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No need to settle for standard smartphone sound

New York Times

You’ve probably heard musicians like Neil Young complain over the last few years about the sound quality of digital music. But thanks to a new generation of so-called audio enhancement apps, your music’s sound quality doesn’t have to entirely depend on your smartphone.

LouderLogic, free on iOS, is perhaps the most impressive audio enhancement app I have used. LouderLogic functions just like the iPhone’s Music app and looks much like any other music-playing app, except for a large green button labeled “ALX” that turns on its “Audio Level eXtension” technology.

ALX makes tones sound much warmer and vocals seem brighter. It gave movies theater-quality sound, even on headphones. The ALX button automatically delivers this effect, but users can manually adjust the sound quality with audio equalizer controls when the phone is turned sideways.

Obviously, ALX works better with certain tracks. The app’s design is a little garish, and there are some pop-up ads in the free edition. But an ad-free version is available for $2.

On Android, an equivalent app is DFX Music Player Enhancer, which is also free. The app calls itself the first to bring “professional audio quality” to Android devices, and says that, like LouderLogic, its goal is to restore some of the “lost natural depth” of music recordings.

The DFX Player works as advertised. It makes music sound livelier, the bass notes warmer, than through a typical Android music app. You also can precisely adjust audio levels and choose settings to suit different types of music. On the downside, the app’s interface is a bit clunky and not as polished or easy to use as it could be.

Headquake, a free iOS app, might be the most impressive. Headquake uses a special-effects engine called Sonic Emotion to give sounds a 3-D quality. You read that right – it tries to manipulate a standard stereo music track so the music sounds as if it is coming from different parts of the room.

Like LouderLogic, the app synchronizes with the music in your iTunes collection. But it includes a large “3d” button, which activates a whole new spatial dimension to sounds: You can actually get a sense of, say, the singer in a band standing in front of you while the guitar comes from the side. You can control the effect by sliding icons on the screen to try to centralize the location of the sound and by adjusting equalizer levels for bass, midrange and treble.

But Headquake’s special effect doesn’t work well for all songs. With hard rock, for example, it makes midrange sounds mushy instead of clean, and singers can sound like they’re singing in a toilet bowl.

For the right track, however, the effect is startling. And Headquake is free, so there’s nothing to be lost by giving it a whirl.

LouderLogic, DFX Player and Headquake may not appeal to audiophiles because the processing they apply to music has such a bold effect on its sound.

On iOS, a slightly more subtle and gentle effect is offered by the free Audyssey Music Player app. The app’s main trick is tuning its behavior to suit your headphones using profiles. Many of the profiles are free, but to get certain high-end profiles like Beats by Dre, you have to pay a few dollars in-app.

If all this talk of advanced music processing makes you uncomfortable, simpler audio enhancement is possible with equalizer apps like Equalizer by Audioforge ($3 on iOS) and Music Equalizer by PerfectionHolic on Android (free).