it features a car stereo mode for those who are listening to tunes inside their vehicles). As such, I can’t accurately judge whether or not the device is viable for those looking to beef up the sound in their cars.

A little device like this definitely sounds ideal if that’s what you’re getting it for, but you’ll have to see how it sounds through your own setup. The only advice I can offer for this scenario is to buy it, try it, and if it doesn’t work out then return it. Sorry!

Other quirks

One thing I hate is that it requires a battery (built-in and rechargeable). Most good audio processors do, but for something that you will probably use as much as you use the headphones themselves you probably want it to last a fair amount of time. I wouldn’t have been vexed if it could hold a decent charge but I rarely hit the advertised 5 hours it’s supposed to deliver, and it takes way too long to charge for how fast it drains.

Another issue I had with the device was a noticeable hissing in the background. It isn’t as noticeable on some of the more “active” and loud songs I’ve listened to, but on more mild tracks you will definitely get bothered. Issues like this tend to be a product of general quality and not a one-off defect so I can’t imagine trying a different unit would garner better results.

One plus is that the unit supports input from devices with inline controls. You can control volume and call controls just as if the headphones were hooked directly up to your phone. Some buffers simply overlook something like this so it’s worth pointing out.

Verdict

The iWOW-U does what it promises to do (well, it didn’t wow me, but it did enhance my audio) so we can’t knock it for that, but I just don’t see it being the smartest decision for those looking for a better audio experience. It enhances sound, but not without a couple of minor sacrifices such as a hissing noise and overpowering lows.

If for some reason you just can’t depart with your current headphones and are looking for something better then these are quite fine enough, but I implore you to explore replacing your headphones altogether if you are looking to spend the $60 SRS Labs is asking for.

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  • Mapekz

    This ‘audio enhancement’ device is basically a DAC/portable headphone amplifier. There is an entire market of these types of devices and many better quality devices for similar or higher price ranges.

    However, DACs/amps are not going to magically make your free headphones sound amazing; you still need to invest in a solid pair of headphones/earphones in order to get the quality of sound you want. Instead the DAC acts as an amplifier of the sound (since pre-amps within the phone itself aren’t too powerful) and to enhance and equalize the sound so it sounds just right when it comes through your headphones/earphones (which often are biased towards a specific sound that you may not enjoy).

    • http://www.phandroid.com Quentyn Kennemer

      Indeed. I don’t know, I would just rather get headphones with an amp built-in instead of purchasing this dongle. The selection might not be great in that regard. I’d just as soon buy a pair of Sennheiser HD280 Pros and buy a cheaper amp that would still produce a greater result than these. It’s a setup that’s about $60 more but the saying goes “you get what you pay for.”

      • Del373

        For 10 bucks more than this “WOW” thingy, you can get a pair of Grado SR-60s which (imo) don’t even need an amp to sound amazing. They’ve got a funky retro styling too.

    • Michael Thompson

      You pegged it.

  • camelsnot

    can’t a company come up with a brand without using “i” anymore? I mean SRSly.

    • chuckles87

      i=you will never get my business even if i like the product or service.

      a few i saw recently

      ipawn- pawnshop

      irobot-vacuum cleaner

      iphone-inferior smartphone

      ipod-a children’s toy

  • Elemetrix

    Be interested to see what HeadFi makes of this. For less than the price of this there are a number of highly popular Fiio amps or for about the same money you could get the (admittedly larger) #1 reviewed portable amp on HeadFi, the PA2V2.
    As Mapekz says if you phone has a crappy DAC then none of them will perform miracles It’s a shame Android doesn’t support external DACs over microUSB as previous Nokias have done or as iPods have been capable of.

  • KingKondiment

    I’ve been a fan of SRS Labs since my 20 GB iRiver MP3 player (awesome device btw). I don’t think I’ll be picking this up, but I’m glad to see them continue to be a player in the audio game. If you haven’t had a chance to experience their wares, make sure you check them out.

    And for the record, they were iName’ing since the iRiver days…which was long before Apple got involved. Funny how people forget about iRiver. Really liked them.