Surround Headphones

I spent yesterday at the opening day of the Newport Beach Audio Show, which is collaboration between my local audiophile society and T.H.E. Show by Richard Beers. The event is being held at the John Wayne Airport Hilton and Atrium Hotels in Orange County. It’s become one of the largest shows in the country although the Friday traffic (at least at the Atrium where I was) didn’t seem that good. In addition to the rooms packed with all sort of audio gear, software and service providers, there were lots of classic and exotic cars, a cigar symposium and more than a half dozen gourmet food trucks. I’m not really convinced that these secondary attractions contribute much to the overall show but I guess they don’t hurt.

The lack of regular traffic at my sales table gave me the opportunity to meet and share time with some of my neighbors in the patio area of the Headphonium section. I was intrigued by the guys from Mozaex (a Salt Lake City, Utah based company) and their media server, 7.1 HD Headphones and announcement of a new quality download site. Of particular interest was the award-winning 7.1 headphones. These guys have crammed 10 drivers into their oversized, over-the-ear phones. They connect the headphones with an HDMI connection from a processor box that delivers the signal from a multichannel source such as a Blu-ray or DVD player. While their intent was to provide late night or personal surround for 7.1 movie soundtracks, the notion of using the design for surround music is a natural next step.

It was late in the day and after the company CEO Douglas Kihm had purchased a few of my HD-Audio titles that I managed to sit down for a demo at their table. Doug has loaded a couple of my demo tracks in the box and did the usual “too loud” outburst after hearing our aggressive 5.1 surround tracks (he was wearing his phones which do a great job of sealing off the outside world!). I went over and put the phones on and listened to a track by my favorite singer songwriter John Gorka. I must admit it did sound really great but it didn’t really give me the same sort of “out of the head” surround experience that I was expecting.

I say this because I use a Smyth-Research “Room Realiser” to demo my 5.1 surround music on my table. The output of my Oppo BDP-95 is hooked up via HDMI to my Realiser. Visitors can choose between listening through the new Benchmark DAC2 (an absolutely incredible piece of engineering) or the “processed” surround sound coming from the Smyth box. When people are listening to the Smyth output I routinely solo the individual “virtual” speakers from Left Front to Center to Right and then to the Right Surround channel. The listener invariably smiles or says “wow” or looks over their shoulder. The Smyth-Research box DOES create a real sounding, “outside of you head” listening experience via headphones…any set of phones. In fact, I’m using a $100 pair of Sennheisers!

There are lots of different approaches to delivering music through headphones. I’m a huge fan of the Smyth approach because it is a highly customized set of filters that simulates my actual physical studio using the HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) of my own ears. This means to get the full effect you have to come to my studio and get “calibrated” or measured. But even the generic preset that I use at the show never fails to impress. This is a piece of the future. We put headphones mixes on all of our new Blu-ray releases and make them available on iTunes under the name Headphones[xi]™.

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

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