I'm not what you would call a headphone aficionado. I own plenty of cans and listen to music through them a lot, but I've never placed the same emphasis on them that I do my home theater. So maybe it's fitting that I'm the one to review Smyth Research's Realiser A8 headphone audio processor, because it was designed to put your home theater or two-channel system inside your headphones. I didn't have high expectations, for many a manufacturer has claimed their products can do something no others can, which in Smyth's case meant fooling my ears (and brain) into thinking I was listening to discrete loudspeakers and not headphones. After spending an afternoon with Smyth representatives and the Realiser A8, I can say there is definitely some truth to Smyth's claims.
The Realiser A8 itself is a small black box of sorts, not much larger than some of today's compact DACs; in fact, that's what I mistook it for upon first glance. The front of the Realiser A8 features a few connections, as well as a few indicator lights and a small display screen. The connections include a USB-type charging socket labeled "HT-Charge," a microphone input, headphone jack and 3.5mm HT or home theater input. There are a number of indicator lights for Line In Clip, Phones Clip, Mic Clip and Remote, as well as lights depicting a complete eight-speakers-plus- subwoofer arrangement. The small display screen is for viewing menu options and settings, while the card slot below is for additional storage and/or updates.
Around back, things get more interesting, as there are a host of digital and analog inputs and outputs. For starters, there are eight RCA-style analog inputs, as well as eight RCA-style analog outputs. Each batch of eight is accompanied by a corresponding HDMI input or output. There is a pair of analog inputs labeled "tactile," as well as a pair of inputs labeled "phones." An optical digital out, an IR Ref, a USB remote and a nine-volt DC power receptacle round out the Realiser A8's connection options. The reason for the copious amount of inputs and outputs is to allow the Realiser A8 to connect to your home theater or two-channel system during the setup procedure, which I'll talk about in a second.
There are a few ancillary items that work in concert with the Realiser A8, chief among them the TU-1 and TR-1 head trackers. The TU-1 is a head tracker that attaches to your headphone's headband and relays your precise head position to the TR-1 head tracker, which is placed in a central location in front of the listener. The two small electronic dongles speak to each other every five milliseconds to keep everything in perfect alignment in order to pull off the effect. There is also a pair of miniature microphones dubbed the HTM-1, which go in the listener's ears during setup and calibration. The RC3 remote control comes as standard, too. Lastly, Smyth recommends Stax's SRS-2170 headphone and amplifier set, which is why they are offered as an optional extras.
The total price for the Realiser A8, plus all of its required accessories, minus the Stax headphones and amp, is $2,910 direct. Throw in the Stax headphones and amp and the price jumps to $3,760, which may sound like a lot of money for a headphone rig, but after you hear what it can do, the Realiser A8's asking price may seem like a relative bargain.
I was given a demo of the Smyth Research Realiser A8 while attending a little home theater get-together put on by some of our forum members who reside in Southern California. One of them had arranged for a Smyth customer and representative to be there in order to walk us through the setup procedure, as well as answer any questions we might have along the way. I would later discover that the customer had an ulterior motive as he walked away from the meet 'n greet with a new 7.1 speaker system to enjoy - for free!
First, we got the party started by listening to my friend's dedicated 7.1 home theater, consisting of Triad InRoom Gold LCR loudspeakers and Triad Bronze in-wall loudspeakers for the side and rear channels. We listened for the better part of two hours before diving into the Smyth experience. First up, we had to connect the Realiser A8 to my friend's Marantz AV preamp, which utilizes both analog and digital (HDMI) methods, though of course only one at a time. It should be noted that the Realiser A8's HDMI output does not give you access to some form of onscreen menu. It is merely for sending a signal to another HDMI-equipped device, such as an AV preamp or receiver. We were able to test that the link between the AV preamp and the Realiser A8 was complete by running a set of test tones from the A8 through the preamp and thus through the speakers themselves, with the help of my buddy's Parasound Halo amp in the mix.
From there, we placed the TR-1 head tracker atop the center speaker and resting as close to dead center as we could determine out by eye. We attached the TU-1 head tracker to the top of the Stax headphones, but set them aside as we had to take measurements first without the Stax. The tiny ear-bud-style microphones were then placed in my ears, with the microphones pointing outward. This allows the Realiser A8 to take and record measurements from each of the speakers being sent a signal sweep, as if my ears were hearing them, complete with the effects imparted by my outer ear and lobes. Once the microphones were in place, the Realiser A8 ran through a series of frequency sweeps, starting with the left front speaker and working its way around the room, ending with the subwoofer channel. The Realiser A8 then instructed me to turn my head 30 degrees to look straight at the left speaker and then at the right. Once that was completed, I put the Stax headphones on over the microphones and repeated the process, this time with the TU-1 head tracker engaged atop my head.
The whole process took about five to seven minutes, which I'm sure is slower than usual, but I had a lot of questions. From there, it was time to cue the music.
I'm not going to get into the Realiser A8's sound in a traditional sense, for the A8 should have no sound of its own. Instead, if you've made it this far and gone through the setup procedure correctly (we had). the Realiser A8 should sound just like whatever speaker system you just recorded. In order to test this, the Realiser A8 has a feature allowing you to toggle between it and your actual loudspeakers, which is how the Smyth representative chose to showcase his product's performance. He started off by playing music through my buddy's Triad loudspeakers before switching over to the Realiser A8/Stax combo, or so I thought. That's right: with the headphones on, I thought I was hearing the Triads, which I then responded to by taking my headphones off, and then heard silence. At that point, the demo could have ended, for I had been fooled completely. The sound of the my buddy's room played back to me via the Realiser A8/Stax headphone combo was so uncannily accurate that I thought I was listening to the physical speakers and not to a pair of headphones. That's the truth. I wanted badly to be The One who wasn't fooled or tricked, but I was.
Read more about the performance of the Smyth Research Realiser A8 on Page 2.