DSPeaker HeaDSPeaker Headphone Virtual Surround System Page 2


The Experience
I started by using the HeaDSPeaker in my living room since I almost exclusively watch movies there rather than on the computer. At first I had some concerns about watching Blu-ray titles as they usually feature soundtracks in DTS HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD. The HeaDSPeaker can't decode those, and even if it could, Toslink doesn't have the bandwidth to transmit them. But Dolby and DTS were clever enough to insert backwards compatibility into their new formats. Dolby requires a hidden legacy Dolby Digital track, while DTS embeds a "core" lossy track inside their new lossless format. So my fears were totally unfounded.

DSpeaker_HeaDSPeaker_Photo_SetUpBefore hitting the big living room screen, I first installed the included software and picked the HRTF model I liked best. The standard selections from the remote were decent enough, but going through row after row of added selections allowed me to find roughly half a dozen options that worked better than any of the defaults. Your results will undoubtedly be different than mine which is of course the entire point of including so many. So I'd say even if you never intend to use the device with your computer, initial setup over USB is a must.

I chose the VMODA M80 as a relatively inexpensive and easy to drive headphone, and got out a bunch of my favorite films that feature excellent surround, or fun soundtracks, or both. First up was The Matrix which is always a great selection for demonstrating surround sound. After all this discussion of the underlying technology, did it actually sound convincing? Yes! Very much so! Bullets whizzed by to my left and my right. Sounds legitimately seemed to come from behind. And the overall presentation did in fact seem to be spacious and open, almost three dimensional, without seeming gimmicky. And all this from the M80 which is not really known for having a massive soundstage. Impressive. I noticed after using the system for a while that it seemed to get even better with age. And I don't mean in some vague audiophile "burn-in" sort of way - DSPeaker actually predicts that users will become more acclimated to the system after some use, with the brain becoming "trained" and eventually being more willing to accept the effect as it happens. It sounded impressive right from the start but as time went by it became more and more realistic. I'd say after a few days of use, I was fully adjusted and ready to experience everything the system had to offer.

To give the device a real workout, I cycled through numerous other selections over a wide range of styles. I tried concert discs like U2's "Rattle and Hum"; Queen's "Rock Montreal & Live Aid"; and "The Pyongyang Concert" by the New York Philharmonic & Lorin Maazel. I tried films with prominent sound tracks such as "Into the Wild" and "Tron: Legacy". I even tried the typical surround sound demo material like "Saving Private Ryan", "Finding Nemo", "Heat", and "The Avengers". Through it all, the HeaDSPeaker system presented me with a generally believable, speaker-like experience that left me consistently impressed. The seamless blend of sounds panning from left to right and, more importantly, front to back, created the illusion of space. At its best, the experience was on par with a reasonably well configured surround system using actual speakers. If you normally watch movies in a dedicated theater room with high-quality speakers in an optimum configuration, you'll of course notice a major difference. But for most of us who can only manage a compromised "living room theater", the difference is not nearly as big. In fact, someone accustomed to a "home theater in a box" setup may actually find the HeaDSPeaker to be a significant improvement in several aspects; the headphone system will almost certainly have superior bass extension and control among other things.

Surprisingly, the rear surround effects were more convincing than the simulated center channel. I'm no psychoacoustic expert, but I had assumed dialogue and the like would more easily fall into place due to my brain seeing the corresponding mouth movement on the screen in front of me. Turns out it never felt quite anchored to the display. It still sounded reasonably good, as if coming from the main speakers on the left and the right, but didn't quite tie in completely. This minor issue wasn't terribly bad, and I've heard worse from actual center channel speakers. I just can't say enough good things about the rear channel surround simulation though—it's very convincing, especially with when head tracking comes into play.

Speaking of head tracking: like I mentioned earlier, it's not completely essential. If you sit directly in front of the screen and never fidget, HeaDSPeaker works just fine. But here in the real world, people don't act like that, and the head tracking is a useful tool for enhancing the surround simulation. Not that I intentionally turn my head a lot while watching movies, but as I paid attention to it I noticed more subtle head shifts than I would have thought. So despite the extra cable involved, head tracking is indeed worth it.

(Editor's Note: Excellent observations in the two paragraphs above, John. Frontal localization is indeed the hardest to simulate. Psycho-acoustic studies have a term called "front-to-back reversals", which indicates how often someone believes a sound is coming from behind when in fact it's coming from in front. The best way to combat front to back reversals is with inter-aural time delay (ITD) changes with head movement. When blindfolded subjects are asked to find a sound source in a room, subjects will tilt their head down and slightly to one side of where the sound source is (taking it out of the difficult to localize position directly in front of the head), and then will "hunt" with their head by gently turning the head from side to side listening for the subtle ITD changes to finely localize the sound. The point here is that even small movements of the head are enough to significantly aid in proper localization.)

It was interesting to go through with various headphones to see which models worked best. It didn't necessarily pan out the way I anticipated. Open headphones, normally more spacious in presentation than their sealed counterparts, didn't seem to have the inherent advantage. In fact, after trying all kinds of higher-end models like Sennheiser HD800, Audio Technica W1000x, Denon D7000, Audeze LCD-2, and HiFiMAN HE-500, as well as more affordable options like the V-MODA M-80 and NuForce HP-800, I came away with the following impressions: A) general sound signature matters more in this application than closed or open design, and B) comfort is a critical factor in the illusion. You can't forget about the headphones if they cause you discomfort.

I tended to prefer a fairly significant low end emphasis, a clear and articulate midrange, and smooth, forgiving highs. As much as I love the HD800, it doesn't really fit that description very well. In the end I found myself going back to the V-MODA quite frequently. The Denon D7000 was also very nice, and certainly had the comfort factor down. The LCD-2 was quite effective as well, though I could see long term comfort being an issue for some users. Interestingly, the HiFiMAN HE-400 was preferable to its more expensive HE-500 sibling, with its more colored presentation lining up with my preferences. The built in amp in the DSP box seems reasonably nice; it powered all of these models to satisfying levels, though the low impedance cans had more headroom. Sensitive headphones like the Ultrasone Signature Pro showed some mild hiss but nothing terribly obtrusive.

The system even works with IEMs and remains mostly convincing in the process. Of course, it still requires wearing a set of regular headphones to provide a mount for the head tracker. I found that different HRTF models worked better with IEMs as compared to full sized headphones, which I suppose is something I should have predicted. It was fun to see how it played out.

Next I switched to USB operation and watched on my desktop system. First drawback: my 23 inch display is nowhere near as convincing as the big 50 incher in the living room. Sitting a lot closer just doesn't quite make up for it. The second, and far larger drawback: content, or the lack thereof. I didn't know this until now, but apparently streaming video is almost exclusively done with 2-channel audio, ostensibly a bandwidth-saving measure. So while I can stream Netflix or Amazon Instant Video through my Blu-ray player in glorious surround, on my Windows machine they are strictly stereo. Bummer. Granted, the HeaDSPeaker does a credible job creating surround from a stereo track, but it's not on the same level as when you feed it a true discrete soundtrack.

The more I looked around, the more I discovered the internet to be rather light on surround content. There are plenty of music videos and movie previews to be found, but the vast majority of them are purely in stereo. It's probably a bandwidth issue and given the choice between HD visuals and surround audio, most everyone wisely chooses the higher resolution video. Which is understandable I suppose. It just makes a device like the HeaDSPeaker less worthwhile in this particular environment. One remaining source is movie rips which tend to fall on the non-legal side, so we won't discuss those here.

Gaming is another possible use for the HeaDSPeaker. The last game I played seriously on a PC was Unreal Tournament 2003, so I'm probably not the best person to evaluate this aspect, but for hardcore gamers this could be a killer accessory. A lot of newer PC games feature uncompressed LPCM surround audio, and the HeaDSPeaker can accept up to 7.1 channels of that format. DSPeaker says they can't promise compatibility with all applications, and neither can I, but in theory it should be great.

The Conclusion
The HeaDSPeaker Home system occupies a somewhat unique place in the market. It's far more expensive than your typical gaming-oriented "virtual surround headset" device, yet far more affordable than the mighty Smyth Realiser. Despite some connectivity awkwardness, the thing actually does a very impressive job of making headphones sound like well placed speakers in a surround configuration. I appreciate the ease of setup, the numerous HRTF selections, and the low output impedance of the headphone output. For watching movies or concerts late at night without bothering the family, or just as a substitute when speakers aren't an option, the HeaDSPeaker is the best solution I've heard this side of a several thousand dollar investment.

Could it be better? Sure. I'd love to see a wireless connection for the head tracker, which would eliminate one of the two cables running from head to DSP box. I'd also like to see a pair of RCA jacks for line-out connection to an external headphone amp. And while we're at it, an HDMI connection for handling the modern lossless surround formats. But those add up to a larger, more complex, and more expensive unit overall. As it currently stands, the HeaDSPeaker Home is both impressive and relatively affordable, and for that it earns my recommendation.

DSpeaker home page, and HeaDSPeaker product page.
HeaDSPeaker User Manual, and Quick Start Guide.
USA Distributor - SimpliFi Audio.

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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