Review: Soundgarden's Superunknown in DTS Headphone X

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The First Rock Release in DTS Headphone X


Since an acclaimed, astonishing demo at CES 2013, the headphone world has been waiting for DTS Headphone X, a technology that promises to deliver a convincing simulation of 11.1-channel surround sound through ordinary headphones. In that demo, showgoers were shocked to hear that announcements saying "left channel," "right side surround channel," etc., actually appeared to be coming from real speakers in those positions, even though they were merely playing through ordinary (and inexpensive) headphones.

But Headphone X has been slower to roll out than most of us expected. And reviews of the only Headphone X product to come out, a version of the Superman: Man of Steel soundtrack processed for DTS Headphone X, were unenthusiastic, to put it mildly.

That's why I was so excited by the release this week of a DTS Headphone X mix of Soundgarden's Superunknown. Not only did I want to hear if DTS was able to do better, and not only did I want to hear what Headphone X could do for a rock recording, but I've also been a big Soundgarden fan ever since I saw them open for the prog-metal band Voivod back in 1990.

The DTS Headphone X version of Superunknown is available as an iOS or Android app, and it's available only to those who purchase the 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of the album, which costs $92.27 on Amazon. The app combines a player with all the songs from the album with DTS Headphone X processing capability. You can switch between four modes, including stereo (DTS Headphone X off) and modes optimized for over-ear, on-ear and in-ear headphones. There's also a built-in DTS Headphone X demo with the same channel announcements I mentioned above. The Super Deluxe Edition includes 5.1-channel surround mixes of all tunes on a Blu-ray disc, so I assume that the DTS Headphone X tracks in the app were derived from these 5.1 mixes.

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Superunknown in DTS Headphone X: The Sound

Brent Butterworth

I listened to the DTS Headphone X version of Superunknown primarily through two sets of on-ear headphones: the new Beyerdynamic T 51 p on-ear headphones and the vintage Sennheiser HD 433. I don't have the special edition package mentioned on the previous page, but DTS provided me with a special code I could use to access the app. I downloaded the app onto my Samsung Galaxy S III Android smartphone, and once the code was in, the app automatically downloaded all of the tunes onto my phone.

I have to say -- I'm sad to say -- that the DTS Headphone X tracks didn't impress me at all. I can't say I heard a significant "out of head" effect, which is what headphone virtualizer technologies are supposed to deliver: an experience more like listening to speakers in a room, that gets rid of that "phantom image inside your head" effect headphones usually produce. I didn't even hear it on the channel ID test tracks. Probably the best out-of-head effect I got was the spoon playing in "Spoonman"; but the spoons imaged directly behind me, which just sounded strange. (Yep, I double-checked to make sure I had the headphones on right.) Even most of what should have sounded like ambient or spatial effects seemed to come from the middle of my head instead of from the space around me.

What's worse is that the bass was way pumped up compared to the MP3s I ripped from the original CD, which made the entire recording sound dull. Playing around with the settings, it was apparent to me that the technology assumes that on-ear headphones will have less bass than over-ear 'phones, and that in-ear headphones will have even less bass. So it takes the already boosted bass of the over-ear mode, boosts it even more for the on-ear mode, and even more for the in-ear mode. The best I heard, even using on-ear headphones, was from the over-ear mode, which had the least bass.

But headphone processing works differently for different people, so to get some other opinions, I played Superunknown for a couple of audiophile buddies of mine, Gordon Sauck and Paul DeMara. While they reported getting a little bit of out-of-head effect, they were both disappointed by the dullness of the sound and the heaviness of the bass. "It sounds like someone threw a heavy blanket over a speaker," Gordon said.

"It sounds like they extracted the out-of-phase information, mixed it all together, then put it back into the mix," Paul added.

Paul -- like Gord, a serious vintage audio enthusiast -- had just been telling us about his recent interest in QSound, a short-lived quasi-surround two-channel mixing scheme used in a few 1990s recordings. Just out of curiosity, he put on "Lucky Star" from Madonna's The Immaculate Collection greatest hits package, which was mixed in QSound. We all thought it sounded fantastic, even though QSound was never intended for use with headphones. We all got a huge, exciting sound and lots of out-of-head effect, with none of the typical artifacts of headphone virtualizers, such as phasiness and comb filtering. And we all agreed that if the DTS Headphone X mix of Superunknown sounded as good through headphones as this 24-year-old QSound mix did, we'd be raving about Headphone X and saying it's the future of headphone listening.

I hate to pan something produced by one of my favorite metal bands, and I hate to pan anything that's attempting to deliver a better listening experience through headphones, but it's hard for me to imagine that anyone would like the DTS Headphone X mix of Superunknown better than the original stereo mix.

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