Fc ≠ Fc

I was working on the sound design of a loudspeaker last week with some new people and software – so we had to get some definitions straight before we messed things up by thinking that we were using the same words to mean the same thing. I’ve made a similar mistake to this before, as I’ve written about here – and I don’t being reminded of my own stupidity repeatedly… (Or, as Stephen Wright once said “I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time – I think I’ve forgotten this before…”)

So, in this case on that day, we were talking about the lowly 2nd-order Low Pass Filter, based on a single biquad.

If you read about how to find the cutoff frequency of a low-pass filter, you’ll probably find out that you find the frequency where the gain is one half of the power of that in the bandpass portion of the filter’s response. Since 10*log10(0.5) = -3.01 dB, then this is also called the “3 dB down point” of the filter.

In my case, when I’m implementing a filter, I use the math provided by Robert Bristow-Johnson to calculate my biquad coefficients. You input a cutoff frequency (Fc), and a Q value, and (for a given sampling rate) you get your biquad coefficients.

The question then, is: is the desired cutoff frequency the actual measurable cutoff frequency of the system? (Let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that there are no other components in the system that affect the magnitude response – just to keep it simple.)

The simple answer is: No.

For example, if I make a 2nd-order low pass filter with a desired cutoff frequency of 1 kHz (using a high enough sampling rate to not introduce any errors due to the bilinear transform) and I vary the Q from something very small (in this example, 0.1) to something pretty big (in this example, 20) I get magnitude response curves that look like the figure below.

Magnitude responses of 2nd order low pass filters with Q’s ranging from 0.1 to 20.

It is probably already evident that these 25 filter responses plotted above that they do not all cross each other at the 1 kHz line. In addition, you may notice that there is only one of those curves that is -3.01 dB at 1 kHz – when the Q = 1/sqrt(2) or 0.707.

This begs the question: what is the gain of each of those filters at the desired value of Fc (in this case, 1 kHz)? This is plotted as the red line in the figure below.

The actual gain value of the filters at the desired Fc, and the maximum gain at any frequency.

This plot also shows the maximum gain of the filters for different values of Q. Notice that, in the low end, the maximum value is 0 dB, since the low pass filters only roll off. However, for Q values higher than 1/sqrt(2), there is an overshoot in the response, resulting in a boost at some frequency. As the Q increases, the frequency at which the gain of the filter is highest approaches the desired cutoff frequency. (As can be seen in the plot above, by the time you get to a Q of 20, the gain at Fc and the maximum gain of the filter are the same.)

It may be intuitively interesting (or interestingly intuitive) to note that, when Q goes to infinity, the gain at Fc also goes to infinity, and (relatively speaking) all other frequencies are infinitely attenuated – so you have a sine wave generator.

So, we know that the gain value at the stated Fc is not -3 dB for all but one value of Q. So, what is the -3 dB point, if we state a desired Fc of 1 kHz and we vary the Q? This is shown in the figure below.

The -3 dB point of a 2nd order 1 kHz low pass filter as a function of Q.

So, varying the Q from 0.1 to 20 varies the actual Fc (or, at least, the -3 dB point) from about 104 Hz to about 1554 Hz.

Or, if we plot the same information as a function (or just a multiple) of the desired Fc, you get the plot below.

So, if you’re sitting in a meeting, and the person in front of you is looking at a measurement of a loudspeaker magnitude response, and they say “could you please put in a low pass filter with a cutoff frequency of 1 kHz and a Q of 0.5” you should start asking questions by what, exactly, they mean by “cutoff frequency”… If not, you might just wind up with nice-looking numbers but strangely-sounding loudspeakers.

Typical Errors in Digital Audio: Wrapping up

This “series” of postings was intended to describe some of the errors that I commonly see when I measure and evaluate digital audio systems. All of the examples I’ve shown are taken from measurements of commercially-available hardware and software – they’re not “beta” versions that are in development.

There are some reasons why I wrote this series that I’d like to make reasonably explicit.

  1. Many of the errors that I’ve described here are significant – but will, in some cases, not be detected by “typical” audio measurements such as frequency response or SNR measurements.
    1. For example, the small clicks caused by skip/insert artefacts will not show up in a SNR or a THD+N measurement due to the fact that the artefacts are so small with respect to the signal. This does not mean that they are not audible. Play a midrange sine tone (say, in the 2 -3 kHz region… nothing too annoying) and listen for clicks.
    2. As another example, the drifting time clock problems described here are not evident as jitter or sampling rate errors at the digital output of the device. These are caused by a clocking problems inside the signal path. So, a simple measurement of the digital output carrier will not, in any way, reveal the significance of the problem inside the system.
    3. Aliasing artefacts (described here) may not show up in a THD measurement (since aliasing artefacts are not Harmonic). They will show up as part of the Noise in a THD+N measurement, but they certainly do not sound like noise, since they are weirdly correlated with the signal. Therefore you cannot sweep them under the rug as “noise”…
  2. Some of the problems with some systems only exist with some combinations of file format / sampling rate / bit depth, as I showed here. So, for example, if you read a test of a streaming system that says “I checked the device/system using a 44.1 kHz, 16-bit WAV file, and found that its output is bit-perfect” Then this is probably true. However, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this “bit-perfect-ness” will hold for all other sampling rates, bit depths, and file formats.
  3. Sometimes, if you test a system, it will behave for a while, and then not behave. As we saw in Figure 10 of this posting, the first skip-insert error happened exactly 10 seconds after the file started playing. So, if you do a quick sweep that only lasts for 9.5 seconds you’ll think that this system is “bit-perfect” – which is true most of the time – but not all of the time…
  4. Sometimes, you just don’t get what you’ve paid for – although that’s not necessarily the fault of the company you’re paying…

Unfortunately, the only thing that I have concluded after having done lots of measurements of lots of systems is that, unless you do a full set of measurements on a given system, you don’t really know how it behaves. And, it might not behave the same tomorrow because something in the chain might have had a software update overnight.

However, there are two more thing that I’d like to point out (which I’ve already mentioned in one of the postings).

Firstly, just because a system has a digital input (or source, say, a file) and a digital output does not guarantee that it’s perfect. These days the weakest links in a digital audio signal path are typically in the signal processing software or the clocking of the devices in the audio chain.

Secondly, if you do have a digital audio system or device, and something sounds weird, there’s probably no need to look for the most complicated solution to the problem. Typically, the problem is in a poor implementation of an algorithm somewhere in the system. In other words, there’s no point in arguing over whether your DAC has a 120 dB or a 123 dB SNR if you have a sampling rate converter upstream that is generating aliasing at -60 dB… Don’t spend money “upgrading” your mains cables if your real problem is that audio samples are being left out every half second because your source and your receiver can’t agree on how fast their clocks should run.

 

So, the bad news is that trying to keep track of all of this is complicated at best. More likely impossible.

 

On the other hand, if you do have a system that you’re happy with, it’s best to not read anything I wrote and just keep listening to your music…

B&O Tech: BeoLab loudspeakers and Third-party systems

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

I’m occasionally asked about the technical details of connecting Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers to third-party (non-B&O) sources. In the “old days”, this was slightly difficult due to connectors, adapters, and outputs. However, that was a long time ago – although beliefs often persist longer than facts…

All Bang & Olufsen “BeoLab” loudspeakers are “active”. At the simplest level, this means that the amplifiers are built-in. In addition, almost all of the BeoLab loudspeakers in the current portfolio use digital signal processing. This means that the filtering and crossovers are implemented using a built-in computer instead of using resistors, capacitors, and inductors. This will be a little important later in this posting.

 

In order to talk about the compatibility issues surrounding the loudspeakers in the BeoLab portfolio – both with themselves and with other loudspeakers, we really need to break the discussion into two areas. The first is that of connectors and signals. The second, more problematic issue is that of “latency” (which is explained below…)

 

Connectors and signals

Since BeoLab loudspeakers have the amplifiers built-in, you need to connect them to an analogue “line level” signal instead of the output of an amplifier.

This means that, if you have a stereo preamplifier, then you just connect the “volume-regulated” Line Output of the preamp to the RCA line inputs of the BeoLab loudspeakers. (Note that the BeoLab 3 does not have a built-in RCA connector, so you need an adapter for this). Since the BeoLab loudspeakers (except for BeoLab 5,  50, and 90) are fixed at “full volume”, then you need to ensure that your Line Output of the source is, indeed, volume-regulated. If not, things will be surprisingly loud…

In addition to the RCA Line inputs, most BeoLab loudspeakers also have at least one digital audio input. The BeoLab 5 has an S/P-DIF “coaxial” input. The BeoLab 17, 18, and 20 have optical digital inputs. The BeoLab 50 and 90 have many options to choose from. Again, apart from the BeoLab 5, 50, and 90, the loudspeakers are fixed at “full volume”, so if you are going to use the digital input for the BeoLab 17, 18, or 20, you will need to enable the volume regulation of the digital output of your source, if that’s possible.

 

Latency

Any audio device has some inherent “latency” or “delay from the time the signal comes in until it goes out”. For some devices, this latency can be so low that we can think of it as being 0 seconds. In other words, for some devices (say, a wire, for example) the signal comes out at the same time as it comes in (as far as we’re concerned… I’m not going to get into an argument about the speed of electricity or light, since these go very fast…)

Any audio device that uses digital signal processing has some measurable (and possibly audible) latency. This is primarily due to 5 things, seen in the flowchart below.

Fig 1. The basic steps that cause latency in a digital audio system that has an analogue input and output.

Each of these 5 steps each have different amounts of latency – some of them very, very small. Some are bigger. One thing to know about digital signal processing is that, typically, in order to make the math more efficient (and therefore squeeze as much as possible out of the computing power), the samples are processed in “blocks” – not one-by-one. So, the signal comes into the input, it gets converted to individual samples, and those samples are collected into a block of 64 samples (for example) before being sent to the processing.

So, let’s say that you have a sampling rate of 44100 samples per second, and a block size of 64 samples. This then means that you send a block to the processor every 64 * 1/44100 = 1.45 ms. That block gets processed (which takes some time), and then sent as another block of 64 samples to the DAC (digital to analogue converter).

So, ignoring the latency of the conversion from- and to-analogue, in the example above, it will take 1.45 ms to get the signal into the processor, you have a 1.45 time window to do the processing, and it will take another 1.45 ms to get the signal out to the DAC. This is a total of 4.35 ms from the instant a signal gets comes into the analogue input to the moment it comes out the analogue output.

Sidebar: Of course, 4.3 ms is not a long time. If you had a loudspeaker outdoors, then adding 4.35 ms to its latency would be same delay you would incur by moving 1.5 m (or about 4.9 feet) further away. However, in terms of a stereo or multichannel audio system, 4.35 ms is an eternity. For example, if you have a correctly-configured stereo loudspeakers (with each loudspeaker 30º from centre-front, and you’re sitting in the “sweet spot”, if you delay the left loudspeaker by just 0.2 ms, then lead vocals in your pop tunes will move 10º to the right instead of being in the centre. It only takes 1.12 ms of delay in one loudspeaker to move things all the way to the opposite side. In a multichannel loudspeaker configuration (or in headphones), some of the loudspeaker pairs (e.g. Left Surround – Right Surround) result in you being even more sensitive to these so-called “inter-channel delay differences”.

Also, the amount of time required by the processing depends on what kind of processing you’re doing. In the case of BeoLab 50 and 90, for example, we are using FIR filters as part of the directivity (Beam Width and Beam Direction) processing. Since this filtering extends quite low in frequency, the FIR filters are quite long – and therefore they require extra latency. To add a small amount of confusion to this discussion (as we’ll see below) this latency is switchable to be either 25 ms or 100 ms. If you want Beam Width control to extend as low in frequency as possible, you need to use the 100 ms “Long Latency” mode. However, if you need lip-synch with a non-B&O source, you should use the 25 ms “Low Latency” mode (with the consequent loss of directivity control at very low frequencies).

Latency in BeoLab loudspeakers

In order to use BeoLab loudspeakers with a non-B&O source (or an older B&O source) , you may need to know (and compensate for) the latency of the loudspeakers in your system. This is particularly true if you are “mixing and matching” loudspeakers: for example, using different loudspeaker models (or other brands – *gasp*) in a single multichannel configuration.

Model A/D Latency (ms) Equivalent in m Volume-regulation?
Unknown Analogue A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 1 A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 2 A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 3 A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 4 A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 5 D 3.92 ms 1.35 m Yes
BeoLab 7 series A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 9 A 0 ms 0 m No
BeoLab 12 series D 4.4 ms 1.51 m No
BeoLab 17 D 4.4 ms 1.51 m No
BeoLab 18 D 4.4 ms 1.51 m No
BeoLab 19 D 4.4 ms 1.51 m No
BeoLab 20 D 4.4 ms 1.51 m No
BeoLab 50 D 25 / 100 ms 8.6 / 34.4 m Yes
BeoLab 90 D 25 / 100 ms 8.6 / 34.4 m Yes

Table 1. The latencies and equivalent distances for various BeoLab loudspeakers  Notice that the analogue loudspeakers all have a latency of 0 ms.

 

How to Do It

I’m going to make two assumptions for the rest of this posting:

  • you have a stereo preamp or a surround processor / AVR that has a “Speaker Distance” or “Speaker Delay” adjustment parameter (measured from the loudspeaker location to the listening position)
  • it does not have a “loudspeaker latency” adjustment parameter

The simple version (that probably won’t work):

Since the latency of the various loudspeakers can be “translated” into a distance, and since AVR’s typically have a “Speaker Distance” parameter, you simply have to add the equivalent distance of the loudspeaker’s latency to the actual distance to the loudspeaker when you enter it in the menus.

For example, let’s say that you have a 5.0 channel loudspeaker configuration with the following actual speaker distances, measured in the room.

Channel Model Distance
Left Front BeoLab 5 3.7 m
Right Front BeoLab 5 3.9 m
Centre Front BeoLab 3 3.9 m
Left Surround BeoLab 17 1.6 m
Right Surround BeoLab 17 3.2 m

Table 2. An example of a simple 5.0-channel loudspeaker configuration

 

You then look up the equivalent distances in the first table and add the appropriate number to each loudspeaker.

Channel Model Distance + Latency equivalent = Total
Left Front BeoLab 5 3.7 m + 1.35 m = 5.05 m
Right Front BeoLab 5 3.9 m + 1.35 m = 5.25 m
Centre Front BeoLab 3 3.9 m + 0 m = 3.9 m
Left Surround BeoLab 17 1.6 m + 1.51 m = 3.11 m
Right Surround BeoLab 17 3.2 m + 1.51 m = 4.71 m

Table 3. Calculating the required speaker distances to compensate for the loudspeakers’ latencies using the example in Table 2.

 

This technique will work fine unless the total distance that you have to enter in the AVR’s menus is greater than its maximum possible value (which is typically 10.0 m on most brands and models that I’ve seen – although there are exceptions).

So, what do you do if your AVR can’t handle a value that’s high enough? Then you need to fiddle with the numbers a bit…

 

The slightly-more complicated version (which might work most of the time)

When you enter the Speaker Distances in the menus of your AVR, you’re doing two things:

  • calibrating the delay compensation for the differences in the distances from the listening position to the individual loudspeakers
  • (maybe) calibrating the system to ensure that the sound arrives at the listening position at the same time as the video is displayed on the screen (therefore sending the sound out early, since it takes longer for the sound to travel to the sofa than it takes the light to get from your screen…)

That second one has a “maybe” in front of it for a couple of reasons:

  • this is a very small effect, and might have been decided by the manufacturer to be not worth  the effort
  • the manufacturer of an AVR has no way of knowing the latency of the screen to which it’s attached. So, it’s possible that, by outputting the sound earlier (to compensate for the propagation delay of the sound) it’s actually making things worse (because the screen is delayed, but the AVR doesn’t know it…)

So, let’s forget about that lip-synch issue and stick with the “delay compensation for the differences in the distances” issue. Notice that I have now highlighted the word “differences” in italics twice… this is important.

The big reason for entering Speaker Distances is that you want the a sound that comes out of all loudspeakers simultaneously to reach the listening position simultaneously. This means that the closer loudspeakers have to wait for the further loudspeakers (by adding an appropriate delay to their signal path). However, if we ignore the synchronisation to another signal (specifically, the lips on the screen), then we don’t need to know the actual (or “absolute”) distance to the loudspeakers – we only need to know their differences (or “relative distances”). This means that you can consider the closest loudspeaker to have a distance of 0 m from the listening position, and you can subtract that distance from the other distances.

For example, using the table above, we could subtract the distance to the closest loudspeaker (the Left Surround loudspeaker, with a distance of 1.6 m) from all of the loudspeakers in the table, resulting in the table below.

 

Channel Model Distance - Closest = Result
Left Front BeoLab 5 3.7 m - 1.6 m = 2.1 m
Right Front BeoLab 5 3.9 m - 1.6 m = 2.3 m
Centre Front BeoLab 3 3.9 m - 1.6 m = 2.3 m
Left Surround BeoLab 17 1.6 m - 1.6 m = 0 m
Right Surround BeoLab 17 3.2 m - 1.6 m = 1.6 m

Table 4. Another version of Table 3, showing how to reduce values to fit the constraints of the AVR if necessary.

 

Again, you look up the equivalent distances in the first table and add the appropriate number to each loudspeaker.

Channel Model Distance + Latency equivalent = Total
Left Front BeoLab 5 2.1 m + 1.35 m = 3.45 m
Right Front BeoLab 5 2.3 m + 1.35 m = 3.65 m
Centre Front BeoLab 3 2.3 m + 0 m = 2.3 m
Left Surround BeoLab 17 0 m + 1.51 m = 1.51 m
Right Surround BeoLab 17 1.6 m + 1.51 m = 3.11 m

Table 5. Calculating the required speaker distances to compensate for the loudspeakers’ latencies using the example in Table 4.

 

As you can see in Table 5, the end results are smaller than those in Table 3 – which will help if your AVR can’t get to a high enough value for the Speaker Distance.

 

The only-slightly-even-more complicated version (which has a better chance of working most of the time)

Of course, the version I just described above only subtracted the smallest distance from the other distances, however, we could do this slightly differently and subtract the smallest total (actual + equivalent distance) from the totals to “force” one of the values to 0 m. This can be done as follows:

Starting with a copy of Table 3, we get a preliminary Total, and then subtract the smallest of these from all value to get our Final Speaker Distance.

Channel Model Distance + Latency = Total - Smallest = Final
Left Front BeoLab 5 3.7 m + 1.35 m = 5.05 m - 3.11 m = 1.94 m
Right Front BeoLab 5 3.9 m + 1.35 m = 5.25 m - 3.11 m = 2.14 m
Centre Front BeoLab 3 3.9 m + 0 m = 3.9 m - 3.11  m = 0.79 m
Left Surround BeoLab 17 1.6 m + 1.51 m = 3.11 m - 3.11 m = 0 m
Right Surround BeoLab 17 3.2 m + 1.51 m = 4.71 m - 3.11 m = 1.60 m

Table 6. Another version of Table 3, showing how to minimise values to fit the constraints of the AVR if necessary.

 

Of course, if you do it the first way (as shown in Table 3) and the values are within the limits of your AVR, then you don’t need to get complicated and start subtracting. And, in many cases, if you don’t own BeoLab 50 or 90, and you don’t live in a mansion, then this will probably be okay. However… if you DO own BeoLab 50 or 90, and/or you do live in a mansion, then you should probably get used to subtracting…

 

Some additional information about BeoLab 50 & 90

As I mentioned above, the BeoLab 50 and BeoLab 90 have two latency options. The “High Latency” option (100 ms) allows us to implement FIR filters that control the directivity (the Beam Width and Beam Directivity) to as low a frequency as possible. However, in this mode, the latency is so high that you will notice that the sound is behind the picture if you have a non-B&O television.* In other words, you will not have “lip-synch”.

For customers with a non-B&O television*, we have included a “Low Latency” option (25 ms) which is within the tolerable limits of lip-synch. In this mode, we are still controlling the directivity of the loudspeaker with an FIR, but it cannot go as low in frequency as the “High Latency” option.

As I mentioned above, a 100 ms latency in a loudspeaker is equivalent to placing it 34.4 m further away (ignoring the obvious implications on the speaker level). If you have a third-part source such as an AVR, it is highly unlikely that you can set a Speaker Distance in the menus to be the actual distance + 34.4 m…

So, in the case of BeoLab 50 or 90, you should manually set the Latency Mode to “Low Latency” (using the setup options in the speaker’s app). This then means that you should add “only” 8.6 m to the actual distance to the loudspeaker.

Of course, if you are using the BeoLab 50 or 90 alone (meaning that there is no video signal, and no other loudspeakers that need time-alignment) then this is irrelevant, and you can just set the Speaker Distance to 0 m. You can also change the loudspeakers to another preset (that you or your installer set up) that uses the High Latency mode for best performance.

Instructions on how to do this are found in the Technical Sound Guide for the BeoLab 50 or the BeoLab 90 via the Bang & Olufsen website at www.bang-olufsen.com.

 


* Here a “B&O Television” means a BeoPlay V1, BeoVision 11, 14, Avant, Avant NG, Horizon, or Eclipse. Older B&O televisions are different… This will be discussed in the next blog posting.

B&O Tech: Distance Tweaking

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

So, you’ve just installed a pair of loudspeakers, or a multichannel surround system. If you’re a normal person then you have not set up your system following the recommendations stated in the International Telecommunications Union’s document “Rec. ITU-R BS.775-1: MULTICHANNEL STEREOPHONIC SOUND SYSTEM WITH AND WITHOUT ACCOMPANYING PICTURE”. That document states that, in a best case, you should use a loudspeaker placement as is shown below in Figure 1.

 

Fig 1. The “ITU 775” recommendation for a 5-channel loudspeaker configuration. All loudspeaker should be matched, and be the same distance from the listening position at the angles shown in the figure.

 

In a typical configuration, the loudspeakers are NOT the same distance from the listening position – and this is a BIG problem if you’re worried about the accuracy of phantom image placement. Why is this? Well, let’s back up a little…

Localisation in the Real World

Let’s say that you and I were standing out in the middle of a snow-covered frozen pond on a quiet winter day. I stand some distance away from you and we have a conversation. When I’m doing the talking, the sound of my voice leaves my mouth and moves towards you.

If I’m directly in front of you, then the sound (in theory) arrives at both of your ears simultaneously (resulting in an Interaural Time Difference or ITD of 0 ms) and at exactly the same level (resulting in an Interaural Amplitude Difference or IAD of 0 dB). Your brain  detects that the ITD is 0 ms and the IAD is 0 dB, and decides that I must be directly in front of you (or directly behind you, or above you – at least I must be somewhere on your sagittal plane…)

If I move slightly to your left, then two things happen, generally speaking. Firstly, the sound of my voice arrives at your left ear before your right ear because it’s closer to me. Secondly, the sound of my voice is generally louder in your left ear than in your right ear, not only because it’s closer, but (mostly) because your head shadows your right ear from the sound of my voice. So, you brain detects that my voice is earlier and louder in your left ear, so I must be somewhere on your left.

Of course, there are many other, smaller cues that tell you where the sound is coming from exactly – but we don’t need to get into those details today.

There are two important thing to note here. The first is that these two principal cues – the ITD and the IAD – are not equally important. If they got in a fight, the ITD would win. If a sound arrived at your left ear earlier, but was louder in your right ear, it would have to be a LOT louder in the right ear to convince you that you should ignore the ITD information…

The second thing is that the time differences we’re talking about are very very small. If I were directly to one side of you, looking directly at your left ear, say… then the sound would arrive at your right ear approximately only 700 µs – that’s 700 millionths of a second or 0.0007 seconds later than at your left ear.

So, the moral of this story so far is that we are very sensitive to differences in the time of arrival of a sound at our two ears.

Localisation in a reproduced world

Now go back to the same snow-covered frozen lake with a pair of loudspeakers instead of bringing me along, and set them up in a standard stereo configuration, where the listening position and the two loudspeakers form an equilateral triangle. This means that when you sit and listen to the signals coming out of the loudspeakers

  • the two loudspeakers are the same distance from the listening position, and
  • the left loudspeaker is 30º to the left of front-centre, and the right loudspeaker is 30º to the right of front-centre.

Have a seat and we’ll play some sound. To start, we’ll play the same sound in both loudspeakers at exactly the same time, and at exactly the same level. Initially, the sound from the left loudspeaker will reach your left ear, and the sound from the right loudspeaker reaches your right ear. A very short time later the sound from the left loudspeaker reaches your right ear and the sound from the right loudspeaker reaches your left ear (this effect is called Interaural Crosstalk – but that’s not important). After this, nothing happens, because you are sitting in the middle of a frozen lake covered in snow – so there are no reflections from anything.

Since the sounds in the two loudspeakers are identical, then the sounds in your ears are also identical to each other. And, just as is the case in real-life, if the sounds in your two ears are identical, you’ll localise the sound source as coming from somewhere on your sagittal plane. Due to some other details in the localisation cues that we’re not talking about here, chances are that you’ll hear the sound as originating from a position directly in front of you – between the two loudspeakers.

Because the apparent location of that sound is a position where there is no loudspeaker, it’e like a ghost – so it’s called a “phantom centre” image.

That’s the centre image, but how do we move the image slightly to one side or the other? It’s actually really easy – we just need to remember the effects of ITD and IAD, and do something similar.

So, if I play a sound out of both loudspeakers at exactly the same time, but I make one loudspeaker slightly louder than the other, then the phantom image will appear to come from a position that is closer to the louder loudspeaker. So, if the right channel is louder than the left channel, then the image appears to come from somewhere on the right. Eventually, if the right loudspeaker is louder enough (about 15 dB, give or take), then the image will appear to be in that loudspeaker.

Similarly, if I were to keep the levels of the two loudspeakers identical, but I were to play the sound out of the right loudspeaker a little earlier instead, then the phantom image will also move towards the earlier loudspeaker.

There have been many studies done to find out exactly what apparent phantom image position results from  exactly what level or delay difference between the two loudspeakers (or a combination of the two). One of the first ones was done by Gert Simonsen in 1983, in which he found the following results.

 

Image Position Amplitude difference Time difference
0.0 dB 0.0 ms
10º 2.5 dB 0.2 ms
20º 5.5 dB 0.44 ms
30º 15.0 dB 1.12 ms

 

Note that this test was done with loudspeakers at ±30º – so the bottom line of the table means “in one of the loudspeakers”. Also, I have to be clear that the values in this table are NOT to be used concurrently. So, this shows the values that are needed to produce the desired phantom image location using EITHER amplitude differences OR time differences.

Again, the same two important points apply.

Firstly, the time differences are a more “powerful” cue than the amplitude differences. In other words, if the left loudspeaker is earlier, but the right loudspeaker is louder, you’ll hear the phantom image location towards the left, unless the right loudspeaker is a LOT louder.

Secondly, you are VERY sensitive to time differences. The left loudspeaker only needs to be 1.12 ms earlier than the right loudspeaker in order for the phantom image to move all the way into that loudspeaker. That’s equivalent to the left loudspeaker being about 38.5 cm closer than the right loudspeaker (because the speed of sound is about 344 m/s (depending on the temperature) and 0.00112 * 344 = 0.385 m).

Those last two paragraphs were the “punch line” – if the distances to the loudspeakers are NOT the same, then, unless you do something about it, you’ll wind up hearing your phantom images pulling towards the closer loudspeaker. And it doesn’t take much of an error in distance to produce a big effect.

 

Whaddya gonna do about it?

Almost every surround processor and Audio Video Receiver in the world gives you the option of entering the Speaker Distances in a menu somewhere. There are two possible reasons for this.

The first is not so important – it’s to align the sound at the listening position with the video. If you’re sitting 3 m from the loudspeakers and the TV, then the sound arrives 8.7 ms after you see the picture (the same is true if you are listening to a person speaking 3 m away from you). To eliminate this delay, the loudspeakers could produce the sound 8.7 ms too early, and the sound would reach you at the same time as you see the video. As I said, however, this is not a problem to lose much sleep over, unless you sit VERY far away from your television.

The second reason is very important, as we’ve already seen. If, as we established at the start of this posting, you’re a normal person, then your loudspeakers are not all the same distance from the listening position. This means that you should apply a delay to the closer loudspeaker(s) to get them to “wait” for the sound as it travels towards you from the further loudspeakers. That way, if you have the same sound in all channels at the same time, then the loudspeaker do NOT produce it at the same time, but it arrives at the listening position simultaneously, as it should.

Problem solved! Right?

Wrong.

Corrections that need correcting

Let’s make a configuration of a pair of loudspeakers and a listening position that is obviously wrong.

Fig 2. A stereo pair of loudspeakers and a listening position that is no where near the correct location. Notice that the right loudspeaker is much closer than the left.

Figure 2 shows the example of a very bad loudspeaker configuration for stereo listening. (I’m keeping things restricted to two channels to keep things simple – but multichannel is the same…) The right loudspeaker is much closer than the left loudspeaker, so all phantom images will appear to “bunch together” into the right loudspeaker.

Fig 4. Measuring the distance to the furthest loudspeaker from the listening position

So, to do the correction, you measure the distances to the two loudspeakers from the listening position and enter those two values into the surround processor. It then subtracts the smaller distance from the larger distance, converts that to a delay time, and delays the closer loudspeaker by that amount to compensate for the difference.

Fig 5. The gray circle shows the apparent position of the right loudspeaker, after a delay has been applied to it, assuming that there are no other cues (such as level or reflections in the room) to tell you where it is.

So, after the delay is applied to the closer loudspeaker, in theory, you have a stereo pair of loudspeakers that are equidistant from the listening position. This means that, instead of hearing  (for example) the phantom centre images in the closer loudspeaker, you’ll hear it as being positioned at the centre point between the distant loudspeaker (the left one, in this example) and the “virtual” one (the right one in this example). This is shown below.

Fig 6. The small grey dot shows the theoretical position of the resulting phantom centre after the two loudspeakers have been time-aligned using delays based on distance to the listening position.

As you can see in Figure 6, the resulting phantom image is at the centre point between the two resulting loudspeakers. But, if you look not-too-carefully-at-all, then you can see that the angle from the listening position to that centre point is not the same angle as the centre point between the two REAL loudspeakers (the black dot).

Fig 7. Notice that the corrected phantom image location (indicated by the arrow) is not the same as the desired phantom centre. (which might be, for example, the centre of a television…)

So, this means that, if you use distances ONLY to time-align two (or more) loudspeakers, then your correction till not be perfect. And, the more incorrect your actual loudspeaker configuration, the more incorrect the correction will be.

How do I fix it?

Notice that, after “correction”, the phantom image is still pulling towards the closer loudspeaker.

As we saw above, in order to push a phantom centre image towards a loudspeaker, you have to make the sound in that loudspeaker earlier.

So, what we need to do, after the distance-based time alignment is done, is to force the more distant loudspeaker to be a little earlier than the closer one. That will pull the phantom image towards it.

In order to use a distance compensation to make a loudspeaker produce the sound earlier, we have to tell the processor that it’s further away than it actually is. This makes the processor “think” that it needs to send the sound out early to compensate for the extra propagation delay caused by the distance.

So, to make the further loudspeaker a little early relative to the other loudspeaker, we either have to tell the processor that it’s further away from the listening position than it really is, or we reduce the reported distance to the closer loudspeaker to delay it a little more.

This means that, in the example shown in Figure 7, above, we should add a little to the distance to the left loudspeaker before entering the value in the menus, or subtract a little from the distance to the right loudspeaker instead.

How much is enough?

You might, at this point, be asking yourself “Why can’t this be done automatically? It’s just a little trigonometry, after all…”

If things were as simple as I’ve described here, then you’d be right – the math that is converting distance compensation to audio delays could include this offset, and everything would be fine.

The problem is that I’ve over-simplified a little on the way through. For example, not everyone hears exactly a 10º shift in phantom image with a 2.5 dB inter-channel amplitude difference. Those numbers are the average of a listening test with a number of subjects. Also, when other researchers have done the same test, they get slightly different results. (see this page for information).

Also, the directivity of the loudspeaker will have an influence (that is likely going to be frequency-dependent). So, if you’ve “toed in” your loudspeakers, then (in the example above) the further one will be “aimed” at you better than the closer one, which will have an influence on the perceived location of the phantom centre.

So, the only way to really do the final “tweaking” or “fine tuning” of the distance-compensation delays is to do it by listening.

Normally, I start by entering the distances correctly. Then, while sitting in the listening position, I use a monophonic track (Suzanne Vega singing “Tom’s Diner” works well) and I increase the distance in the surround processor’s menu of the loudspeaker that I want to pull the image towards. In other words, if the phantom centre appears to be located too far to the left, I “lie” to the surround processor and tell it that the right loudspeaker is further by 10 cm. I keep adding distance until the image is moved to the correct location.