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BoomStick Makes Cheap Headphones Sound a Lot Better

One of the more intriguing audio products at CES 2016 was the BoomStick, a dongle that does some pretty impressive things to the cheapest of headphones and earphones. But, as the people at BoomCloud 360 made clear, this is no mere headphone amplifier, and after giving it a try for a few weeks, they’re right.

The BoomStick is a dongle, roughly a bit larger than a flash drive, the goes between the audio source and your headphones or earphones, using an attached 3.5 mm jack and a recessed 3.5 mm port. Putting it between the two is pretty much all you need to do, too — just press the big round button, and anything you’re listening to, whether it be music or movies, starts to sound much better.

But, a lot of companies say ‘better audio’ without really explaining what they mean. That’s hard to do with audio, where quality is part subjective and part objective. After using it for a few weeks, I can say that in this case at least, better doesn’t just mean louder. When the BoomStick is activated, a few things happen. The volume does get a boost, but there are also improvements made to the soundstage and attempts made to correct for music compression. Probably the best effect the BoomStick has is what it does for the former — turning on the BoomStick does a great job of pulling sounds apart, making percussion and strings sound more distinct. That works the same way for movie trailers, with dialogue and sound effects becoming clearer.

How much mileage you get out of the BoomStick depends on what audio equipment you’re using. On a pair of Apple earbuds, everything sounded better, to the point where it didn’t sound like that kind of quality could or should be coming from a simple pair of earbuds. The soundstage sounded far wider, while the bass response and high frequencies were drastically improved. When I used it with my Audio-Technica ATH-M50s, the difference was a lot less significant, and almost unnoticeable on some tracks. With my higher-quality headphones, I was able to do without the BoomStick, although there were still a few tracks that had me reaching for it.

It’s not really going to do much for audiophiles who already have their own preferred equipment and higher-quality audio sources, but for someone who doesn’t have the time or the money to get acquainted with high-end audio gear, the BoomStick seems like a pretty good way to exceed the potential of your average pair of cheap earbuds — and odds are it’ll last longer than those earbuds, too. The only problems the BoomStick has are of the more practical nature — while the 14-hour battery life is great (and will get you through most flights), it is still another device to charge. The bigger hurdle is that it isn’t exactly mobile friendly — for those who carry their phones around in their pockets, the BoomStick becomes kind of awkward, taking up a lot of pocket space. Over time, I ended up using it more at home than on the go.

The other thing that makes the BoomStick a tough sell is the price — $100. On the face of it, you might wonder why you wouldn’t just spring for a more expensive set of headphones. The value I see in the BoomStick is that you can keep using it with successive pairs of cheap earphones, many of which come for free with smartphones and tablets. Given how quickly some people upgrade phones, it might make more sense to get a one-time purchase like the BoomStick that can work with all of those earbuds and improve their performance drastically.

The BoomStick can be preordered from BoomCloud 360 now, and should ship sometime this month. You can also listen to how the BoomStick’s algorithms affect a few tracks by using a demo on their site, so you can try before you buy.