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Dirac HD Player App Full Review

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Skeptical. If I had to describe myself in a word, it would be skeptical. Someone claims their speakers perform as good as speakers five times the price? I'm skeptical. My kid says he's up for Reader of the Year? Skeptical. My wife says she thinks my fascination with headphones is cute? Highly skeptical. So when a company approached us and claimed that they could make the stock ear buds or ear pods that came with your iDevice sound better? I was very skeptical.

Background

Dirac_playingI have to admit, Dirac wasn't a company I was familiar with. But a quick perusal of their website shows that they are no fly-by-night app developer looking to capitalize on a well-written description of their app in the iTunes store. Dirac works with the likes of BMW, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lear, and Oppo. They've developed digital room correction technology for HiFi, digital cinema, cars, and studios. They have the pedigree necessary to put together an app for optimizing the sound of your iDevice. 

Use

If you've never downloaded an app from iTunes...well, I'll wait until you do. It doesn't take much. There are two versions of the Dirac HD Player - a free "lite" version and the full paid version. The lite version is fully-featured (I was afraid it would only play 30 seconds of a song or something) though you can't import or create playlists and there is no quick alphabetic search index of songs or shuffle and repeat functions. This allows you to experience the full abilities of the digital correction without having to pay. If you like what it does for you, and you want those features, you can pay the $2.99. To me, this is the right way to incentivize people to buy your app - don't hamstring it to get them to pay - give them the core mechanics for free and ask for the bells and whistles for a price.

I downloaded the Dirac HD Player to my 4th gen iPod Touch running the latest version of iOS. The Dirac HD Player is designed to work with either of the stock earphones that come with your iDevice. When you open the app, it will ask you which you are using. While you could use the app with any headphones, obviously the results will likely be less than optimal. If you have the full version, there will be tabs at the bottom for playlists (both Dirac specific and those on your iTunes account), artists, songs, albums, and Dirac. The Dirac menu actually overlays the other screens so you can still sort of see what is going on in the background.

Turning on and off the Dirac correction is as simple as a button press. This makes A/B comparisons very easy. Switching calibration settings, for good or ill, is done not within the app but in the settings menu. If you are one that is worried about your kids changing your settings, having to exit out of the app and into the Settings menu is probably a good thing. For convenience, it would have been nice to have that selection within the app.

Dirac_onoff

While turning on/off the app is very easy, it reveals the most obvious "flaw" with the Dirac HD Player - it only works with the stock earbuds. While that's fine if you use the stock earbuds, it also has no manual controls to tailor the sound to your tastes. Or, more importantly, tailor the sound to a different set of earphones. Of course I put flaw in quotes because Dirac never promised to work with any other set of earphones. That is a design choice they have made.

There is a way of making your own playlists within the app but it isn't the best interface. The songs come up alphabetically and you can't reorganize the songs in any way. That's fine if you know exactly the song title but if you're like me, you often recognize the placement within an album more than the song name. It would be nice to be able to reorganize the songs by artist or album. Once you chose your songs for your playlist, there is an Edit button but I had a hard time pressing it. It is right under the Back button and I kept going to the previous screen. Once engaged, you can relocate songs with your playlist or delete them.

Once you begin playback, there are controls for pause/play, forward/back, volume, shuffle, and repeat. The Shuffle and Repeat buttons are near the Back (previous screen) and List (lists all songs from that artist) buttons. I had a hard time controlling the app without multiple tries. The Repeat control was a little confusing at first as it had a single arrow in a circle to indicate repeat the current song and a double arrow to indicate repeat album/playlist. I'm used to seeing a single arrow in a circle with a "1" inside of it for a single song or and empty center for album/playlist repeat. Control and interface issues aside, once you get your playlists set up, you'll likely only be using the play/pause, forward/back, and, occasionally, the playlist/album select screen. Those controls were all easy to access and use.

Dirac_list

Performance

Once you get the Dirac HD Player setup, the real fun comes in seeing whether or not it can make your stock earbuds acceptable. Being able to switch on and off the correction on the fly makes it easy to see if your $2.99 was well spent. Well, to be succinct, it was. Very much so.

Dirac says:

"Are you thinking about buying new expensive earphones? Try this first! The Dirac HD Player is an easy-to-use music player that uses advanced technology to make a genuine improvement of the sound quality of your original iPhone earphones. You can now listen to all your favorite music in your iTunes library with improved sound quality."

"Improved sound quality" is a pretty nebulous term. I don't often do this, but let me make a few editorial changes for Dirac.

"Are you thinking about buying new expensive earphones? Try this first! The Dirac HD Player is a music player that uses advanced technology to make a genuine improvement of the sound quality of your original iPhone earphones. How much of an improvement? With the press of a button you won't believe you're still listening to your stock earbuds!" 

I've tested a lot of headphones in my time. They've ranged from $20 a pair to over $300. That's a pretty wide range of prices and I've heard a lot of different performance variances as well. The hardest thing to do is to get a good balance of bass and treble so that the music is clear without being fatiguing on the top end or muddy on the bottom. It is a fine line.

The stock earbuds have virtually no bottom end. There is very little there and what is available sounds like the plastic drums my three-year-old beats on. The top end is fatiguing and tinny - to the point that I spent less that five minutes with the stock earbuds when I first got them before throwing them away in disgust. 

The difference between the Dirac HD Player engaged and not engaged is nothing short of amazing. If you had asked me if this would have been possible with the stock earbuds, I would have stated emphatically no. But, apparently it is. Unlike other sound enhancement apps, Dirac hasn't just boosted the output and bumped up the bass. They have tailored every bit of the frequency response to suit the earbuds you are using. The treble is much smoother and more extended. It isn't at all fatiguing or tinny. The midrange has a lushness that I'd never though possible with the stock earbuds. The entire upper end is just light years better.

The bass of the stock earbuds is naturally horrible. It is practically non-existent to begin with. This is truly where you can see the effects of the Dirac HD Player solution. While the bass is only slightly more extended, the output is much more natural and much fuller. While listening to some bass runs, the difference in the extension wasn't mind blowing, but the sound quality was night and day. I just wanted to yell, "We have bass, people! Bass!" Obviously, the Dirac HD Player can't force the earbuds to recreate sounds outside of its range, it is making the earbuds perform to their optimal level.

One last sonic test I did was to switch the calibration settings from the earbuds to the earpods to see if Dirac had actually set up two different DSPs for the different earphones. Sure enough, changing the settings changed the sound considerably...and for the worse. If you are planning to get the Dirac HD Player, don't just think that you can use it with any headphones. Remember, there are no manual controls so it is either the stock earbud or the newer stock earpods.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

smurphy522 posts on December 05, 2012 08:28
I use the lite (free) version of the App. I would agree there is a considerable improvement in the sound quality. I only use the stock Apple buds during my commute in a van pool. If I use my better sounding Shure IEMs then I cannot have/hear any bit of a conversation with co-workers.

It makes the stock buds bearable to say the least!
boxerdog posts on December 04, 2012 21:51
Tried the Dirac Lite on Iphone 5 with earbuds. Music tested Jesse Cook Montreal. Midrange was enhanced but some of the highs and lows could not be heard until it was turned off. For my music tastes Standard music player is much better.
brianedm posts on December 04, 2012 18:48
Doesn't matter, the iphone head phones fall out of my big ears every 5 seconds
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