Considering how often I use my computer as a conduit for music, podcasts, DVDs and streaming radio and TV shows, the thing handles a lot of audio. Promising to enhance the entirety of my computer’s audio output, as GenAudio does with their AstoundStereo Expander, is therefore no small claim. Happily, the claim is fully justified; this easy-to-use download makes a genuine difference, and the difference is fairly astounding.
The MacOS version of the Expander (which is the version I'm reviewing on a two-year-old MacBook) runs in the background, processing all audio produced by any application. Until a similarly comprehensive Windows version becomes available, PC users get a Windows Media Player plug-in that affects only audio coming from that app, excluding DVDs and music with DRM.
I tested it on all the audio hardware I have lying around: a pair of basic Panasonic clip-on headphones, higher-end Bose headphones (in-ear and QuietComfort 2), an off-the-shelf set of powered speakers from Cyber Acoustics, and of course, the laptop's built-in speakers. AstoundStereo installs as a settings pane, which features an enable/disable button and a slider for adjusting the intensity of the effect.
I never would have described the sound coming from my system as "flat," but that's just how normal output sounds after turning the enhancer on and off for comparison (but you don’t have to take my word for it; visit the Web site for samples that do just that). Think of when you finally arrive at a graphic equalizer setting that’s perfect for a certain song, and how it simply sounds "better." Now, imagine that effect increased ten-fold and applied to all of your system's audio, and that's the AstoundStereo Expander.
It certainly sounds deeper in a way that fulfills GenAudio’s promise to confer the spacial sense of surround sound to ordinary audio output, but it sounds richer as well. Every note, sound effect and spoken word gains definition, including those that would normally fade from notice, like a song’s bass track, or the modulated hum underlying the dialogue in a sci-fi program on BBC radio.
The effect is at least noticeable on all the hardware mentioned above, but as GenAudio notes, it’s most pronounced when using headphones. In my case, the QuietComfort set unsurprisingly blew the other setups away, while the built-in laptop speakers showed the least improvement.
The audio processing seems to have an unfortunate tendency to spontaneously develop a slight delay, however. Of course, other than the split-second stutter when it begins, this doesn’t matter so much when listening to plain audio, but it does mean that the sound will become out of sync with video playback. The bad news is that this problem arises just frequently and seemingly unpredictably enough to be irritating. The good news is that it (and the other, much rarer problem I came across, that of intermittent popping sounds in the audio) can be corrected instantly by disabling and re-enabling the enhancer.
I’d expect these minor problems to be eliminated in future versions, and besides, the stark improvement to your system’s sound is well worth the occasional hiccup. At $24.95, it’s certainly a cost-effective compromise if you want high quality sound without shelling out for a small city of speakers. At the very least, it’s something you should hear for yourself, and the best way to do that is by giving the trial version a whirl.
Minimum System Requirements (Mac)
- Leopard (10.5.1) or higher
- 1 GHz Intel or PPC (G5) processor
- Stereo audio output
- Internet access
Minimum System Requirements (PC)
- Windows XP or Windows Vista (32-bit only)
- Windows Media Player 11 or higher
- NOTE: AstoundStereo Expander runs as a plug-in to Windows Media Player (excluding any DVD and DRM audio); a future Windows version of the software for processing all audio on the computer is anticipated
- 1 GHz 32-bit (x86) processor
- 1 GB RAM
- Stereo audio output
- Internet access