Stop whatever it is you’re doing and take a minute to actively listen to nothing. Except that ‘nothing’ isn’t ever really nothing. Maybe you’re in an office, and you can hear someone talking quietly to your right, while a phone rings loudly on your left. You do a bit of typing and the light click of the keys happens directly in front. There’s a cough behind you.
Now really listen. That’ll be the dull murmur of traffic outside. A bird singing. A siren half a mile away. The shuffle of feet under your desk. Your own breath through your nose.
Even when we think it’s quiet, we sit in the middle of a 3D acoustic tapestry. Go into an anechoic chamber – a room where no sound gets in or out – and you become the soundtrack. You’ll hear your own heartbeat, your stomach digesting your breakfast, and maybe even the blood rushing through your system.
The more you listen, the more you hear – and the more you hear, the more realistic your surroundings feel. That’s why we have ears: we have to make sense of the world to survive in it.
Two channels isn’t enough
Which is why it’s so limiting to listen to music in stereo. Two speakers can’t possibly recreate the rich atmosphere of a recording studio, sweaty indie club or massive concert hall. Yet.
Our ears can gather that constant information – our brains can make sense of it. We translate two ears into three dimensions without even thinking about it. So why not do that with recorded sound too?
Sennheiser has. Its AMBEO technology programme – an ecosystem of recording, mixing and reproduction technology – uses a 9.1-channel system (and, soon, with the aid of some hefty processing algorithms, headphones) to recreate that truly spherical, ‘being-there’ experience.
At Switzerland’s Art Basel show this June the company demonstrated a double-pronged assault on the auditory senses with a demo room and a one-off live club performance by DJ Robin Schulz – both designed to show off the system’s capabilities and let guests experience a new way to listen.
In the demo room
CEO Daniel Sennheiser who, with his brother Andreas, masterminded the project, puts it thus: “When you’re in a room, and you see a screen, you see the walls… the effect is there. But if you close your eyes, suddenly the room disappears. It becomes very, very large”.
In a purpose-built soundproof room, Tonmeister Gregor Zielinsky – armed with a remote control and a hard-drive full of audio and video – put the system through its paces.
“One could say it’s a 5.1 system on the bottom and we’re adding four speakers on top,” Zielinsky says. “That’s what makes it 3D, unlike 5.1. It’s only with the help of that 3D level that the sound opens up – it makes you feel like you’re immersed.”
The aim is to have those speakers working in tandem with your own senses – fooling them into thinking that what they’re hearing is real objects in the room with you.
Sennheiser’s aim is to make it subtly immersive, rather than the sometimes stark performance delivered by a 5- or 7.1-channel surround system. It shouldn’t be like watching a film, where you want your attention on the screen: sound should appear to come into the room a little way – not completely to the middle, but a little way in from the walls… which makes them appear to vanish.
At the gig
Live, it’s a slightly different story. Clubs are loud anyway – they use pairs of stereo speakers to fill the room with music. It’s a classic four-point system.
A live AMBEO 9.1-channel rig is different, says Oliver Voges, the event’s head audio engineer. There’s a lot more they can play with when it comes to moving the music between the speakers. “Together with Dominik [Piorr, Robin Schulz’s live engineer] we made it so we can pan the sound from left to right without taking just one step across. There’s so much more room under here [to play with]. It doesn’t even need to be that loud!”
That’s a bonus in several ways. One, lower playback volume saves delicate eardrums; two, it lets the subtleties of the music through more effectively because the speakers aren’t hammering away at their enclosures all the time; three, it results in a smaller possibility of distortion. It can be loud – but it won’t be shouty.
Oliver also had to consider that the results of the soundcheck in an empty concrete room wouldn’t translate to that same room being full of 200 people dancing seven hours later. It all has to be taken into account.
When the going gets sweaty during Robin’s performance, it’s clear they’ve done their homework. The aim is to be different to many normal clubs – loud without being harsh; all-encompassing without leaning on the crutch of volume; powerful without being wincingly bass-heavy. It shouldn’t smack your ears into submission, but it shouldn’t hold back.
Listening to music is about being enveloped in it. If you’re staring at your speakers – or from one to another – it isn’t doing its job properly. If you can forget your system is there and just enjoy it, that’s the goal.
And it’s that goal the Sennheiser co-CEOs are aiming at with AMBEO. “In the end,” Andreas says, “the true test of it is whether you get goose-bumps or not. We can talk about technology as long as you want – it’s like talking about a good bottle of wine. You can talk about it, but you only know how good it is when you open it.”
And that, really, is the only thing that matters.