You can hardly turn your head at CES 2013 without seeing a new pair of headphones or earbuds. The headphone category is undeniably hot, but the most effective demo of the technology at the show – and one of the most effective demos of the show, period – may have come from a company that doesn’t actually make the headphones themselves.
The booth from technology provider DTS featured a home theater showcasing 11-channel surround sound, with a twist. The company that in recent years gave us DTS Neo:X to bump up our audio experience by adding extra “height” surround channels has jumped into the headphone game by coming out with DTS Headphone:X, to virtually recreate an 11-channel experience when we slip on a headset.
To borrow from a recent review we had of a soundbar – another popular audio category that often relies on “virtually” reproducing surround channels – more often than not the result is heavier on the virtual than it is on the actual surround experience. So understandably people will be skeptical about getting an 11-channel surround solution beaming directly into your ears when it’s tough enough to virtually do 5- or 7-channel surround.
But DTS, which knows a thing or two about sound innovation (the company’s uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio platform is on the lion’s share of Blu-ray soundtracks), put together a masterful demo in this theater that had most attendees thinking the company was up to some Jedi mind tricks.
The demo began by playing a speaker identification clip that ran through the 11 channels as played through Focal loudspeakers, so everyone knew exactly where the sound was coming from: front left, front right, center, left surround, right surround, left rear, right rear, front left height, front right height, rear left height, rear right height.
Next we donned our headphones – which to emphasize that the technology is manufacturer-agnostic DTS used a pair of $50 Sennheiser over-ear models (and Sennheiser headphones also range into four figures on the other end of the spectrum, so one can only imagine the Headphone:X tech through those). The same speaker identification clip was played again, and for most people it seemed (myself included) that the sound was still coming from the loudspeakers; the imaging seemed barely indistinguishable.
To assure us the sound was piping through the headphones, a variation on the clip was played, overlaid with Usher’s “Play Me” accompanying the female voice who was naming the surround channels. We were told to take on and off our headphones, and as we did it was clearly resolved that the sound in fact was only being played through them and not the speakers. “I love seeing the looks on your faces when you realize that it’s only the headphones,” said our DTS demonstrator, Keri.
The force was clearly with the DTS Headphone:X technology, and the company continued the demo by giving it real-world application through clips from The Hunger Games (a fiery chase scene) and several action video games.
Was it the same as an actual 11-channel home theater experience through loudspeakers? No, but with the proliferation of headphones and the ability to create a highly immersive atmosphere through them, DTS is giving a great alternative to those who want a killer surround-sound experience and maybe don’t have room for all of those speakers. And we do know there are plenty of options for headphones these days.
For those who did not attend CES, to give you an idea of how well the DTS technology can fool your ears into virtually reproducing the surround experience, here’s a fun video that shows the technology in action, much to the surprise of those donning the headphones: