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Definitive Technology Speakers

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 speaker makers!

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 decorators).

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 quadraphonic.

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?


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