CES 2011 Audio Wrap-Up
Interestingly, 3D was the watchword in audio as well as video at CES this year. Many people apply the term "3D" to 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, but I think this is a mistake. In such systems, the speakers are located mostly in a 2D planeyes, the surround speakers are often elevated, but they are also typically very diffuse, so the sense of height is limited, especially since auditory directionality is less sensitive behind us than it is in front. Audyssey DSX and Dolby Pro Logic IIz add front-height channels, which does more to enhance the 3D soundfield.
One of the most important announcements in this regard was the formation of the 3D Audio Alliance (3DAA), a consortium of companies initiated by SRS Labs to develop an open standard that could change the face of multichannel audio production and distribution. Instead of mixing to 5.1, 7.1, or any other fixed number of audio channels, the 3DAA standard would specify the location and movement of each object in the 3D soundfield, including height. This information would be delivered to any compatible playback system, which would render the sound as best it can with the resources it has available, be it 2-channel, 5.1, 7.1, 11.1, simulated surround, or anything else.
The 3DAA's suite at the Venetian had an 11.1 audio system with Blue Sky self-powered speakers, including front and rear height channels, and an iPad was used to "fly" a helicopter around the room by moving a finger on the touchscreen; moving toward the center of the screen caused the helicopter to fly overhead. The effect was very convincing and quite fun to play with!
The group hopes to have a draft standard written by the end of this year, so I don't expect to see actual product announcements until CES 2013 at the earliest. Still, I'm quite excited by the possibilities of this completely new audio paradigm.
Speaking of 11.1, DTS introduced its latest upmixing algorithm, called Neo:X, which can accept anything from 2-channel to 7.1 and expand it to 11.1, including front height and width channels as well as some additional surround channels. Native 11.1 mixes can also be folded down to 5.1 or 7.1 using DTS's recently acquired Neural encoding and expanded back to 11.1 by a suitably equipped playback system.
The demo included some unprocessed and upmixed movie clips as well as original music mixed in 11.1 by Diego Stocco and Patrick Leonard, pictured above (left to right) during a panel discussion about the technology. The 11.1 tracks sounded beautiful on Definitive Technology Mythos One and Gem speakersvery smooth and integrated in a hemispherical soundfield.
Even so, I doubt that many consumers will want to install an 11.1 system in their home, and DTS admits it isn't for everyone; at this point, it's aimed at high-end enthusiasts (like readers of UAV!). The company also emphasizes that pushing the envelope of technology like this leads to innovations that eventually make their way to the mass market.
GenAudio was demonstrating the latest version of its AstoundSound algorithm that expands 2-channel audio from speakers or headphones into a 3D soundfield. I've heard this technology before; in fact, I wrote about it here. At CES, I interviewed inventor Jerry Mahabub, who showed how the software is used to move sound objects anywhere within a full sphereeven beneath the listener! The effect is quite striking.
AstoundSound can be heard on the soundtrack of Hellboy II, music albums Rebirth of a Nation by Public Enemy and Something Else by Robin Thicke, and the video game Deprived. You can also download a 30-day free trial version of the consumer software at GenAudio's website.
On the last day of the show, one of Leo Laporte's crew told us about a booth in the South Hall with a cool 3D audio demo, so Leo and I went to check it out. As I wrote in an earlier entry, Sonic Emotion's 3D Sound algorithm uses wave-field synthesis to generate a 3D soundfield from a soundbar with at least six drivers. The effect was quite spacious with no sweet spot; both Leo and I were impressed.
One audio announcement had nothing to do with 3D, but it was very interesting nonetheless. Chip manufacturer Intersil recently acquired D2Audio, a maker of class-D power-amp chips that greatly impressed Mark Levinsonthe man, not the companywho is otherwise a diehard analog advocate. At CES, Intersil/D2Audio announced a collaboration with Levinson to implement a suite of mastering algorithms in the latest generation of its class-D amps. Dubbed Mighty Cat, this feature will allow manufacturers of mass-market audio products to significantly improve the sound of those products by "tuning" the amp to specific speakers and headphones/earbuds.
The demo I heard at CES was played on an inexpensive Logitech 5.1 speaker system, and the difference between the processed and unprocessed sound was dramaticthe average level of the processed sound was much higher, and the overall character was much richer and fuller. Unfortunately, whoever tuned the system went somewhat too far in my opinion, resulting in an overprocessed sound. It certainly had a lot of "ear-candy" appeal, which could be what they were going for to impress potential customers rather than audio journalists. And there were plenty of big-name potential customers who expressed strong interest at the show.
Granted, Mighty Cat is intended for lower-end rather than "ultimate" audio productsthough the D2Audio amp was also driving a pair of high-end Daniel Hertz M7 speakers without processing, and the sound was superband class-D amps and mastering algorithms are nothing new. But this could be the first time that such algorithms have been incorporated into a power-amp chip to improve the sound of audio hardware rather than music files, so I believe it deserves coverage here. And any technology designed to improve the audio experience for the mass market is worthy of attentionafter all, that could entice more people to pursue our beloved hobby.