Product: Out Of Your Head Virtual Speaker Software
Manufacturer: Fong Audio
Cost: 149 USD - (Currency conversion)
Author: Andy Norman - TNT UK
Reviewed: May, 2014
It was approaching April this year when I first discussed a review of software and hardware designed to replicate loudspeaker listening in headphones. The guys in the TNT-Audio virtual office thought it was an April Fools' joke! (see Mark Wheeler's article). But no, far from it. The subjects of this two part review really do claim to give headphone users the experience of listening to loudspeakers in a room. The two subjects however come at this challenge from different perspectives, as you'll see as we go on. Part One looks at software called (honestly) "Out of Your Head", whilst Part 2 considers the more down to earth but also interesting Focusrite VRM Box.
First up is a piece of software, called "Out of Your Head" (henceforth OOYH) from Daren Fong Audio. This software aims to replicate the sound of a wide range of high end loudspeakers for the headphone listener from normal source material. Unlike binaural sound, which creates a somewhat similar effect by recording audio using an 'artificial head', OOYH requires no special hardware - just a computer based digital set up and a pair of decent headphones. I used my old but trusty Sony MDR-CD1700s which seemed detailed enough to bring out the software's capability to good effect.
Mr Fong must have had quite a time tracking down the range of speakers offered here. The software claims to recreate the sound of, amongst others: Focal Scala Utopian, Wilson Sacha, Mark Levinson Cello Stradivari and Quad electrostatics. There is also a wide range of very high end home theatre set ups modelled to give the listener the effect of, typically, 7.1 configurations. There are around 20 setups in all. There is a skew towards home theater but plenty to interest the 'True Stereo' audiophile.The software costs US$149 which includes one loudspeaker preset. Further presets cost $25 each. It is all available on a trial basis though, with the audio interrupted after two minutes to encourage you to buy it.
The software requires a Windows 64bit operating system but if you have that, installation is straightforward. The software creates a new audio device within Windows that is then selectable as an output in Windows audio mixer or your music player. I used my regular Foobar 2000. Then it's just a case of opening the OYH software and selecting the loudspeakers to be modelled in the interface. The interface is functional but a little dull. It would benefit from pictures of the loudspeakers being modelled as this may help the listener with the act of imagination necessary to turn headphones into speakers.
This software is one of the first domestic hi-fi applications I've come across of a technology that is becoming widely used in digital music production, called "convolution reverb" or "impulse response". Convolution reverbs provide some of the best and most flexible reverb effects aimed at giving an accurate reproduction of acoustic space for music recording. They work by capturing and reproducing, in computer models, the way in which frequencies reverberate in real acoustic spaces. An "impulse response" is, unsurprisingly, a digital representation of the sonic signature of a room or other reverberant space. The response is captured by stimulating the acoustic space with a range of frequencies and the results are then used to create a model of how the space interacts with the original sound. That sonic signature can then be applied, in software, to sounds recorded elsewhere without reverberation. Doing this creates the impression that the dry sound has been recorded in the modelled space.
Convolution reverb has been around for several years but requires quite a bit of computing power, so has had limited application until fairly recently. The same principle, of capturing and recreating the way spaces respond to an impulse, has been extended to modelling the acoustic effect of loudspeaker cabinets, and even the effect of electronics on signals. Typically this modelling is used for recreating the sound of vintage guitar loudspeakers for recording guitars. It is this technology, lifted and applied to hi-fi loudspeakers that is used in the products under consideration here.
The obvious question that comes to mind is why anyone would go to all that trouble to model loudspeakers and create such software. Darin Fong Audio propose their product for people who want to listen to the sound of loudspeakers on the move or on occasions when it's not acceptable to make a lot of noise. They also say it offers the chance to listen to "megabucks" speakers that are normally not available to most listeners as well as to offer the effect of surround sound systems without speakers all around the room. Of course, not many people travel listening to 64bit Windows systems, but it is possible with a laptop.
Pretty remarkable really, although not without its flaws. The basic premise is pretty well delivered. The sensation of listening in a a room is recreated credibly. It gives the impression of a change in equalisation and reverberation, almost like going from a studio recording to a live one. The sound is more present and in some ways easier to listen to with the software engaged. One thing however that makes it difficult to judge is the volume level. The software has a bypass mode which is much quieter than the effected signal and, indeed, much quieter than using a different driver. It's likely that his is partly responsible for the apparent increase in presence relative to the untreated signal. The effect is quite natural sounding: you're not conscious of it sounding unduly processed. All in all, it's an interesting experience.
Changing between presets brings significant changes to the sound. I don't have enough experience of the loudspeakers that have had their sonic signatures captured and reproduced to tell whether they are lifelike recreations but it was certainly possible to recreate the sensation of wandering between different rooms at a hi-fi show by switching between the emulations.
It was difficult to tell if the effect would become tiring after a while, since the demo cuts out periodically, requiring a switch of preset for the sound to be continued. From time to time there was also some glitching, even on a fairly powerful computer. This could become annoying.
I'd certainly say the software is worth a try and it costs nothing to do so. Some people might fall in love with it. Although clearly the product of one talented individual there is nothing amateurish about the concept or execution - it's a well produced sound.
For many people, headphone listening can be an unnatural experience and software like this could improve their experience. Personally I like headphone listening for its clarity and immediacy. These are diminished, to my ears, by the processing but not by much. Others though, find the sense of the music happening inside their heads somwhat disturbing and this could be just the thing for them. Of course, ultimately, it's for potential customers to decide whether the effect is worth the outlay. My suspicion is that this type of technology might take off if it can be compressed to work on portable audio devices and mobile phones and marketed at modest "app" prices. It will be interesting to see where the technology goes and how Mr Fong takes his product forward.
© Copyright 2014 Andy Norman - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com