Deep within the audio creation community there’s a lot of excitement about immersive music, meaning an experience where the music seems to be coming from all around you. All the major labels are feverishly at work creating immersive content, yet it’s hardly sent a ripple through the normal consumer electronics world. For me this is deja vu all over again (to quote Yankee great Yogi Berra), having spent the early part of the 2000s mixing projects in 5.1 surround sound, immersive’s technology predecessor.
5.1 came on the scene with a lot of hype and met a relatively fast demise. The problem with it wasn’t the delivery method (DVD-Audio, SACD, or later, Blu-Ray discs), but with the complexity of the setup for the consumer. First you needed 5 speakers and a subwoofer, all of which had to be ideally placed and calibrated for a proper experience. That usually meant that at least one speaker was inconveniently located in front of a door or some other part of the room that needed frequent access, and the cabling led to unsightly bundles that dropped the “wife acceptance factor” down to about as low as it could go.
And Now Immersive
So here we are again with immersive audio, which can have as many as 120 speaker channels (although the average consumer setup in a home will have far less – usually 12 with the subwoofer). Even though there’s been advances in Bluetooth technology to eliminate the cabling and multi-firing speakers meaning far fewer are needed, consumers have so far given immersive a big yawn.
The best way to describe the release of immersive audio so far is a soft launch. There’s lots of music product out there by way of Amazon AMZN Music HD, Deezer, Tidal, and Nugs.net, and a few of the futuristic dedicated speakers have been announced, but not much else. The problem for manufacturers and distributors alike is that you can’t market something like this unless you experience it. You can’t take a picture of it, and nothing can adequately explain it unless you personally have a listen.
I’ve always felt that multi-channel audio like immersive wasn’t going to take off until we had a revolution in audio playback. The technology behind the transducers (speakers) being used today hasn’t really changed much in the last 100 years, and that’s limiting how far audio playback in general can go.
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There’s seem hope on the horizon that some new technologies that can turn an entire wall in a playback surface will be the breakthrough needed, but the real problem in all the new technologies has been that the frequency response has been very limited, with very little low or even mid-frequency information being reproduced.
The Direct Link
But a new possibility will soon exist, and it’s one that may very well leapfrog past physical technology completely – a neural link directly to the brain. This is just what Neuralink (a company backed by Elon Musk) is working on, but so is Amazon, Apple AAPL and Spotify as well. Beaming music to the brain feels so science-fictiony, and there will probably be a great deal of pushback from consumers at first, but it does open up the horizon for audio.
Imagine, no more audio quality limitations because the streaming codecs needed to pack a lot of data into a narrow transmission pipe will no longer be needed. Imagine no such thing as an audio “channel,” since beaming audio to the brain is now just to two sound pockets slightly within the ears. All sounds are point source, and immersion is now de facto standard. Image perfectly clear communication after eliminating all the now-unnecessary digital to analog electronics and transducers from the transmission process.
Sure, there are ethical implications to connecting anything directly to the brain regardless of how low the risk factor might become, but if we’re talking about audio in its purist form, this is what we should be shooting for.
I can’t say I personally wouldn’t have trepidations at becoming connected, but the aural upside seems way worth it. Stay tuned for more on this, as this subject will get hotter in the future.