Last Friday, several journalists were invited to Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, CA, for a demo of DTS Headphone:X. This technology encodes audio files with up to 11.1 channels and simulates what you would hear from a corresponding speaker array using any pair of conventional headphones. It was first demonstrated at CES last January, where it impressed all who heard it.
The latest demo was no less impressive—after hearing each speaker in a real 11.1 array (front left, center, right; side surround left, right; rear surround left, right; front height left, right; rear height left, right) identified by the voice of superstar film composer Hans Zimmer, we put on Sennheiser HD 239 headphones and heard the same thing again in Headphone:X. The simulation was so good that most of us, including me, had to take off the headphones to make sure the speakers weren't on—they weren't.
The deluxe edition of the Man of Steel score CD comes in a metal case.
The demo continued with a clip from Zimmer's score for Man of Steel, Chris Nolan's retelling of the Superman story, which opens June 14, 2013. Zimmer had been introduced to Headphone:X by his producer Peter Asher, and it inspired him to remix the score in 11.1 channels. In fact, if you buy the deluxe edition of the Man of Steel soundtrack CD, you get a code that lets you download a free app called Z+ for iOS and Android as well as the entire score mixed in 11.1 and encoded in Headphone:X. (You can download the app without buying the CD, in which case, you have access to one Headphone:X track from the score.) According to DTS, the app will be available the same day as the CD goes on sale, June 11, though some seem to have found it in the app store already.
After the demo, we were privileged to sit at a table with Asher and Zimmer to talk about the score and Headphone:X. Asher told us how he first heard the DTS technology at a pre-Grammy party last February and was blown away by it. He also revealed that, in addition to the 11.1 mix, the algorithm used for the Man of Steel files also includes acoustic measurements and ambient simulation of Zimmer's studio as well as the acoustic effect of his ears and head.
That sounds a lot like the Smyth Research Realizer, which also simulates the acoustics of any measured room and set of ears in addition to surround sound in conventional headphones. It can even be customized with measurements of your own ears in any room to which you have access, and multiple acoustic templates can be stored and recalled. Also, it provides a head-tracking feature that keeps the virtual "speakers" locked in place as you move your head around, adding greatly to the realism of the simulation. But whereas the Realizer costs thousands of dollars, DTS Headphone:X is free with the Z+ app.
Hans Zimmer is a musical superman.
Zimmer said he wanted the score to surround the listener, which is why he was drawn to Headphone:X. Especially effective in this regard is the "drum circle," which is quite prominent in the score and features some of the best percussionists in the world. Zimmer told us that he doesn't listen to CDs because he much prefers multichannel music; as he put it, "Life is in surround, so that's how I mix and what I like to listen to."
DTS assured us that it is working with many consumer-electronics manufacturers to implement Headphone:X in AVRs and other products, though the details of exactly how it will work remain somewhat vague. For example, will an AVR have a Headphone:X encoder for discrete multichannel signals, or will it work only with pre-encoded files? Time will tell, but meanwhile, I'll be listening to the score from Man of Steel on my iPhone.