The year 1973 was a big one for me: high school graduation, starting college, getting a draft card (while the Vietnam War was still winding down) and purchasing Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges. Gas was 40 cents a gallon; a case of beer was $6; and the technology that has now been condensed into smartphone apps filled entire rooms.
Although I still have the original vinyl, I was forced to buy the CD version of Raw Power when it was reissued a few years ago. As is the case with most types of technology, they eventually become obsolete and have to be upgraded or replaced.
While I keep changing out the IP cameras and computer electronics in the bunker in Bucktown, one piece of equipment has survived the past 41 years: My Sony 100-watt stereo amplifier still thunders out my favorite rock and blues hits as it has since I was in high school.
While I find my audio system more than adequate to warp my eardrums, a recent visit to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art provided a vivid demonstration of where high-end commercial and home audio systems will be in the near future.
My wife Joan, a freelance writer, managed to snag two press passes to the preview of the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Chicago MCA where two audio systems really impressed me. Both technologies are produced by Sennheiser, one of the premier audio device companies in the world.
The first impressive technology was the headphone sets issued to each attendee. The Sennheiser Guidepoint system provided the right audio, both narration and music, when the attendee was standing at or near a specific spot. So while an attendee gazes at the keys to the Berlin apartment that David Bowie shared with Iggy Pop, he or she can hear the story of the Bowie/Pop collaborations. At the next exhibit a few steps away, the audio feed transitions to artists that influenced a particular stage costume. Using location technology, the Guidepoint system provides audio feed corresponding to each exhibit.
I’m not sure how this technology will enhance home audio systems, but no doubt it will have applications in areas such as retail and industrial. Imagine entering a store and receiving coupons to your smartphone and an audio feed telling you what’s on sale based on where you’re standing.
What made the show spectacular was the use of the Sennheiser 9.1 3D audio system. At the end of the exhibit, attendees enter a room roughly the size of a basketball court in which they can view huge video displays of various David Bowie concert appearances. While you walk around the exhibit room without your headphones, the audio is delivered perfectly, saving you the trouble of searching for the “sweet spot” where the multiple audio channels sound correct.
Before we entered the exhibit, we watched a demonstration/explanation of the 9.1 3D audio system. From an equipment perspective, the setup is simple. Instead of the typical five speakers used in a 5.1 surround-sound system, the 3D system adds four additional speakers, mounted directly above the four non-center speakers. The height of the additional speakers depends on the room size and the distance from the center speaker to the front-left and front-right speakers.
In the brief demonstration the Sennheiser people played classical and rock music — first in 5.1 and then in their 3D system — and the results are truly impressive. The music has much more “depth,” and there is a distinct difference in sound quality. The presentation explained two possible methods of producing the nine-channel audio tracks: The music must be recorded using special equipment, or standard stereo or mono recordings can be processed by Sennheiser using their algorithm and equipment to create the nine channels.
The current markets for this sound system are theaters and arenas, with some high-end automotive manufacturers building the system into their cars. Systems in vehicles will need a converter box that automatically processes standard CDs or MP3 signals into an “artificial” 3D sound.
Sennheiser plans to produce converters that will provide the 9.1 3D experiences for home theater systems. Although this system is out of the price range of the typical client, the pricing will eventually drop to a level that is palatable for dealers and end-users — something my neighbors, no doubt, are hoping will not happen for a long time.