The Theater Sound Xperience may not be perfect for all scenarios, but it is able to easily provide a quick and surprisingly decent upgrade path for consumers. Just don't expect it to outperform modern headsets as advanced features are lacking.
Surround sound is undoubtedly a de-facto standard in today's multimedia environment. Why then do most laptops not come with DTS - and surround sound in general - options? As with all things in life, when there is a perceived need a company will fill the void. The Theater Sound Xperience by IOGEAR is such an example. Thanks to its USB interface anyone can simply plug this device in and enjoy much more immersive sound, without needing to upgrade to a pair of 5.1 headsets or speaker setups. All that is needed is a pair of regular headphones, as the IOGEAR Theater Sound Xperience takes care of the rest. At least this is the idea behind this small dongle. Read on to find out if the tube-lookalike dongle lives up to my expectation for virtual surround audio.
Old-fashioned Vacuum Tube, USB Style
For many consumers, the idea of having a truly immersive audio experience while watching movies, playing games or just listening to music is very appealing. Unfortunately, most laptops do not come with anything besides very basic sound options. This is why companies such as IOGEAR and its USB Theater Sound Xperience have stepped up to fill this niche. In the case of the Theater Sound Xperience, the solution comes wrapped up inside a very petite vacuum tube looking device.
While it may look something like an old fashioned vacuum tube, inside this small plastic tube resides digital only components. In fact, the majority of the inside is taken up by a single small chip which serves as both a DAC and USB bridge connector. The exterior of the USB Theater Sound Xperience is clear Lucite with only a 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks on the side. This is the sum total of the parts of the USB audio dongle, but like many things, the sum is greater than its parts.
The reason the dongle can be so small is because this device harnesses the power of your CPU to do most of the heavy lifting via software. This makes the USB Theater Sound Xperience not a "true" USB audio card solution. Rather its job is simply to provide you with a means of getting virtual surround sound abilities. With a $40 price tag, I did not expect much more than that. Consumers do not care how it does it as long as it does it. When you consider most laptop CPU's are rarely performing at 100% capacity, sparing processing cycles for this device is neither here nor there. Just don't expect to get audiophile quality as the onboard DAC is simply not powerful enough and there is no op-amps to be found inside that tube.
The overall dimensions of this device make it easy to transport. Also noteworthy is that adjacent USB ports will not be blocked because of its diminutive size. If by some odd chance they are (for example, if you try and plug in an oversized USB flash drive), simply detach the 90 degree-angled USB connector from the base and plug in your typical mini USB cable.
Installing and using the IOGEAR Theater Sound Xperience is no brainer, albeit with one interesting twist: you plug in the device first, wait for it to be recognized and then - and only then - do you install the software. If you try to install the software first the program stops and prompts you plug in the device before continuing. After this, you simply reboot, make sure it is set as the default audio device and load up the software.
The software itself can be a bit confusing as first. Basically, you have three options: NeoPC Music, NeoPC Movie and LFE mixer. As the names suggest, NeoPC Music is more for music and NeoPC Movie for movies. Both allow you to fine tune the amount of post processing the device / software does and the amount of bass it will add to the audio source. The last one, LFE mixer, is only for when you have audio streams for more than 5.1 surround sound. Otherwise, you really only will concern yourself with the first two.
For audio sources, the results were a bit of a mixed bag. While it did indeed add some clarity to lower bitrate encoded music and it did indeed add some additional bass, the improvement is not all that obvious unless the audio samples were of extremely low quality. Where I mainly use high quality audio, the difference was minute at best, but for some 64kbps bit-rate audio samples, it did clean it up and make the music more enjoyable. This is especially true for spoken word recordings or other music genres which put a heavy bias on vocals. Here, the IOGEAR Theater Sound Experience really did make a difference and made the vocals much more clear and crisp.
When it comes to music clarity, "Garbage In Garbage Out" is not in effect. Instead, you will actually get more noticeable results with garbage audio than you would with crystal clear recordings. This was to be expected but even with poor audio recordings, nothing beats having better audio samples as no software enhancements can truly make up for poor quality. Rather, it simply can help mask the issue and make it more bearable.
While the music portion of our tests did not exactly win us over to the USB Theater Sound Xperience, the NeoPC Movie and movie tests certainly did. This dongle's ability to create surprisingly rich, accurate and believable virtual 5.1 surround stage does rival that of many older gaming headset I have owned. This is all thanks to DTS Surround Sensation; a bigger richer soundstage, crystal clear voices and increased low frequency effects all happen when you pair a DTS enabled movie with this small device.
Movies with 5.1 sound streams enhanced by DTS Surround Sensation, really were more enjoyable and this shows the strength of this USB audio adapter. Explosions sounded like explosions and bullets whipping past the camera really did feel like they were whipping past our heads. It is unfortunate that the software does not allow you to adjust the virtual speakers like many modern 5.1 virtual headsets do as that would have made this device down right perfect.
Stylish retro looks
Adds virtual surround sound to any laptop
Does not block adjacent ports
Less than audiophile-grade audio output quality
Software based solution
Unable to adjust virtual speakers "location"
With its old school looks and above average - for its price range - abilities, I walked away fairily impressed by the IOGEAR USB Theater Sound Xperience. It may not have provided the best music listening experience I have ever "Xperienced", but it still did a much better job than what usually comes out of a laptop's onboard sound card.
Given its low price tag, this USB dongle simply exceeded our wildest expectations, especially for movies. It really can create a rich and almost vivid movie experience. Despite the fact that I still prefer real 5.1 / 7.1 setups for movies, when I only have access to our laptop, I certainly will be reaching for this adapter. If you have a laptop that can not do virtual surround sound and / or DTS processing the USB Theater Sound Xperience by IOGEAR may just be a wise investment.