I’ve been listening to podcasts in my car for a couple years now. Some of my favorites over the years have been John Siracusa’s now-retired Hypercritical and Marco and John’s new Accidental Tech Podcast (oh, there’s some guy named Casey on the show, too). Additionally, I subscribe to sermon podcasts from a couple of local churches. I have a half-hour commute, so each week I have five hours in my car to listen to podcasts. And I’m a completist; if I’m subscribed to a show I intend to listen to every episode.
One nice feature of many podcasts apps is variable playback speeds. Because I wanted to listen to more shows, I started listening at higher speeds. At some point along the way, my favorite app at the time put out a software update that dumped their custom audio engine and replaced it with a new audio engine baked into iOS, which forced them to jettison a couple of their playback speed options, including my favorite one. It also made it so the speeds were mislabeled (this was not their fault, but an issue with early versions of the iOS API). I remember having to adjust my speed down because I didn’t like the sound of the faster speeds, which meant I had to unsubscribe from one or two of my podcasts.
Virtually every podcast app available on iOS uses this same baked-in audio engine for podcast playback. I’m sure this reduces development time and makes maintenance a ton easier, but until now I hadn’t realized it was hurting my listening experience. I had largely forgotten about that early discomfort and gotten used to listening at my current speed with the current level of quality, like a frog in a pot, blissfully unaware that things could be better.
Today, things are better.
Overcast pulls all the same levers as many popular podcast clients. It’s got custom playlists, continuous playback in whatever sort order you prefer, a great podcast discovery system that uses Twitter to crowdsource suggestions, and OPML import/export for getting your subscriptions moved between podcast client apps.
But the secret sauce of Overcast is that it is the first podcast app in a long time to use its own custom audio engine. This new engine gives much more granular control of playback speeds, and has some neat extras like Smart Speed and Vocal Boost that enhance the listening experience even more. In my previous favorite podcast app, I was mostly listening at 1.25× speed, not because I have trouble following along at faster speeds, but because the audio distortion just became unbearable any higher than that. With Overcast, however, the audio sounds crystal clear to me even at Overcast’s maximum 2.16×, but I find the sheer speed above about 1.66× just makes spoken dialog too hard for me to follow. I’ve been keeping it around 1.33× or 1.5×, and feel like the audio quality is leaps and bounds superior to what I was getting with my previous app at 1.25×.
Smart Speed goes a step further to save you precious listening time by intelligently cutting out dead air between words and sentences. The jury is still out for me whether I like this feature or not. I feel it takes away some of the character in good dialog. Many jokes rely on carefully timed pauses, or sometimes a speaker will pause to let something sink in before jumping back into an argument. For these reasons I feel many pauses are important and something is lost if you cut them out. I have listened with this feature on and will probably continue to test drive it before finally deciding, but I feel I’m leaning in the direction of keeping it off. To each his own though. It is certainly an impressive feature and I will say, like the variable playback speeds, it does not seem to interfere with quality at all.
Vocal Boost is like a smart equalizer for spoken dialog. It levels the volume of podcasts so you can hear peoples’ voices better. So low budget podcasts that can’t afford high-end microphones or fancy studio editing can sound almost as good as professional podcasts. My previous favorite app got around this by letting me manually adjust the volume on a per podcast basis, and I really appreciated that feature, but now that this volume leveling is automatic I’m going to wonder how I ever thought having to manually adjust it was acceptable.
While all other podcast apps are trying to differentiate along the lines of better playlist organization or better podcast discovery, I think Marco is differentiating in exactly the direction he should. A great podcast app should have a great listening experience. For me, Overcast does hit a sweet spot on a wide range of features, but even if it didn’t—even if I had to organize my playlist by hand or manually plug in podcast URLs—I would still choose Overcast for the sheer delight of listening to my shows in such crystal clarity. For the first time, like so many other things my iPhone can do, podcast playback feels like magic. Finally.