I decided to stick with the audio theme today because there’s a new Mac sound enhancement app on the streets. It’s called Hear, it’s from a company called JoeSoft and it’s now available for $49.95.

Here’s the hype about Hear (from the developer’s site): “Hear greatly improves audio quality in movies and music throughout all of your Mac OS X applications. With Hear, music is richer, movie sound and dialog is clearer and games will blow you out of your chair!”

Here’s what you need to know: Hear appears to be a repackaged, more polished and (according to forum reports) less buggy version of a Mac app called OSS 3D. OSS 3D is the creation of Dmitry Boldyrev, the developer of MacAmp (now defunct) and WinAmp (still a popular Windows media player, now a Time Warner AOL subsidiary). As I understand it, OSS 3D development has now ended with the release of Hear.

I tried the OSS 3D demo last Fall (which, incidentally, costs $20 less than Hear; you can still buy it, but there is not and never will be a Leopard version). I also downloaded the new Hear demo today.

What do they have in common? A scary number of users options that may intimidate you. I tweaked some of the various and plentiful manual controls for a while — long enough to convince me I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I headed for the presets. I tested Hear with a range of music and a video using built-in settings optimized for various types of musics, scenarios, 3D, etc. I listened to some sound with my built-in iMac speakers. I listened with my headphones. I listened with my plug-in JBL desktop speakers.

My preliminary conclusion is that this product has potential, but I’m not convinced many people will dish out $50 for the potential of enhanced sound. I say ‘potential’ because my results were mixed — I achieved some pleasant results, some painful results. I was surprised that some of the presets just didn’t sound very good to me. I had some distortion issues. When I chose a ‘rock’ genre song from my collection and then chose the ‘rock’ preset in Hear… I have to say it sounded better without it.

If you are a serious audiophile, an audio professional, and/or more knowledgeable about audio settings than me, you may love this. Reading through the OSS 3D forums, it appears that there are (were) many passionate OSS 3D users who swear by this digital enhancement package, and Hear appears to be the new face of OSS 3D.

It would be unfair of me to say this isn’t a good product after such a short trial. More likely, it’s user ignorance. Still, what I look for in a good Mac app is usability right from the install. I didn’t get that sense here. I also didn’t get adequate user documentation. But I’ll end on a positive note: it did sound good when I ran it straight through my iMac speakers. It produced a solid subwoofer sound and made my built-in speakers sound better (wider, deeper, more robust). It also produced some noticeable and nice 3D enhancement with the video I tested out.

If sound is important to you, why not give Hear a try. They offer a 30-day trial. You may have a better experience than I.

I’ll close by noting that I currently use SRS iWow ($19.99), a plug-in for iTunes. It improves the sound of iTunes music quite significantly — especially for laptop speakers. It also simulates 360 degree sound for headphones. I use it with my iMac and it makes a noticeable difference. I like it. Mostly because it’s very easy to use and the results sound quite good to my ears (I immediately know when it’s not turned on when listening to my music). The one thing it doesn’t do, though, is work outside of iTunes. That’s a big shortcoming. I’d like to see this tool integrated into all of my Mac’s audio output.

Until that day, it appears that Hear is the main game in town for system-wide audio enhancement. If anyone knows of any other similar app, please let me know.