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Dirac HD Player
DSP for Apple's Earphones
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Dirac HD Player

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November 2012       Dirac reviews   audio reviews   all reviews

 

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I haven't heard anything this night-and-day amazing in about 30 years.

This new, free Dirac Player HD app for iPod, iPhone and iPad uses highly advanced DSP to optimize the sound of Apple's new EarPods (as well as the older ear buds) to turn OK little earphones into something incredible, especially if you're a skilled, careful listener. It was introduced on 02 November 2012.

I installed the app, and I was immediately floored using Apple's EarPods. The sound from these little earphones suddenly went from merely bearable to absolutely astounding!

The deep bass reappeared, the lower midrange suddenly was rectified to become warm and lifelike, the upper midrange and lower treble harshness instantly smoothed out, and the missing upper treble reappeared. The resulting sound ("target curve") is completely smooth and neutral, with deep solid bass, perfect overall balance with silky-smooth midrange and treble that few if any other unaided dynamic or planar headphones can match. This app uses a very mature, complex and complete correction; it's not something cranked out by some DJ in his mom's basement.

This combination of app and earphones is simply astounding to me. It's easy to hear the differences between vocals recorded with a U87, a fat, warm tube U47 or an SM-58. The highs are astonishingly smooth and even velvety, and all the bass comes thundering back in tightly.

It is incredible. The app is free, installs instantly, and is easy to use. You've already got Apple's new EarPods in the box with most new iDevices as of September 2012, so if you haven't already thrown them away, with this free app you'll probably get such fantastic sound that you'll pitch any other $300 headphones you used to use. It works for the original Apple earbuds, and for the new (Sep. 2012) EarPods. It does not work for any other headphones or Apple's sealed In-Ear Headphones, which sadly need about 10 dB taken off at 3k!

In all my decades of playing with EQ'd systems, I've never heard such a clear turning of a sow's ear into a silk purse as I do hitting the ON/OFF button in the app. All the raspiness goes away and smooth sound follows instantly. The DSP carefully removes every nasty resonance that mechanical systems just can't do by themselves.

As a sub-$30 set of earphones, the EarPods are pretty good by themselves, devoid of much of the jacked-up midrange or bass common in most other inexpensive earphones, but by themselves, still not at good as a $70 pair of Sony MDR-V6.

Cue Dirac, a maker of acoustic optimization software and DSP for, among other things, the in-car premium audio systems of Rolls-Royce, BMW and Bentley. For whatever reason, Dirac decided to measure and create a version to optimize Apple's earphones. It took them a lot of work, especially to make a player that works so well in addition to the DSP. They're using it more as a publicity piece; it cost them a lot more to develop.

How good is it? I listened for about ten hours the day it was introduced, and also compared the Apple EarPods with the Dirac app directly to the $1,100 Ultrasone Edition 8 on an iPhone 5. The optimized Apple EarPods are better: far smoother overall sound, loads of deep bass with no fake bass boost, but with far smoother midrange and treble than the Ultrasone! After 10 hours of listening, I can't hear anything wrong with the sound. I usually hear problems in moments. If anything, the sound of the app as heard though the EarPods will err on the side of smooth rather than sizzle.

Compared the the reference 600Ω Beyer DT880, the DT880 is brighter, while the EarPods + Dirac are smoother.

What is this sorcery? Simple: while consumers don't realize this, for the past decade or two, all "premium" car audio, pro concert sound and studio monitors have used active equalization. Instead of trying to force drivers to do what we want them to do mechanically, we do it electronically. I was designing systems like this back in 1985.

Today, all pro studio monitors use active compensation and internal amplifiers. While pro monitors use good drivers, almost no one realizes that when you shell out thousands of dollars for the incredible premium audio system in your car (or even for the standard system) that car makers rarely use drivers that cost more than a dollar a piece! it's all in the DSP; car makers get great sound out of cheap drivers using science to save them a lot of money. Heck, car makers would use drivers that sell wholesale for a dime instead of a dollar if it weren't for the fact that they have to work over a huge temperature range and handle years of abuse under warranty.

Therefore, when Dirac, who knows how to make one-dollar drivers sound like thousands of dollars puts their heads to making the $30 Apple EarPods sound like a million bucks, they've done an incredible job. I don't have a set handy of the older earbuds, but there's a setting for those, too.

Even better than other EQ apps I've tried and deleted, not only does Dirac sound awesome, its interface is as good as iTunes, and its "by Artists" selector is better than iTunes in my iDevice.

The app (program) is tiny, less than 2 MB, and doesn't wear down the batteries with its DSP load, either. Like all DSP EQ in the digital domain, the average level is lower, since you can't boost without clipping the digital signal. Therefore, you'll set your iPod/iPad/iPhone volume higher for the same level and maximum level is a but less than in the regular iTunes player, but the EarPods are so sensitive that this isn't a problem.

Dirac HD Player is actually a music player used instead of the iTunes or Music app on your iDevice. Unlike most of the other bad attempts at this I've ignored in the past, this player works as well as Apple's, and its search by artist is better than Apple's player!

So we still need expensive headphones? Of course; this app only plays music from your iTunes library. It can't fix Apple's earphones used when watching movies, Internet radio or anything else, and it doesn't work unless the signal is coming out the headphone jack of your iDevice.

Your ears will vary, but it's free, so try it. I just hope you haven't already fed your EarPods to your dog. If you want to add a search and playlist functions, that will cost you a whopping $2.99 for the fancy version. The free version is so good I have no problem finding things among the nearly 10,000 songs I have in my 64GB devices.

 

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