Way back in the early 1970s, I learned my first lesson about the most important part of an audio system. I was the owner of a pair of Cerwin Vega R12 speakers. I remember the slogan well: “Loud is beautiful, if it's clear.” Yes, I was really proud of a t-shirt touting their philosophy. After a year of enjoyment in my college dorm, a summer came and went and it was time for a new room. I remember dragging my audio gear up three flights of stairs, unpacking it first (because I needed my music before anything else), hooking everything up and the stylus hitting a Who album. I remembered well how it sounded the year before, but now something was just wrong. I checked all my connections, moved things around, but for the life of me I could not get my system to sound the way I remembered it. The variable was the room! Lucky for me, the next year the room was nicer and sounded a lot better.
What causes the room to have such an impact on the sound? There are really two factors: the dimensions of the room (with sub-factors - where you sit and where the speakers have to go), and the make up of the walls, floor, and ceiling. The make up of the walls, floor and ceiling all affect reflected sound. If you've been in a room with no furniture and nothing on the walls or floor, you probably noticed a lot of echo. This is the part of the room we can affect with room treatments to reduce sound reflections. You do not want a room too damped, but we can affect this factor. This is where Audio Advice can help you when you are designing your home theater room.
The dimensions of the room in relation to where you are and the speakers are located cause standing waves. These either boost or decrease sound frequencies. If you look at the specifications for any good speaker, you'll see a very flat response curve. This is because the speaker was measured in an anechoic chamber. Since we can not really affect the dimensions of our home once it's built, the response curve has been an issue since the dawn of reproduced sound. You would not believe how bad most speakers measure in a real room compared to the anechoic chamber. There have been many attempts over decades to remove room flaws. Until now, most of them introduced as many problems as they fixed. (If not more.)
Fast forward 40 years - I think we may actually have a way to take the room out of the equation (For the most part at least.) If you make it to the end credits of just about any movie (typically at the very end), you will notice in the lower left hand corner a logo that says Datasat. Who and what is Datasat? Well, they have been around for almost 30 years supplying processing to commercial cinemas. Over 30,000 high performance movie theaters around the world use Datasat products. A couple of years ago they bought DTS, one of the pioneers in theater audio processing.
As you know from my other posts, I love to play with new audio/video toys. Ivan had been bugging me for a few months to give their flagship surround sound processor a try. I finally caved in and got one for evaluation. I don't think I have ever encountered a more complicated piece of electronics just for getting sound! It's obvious the menus were written by whoever designed the software behind the scenes. However, I have also never seen anything close to this in the level of system adjustment you can make. I've had the Datasat unit in my home for about a month with about two weeks to really work it out and play around with it.
I think back to my very early years of getting into high end audio. This was before Audio Advice, when I got my start, where my system at home was far better than anything we had to sell at Sam Goody. Back then, I could not wait to get home, put on an album and take in the great sound of my system. Well, I am back to that feeling. I'm sitting here tonight writing, thinking about what movie I want to enjoy tonight! After 38 years of being in the audio/video business, I am totally excited to experience a movie with the Datasat! I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.
Why is that? I can sum it up with one word: purity. It's what I think to myself as I sit amazed at the sound.
Some technical details, but I'll be brief. The Datasat RS20i is a surround sound processor. (By the way, my picture is the best it's ever been as well. The Datasat is just a pass through, but it appears to be the best I have ever had in my house.) It's only got 4 HDMI inputs and it's a royal pain to get them all assigned properly. It has a funky commercial dongle on it for you to plug your audio cables into that go out to your power amps. The magic is its processing. For the first time, we have a system that can minimize room issues! The Datasat uses 6 of the fastest processors you'll find in the consumer market to do phase accurate room equalization. There are up to 521 different points on the curve it can adjust. It takes about 3-4 hours to really get this nailed, but once it's done, your system is thoroughly transformed. The process involves taking measurements of your room with a special calibrated microphone connected to a laptop. (This is a dealer only set up, the set up kit alone is almost 1/3 the price of the Datasat.) This measurements dump their special eq software where the software suggests a room “target” curve. Once this is done, you continue with the normal set up of your surround system, adjusting levels and distances.
Here is where some artistic freedom comes in. The curve usually suggested by the software has (in my opinion) way too much high frequency energy. Most of us like a gentle roll of of the highs, which the room usually causes. This is a cool part - you can adjust the target curve! Once you do this, it takes a few minutes to process everything. Then you load the curves into the unit via ethernet and you are all set to give it a test run. I played around quite a bit and finally found a curve whose sound I loved. Interestingly, it followed the rough response curve of my Vandersteen 5s. As you can see from the pictures, the difference in the before and after is just astounding.
If you have ever played the test tones from your surround sound processor through your speakers you probably noticed each and every speaker sounds really different. What you are hearing is how the room dimensions in relation to where each speaker is (plus the make up of the walls, floor and ceiling) are impacting the frequency response.
So what happens when you get all of the speakers in your room adjusted? First, when you play the test tones, they all sound astoundingly similar! But when you put on a well recorded movie, all I can say is - it's magic! Have you ever been in a car with all the windows fogged up? Do you remember how much better you could see in all directions once the defroster kicked in and all the windows were clear? It's like this with the Datasat! It's just unbelievable. The sound is so pure and clear it makes me grin from ear to ear. You actually hear so much better all the time and money the great producers put into the sound track. With a good soundtrack, you are completely enveloped. When I couple this with my 2:35 projector a good movie does create that elusive suspension of disbelief.
But wait - there is more! Have you heard about Auro 3D? (I bet not.) This is a coming audio surround format that promises far more than even DTS HD Master Audio. Did you know Oz, Red Tails, Spiderman 2, Elysium, Enders Game, and many more new movies have been done in Auro 3D?
What Auro 3D does is create the true surround envelopment. In its ultimate format (there are some options) you have surround speakers at ear level, surround speakers 40 degrees up from your ear level (on the same side wall location as the ones at ear level), a center speaker in the ceiling right above your head, and upper left, center, and right speakers. This creates a complete dome of surround sound!
Guess what processor will be the first to have Auro 3D? You bet - the Datasat! Another great Datasat feature is that it's fully upgradeable. And I'm not talking about pie in the sky like some vendors have pulled off in the past. The Datasat unit is basically a big card cage computer. The one in my house currently has several slots with inputs and outputs but also has three blank slots. Datasat has already announced the Auro 3D upgrade and will soon have a 4K pass through upgrade. Since the main business of Datasat is commercial film, and the formats needed for commercial film have improved over time, I think you can trust that Datasat will keep up with these and offer them as upgrades when they arrive. So this is a unit that should last a very long time.
I think that about sums up how great the Datasat is, and you are probably wondering just what this piece is going to set you back. Like all great pieces of gear, it's not cheap. The RS20i processor is $19,000. I have to say though, it's made the biggest difference of anything I have ever done to my system. In my opinion, if you are seriously deep into this fun hobby of home theater, the Datasat is worth every penny!
Dolby Atmos, another format for improved surround was announced this week for the home. Datasat is already working on a software upgrade that will allow for the RS20i to play back Atmos as well as Auro 3D. Now that is what I call investing in a product that will not become obsolete!