SONY 360 REALITY AUDIO REVIEW: THIS HEADPHONE VIRTUALIZATION SYSTEM EXTENDS MUSIC BEYOND YOUR HEAD
I’ve been fascinated by headphone virtualization for a long time – that is, I process the sound to play on the headphones so that it sounds like it’s coming from different directions outside of your head. One of my first experiences was from the Australian company Lake, whose technology was bought by Dolby and became known as Dolby Headphone.
Since then, several companies have introduced virtualization systems for headphones. Among the latest is Sony’s 360 360 Realiti Audio, which was first demonstrated at CES 2019. For one demo that year, Sony set up a room with submersible speakers (front, surround and ground heads) in a room with several seats, each with its own own set of headphones We listened to some clips on the speakers and then on the headphones again. The headphones sounded remarkably similar to the speaker system, including individual items that emitted sound, which looked good outside my head, coming from all sides and above me.
Last October, 360 Realiti Audio was launched into the consumer market, so I was eager to try it out. It was definitely worth the wait.
Scott Vilkinson / IDG
360RA’s partners include power providers, studios and technology developers.
Sony’s 360 Realiti Audio is an object-based, immersive audio system, unlike Dolby Atmos or DTS: Ks in principle, though its intended application is music, not audio – and, of course, reproduced in headphones. (It can also be used with the Amazon Echo Studio speaker, which I’ll explain briefly.) Content creators mix audio using immersion tools, placing instruments anywhere in the virtual 3D space. The final mix is encoded in MPEG-H, an audio codec that supports immersive sound.
Music mixed and encoded as 360 Reality Audio is delivered through a streaming provider. Currently, three providers offer 360RA headphone titles: Tidal, Deezer and Nugs. (Amazon Music HD offers 360RA recordings for the Amazon Echo Studio speaker.) Of course, each of these providers charges a subscription to access their catalog, although they also offer a free trial to check them out. As of this writing, these providers offer a total of more than 1,000 new and classic tracks that have been mixed or remixed in 360RA format and generally ship at around 1.5Mbps or less, depending on the service.
Scott Wilkinson / iDG
Streaming providers that offer 360RA recordings for headphones include (L-R) Deezer, Nugs and Tidal.
All headphone virtualization systems simulate the effect of sounds reaching our ears from different directions in our environment. For example, the sound from your right ear reaches your right ear before it reaches your left ear, and your brain uses that tiny difference of time to determine exactly where the sound is coming from. Also, the specific shape of your head and outer ears changes the spectrum of sound as it spreads around them before entering your ear canals, giving your brain additional signs of where the sound is coming from. This can be mathematically modeled with something called a head transfer function (HRTF).
Headphone virtualization systems, including the 360RA, can use the generic HRTF obtained from an average of multiple individual measurements or a dummy head that is appropriately “average”. This allows 360RA titles to be played on all headphones, regardless of make or model, and works surprisingly well.
But the 360RA goes a step further. If you have a pair of selected Sony headphones (click this link and scroll down for a list of compatible models , you can use the Sony headphone app for iOS or Android to personalize HRTF for the unique shape of your ears. Use the app to take a photo of each ear, after which the application calculates your specific HRTF and accordingly optimizes the streaming service provider’s application
Scott Vilkinson / IDG
Using compatible Sony headphones, the Sony Headphone Connect app guides you through the ear photography process to customize HRTF just for you.
In addition to headphones, the 360RA is also designed to work with certain speakers. The only such speaker available today is Amazon Echo Studio, which can play 360RA tracks from the Amazon Music HD streaming service. This speaker includes drivers who shoot in four lateral directions, as well as straight up, creating an all-round sound scene. In this case, a 360RA display system is built into the speaker; with headphones, the rendering engine is implemented in a streaming application.
To rate 360 Reality Audio for this review, I used a pair of Sony VH-1000KSM3 Bluetooth headsets and a Tidal streaming provider on the iPhone KSS. TechHive has already reviewed the VH-1000KSM3, so I won’t double that effort. I will say that I completely agree with the reviewer Adam Murray that these are excellent Bluetooth headphones for removing noise; In fact, these are the most comfortable headphones I have ever used.
To optimize the 360 Reality Audio experience for individual ears, you need a pair of selected Sony headphones and the Sony Headphone Connect app. After pairing the headset with your mobile device, you enter the 360 Reality Audio Setup where you can play a short recording in “normal” sound and 360RA. I found the difference striking.
Scott Vilkinson / IDG
After painting your ears, the app analyzes their shape and optimizes the streaming app accordingly. Please note that photos will be stored on Sony’s servers for 30 days.
Then the app captures each ear. It guides you to orient the phone directly in front of you so that your face fills the outline on the screen. He then instructs you to turn your head to the right so that he can paint his left ear. If the alignment is incorrect, the voice tells you to point the phone up, down, right or left; when the alignment is good, it is automatically photographed. When you have done this, repeat the procedure for the right ear.
Once it has photos of your ears, the app analyzes the shape of your ear and asks you to select the streaming provider you want to optimize. Once you have made your selection, it launches the provider’s application and applies the optimization. The whole process is pretty simple.
I started listening to a few recordings from Tidal in their conventional stereo HiFi versions and their 360 Reality Audio versions before going through the individual optimization process – in other words, I used the generic HRTF that applies to any headset for this part of my assessment. Tidal has more than 1,000 tracks of 360RA, so I had a lot to choose from. (Interestingly, when I searched for “360 Realiti Audio”, I only saw 17 tracks, but tapping “360 Realiti Audio” on the Explore page showed the entire catalog of complete albums.)
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The first was the classic Herbie Hancock “Watermelon Man” from his Bounty Hunters album. In the conventional stereo mix, everything felt very close and “inside my head” with a strong left-right separation. The 360RA mix was much more expansive and out of my head. In fact, it was a much more enjoyable listening experience. I especially liked the introduction to the 360RA, with a variety of instruments and vocal sounds added in layers all around in 3D space.
“Take Five” from Dave Brubeck’s album Pause in the match follows . As before, the stereo mix was completely in my head, just like I’ve heard it countless times. And again, the 360RA mix was much more expansive; the drums and bass were still to the left, the piano was still to the right and the alto sax was in the middle, but they looked farther away, with more space between them. Sak sounded a bit artificial in this version, but generally, the sound was much more relaxed and easier on the ears.
I wrote almost exactly the same notes for Marvin Gaie’s “Sexual Healing” from his album Midnight Love . The stereo mix sounded great, but it seemed pretty crowded in my head compared to the 360RA version, which expanded to the space around me. In all cases so far, the overall level of the 360RA mix seemed to be slightly lower than the stereo mix.
Scott Vilkinson / IDG
Content creators use special blending software to place individual instruments, vocals and other sound elements anywhere in the 3D sound field.
One of my favorite bands in college was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by the incredible guitarist John McLaughlin, so I listened to “Birds of Fire” from the eponymous album. As I expected, the stereo mix was completely in my head and the 360RA mix was more expansive, though not as much as the previous tracks. Also the drums and bass were much lower in the mix than in the stereo version, and the opening gongs and bass had a much different tone. It is clear that whoever did the 360RA remix decided to balance the EC instruments differently. In this case, I preferred the original stereo mix.
For a more modern song, I listened to the song “Don’t Let Me Down”, “The Chainsmokers” with the vocals of Daia. Of course, the stereo mix was completely in my head and it sounded slightly muted at points. The 360RA mix doesn’t seem to be as out of my head as most of the other tracks I’ve listened to, but it was still much more expansive and open with more space between instruments and vocals. This is an extremely cohesive blend and didn’t have those slightly muted moments. It was a real joy to listen to even though it wasn’t my musical cup of tea.
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Unfortunately, there is no way to quickly switch back and forth between generic and individual HRTF. Once you optimize your streaming app, it will play all 360RA tracks using your unique HRTF. However, I applied my individual optimization and listened to the same songs as before. As far as I can remember, I did not hear any significant difference between generic and individual HRTFs. I suspect this is because the optimization process does not take into account the shape of your head but only your ears.
In addition to the VH-1000KSM3, I also listened to some recordings on a pair of 1More Stylish Bluetooth headphones, which can only be used by a generic HRTF. I noticed very similar results, with the stereo mix sounding completely in my head and the 360RA mix sounding much wider.
Amazon Echo Studio smart speaker can revise 360RA tracks with Amazon Music HD thanks to its comprehensive driver.
I am extremely impressed with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio headphone system. It allows artists to effectively expand the sound scene into a 3D space around the listener, resulting in a much more comfortable and impressive music experience.
Of course, that experience ultimately depends on the performer mixing his music in the 360RA. With most of the tracks I listened to, I very much loved the 360RA mixes over the stereo mix; the only exception was “Birds of Fire” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in my opinion it could be remixed much better.
With over 1,000 tracks already available, you’re sure to find plenty of music to suit your taste. Better yet, thousands more are preparing; for example, David Bovie’s “Space Go Away” is coming out soon in the 360RA .
If you use selected Sony headphones, you can customize the HRTF used to create the illusion of spaciousness based on your individual ear shape, although I haven’t found it much different from generic HRTF. In any case, Sony’s 360-in Reality Audio adds a new dimension to the sound flow in the headphones; in fact, it pays to subscribe to Tidal, Deezer or Nugs just to hear it. I strongly recommend that you listen to it for a long time.
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