I enjoy headphone listening... But not as much as actual speakers in an actual room :-). I see headphones more as a tool for detailed listening, and will reach for them out of necessity when I'm on the road or for private listening. Otherwise, I would much prefer to be enjoying the sound from my speakers.
Beyond typical reasons such as comfort (no matter how comfortable, I'm just not a fan of things touching the ears or around the head), a big part of the issue is that headphones have never sounded natural to me. Subjectively, the "inside the head" sound, while I can get used to, just isn't an experience that I find particularly pleasurable. A reason I bought the Sennheiser HD800 a number of years back was because it was said that these headphones were capable of projecting sound so that the experience was more outside the cranium. Alas, if one is expecting any headphone to do this well, there will be inevitable disappointment; unless you're applying some kind of playback processing like crossfeed, the physics will not permit such a thing. As a result, I am intrigued by ways of making that head-fi experience more life-like which is what the products today can potentially do.
Remember that there are recordings out there meant to be heard with headphones - binaural recordings - although these are few compared to the multitude of standard recordings.
A few months ago, in my "SUMMER MUSINGS 2: Multichannel and the audiophile" post, I mentioned that one way to perhaps have some more multichannel material out there is to find ways where these tracks can be used to enhance headphone listening. Already, there are quite a number of multichannel albums around - mostly ripped from old DTS-CDs, DVD-As, SACDs, perhaps Blu-Rays - it would be nice to experience these with headphones as well by essentially converting the sound of multichannel into something binaural that feeds into the headphone playback conveying the sense of space. If one could achieve that experience without needing the space and expense of a multiple-speaker system/room, maybe that would be a way to create demand, by finding some among headphone users.
The RedscapeFirst up, let's talk about REDSCAPE (US$199 with USB head tracker, US$99 software only, available online, 1 year warranty and 15-day money back). This product is the brainchild of Ryan Redetzke. If you've done any gaming, you'll recognize names like Prey, Fallout 3, Doom (2016), and the Titanfall series; all of which Ryan has had a hand in creating. I mentioned a month back that I missed out on Ryan's display at RMAF 2019 this year. As a result, he got hold of me and sent me the product to evaluate.
As you can see from the picture above of the box, it consists of a few pieces including some elastic fasteners plus a sleeve for connecting the headphone wire with the USB connector to reduce the number of separate wire strands. The hardware "magic" resides in that accelerometer / gyroscope box that is fastened to the headband of your headphone to perform head-tracking, similar to what a VR set-up like the Oculus Rift might do.
Since I didn't have time at first to listen to it, I figured I would connect it up to my son's inexpensive Turtle Beach "gaming" headphone and see what he thought:
No doubt these are far from "high fidelity" headphones. They sound a bit hollow, missing deep or full-bodied bass, but reasonable for gaming and the microphone is fine for chatting with friends online. He had a chance to play with it for a week before I took it back :-).
And here they are attached to my own Sennheiser HD800's on my workstation PC:
As you can see, this photo is just the right earpiece where I run the head tracker box's cable down through. You are free to connect to whichever side works best. To the bottom left of the image, we see where both the USB cable and right headphone cable come together in the sleeve. Online instructions here if you want to check out the details.
Notice the head tracking box attached to the top of the 'phones. The box is light weight so no added discomfort; my son was able to play his games for a couple hours at a time without complaint (this is how much time I let him play on the computer at a time - "screen time" rules in my household). And the USB cable is long enough to not be obstructive.
Let's be honest, this does look geeky :-). My wife asked what that thing sticking out the top of my headphones was the other night... I reminded her that audiophiles are in it for the experience and we are not slaves of fashion. ;-) She somewhat doubted that "slave of fashion" comment since she has seen some of the audiophile literature on expensive speakers and pretty cables over the years.
That's the hardware, but it's really the software side that creates the aural illusion we're after. Redscape installs some Windows (sorry Mac users) DSP software which will create the sound of a virtual space.
What the software will do is create a separate virtual device one would send audio to. The sound data is processed through the DSP and fed to your DAC which you select within the settings. Here's the I/O set-up on the workstation:
As you can see, the software has created an input WASAPI driver called "Redscape Virtual Audio Device" and it will output the processed signal to my "ASUS Xonar Essence One" DAC. As such, the sound quality will be influenced by the DAC used on the computer.
Remember to tell Windows that the Redscape audio device can handle 7.1-channel input; don't forget to do this otherwise everything will be folded down to stereo. Windows is a bit convoluted with all the sound option panels - go to Settings --> "Sound" --> "Sound Control Panel" --> Configure to get this done:
Once you get the basics running with sound and head tracking, you can open up the virtual head model showing the direction your head is facing and see the model move as you tilt and rotate your head. Here's a look at the Redscape control panel with said virtual 3D head:
Notice in this screenshot, the model head is a mirror image of where my head is turned (slightly to the left). Notice too the level meters showing that the Input is 7.1 sound - I took this screenshot playing a Blu-Ray rip of a movie with Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack going. There are a couple of knobs for the room modeling and volume level of the DSP - make sure the volume level doesn't cause Output clipping. For calibration, you can click on the "CENTER" button or the head model window to let the program know that you're looking straight ahead. I found the head tracking very reliable with little drift over hours of listening so there was no need to recenter much. There are 3 presets available for Game, Movie, and Music listening which will change the "Room" and "Volume" knobs. I tended to prefer the Game preset for all my listening which produces the lowest "Room" effect. The ON/OFF button is convenient when I'm using desktop speakers instead of the headphones.
Have fun with the "Anatomy Customization" panel to play around with "Head Width" and "Ear Size" which is used to customize your HRTF:
There's also an EQ setting - here's the Sennheiser HD800 one:
Something to keep in mind is that Redscape with the realtime head tracking and DSP does take a bit of processing power. The amount is relatively negligible with my AMD Ryzen 9 3900X computer (discussed here, about 3-5% CPU use), but if you have a lower power machine like my son's gaming Intel i5-6500 computer, this will be a bit higher:
Notice the jump in CPU demand with peaks up to ~35% on that i5 when I started playing the 5.1 Vince Gill High Lonesome Sound album (DTS-CD to 5.1 FLAC rip). Though the number looks high with the foobar playback, in practice, I didn't hear any problems or notice any frame rate issues with a few games I tried (like Apex Legends) in 1080P on a 4K monitor with an older model AMD Radeon GPU. Latency was also minimal for me even with these first-person games (I suspect there will be quite a variation depending on the game).
Let's talk about sound quality later after describing the other device I have here...
The Creative Super X-Fi Amp (~US$140 online)
I think it's good that Creative is pushing the envelope a bit and releasing a number of other products that incorporate this Super X-Fi DSP including the more recent Sound Blaster X3 and some headphones like their Bluetooth wireless SXFI AIR (SXFI AIR C seems to be aimed at gamers) and Outlier Gold earbuds.
The Creative Aurvana SE headphones that came as "bonus" with the package are fair-sounding. I believe they're the same as the Aurvana Live!. My budding music-lover daughter likes them as the earpads are comfortable, they're relatively small, and light; clearly an upgrade from the little Apple EarPods she was using. Compared to higher end headphones or inexpensive but good IEM's, they're a bit midrange-accentuated with constrained dynamics.
I think this review of the Aurvana SE/Live! is a bit generous when it comes to sound quality.
|Connected to Huawei P30 Pro phone by USB-C cable. Notice the small green LED above the large round button on the Super X-Fi Amp. This tells us the 3D surround DSP is active.|
The Android app is able to update firmware to the Amp, upload Mapping personalizations (Creative - please allow the user to rename the profiles rather than just identified by date!), and allows you to select which headphone you're listening with for specific EQ settings.
Other than the Head Mapping stuff (remember, Android phone needed), much of this can also be done in Windows/MacOS with their "SXFI Control" software. Like with Redscape on the computer, turn on the 7.1 multichannel capability in the OS:
One could select and tweak the EQ for your headphones:
Beyond that, just play some music and enjoy...
Because the Super X-Fi Amp is a DAC, I was able to run a quick measurement to check the fidelity of the device with the DSP turned on and off in RightMark; measured using my RME ADI-2 Pro FS ADC:
And some graphs based on the data:
Interesting, right? The reason I measured these at 24/48 is that this device run at a base 48kHz samplerate. For example, at 96kHz, the measurements showed a steep roll-off at 24kHz indicating that the data was being downsampled. With the 3D DSP turned off (white), we see that the "Velvet Sound" AKM4377 DAC inside does an excellent job with flat frequency response, low noise, impressive THD and excellent IMD+N. (I didn't bother measuring the power output or impedance; I can say that this thing does play quite loud though and Creative rates max power as 370mW into 32Ω.)
With the 3D DSP turned on (red graph), it's no surprise to see that the output has gone through major changes! Frequency response is now far from flat, a combination of the "Head/Ear Mapping" customization and headphone EQ. Crosstalk values have dropped as one would expect with crossfeed applied. And all this nonlinearity will have an impact on the level of distortion calculated whether it be THD or IMD. If I had measured the output of the Redscape, results would probably look something like this as well.
Remember, the intent here is not transparency, this is all for the sake of subjective perception. The hope is that the sound converted through the HRTF being presented to the listener conveys the sense of 3D space, will create the impression of an external soundstage, and in doing so, allows the listener's mind to be immersed in this virtual soundscape...
So how do these devices sound?Finally, let's talk about the sound quality...
First, realize that this discussion, by necessity must be subjective. It depends very much on whether the Redscape or Creative's DSP are able to blend the channels and process the signal through a HRTF that perceptually matches with how one's ears and brain process sound. I'm guess that for most people, the effect will be good but some will find that the effect falls significantly short of the mark.
For me, I can easily say that the Redscape provided a level of immersion that was better than the Creative Super X-Fi. It sounded less "veiled", a bit smoother, and I liked Redscape's simple but effective "Anatomy Customization" to tweak the sound. The customization allowed me to subjectively "focus" the soundstage image and reduce some of the "hollowness" I often hear in these DSP techniques. The ability to change the virtual room setting also helps easily reduce reverb when not needed.
Although the Super X-Fi's "Head and Ear Mapping" looks cool and fancy, there is no way to fine-tune the effect. Sometimes, especially with simple 2-channel music, vocals can sound a bit over-processed (artificial sounding as if through a low bitrate lossy compression) and there's no way to tweak that sound. I'm curious about the effectiveness of the ear/head "mapping" photographs in actually computing one's customized HRTF; I suspect at best this is just a rough estimate.
The other big factor in the preference for the Redscape is the head tracking capability. Yeah, it's totally geeky, but the psychological effect adds a virtual reality dimension that is very cool. Sometimes the effect is very subtle. A few times while listening to 2-channel music with this on, I've caught myself thinking that I was listening to my desktop speakers in front of me. Because the head is tracked, there is an "anchoring effect" to where the speakers are located as if you're listening in a virtual room. Another testament as to how well this works are the times I've had to take off the headphones to double check if the sound was actually coming from my speakers!
Whether through the Redscape or Creative Super X-Fi, well produced multichannel music sounds great (remember, sadly there are many poorly done multichannel mixes). For example, Roger Waters' Amused To Death (5.1 Blu-Ray rip, 2015) sounds fantastic with the sense of envelopment on the Sennheiser HD800. The sound at times can be positively frightening in realism (eg. the chimps screaming in "What God Wants, Part I"). Remember that the original Amused To Death album is QSound-encoded which doesn't really enhance direct headphone listening.
As expected, another stand-out album is Dark Side...; "Money" (5.1 mix off the 2011 Immersion Box) sounded simply brilliant with both the Creative and Redscape. On a lighter note, I was surprised at how good The Carpenters' Singles 1969-1981 (5.1 SACD, 2004) came across.
Movie multichannel playback was another excellent use for the technology. Especially good when you have the full 7.1 soundtrack. I watched Black Hawk Down with 7.1 Dolby TrueHD decoding the other week on the Redscape; excellent effect and clearly superior to just a usual 2-channel fold down. Explosions, ricocheting bullets, helicopter blades, yelling crowds, etc... Wow. Zombieland (2009) was both frightening with the headphones and hilarious for those who like this kind of stuff :-). Good sound helps enhance emotional response.
Finally, another application one might want to try is gaming. I didn't use the Creative device for this purpose but as I showed above, I had installed the Redscape on my son's gaming machine initially. While the Turtle Beach headphone is far from good fidelity, the surround sound clearly accentuated things like footsteps, gauge distance of sounds, and helped localize voices of opponents and partners in a multiplayer arena. To be honest, neither myself nor my son have adequate gaming skillz to say if the technology would improve our scores :-). My son enjoyed his time with the device and didn't complain of latency issues when playing his usual Counter-Strike, Minecraft, and various others I'm not familiar with.
I had bought the Creative during the summer. And now the experience with the Redscape is certainly compelling enough that I bought the Redscape as well!
Like I said at the start, I'm not one to prefer headphones to speakers. But it's great to see that technologies like these are available for those wanting to give them a try. You might find these solutions to be much preferable to just straight 2-channel headphone playback. Unfortunately, I don't think Creative has any kind of demo available. However, if you're curious about Redscape, check out the demo page. This is a good way to hear for yourself if the DSP sounds good through your computer/DAC/headphones and if the 3D effect is agreeable with your ears/brain.
When I wrote the "SUMMER MUSINGS 2: Multichannel and the Audiophile" article back in July, Dush commented on the open-source project Impulcifer. Check out the Impulcifer Measurement Wiki. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to try this out quite yet but hope to do so in the days ahead as I have some Sound Professionals MS-TFB-2 binaural microphones coming my way with their microphone power supply. Hopefully I'll be able to record some low-noise, good sounding binaural material also.
The ability to provide one's customized HRIR (Head Related Impulse Response) captured with our own heads and pinnae is a way forward to achieving higher quality binaural playback. I heard that at CES2018, the Creative Super X-Fi demo actually measured the HRTF of the audience members; perhaps that's why they blew away a number of tech reviewers? Would be very cool if somehow the advanced user can import personalized data into either the Creative Super X-Fi or Redscape (keeping my fingers crossed :-).
Happy December everyone! It's amazing how quickly the year passes. Music in rotation over the last week includes the indie ska band S.M.A.'s On The Farm (1996, DR11, thanks Allan Folz for the suggestion!). Beck's new album Hyperspace (DR5) sounds decent and I like it when he's not too slow and melancholic across the tracks. This album thankfully doesn't have as much audible distortion as his previous Colors (DR4, 2017) album - yes, mastering quality matters, and it might even play a part in how well music sells.
For the kids in the house, the Frozen II (DR9) soundtrack is sweet :-).
Hope you're all enjoying the season and having a great time with great music...