Consider the last time you were in an airport, or walking down a busy street, and heard the sound of a real live instrument. Did you know the instrument was real before you saw it? If you are like me, you may have had many experiences walking in a crowded and noisy environment, but were still able to pick out the sound of a violin, or guitar, recognizing immediately that it was a real instrument. Now for a moment of honesty – how many times have you confused your stereo for the sound of a real instrument?
A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Tekton Design’s Eric Alexander to listen to his new patented recording and playback system, that he has dubbed “IRL” (In Real Life). Eric was excited and described an audio technology that seemed a little too good to be true. I tend to be a skeptic, and the more excited someone is about an idea, the more skeptical I become. That said, I obliged and visited Eric’s shop, and was completely blown away by what I heard.
IRL is a technology that could be the end of two-channel audio as we know it. In short, IRL produced the most lifelike, real, and immersive hifi experience I have ever had. Period. The music coming from an IRL playback system just sounds real. Eric played a demo reel of various sounds, like birds chirping, a train passing, and F-35 jets taking off from Hill Airforce Base. The sounds were absolutely lifelike, and sounded like they were coming from every angle! In the portion of the reel where birds were chirping, there is a Cessna flying overhead, and I looked up above me to see the Cessna. The F-35’s sound just like they are going overhead then into the distance, and the passing train sounded as if a locomotive was actually passing through the room! Incredible.
Music was even more impressive. Audiophiles always like to talk about separation between instruments, timbre, and imaging. IRL destroyed every concept I have about what “stereo imaging” could be. Musical instruments sound real, as if the player is really in the room. I know the hyperbole of many reviewers often claim that stereos can image like the musician is in the room, but this was next level. Close mike’d Piano’s sounded like they were right in front of me, and the timbre of different pianos was immediately distinguishable. Eric also recorded a jazz session with artists including Billy Drummond and John Hébert, and the experience was as close as I have heard to hearing the same thing in person.
From a technical standpoint, IRL records music using an array of four microphones, and plays back using four speakers (a 5.1 audio format can be used by omitting the center channel). The speakers are arrayed with two being to the front in normal stereo positioning, and two flanking to the left and right facing inwards at 90 degrees, and just slightly behind the listening position. From what I could tell, the system didn’t quite project a full 360-degree sound field (I don’t think I heard sounds directly behind me), but it was pretty close. I also don’t know if it could reproduce sounds directly behind the listener, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it could. The sounds that were both slightly behind and overhead were uncanny in their realism.
Maybe one of the most remarkable things about the demo was the equipment Eric was playing it on. It wasn’t special. We are talking Crown amplifiers, a 5.1 audio receiver, and an iMac. Not the equipment that audiophile dreams are made of. But despite all of that, this lowly equipment produced an audio experience I haven’t had with any stereo system, regardless of price.
I hope to write more about this in the upcoming months in Stereo Times after I get a couple more listening sessions in. For the time being, it suffices to say that I think this technology could be game changing. I know Eric has been running all kinds of people through his demo system: musicians, engineers, audiophiles. The feedback has been very consistent, from what he tells me – extremely positive. But, if you are curious and want to hear what is possible with IRL technology, give Eric a call. I am sure he’d invite and welcome you for a listen.
Be warned. You’ll may never be satisfied by your stereo rig again.