Beosound Theatre: Virtual loudspeakers

#90 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen

Devices such as the ‘stereoscope’ for representing photographs (and films) in three-dimensions have been around since the 1850s. These work by presenting two different photographs with slightly different perspectives two the two eyes. If the differences in the photographs are the same as the differences your eyes would have seen had you ‘been there’, then your brain interprets into a 3D image.

A similar trick can be done with sound sources. If two different sounds that exactly match the signals that you would have heard had you ‘been there’ are presented at your two ears (using a binaural recording) , then your brain will interpret the signals and give you the auditory impression of a sound source in some position in space. The easiest way to do this is to ensure that the signals arriving at your ears are completely independent using headphones.

The problem with attempting this with loudspeaker reproduction is that there is ‘crosstalk’ or ‘bleeding of the signals to the opposite ears’. For example, the sound from a correctly-positioned Left Front loudspeaker can be heard by your left ear and your right ear (slightly later, and with a different response). This interference destroys the spatial illusion that is encoded in the two audio channels of a binaural recording.

However, it might be possible to overcome this issue with some careful processing and assumptions. For example, if the exact locations of the left and right loudspeakers and your left and right ears are known by the system, then it’s (hypothetically) possible to produce a signal from the right loudspeaker that cancels the sound of the left loudspeaker in the right ear, and therefore you only hear the left channel in the left ear. (Of course, the cancelling signal of the right loudspeaker also bleeds to the left ear, so the left loudspeaker has to be used to cancel the cancellation signal of the right loudspeaker in the left ear, and so on…)

Using this ‘crosstalk cancellation’ processing, it becomes (hypothetically) possible to make a pair of loudspeakers behave more like a pair of headphones, with only the left channel in the left ear and the right in the right. Therefore, if this system is combined with the binaural recording / reproduction system, then it becomes (hypothetically) possible to give a listener the impression of a sound source placed at any location in space, regardless of the actual location of the loudspeakers.

Theory vs. Reality

It’s been said that the difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, whereas in practice, there is. This is certainly true both of binaural recordings (or processing) and crosstalk cancellation.

In the case of binaural processing, in order to produce a convincing simulation of a sound source in a position around the listener, the simulation of the acoustical characteristics of a particular listener’s head, torso, and (most importantly) pinnae (a.k.a. ‘ears’) must be both accurate and precise. (For the same reason that someone else should not try to wear my glasses.)

Similarly, a crosstalk cancellation system must also have accurate and precise ‘knowledge’ of the listener’s physical characteristics in order to cancel the signals correctly; but this information also crucially includes the exact locations of the

loudspeakers and the listener (we’ll conveniently pretend that the room you’re sitting in does not exist).

In the end, this means that a system with adequate processing power can use two loudspeakers to simulate a ‘virtual’ loudspeaker in another location. However, the details of that spatial effect will be slightly different from person to person (because we’re all shaped differently). Also, more importantly, the effect will only be experienced by a listener who is positioned correctly in front of the loudspeakers. Slight movements (especially from side-to-side, which destroys the symmetrical time-of-arrival matching of the two incoming signals) will cause the illusion to collapse.

Beosound Theatre gives you the option to choose Virtual Loudspeakers that appear to be located in four different positions: Left and Right Wide, and Left and Right Elevated. These signals are actually produced using the Left and Right front-firing outputs of the device using this combination of binaural processing and crosstalk cancellation in the Dolby Atmos processing system. If you are a single listener in the correct position (with the Speaker Distances and Speaker Levels adjusted correctly) then the Virtual outputs come very close to producing the illusion of correctly-located Surround and Front Height loudspeakers.

However, in cases where there is more than one listener, or where a single listener may be incorrectly located, it may be preferable to use the ‘side-firing’ and ‘up-firing’ outputs instead.