Review: Iogear USB Theater Sound Xperience

Theater Sound Xperience brings DTS virtual surround via USB (November 11th, 2011)

Iogear recently released a USB sound adapter, the Theater Sound Xperience, that brings DTS virtual surround to Windows machines. The hardware accessory is paired with a software utility that provides further options for enhancing music and voice recordings. In our full review, we determine if the device lives up to the company's promises.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Iogear

Price: $40

The Good

  • Wider soundstage
  • Enhanced bass
  • Adjustable settings

The Bad

  • Mediocre amplifier
  • Poor acoustic modeling
  • Results sometimes unnatural

Iogear recently released a USB sound adapter, the Theater Sound Xperience, that brings DTS virtual surround to Windows machines. The hardware accessory is paired with a software utility that provides further options for enhancing music and voice recordings. In our full review, we determine if the device lives up to the company's promises.

Design

The Theater Sound Xperience hardware consists of a small cylinder that resembles a vacuum tube with a gold cap. The tube is built from clear plastic, enabling users to see the internal circuitry and a blue LED. A Mini USB port can be connected via standard cables or plugged into a 90-degree elbow that holds the tube directly above the computer's USB port.

We did not have any issues with the hardware design, though the fake vacuum tube does look a bit cheap. Despite its appearance, however, the tiny module seems to be solid enough to toss in a computer bag without worrying about damage from heavier devices.



Function

The VIA chip that dominates the visible circuit board handles DTS Surround Sensation processing, which aims to expand the sound stage and give users the impression that noise is coming from somewhere beyond the headphone drivers. Although the system can accept stereo input or 5.1 channels--true 'surround' sound--the Theater Sound Xperience mixes everything down to two channels for use with standard headphones or stereo speakers.

To mimic a surround-sound system using just two drivers, the Surround Sensations algorithms promise to manage frequency variances, volume intensities and time delays to trick the mind into believing it is hearing sound from six speakers being bounced around the walls of a larger listening area.



Performance

We used Etymotic's reference-quality ER-4P earphones to test the device, though it can be used with over-ear headphones or other designs. After watching a number of movie trailers spanning several genres, our first impressions were mixed. DTS processing certainly makes the audio seem more theater-like, however the company appears to have adapted the sound to mimic a large commercial theater with poor acoustics rather than well-calibrated speaker systems in optimum acoustic environments.

Low-frequency rumbles in action shots get a noticeable boost, while many of the midrange sounds do seem to take to a wider soundstage. Like the "theater" mode on many stereo receivers, however, speech comes across with an annoying tinny tone.

Moving on to music, we switched the software setting to the music mode to avoid mangling the sound through the theater algorithms. Our experience with music was slightly better, as the wider soundstage did not bring significant sacrifices to vocal quality or other individual elements. Nonetheless, certain instruments sounded poorly recorded due to the signal processing.

For users who have a difficult time hearing voice recordings, the software provides a slider for "voice clarification." We did notice an improvement in voice clarity when listening to talk radio streamed at extremely low bit-rates, but the processing did not make a miraculous difference to the overall sound quality.



Amplifier

The Theater Sound Xperience system completely bypasses a computer's integrated headphone amplifier. We expected this to be a necessary element of the "enhancement" equation, as many notebook and desktop computers have difficulty powering high-impedance headphones, however we were disappointed to find that the dongle's own amplifier is mediocre at best.

With the signal processing options enabled, the device produced volume levels similar to our notebook. After disabling the enhancements, the sound levels dropped off significantly. If users want a break from the theater experience, they are better off unplugging their headphones from the dongle and using the computer's own amp.

Final thoughts

After trying out the Theater Sound Xperience dongle with a wide range of audio content, we found that it does fulfill many of its promises. The processing algorithms do produce a wider soundstage, with a number of tweaks for a theater-like experience. Unfortunately the enhancements come at a cost, interfering with the sonic refinements of well-produced movies and music. Admittedly the slight imperfections may not be a concern for buyers who are after an exhilarating listening session rather than appreciating the subtle timbre of acoustic instruments.

The Theater Sound Xperience dongle is now available with an MSRP of $40.



by Justin King


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