One of the most interesting demos I heard at CanJam SoCal 2017 was the Ossic X immersive headphone. This thing seems to have it all when it comes to headphone-based immersive audio.
The over-ear, closed-back Ossic X includes four drivers in each earcup—a 31mm mid-bass dome driver in the center and three 14mm cone drivers above and on both sides of the central driver. This design is intended to reproduce the directionality of sounds by interacting with the shape of your outer ear.
Of equal importance is integrated head tracking. This allows sounds to appear to come from a certain direction no matter how you move your head, which is critical for creating a realistic immersive soundfield.
In addition—and amazingly—the unit automatically and almost instantaneously calculates a custom HRTF (head-related transfer function) each time anyone puts it on by sensing the distance between the earcups and deriving the interaural time difference (ITD) and interaural level difference (ILD).
All electronics, including the head tracker, processor, DAC, and amplifier, are located within the headphone, and power is supplied by a rechargeable battery that lasts 8-10 hours per charge. A USB port connects to a computer for multichannel audio, and an 1/8″ analog-audio jack lets you use the Ossic X with any stereo source.
For gamers, there are three microphones mounted on the outside of each earcup. They use beamforming to pick up the wearer’s voice at a consistent level, and noise cancelling makes the voice clear to others playing the same game.
I started by listening to Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” in 2-channel from a laptop via USB. The system was set up to simulate two speakers in a normal stereo configuration in front of me, and the sound was quite good. As I moved my head around, the “speakers” appeared to stay in one place, but the effect was noticeably delayed. When I mentioned this, I was told that I was listening to a fairly old prototype, and that current prototypes are much faster in this regard.
Next, I tried the Ossic X in virtual reality with an HTC Vive VR headset; both were connected to a laptop via USB. The custom software created various geometric objects at different locations in the virtual space, and I could “grab” them, “move” them, and even “throw” them with a Vive hand controller. Each object “played” part of an ambient musical soundscape that appeared to come from its location in the virtual space, even as they moved around, and that directionality was preserved as I moved my head. Very impressive! (However, I’m still not at all impressed with the visuals of VR; for example, I could easily see the pixel structure.)
My biggest question is how the Ossic X might be used to listen to immersive movie soundtracks in Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. I was told it’s certainly possible, but that would require an Atmos or DTS:X decoder, which has not yet been incorporated into the unit. It would also require some way to get the bitstream into the headphone, perhaps using an HDMI-to-USB adaptor and a player with two HDMI outputs—one for video and the other for audio.
I also asked about speaker and room modeling. Can the system simulate specific speaker systems within specific acoustic environments like the Smyth Realizer does? It’s certainly possible, though Ossic has not yet finalized that particular application.
With all of its embedded technology, the Ossic X won’t be cheap. You can pre-order it now on the company’s website for $299; when it hits retail in July, it’ll be $499. The Ossic X seems aimed primarily at VR and gaming, at least for now, but the potential for music and movie soundtracks is quite exciting.
For more on the Ossic X, check out this video: