DSPeaker HeaDSPeaker Headphone Virtual Surround System

The Landscape
Most surround sound receivers have a headphone jack. When using that jack, most of them apply some type of faux-surround sound processing. Dolby has their Virtual Headphone mode and Audyssey calls theirs Personal Surround. Interestingly, I don't see those being used very often. As I browse receiver models from Denon, Onkyo, Marantz, Sony, etc, I mostly see proprietary solutions, likely chosen to save money on licensing fees. Regardless of which method is used, I don't find any of them to be all that convincing. They all aim to expand the presentation to sound more speaker-like, but just end up sounding like a mess of reverb. Most of the time I'd rather deactivate all processing and watch a movie in plain old stereo.

PC gamers are better off for multiple reasons. For starters, a sound card is more likely to have dedicated DSP-based hardware - Dolby Virtual Headphone shows up a lot (in the Asus cards for example), and there are others like Creative's CMSS-3D which are well regarded. Both of these sound more convincing to me as compared to the typical Denon and Sony solutions. Creative was also heavily involved with the OpenAL API which was used in several dozen games across multiple platforms. I think as PC and console gaming continues to become more advanced, we'll see further implementations of this type of thing - some good and some very bad.

The Competition
Over the years, there have been some rather significant attempts at simulating surround through headphones via dedicated hardware boxes. Astro makes various models aimed towards gamers, many of which include dedicated headphones with a mic. These are not intended for "serious" headphone enthusiasts and are priced and marketed accordingly. JVC had the DH1 and a few variations, but those were incredibly rare and have been discontinued for a while. Years ago, AKG had their Hearo 999 which was favorably reviewed by Jude at HeadFi. It went for $1200 and used a proprietary wireless headphone, though regular headphones could be plugged in as well.

These days, if one desires a high quality hardware-based system for simulated headphone surround sound across a wide range of usage types, there appears to be three options currently in production. The first is also the oldest - the Headzone Home from beyerdynamic. With an MSRP approaching $2000 the Headzone is essentially the beyerdynamic A1 headphone amp with an added DSP for surround simulation (and optional head tracking), plus a bundled DT880 headphone. I've heard the Headzone on several occasions and it was generally effective but never really amazed me—and for that price I expect to be blown away. Part of the issue is the amplifier section based on the A1 which in my opinion is a spectacularly overpriced piece of hardware. But if this thing sold for a much lower price I'd have no problem recommending it.

The next option, the best option if one can afford it, is the Smyth Realiser. The Realiser has been around for several years garnishing rave reviews and leaving rabid fans in its wake. Rather than merely simulating surround sound in general, it actually imitates a specific speaker setup - be it stereo or a 7.1 system. This can be any setup the user can get their hands on to measure, which opens up a world of possibilities. By all accounts the Realiser is supremely impressive but the price is somewhat prohibitive—$2910 for the base system or $3760 with the recommended Stax earspeaker option.

The third option is the focus of this review—the DSPeaker HeaDSPeaker Home (approximately $500). This unit is similar to the Headzone in terms of basic layout—it's got a box that connects to your source and handles all processing, along with a sensor which mounts on top of your headphones and tracks movement. But there are some differences, the core of which is the processing engine used to create the effect.

The Company
DSPeaker is very closely associated with VLSI Solutions. VLSI designs and manufactures integrated circuits, some (but not all) of which end up in audio gear. They specify a broad spectrum of devices which use their chips, from baby monitors to HiFi applications and everything in between. DSPeaker is a spin-off company made up of VLSI employees and using VLSI components for audiophile related gear. An early product of theirs was the Anti-Mode 8033 favorably reviewed HERE and their latest, the Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core has received quite a bit of industry praise. Both of those models focus on room correction, which isn't all that different from surround simulation when you think about it - applying DSP to a signal to make it fit your specific application, thereby (hopefully) improving the listening experience.

The Hardware
The DSP unit is a very compact little box. It has a sort of "lip" on the front section that, when combined with the optional spring loaded mechanism, helps it balance on top of your display. If I was using this permanently I'd want to use something like the 3M Command strips to secure the DSP box without any permanent residue.

The box has most of the important bits on the rear panel: USB, Toslink in and out, headphone jack, sensor connector, and a 3.5mm line-in. It draws power over USB, so the included AC adapter must connect to the USB port if Toslink is used as a source. Note the absence of any RCA outputs—external headphone amps need not apply. The front panel is a simple affair with a signal emitter for the head tracker and three sets of LED status indicators. Installation is easy; for computer use, just set the box on the monitor, connect via USB, install the included software, and that's it. For living room use I simply connected via optical out from my Blu-ray player. My player will output audio concurrently over HDMI and optical, and I think most others behave similarly, so your main speaker-based surround system can remain undisturbed. There's a Toslink output for passing audio through the box to a surround receiver but that strikes me as a very "pre-HDMI" type feature, and doesn't really seem necessary these days.

Inside the box, the heart of the unit is a VLSI VS2000a. Aside from handling D/A conversion, this versatile chip manages incoming USB signals, takes care of DSP duties, and even has a built in headphone driver (which I don't believe is being used in this particular application). There's also a multi-purpose Micronas chip on board which handles the Toslink input, provides surround sound decoding, and probably some other functions that I'm missing. I also see an Altera programmable logic device, and some other odds and ends too. In short, there's lots of processing power on board. The actual integrated headphone amp is opamp based and sports a .1 ohm output impedance. DSPeaker recommends using headphones rated at 250 ohms or less in order to ensure satisfying volume levels, but that also depends on sensitivity. In my experience 300 ohm Sennheisers worked just fine.

Aside from the Box, the other main component is the sensor used for head tracking. It attaches to the top of most headphones—anything with a solid frame or pad should be fine, but some AKG and Audio Technica Models could have trouble due to their split designs. Rather unfortunately, a hard-wired connector is required, running from the head tracker to the DSP box. This becomes unwieldy when combined with the headphone cable, which of course also must connect to the DSP box. And remember, the DSP box mounts on top of the display, so you'll want the cables routed on the side. I had to use an extension cable for most all of my headphones, in order to reach my couch. A wireless solution would be ideal, but I imagine it would increase both price and complexity of the system.

DSpeaker_HeaDSPeaker_Photo_RemoteThe other important bit is the credit card sized remote. Since the DSP box has no buttons, the remote is essential for operation. It handles volume adjustment and input switching as well as setup functions. Not the prettiest remote you'll ever see but it gets the job done. It even allows quick selection of separate user profiles for two different users, which I thought was a nice touch.

The Method
The heaDSPeaker system actually consists of two different processes: head tracking and HRTF-based surround simulation. Both work together to make the result more convincing. It is possible to use the system without head tracking, and it sounds decent in a pinch, but ultimately the head tracking aspect makes it that much more lifelike.

HRTF is tricky to simulate because every set of ears is physically different. DSPeaker tackles that problem by providing multiple ear/head models. 5 default options are available straight from the remote control, and a 6th button is programmable via software. The user can choose from a pool of 45 different options, which means there should be something for everyone.

VLSI Solution has a patent for their head tracking process. The entire patent application is somewhat confusing (as those tend to be) and even the abstract is a bit convoluted. Essentially, it boils down to the main box communicating with the head tracker via ultrasonic frequencies. The tracker has 2 receivers; one on each side. As the head tracker rotates from left to right, the sensors each receive slightly different signals based on their different locations. The system then calculates phase differences between each signal and thus determines how to process the sound. Sounds simple enough but it's really not. DSPeaker talks more about their process here. It's pretty impressive how the head tracker—a rather simple little thing in appearance—can be used to calculate spatial locations in such an accurate fashion. But then again, the human body does amazing things with just a pair of eyes or a pair of ears, and routinely localizes sights and sounds in a three dimensional landscape. Mother Nature's been doing this stuff for a long time.

DSPeaker (VLSI Solution)
Hermiankatu 8 B
entrance G, 2nd floor
FIN-33720 Tampere, Finland
+358 3 3140 8200

zowki's picture

I wonder what is stopping them from releasing a DSP software implementation of the HeaDSPeaker. PCs are very fast these days and will surely have adequate performance so I don't see why it can't be done.

John Grandberg's picture

....and VLSI are hardware makers. Software is a whole different ballgame. Plus I think they intend this device as a stand-alone unit - it can be used with Toslink and no computer need ever be involved. Plus, there would be no way to implement head tracking without special hardware.

I wouldn't mind seeing a software release like this, but without head tracking I don't think it would be as effective. 

Username's picture

looks as though they could use an industrial designer.... also an interface designer.

Frank I's picture

John I found this an interesting review of this technology. Enjoyed the read.

ultrabike's picture

Thank you for bringing this up John! I did not know about DSPeaker and this article puts them in the map for me.

I was at T.H.E. Show yesterday and attended the seminar were Tyll was a moderator. Tyll presented his views about what the future of headphones might be. Also, someone asked a question regarding virtualization and crossfeed. My impression was that most of the panel dismissed these ideas... except Tyll. After hearing binaural recordings, and from my background, I also believe that this is an area where headphones can grow further. Very nice to see DSPeaker is one of the few companies up to the challenge.

Your article is very well written, and would like to thank you for your candor and important observations.

The price seems to be close to $500 with shipping to America.

Besides wireless and HD audio, next step might also be multiple headset support, amp rolling, maybe even headphones/IEMs with integrated mics, ... cool

Cami's picture

With all due respect to you guys out there writing reviews and offering your impressions on the lates gadget, take some time and give this review a serious consideration. It's a lesson in writing, and shows how important documentation really is before getting down to discribe impressions and draw quick conclusions.

This is the kind of review that does good to the business beyond benefittig this or that manufacturer, and the kind of review that's really worth it when you are considering spending your hard earned money. There is real and useful info on what is reviewed, and serious and dedicated attention to explaining the technologies behind the product, as well as to the basic interest we have in how the stuff we buy works and what it's made of.

(With a completely different context in mind - and perhaps taking it to extremes - , I'm tempted to say that this is the kind of review we need in a world where some consider that GMOs don't have to be on the label of food, because there's no scientific proof that they make a difference or pose a threat to our health, and as such don't constitute a relevant fact.)

When I saw the title, I really didn't think DSP and surround sound was anything I could really be interested in, but the review unfolds a variety of important aspects, such as the current state of DSP in this respect, digital formats, connectivity specifics, and even the role psycho-acoustics plays in the technological development of this particular product. It might not be the gadget I'm out for right now, but I enjoyed the read; it clarifies aspects that are tangential and/or imediately related to those of my own interest, and when not, the info is sufficiently accessible, well layed out and detailed as to learn something new.

My kudos to John for getting me interested in a kind of technology I had already excluded from my interests (and without any relation to this or that manufacturer), and for providing a great read and reasonably well spent time in the car with my iPod reading the text aloud for me through the speakers.


Tyll Hertsens's picture

Thanks for your comment, I agree 100%.  John does a great job tasting gadgets and describing his experience...and then taking the next step to put all the pieces together to help us make sense of it. I love having him write for InnerFidelity.com.

Thanks John!

burritoboy9984's picture

I don't mean to discount this review, but from the searching I've done, people have mentioned this product as early as 2009, yet this is the first review of the product I could find. I was wondering if the product had been a concept until now, or if it has been available and just ignored until now.




Hekeli's picture

As a Finlander, I can tell you that VLSI/DSpeaker is a small and unknown firm to general population. Mostly known for their Anti-Mode stuff amongst HT-people. They even sell some super expensive active monitors that seems cool, but it seems no one has them either..

From my impression this is a few engineers creating some nice stuff, but with zero marketing effort or know-how to get it OUT there. Lack of experienced sales people?

I have tried HeadSpeaker, but frankly it was a letdown for me, atleast for the price. Not even a line-out, which any serious user would need! I wonder if they ever tested/reviewed it with the actual people that might use it? I had LCD-2 at the time, and certainly there wasn't enough headroom, especially with some quiet movies etc, lots of extra gain needed at the player. Realiser certainly beats it hands down, but yes we are comparing different things..

As a plus, I haven't yet stumbled into any software or hardware that offers such many different HRTF-profiles.

John, where did you get all this info about 250 ohm recommendation and .1 output impedance?? It certainly isn't in any documentation. I queried the staff a long time ago, and got a reply with these "specs" for the op-amp/headphone out:

Rout = 5 Ohm
P = 300mW
4.4Vpp into 32 Ohm

They even needed to look into the matter first (shouldn't they know it right away? didn't appear very professional and makes it sound like this is a "side gadget").

Not looking to beat them, I guess there aren't any competitors at the price - but I don't know how many would pay it. I doubt many people will order HeadSpeaker from Finland just for trying out.

Nice to get international recognition though and a good read as always.

John Grandberg's picture

...for the impressions. As you say, DSPeaker is a small firm who doesn't really "do" the whole marketing thing. But their latest room correction unit received some very high praise from Stereophile and TAS among others, so they have a bit more exposure now. Their high-end active DSP-corrected monitor speakers seemed to be very well received when they launched a few years back, but I don't know how well they have marketed them since then. 

My technical info came from Pasi Ojala, VLSI engineer and head of their DSPeaker division. I suspect what you experienced was the very first iteration of the HeaDSPeaker device:

I can't find much info on it but apparently the model I reviewed is totally different (jacks on the rear instead of front, different drivers, lower output impedance, higher Vrms output, etc). So perhaps that explains our differences in experience. 

Hekeli's picture

I tried it last August, it was the newer Home model. Pasi also replied to me. It could be that they revamped the headphone output after that, which is nice.

tm's picture

I write and record my own music and, as I live in a row house, monitor speakers are not an alternative.  So, I've been mixing with headphones for quite a while and have found, as others have, that it's damn near impossible to get the mix right.  I started using Dolby Headphone a few years ago, and that helped, but it still wasn't enough.

Then, I came across this HeaDSPeaker review about a month ago (great review!).  After exchanging some emails with two of the folks at DSPeaker, I decided to buy one.  In short, it does the job.  I now find that what I mix on headphones translates very well to speakers, and the head tracking is a huge part of it.  After using this device, I wouldn't bother with any headphone spacializer that didn't incorporate head tracking, at least for mixing.

The Smyth Realiser is an incredible device, but I consider it impractical for most people as you must go and "sample" a listening area.  I find DSPeakers library of HRTFs scheme to be more practical, at least for the world I live in.

One thing I found important with the HeaDSPeaker was to use a parametric equalizer to "flatten out" my headphones (ATH-M50) before applying the HRTF processing.  I also found that adding a tactile transducer to my chair made a huge difference.  The tactile transducer should be EQ'd flat and the signal pretty heavily compressed; it feels very natural.

I ended up using a Behringer DEQ2496 to handle all of the EQ and tactile transducer compression.  The other thing it allowed me to do was to feed the HeaDSPeaker through its TosLink input; its A/D is a bit noisy (the D/A is fine).

One other oddity of the HeaDSPeaker is that its headphone output isn't ground referenced.  Its "ground" actually sits at about 2.4 volts.  This isn't a problem with headphones but must be dealt with properly if you want to use it as a line output.  As long as you can solder and order a few cheap parts from Digi-Key, it is easily solved.

I would love to see DSPeaker release a more "pro" version of this device, but I'm thankful that this thing exists at all.

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