I’ve been a big proponent of object audio (also called “immersive audio”) since the beginning of its time about half a decade ago. The level of immersion of Dolby Atmos (and DTS:X) is beyond anything I’ve experienced in my 20+ years in the business (longer if you count my hobby years). The capability of such level of immersion, be it natively or upmixed using Dolby Surround Upmixer and DTS Neural X, is something that I always look for in any movie and concert experience at home.
The problem with immersive audio setup, however, is that you need at least 10 speakers (in order to do 5.1.4) or better yet, 7.1.4. While this may not be a problem for home owners, rental tenants and apartment dwellers will see this as a problem as you can’t just put speakers everywhere willy nilly. There is also a secondary problem… which is cost. I have yet to experience a convincing immersive audio presentation that costs less than CA$3,000 (or US$2,000) and/or in a room smaller than 10’ x 16’ x 8’ in size.
For those with these problems, there are two solutions. First is to use a soundbar, and second is to use a pair of headphones… both of which can’t reproduce Atmos sound faithfully.
While wearing headphones ensure the audio world you are listening to is encapsulated around you with zero crosstalk, it is not an ideal listening method for the most part. This is due to the soundmix of a given recording were recorded with stereo listening (through two or more speakers) instead if binaural (through headphones) approach. The resulting audio experience usually includes exaggerated stereo imaging, voice-inside-the-head for anything that’s mixed in mono such as vocals or bass lines.
To counter these problems, in modern times, DSP tend to help a little bit by digitally processing the sound so they sound like they come from outside the head. Unfortunately, in terms of directionality and layers, regular DSP algorithm can’t do it in a convincing manner. For this, you require a 3D sound modelling that is at least more or less customized to each listener. The more customized the better… oh, and a very good pair of headphones is of course definitely required.
None of the DSP I tried can fully encapsulate me truly until several years ago when I listened to Smyth Realizer system at High-End Munich that can simulate literal 7.1.4 faithfully in the sense that my brain tricked me into thinking that there are 12 actual speakers located around me in semi-spherical configuration instead of listening to a pair of headphones.
I can pin point where the sound is coming from in such a realistic manner I don’t feel the need of having actual speakers in my room and only use a pair of headphones instead. The only problems (yes, there are still problems) are the size of the Smyth Realizer that is heavy, gigantic and its need to use a computer to control it and the price. At approximately $5,000 plus the cost of a laptop AND a pair of headphones, it is not within reach of most people regardless how convincing the sound is.
At about the same time, JVC did their own research with the same goal under the name Exofield. Exofield started as a 2-channel audio a couple of years ago (shown at CES). Now, Thanks to JVC Exofield Theater, a very similar sonic virtual reality is now within reach of many home theatre enthusiasts for a mere CA$1,300 (US$999) including the “brain” and a pair very nice wireless headphones.
The JVC Exofield Theater comes in 18cm x 32cm x 22cm sized box that contains the brain which also doubles as an HDMI switcher with eARC capability together with digital inputs. The 15.5cm x 16.5cm x 3cm “brain” is where all the Exofield processing are done and for 2-channel audio and other non Dolby Atmos or DTS:X sources, the signal can be processed using Dolby Surround Upmixer and DTS: Neural X to simulate 7.1.4 object-audio experience. This brain includes 3 HDMI inputs, 1 HDMI output with eARC capability, an optical input and a 2-channel analog input; powered by a 12V/2A DC power included in the package.
The wireless headphone has a high-end feel to it with baby-bottom soft earpads. It is a larger, heavier device with very thick ear cushions and a headband with thick cushions. It’s certainly comfortable enough to wear on your head for a full movie, though your ears will start to get a little sweaty by the time the credits appear on the screen. It is simply difficult to provide good wearing comfort and sound insulation without experiencing scalding. Also the weight is not exactly low, 330 grams, although I have certainly had audiophile models on my head that weighed much more. These are really headphones for someone who sits in the sofa and may rest their head on the backrest.
The connection between the headphones and the transmitter is via a proprietary 5 GHz protocol, not Bluetooth. This higher frequency is a good choice for avoiding dropouts, a problem I occasionally encounter with RF technology wireless TV headphones operating at 2.4 GHz. That’s because 2.4 GHz is quite a busy part of the radio spectrum, with Bluetooth, WiFi and others using it, plus a lot of interference. The range is expectedly to be somewhat more limited with the 5 GHz radio technology, but in this case it is not so bad. You will only use this device within a room. Based on my month-long tests, the battery of the headphones lasts about 5-6 movies, which translates to around 11 hours.
Using the Exofield app is mandatory to experience these headphones properly (or at all, actually). After all, the JVC XP-EXT1 headphones offer surround that sounds realistic because it is adapted to your physical properties as I explained earlier. Think of the ear and head shape, and the attributes of your ears and hearing. JVC (amongst any other immersive-audio companies such as Sony, Smyth, Creative, and more) has been working on this for a very long while and discovered that the shape of the face also has an influence on the perception of sound. In a lab, and during the initial versions of Exofield pre-consumer-ready final products, all these physical properties can be measured exactly, which is obviously impossibly difficult to do in someone’s home. That is why an effective compromise solution is chosen for the XP-EXT1. Microphones built into the headphones themselves measure your ears (including the inner ear). Based on these results, the device will look in a database with larger measurements and look for the nearest match within Exofield cloud-based database.
To do this, you have to put the headphones on your head, temporarily connect a supplied cable between the headphones and transmitter, and follow a step-by-step plan in the app. The measurement itself takes about just less than a minute; the calculations that follow take another two minutes. The test tones are not particularly loud, so it is not uncomfortable. Four slots are provided in the app for measurements. This allows up to four people to have their personal Exofield noise calculated. Alas, only one pair of headphones can be used at any given time. Hopefully, one day, a higher end version with multiple headphones connections can be done when the cost of DSP processing chip have dramatically gone down in price.
For the first real world test, I use a regular 7.1 non-immersive audio track from a bluray played back on my reference player, the THX Certified Panasonic UB9000 UHD player playing The Hunt. This is done to test how well the upmixing capability of the Exofield.
The Hunt comes with a fantastic and lively lossless DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio track that is highly engaging and chaotic. From about five minutes in, the bullets and arrows start flying, which is where the speakers utilize their directionality as each bullet and arrow whizzes past each speaker with precision and accuracy, leading to a smooth transition of sound. These bullet hits and gun blasts also pack a punch when fired right on the screen, especially the big shotgun inside the gas station. Grenade explosions and body parts falling all over the place all have that unique squish and gooey sound when they hit the floor. The DTS Neural:X upmixer on this unit works tremendously well that often I forget that this movie is not natively encoded with any immersive audio codec.
Ambient noises of people yelling in far distances, shouting, nature sounds, and more all sound robust and loud as well. The score amplifies the situation at every turn while never drowning out any other element. The bass kicks in when vehicles are driven and gun blasts go off, which is fairly consistent and sounding as if there is an actual subwoofer playing in the room. In nearly all instances I forgot that I’m wearing a headphone and feeling like I’m in my actual home theatre instead of my acoustically-mediocre living area wearing a pair of headphones.
Before reviewing using real-life materials, I tested the XP-EXT1 using channel check presented on the Dolby Atmos demo disc and DTS:X demo UHD. Every channel sounded as if they are emanating from invisible speakers around and above my head. When the recorded channel called out “rear right”, I actually hear the sound coming from my rear right from a good distance instead of somewhere inside my head. The same goes when the channel called out “top front left” or “top rear right”. Every channel was reproduced extremely convincingly; including the subwoofer call out from my THX Calibrator’s blu-ray disc. I felt as if there was a subwoofer in a room, not simply deep bass sound in my ears.
For the real world test of immersive audio, I chose Ghost in the Machine. Watching the live action version of Ghost in the Machine yields an obviously even more convincing immersive-audio physical setup (instead of the virtual setup through the headphones). The reimagined sci-fi scenes creep into home theatre with a terrifyingly awesome Dolby Atmos soundtrack sure to deliver the spine-tingling, hair-raising, and heart-pumping goods. Both the sound design together with the musical score does much of the leg work utilizing the entire system Atmos 3D space for generating an ominous and foreboding atmosphere, exhibiting outstanding definition and separation within the midrange. But other subtle effects also partake in the moody fun by employing the surrounds at various times, such as the sound of rain pouring directly above the listening area, the occasional electronic chirping and atmospheric dins in the distance, the loud crash of waves of frequencies echoing overhead or the chatter of the environment spreading through the sides and rears. Yes, you read it right, I said “above” “sides” and “rears”.
On the flip side, the sound design packs an unexpectedly impressive and robust low-end, delivering a shockingly powerful presence that digs deep and hard during several choice moments, adding a surprisingly suspenseful air of apprehension. Amid the action and fights, vocals are always prioritized and distinct with appreciable intonation in the performances, making for a great, frightfully hemispheric listen.
The sonic reproduction truly and distinctly sound like they are coming from physical multiple directions rather than the usual mush of sound when listening to regular (and never effective) virtual/simulated surround such as the ones offered by Sony, Sennheiser, and Apple (amongst many others) in the past.
Music listening be it from Dolby Atmos encoded blu-ray or regular audio CDs upmixed using Dolby Surround Upmixer yield the same results. Both approaches give such a believable sense of space as if I’m listening to binaural recordings. Everything sounded as good as my dedicated reference home theatre setup in my basement. Highly impressive!
During the listening sessions, I also switched around between the four EQ presets available for the Exofield (called “Sound Mode”), which are Cinema, Music, Game and Custom. Cinema gives a boomier bass, Music is very neutral sounding, Game creates a more distinct but more jagged channel separation, and Custom is, well, for custom EQ setting as one pleases. I end up using Music sound mode regardless of what I listen to. From music itself, to game, even movie watching. It’s the most neutral sounding one with a slight bump in the midrange section for a slightly added sonic warmth.
If you want to experience immersive audio without the expense, complications, or disturbing others, the JVC Exofield XP-EXT1 is your best answer. It can only cater for one person listening at a time at the moment but it’s not anything that can be remedied in the future. Very highly recommended!