Why Overcast is more than just a podcast player

Overcast’s logo

I’m somewhat of a power user of podcast apps, as you might expect.

On Android, I used Pocket Casts. It remains an excellent podcast app, with lots of features that are worth using.

Now that I have an iPhone (and, for better or worse, am inside the Apple ecosystem for the next twelve months), I used Apple Podcasts for a while. It is a great-looking and very capable podcast app, though I can’t say much about it currently because I’m using the new iOS in developer beta, which you’re not supposed to write about until it’s actually launched.

However, I was also excited to try Overcast. It’s a podcast app developed by Marco Arment, and has a lot of fans; and it’s almost ten years old.

The reason why I was interested to try it is the audio player. The reason Overcast came into being is because Marco had two ideas: “voice boost” and “smart speed”. I think last time I looked, both of those are trademarks of his; and rightly so, because they’re not what you get elsewhere.

Apple Podcasts has neither of these features.

“Voice boost”, first of all, is not a simple “turn the volume up by 3dB” setting that some other podcast apps have. As far as I understand it, it’s a mix of EQ and dynamic compression to ensure that all voices are clear and the same level. It’s more subtle than others, and doesn’t squish the voices too much; and it sounds good. I have it turned on for most of the shows I listen to - you can choose your settings per-podcast if you want to.

Voice boost, by itself, is an excellent feature - because of podcasting’s open nature. The app is literally playing the sound file, direct from the podcast hosting company, so there is no opportunity for podcast apps to do any form of quality control. This is not something fully understood by my broadcast friends, who assume there is some form of ingestion process: there is for YouTube; there isn’t anywhere else. Apple (and others) have asked nicely if you wouldn’t mind producing stuff at -16 LUFS, but that’s as far as they can go really.

But: it’s “smart speed” from Overcast that is very good. And it’s also very opaque in terms of how it works.

Yes, Overcast has a setting that speeds up playback, like Apple Podcasts does. It does it in a normal way - making everything faster. But “Smart Speed” is a separate toggle, and it says something about removing silences, but listening closely and critically to the audio, it doesn’t just seem to remove silences.

Pocket Casts has a thing called “Silence Skip”. That looks for silences (or bits below a certain volume) in the audio, and cuts them out. You can hear the system doing this when you listen: it results in some audio sounding as if it has been badly edited as it skips past pauses and breaths. It’s quite noticeable; and I found that, because it destroys the gaps that help you understand speech, it makes the audio harder to listen to. You sometimes have to make the speed a little slower and then turn on the feature, negating the time savings anyway.

Overcast’s “Smart Speed” seems to be doing something different. I’m not really sure how it works or what it’s doing. Turning it on gives a visible difference: the display shows the actual playback speed, which begins to fluctuate depending on the gaps it’s editing out. I think it works differently at different speeds.

What’s very clear is that with “Smart Speed” on, I appear to be able to go much faster on playback without losing intelligibility. Smart Speed doesn’t edit out all the gaps. It’s deliberately leaving some in, so that the pacing of the speech isn’t destroyed. That’s very clever, and I’ve still no idea how it’s doing it.

Podcast apps - and I’ve tried a lot - appear to have focused on the UX of the selection of podcasts, or sharing, or a queue, or some other frippery. But almost all podcast apps don’t appear to have done anything special for the thing you use them 99% of the time for: actually playing the podcast.

And perhaps that’s why Overcast is different - because it was designed as a better podcast player, first and foremost. The playback of the audio is the more important thing, rather than bodging up a quick audio control when the rest of the coding is finished.

I’m super impressed at it. And you should give it a go too.