Beosound Theatre: Outputs

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

A “naked” Beosound Theatre

Beosound Theatre has a total of 11 possible outputs, seven of which are “real” or “internal” outputs and four of which are “virtual” loudspeakers. As with all current Beovision televisions, any input channel can be directed to any output by setting the Speaker Roles in the menus.

Internal outputs

On first glance of the line drawing above it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the seven real outputs are easy to find, however this would be incorrect. The Beosound Theatre has 12 loudspeaker drivers that are all used in some combination of level and phase at different frequencies to all contribute to the total result of each of the seven output channels.

So, for example, if you are playing a sound from the Left front-firing output, you will find that you do not only get sound from the left tweeter, midrange, and woofer drivers as you might in a normal soundbar. There will also be some contribution from other drivers at different frequencies to help control the spatial behaviour of the output signal. This Beam Width control is similar to the system that was first introduced by Bang & Olufsen in the Beolab 90. However, unlike the Beolab 90, the Width of the various beams cannot be changed in the Beosound Theatre.

The seven internal loudspeaker outputs are

  • Front-firing: Left, Centre, and Right
  • Side-firing: Left and Right
  • Up-firing: Left and Right

Looking online, you may find graphic explanations of side-firing and up-firing drivers in other loudspeakers. Often, these are shown as directing sound towards a reflecting wall or ceiling, with the implication that the listener therefore hears the sound in the location of the reflection instead. Although this is a convenient explanation, it does not necessarily match real-life experience due to the specific configuration of your system and the acoustical properties of the listening room.

The truth is both better and worse than this reductionist view. The bad news is that the illusion of a sound coming from a reflective wall instead of the loudspeaker can occur, but only in specific, optimised circumstances. The good news is that a reflecting surface is not strictly necessary; therefore (for example) side-firing drivers can enhance the perceived width of the loudspeaker, even without reflecting walls nearby.

However, it can be generally said that the overall benefit of side- and up-firing loudspeaker drivers is an enhanced impression of the overall width and height of the sound stage, even for listeners that are not seated in the so-called “sweet spot” (see Footnote 1) when there is appropriate content mixed for those output channels.

Virtual outputs

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. (see Footnote 2)

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) pinnæ (a.k.a. “ears”) must be both accurate and precise. (see Footnote 3)

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.

Wrapping up

As I mentioned at the start, Beosound Theatre on its own has 11 outputs:

  • Front-firing: Left, Centre, and Right
  • Side-firing: Left and Right
  • Up-firing: Left and Right
  • Virtual Wide: Left and Right
  • Virtual Elevated: Left and Right

In addition to these, there are 8 wired Power Link outputs and 8 Wireless Power Link outputs for connection to external loudspeakers, resulting in a total of 27 possible output paths. And, as is the case with all Beovision televisions since Beoplay V1, any input channel (or output channel from the True Image processor) can be directed to any output, giving you an enormous range of flexibility in configuring your system to your use cases and preferences.

1. In the case of many audio playback systems, the “sweet spot” is directly in front of the loudspeaker pair or at the centre of the surround configuration. In the case of a Bang & Olufsen system, the “sweet spot” is defined by the user with the help of the Speaker Distance and Speaker Level adjustments.

2. 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…

3. For the same reason that someone else should not try to wear my glasses.