Searching for the Ultimate Audio Experience
by Jim Bray
Immersive audio. Sound that bathes over you and through you,
making you feel a part of the performance.
That's been the goal of speaker makers since time immemorial
or at least since the loudspeaker was invented. The quest has been: How
can you recreate the live experience from a measly two speakers sitting in
front of you?
Well you can't, but it isn't from a lack of trying on the part of
And not just the speaker makers have tried to cure the bugaboo of
the sweet spot, or the flat sound field.
Companies such as SRS, which was originally started by Hughes,
have given a variety of simulated surround sound fields from two
speakers and they've been successful enough that such manufacturers as
Microsoft, Sony, RCA, Philips, Pioneer, Marantz, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Sharp and
Samsung have signed onto the technology.
Sure, it isn't real surround, but it can be surprisingly good. I
have a 36 inch RCA TV with SRS built in and, while I've never heard any sounds
appearing from behind me (partly perhaps because the TV's in a big wall unit),
the technology does expand the apparent sound field from the area of the TV to
a wide arc across the front of the room.
And I remember playing the PC game Stonekeep many
years ago, a game that featured fudged surround by Spatializer
and it really knocked my socks off. In my home office, that "first
person" game made me jump out of my seat as some menace appeared behind me and
I could clearly hear it behind me, from two little Altec Lansing
speakers on my desk - before I could see it!
Q Sound is another entry into this field.
But none of these have been particularly influential in the home
audio or home theater market, with the possible exception of SRS.
The best surround sound comes from having enough speakers to
surround the listener (well, duh!), though of course how many speakers is
optimal changes over time: from four (quadraphonic), to five (plus Subwoofer)
and now to seven and more are on the way. While this means plenty of
sales opportunities for speaker and amplifier makers and retailers, it can be
confusing and annoying to consumers (and, undoubtedly, interior
Surround sound is wonderful for movies; it also works well for
concerts because it can put audience noise and ambient sound behind you, making
you feel a part of the audience. There's argument over whether it works for
music, though. Some purists hate to see a stereo recording remixed into 5.1
channels, saying it's like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, while others
love the more immersive experience that hearkens back to the days of
Me? I'm torn. I've heard some really nice 5.1 mixes from stereo
sources, and some where I wish they'd have left the two channels alone.
Fortunately, on most DVD Audio discs from stereo originals, they include a
stereo track as well, which can give you the best of both worlds.
And some surround sound music discs leave the music up front and
use the rears to create that live sound by adding reverb ambience
and it can work pretty well.
But no matter what tricks the electronics whizes and album
producers throw at the audience, a lot of the listener's satisfaction is still
dependent upon where he or she sits in the room that so-called sweet
spot, the place in the listening room where the sound is the best.
Speaker makers have been trying to erase the sweet spot for years.
In this, they're trying to outdo mother nature with technology, since concert
goers' experiences are also dependent upon where they sit (try hearing the
guitarist on the other side of the stage if you're sitting with your ears
against the bass player's amp!).
But the bottom line is that speaker makers want their speakers to
disappear, soncially, so that the listener hears a room full of sound, rather
than sound emanating from a couple of points in front of the listener, and
points between. A good speaker can do this very well, creating a sound field
that appears far wider than the space between the speakers, and far deeper than
a two dimensional plane at the front of the room.
Some of the attempts to open up the sound field and get rid of the
sweet spot have been pretty neat. Mirage, one of Canada's premier speaker
makers, was the first to introduce bipolar speakers, where drivers
fire from the front and the back of the cabinet, in a figure 8
pattern with the rear-firing drivers in phase with the front ones (as opposed
to dipolars where the rears fire out of phase). This supposedly
helps create a 360 degree sound field around the speaker cabinet, helping to
make the speakers disappear. Mirage's bipolar design works very
well and has since been copied by other manufacturers.
But the search for the audio Holy Grail, the elimination of the
sweet spot, is never ending, at least so far even at Mirage. The latest
phase in their assault on flat sound is Omniplar,
featured in the company's Omni series.Mirage says Omnipolars fire in a
very spherical 360-degree pattern, producing a larger, deeper, and more
realistic soundstage than any speaker design yet developed.
This technology is supposed to eliminate the sweet spot, imparting
the full aural experience regardless of where you sit. I haven't heard them,
but I've heard they're very nice.
Then there's Bang and Olufsen's Beolab 5. They're attacking the
sweet spot by licensing Acoustic Lens Technology from California's
Sausalito Audio Works and claim to have solved bass issues with their
Adaptive Bass Control which uses a built in microphone working in
conjunction with the woofers to automatically tune the bass to the room.
In a nutshell, it works like this: once you've placed the Beolab
5's in the room (anywhere in the room, they say) you press a little button on
them and the woofers starting woofing away while the microphones measure the
sound - and over about a two minute period they tweak their own bass response.
It's supposedly like having a robotic audio technician.
Okay, the technology isn't cheap: the Beolab 5's retail for
something like $25,000 a pair (in Canadian dollars), but technology inevitably
gets cheaper and even patented stuff always seems to end up with competition.
So if this stuff works as advertised, you could be seeing affordable
smart speakers one of these days.
And won't it be nice when you don't have to worry where to put the
speakers any more?
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think