Audyssey: A Review of the MultEQ XT Technology in Denon's Receivers
Let's face it, home theater is more fun when you can share it with others. There's nothing quite like inviting other movie fans over, settling into sofas or comfy armchairs, and letting the experience take over.
But home theater aficionados have long agonized over the problem of the "sweet spot," the single seat in a home theater where everything sounds best. Do they give up the hallowed seat to a guest, or keep it to themselves? Does everyone trade, after the mid-movie break for popcorn? All too often, you end up with three people crammed onto a small loveseat, trying to get the best possible sound.
A company named Audyssey, founded by a handful audio experts at the University of Southern California (including THX inventor Tom Holman), took aim at this problem. They came up with something called MultEQ XT. It's a technology designed to provide the largest possible audio sweet spot, so multiple listeners can enjoy the sonic advantages of the best seat in the house. And it may seem like the kind of thing engineers only use in state-of-the-art theaters, but it's turning up in home theater receivers from Denon.
|The Denon AVR-3806 receiver is one of several with built-in Audyssey MultEQ XT technology.|
Now, at Crutchfield, we've seen various auto-calibration and room EQ technologies come and go, and when we first heard about Audyssey it sounded like more of the same. But it's actually quite a bit different. Most other systems we've seen can achieve noticeable improvements at a single listening spot, although that may actually reduce audio quality for other seats in the room (Bose®'s ADAPTiQ™ is an exception, taking readings at five different locations). Usually, those systems rely on boosting certain frequencies so they are more audible at that position, and delaying certain speakers.
Audyssey, on the other hand, says they have come up with a recipe for making an entire listening area sound superb. To do so, they concentrate on reducing or eliminating unwanted peaks or troughs in the frequency response that are caused by the room itself. They also tweak delay times so the sound from each speaker arrives at your ears at the exact right moment. Finally, and most unusually, Audyssey lets you identify between six and eight primary listening positions — a detail that is surely of interest for anyone who recently watched a blockbuster DVD while smashed into a single sofa with the entire family.
Naturally, we had to try it out. So in the training room at Crutchfield, a handful of interested listeners went and sat down amidst seven speakers and a subwoofer, all powered by the Denon AVR-3806. Before we started listening, however, we got our Denon rep to walk us through setup.
Setting up Audyssey
The setup process didn't seem too complicated, although I wouldn't have wanted to try to puzzle through the menu choices without a manual. You place the microphone (all the Denon receivers with Audyssey include one) at your first listening position, and start the setup process. A loud, somewhat unearthly noise begins repeating itself at one speaker, until the microphone has transmitted the data the receiver needs. Then it switches the signal to the next speaker, until it works through all of them. When it's done with that listening position, you move your microphone to the next seat, and Audyssey starts over for that spot. Once it's tested for every listening position, it tabulates the results and sets an EQ curve and delay times for your system.
Interestingly, the whooping noise generated when the system is analyzing the environment runs the full range of human hearing, from 20 to 20,000 Hz. Apparently, not all systems that do microphone-based auto EQ calibration use such a complete signal to test the environment. (The problem with using a limited signal is that the system can't correct for what it hasn't heard: for example, a problematic dip in low frequencies or an ugly peak in high frequencies.) Another useful tidbit: along with measuring your room, the setup process also makes sure your speakers are in phase, just in case they've been connected improperly. Very handy.
We listened to action-packed movie soundtracks, environmental movie effects, and music. And I'll say right off the bat, we could hear a definite difference between the system with Audyssey on, and the system with Audyssey off. Want to know exactly what we heard? I got some of our listeners to write down their experiences, and here they are, in their own words.
|Audyssey works to correct the audio for every seat in a home theater, so all listeners hear the best possible sound.|
- Bass response. In all the demos we heard, both the movie scenes and the music cuts, Audyssey drastically cleaned up the system's low frequency output. Our Polk powered subwoofer was positioned in the corner of the training room, which is probably why the bass was so "tubby" with Audyssey turned off. When Audyssey was turned on, the lows tightened up dramatically and blended much better with the mids and highs. To my ear, the bass was less localizable with Audyssey engaged — meaning that when it was off, I was more aware of the loud little cube pounding away in the corner. There's an obvious benefit here for folks who need to tuck their subwoofer into a corner due to space or décor-related issues.
- Vocal presence. We heard a demo of Rebecca Pidgeon's rendition of "Spanish Harlem" on Super Audio CD. With Audyssey turned on, her vocals sounded noticeably more "up-front" — switching the processing off had an effect that was similar to placing a layer of cotton in front of the speakers.
- Soundstage. Toggling Audyssey on and off during home theater movie demos, there was a noticeable difference in the width and breadth of the soundstage. In the off position, there seemed to be a cloud of sound "trapped" near the floor-standing towers we were using as front speakers. Then, when Audyssey was turned on, the system seemed to snap into focus and the soundtrack felt instantly much wider and better integrated from front to rear.
- More precise directional effects. When Audyssey was on, it was easier for me to pinpoint the placement of sounds in the 360-degree soundfield. In particular, during the "Echo Game" chapter demo from House of Flying Daggers, I could "see" the ricocheting-bean trajectories and Zhang Ziyi's drum thwacks with my eyes closed in three-dimensional space. And when the entire dishful of beans goes cascading off the drums like a summer hailstorm on a tin roof, all those carefully placed "pings" gave me goose bumps. Audyssey seemed to lift away a layer of "murk," so these effects were noticeably more pronounced than with the processing turned off.
- In-room bass response was clearly improved. Bass extension was noticeably deeper, while boominess was all but completely eliminated. And there was clearly better bass definition; tracking distinct, individual bass notes was quite easy, a very impressive feat for a low-priced subwoofer in a very difficult room.
- The surround effects seemed to be much more distinct with Audyssey on. Panning and tracking were easier to follow, and the soundstage seemed noticeably deeper.
- I'm sure everyone's already commented about it sounding like a layer of murk was removed. Individual instruments and sound effects came more into focus. Nuances like the attacks and decays of sounds were clearer and more precise, and sounds were better localized in three-dimensional space in the room, so everything sounded more realistic.
- High-quality sound reproduction is about recreating the original sounds that were captured by microphones in a studio or in a live performance. In the recording, sound engineering, and reproduction phases all kinds of sonic obstacles get in the way of accurate reproduction. For example, during the recording, the sonic footprints of the microphone and the room in which it was used color the sound. During sound engineering, the application of any processing such as compression, equalization, or reverb colors the sound. And when it comes to reproduction, there's the quality of the gear (disc player, preamp, amp, cables, speakers) as well as the speaker positioning, listener positioning, floor material(s), ceiling material(s), wall material(s), shape of the room, furnishings and other objects in room, resonances, dead spots, etc. Audyssey made a surprisingly noticeable difference in the reproduction. The bass got much less boomy, and the highs got more detailed. Subtleties in the sound came across better. In the end, some folks may prefer "more bass" or "less bass" or "more highs" etc., depending on their individual hearing and preferences, but Audyssey does effectively neutralize some major room reproduction issues.
- I thought the improved bass response was the most consistent improvement Audyssey delivered. That's not just for the bass line in a song — it also made a noticeable difference in all kinds of other sounds and effects. When drums were beaten in The House of Flying Daggers, you didn't just hear the initial thumps clearly. You heard the echoes and vibrations much more distinctly as well.
- The de-murkifying effects of Audyssey were particularly advantageous with movies. For me, many scenes became more involving, because those clarified high-frequencies tended to bring environmental sounds more to life. One example our Denon rep used was a background noise of a fountain trickling, at the beginning of the "Echo Game" sequence in Flying Daggers. With Audyssey off, it was present, but faint and hard to separate from the rustling of ladies' gowns. I also had a harder time telling exactly where it was supposed to be coming from. With Audyssey on, it was clearly detectable as water droplets plunking into a pool, and I could tell it was coming from the front left — a useful detail, because later a fight takes place in that same out-of-sight fountain. A few days afterward, I listened for the same effect on my own home theater system (which does a pretty good job with reproduction of home theater effects) and to my disappointment, I could barely hear it. Guess my home system needs a tune-up.
Overall, it was obvious that different people with different tastes — who had been sitting in different seats in our very large training room — all heard very similar things. So as far as making the audio experience easier to share with a group of people goes, Audyssey seemed to be pulling it off. Plus, the improvements everyone heard seemed like reasonable ones. Tighter bass, more detailed, "forward" highs — they both help get a listener more involved. But to be fair, we did note some things we probably would change.
There were things we noticed that didn't necessarily seem like an improvement. For example, several of us felt that slight limitations of the speakers were amplified by Audyssey. Jim writes:
The speakers we used for front left and right have tweeters that sound a tad too bright to some people's ears. With Audyssey on, the true character of these tweeters shone through more vigorously. Sibilants (like the sound of the letter "s") had a sharpened attack that could be fatiguing over the duration of a long listening session. It would be interesting to hear if this effect was similar or different with other brands of speakers.
Also, we weren't so sure about using Audyssey solely for music. At least two of our listening group are serious audiophiles, and they felt like the results were more "hit or miss" — with some tracks, it unlocked the singer's voice very effectively, but with other tracks, it sounded more artificial and "processed." And in still other tracks, the difference was minimal. Of course, that limitation is not a dealbreaker — Audyssey can easily be turned off for unprocessed listening, as desired.
Although this isn't exactly a downside, it's worth noting that Audyssey can't make a difficult listening environment sound as good as an excellent listening environment. Although it works to correct dead spots and reflections, every room is so very different that all it can do is make the room the best it can be.
Despite a few drawbacks, we all felt that Audyssey made a lot of sense for anyone planning to do mostly home theater with their receiver and speakers. It knit together all the sounds in movie soundtracks very effectively, for a far more seamless effect, no matter where you were sitting. It was extremely easy to set up, too. Basically, we're happy to report that Audyssey does exactly what it claims to, and home theater fans will certainly appreciate it.