Hi-Fi Fix for Laptops

New technologies squeeze better sound from little speakers

Little and Loud

Brian Klutch

Now you can rock out even with puny laptop speakers. Normally when you try to pump up the bass using the equalizer settings in iTunes or other software, you inadvertently distort your music's sound by boosting frequencies that small speakers can't reproduce. New software and chips promise crisper sound and fuller bass, using tricks such as toning down the extra-low frequencies that your speakers can't handle. We tested the tech by cranking the volume on CDs, DVDs and MP3s on three laptops. Two had software (and in one case, an audio chip as well) that was pre-installed and customized for the speakers in that particular model. The third ran a program that you can add to any laptop. Hear -- um, here -- are the results.

Arc Sonic Focus
We noticed a bigger improvement in music than in dialogue with the Lenovo ThinkPad X300's enhancer. Consisting of an audio-processing chip and software, it added some richness to horns and vocals by improving their clarity. Low tones got a big boost; we heard an acoustic bass solo that was nearly inaudible with the enhancer turned off. And cymbals in a heavily compressed MP3 regained some clarity, though we never mistook them for a CD recording. Movie speech, however, got louder but not clearer.
From $2,725 (for PC); lenovo.com
Rating: 5/10

SRS iWOW for iTunes
This plug-in for any Apple or Windows laptop helped overall volume and many sounds, but it also occasionally produced interference on our MacBook Pro's speakers. It turned out clearer bass tones, and emphasis on extreme high notes in Music and Movie modes made dialogue and instruments like cymbals stand out clearly. Unfortunately, some music presets (for, say, rock, jazz or classical) added a hissing sound, and we heard crackling when we pushed volume and enhancement settings to the max.
$70 (for software); srslabs.com
Rating: 6/10

SRS Premium Sound
Bundled with the HP Pavilion dv3500 laptop, this app pumped the bass as much as tiny speakers will allow. It cleverly enhanced the low sounds that the speakers can reproduce, to create the illusion that we were hearing even lower tones. And it made audio clearer at loud volumes by reducing frequencies that are prone to distortion. To simulate the echo of a concert hall, the "space" effect added some sounds from the left speaker to the right, and vice versa. And the movie-dialogue booster clarified speech against background noise.
From $1,100 (for PC); hp.com
Rating: 8/10