Today we're excited to have an update for you courtesy of a Kickstarter backer named John Veleta.
John reached out to us several weeks ago to see if he could schedule a visit the office, and was able to make it down from LA last week. During his visit he sat down with Jason and Joy to ask some questions he sourced by our backers, demo the latest headphone, and overall get a sense of the project status. John directed our Kickstarter video, and became a backer shortly after the campaign launched. It was great to have him.
As some of you may have noticed already, John posted his unbiased thoughts as well as answers to some great questions on the comments section of the Kickstarter page at the end of last week. After telling us he had posted his comments to the community we requested if could repost them on our blog with his permission and he agreed.
It's always good to have an outside perspective, and John's comments provided just that (and a very thorough one, at that). You can check it out below:
**Begin the copy/paste of John's comments directly from our Kickstarter page, reposted with his permission.**
[Enter John] Okay, So I made it down there after my shoot had wrapped, I brought the Director I was working with and his wife, who’s a photojournalist and had a job in SD as well (we had carpooled to SD) and used them for a lot of the demo pictures. Honestly watching their reactions to the headphones was pretty hilarious, I had forgotten how people that have never heard them react.
First I guess I’ll give my impressions and what the demos I did were and then I’ll get into the Q/A part.
Overall impression of the headphones:
They’re pretty solid. They feel like the have some heft to them, but still felt pretty comfortable on my head. My buddies wife is about 5’4” or 5’5” so she was the smallest of us to have the headphones on. I’m 6’2” for reference. The cans themselves are pretty large, but I was told that’s so an anechoic chamber can be formed around my ear that allows the eight drivers to work. They don’t have any active noise canceling, due to the amount of processing it would take (I think), but because of how they are built the passive noise canceling was pretty impressive. I was in an Office building after hours though so it wasn’t that loud so YMMV. My director buddy, who had only ever heard of the headphones from my involvement with the Kickstarter kept mentioning how solid the headphones felt, and that they seemed well machined and I agree that they don’t seem to be cheap in any way, but something that would last a while.
So I took some detail shots of the connections which are micro USC on the headphones themselves. The port there felt pretty good. Not super flimsy, but nothing more than a locking/seated micro USB connection. There wasn’t much wiggle so I don’t think durability will be an issue, but again I didn’t have my phone tugging on them or anything. Jason told me that because of when they started designing the headphones there was no worldwide usb-c adoption that they went with Micro USB on the headphones. He also said that any standard micro USB to USB-C cable will work with them though. So they should remain future proof. The headphones themselves will ship with five cables I believe: Micro to lightning, Micro extension, Micro to Micro, Micro to Aux, and Micro to standard USB.
While I’m not a professional sound guy, I’m a Cinematographer by trade, I do have a pair of Snell E3’s in my living room running through a Peach Tree Audio Nova amp and my buddy has some Vanderstein V2s and Warfdale Dentons 50th Anniversary speakers hooked up to tube amps that I listen to fairly often so I at least know what sounds bad I hope. The X’s didn’t sound bad at all. They definitely sounded way clearer than the last time I had a pair of them on. I asked Joy, their CTO what she could compare them to for me and she gave me a response that I would never claim to be able to understand, but my takeaway was that she’s super on it about tuning them to sound their best (They are on something like their ~200th tuning) and that because there are 8 drivers they have to manage the beam forming across all the drivers and make sure that they are optimized together for localizing the sound in all different points of space That creates a "tremendous amount of data and a tremendous amount of tuning to do, this one (the PB1 unit I had in my hand) there’s some timing in the front and some highs that I’m going to be modifying, but it’s converging. Other headphones only have two points so there’s literately only two measurements, literately, but we have to tune a thousand curves as opposed to two, it’s a totally different animal. There’s some choices were going to have to make about how much room or reverberation were going to have to add to the system or not, so that one definitely come down to taste.” I asked if users could modify that and she said not out of the box at first, but that it’s all parameterized and they have built the infrastructure for that to happen down the road. (Honestly I think I understand what Joy was saying, but she’s light years above me in understanding audio so if I hadn’t recorded her talking with permission I wouldn’t have been able to remember any of that.).
They compare them against a flat speaker they homebuilt in the office that has four subwoofers and uses coaxial and magnesium drivers on the mids and highs. They measure people with the real speaker and then with the headphones to compare, but she said that it’s not possible for her to compare them to a commercial system.
She mentioned that because they’re supporting this for so many platforms that the degree in difficulty is way more complicated than some standard two driver/minijack headphones.
Joy said that the tuning I heard was probably what the development backers will get and that for the mass production they will go through a couple more tunings based off their feedback and internal review.
The first demo we did was just watching Netflix in 5.1 on the headphones. Apparently Dolbys’ patents have expired so now Netflix and other VOD suppliers are allowing 5.1 through streaming on TVs and mobile which is pretty cool. We watched a sequence from season 1 of Stranger Things and then the street shootout sequence from Shaun of the Dead. I was able to turn off and on the spatialization on the headphones and there is definitely a difference in sound stage. Will be super useful for anyone that doesn’t have 5.1 speaks in their home or can’t listen late at night with the volume up but wants to experience the total mix. Super weird that you can turn your head around while watching and the sounds all shift with your head turn to stay localized in space.
The second demo was a spatialized mix of a BANKS song that I hadn’t heard before. It was for a 360 video that BANKS did and Ossic apparently did the 360 audio mix for it. Jason told me that Kedar, one of their audio engineers, used their (Ossic’s) VST plugins and their mixing tools to do 3d mixing on digital audio workstations. So those tools should be available to content creators as well at release.
The third demo was one of their trade show demos. It was a VR demo with the HTC Vive where you were listening to a rock song and each track, ie. Vocals, guitar, different drums, etc. were all little glowing spheres that you could grab and move around to mix the song in 3D for yourself. Honestly this was the coolest demo. It was amazing how accurate the sounds shifted as I moved them around my head and up and down in the VR space. As a creative storyteller by trade this will really be useful to direct peoples attention to the right locations in VR games and videos etc.
We were also able to listen to Spotify on our phones, and at Jason’s advice, I reset the sound stage of the headphones to directly behind me and walked around the office which gave the impression that I was walking with my own movie soundtrack. It will be interesting to see what everyone else comes up with manipulating that space.
Overall it seems there’s definitely a lot of progress being made to develop the whole ecosystem, from the last time I was involved, and make sure that everything works with plug and play on mass production.
Questions: (I’m quoting what I can and paraphrasing the rest)
Q. A lot of Kickstarter backers asked about why money was being spent on trade shows when no one has received a product yet:
A. The reality is that we go to trade shows to mostly make the industry connections that allow us to A. Grow as a company and B. Grow awareness of 3D audio to develop the ecosystem around it, and C. Show our backers the product because that’s the only real place to experience it outside of our office. We wish that we had shipped on time because we feel that this wouldn’t be seen as a negative in that case, but understand where the concern is coming from.
Q. (To Jason:) Backers are concerned about a lack of transparency:
A. “The original product spec was to support Mac and PC and that was a much simpler project. During the campaign we got overwhelming feedback that people wanted full mobile support and we set that up as a stretch goal [lightning and apple connectivity]. We hit that, but what it meant was that the project ended up being three times more complicated.
The reason is that for the PC and Mac version we were doing all the processing on the PC and Mac, but in order to support a wide variety of mobile phones and to support analogue connectivity we basically had to build a very powerful computer into the headphones. So the headphone actually has a 32 core processor in it. It’s like a very high end computer on your head. It also means it has a big battery and there are a lot of things that we need to pack into it so that it can also support thing like the analog connectivity for phones so that no matter what phone or device you have, even if its an old school walkman, that you can plug it in and at least get the 3D effect on the stereo feed, but in the case that you have Lightning or USB (Micro or USBC) that you’re getting full multichannel.
And I think that’s cool because with all this new multichannel content showing up on Netflix or iTunes it means that you get this theatre experience in your phone. But for us it meant that a lot of people thought that you just threw some more cables in the box, but it actually meant that we had to build five software stacks, instead of one. And we had to pack a computer and battery and all this stuff into the device. So, If you go back to right after we launched the product we said guys this is going to at least take three to four more months and that was….probably optimistic.
The reality was that we had to do partnerships with these companies to even make some of this connectivity possible on the phones. In some cases we can’t be totally transparent about all of this because we’re under NDAs with those companies so I can’t go into all the details, but all I can say is getting multichannel out of the phone ecosystem was not trivial and turned out to be a ton of work and there were special programs we had to put into place to be able to do that. And so the end result is going to be that it’s a lot cooler product that has the connectivity that will be able to support all the devices now and also the future devices, but the reality is that it made this project giant and more complicated.”
Q. Because of the amount that the funding went over the original Kickstarter goal, Backers are wondering why there aren’t products in hands yet since you had the extra cash?
A. His answer was that, as said above, the project became more complicated with the additional stretch goals and just the amount of units that needed to be made. But also that they, like most other hardware-based products [even many on Kickstarter], to cover the cost of the discounted pricing on the Kickstarter units and to add all the functionality and to give runway for the company, they raised substantially more financing outside of Kickstarter on top of that amount. The scope of the entire thing is that “...it’s a big project, its a complicated project we’re tackling the ecosystem and the connectivity and a lot of things beyond making a headphone. Only a fraction of those Kickstarter dollars go to fund that R&D, but there’s tooling and other pieces in that puzzle that need to be taken care of in a project this complicated, so while it helps with the process it can’t totally create the entire ecosystem and product development.” He also mentioned that the outside financing is part of the reason that they can’t give full transparency on every issue that arises.
Q. There’s been so many last minute delays, why?
A. He wasn’t able to fully answer this in specifics due to NDA’s, but the gist was that there’s a lot of outside pieces of the puzzle moving and while they definitely regret letting the backers down in that regard, especially this fall, they hope to right that ship and win back that loss in confidence with a good product and better communication going forward.
Q. When will the product ship?
A. (This is me talking now, not Jason ) Okay, so I know that this is the real meat of what everyone wants to know and I’m going to have to disappoint a little. The answer I can give is that they are much closer to shipping the development backer units than I expected going into this meeting, and that after those ship it should be 3-4 months before anyone can expect to see their non development backer units. What I can also say is that they are as equally frustrated by the reasons that have inhibited them from shipping earlier, and that they are laser focused on achieving that.
My overall takeaway from the visit was that it seems like they are genuinely disappointed that they haven’t been able to ship the product yet, and that their main focus is to do just that. I was told “The reality is that our only goal right now is getting the damn things out.” Which I at least think is a good sign. They mentioned that while they are closed for the holidays, if any other backers want to stop by that they should reach out. I pushed them to try and give a little bit more intimate look into the company going forward for you guys and not to just release commercial/polished looking press releases/backer updates. Hopefully they will do that going forward.
Let me know of you have any other questions and I’ll answer as best I can, I hope all of this was helpful. After doing all the demos etc. I’m looking forward to getting my pair as much as the rest of you, but will probably not obsess about a timeline and just be surprised and excited when they show up.
A huge thanks to John for taking the time to organize the visit and writeup his full review. We sincerely appreciate his feedback. Of course a big thanks to also goes out to everyone of you for your continued patience as we progress with the development of a groundbreaking product. We sincerely appreciate your support.
If you have any questions about the session you can reach John via Kickstarter, and if you have any additional product or project questions please shoot us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.