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Keeping It Real, Part 3: Virtual Reality For Your Ears & Even More

Moving beyond stereo IEMs into a high-definition experience with 3D in-ear monitoring systems.

Editor’s note: The first two parts of this series can be found on ProSoundWeb here and here.

Until now, the physical constraints of in-ear monitors – sound being delivered direct to our eardrums – have given us no way to experience the nuances of sound localization. The fact that our moulds are in the ear means that we miss out on the out-of-body arrival of sounds and the information we glean from the travel of those sound waves around our heads and bodies.

Until now.

I recently had the pleasure of road-testing a stunning 3D in-ear monitoring system from Germany-based company KLANG:technologies (Klang).

My experience has convinced me that this is the next great leap forward for in-ears, almost as much of a game-changer as the 1990s introduction of IEMs in the first place, or the evolution from analog to digital desks.

Think of a standard, high-quality stereo in-ear mix. We perceive the mix elements panned in varying degrees from dead center all the way out to the peripheries of our ears. Maybe we’ve created some sense of depth with the different levels and EQ of those elements, maybe some atmosphere with reverbs, but that’s about as much as we can do.

Now imagine taking out the ear moulds out and hearing all of those elements placed around us acoustically in three dimensions. The relative volumes are the same, but all of a sudden there’s a sense of space and freedom as we’re liberated from cramming all of those mix elements into the limited confines of the space between our ears.

The detail in the sound of each instrument suddenly becomes a high-definition experience as inputs in similar frequency ranges no longer battle for space; some sounds feel as though they’re high in the air; others close to the ground; some are behind us while others are at distances far beyond our arm’s reach.

That’s what it feels like to switch from a stereo mix to Klang 3D. (Incidentally, going back the other way feels a bit like flying in business class and then returning to economy. Honestly, these folks have ruined stereo for me for life!)

Natural Sound Stage

Klang has employed vast amounts of binaural hearing data to emulate what happens at a listener’s ear when the source is coming from outside the body. This data, gathered in lengthy experiments involving dummy heads with tiny microphones placed at the entrance to the ear to “hear” sounds from different places, has enabled them to create an incredibly realistic 3D experience for in-ear monitoring. It’s like virtual reality for the ears, but it’s more than that – it’s an ideal-world natural stage sound.

The Klang model combines all that we know about the nature of sound localization – inter-aural time differences, inter-aural level differences, comb-filtering – with the subtle changes that we experience in frequency perception according to a sound’s location, to allow the monitor engineer to “place” different inputs in various areas around the listener’s head in a 3D spectrum.

Some of the elements that comprise the Klang system, with the interface providing a bird’s eye view of the top of the head.

The very user-friendly interface depicts (on a laptop or more easily still, the touch-screen of an iPad) two different views of the listener’s environment: a bird’s eye view of the top of the head, where instruments appear to be on a virtual ring around your head, allowing you to place them not only to the left and the right but also in front and behind your head; and a landscape view which allows you to move them vertically – above and below your head.

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