BBC trials surround sound for headphones over Christmas

BBC Radio is launching an experiment that will offer surround sound through standard headphones.

From tomorrow, a Christmas service from the BBC archives will be available online in a ‘binaural’ format that creates realistic immersive (or ‘surround’) sound through ordinary headphones.

The Radio 3 website will offer a recording of the 'Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' from 2007 in binaural sound until the end of the Christmas period.

The service was recorded in surround sound as an experiment by BBC engineers and processed to create binaural audio by BBC Research and Development.

Listeners can simply plug their standard headphones into any computer with a stereo output and then stream the specially processed audio, which should make them feel as if they are hearing the music from speakers around them, not just their headphones.

There are six different surround settings to choose from, to suit different types of headphones and head shape. You can read more about the experiment in this BBC blog.

Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music, says: “We have stepped up our innovation within the BBC so that listeners can enjoy an even better experience of radio. If successful, our intention is to offer surround sound on a whole range of BBC programmes.

"This is part of an exciting series of trials such as HD Sound, and personal control of crowd versus commentary audio during events such as Wimbledon.”

Rupert Brun, Head of Technology BBC Audio & Music, adds: “This experiment is an attempt to enhance the standard ‘stereo’ sound headphone users have had for over 50 years and, although it is only a trial at this stage, if listener feedback is positive it could offer a significant improvement to audio quality in the future.”

At the same time, both the 2007 recording and a pioneering experimental stereo recording of 'Nine Lessons and Carols' from 1958 will be available in a surround sound format suitable for conventional loudspeakers, such as those used as part of a home cinema system.

The 1958 stereo recording has been converted to surround sound using technology from Fraunhofer IIS in Germany.

The pieces were chosen as King's College Cambridge – where the recordings took place – has a rich, reverberant acoustic and the location of choir, organ and congregation offers good opportunities for surround sound.

The trial is part of BBC Radio’s continuing innovation in audio, including the launch of HD Sound, the Wimbledon NetMix experiment and ongoing trials of ‘3D Sound’ technology.

This year’s ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ will be broadcast live on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve and will also be available online in HD Sound.

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Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.