Notes on the Search for Startling Innovations in 3D Audio

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All print journalism now trails an Internet shadow: the digital version, a Platonic reflection consisting of what might have been if you could have elaborated, footnoted, and linked far beyond the margins of the lines on the page.

On paper, the limits of space -- of word counts and ad/edit ratios and the cost of printing and distribution -- exist in an inverse relationship to the extensibility of online prose. In broadcast media, where the limiting factor is time, you encounter a similar kind of extensibility whenever Jon Stewart winds up a Daily Show interview segment with a frustrated unwillingness to stop, announcing that the conversation will continue off the air and "we'll throw the whole thing up on the Internet."

Information in general wants to be free, but online text, with a nominal distribution cost approaching zero, really is free, and every time I commit my professional words to paper these days, I immediately begin scheming to scoop up the words and ideas and connections that were left on the cutting-room floor, and reconstitute them online.

For the March issue of The Atlantic, I contributed a report on startling innovations in 3D audio as developed by Edgar Choueiri, a professor of applied physics at Princeton University. (Read "What Perfection Sounds Like.") In this post, I'd like to unpack the Internet shadow of this particular article of mine by presenting a few notes on useful background information and context that travels in the slipstream of the finished product, along with some deleted scenes from my encounter with Professor Choueiri.

The recent and increasingly chastened hysteria over visual 3D movies and TV has its counterpart in a parallel gold rush to commercialize 3D audio.

My dispatch on a very specific something new under the hi-fi sun points toward overarching questions about the general state of audio innovation, and this assignment sent me into the heart of those fascinating inquiries. My experience, ears, judgment, and research convince me that Edgar Choueiri's 3D audio algorithms and playback system represent a dramatic improvement in the spatial realism and virtual sound-staging of stereo. It's an achievement whose novelty and pleasurable impact justifies the hyperbole of the article's title. (Ideally, his sound filter requires recordings of an actual soundstage and ambiance; it doesn't work at all with mono recording, although it provides surprising enhancements even for typical stereo pop concoctions, where the spatial location of voices and instrumentals is simulated at a mixing board by a technique called "pan-potted mono.")

It's important, however, to stipulate that Choueiri's Pure Stereo is a culmination of research on crosstalk cancellation conducted by a far-flung community of engineers over many years. Science is never wholly original. One of the trickiest challenges of science and technology journalism is how to accurately characterize innovative achievement in a clear and distinctive light, while giving due consideration to the wider range of work in the field. Putting one guy's beautiful solution in bold relief risks obscuring the surrounding network of colleagues (and competitors) along with the deep bibliography of research that stands behind any truly significant breakthrough.

One crucial predecessor of Choueiri's is Ralph Glasgal, whose earlier work on crosstalk cancellation and ambiance simulation has proceeded under the rubric of Ambiophonics. Glasgal's website is an illuminating resource. Bob Carver, an ingenious and storied pioneer of audio design, made a somewhat Ahab-like stab at an analog solution to 3D audio some 40 years ago, and dubbed his technology Sonic Holography. (Choueiri has a vintage Carver Sonic Holography Generator Model C-9 in his gear rack at his Princeton lab.) Another hotspot in audio science is the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the U.K.'s University of Southhampton. Choueiri's decision to focus on 2-channel stereo 3D was based in part on the Southhampton lab's successful implementation of crosstalk cancellation with six speakers.

The recent and increasingly chastened hysteria over visual 3D movies and TV has its counterpart in a parallel gold rush to commercialize 3D audio. Princeton's 3D audio technology will doubtless become available to consumers soon, but it's just one player in a proliferating 3D sound multiverse. The industry sent out an important signal last year with the establishment of the 3D Audio Alliance (3DAA), a trade group devoted to pooling knowledge and creating technical standards. (This recent episode of TWiT's Home Theater Geeks podcast is devoted to the 3DAA launch, featuring Alan Kraemer of SRS Labs, Inc., a leading purveyor of "advanced audio enhancement.") Hearing Choueiri's 3D audio demo was even more exciting for me than the sometimes thrilling cinema 3D of Avatar. It might be worth betting that 3D audio has a better prospect for success in the near future than a thousand James Camerons breaking the fourth wall on screens everywhere.

One of the reasons you don't hear much about genuine audio innovation is that the audiophile press practices a blatant silo journalism, narrowly focused on refinement rather than advancement. There's absolutely nothing wrong with refinement; in the right circumstances it creates a valuable and highly significant species of progress. Gadgets like the brilliant new HRT iStreamer mean that iPhones and iPads can now become uncompromising high-end audio source components. Cheap digital storage removes any practical barrier to playing uncompressed high-definition audio files. The vinyl resurgence is not a purely nostalgic exercise: improvements in cartridges, turntables, and phono amps lets us hear the full sonic potential of old LPs that vintage gear could never reveal. A well-designed 21st century amplifier with mid-20th century vacuum tubes can seduce the ear for perfectly up-to-date reasons.

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Hal Espen was the editor of Outside magazine from 1999 to 2006, and is a former senior editor at The New Yorker. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and writes at stoneturntable.net.

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