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Audio-only VR: Is it ready for prime time?

VR audio makes sense as part of a virtual audio-visual experience. But VR sound without pictures makes my head spin.

Claudia Cruz/CNET

Virtual-reality surround sound -- also known as 3D audio, binaural, 5.1 or whatever you want to call it -- never caught on for music. Surround sound that goes hand-in-hand with video has taken off, and now nearly all new movies, concerts, games and TV shows have multichannel audio. But new music on LP, CD, SACD, download or streaming is still almost always stereo.

In the early 1970s, quadraphonic (or four-channel) audio was massively promoted as the next big thing, and quad was available on LP and numerous tape formats. Most of the major record labels were on board and released a decent number of quad titles through the decade, but the format fizzled. Four speakers were two too many for most folks.

A binaural recording "dummy" head, with microphones in its ears.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Audio-only surround remained more or less dormant until the early 2000s. When super-sounding SACD and DVD-Audio were introduced, you'd think audiophiles would have been dancing in the streets. Both formats were a huge improvement over CD sound quality, and both offered high-resolution stereo and multichannel audio. SACD is still lingering as a niche format, but just barely. DVD-A sunk without a trace. Again, audio-only surround was a non-starter.

We've seen sporadic dalliances with audio-only surround music on Blu-ray in recent years. Most notably Steven Wilson embraced surround in a big way with Blu-ray Audio discs such as "Grace For Drowning," "Raven That Refused To Sing," "Hand. Cannot. Erase," and "4 1/2." Other artists may have remixed older recording in VR formats, but I don't know of any that has committed to recording all of their new music in a surround format.

Some VR recordings rely on variations of binaural audio, a recording technique that uses microphones mounted in the "ears" of a human-sized "dummy head." At their best binaural recordings played over headphones can sound like you're in the room with the band. That's all good, but binaural isn't new tech: Lou Reed released a couple of binaural albums in the late 1970s. Few artists followed his lead.

So what's out there today? Dolby Atmos and DTS:X 3D surround are both "object-based," promising "moving audio" and sound that "transports you into the story." But my Atmos experiences at Dolby Labs in New York City and in the CNET listening room haven't (yet) yielded a great advance over standard 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround. As for DTS:X, I'm still waiting to receive a selection of Blu-rays and receivers that can play it. It might be more effective than Atmos, we'll see.

DTS' Headphone:X promises to simulate "the 3D environment of the audio's original mixing stage" on standard headphones. But it never delivered on the demos I heard.

Way back in 2010, curiously enough, I heard truly convincing surround sound over headphones with Smyth Research's Realiser A8 processor. The complete Realiser system, including the headphones and amplifier, retailed for $3,360. When I heard the Realiser A8 for the first time, I whipped the headphones off to confirm the sound wasn't coming out of the surround speakers in the room. No, the surround was coming from the headphones! The Realiser A8's spatial localization was 100 percent convincing -- too bad Smyth no longer makes it. A new Realiser A16 is in the works and I hope to get one in for review.

No doubt some tech genius will eventually dream up a way to convert stereo recordings into full-blown immersive audio, and in the meantime I regularly get press releases ballyhooing "3D Audio" gizmos. But most of these ear-itching efforts are rather lame. Will the buzz surrounding 3D audio ever amount to anything real? Probably not if you have to pay extra for it. Let's check back in 2017 and see where any of this leads.