But pumping up the fidelity of digital recordings only gets me back to where I started all those many years ago in the audiophile shop. What I really want is an improvement that will rock my sonic world, the way that sadistic salesperson did so long ago. So I got in touch with Karlheinz Brandenburg, who, in addition to being director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology in Ilmenau, Germany, is also the audio technology legend who largely developed the MP3 file. Sure enough, Brandenburg has moved way, way beyond simply trying to get higher-fidelity recordings packed into smaller files. What he’s chasing now is spatially realistic sound.
In real life, everything we hear is highly dependent on spatial orientation, for three reasons. First, your ear is shaped funny; second, the environment around you messes with all the sound waves that bounce around before they reach you; and third, your other ear is also shaped funny. Sound may reach your right ear first, then your left ear; a portion of the sound may be reflected by the wall behind you while another portion is partly absorbed by the coffee table in front of you. Every sound is uniquely filtered by that odd maze of flaps in your ears, and every little twist or nod of your head alters the whole aural picture.
“Your brain takes all this information and extracts from it not just what the sounds are and where the sources are, but a sense of what the environment is around you,” says Agnieszka Roginska, associate director of New York University’s music technology program, who is also working on spatially realistic sound.
You probably have never noticed how spatially challenged your recorded music sounds because you have never heard a recording that wasn’t. Conventional audio technology can capture and spit back every note, whisper, and rustle that was recorded, but it does nothing to recreate the complex directional variability of the original sounds. (Surround sound can provide only a crude sense of which direction a specific sound is coming from.)
I would invite you, then, to visit Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, which features one of the most advanced 3-D sound systems in the world. The technology, based on the work of Brandenburg’s lab, surrounds a crowd of listeners with a ring of loudspeakers placed at intervals of a few feet. Each speaker puts out a slightly different version
of the sound, acoustically re-
creating the direction-dependent environment in which it was recorded. Or drop in on the Bregenz Festival in Austria, where another version of the system rings the 6,800-seat outdoor venue with 800-plus speakers, broadcasting live opera music in a way that puts everyone in the middle of the action. “You’re sitting outside, but it sounds exactly like you have great seats in a concert hall,” Brandenburg says. The audience even hears the sound follow the performers as they move back and forth across the stage.
A home version could be available as early as next year for about $200,000. Not likely for me, unless I move in with Donald Trump.
So the next big jump in
sound quality is out there, but the price tag has soared far above $10,000—and even if I did have the money, I’d be stuck on the living-room couch to hear it. What I want to know is: When will I have it with a pocket player and headphones?
Brandenburg has been unable to get the same effect with headphones that he can get with a roomful of loudspeakers. Roginska has better news. Her group has been developing mathematical models of how different ears filter different sounds coming from different directions. With that knowledge the team can build filtering schemes for headphones that make recordings sound as they would in the real world. When can I buy the technology? Roginska suggested I ask Veronique Larcher, an audio scientist at the Palo Alto, California, research lab of the headphone manufacturer Sennheiser. I did, but Larcher wouldn’t tell me anything about it on the record. I take that as a good sign. Companies clam up only when they think they might actually have a clue how to make something happen.
Meanwhile, Roginska’s group is already putting its technique to work in a 3-D audio software program called AudioMaps, which relies on the gyroscopic sensors in some mobile devices to determine which way the device is pointing. For example, if you were listening to an audio tour of New York City, you could simply point your iWhatever at the Empire State Building and the narration would sound as if it were actually emanating from the building.
If only I had an iPhone, and
if only I ever went tourist attraction–hunting. And yet I feel strangely confident that any day now, the David H. Freedman Spatially Customized Headphones will be available for listening to the ultra-hi-fi, object-based-compression music files that will soon be cramming my pocket music player.
Hey, it’s not as if technology has ever let me down before.