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What is the Sound of One Person Listening?

Paul Wilson wonders about how technology will affect audiophile’s future…

For most of us who practice the audio arts, a wide and room filling soundstage is something typically preferred. On my system, I hear a strong center image, music imaged from the left to right wall, from well in front of the speakers all the way to both corners on the wall behind the speakers and basically everywhere in between. This sonic presentation varies, of course, on the recording. Close my eyes and it becomes virtually impossible to readily discerned where exactly the speakers are located. Audiophiles call that a speaker that disappears. This type of presentation is highly regarded amongst audiophiles and typically means the speaker system is set up correctly. 

AR-HornSpeaker.jpgOne of the hallmarks of dynamic speakers is they do provide a wide soundstage. Other speaker types, like planar for instance, sometimes radiate their sonic pattern in somewhat of a more direct path but even still, with proper set up, they can image and sound excellent. Regardless of the actual speaker type, dynamicplanarelectrostatichorns or some hybrid combination of one or more of any two, the basic premise of a modern speaker system is a room filling sound. 

It comes as no surprise that technological advancements creep into every aspect of our lives and an audio system is no exception. Yet, however, the systems and designs we enjoy every day are, in many cases, improvements of creations developed years and even decades in the past. Tubes first appeared on or about 1904. Solid state was developed in the 1940’s and even Class D has been around for many years. Same goes for speaker systems. The dynamic speaker as well as horn designs were invented circa 1900 and soon thereafter, the other speaker types we utilize. All of these products – components and speaker systems, are designed and intended to deliver one song to one person or a room full of people all at the same time.

Suppose there was a speaker technology capable of delivering more than one song to each person in the room? Would that be something worth exploring? Well, guess what, such a  technology exists, right now. 

AR-AudioSpotlightSmallFormat.pngAudio Spot Light by Audiosonics in Watertown, MA is a company manufacturing speaker systems whose operating principal is a very narrowly focused radiation pattern. So narrowly focused, in fact, that it suddenly becomes possible to broadcast a sonic presentation from a speaker and have only one person hear what is being projected while those on either side hear virtually nothing. Think what this would mean. Given the capability of components to play more than one song at the same time, it would suddenly become possible to play classical for the person sitting on the left, rock and roll for the person in the middle, and jazz for the person on the right. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that sounds intriguing! 

Just because, however, a thing can be done, does that automatically mean it should be done? Would it even be a worthwhile proposition to enable multiple people in a listening room to all hear different music? Historically, our hobby has as one of its foundational tenants the replication of live music, or the most accurate representation of that particular goal as possible. When we sit down to listen to a group or performer in a recorded venue, from a small night club to huge amphitheater, we are listening to only one musical source. Live music is not performed by having multiple groups or performers playing on the same stage at the same time. That simply does not make sense. So then, why would a hobby intended to recreate the live musical experience attempt to provide an experience so polar opposite to the original goal? Okay, fine, but technology must move forward, correct? Designers and engineers are constantly working to improve what came before or create something nonexistent in the past. Such is one method to societal advancement. 

AR-NarrowBeam.jpgIn all fairness, the technology pioneered by Audiosonics is not necessarily intended for musical reproduction in the traditional sense. Their main market is any instance where it is preferred to broadcast a very narrow bean of dispersed sound to only one or very closely spaced listeners. If you have ever been in a museum and saw a kiosk that explains a particular display, it is not uncommon to have a video and auditory presentation in front of that particular display. Many of those interactive kiosks allows someone to see and hear information about a display without disturbing other visitors nearby. This and other similar applications are Audio Spot Light’s target market and not especially audiophiles. I’m curious why not? 

We are, however, still faced with an answer to the larger question, that being how should technology affect the audiophile future? In the 1950’s, had engineers started talking some sort of digital format, they would have very likely been ridiculed. Obviously, digital exists today. So then, just because something seems nonsensical by modern standards, does that mean it should not be pursued? How can we accurately predict what audiophiles several decades from now might see as an acceptable sonic presentation? How are we to know today what will be regarded as perfectly normal many years from now? How are we to know that what we view as highly advanced in our current lifetime will be seen as antiquated in the future? And if that is a condition that may someday exist, should we open our minds to a technology that seems outlandish by today’s standards because it may become perfectly acceptable in the future? 

It seems a foregone conclusion that technology will continually advance. I wonder, if we scorn and ridicule what by contemporary standards seems ridiculous, are we effectively denigrating that which we will embrace tomorrow?

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