Ambisonics, a technology used to create spatial audio experiences, is bad technology for the home (and most public performances). Before arguing this point, let me define how I am judging technology:
A technology is only as good as the experience users have using it.
If someone were to argue that ambisonics is potentially good technology, then I would agree. But there are so many ways that ambisonic playback can be compromised that it is more than likely going to result in a poor spatial audio experience. It is the experience that the user actually gets that counts… not what the technology is theoretically capable of. And that is where ambisonics fails dismally. It is a fragile technology that insists on a slew of preconditions.
Here is a list of just some of the things that can go wrong:
- The user cant easily find/install a software decoder
- When the user does eventually install a decoder, there is no guarantee that it is a proper one (includes shelf filters etc.)
- Connecting one’s computer to a multichannel sound system can be problematic
- The user’s speakers may not be matched
- The user may not be sitting in the centre of the speaker array
- The acoustic of the playback room may interfere with the ambisonic image
Compare all that to the experience of a high def flat screen TV. Buy it, take it out of the box, turn it on. There it is. For ambisonics to become good technology, it must achieve a high level of consistency of quality experiences … not just have the mere capacity to deliver good spatial audio.
I’ve sat in concert halls that are particularly reverberant. Seeing an array of speakers my first thoughts often concern how the reverberation of a hall will interfere with the spatial image. Recently I was surprised when the spatial imaging was far better than I had anticipated … I later learned that spatial location had been implemented in VBAP (Vector Based Amplitude Panning), an alternative spatialisation technology. Here’s an example of how a technology with far less potential can actually be more robust and therefore ultimately deliver a better experience. I would say it is a better technology.
I think the future of ambisonics is in fixed installations in concert halls; where the installation can be tightly controlled, and doing head-tracked HRTF decodes on portable media devices. Both would allow ensuring a consistent quality experience. Making ambisonics become good-technology in the home is possible, but I think it would require all sorts of funky automated things such as speakers that know where they are relative to each other; built-in mics that can measure and compensate for room acoustics; and mechanical robot devices to push listeners into the sweet spot when they’ve inadvertently decided not to sit in the middle of the room!