Saturday, March 27, 2021

Headphone Virtualization For Music Reproduction

This post is written after the presentation I gave to my colleagues. Here I tried to explain why making commercial stereo recordings to sound on headphones as good and natural as they can sound on a well tuned stereo speakers is not an easy task. This topic has much in common with the popular topics on "immersive" or "3D sound" on headphones because essentially we want to reproduce a recording in a way that makes the listener to believe that they are actually out there with the performance and forget that they even have the headphones on. However, this post deals specifically with commercial stereo recordings reproduction and does not touch topics of AR/VR.

Reproduction on Speakers

First we need to provide some context about speaker playback. Let's start with the simplest case of a mono speaker located in a non-anechoic (that is, regular) room. Imagine you are listening to some sound, for example pink noise, played over this speaker. Although it's a very simple case, it demonstrates several important things. We understand that the physical sound (acoustic waves) needs to be received by the sensory system of our body—mainly ears, processed by our brain, and as a result we have a perception (or acoustic image) of the physical source formed in our mind. We also see the speaker, and the perceived sound source will be in our mind anchored, or localized to the visual image of the speaker.

This audio perception has a lot of associated attributes in our mind. Some of them originate in the sound that is being reproduced by the speaker, like it's loudness and timbre. Some of them are are specific to the relative position of the speaker and the listener, and the properties of the room. Humans use both ears (binaural listening), and our brain manages to recognize the source in both audio inputs and derive the difference in sound levels and the times of arrival (known as Interaural Level and Time Difference, ILD and ITD) for roughly locating it in the horizontal plane of our mind's eye.

Moreover, in a non-anechoic room there will be reflections from the walls and other objects, and the information will be extracted by the brain from ILD and ITD of the reflected sounds to help us to estimate the distance to the sound source and even the size of the room.

Moving to a reproduction using two speakers gives a possibility to provide even more cues to the brain and create imaginary sound sources that are positioned outside of the actual sound sources—the speakers. However, with two speakers the acoustical picture becomes more complicated. Obviously, each ear receives sound from both speakers and from wall reflections. With a good stereo setup the listener can forget about the existence of the speakers and completely disentangle them from the sound they are producing.

Through the long history of the development of stereo recording and playback audio engineers learned how to use the stereo speaker arrangement for creating phantom sources that are located anywhere in the horizontal plane between the speakers and even outside them. As a matter of fact, most commercially available stereo recordings were produced for playback over speakers.

Use of multi-channel systems, especially with height channels helps to push envelope even further and produce phantom sources anywhere around the listener. Unlike a stereo setup where the perception of phantom sources might be quite sensitive to the listener location, multi-channel systems handle even multiple listeners with ease. Anyone who had a chance to visit a modern movie theater had experienced the wonders of this technology.


However, even on stereo systems some of advanced sound engineers manage to create phantom sources that are located above the speakers, to the side of, or in a close proximity to the listener. These effects are achieved by applying frequency filtering which imitates the physical filters of ear pinnaes and of the head. Some example of tracks that I personally like are "Edge of Life" by Recoil and "One Step Behind" by Hol Baumann.

This brings us the the topic of HRTF (Head-Related Transfer Function). It is used a lot in the context of AR/VR, however, for our particular topic what we need to understand that there exist two filters: the first is the physical filter which is located between a sound source and an eardrum: the combination of the torso, head, and the outer ear. They transform any external sound in a way that greatly depends on the location of its source to the ear.

The second filter exists in our auditory system. It is quite complex, it uses information arriving to both ears, visual cues, and our learned experience of living with the physical fiter of our body. Its goal is to "undo" the effect of the body filter and restore the original timbre of the sound source and use the information from the body filter for locating the sound source.

A simple an efficient demonstration of this filter at work, as pointed out by S. Linkwitz, is turning one's head from side to side while listening to music. Although the sound that reaches one's ear drums changes dramatically, the perception of the timbre remains stable and the sound source just changes its position in the auditory image. However, the filter of the auditory system doesn't restore the timbre completely. If you try compare the auditory image of the noise from ocean waves as heard facing them, and then from the back, the latter sound will be noticeably lacking the boost of high frequencies that our ears pinnaes add.

It is important to note that due to assymetry of human bodies the physical filters for the left and right ears are different, and so are the auditory system filters that counteract them. This assymetry plays an important role, along with ITLD and room reflections, in locating sound sources and placing them correctly on the auditory image. As C. Poldy notes in his tutorial on headphones, "the interaural differences are unique for each individual and could not be a characteristic of the sound source." This allows humans (and other creatures) to derive the direction of the sound without rotating their heads.

Very simplified model of HRTF filters at work (after D. Griesinger) is as follows:

The "Adaptive AGC" block helps to restore alterations of frequency response due to environmental conditions. This is similar to "auto white balance" function of human's vision system. It helps to recover the natural timbre of familiar sources which are altered, for example, by closely placed reflective surfaces.

Reproduction on Headphones

Now we put headphones on—what happens? Because the drivers of headphones located close to ears, or even in the ear canal, the natural physical filter is partially bypassed and is partially altered due to the change in the ear physics, for example, due to blocked ear canal, or new resonances added due to presence of ear cups around the ear. Left and right headphone speakers are usually tuned to be symmetric. The combination of these factors brings in misleading cues to the auditory system and it can't anymore use the localization mechanisms beyond those relying on simple interaural level difference. As a result, the auditory image "resets" to "inside the head" sensation.

Another difference from stereo speaker playback is that in headphones left and right channels of the recording do not "leak" to contra-lateral ears. This is a remarkably good property of headphone playback and it is used a lot for creating immersive experience, however it deviates from the reproduction setup what stereo recordings are created for. Some recording and artificial effects that are used for creating a wide auditory scene on stereo recordings inevitably stop working when playing over headphones.

There exist several known approaches for bringing headphone playback closer to speaker reproduction. I must note that some of them are specific to stereo music reproduction—they are not needed for binaural recordings and binaural renderings of multi-channel and object-based audio programs.


This is the technique that I was exploring a lot in the past, see my old posts about Redline Monitor Plugin and on Phonitor Mini. Crossfeed is based on adding of slightly delayed copies of sound from the counter channel to the direct channel. It is based on a simple spherical head model.

Adding a delayed copy of the signal to itself leads to comb filtering—it also occurs natually in speaker playback and is likely taken into account by the brain for approximating distances between audio sources. My opinion is that comb filtering should be kept to minimum to avoid altering the timbre of the sound. For music playback I would prefer the least amount of comb filtering, even if it results in less externalization over headphones.

Multi-channel Rendering

Rendering of multi-channel audio over headphones can be based on the same principle as crossfeed but with a more realistic head model, as it also needs to take into account natural suppression of high frequencies caused by pinnaes of the ears. It is likely that a binaural renderer for multi-channel audio relies on more realistic HRTFs. For example, below are HRTF filters used by my Marantz AV7704 when playing a 5.1 multi-channel program into the headphone output in "Virtual" mode:

An interesting observation is that the center channel is rendered using an identity transfer function, although normally a frontal sound source will be affected by HRTF, too.

The graphs above do not reveal how the simulation of acoustic leakage between speakers affects the output signal. On the graphs below the test signal is played simultaneously into the front left and front right channels. In the time domain we see a delayed signal from the counter channel (ETC is shown for clarity):

And in the frequency domain this unsurprisingly causes ripples to appear:

The headphone virtualizer in AV7704 doesn't go beyond simulating acoustic leakage and directional filtering. However, there is yet another big thing that could be added.


The rooms that we have at home rarely have extensive acoustic treatment similar to studios. Certainly, when setting up and tuning a speaker system in a room I try to minimize the impact of reflections during the first 25 ms or so, see my post about setting up LXmini in a living room. However, this setup is still "live" and has a long reverberation tail. The latter is obviously missing when playing over headphones. A slight amount of artificial reverb with controlled delay time and level helps to "live up" headphone playback and add more "envelopment" even for a stereo recording.

The standard LEDE design of audio studios also allowed for some diffused sound coming from the back of the listener. This sound, which is decorrellated with the direct sound from the speaker helps to enhance the clarity of the reproduction. In fact, the more it is decorrelated, the better, since that minimizes comb filtering.

Headphones Equalization

These days measuring headphones is a popular hobby among tech-savvy audiophiles. What these measurements show is that no two models of headphones are tuned the same way. Although there are well known "recommended" target curves like Harman Target Curve, or diffuse field target curve, which strives to make the sound pressure delivered to the microphones of a head and torso simulator to resemble the sound pressure they receive in a room with a lot of random reflections. However, each designer tends to bring in some "voicing" to stand off the crowd, and as a result, one might need to go a long way finding headphones that satisfy their musical taste. I guess, if the customers ears and body have similar dimensions as of some good headphone designer, the customer could be quite happy with the tuning.

I had some fun trying audio plugins for cross-tuning headphones to make them sound similar to other models, however the outcome of these experiments was still somewhat unsatisfying. The only equalization which seems to be useful is the one which ensures that the headphones deliver a flat frequency response to the eardrums. This is a "ground zero" equalization on top of which one can start putting on HRTFs and preference tuning curves.

One problem when trying to achieve the flat equalization by means of plugins is that the measurements that they use were taken on a head and torso simulator and don't take into account how the headphones interact with my ears, thus the resulting tuning is not flat. It's not even balanced correctly since my ears are not symmetric. It's very easy to demonstrate this by playing over headphones mono signal of banded tone bursts of chirps over the audible range—they move arbitrarily from left to right. This almost doesn't occur when playing the same signals over a tuned pair of stereo speakers because their sound passes through the "outer" HRTF filter—the body, and the audiory system can find a matching pair of HRTFs for compensation. When using headphones the matching pair of HRTFs can not be found, thus no compensation occurs.

This is actually a serious problem, and a lot of research related to HRTFs is devoted to finding ways of figuring out a personalized HRTF without physically taking the subject into an anechoic chamber to measure HRTFs directly. However, for simulating stereo speakers knowing full HRTFs (for sources in any direction) are not required. Still, some degree of personal headphone equalization is needed to achieve proper centering of mono images and placing the virtual speakers in front of the listener in horizontal plane.

Head Tracking

There is another way for dealing with the lack of a personal headphone equalization. Our hearing system takes a lot of cues from other sensory systems: visual, motion, sense of vibrations, and from higher levels of brain—all that to compensate for lacking and contradictory cues that our ears receive. By changing sound according to head movements, e.g. with use of some generic HRTFs, we can engage our adaptation mechanism to start making sense of the changes that they produce. Obviously, using person's own HRTF would be ideal, however providing auditory feedback for head movements relies on the ability of our brain to learn new things that are useful for survival.

Gaming-oriented headsets with head tracking, e.g. Audeze Mobius were available for a long time already. And lately, mass consumer-oriented companies like Apple have also adopted the head tracking technology for more realistic multi-channel audio reproduction over headphones, and a lot of other companies will undoubtely follow the suit.

What's Next?

I'm going to discuss how headphone virtualization is implemented in Waves Nx, and also my DIY approach based on D. Griesinger's ideas.

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