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How surround sound can amplify VR experiences


Sometimes it’s easy to miss the little things. There are moments in our favourite media which we could go our whole lives without ever appreciating despite returning to it over and over again. Take, for example, Mad Max: Fury Road. Arguably my favourite film in recent times (although that may change when I watch The Brighton Miracle) but it’s only since last night that I realised in the opening credits when Max trips one of the warboys over a cliff, said warboy goes down not with a scream but with a cheer of delight as he falls to his death. Confident that he will arrive at the gates of Valhalla, having died a warrior’s death.

Now as much as I would like to spend the rest of this article going on about how this is just another demonstration of George Miller’s phenomenal ability to weave subtle storytelling touches into the background of his narrative and wax lyrical about his incredible ability to add story relevant touches to his opening scenes this is a tech journal, and I feel like I should be more focused on what I found really interesting about this little detail. Namely, the fact I only managed to hear it thanks to the amazing speakers pumping out genuine quality Dolby Atmos audio in a small room in central London.

Said speakers belonged to the Harman Group range that I was privileged enough to get to experience on Tuesday the 24th of September. Harman Group is a conglomeration of a variety of audio brands such as Mark Levinson, JBL, Lexicon, Revel and others and on that Tuesday evening, they were demonstrating a new range of their speakers and processing units which they believed would change the game of audio technology. So I went to check that claim.

Why would a VR blog want to investigate an audio tech demonstration? It is a question that was asked by ourselves and probably by you, dear reader. If we are to embrace virtual reality, immersive audio is an unquestionable necessity, and the technology Harman put on display for us was nothing short of ear-opening for the importance of audio in creating a truly immersive experience.

Purely focusing on the visual aspect of VR and cinema is a tad simplistic. Without truly integrated audio solutions, truly immersive experiences are going to be impossible, and Harman was keen to demonstrate the ease of integration for their speakers and the ground-breaking technology they have created to change the audio game.

The audio quality of their speakers is unquestionable, and their designs are pretty neat. The classic JBL L 100 has a funky retro design with modern audio capabilities, and the Mark Levinson NO 5805 and No 5802 integrated amplifiers were similarly stylish as they belted out a Nirvana acoustic session for us to enjoy.

These speakers were techy as stylish, allowing for integration with other speakers to provide a wider sound range and also being Bluetooth compatible to allow media to be played directly from a user’s phone. But that’s just Bluetooth, pretty cool coming out of proper speakers at a relatively affordable price but still just Bluetooth. Yet the connotations of really effective speakers being able to sync up to all kinds of equipment using both wireless and wired connections (say, for example, a VR headset) is pretty exciting. However, the truly remarkable demonstrations were yet to come.

First, there were the surround speakers demonstrating the brilliance of George Miller’s vision and how effective using 16 channel, surround sound Dolby Atmos audio quality speakers can be. The demonstration of this set up (again using Mark Levison speakers and amplifiers) provided a masterclass in the true harmony of audio-visual media, not necessarily just loud but clear audio to go with a great visual set up can create a truly great perspective, one that would be magnificent for a VR or augmented reality space.

Imagine a VR horror game where surround audio could really create the feeling of something sneaking up behind you? But the most exciting demonstration was saved for last. The Lexicon SL-1 SoundSteer Loudspeaker System. For what it represents, the SL-1 isn’t the most auspicious of names (then again neither were Vive or Sr-71 Blackbird and looked at what they represented) but it does look pretty futuristic. Two vast black pillars covered in speakers and amplifiers that give the appearance of a romantic encounter between a Dalek and the monolith from 2001.

Yet this inauspiciously named, potential Halloween costume represents a giant leap in audio-technology. The SL-1 is not only capable of projecting 360-degree audio if required but is, using SoundSteer Technology, of projecting audio through the two amplifiers anywhere in a room, in effect allowing users to create their own audio sweet spot. Fears over speaker positioning and acoustics are no longer a problem. More to the point, the SL-1’s audio projection can be changed with an app. The long and short of it is, we now have wireless sound control, and while as yet the audio cannot automatically track a user, the technology is certainly there to be developed.

These systems are a little on the pricey side (£50,000 for the SL-1) so at time of writing their use may be more commercial than home-based but any VR experience worth its salt should seriously be considering their audio set up now. With proper surround audio quality and the potential for audio tracking available through Harmon’s technology, we are through the looking glass of truly immersive virtual reality experiences.

Alex Roberts


Alex is a freelance reporter specialised in technology, travel, gaming, and rugby. Alex currently lives in London with two dogs.