Small utility improves online sound quality
A few weeks back, we looked at the explosion of Internet-based radio "webcasts" Internet sites that provide a live audio feed just as one would get over the airwaves from a radio station, with talk shows, music and even traffic reports.
One of the drawbacks of real-time audio streaming, though, has been the poor sound quality. The MP3 format offers the best sound quality, but the files tend to be large and so end users need to have high bandwidth connections (T1 or cable modem) in order to tune in to MP3 webcasts. QuickTime and RealAudio offer better streaming particularly the RealAudio format but the quality of the sound has suffered with the smaller file sizes.
All of which means that for the average end users at home the person with a 28.8 or 56kbps modem online music streaming has been somewhat underwhelming: not as bad as AM radio, perhaps, but not as good as FM, either, and a far cry from the CD-quality sound that digital radio via cable offers.
But a fairly recent program for Macintosh PowerPC and Windows 95/98 users vastly improves the sound quality of RealAudio feeds. It's still not the same as listening to a CD or clear FM station on your home stereo, but it is getting closer.
iQ is a relatively small (900K) utility from QSound Labs that adds stereo and depth to sound files. It is somewhat akin to 3D sound cards, although it works only with the new G2 RealPlayer or Spinner.com's standalone RealAudio player. And at under $20, it's far less expensive than most high-end sound cards.
For mono signals, iQ adds stereo. On stereo feeds, iQ adds 3D effects. And it's a clearly noticeable difference you don't need to be an audiophile to hear the improvement between a non-enhanced signal and the iQ effects. It's a richer sound, with better bass and less tinny highs. With decent speakers and a subwoofer on your computer, iQ brings RealAudio close to what a home stereo sounds like.
For music junkies who spend a lot of time working on their computer and don't have a radio or stereo available, iQ can make the day a lot more bearable. More and more radio stations are now simulcasting on the Web, and Internet-only "webcasts" continue to sprout up daily. (To find radio stations or webcasts on the Net, check out Broadcast.com.
QSound Labs also offers another program, Qcreator, that makes monochrome .wav files into stereo files on your hard drive. It's interesting, but not nearly as important to daily life as iQ.
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