REVIEW: Smyth Realizer A8

Please note: I wrote this review over on Computer Audiophile, but I thought some of the A-goners might be interested in the read too. So, with a few small changes, here is my take on the Smyth Research Realizer (again):

There has been quite a few (very positive) things written about the Smyth Research Realizer A8 around the web over the past year or two in places like Stereophile and Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile. Yet the thing is that of these “reviews” have been based on short sessions at audio shows and the like—they tend to be more like “First Looks,” that do an incomplete job of fully dealing with the ownership experience of the Realizer. Given that there has been some interest in the Realizer at Computer Audiophile, here for example, and given that I bought my own about a week ago at Sensorium AV in NYC, I thought I would do what I could to give people a more complete sense of this product; I hope you enjoy the read!

1. Introduction
I hate long user-reviews so I will try and keep this as short as possible—no musical examples, no lengthy discourses on technology or the physical characteristics of the unit, etc. However, with so complex a product, it is important to lay out a few basics first, even at the risk of otherwise boring the reader.

Firstly, I am not a headphone enthusiast… it might be fair to say that I hate, hate the way headphones sound—real life does not take place within the 8”-wide space between one’s ears. However, I found that since I spent most of my time at home in front of my computer, I was listening to most of my music through my USB-connected B&W Zepplin-mini, while my audiophile rig gathered dust in another room. With all due respect to B&W, this just would not do. So I set about figuring out how to go about building an audiophile-quality desktop rig. I tried some pro near-field monitors (most notably the PMC AML 2s) but was not really satisfied. I never would have considered headphones a viable option… until I heard about the Realizer. If nothing else, the Realizer offers the promise of a whole new kind of audiophile listening, which is a good thing!

Second, my rig: I am using the STAX SR-009s driven by a (heavily dampened and isolated) HeadAmp KGSS. Since, as I said, I am not a headphone aficionado, I have no other headphones or amps on hand, all my listening was via this combo and I cannot comment on the performance of the Realizer with other cans, to include lesser STAX.

I sold-off my streaming DAC, a PS Audio PerfectWave MK I w/Bridge, to buy the Realizer, so the Realizer serves as my computer’s soundcard too (about which more below). I am using an otherwise vanilla Dell Latitude laptop to the Realizer through HDMI (MIT HDMI cables and analog interconnects), via JRiver in WASAPI event-style mode. Virtually my entire (+/- 2000 album) music collection was ripped from disk, by me, to FLAC using dbPoweramp (a few friends’ MP3, WAVs and whatever else are thrown in for good measure).

In many forum posts, I have read comments to the effect of: “no matter what the Realizer does, there is just no way that headphone x could ever match six-figure speaker y.” I do not believe that this is true—at least in terms of absolute resolution. Of course, while one can never say that they have heard the THE best speaker system in the world, I have heard many contenders (Magico, Aerial, mbl, Wilson, Revel, etc.)—and not just under crappy show conditions but in dealer showrooms, private homes and, in the case of Ariel, mbl, and Revel, in my own system (though, admittedly, not the top-of-their-line in any of those cases). After those experiences, I believe that the STAX SR-009s are absolutely the most revealing transducers I have ever heard. Period. They have a level of resolution and transparency and seamlessness that I have heard attributed to the full-range Martin Logan panels though, since I have never heard the “big” Martin Logans, I cannot personally comment on the comparison. Let me hasten to add that these being the most revealing (head) speakers in my experience is a long, long way from my saying that they have provided me the most musical, enjoyable, palpable, or “real” (in the Absolute Sound-sort of way) experience—in which terms these cans have been absolutely crushed by the various Magico, Ariel, mbl, Wilson, Revel, etc. speakers I have heard (remember, I hate headphones!). But, in terms of absolute resolution alone, I think the STAX cans are more than a match for any of these.

Think of it this way: the STAX’s cost $5200 and are about the size and complexity of a pair of those monster’s tweeters (sans X/O); setting aside crazy diamond drivers, etc., I don’t think that many of these speakers have $5k + tweeters. If one extrapolated from that to a full, multi-driver speaker system, the price would get up to reference-level (price, at least) rapidly indeed! And lest one think that the STAX’s price is a result of typical audiophile price-inflation, the R&D put into the SR-009 basically busted STAX, Japan and forced its fire-sale to a Chinese company. So, in short, I was not worried about the STAXs keeping up with mega-speakers in terms of resolution. But would the Realizer allow them to approach these systems in all other things good and great (e.g. sound-staging, palpability, getting the sound out from between my !@#$% ears, etc.)?

Finally, my listening priorities: I like surround-sound just fine… when I can be bothered to care about it at all. But 99% of my listening is done in stereo—even on the rare occasions that I watch a movie, chances are it is streamed from Netflix to my computer, which does not support surround sound (thanks to Netflix, who does, confusingly, support surround for streaming on Roku, PS3, XboX, etc.). In any case, although I have been measured for surround and listened to such a system briefly via the Realizer (about which more below), this review is all about the Realizer as a stereo-surrogate.

2. How Does it Sound?!?
On to the meat! I am currently only measured on one stereo system: Sensorium’s reference stereo rig, which uses top-of-the-line BAT and AMR electronics and some Italian speakers with plasma tweeters with which I was unfamiliar and of which I (embarrassingly!) forgot the name. As I collect profiles for more systems over time, I will update this post and/or add comments below.

If I had but one word to describe the performance of the Realizer, it would be “WOW!” The thing is just amazing at what it does… but fully describing the experience will take more than one word (sorry).

One of the most striking things is how the Realizer emulation has completely banished the bass-light character of the STAX. Within the confines of a headphone system (e.g. it cannot ruffle your pants legs or crush your chest with massive bass energy), the perceived bass of these system is now sledgehammer massive (when called for). I almost cannot describe the difference from the super-fast but light—to the point of being almost ephemeral—sound of the SR-009s before the Realizer to the SLAM they now posses with drums, synth bass-lines, organs, whatever.

Perhaps related to the bass rebalancing is the sense of space, soundstage, which the Realizer gives the listener. I know that the Realizer EQs the headphones, apparently to great effect, but I think that much of the improved bass–effect comes from hearing, say, drums in space, firing at you, as opposed to the usual toy drum set between your ears that is usually presented by headphones. By the same token, I have taken to lowering the KGSS’s gain settings when listening through the Realizer. Now I know that usually, it is a complement to say that a new component made me want to “crank it up!” because it was so fun/un-fatiguing/natural/etc. But, in the case of the SR-009s, I kept turning them up in an effort to make the musical experience as natural and physical as it is in real life-a trick they were never able to turn, not even close. With the Realizer in place, everything is so natural, so spatially, physically and palpably “right,” I no longer feel any need to BLAST my ears to try and connect with the music. It is just there.

Oh yes, the soundstage is impressive and immersive—every bit as much as promised. Although the effect was quite natural when I was at Sensorium AV, it is absolutely disorienting (in a good way) as I sit 2-3 feet from my computer monitor—the sound is not coming from where it is supposed to be coming! Speaking of, the sense that the sound is not emanating from the two boxes directly over my ears is no less striking and strange. There is no, none, nada, zero sense that the headphones are making any sound at all—which is very odd as they sit heavily upon my head. With the Realizer in the circuit, headphone listening simply ceases to be headphone listening. I am listening to a real set of speakers, in real space, totally disconnected—disembodied—from the headphones that are otherwise omnipresent on my head. It is very strange—and good.

But am I listing to the same stereo system I was hearing at Sensorium AV? This is much more difficult to say. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that, although I was at Sensorium for several hours, in the end, I am not sufficiently intimate with their system to answer this question exactly now that I am back in my own house. When I was in their sound room, A-B-ing the headphones to the speakers and back again, the match seemed virtually perfect. But as Steve Guttenberg has opined, A-B testing is inherently difficult as our ears may learn to “anticipate” the first system and project it on to the second, masking differences that would otherwise become clear under extended listening. Was this effect present during my tests? Certainly, as I sit here now, the soundstage has moved MUCH closer than I remember it being at Sensorium AV—from the mid-hall perspective I remember at Sensorium, I am now very much in the Front Row. It is not unpleasant, but a difference, none the less.

This change might be my ears playing another kind of trick on me, however. Smyth Research says that for best results the listener should place himself as far from boundaries/speakers as the originally measured speakers were, lest the eyes deceive the ears into making a false impression of depth that can ruin the auditory illusion. It is certainly the case that, even when I close my eyes, I know that my computer monitor is only about 2.5 feet from my face, and the wall just beyond that. If this is the reason for the change from my recollection of the sound at Sensorium AV the fault then cannot fairly be laid at the feet of the Realizer. That said, if the ear-eye illusion is really this fragile, it does limit the applications for the Realizer. Please note however that while the sense of space has shifted, it has in no way been removed. I am still certain that I am hearing not headphones but speakers in space… but are they the same speakers upon which I was measured? Of this I am less certain. Measuring myself on more systems will certainly go some way to resolving this conundrum—and, as I said, I will post on my continuing Realizer adventures as they evolve.

With all of the great things that the Realizer does to eliminate the headphone experience, it also seems to remove, or at least reduce, the single good thing that I heard with the STAX system: its remarkable, uncanny transparency and resolution. It is not as though veils have raised or walls of cotton now stand between me and the musicians, but rather that that preternatural resolution that the STAX possessed has been slightly dulled. I have to say that, to the very best of my recollection, I find this to be consistent with the Sensorium reference system, so this could simply be the Smyth being accurate to the system is was emulating. It could also be that the massive data manipulation involved in the emulation, the Smyth hardware and DACs, etc. are taking a small but noticeable toll. Again, further measurements will help resolve this question. But I have to say that the level of absolute resolution and detail I am now hearing with the Smyth is certainly lower than it was with the PerfectWave DAC/Bridge in its place… but would I trade that last ounce of resolution for the ability to listen to “speakers” as opposed to headphones? One thousand times out of one thousand! Others’ mileage may vary (and, I hasten to add, again, this could be an issue with the emulated system and not the Smyth, per se).

Finally, I should note that the HeadTracker is… not such a big deal. Yes, it works, but the effect is not so large. But the same might be said for a stereo system: provided you are not listening to such head-in-vice speakers like older Maggies, moving one’s head a bit one way or another does not much change the perspective much (I think that your brain automatically compensates for the movement). The same is true here. On the other hand, I visited Smyth’s California HQ and did a full surround measurement about a year ago, when I was researching my purchase of a few days ago. Here, the emulation on a system far less exotic than that at Sensorium AV was, again, excellent (with the same proviso as above that A-B matching might unrealistically favor the Smyth), but the HeadTracker effect was far more pronounced on the surround system. So, while I find the HeadTracker useful and I do use it, I do not find it nearly as impressive as the emulation itself. However, once I start to collect surround systems it is possible that, as I found before, its usefulness will increase apace.

3. Emulation
Speaking of emulating other systems, this has proven to be far more frustrating than I had anticipated. For me, the ability to “collect” excellent sound rooms was one of the major selling points for the Realizer. One considering the Realizer in order to take advantage of this feature should be forewarned that taking advantage it might prove much more difficult than you suppose—or at least than I supposed. Of the two shops I have thus far asked (who shall remain unnamed and to whom I offered to pay a substantial fee for the use of their sound rooms), one very politely said that they could not be bothered to work with me and the other, quite unpleasantly, indicated their unwillingness to do so.

Of course these dealers’ businesses are their own and I am not inclined to tell them how to run them. And I appreciate that they have to invest a lot of money into systems and rooms that, if used for emulation, might actually end up losing them sales—as the second store-owner said to me, they are not in the business of being a “lending library.” On the other hand, neither my space-constraints, nor my budget permit me to be shopping for + $100,000 audio systems, so they are not losing MY business—and, again, I did indicate I was very willing to pay for the use of their rooms that would have otherwise sat unused during my session. All that said, this could be a “feature” of dealing with the NYC High-End (though Bryan at Sensorium has been a consistent pleasure to deal with) and my results might improve as I look elsewhere—some on the forums have been able to find much more accommodating dealers in other cities. That said, my experience thus far in finding other Reference-level systems to emulate has been a distinct disappointment.

While speaking of measuring, I should note that the measurement process itself is relatively quick and painless—maybe 10min for a basic stereo measurement and a bit more for surround (after everything is hooked up which will take another 20 minutes or so). That said, the Smyth has almost endless tweeking options for dialing the sound (I did many—but not all at Sensorium AV) that can be useful, but will obviously stretch the measurement time. If you do find a willing dealer who will accommodate your measurements, you should not need to take up their sound room for too long—maybe 30-45min for the whole thing.

I should finally note that Smyth Research has worked out deals with Mi Casa and AIX mastering studios and the Egyptian Theatre, each of which will charge $200 - $400 for a session (though rates are negotiated individually, so please do not hold me to these numbers). While the price is right, this is little help if you do not live in Southern California. Luckily, my parents do liver there and so I am sure that I will have the opportunity to visit at some time. But those systems remain out of my reach for now. I will be sure to update this post after I have visited AIX, which seems to have gotten the best reviews (though, that said, I tend not get too much excited over B&W speakers, which is what they use). One should remember too that that if you think that it is a great deal to collect rooms at $200 - $400 a pop, it is… until you decide to sell your Realizer. Remember, those sessions are individual to you and cannot be sold along with your gear, should you decide to change directions. Just something to bear in mind.

4. Errata
I was very curious to see how the Realizer would work as a DAC/soundcard for my computer. I matched the analog output of the Realizer against the analog outputs of the excellent AMR DP-777 DAC, fed from the Realizer’s Toslink digital output. Long story short, the AMR thoroughly bested the Realizer. Note that this test is NOT at all fair to the Realizer—indeed, if a DAC at twice the Realizer’s price and a fraction of its functionality was not able to outperform it, something would be very wrong. The only reason I conducted this blatantly unfair comparison was to see how much one might be shortchanged with the Realizer as the DAC—how much more was possible from the Realizer box if a Reference DAC followed it in the audio chain. The answer is “quite a bit,” and it is certainly possible that the slight “veiling” I mentioned above might be a contributed to by the Realizer’s DAC. (Unfortunately, having sold my PerfectWave DAC in order to buy the Realizer, it was not on hand to compare, though my memory of that device says it too would have substantially outperformed the Realizer as a pure DAC.)

A more “fair” test would be to run the Realizer against a well-respected but moderately-priced DAC like, say, the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II. I have not yet had an opportunity to make such a test, but I would be unsurprised if the Realizer fared ok. Even if the Realizer ain't an AMR DP-777, neither is it a total slouch and I have been favorably impressed (if not blown away) by its DAC capabilities and find it very competent in this regard. Thus far, I do not find much missing in the Realizer’s performance until it is directly compared to much pricier and more exotic competition. [NOTE: Since I posted my original review on Computer Audiophile, other users have been far more critical than I of the Realizer-as-DAC's performance. It is possible that I am still overwhelmed by its processing abilities and too forgiving of its so-so DAC abilities... though I still do not find it as deal-breaker bad as others have.]

Also of note is the fact that I had to feed the AMR via Toslink, its worst input choice, because the Realizer (bizarrely) has no other digital output options. (Given that Smyth Research claims that the Toslink is primarily to record emulated versions of one’s music, it would seem obvious that a USB output would be almost mandatory; given that Smyth likes to promote its pro roots, one would think a AES output would also be a must.) Given that, if one was to select a DAC to pair with the Realizer, it might be wise to select one that plays well with Toslink—such as the Meitner MA1, which as Computer Audiophile noted in a past review excelled with its optical input (the 6moons review came to the same conclusion).

Also on the I/O side, Smyth made the almost inexplicable decision to make audiophile NON-approved HDMI the only digital input—all you Computer Audiophiles with fancy USB-to-AES converters need not apply. If you are a playlist addict, as am I, you had better be sure your computer has an HDMI (or DisplayPort) output... oh, and because the Smyth does not have a surround decoder onboard (ironic, given that Dr. Stephen Smyth invented the DTS surround algorithm), alternate HDMI-equipped transports, such as the Boxee Box, Roku, PS3, XboX and Apple TV are all out of the picture if you ever want to actually use the surround sound features of the Realizer. Fortunately for me and other PC audiophiles, JRiver can decode surround within the computer and send out the requisite decoded PCM-streams via HDMI. Of course other streaming options (e.g. Meridian/Sooloos, Linn, Squeeze Box, Sonos, etc.) are out of the question—unless you want use their analog outputs and subject the signal to an additional A/D-D/A conversion within the Realizer. If you are using a straight BluRay player and going out via HDMI, you are golden and can avoid any of the worries I’ve just mentioned but, otherwise, the terrible choices that Smyth has made on both the inputs and outputs is easily the most frustrating part of this package—beyond the inability to get dealers to cooperate in the measurement process.

5. Conclusion
I absolutely do not want to end this review on a negative note. Sure, I do have quibbles with the Realizer—it is only passable as a DAC, the I/O choices are a comedy of errors (that are not so funny) and getting the best out of it requires either very rich audiophile friends that will let you emulate their systems, cooperative dealers or that you live in the greater LA area.

But, in the end, the listening blows such minor concerns away. Simply put, this is a magic box that does things I would never have thought possible. It allows you (me) to listen to music in places and under conditions that simply would not have been possible (or even imaginable) just a few years ago on systems that would otherwise have been out of reach. The phrase “opens up new possibilities” may seem trite, but it is nowhere truer than in the case of the Realizer. Other gear, DACs, speakers, PrePros, etc. offer marginal (and diminishing) improvements as one moves up the range—more of the same, even if that more is better. This is something else. At least when coupled with the SR-009s and the KGSS, I think that that this is the best $3k I have ever spent on a piece of audio equipment and, if I can just find some more compliant dealers, that deal is going to get better and better.
If anyone in the NORTH EAST (USA) has a pair of mbl 101E MK IIs... or even mbl 111Fs I will (obviously) come to your place and pay you to emulate your system with my Realizer! Please PM and we can arrange something. Thanks!
I will be the first to admit that your review of an unfamiliar product left me utterly confused. Some of those "boring" descriptions are absolutely required for the reader to even begin to grasp what this 'Realizer' is. I am sorry if mylevel of technical/audiophile or perhaps just reading comprehension is so inadaquate that your your review didn't even reveal what the Realizer is.
Just Dumb I guess.

I did a Search for "Smyth Research" and it was properly explained there ,that first off ,this device is an emmulator. While you write of this property you don't stress first and foremost that this is what this device is intended to do. Your review simply emphatically agrees that this emmulator does a superb job at emmulating stereo from headphones. In hindsight this is abundantly clear but you really should do a better job of introducing the product. BTW I like your writing style.
Mechans makes a fair point: I do not cover the basics of the Realizer in my review. In my defense however, not only have the basics been gone over in great detail many other places, but I actually provide links to a few of those in the first few lines of my own review. Given that the basics of the Realizer have been covered so thoroughly elsewhere, I wanted to focus on the ownership experience here.

But Mechans is right too and those that are not already familiar with the workings of the Realizer should follow either of the links I provide in my Review, head over to Headfi, where a wealth of information on the Realizer can be found, or just check out the very informative Smyth Research website BEFORE you read my review.

BTW, I am *still* looking for A-goners in the North East with mbl speakers! Thanks.