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It Will Blow Your Mind: a Date with the Smyth Realizer

I am not a fan of the sheer amount of hyperbole that seems to roll off of the typical audiophile writer’s pen, so let me say this with complete sincerity.

The Smyth Realizer will blow your mind.

So, I went down to Command Performance A/V today to pick up my brand new Plinius SA-Reference amplifier, and I found that Jeff had a new toy he was happily fiddling with — the Realizer from Smyth/SVS. The Realizer, for those of you that have never heard of such a thing, is a neat little gizmo that sits between your head amp and your main rig that recreates the sound of your main rig in your headphones.

Let me back up a step. You have headphones. They plug into a line-out on your preamp, bypassing the amp and speakers of your main system. The sound of that leg of the system sounds like whatever your headphones+headamp sound like. Me, I have a pair of Stax 404s with a Stax 006t tube amp and that sound is damn fine. And that’s what I expected to hear when I sat down in the sweet spot of Jeff’s system.

He was playing some music from a Luxman SACD player through a Manley Jumbo Shrimp into a pair of Snappers and out through a pair of Joseph Audio Pulsars. The sound quality was superb. On went the Stax. Out went the amp/speakers, and I was left with the Stax headamp and the Stax 202 headphones. Sound was a bit flat, a bit boring, but recognizably Stax, if that makes sense. Jeff took a couple of measurements, but nothing major — a previous client had come in to hear the system, and we simply used the same setup. Not ideal, apparently, as the Realizer works best with tuning specific to the individual, but I figured, WTF. Anyway, we cut the speakers in again while he made some adjustments or whatever, and after a few minutes, he told me to put the headphones back on and then cut in the Realizer.

I just sat there waiting for something to happen.

Music sounded just as before. Great. Soundstage was big, placement was great, and quite frankly, the Pulsars sounded as great as they always did.

Then I took the headphones off and found out that the speakers weren’t actually playing anymore.

I put the headphones back on. And there were the Pulsars, big as life. I took the headphones off in sheer disbelief — yep, the speakers weren’t actually playing. All that was coming through the Stax.

I think I said “wow”. I think Jeff giggled a little bit. It’s incredible. The Realizer is very impressive.

At some point, I need to head down there and get all fitted out to try it “for real”. But in the meantime, color me “impressed”. If you’re into ‘phones, this might be the most incredible jump in performance your cans can make.

I was blown away.

Don’t believe me, though. Go try it for yourself. If for nothing else to find out what all the reviewers are going nuts over.

[Edited text follows, because I totally blew the first draft. Whoops.]

I had some issues with my experience with the product. This was not the fault of the product, per se, but rather a case of user error. Oh well.

My first had to do with the head-tracker. The Realizer uses one as a feedback loop mechanism that tells the system where your head is pointing, and adjusts the sound field accordingly. Yes. The sound is different depending on where you’re pointing your head. Nifty? Well, I understand that studio techs and mastering engineers might really love the whole turn-your-head-and-hear-a-different-aspect “thing”, like what would happen if you actually did that in the studio, but I really wanted the ability to “lock in” the sweet spot. I want sweet-spot sound without actually having to sit in the sweet spot or with my head just-so. As you can see from the note, below, you can do this by simply turning off the head tracker — problem solved. I didn’t get to test this as I only found out about it when Mr Kramer kindly told me I was an idiot. 😉  Ah, well. Anyway, since this is totally doable, I’m definitely going back for a full test!

Two, I’d really like to be able to map my personal measurements to the sound of a super-high-end system like, say, the surround sound mixing system used by ILM — without actually having to go to ILM. Should be trivial to do, but for whatever reason, in the current iteration of the system, you actually have to take your ears to ILM and do your calibration there. Yes, you only have to do the calibration there once, but still. Come on, smart people! Get with the program already. While Mr Kramer (see below) explained that this is far from trivial, it seems that all might not be lost here. Hopefully, we’ll see something interesting along the lines of “close enough” at some point. Stay tuned.

In short, this product is a slam dunk and hands down the best thing I’ve heard in audio all year. In a word? Incredible.

[Editor’s Note]

On May 6th, I received the following note from Lorr Kramer. I’m including it here because it clarifies some of my confusion and adds some good info. Thanks to Smyth Research for setting me straight!

I read your write-up on the Realiser yesterday.  We are certainly glad to hear that you liked it.  The reason I am writing is that it seems that your reservations are based on some misconceptions, so I’d like to clear those up, if I may.

First, the head tracker has nothing to do with the sweet spot.  Being in the sweet spot or not depends on where you sit during the measurement.  Of course you would sit in the sweet spot during the measurement, and that experience is locked in for playback.  The head tracker simply compensates for where your head may turn.  It is extremely unnatural for sound to rotate with the head, as with typical headphone listening.  It’s unnatural in stereo, and even more so in multichannel, and especially for sound with picture, in which case you want the speaker positions anchored with respect to the screen.  The head tracker does just that, so when you turn your head, the virtual speakers do not move.  The head tracker does not require that you concern yourself with head position.  Exactly the opposite is the case:  the head tracker allows you to forget about head position.  If the green lights on the set-top module are a distraction, you can put a piece of tape over them.  Head tracking greatly contributes to the sense of not wearing headphones.  Also, the head tracker can be turned off or on at will, though it’s something I’d never want to turn off.

As for the issue of combining a measurement of your head/ears with measurements of rooms and speakers in other places, you are not the first to assume that that is a trivial matter.  In fact it is an extremely difficult problem.  The impulse response that the Realiser gathers represents a transfer function that includes the playback electronics, the loudspeaker responses, the room acoustics, and your upper torso shape, head shape, and pinnae (outer ears).  These components are in no direct way disentangleable.  We have a huge incentive to solve this problem, since everyone wants to have a library of rooms/speakers to choose among, and if we had such a thing, we could sell a lot more Realisers!  The issue has been studied by us and by others for years; people think there should be a straightforward solution unless they are practitioners in the field, in which case they know the opposite to be true.  It is likely that if a separation/recombination process were eventually worked out, it would still not represent the full fidelity of a measurement with your ears in the target room.  With the Realiser, you instantaneously compare the real and virtual speakers while you are still in the measured room to certify that the emulation is correct, and our goal is no audible difference in this most difficult possible test.  That requires individual personalization with you in the room.

Finally, regarding storage, the Realiser’s internal memory can hold sixty-four room/speaker measurements, but even that is not the limit since there is a slot for SD cards and therefore no limit whatever on the number of rooms/speaker systems you can collect:  I have hundreds archived which are readily available for listening.  So of course you can have many multichannel virtual rigs, many stereo rigs, whatever you want.  There is even a method of measuring a stereo speaker system and generating a 5.1 or 7.1 system from it, by first measuring the speakers the usual way, then turning around and measuring them again as surround speakers, etc.  I daresay there are some exotic, expensive audiophile speakers of which there have never been more than two in the same room, yet you can create five or seven of them in your virtual world.

If you find yourself in the Los Angeles area we hope you will pay a visit and try out a personalized measurement.  Or, when inventory is available again (the next run should be complete in a month or two) you might revisit Command Performance AV for that purpose.

Best regards,

Lorr Kramer
Smyth Research

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