You’ve got to admire DTS. This is a company who is out to make sure that absolutely everybody in the world can experience surround sound. If they turned around and told us that they partnered with Apple and Samsung to bring surround sound crawling out of the speakers of our smartphones, we’d probably believe them. It takes a hell of a lot of work to stay on top as a competitor to Dolby, so when they debut a new technology, we tend to listen close.
Still, we have to admit that their new tech, DTS Virtual:X, is the kind of thing that has to be debuted before we can believe it. Right now, only Wired Magazine has had a chance to listen in. Here’s what you need to know.
The general idea is this. Right now, both DTS and Dolby, as well as other companies like Auro 3D, hang their hat on immersive surround sound. Most of this is geared towards the systems you get in movie theatres: the big ones, the ones that make sounds come from all angles and which seem most impressive when the actual manufacturer logos are flashing up at the beginning. But, as you’re probably aware, these companies do a very nice line in home theater systems as well. It’s actually quite easy to get a decent 5.1 or 7.1 system in your house, and chances are it will compact with one technology or rather from these companies, even if they didn’t make the hardware themselves. Both Dolby and DTS license out their tech to everyone else, so there’s no reason why your Sony or Pioneer system couldn’t benefit.
The problem, of course, is that not everybody has the space or inclination to invest in six or eight speakers for their living room. They might live in an apartment, or have limited space, or just not care for the amount of wires and furniture rearranging this would cause. For those people, there are a few solutions, one of the most popular of which is to use a soundbar and subwoofer combo.
The advantage of this is obviously that you can maximise the space you have, sacrificing surround sound for powerful audio that still packs a punch. Most soundbars these days have more than enough audio oomph to do the job, and the sub picks up any of the slack. But DTS held up a metaphorical hand there and said, why can’t we have both? Why can’t we have a soundbar that delivers surround sound?
The answer, if you been paying attention, is that a soundbar and sub combo consists only of two discrete speakers (albeit with multiple drivers). Little bit difficult to get sound coming from all directions if you’ve only got a few unidirectional drivers to play with, right? But DTS say they’ve cracked it, using their new technology Virtual:X, which they plan to roll out at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017. If it works, it could be a giant game changer for the entire home audio industry.
But how does it work?
That’s not a question that DTS seems prepared to answer at the moment. To make it plausible, they’ve essentially got to program the soundbar to trick the human brain into thinking that sound is coming from multiple directions, even when it isn’t. “The human brain determines the location of sound sources in 3D space using location cues,” a DTS spokesperson told Wired. “Spatial audio techniques using location cues can virtualize sound sources that are perceptually comparable to the signals being originated from arbitrary location in a 3-D space.”
There’s a lot to digest there, but from what we can tell, the spokesperson saying that the technology steals from the human brain and gives the existing speakers some of its qualities, using the brain’s own perceptions against it. The folks from Wired sat through demo, using a very basic LG SH5B wireless bar with included subwoofer, and although they weren’t too impressed with the verticality of the sound, saying it sounded slightly artificial, they were left in no doubt that the soundstage was dramatically larger.
Again, we can’t vouch for the voracity of this, simply because DTS has revealed so little about how it actually works. But the results so far been promising. Short of hidden speakers, this kind of thing is extremely difficult to fake. If Virtual:X really is ready to go, then you’re about to get much better equipment for not much more money.
This is, as we’re sure you’ll agree, an excellent state of affairs. DTS don’t make hardware, but they do license out their technology to others. Soundbars have been one of the fastest-growing and most popular segments of the market in the past few years, with more and more people investing in them. And while there might initially be a slight uptick in cost as manufacturers show off the new technology, it’s likely to come down in short order. That’s very good news for all concerned.
It’ll be interesting to see if companies like Dolby follow suit. We can’t imagine them not doing so; it would leave them in a very vulnerable position. Expect them to reverse engineer the tech as soon as they get their hands on some, if they’re not developing their own version right now.
Three Great Soundbars Available Right Now
It might not be as immersive as Virtual:X promises, but this is still a 7.1 soundbar system with a serious amount of power. The Dolby technology really does create a convincing illusion of surround sound, although you should be aware of the price, which is sizeable.
The SONOS systems may be expensive, and you’ll need to shell out for the subwoofer separately, but there’s no question that the ecosystem the company provides is absolutely top-notch. We reviewed their Play:5 and Play:3 speakers here.
This is one of our personal favourites. Killer sound, a great remote, huge volume on the sub, and absolutely dead-simple setup. What’s not to like? Check our full review right here.