CanJam SoCal 2018 - Smyth Research Realiser A16 Headphone Surround System

I heard quite a few gadgets over the years intended to virtualize sound on headphone to get it out of your head. None of them were truly convincing. The Ossic X was probably the closest, but it had the support of 3D virtual reality visuals to go along with it. The new Audeze Mobius was pretty good, but frontal localization—the big buggaboo—remained illusive. The problem with all these systems is that they try to fool you with synthesized head related transfer functions (HRTFs), which are never exactly the same as the cues from your original equipment. It's not easy to fool Mother all. I've even heard the Smyth Realizer A8 (the previous model) using generic HRTFs, and there too, convincing out-of-head localization was not up to snuff.

So it was with significant skepticism, and excitement, I approached the Smyth Research room at CanJam as this time they were doing demos of their new Realizer A16 where it could be calibrated to my own ears. (The previous A8 could also do this, but I never had the opportunity to listen to it after having it calibrated to my ears.)


The room was set up with a 9.1.6 surround system. After I sat down, I had two small microphones inserted into my ear canals positioning the capsules at the ear canal entry point. A series of test tones and sweeps were played from each speaker individually. The system recorded the results and created individualized HRTFs of my left and right ears for all the speaker positions. I then put on the Sennheiser HD 800 headphones and again was presented with test tones and sweeps, which were recorded in order to create individualized transfer functions of those headphones on my ears. The Realizer A16 then had enough information to synthesize 9.1.6 surround on headphones with personalized HRTFs.

The result was stunning!

Localization was perfectly natural. The front speaker, which was low under the TV screen, was absolutely rock solid and the headphone sound perfectly mimicked the sound heard from the speaker. In fact, this was the first time I've ever heard frontal localization on headphones that was too low! Usually, sounds from the front become artificially high in headphone virtualization systems. In this case, the speaker itself was low under the TV and that presentation of position was faithfully reproduced on the headphones.

Fidelity was excellent as well. When I took off the headphones the audio switched to the speakers automatically. I had to switch back and forth a number of times before I could begin to tell the difference between the speaker and headphone sound. I do think I heard a very small amount of digital artifact on the headphones that wasn't heard on the speakers, but the difference was very small.

Over time I'd become ever more doubtful that convincing out-of-head localization was even possible on headphones. One exposure to the Smyth Realizer A16 has removed that doubt. Sure, it's going to take some time to figure out how to do it without a personalize calibration routine, but I now know it's possible to get there.

Stephen Smyth, Smyth Research Co-Founder and Chief Officer, explains the system in the video.

View on YouTube

jgazal's picture

Thank you very much, Tyll!

castleofargh's picture

so that's why you were always playing dead when people mentioned Realiser over the years. you never actually had a go at the full calibration.
"better late than never". which is also the other name of the A16 given how long we've been waiting since the beginning of the kickstarter campaign. ^_^

misformatt's picture

I went to a demo for the A8 at a local audio shop a number of years ago. They invited you to bring your own headphones, so I brought the LCD-2.2 I had at the time to see if it could make it as spacious sounding as my HD-800.

The tech ran the brief calibration with the two mics and then demoed it next to the reference 5.1 system in the listening room. I was blown away. I honestly could not differentiate between the tones from the speakers and those from my LCD-2. I'd hoped it would sound as spacious as my HD-800, but it ended up being in another league entirely. Absolutely pinpoint precision; pretty incredible stuff.

I'd probably have walked away with one that day if they weren't so pricey (maybe $3k at the time?), but I decided to drop the money into an actual 2-channel setup. Definitely an impressive product for those with the cash and a need or desire to listen to multi-channel content without a full-blown theater rig.

cas's picture

You can use A16 in a stereo mode, too
And it sounds...

crenca's picture

I have read some comments online that Smyth's products are not actual products - only "vaporware" so far from his efforts.

I see that the A16 is "pre-order" on their website.

Can anyone confirm or deny these comments?

jk6661's picture

Crenca, I've owned the A8 for years, so if it's vaporware, I need to get my head examined. :-) There have been complaints about delays with the A16.

philoneous's picture

I know first hand this works well in the room that measurements were done in, especially if you listen right after the measurement.

Try listening in a different acoustic environment (e.g., different room) and see if the realism still holds up. For instance, go into a more dead (less reverberant) room (with no speakers to give you the ventriloquism effect).

Try listening in the same room without the speakers. Or wait a day or two, and try listening in the exact same setting as the original measurement.

Stephen is right, in that it's a reference for that room, with those speakers, at that time. But it isn't portable.