(or How I Learned To Loathe Independent Subsystem Settings)
For years I was a Winamp user. Man, I was downright ecstatic to use Winamp. Fast, feature-rich, lightweight…it was a dream. More importantly, it made my music sound great over my 5.1 speaker system. Then I got an iPod as a gift. In those days it was the dark ages of Winamp to iPod synchronization. It was a gamble; you could load more music or wipe the whole thing clean using the same button. And so, with a heavy heart, I made the painful switch to iTunes.
Like anything worth doing, I did it full-bore, diving into iTunes and never looking back to Winamp. As the years went by I kept the same speakers but iTunes grew, turning into the application it is today. Still, during every format I installed the latest copy of Winamp. Call it nostalgia but I just felt the need to have a copy around. Hardly ever used, Winamp was relegated to my defacto mp3 preview app as it started up instantly and was still relatively light on the resources consumed.
Not too long ago I downloaded a sample mp3 for a band (Genesis, by Justice) and by the time the main groove hit I was hooked. Shortly thereafter I had ripped the cd to my drive and tossed it into iTunes. But wait, something strange had happened in the transition from the sample mp3 to the full album. The song sounded flatter, weaker, missing in the upper and lower frequencies. I had followed my normal ripping procedure – EAC with LAME, using my custom configuration – but I tried it again anyway, blaming folly. Still the same results. Out of curiosity I tried playing the song in Winamp and magically the fullness had returned!
Something was awry with iTunes. Following the tubes I found post after post blaming QuickTime for using wave out instead of DirectSound. However, inspecting my QuickTime settings showed that DirectSound was selected by default. Then, as I hopelessly clicked through the setting tabs, I saw something which defied logical explanation.
QuickTime was configured for a stereo speaker output despite Windows having a 5.1 configuration! Why Apple would choose to allow a secondary source of speaker setting, especially one which countered the Windows setting, was beyond me. With reserved hope I selected “5.1 (L R C LFE Ls Rs)” from the dropdown, stabbed the “Apply” button and waited for the configuration to save.
I tell you, I haven’t heard iTunes sound so sweet until that moment. My library felt alive again, full of verve and detail! Although the audiophile in me was saddened to realize I couldn’t notice a lack in quality all these years, this was quickly replaced with joy by my music’s new lease on life.
Lesson learned: Do not ever rely on third-party applications to obey the rules and settings of the host OS. Always explore all options. Ruthlessly configure and tune. Stock configurations are for people who don’t care. Option panels are for those who want to make their software work for them, not against.