Being a ‘to the core’ headphone enthusiast I like to see innovation come along and Smyth Research’s work has been on my radar for a while. The team in Munich were surprised by my uncertainty going into the demo, mainly due to listening to some HD800s with a different incarnation of a similar idea at last years show and being left severely underwhelmed, regardless I was still keen to try this as I had heard good things! The actual product Smyth were showing off was the Realiser A16, their second model after the A8. Looking to be priced at around $1495 when launched on Kickstarter later this year, to the uneducated eye it looks simply like a headphone amp in the design of a headphone stand. That is not the case at all. The A16 is a 3D audio headphone processor, allowing the decoding and rendering of the latest formats such as Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D and DTS-X. OK, but it works into headphones, i hear you saying, ‘they have their limitations, they don’t sound like speakers, so whats the point of this’. Well, I think that was the point of their amazingly executed demo in Munich was set to do, shush the skeptics. It was pretty remarkable.
The room was arranged so that you had a chair facing a TV with the latest Dolby Atmos demo package and you sat amidst a 7.1.4 system, so no slouch in terms of a home cinema set up. What they set out to prove that not only would the A16 and a pair of Sennheiser’s HD800 replicate the real life speaker system, but along with their head tracker simulate movements of your head. Now the biggest difference between Smyth’s demo and the rubbish I tried the year before was the set up. The other system whose name I purposely forgot consisted of slapping on some HD800s and looking around… meh! This however had a whole process to make sure it was perfect, and boy did it achieve!
The first step was putting in some in-ear microphones that would allow measurements of the surround speakers. You rolled foam tips on the microphones like I have done countless times before reviewing IEMs and heard a range of frequency sweeps coming from all around the room. You then had more measurements done while facing certain speakers. Once the measurements were finished it was time to pick up the headphones. Smyth had put together the perfect a/b method. Using the headphones head tracker, if you wore the headphones they would play the audio, if you faced the headphones forward and down to the ground then the sound would come out the speaker arrangement. The swap over was instant and you really could go back and forth at speed. You could do the demo over anything Dolby Atmos’s demo had to offer from test tones to movie trailers. I mainly played with some simple test tracks, Josh got to watch the Mad Max trailer.
From the very first a/b I made I thought I was having my leg pulled. I listened to some drum beats out the left speaker and then put the headphones on. There was no way the headphone was making that sound! I thought they had a switch so when I put the headphones on the speaker played again and I could obviously hear it through the HD800s lack of isolation. I went back and forth and don’t know what else to say, I could not hear a difference between the headphones and the speakers, like, at all. Be it all the speakers playing or just one. Josh said the same when watching the Mad Max trailer, saying the headphones sounded like a true surround system. There is no doubt they are pulling off something amazing with the A16, the demo proved just how real this system is and to be able to own something like this for $1495 seems fair to me. What you will do with it is your call, be it a home cinema system without waking the neighbours or watching 5 channel live gigs. As you may not have a 5 to 7 channel system at home to simulate, there will be some presets on the device as well as location across the country you can go make a more accurate profile at for a single flat cost.
I think there will be more to see on Inearspace regarding this and in the mean time I would sign up to get notified when this Kickstarter goes live! I genuinely didn’t think i would be this amazed by the product, it really is a case of ‘hearing is believing’!