Smyth Research A16 REALISER Review

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zeerround

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Video:

I had an opportunity to demo an A16 REALISER for several weeks in my home studio.

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Although it can also drive powered speakers, I used it 100% with headphones, mainly because I need balanced outs, and that option is not in production yet.

Why would you spend $4K US on a headphone amp? Because you can't tell (other than the physical feel of headphones on your head) that you are wearing headphones. It is, just as the videos show, an amazing true to life simulation of sitting in a surround system room. Turn your head, everything sounds just at it would without headphones when you turn your head (and no delay or other indication that this is "virtual").

I sat in a virtual 9.1.6 and later 7.1.4 BBC Studio room and listened to all types of surround music, comparing to my 7.2.4 physical room (Genelec Satellites and Subs).

I didn't virtualize my physical studio or living room systems, because 1) the BBC rooms sound great, and 2) I didn't have enough adapters and cables at this time (and a possible out glitch, see below). However all that is needed to measure and virtualize your own room is included.

I used inexpensive Sony MDR-7506 headphones (purchased because they were supported by other virtual surround software I've tried) and corrected them for my ears using the A16 and included in ear calibrated microphones. I have Bose and Sennheiser headphones, but after calibrating and listening to the Sonys I didn't feel the need to test the others. This despite Smyth Research recommending very high end phones (which I didn't have to test).

I should point out that I've test many surround via headphone systems and software, and nothing else comes anywhere close (short of full VR anyway, see below).

I did add a tactile system:


to shake my chair in lieu of the sub woofers in the studio. The A16 has special outputs for that type of system.

So I have a lot of information to share but here's the bottom line; I'm going to buy one of these, just as soon as the 2u Black Rackmount Balanced Out version is available in a couple weeks.

Again, why would I spend that on headphones when I have an acoustically treated studio with 13 Genelec Satellites and 2 Subs? Because it turns out I really need to use headphones so I can work/listen at any time and not worry about disturbing my Wife, or conflicting with TV/Movies in the Living room. Yes, my Studio is Acoustically treated to sound good inside, but it is not soundproof, especially at low frequencies, and even moderate listening levels "shake the walls", according to her ;0)

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Having said that, at this point in time you need to be aware that there is a long list of things on the data sheet that aren't ready/implemented yet, and I used it almost exclusively as a computer sound output device (mac and windows), vs. hdmi decoding of Blu-Ray etc, or line in.

Currently working:

Absolutely convincing virtual reproduction of up to 16 channels of computer usb surround sound via headphones with optical head tracking (Azmith tracking only at this time)​
Tactile output for ButtKicker type systems​
Dolby Atmos and other Dolby Decoding​
Virtualizing/Calibrating your own room (not tested by me)​

Not yet implemented:

DTS-X and other DTS Decoding​
Auro 3D and 2D decoding​
Altitude head tracking (I definitely need this for my immersive audio work {mixing and upmixing} but didn't notice most of the time and, of course, not at all when listing to 5.1 or 7.1).​
Virtualizing/Calibrating your own room, without the A16 being connected to your speakers (using pre-recorded tones in files).​

Not on the Roadmap that I would like to see:

6DOF; Six Degrees of freedom in the virtual headphone simulation. Azmith and Altitude tracking will give 4 degrees of freedom. Meaning you can sit in the listening position and move your head any way you want and be thoroughly convinced you are listening to speakers. 6DOF would mean you could leave the listening position and virtual speakers you got closer to would get louder and the ones you moved away from quieter.​
I can currently experience 6DOF in my Oculus Rift VR (lessor audio quality and can't really make an A/B comparison at this point), but I want/need this in "AR" with the A16 (or I guess pull the computer display inside VR with the Oculus Rift, which is somewhat doable, hmm...)​

Broken in the unit I tested:

Apparently a problem with all/many early units, an occasional crash error that unfortunately puts out horrible noise at what seems like max volume.​
Really a deal breaker (and one reason why I didn't use it with speakers {The other being a lack of enough proper adapters/cabling to connect 1/8 stereo unbalanced outs to 14 XLR balanced in powered speakers}).​
However, This is supposed to fixed in all newer units.

Menus are deep and confusing. I guess you would get used to it over time, and/or wouldn't need to change things a lot after a detailed initial setup.

Everything has to be done with a remote, Which seemed a little flaky in my case, but maybe because the IR sensor was close to an pointed a little at my 50" monitor.

Optical Head Tracking means you have a head tracking unit attached to the top of your headphones, and an extra wire to to deal with (My wife laughed at me, but I guess it's not as silly looking as VR). Also a Receiver unit on top of your monitor/TV.

I didn't test the dual headphone capability (Didn't have two head trackers).

So there you have it. I'm happy to answer any questions but again this lets you listen to surround, at volume, without disturbing others in your house/neighbors and it really really does sound like you aren't wearing headphones. The sound is "outside your head" (unless you close your eyes and hold your head still) the illusion is totally convincing.

Cheers,
Glenn
 

esimms86

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Awesome post Glenn. I can’t like it enough! I have had my A16 for a month now and I love it. I haven’t been as fortunate as you at getting the BBC room to work optimally for me but the surround PRIR that I’ve created at home is a complete out of your head triumph. I use mine solely for listening enjoyment, not mixing, and I’m seriously jealous of your home studio. In truth, it looks even more impressive than the pictures I’ve seen of Steven Wilson’s Genelec surround mixing studio. I use J River Media Center which decodes DTS-X and also converts DSD to FLAC(with a significant buffering lag on my laptop even though the laptop has 32 Gb of RAM). I use the same PCM room PRIR for stereo, 3 channel, quad and 5.1(and J River allows me to split the center channel out to L and R, which I prefer). I also play a small library of physical discs placed in my OPPO 103D and then connected to my SR for Dolby Atmos listening. By the way, I experience no noise issues with my 5 week old A16. My only regret is that I didn’t go in for two units when you could have signed on for 5 units for the same current retail price that now gets you one.
 
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zeerround

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I forgot to mention one issue on Windows. The Windows Audio USB driver is not signed. Windows 10 will not load it unless you take steps to allow unsigned drivers. I take it there are various ways to do that, but the one I used was not sticky across reboots (and not a good idea to have it off anyway, security wise).

I will check with Smyth Research on their plans for signing the driver.

No issues on Mac (other others reported issues with Pro Tools, I didn't find any, but didn't do days and days of testing on Mac).
 

sukothai

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Zeerrond, what is your backer number. I'm 236; which should be coming up soon.

Thanks!
 

zeerround

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I was not a backer, but contacted them directly and worked on testing a 2u demo unit as described above. Then I have been waiting for a balanced in/out 2u unit.

Perhaps you backers got a better price?
 

esimms86

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I was not a backer, but contacted them directly and worked on testing a 2u demo unit as described above. Then I have been waiting for a balanced in/out 2u unit.

Perhaps you backers got a better price?
You don’t wanna know. 774 pounds.
 

zeerround

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Yup. my unit cost me 4,183 pounds. 😮 Plus a new wiring harness for the studio speakers, etc.
 

esimms86

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Yup. my unit cost me 4,183 pounds. 😮 Plus a new wiring harness for the studio speakers, etc.
If it makes you feel any better, you probably paid what it’s really worth. It took 2 1/2 years of waiting before mine finally arrived 21 months later than promised, and with me fearing all the while that it, like so many other Kickstarter projects, might never see the light of day. And then consider the fact that you can’t buy a device that does anything close to what the A16 does from any other company anywhere in the world.
 

zeerround

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What headphones are people using/planning on using with their A16?

During the demo, I used my Sony MDR-7506, which were purchased because they were "bang for the buck" and supported by Waves NX. I will also be trying Bose QC-25 and Sennheiser HD-201 because I have those but am wondering how much better more expensive phones would be.

I have the ButtKicker on my chair so low end is not so much an issue.

I spent some time maybe 3 months back doing research but have sense completely forgotten my conclusions.
 

esimms86

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What headphones are people using/planning on using with their A16?

During the demo, I used my Sony MDR-7506, which were purchased because they were "bang for the buck" and supported by Waves NX. I will also be trying Bose QC-25 and Sennheiser HD-201 because I have those but am wondering how much better more expensive phones would be.

I have the ButtKicker on my chair so low end is not so much an issue.

I spent some time maybe 3 months back doing research but have sense completely forgotten my conclusions.
I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time worrying about which headphones to use. You can make personalized HPEQs for virtually as many headphones as you have available to you and then go with the one(s) you like best and are also the most comfortable for long listening sessions. I have Hifiman HE1000v2 and modded HD800 cans. The Sennheisers are my preferred headphones, not for sound quality reasons but, rather because they’re so light and put almost no pressure on my head.
 

abby normal

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i wish i had the genes that would let me hear true headphone surround with a solid room-distanced front sound. all i get is just wider no matter which algorithm i tried. sure would love to hear if this particular luxury model would break the pattern.
 

Kal Rubinson

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i wish i had the genes that would let me hear true headphone surround with a solid room-distanced front sound. all i get is just wider no matter which algorithm i tried. sure would love to hear if this particular luxury model would break the pattern.
Did you perform the calibrations (PRIR and HPEQ) yourself or are you trying "generic" filters?
 

abby normal

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that is way above my pay grade, i listened to all the consumer versions out there, and on youtube, plus my sennheiser box has about 10 [IIRC] generic "ear shapes" to choose from, none of them came closer to giving me a true front sound. only wide and wider with some vague "behind."
 

zeerround

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(Before hearing the A16) I had the same experience in that none of the prefabbed or standard HRTFs worked for me.

Two problems:

1) Head tracking is absolutely needed

2) For some of us, custom HRTFs are critical, because our ears, shoulder, head size, etc. doesn't fit one of the models out there.

I got the first hint with Waves NX (face tracking worked better than the Bluetooth tracking for me) where they had some averaged HRTF and also eq curves for specific models of headphones.

But the Realizer A16 is like night and day compared to that. Because:

1) The head tracking is way better.

2) You measure your own ears and optionally your own room (but the supplied rooms are awesome).

So it is absolutely 100% convincing and like the videos show, other than the physical presence of the headphones on your ears you can't tell the you're not hearing real surround from real speakers in the room.

But yeah, you don't get that for the $30 of Waves NX.
 

abby normal

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mebbe one day my ship will come in and i can at least find an affordable used one of these on ebay. but who does the personalized ear calibrations for it?
 

zeerround

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It comes with little (calibrated) mics you put in your ears. So it is calibrating your headphones and ears at once.
 
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