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3D Immersive Audio Is the Future of Headphones. So What Is It?

It’s more than just surround sound for your ears.

Gear Patrol

The next time you go to the movies, close your eyes. You can hear where the action is coming from with enveloping, visceral sound from the front, back, side, top and bottom. That’s the power of a multi-channel speaker setup. The problem, according to Darragh Ballesty, vice president of products at DTS, is that you can’t always go to a theater. More often than not, you’ll wear headphones to listen to music or watch your latest Netflix obsession. So, the challenge is, how do you recreate that same sense of full, rich, theater surround sound in a pair of headphones?

The team of audio engineers at DTS, including Ballesty, tackled that challenged when creating Headphone:X, which launched in 2015. DTS’s Headphone:X is a core-immersion technology that recreates the experience of listening to something like an 11.1 surround sound system using only two-channel headphones. Impressive, yes. But the technology is more complex than just replicating an immersive experience.

“Think of them as virtual speakers, and imagine you can put those speakers — any number of them — anywhere in the room.”

Virtualization — or, the practice recreating multiple sounds through headphones — has been around for some years. Recently, it’s made some big leaps. “The fundamental difference between what we do now with 3D audio and what was done five or six years ago is we’re no longer modeling fixed speakers based on a fixed location in a room,” Ballesty explained. “Think of them as virtual speakers, and imagine you can put those speakers — any number of them — anywhere in the room.” Five years ago, 3D technology was limited to imitating fixed speakers in a theoretical room of just one size. Today, 3D audio can render speakers and “rooms” in a variety of orientations and sizes.

This deep level of customization is having an interesting impact on the mobile, PC, tablet and gaming markets. DTS licensed Headphone:X technology to a number of gaming headphone manufacturers, such as Turtle Beach, SteelSeries and Logitech, and each designed its “room” to sound differently. Some, like Logitech, have multiple modes for gaming and listening to music.

Creating 3D immersive audio in headphones is interesting — especially in PC gaming, virtual reality and augmented reality — because it’s not bound by a 5.1 or 7.1 system. You can literally put speakers anywhere, explained Ballesty, and you can move them around in that virtual space. In a first-person shooter game, manufacturers can develop “rooms” that help gamers know how close friends and enemies are to them and where they’re is coming from. In effect, Headphone:X is able to recreate a sense of real-life sounds, in headphones.

Another aspect of Headphone:X is that it’s built into a number of devices, as well. Headphone:X-enabled devices can recognize the characteristics of certain headphones (including wireless headphones) and fine-tune output for those headphones. “You can literally plug in any headphone in the world and we can deliver that core immersion technology in it,” said Ballesty. “Will it sound as good as DTS embedded in a $600 headphone — no. But will it be a lot better than you can get without it? Absolutely.”

You can literally plug in any headphone in the world and we can deliver that core immersion technology in it.

3D immersive audio in headphones has shown up most in the gaming world. “Gaming has been doing audio objects for the last 10 years, whereas the rest of the world has been doing stereo — 5.1 and 7.1,” Ballesty said. But that’s now evolving. “We’re now seeing trends particularly in immersive movie content; they’re taking some of the lead from the technologies developed in gaming.”

So how much room is there for growth? Will 3D immersive audio take over? Ballesty doesn’t know. People are used to watching movies on TVs with two speakers, or 5.1 surround sound — they’re okay with not being fully immersed. Since they’re dependent on hyper-realistic experiences, it’s going to be VR and AR that drives this technology. And if movie enthusiasts want that “sitting in a theater” environment anywhere they go, then this kind of immersion is exactly what they need.

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