3D Music: Presence Beats Fidelity

The new buzz to come out of the VR audio space is 3D music, that is, music that takes advantage of the 360 degree spatial sound available through VR headsets and advanced audio algorithms.

We’re beginning to see audio solutions decouple from head mounted displays in the form of Ossic Headphones and other audio only endeavors. We know 3D music production isn’t far behind.

If you do a search on this subject at the moment there’s a surprising amount of skepticism, especially from the audiophile community.

This is most likely due to lack of VR exposure coupled with the failure of previous hi-def audio formats that have plagued the audiophile community for so long, placing them further & further into the minority.

Excuse the pun but let’s get something crystal clear here: 3D sound isn’t about fidelity, it’s about presence.

Stereo audio in a 3D experience like VR won’t seem lower fidelity, it will seem wrong. If sound sources move with your head opposed to locking to the environment as you move freely around the space, your sense of immersion will be lessened and the listener will fall into the audio uncanny valley.

Additionally traditional stereo will seem static, muddled & claustrophobic when compared to the much more open soundscape of 3D, similar to listening to mono after getting accustomed to stereo.

Applying that parallel to 3D music will take a bit of trial & error. Remember when the first commercially available stereo recordings in the 60’s meant guitar in the left channel, piano in the right? It was only after lots of experimentation that the stereo field finally found its ‘space’.

In current VR experiences, 3D sound is subtle because it fits so well within a 3D environment. Seeming ‘right’ only draws your attention when it’s taken away. In that respect, the majority of users won’t appreciate it until they become used to it & then go back to 2D. The user will then understand that this is a quantum leap opposed to an additive improvement.

Audiophiles traditionally emphasize fidelity over immersive context because it’s easier to quantify (96kHz > 48kHz, etc.) The problem with this is 3-fold.

1) it’s elitist.
I brought my 40 pound refurbished reel to reel player and my 7 1/2″ tape of Jimmy Hendrix Rainbow Bridge over to the house of a friend who builds custom tube amps & speakers. This is a labor of love that took time, money, physical effort & coordination. I don’t expect many people to make this sort of pilgrimage to listen to a commercial album.

2) The return on investment is diminished at best.
Listening to Rainbow Bridge was more about the ritual than the qualitative improvement. Objectively, I’d say that custom setup yielded about a 30% better listening experience than playing it on YouTube over a Labtec 2.1 system, about 15% better than a Spotify premium version over a Denon Heos & about a 5% improvement over a Cambridge Audio CD player through a Harmon Kardon amp & PSB speakers.

3) Fidelity isn’t important to the masses.
Today’s consumers value portability & access to content over fidelity. The music you listen to at the gym has 3 additional layers of data & signal compression then it did 20 years ago. MP3 compression (1) optimized for cloud streaming (2) played over Bluetooth (3) squeezes that fidelity down like a juice presser. & everyone seems fine with that.

An executive once asked me to help him price out a stereo system with his $10,000 budget. I told him if his source was either a streaming service or an MP3 library played over a 3.175mm phono jack, he should spend $2000 on a decent prosumer system & save the rest for live shows. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

So if no one cares about niche incremental fidelity improvement, how would 3D music catch on? Simple, thanks to VR / AR, it will be the price of entry for sonic content & more importantly it’ll use the same gear you already have for your HMD.

Not too many people are going to pony up for a Pono, but if you’re using headphones to experience VR, you will certainly expect music listening not to sound worse than your multimedia content over the same hardware.

What will 3D music sound like? Only time will tell. It could be like hearing the London Philharmonic Orchestra from the conductor podium or hearing Nicholas Jarr’s samples spin around you like fireflies or it could be something completely new that no one has thought of yet. We’re at the ‘guitar = left, piano = right’ stage right now.

One thing is for sure, if the future Dark Side of the Moon is released exclusively in 3D music, audiophiles can buy their high fidelity adamantium collector’s edition vinyl. The rest of us will be happy to stream it over Steam music or Spotify 3D assuming the content is just as present and the experience is just as real.

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