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.
Not only was the sound of the Triad Gold LCRs faithfully and convincingly captured by the Realiser A8, so too was their distance and placement within the physical space. Traditionally, headphones create the soundstage in your head, i.e., between your ears. With the Realiser A8, the soundstage is in front of you, just as if you were listening to a discrete pair of floor-standing or bookshelf loudspeakers. When switching to multi-channel content, rear channels sound as though they're behind you, with the appropriate space based on where in the room you took your measurements. I'm not joking: I failed every A/B test. The Realiser A8/Stax combo is that good.
But it gets better. Remember when I spoke about the Realiser A8 asking me to turn my head thirty degrees? Well, that was to allow for pinpoint accurate measurements between the left and right speaker in order to give the head tracker a point of reference. When you turn your head with traditional headphones, the soundstage or sound moves with you, or stays inside your head. With the Realiser A8, if I turn my head to the left, then the sound of the front left and right speakers gets louder in my right ear as if I had turned my head while listening to the speakers themselves. Additionally, the soundstage stays firmly rooted in the front of the room, rather than pivoting with my head. Incredible. Movies or music, it didn't matter. The Realiser A8/Stax combo sounded every bit the same, not just good, but the same as the actual Triad speakers playing back in an actual room.
But wait, there is more.
So far, the Realiser A8/Stax combo sounded identical to my buddy's Triad speaker system, as they should, because those are the speakers we measured. But you can measure and store multiple speaker and room configurations with the Realiser A8. That's right, you can build a virtual library of high-end systems, rooms or even venues to enjoy at the push of a button. In other words, if you can measure it, you get to keep it with the Realiser A8. You can also create a multi-channel configuration out of a pair of speakers. If you're really talented, I'm told you can do it with one. For example, the Smyth customer in attendance recently went to AIX records and listened to their 5.1 Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond setup. He liked it so much that he paid AIX for the studio time (a couple hundred bucks) to record the system into his Realiser A8. Now, whenever he is in the mood for Bowers & Wilkins' 800 Diamonds, he pulls 'em up in the Realiser A8's memory and presto - he's listening to 800s as if he were sitting in AIX's recording studio. AIX's Bowers & Wilkins' system has a retail price north of six figures; via the Realiser A8, it cost this user under $4,000. He even had the Egyptian Theater located in the heart of Hollywood stored in his A8 and told us of the time that he enjoyed a movie at the Egyptian while lying in his bed. What kind of savings must that be, I wonder? Always wished you could own Wilson Audio Alexandrias? Well, grease your local dealer a couple hundred bucks and maybe, after closing time, you can have 'em forever without ever having to lug the big bastards home.
The truth is, if you can get people to agree to it, you can not only "steal" their systems, but also trade them with other Realiser A8 users. Since all of the information is stored digitally, it can be transferred via simple file-sharing software. For enthusiasts with big aspirations, who are also a bit tight on space and perhaps cash (who isn't these days?), the Realiser A8 represents an almost immeasurable value. It also works with any headphone (though Smyth recommends Stax) and can even be enjoyed by two people at once - just pick up an extra TU-1 head tracker and you're good to go. Oh, and if you're a gamer, particularly a fan of first-person shooters, then the Realiser A8 definitely needs to be on your must-have or Christmas list.
The downside to the Realiser A8 is that it's not an on-the-go solution, meaning you're not apt to enjoy it while on a plane or waiting in line the way most headphone users tend to use and enjoy their favorite cans. Yes, it's portable, but when used with Stax, you have to consider both the Realiser A8 and the Stax amp, which together will fill a small backpack. Still, for those living in an apartment or small home without the real estate or funds to accommodate a dedicated or large-scale discrete system, the Realiser A8 is a home run and an absolute marvel.
The head tracker devices are among the silliest-looking things I've seen this side of active 3D glasses. The TU-1 is the worst of the bunch, because it sticks up over your head like some sort of digi-Snork. Given Smyth's preference of Stax, you'd think they'd develop a head band that had the tracker built in, but alas, they have not. The Realiser A8 customer thought that Smyth should hack any one of those motion-capture control devices popular with gamers nowadays and figure out how to make that work, though the Smyth rep had no comment on the matter.
I was unable to test the Realiser A8 with headphones other than the recommended Stax, though I'm told it will work with any proper or high-end headphone. Obviously, the better constructed and engineered the headphones are, the more successful the end results. I was told that semi or open-back designs work best, as they better capture the sense of space. This may be good, as the Stax do add a bit to the Realiser A8's actual cost. Then again, after hearing what the combo could do, I would be reticent to mess with perfection.
Competition and Comparison
To the best of my knowledge, and the knowledge of everyone in attendance at our gathering, no one else has a product quite or even at all like the Smyth Realiser A8. I can't compare it to headphone amplifiers, for the Realiser A8 isn't an amp. I can't compare it to AV preamps, for no AV preamp can record and play back your system's sound via headphones as if you were listening to the speakers themselves live. As for headphones, well, the Realiser A8 is compatible with all, though I can't recommend any outside of the Stax offered by Smyth. I apologize for the lack of comparison, but the Smyth Realiser A8 is so unique that it seems, for the time being, it has no peer or equal.
For more on headphones and headphone amplifiers, please visit Home Theater Review's Headphone page.
What can I say about Smyth Research's SVS Technology and Realiser A8 processor except wow. Like I said earlier, I'm not the world's foremost expert on headphones, but that's okay, for the Realiser A8 via a pair of Stax headphones don't sound like headphones at all but instead like actual physical loudspeakers being played back in an actual physical space. I would harp on the Realiser A8's retail price of $2,910 without Stax headphones, and $3,760 with, had I not listened to the system and heard the value proposition it represents. While I'm not about to give up my reference system any time soon, there is something to be said for being able to literally store and listen to the best loudspeakers or systems the world over without having to actually pay for them. This may seem like bad news for some manufacturers (it's not), but for cash-strapped consumers, the Realiser A8 may be the Holy Grail. I only spent a brief afternoon with the Smyth Realiser A8 and already I miss it, it's that good and that convincing.