It’s amazing what we tolerate when it comes to recorded sound. Take your smartphone, for instance. With each annual upgrade cycle comes notable enhancements in specs like processor speed and the clarity and resolution of photos and videos. Yet as these gadgets enable us to document our lives in greater visual fidelity, one detail barely ever budges: the depth of sound.
Anthony Mattana, a former theater sound designer based in Brooklyn, is just one of the people fixated on changing this. His startup Hooke Audio makes a pair of $240 bluetooth earbuds that turn your head into a 3D microphone. Using a pair of small, omnidirectional mics on the outside of each earbud, the Hooke Verse captures three-dimensional sound using a decades-old method called binaural recording.
The result is audio that is technically still two-channel stereo (and thus can be played back on any headphones or speakers), but that has a spatial, layered depth that mimics how our ears actually hear sound in the real world: a truck zooming by will sound like it’s approaching from behind, get louder, and then slowly fade in volume as it moves forward. You might hear people’s voices coming from various directions all around you—not just from the right or left.
Not that you’re clamoring for a realistic audio recordings of trucks and the voices of random strangers on the sidewalk. Rather, gadgets like the Hooke Verse can be used to capture high-quality sound at music festivals or record a video of your kid’s soccer game with a more spatially rich, detailed layer of audio. The Verse has even been used by some blind customers to help enhance their perception of the world around them by adding a sense of location and proximity to what otherwise would be flat stereo sound.
The Verse works best by pairing with a proprietary mobile app for iOS and Android, which can be used to record video and audio files that can then be exported and shared in whatever manner one desires. But the device can also be plugged into DSLR cameras and other recording devices to capture 3D sound.
The Hooke Verse isn’t the only portable binaural recording gadget out there. Sennhesier, whose Ambeo format is a popular standard in 3D audio, unveiled the Ambeo Smart Surround earbuds at CES in January. Sennheiser’s mobile 3D recording earbuds, which don’t yet have a price tag, are expected to ship later this year. Sennheiser’s 9.1 channel Ambeo sound technology has been showcased in a number of different installations and exhibits, most recently in the form of a 9.1 remix of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” that plays at the end of the the band’s exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Binaural recording and 3D audio are hardly a new innovation. The technology has existed for decades, but has long been expensive and cumbersome to capture. And the recording industry failed to turn consumers on to the concept of 3D music. In recent years, the tech has grown cheaper and more portable. Perhaps more importantly, interest in 3D audio has grown alongside the hype around virtual reality and augmented reality. After all, what good is immersive video without sound that feels just as multidimensional? The Hooke Verse does a pretty decent job of capturing immersive audio that sounds like it’s swirling around you. And if the hype behind AR and VR actually plays out, we might be seeing a lot more 3D audio products like this one.