Die-hard music purists usually geek out over anything that promises to get them closer to the unadulterated experience of a song as it was originally recorded. The team at start-up BoomCloud360 is taking the opposite approach with its first product, the BoomStick ($99), a tiny headphone amplifier that promises to make tracks sound even better than they did in the studio.
There's no question that BoomCloud360's making a pretty bold claim, and they don't pull any punches. When I spoke with CTO Alan Kraemer, the audio engineering mastermind behind the BoomStick, he was unequivocal that what they're out to do is enhance the experience of listening through manipulating the sound and how we hear it, not some romantic platitude like "bringing out the best" of what's already lurking in streaming tracks. The BoomStick has proprietary software on it that processes the audio coming in, makes a bunch of adjustments, and then sends the new audio out to your headset.
The device itself is extremely simple. It has a male 3.5mm headphone jack on one end and a female 3.5mm jack on the other end. There's one big button and a micro-USB port on the side for charging the internal battery (which holds about 14 hours of power). It comes in black or silver, is lightweight but solidly built, and the interface couldn't be easier to use. You plug it into your device, plug your headphones into the BoomStick, and then power it on. You can tap the button to turn off the processing (letting the natural signal flow through) or double tap for a special mode meant specifically for those little white plastic earphones almost everyone seems to have.
With words like "psychoacoustic bass enhancement," "high frequency contouring," and "soundfield expansion" peppering the marketing materials, I was pretty skeptical as I strung the BoomStick between my iPhone and my Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones. I shouldn't have been.
The first thing I did way do some A-B testing with a few favorite songs. You do immediately notice a small boost in volume in addition to the other changes when you hit that big button and the LED ring lights up. But once you get past that, the other differences are obvious. Bass becomes a little more punchy without getting muddy or rumbly. Highs get a little shimmer effect without any added shrillness. The biggest addition for me though was the space between instruments and voices. Using the BoomStick made listening with on-ear headphones feel more like sitting in a brilliantly-tuned room and I really enjoyed it.
Now, the BoomStick's second mode is specifically tuned for the ubiquitous EarPods that come with Apple's iPhones and iPods. Just double-tap the button and you're good to go. I dug out an old pair of never-used Earpods to give this a try and was less than excited by the results. Sure, the set-up sounds way better than the Earpods alone, but if you're using the white plastic buds day-to-day, I'd save your $99 and just buy a better pair of headphones instead. The extra enhancements also seems a little overboard when used with other in-ear headphones, so I'd stick to the basic mode with anything more sensitive.
You can also use the BoomStick to watch movies on an tablet and I recommend you do. Even more than with music, I think this might be the BoomStick's best application. Watching J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek, the BoomStick gave the U.S.S. Enterprise's engines some extra oomph and the little noises that punctuate the background of life on a spaceship registered better amongst the louder foreground elements. An iPad on an airplane tray table suddenly felt like a mini movie theater.
After a week of traveling with the BoomStick I was convinced, but I'm a nerd who spends way too much time playing with audio equipment. I did an extremely unscientific study on a handful of friends and co-workers, hiding the device out of view and doing simple "which is better, A or B" tests. I added a click of volume as I turned off the BoomStick as well to keep it as close as possible. Of the five people I tried this with, not a single one preferred music without the BoomStick over music with it.
You can pre-order the BoomStick now directly from the company for $99 (this isn't a Kickstarter situation though) with the first units shipping and the BoomStick hitting other retailers, including Amazon, sometime Spring 2016.
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