Will immersive audio formats obsolete or compliment the traditional 2-channel audiophile experiences?
Two things have piqued my interest in this topic.
Online news and opinions about HiRes, including MQA, seem to have died down considerably.
And recent articles such as the ones below, have put a spotlight on 3D immersive audio and AI.
Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home,
Producer Nigel Godrich dismisses “all this Dolby Atmos rubbish” as he says that “stereo is optimum” .
I believe this trend is driven largely by tech companies (which have essentially replaced record companies) to promote/sell multi-channel or various kinds of 3D, spatialized and virtual soundstage audio listening devices. Music listening is the largest audio market, but for this discussion, I'm also including environmental and experimental soundscape listening. In the future, music may be offered in new immersive formats and through new categories of hardware and software.
How is this topic relevant to audiophiles?
There have been very intriguing art installations and demonstrations of immersive discrete multi-channel audio. For an example, check out the recent SFAF Event write up by Lory Hawley. Such installations are not new, although the technology behind them continues to evolve. Such exhibits are often used to create enveloping soundscapes and not necessarily used for music listening. I wonder if and how these experiences will appeal to audiophiles.
I’ve tried to connect the dots by exploring multichannel and related technology over the years.
I recall trying a version of ‘surround’ or quad channel listening back in the 80’s. This was a system where you mounted small ‘ambient sound’ speakers high up on the wall behind the listening position. It was kind of cool, but not all that satisfying, and sometimes a little distracting.
In the 90’s I tried ‘sonic maximizers’ that processed the stereo sound in ways that attempted to a more ‘realism’ and surround from 2 speakers. I also tried using a graphic EQ. I had some success, but only on certain recordings.
In the 2000’s I set up a very dynamic 5.1 system in my listening room inspired by multichannel electronic music. Again, it was complicated, and cool, but really only cool for the limited number of DVDs I had.
Today, my inexpensive TV soundbar occasionally produces surprising surround effects – depending on the show I’m watching.
In my experience, these approaches provide added novelty and interest for some pop, experimental and EDM recordings and TV. So far, I haven’t found them ultimately fulfilling for my audiophile music listening passion.
Technology and quality are improving all the time. Are we at the threshold of new breakthroughs for audiophile experience at home? Will the ultra-high-end continue to be traditional two-channel? Some observations:
· Ultra-fi home systems predominately consist of two-channels in acoustically augmented rooms.
· We’re starting to see greater acceptance of open-baffle and omni-directional speaker systems, and some use of EQ’s and crossover control at the listening position.
· Outside of home theater systems, multi-channel or other ‘spatial’ technologies don’t seem to be directed at the audiophile music listening market yet. They seem more suited for gaming, VR and mobile device listening.
· Head-fi and home theater may be where some of the technology intersects with audiophile listening.
Potential barriers to adoption of immersive audio technologies for audiophiles.
Accessibility. I think the demos and exhibits of this technology are fascinating, but about as hard to find as a pair of Avantgarde Acoustic Trios to audition.
Still too early in the technology adoption curve. Lack of standards and (media) content. Standards are critical for the success of large-scale adoption.
Audiophile quality. Regardless of the position of voices or instruments in a sound field, are the sounds up to the quality that audiophiles seek?
Learning curve. Purchasing, setting up, and operating a 3D system will be a learning curve for everyone, even with the help of AI. It seems challenging enough just to optimize 2-channel speaker and subwoofer placement.
Implementation cost. Today, we invest heavily in amplifiers, speakers, cables and more to implement just 2 channels. Cables alone can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per foot! Will multi-speaker installations be wireless?
Novelty. There are many amazing experiences in the world of audio that are really novel and fun to experience – at least once. It will take some time for multichannel and such systems to become more than novelties or secondary systems for audiophile music listening.
Marketing. Audiophiles occupy an infinitesimally small market niche compared to gaming or iPhone wireless headset users.
My Audiophile Goals are primarily to get the most impactful emotional experience from the audio I listen to. For me, two-channel (which could include subs) has, so far, worked best. Partly, this is because it’s simply amazing how 2-channel can also provide such a great deal of realism, satisfaction and frission
Ideally, I long for audio that’s “better than live”. The sound at live concerts is often terrible. But it’s the experience of the crowd and live performers that make it great. If I want that, I’ll go to a live concert. At home I want something different.
For TV, video games and VR headsets, discrete positioning of sounds in the sonic landscape is a deep rabbit hole. It’s fascinating, but, so far, it’s not my jam. And I think the tech market will drive the use of AI etc. to make these experiences so novel and easy to use that they could become very widespread, if not mainstream.
Best of All Worlds?
In a World… where funding is not a concern… we might enjoy what evolving technology has to offer by dedicating rooms to meet our goals. I could imagine a dedicated meditation room that offers immersive soundscape, an ultra-fi 2-channel room for audiophile listening, and maybe a home recording studio, and a headphone system for my office space. I’m sure others would appreciate a gaming room and home theatre.
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