Headphones Revisited

As I mentioned, there was one other little thing at the Tokyo Game show that caught my eye, or rather my ear. It was a small surround virtualiser for headphones, which looked much like a turbo-charged version of the Victor (JVC) model. The difference here is that not only was this model a lot more heavy-duty and supportive of audiophile headphones (being demonstrated with Stax ‘phones), but it also offers some unique technologies. I had quite a long chat with the company’s founder, Steven Smyth, who had previously designed the ‘DTS’ compression system, which you have probably seen used first in theaters and now in just about all DVD players, often been favoured over it’s more commonly found rival, Dolby Digital. Now through he is introducing Smyth Virtual Surround, or SVS to the world, and it may well be coming to a receiver near you.

DSCF6351Of course, there are already surround processors for headphones, the most popular of which is probably Dolby Virtual Headphone, which itself is pretty convincing. So what does SVS have to offer? Among the new features, one is a head-tracking function, working much like the Wii remote-controller interface, in which a small receiver sits atop your TV and tracks where your head is, keeping the signals in sync so that each sound still appears to come from the same place, even when your head moves. That is, wherever you move, the sounds still seem to come from the right places. Another new function it brings to the table is personalising the sound reproduction, made possible by measuring how a sound actually reaches your ear. This is done by placing a small microphone there and passing a test signal around various speakers, preferably in a superbly well-set up room, to see how your ear receives it. Later on it will process all the channels, be they 2, 2.1 ,5.1, 7.1 and possibly even beyond, especially for your ears.

DSCF6354In test set-ups people apparently can’t tell whether they are listening to the open headphones or speakers. I tried it on the PS3 game they had playing there, Call of Duty 3 and I did feel that each sound was coming from a particular place, with the music all around me. The fact that they had a good set-up, with a dynamic game and amped, high-quality headphones helped a lot. As Steven told me, "Whenever you’re going to do a demonstration of a product, you can’t compromise the presentation, or people won’t know whether it was the other equipment or your technology that has the problem". The PS3’s not perfect, though- it apparently had already frozen once! (Mine, has, too, but no-where near as often as a Windows PC would!)

I could see that this technology offers a big revolution, as it means that people, whatever their set-ups may be, however ‘bad’ their room is at showcasing sound, can have a pristine reproduction of sound delivered straight to their ears. I’ve already myself noticed that headphones reproduce soundtracks far better than my speakers can, with much higher fidelity, though it could well be that I am missing out on the discrete positioning that was mixed into the track. I feel like things are going on all around me, but aside from which side they are appearing from, it is not all that clear from where. Using Dolby virtual headphone or the like can make a big difference and it’s what I try to do for movies, just as I use a Binaural plug-in for music, but this takes it a step further by being more precise about the whole thing.

DSCF6355Having such a flexible algorithm opens up a lot of doors- It means that rather than simply choosing between the emulation of a small or large room, any number of possible ‘spaces’ can be recreated and done so convincingly for each person’s ears. It also, along with the head-tracking, could make the recreation of virtual spaces possible, placing each person or ‘thing’ in a particular place in the sound-field, rendering them a lot more tangible as you move around it.

What was very interesting was hearing that the original idea was for virtual classrooms, so that Japanese people could learn English and visa-versa by seemingly ‘entering’ one another’s classrooms on a video-conference set-up and talking to one another- something that usually rarely happens in language-learning. The future of the internet is surely to move within simulated or video-conferenced worlds, rather than just being a bystander. I can see such environment-creation being used a lot in the future, when the net really starts evolving it’s virtual communities and custom-made spaces, something like what ‘Second Life’ is already experimenting with. Imagine walking around some virtual Pyramids, digitally mapped from the real thing, hearing each footstep or rustle of wind coming from exactly where it would do; or walking through an outdoor market with all it’s sights and sounds. The main thing I see as complementing this 3D sound will be 3D visuals, which surely is the ‘next thing’, when it can be done more comfortably (at last!)

For all his work in surround technology, I have no hesitation in awarding Steven Smyth a coveted Perfect Futures award. With people prepared to go where no man has gone before this way,  the excitement of entertainment and global communication move forward, making it that much easier to share a creation, experience, or just communication between people, no matter the physical distance. By bringing higher fidelity to surround audio, DTS made a start in moving beyond the limitations of CD in the digital realm, though it was generally limited by the usage of lower, less detailed bit-rates (something which the new lossless formats make a thing of the past). Now it is possible for anyone with a good pair of headphones to hear something akin to the original mix, wherever they be. Few people can afford or even fit 6 or more high quality speakers in their place, and the alternative has been either small, cheap speakers, or a down-mix that loses a lot of the original intention. Soon we can have our cake and eat it- surround with fidelity, perhaps even from an iPod, if the DSP is on there (or the music re-encoded with it applied). Which all means that surround sound can go from being an elitist thing to something anyone can experience to the full- and that can only be a good thing.Update- here is a videocast about headphone surround-

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