Review: Audyssey amp Media Player IOS app

The Skinny: Audyssey amp Media Player app that plays your iTunes library and includes precision EQ curves for many popular headphones and earbuds.  App includes Audyssey’s Dynamic EQ for improved low-volume listening.

Quick Take: Finally! Precision headphone EQ for next to nothing!  Talk about a huge improvement in sound quality.  Don’t walk, run to the App Store and buy this one!

Details:

What’s a review of an IOS headphone app doing in a Home Theater Blog?  Simple: I LOVE headphones!  Been hooked since I was 9 and first listened to a crystal set kit I built on the kitchen table, then I got immersed in headphone stereo in the late 1960s.  They’re the cheapest path to high-end sound, personal, private, portable, and wonderful.   Yet, as inexpensive as they can be, headphones and earphones of all kinds have a sonic signature all their own.

Just like speakers, no two models sound the same.  Perhaps when you get to seriously expensive headphones their sonic signatures may be sort of similar, but even the $1000+ models differ substantially in their frequency response.  This gives rise to the desire some head-phreaks have to equalize their headphones and coax better performance out of them.  The idea is well founded.  An equalizer compensates for frequency response deficiencies, whether peaks or dips, bumps rises or roll-offs.  But the entire EQ problem is fraught with difficulties.

Setting an equalizer “by ear” can be challenging.  Few have the ability to listen so analytically as to detect specific response anomalies while listening to music, then adjust a parametric equalizer to exactly compensate.   Often, all we have to tweak on is bass and treble.  Then there are those annoying presets in the iPod, none of which make any sense.  Limited tools, limited ability, it all adds up to small improvements and big frustration.

What we’d really like to do actually measure the response of our headphones, then adjust our equalizer based on that.  But that’s a task not so easy to accomplish.  The measurement mic would have to be inserted into your ear and park right next to your ear drum.  You need a good test signal source, and a method of measurement that has high resolution, then an equalizer capable of being set in response to all of that data.  If you can’t do all that yourself, and frankly very few could, you can find headphone test data on-line. Several websites test and publish headphone frequency response graphs.  But the published curves are sometimes difficult to read, and what’s worse, creating the exact inverse EQ curve without seeing the actual response of the equalizer is pretty much impossible.  Even if you can see a predicted EQ response, what are you shooting for?  Not flat, certainly, that’s been well established.  So what’s the right “target curve”?  It’s all enough to make you want to give up EQ and just listen to your headphones bareback.  Or, just tweak by ear and do what you can, which until now was the best option.

Enter: Audyssey.  The boffins at Audyssey Labs have baked up another amazing use for their famed “MultEQ” system.  You’ve seen Audyssey MultEQ (in all the flavors) for years now in AVRs.  It shows up in car stereos, computer speakers, iDevice docks, and there was a legendary stand-alone “pro” unit, sadly no longer in production.  You can even buy a relatively inexpensive software plugin for your DAW and EQ your recording studio monitors.  But this latest concoction is by far the most accessible, affordable, influential and just plain cool application for MultEQ yet.  For a buck minus a cent, you can buy the app, and it runs on your iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, anything running IOS 5 or higher.  The App is called “amp Media Player” (yes amp is stylishly all lower-case).  It works with the iTunes library already present on your device but has a twist.  When you set it up, you tell it what make and model of headphones you’ll be using, and BAM! You’re Equalized!  No fuss, no testing, no guessing, no worry about target curves, Q, gain, F0…nutting’ but the perfect high precision EQ for your specific headphones!  Unplug your cans, and plug in a new pair, and the app asks if you want to change EQ curves, and saves your favorites.  Slick.

Now we’re cookin’ with GAS!

The Audyssey Labsters have done all the heavy lifting for us…taking high resolution MultEQ-based measurements of a selection of popular headphones, creating the ideal correction curves, and letting us mortals download the curves into the player.  Now, that would be cool enough, but no…they just couldn’t quit.  Audyssey has had Dynamic EQ for a few years now.  It’s a dynamic correction system that makes changes to the overall EQ of a signal passing through it based on the exact SPL presented to the listener at any moment in time, making up for our human low-volume bass insensitivity.  It makes low volume listening fun, filled with bass that would normally be missing, and makes everything far more audible.  They went and put that into the app too.

The very second the app came to my attention, I bought it.  But I had questions of my own, so I contacted Audyssey boss Chris Kyriakakis and we did a little Q/A:

Jim:  Every EQ system needs a target curve, a goal to shoot at. How did you pick the target curve in amp?

Chris: That’s a bit of a secret, but it involved measuring inside ears of people and mannequins in calibrated studios

Jim: Do I assume correctly that there are different eq targets for IEM vs on ear vs circumnaural?

Chris: Yes

Jim: How did you measure headphones for the in-app curves?

Chris: We developed an automated system based on… MultEQ!!

Jim: If I were to use an external headphone amp connected to the dock, line out, will the app still work?  In most cases dock line outs bypass the volume adjustment.

Chris: If you control the volume from the app then it will work just fine

Jim: Do you base the dynamic EQ on volume attenuator setting, or are you sampling actual audio out levels?

Chris: Dynamic EQ monitors volume setting and real time estimation of content loudness

(Thanks Chris!)

With those questions answered, I moved on for some listening tests.  I installed the amp app on my iPad 2 and launched it.  The app immediately asked me what headphones I use, so I selected the Grado SR-80i.  Then it brought up my iTunes library.  I started with Audyssey off, and launched my Headphone Test Playlist, a rather eclectic collection of recordings I know very well.  The list doesn’t represent my preferences in music so much as material that I find useful for evaluation.  First on the list are two older Rebecca Pidgeon recordings, Kilerka and Spanish Harlem.  I find the human voice very revealing of audio quality and have been using this CD since I first heard it used in several demo rooms at a CES years ago.  I immediately hear the characteristic Grado upper-mid peak and smooth but not terribly deep bass, familiar anomalies I’ve come to know for the past 16 years that I’ve owned my Grados.  Then I switched on Audyssey’s custom Grado SR-80i EQ.  It was as if somebody slapped a completely different set of cans on my head!  And darn good ones at that!  The upper mid peak was completely gone, the bass smoothed out even more and got deeper.  In short, all my Grado complaints disappeared with the flick of a switch.  In disbelief, I moved on to more material.

I worked my way through the list that included John Williams solo classical guitar, classical recordings that included Leos Janacek’s Symphonietta, a bit of Tchaicovsky, then Besame Mucho by Diana Kral, even a high resolution analog transfer of a Sheffield Labs Direct to Disc record (Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues) that was recorded in one complete take per side, direct to a Scully lathe.  Each time I turned off Audyssey it was like someone taking my candy away. Like someone removing my plate in the middle of a meal.  Like pulling the plug on some of the best headphones I’ve ever heard, and placing back on my head…well, the Grados.  I was hooked, and now couldn’t live without Audyssey.  I listened to all the demo material as if through new ears with new headphones.

About halfway through I decided to try something more radical.  I also own an even older set of Sony MDR-7506 Pro headphones that I bought in the early 1990s when I was doing live sound for broadcast.  They are not pleasant to listen to headphones at all, but they cover the ear, provide modest isolation, and their forward presentation makes it easy to hear problems in a live mix.  I dialed up the Audyssey curve for them too, and slapped them on.  With Audyssey turned off, again the familiar edgy, in-your-face sound of the Sonys.  I turned on Audyssey, and it was like someone poured a long cool stream of clear water over these normally sizzling phones.  They were tamed, and much more mellow.  Now the mid to top range was silky smooth but I still found them a tad bright, though.  I popped into the manual adjustments and tried the unique “tilt” control.  Pushing the slider one way tilts the overall response up at the low end and down at the high end, reverse for the other control direction.  A slight downward tilt put the Sony’s now into the world class.  Yikes, this is scary stuff! I actually enjoyed the Sony headphones for the first time ever.  They were no longer fatiguing, and if you’ve owned 7506s, you know that’s a big deal.  Still different from the Grados, but the differences post Audyssey magic were far less than without it.  Where they were radically different before, then now sounded like brothers, cut from the same cloth.

I haven’t had the chance to try a lot of other headphones yet, but I look forward to doing so.   I would assume some limits to the amount of correction, like Audyssey in an AVR where there’s a 9dB maximum gain.  But I’m also expecting that the worse the ‘phones, the more dramatic the difference, just like Audyssey and speakers.  And if you don’t find your headphones in their library, the app lets you send a request in, and they’ll let you know when the curve for your ‘phones is available.

Perfect…well, as you know, all apps are works-in-progress.  There’s a small issue with noise around extremely low-level sounds.  It’s relatively minor, and most listeners may never notice it.   Audyssey confirmed there’s already an update in the works that will improve noise performance during low-level audio.  Grab this release now, and you’ll get the update when it’s ready.

The magic of good headphone equalization is now available to anyone with an IOS device (IOS 5 and up) for $1.  It’s precision, custom EQ developed for your specific headphones using lab facilities and the measurement wizardry of Audyssy MultEQ.  Worth a buck?  No, it’s worth more like $250, but since it’s only a buck, don’t wait, go buy it now.  Hear what your headphones can sound like.  Hear what you’ve been missing.

Be forewarned: It’s addictive.

Addenda:  Audyssey’s headphone EQ is also available in the Songza app.  While Songza gets you the Audyssye EQ for free, the limitations in Songza’s library and method of selecting music for you prevents it from being a hands-down win, unless you’re squarely in the 18-35 age bracket.  I’m not, sorry Songza, you missed me.

40th Anniversary “Thick As A Brick” – Jethro Tull – Remastered

Just a brief blog post…if you have ANY interest in Jethro Tull, 70’s epic rock, 5.1 surround music, high resolution audio…Any of that…grab yourself a copy of the 40th Anniversary package.  It’s a CD and DVD-audio in a nice commemorative package.  There’s the original stereo mix captured in high-res, a new stereo mix (also high-res), a new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, and a high-rate DTS 5.1 mix.  The menu has the famous newspaper, slowly flipping pages as the audio plays.

The surround mixes are a revelation!  The new stereo mix is darn good too.  Overall, lots of fun, and a fine tribute to one of the most significant albums in rock history.

Thick As A Brick 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition