Does OS 3.0 improve the sound of the iDevice?

Thank you Engadget

Among many hidden and official features of the new OS, there is speculation, hype and perhaps even a bit of placebo stirring among the enthusiastic audiophile crowd; apparently, the new OS has improved the sound of both the iPhone and the iPod Touch. I am a keen member of headfi, a great headphone-devoted forum where you can geek out with enthusiasts, trade, sell, barter, discuss and make noise about your favourite phones, amps and cables. Since 2004, I have been perusing heafi and since 2006, verbosely posting. In my short time, I have seen the coming and going of many hype threads and and others that are true treasues. As a portable audiophile, I am more than interested in claims that OS 3.0 improves iDevice sound quality.

The 100 plus hidden features of OS 3.0
Previously, I wrote about the MacRumors reader, bndoarn, who began an excellent thread discussing hidden features of the new OS. At the time, sound quality improvements were not touched upon. Everything else was mentioned at length and for good reason – the iDevice has evolved out of its iPod roots. Many people forget that at the heart of the platform is an excellent audio player.

Firmwares for various devices have been documented to change the sonic signatures for both the good and the bad. The iPod itself has been a great platform for the burgeoning alternate firmware, Rockbox, which among adding format support and a real equaliser, improves actual audio performance in measurable areas such as audible hiss levels. Apple have never been vocal about the iPod’s sound quality; their stance on the device is that it plays audio and interacts with Mac and Windows computers via the full-featured transfer application, iTunes. Despite their unobtrusive stance, their players have both been criticised in the past for poor performance and acclaimed by others for excellent sound quality.

Thus, the birth of a new headfi thread praising OS 3.0’s sq is a fun read. But, considering the subjectivity of sound quality, the truth may need actual investigation rather than just sword-rattling. A person’s ears are in many cases a great judge of sound preferences, but they can be tricked too easily. Marketing for instance, plays a big part in perceived sound quality as do the opinions of so-called audiophile experts, gurus, pundits, etc..

Products are made and undone on hype and sword-waving. TMA intend with upcoming portable amp reviews, to provide RMAA test results that show measurable differences between amped and un-amped audio performance with earphones and any notable differences between OS 2 and 3. Such tests of course, will show only one side of the story: measurable differences. Sound quality is itself, a subjective item, cannot be determined solely by hardware tests. There are equalised results, preferences toward bass, treble and in individual’s tolerance of hiss that aren’t objectively measurable. Our tests should only be contrasted with the tests taken at TMA as our in/out hardware along with other factors will exact influence against other comparative analyses. We only wish to provide a ‘control’ sample for our readers and for ourselves.

Enthusiasm among audiophiles
Finally, I came to this post intending to warn you about praise in the audio community. We are enthusiastic – that is not an arguable point. But, many of our number (I sound like a surviving member of the Mohicans) base their personal opinions (as mentioned above) on marketing and the rants and praises of others. It is easy to do – making a mistaken audio purchase can be very expensive and infuriating. That is why we have dedicated forums like headfi and hydrogenaudio. But, particularly in the audio community, results can be made or unmade by the huge and overriding concept of market contempt.

This is illustrated in this article by Sean Olive, who in 1994 performed both sighted and blind tests of his audience at Harmon International where he worked as Manager of Subjective Evaluation. The result was that huge disparities existed in tests where the audience knew the brands they were listening to in advance and those ‘blind’ tests where they were told afterward.

TMA’s stance
Our headphone reviews, then, are based on that stance. We review the entire phone, making sure to include its construction, cable, package, fit, comfort AND sound. Because everyone hears the same sound in a different manner, there is no point in trying to push an agenda on others. If we test a headphone or amp by a company who are held in contempt by the audiophile community, we will judge them as much as possible with unadulterated ears. The same will be applied to companies who are held in higher regard.

Thus, the question of whether or not OS 3.0 sounds better than OS 2.0 may never be fully answered, but TMA will work to shed light on the issue. Simply put, 2.0 on any iPod Touch or iPhone sounds great as did OS 1. Apple may have integrated bug fixes and added audio tweaks, but there is no space for a new firmware to sound totally different from a previous one. Sonic improvements are definitely possible, but not complete revolutions in sound quality.

  1. Headfi is one of the world’s largest headphone enthusiast’s forums. It has traffic from around the world and is a great place to have lively discussions with other audiophiles, iPhone and iPod Touch users and the really crazy people: those who will down 100K on a hifi!
  2. Audio Musings‘ by Sean Olive focuses on Harmon International’s technology and research, but has broad significance in the audiophile world for documenting scientific approaches to testing audio quality.
  3. Hydrogenaudio is an objective audio forum that has grown out of the small group of audiophiles who strive to reveal flaws in audio codecs and improve them. While not as fun as headfi, the TOS ensures that users must judge audio quality as objectively through blind listening tests and abx samples.

If you are interested in iPhone OS 3.0, check below:
A2DP – Bluetooth for the iPod touch Explained – OS 3.0 100 Plus Hidden FeaturesWhy We should not have to pay for iPhone Software UpdatesWhat do you think of OS 3.0?WWDC Keynote and OS 3.0 ‘Rundown’

If you are keen on headphones, inner earphones and amps, check out our headphone section below:

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