Smyth Realiser A8: Perfect surround sound over headphones

The Smyth Research's Realiser A8 processor makes headphones sound remarkably like stereo or home theater speakers. Really!

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
4 min read

I love high-end headphones. The best ones offer a level of detail and clarity that's hard to match with speakers.

Still, lot of folks never listen to headphones at home; for them headphones sound too small, too inside their heads, and they prefer the sound of speakers. Some of the better headphones, like the Sennheiser HD-800 and the Hifiman HE-5's produce sound that is somewhat less stuck inside the head, but even so they always sound like headphones. Now, with the Smyth Research Realiser A8 processor, headphones can sound like speakers. It's amazing!

Never heard of Smyth Research? Stephen Smyth of Smyth Research developed the algorithm that was later selected by Digital Theater Systems (DTS) for its cinema audio playback system that premiered with the Steven Spielberg's film, "Jurassic Park." Mr. Smyth seems to know his way around sound processing algorithms.

After spending some quality time listening through his Smyth Research Realiser A8, I can testify to its effectiveness. With the Realiser A8, room-filling sound was produced by headphones!

When I heard the Realiser A8 do surround for the first time, I whipped the headphones off in disbelief. Wow! The sound wasn't coming out of the surround speakers! The Realiser A8's spatial localization is 100-percent convincing. The system comes with a set of very-high-quality Stax SR-202 electrostatic headphones and a Stax headphone amplifier, but you can use any headphone with the Realiser A8.

The Realiser A8 Smyth Research

I first listened to a demo of the Realiser A8 at a mastering studio and a few days later at home. In both cases the Realiser A8 processor worked very well. It stores data about the actual sound of the speakers in your room--or any room you take the processor to. Better yet, the Realiser A8 isn't limited to stereo reproduction, it can do full-blown five-, six-, or seven-channel surround. The extra cool aspect of that feature is that you can have the sound of your best stereo speakers reproduced in the front, center, and surround channels. The Realiser A8 seems ideal for two-channel audiophiles who previously avoided tackling home theater. With the Realiser A8, audiophiles can keep their two-channel system intact, and still have a satisfying home theater surround experience. It would also work for SACD and DVD-Audio high-resolution surround sound.

So the Realiser A8 produces vastly superior surround than Dolby Headphone, Beyerdynamic's 5.1-channel Headzone, or any prepackaged virtual surround headphone processor I've heard to date. There's a good reason for that: the Realiser A8 comes with a pair of tiny measurement microphones you place in your ears that document the unique characteristics of each listener's ears, head, and torso in a specific sound environment, like your room. Test tones are sequenced through the speakers for a couple of minutes, while the Realiser A8 performs the required calculations to reproduce the sound of the speakers in the room over headphones.

Smyth Research's U.S. laboratory is in Los Angeles, and the staff there can make arrangements with a DVD/Blu-Ray mastering studio, Mi Casa in Hollywood; an audiophile surround-sound music label, AIX in West Los Angeles; or a huge movie palace, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, to have your measurements taken at those facilities. It's not a free service, but Smyth staffers conduct the measurements. Then again, Realiser A8 owners can make their own arrangements with studios, high-end audio retailers, or movie theaters in their hometowns. You can have the sound of a professional installation or an actual movie theater stored in the Realiser, and played back in your home.

The Realiser A8's spatial realism is downright astonishing, but I'm a pretty fussy listener, and I heard differences in tonality and dynamic impact between the Realiser A8 headphone's sound and the two high-end speakers I tried: the Verity Audio Parsafal Ovation ($20,995/pair) and my Zu Essence ($3,600/pair). Both speakers sounded better than the headphones, but the differences weren't huge, and the main deviation occurred in the bass. No headphone can reproduce the feel-it-in-your-body sensation of deep bass, but the processor has a bass output that can be used with a tactile transducer, shaker device to restore some of the bass' visceral quality to headphone sound. The Realiser A8's bass management can also be used to drive conventional subwoofers.

The Realiser A8 has eight-channel analog inputs and outputs Smyth Research

Mastering engineer Alan Silverman heard the demo at his studio and told me the Realiser A8, with his Sennheiser headphones got "awfully close" to the sound of his reference Revel Ultima Studio2 speakers. Not perfect, but he was pleasantly surprised by the Realiser's capabilities


Smyth Research Realiser A8 sales are currently split 50-50 between music/film industry professionals and audiophiles. The complete Realiser system, including the Stax headphones and amplifier, retails for $3,360--expensive, but substantially less than the price of a seven-channel, high-end speaker system. I can also imagine the Realiser A8 would be amazing for gamers. There's no reason why the Realiser A8 technology won't eventually be scaled down to somewhat more affordable components, but we'll see.

In the U.S., the Realiser A8 is sold directly through Smyth Research, and a single brick-and-mortar retailer, Glenn Poor's Audio Video in Champaign, Ill.