VR puts your eyes in another world; Sennheiser Ambeo brings your ears along

If we took one thing away from CES 2016, it’s that virtual reality (VR) is going to be huge. Thanks to Facebook, HTC, and a host of others you haven’t even heard of yet, it looks like VR is finally ready for primetime. However, for as much as VR graphics have advanced, developments for truly immersive sound to match have lagged behind. That’s where Sennheiser comes in.

Best known for its wide array of professional microphones and consumer headphones (including the company’s magnum opus, the Orpheus), Sennheiser has been quietly working in the background on 3D immersive audio for some time now. Finally, the company has crafted a soup-to-nuts solution designed specifically to make VR and AR sound as realistic as it looks, and at CES 2016 we finally got to check it out. It’s called Ambeo, and it’s going to help take VR to the next level of realism.

“Ambeo should do nothing less than raise the hairs on your back.”

“For us, Ambeo is the umbrella … for different types of immersive audio configurations. And that is from the recording side, to the processing side, to the playback side,” Sennheiser co-CEO Dr. Andreas Sennheiser told Digital Trends. “There’s playback in 9.1, there’s playback over headphones, there’s recording with VR mics which capture the sound from the signal source, and there’s recordings which capture the sphere differently. Ambeo is a stream of different technologies and configurations which, in the end, should do nothing less than raise the hairs on your back.”

A little background on 3D sound

My first introduction to Sennheiser’s new 3D immersion technology was an impressive one. At the company’s Reshaping Excellence concert in London, held in part to celebrate its 70th anniversary, I talked my way backstage to experience first hand the company’s 9.1-channel live recording of an Imogen Heap concert.

Surrounded by small monitors on all sides, I was amazed, not only by the accuracy and fullness of the sound, but also the live essence of the performance played back by the sphere of speakers. My mind was nearly tricked into believing I was sitting in the actual concert hall. I’d soon learn what I experienced was just a small slice of Ambeo’s much broader capabilities.

A Sennheiser engineer monitors the 3D sound recording of Imogen Heap with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonic orchestra Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends
Ryan Waniata/Digital Trends

“There will be specific configurations,” Sennheiser tells us. “If you have the application of being at home [with] a big collection of CDs and you need an upmix to boost the sound from those … you can use our processing software plus a 9.1-speaker setup … that’s our own way of mapping out the (stereo) sound to the different speakers.”

Ambeo goes both ways, though. Just as it can transform your stereo CD into an immersive 9.1 experience, it can also take audio recorded and produced with omni-directional and multi-directional mics for 3D playback and process the sound for accurate reproduction over a standard pair of stereo headphones.

That’s where the VR element comes into the picture.

Sound sells the scene

To get a taste of what Ambeo can do for a VR setup, we sat down at Sennheiser’s demo station to experience a couple of quick videos, the first of which was a concert pianist playing in an empty cathedral hall, rendered via a Samsung Gear VR headset and a pair of Sennheiser’s new HD-630VB stereo headphones. While the video resolution was a little lacking, I can honestly say the placement of the sound within virtual space was quite impressive. I was able to move my head around in the virtual hall and track the origin point of the piano almost perfectly, even behind my head.

I moved my head around the virtual hall and tracked the origin of the piano perfectly.

In fact, the sound was so natural in its directionality, it helped make up for any shortcomings in the video quality. In the second demo, which simply showed a British man talking about his storied old house, the immersion was even more realistic as his voice echoed around my head while I explored the room and all its corners.

Another major element of the system is the hardware used to capture it. For the recording side, Sennheiser has partnered with hallowed microphone company Neumann, but it has also developed its own hardware, including a line-array microphone comprised of 31 individual capsules — the individual elements that capture sound — as well as a little multi-capsule ambisonic directional mic (below) of which only a few exist in the world right now. The latter mic is hyper-sensitive, allowing Sennheiser to capture VR sound using a small microphone, from a single vantage point.

As both a hardware and software developer for Ambeo, Sennheiser is able to carefully guide each element of the system so it’s cohesive from start to finish and suitable for a wide array of applications, including VR gaming and multimedia, immersive audio recording, upmixing and downmixing 3D audio, and even broadcasting.

And while VR is no doubt going to be Ambeo’s most popular application, one thing that makes the system exciting is the implications it has on recorded music. We asked Dr. Sennheiser how Ambeo fits in with other popular immersive audio formats such as the object-based surround sound systems, DTS:X, and Dolby Atmos, and he explained that an emphasis on music was the key difference.

“Atmos, for instance, is another format which is certainly optimized for film, for effects,” he said. “And our format is optimized for music. So we’re really focused on how people perceive music, and all the little elements — not just to have the biggest wow effect, but to make the music sound as natural as possible.”

More reality than virtual reality

Ambeo isn’t just an aspiration set somewhere beyond the horizon for Sennheiser. The company is currently selling the system in an early-adopter hardware package, which includes an upmix receiver with the Ambeo algorithms built in along with a 9.1-speaker setup from Neumann.

“It’s all one package, you can have it,” Sennheiser told Digital Trends. However, he also warned us that this is definitely an early-adopter package in every sense, meaning the system will continue to evolve with new updates going forward. Just when the final system will roll out is yet to be determined.

“CES, for us, is also a forum to get a little bit of our customers’ creativity mirrored back to us,” he said. In other words, Sennheiser will be listening and learning about what listeners really want as Ambeo continues to evolve.

But make no mistake, this fully immersive sound system will be coming to a badass audio system near you sooner than later. This year will see a slow rollout of more Ambeo products from Sennheiser, as the company continues to advance its new system for the next era in sound. Now, we just have to wait for VR to catch up.

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