Binaura Sound Environment B102A
CES 2005. Tired. Wet from the Las Vegas snowstorm. Hungover from the technology discussion the night before. Stuck in a hotel suite for a demo: yet another home theater audio system with no surround-channel speakers? Can't be any good. Wait, there's only one speaker and a subwoofer? Must be a joke. And it's $599? An overpriced joke, I snarl internally.
And then I heard it.
Wait a second: This is real bass. I can feel it. The dialogue is really clear, and the sound effects are actually enveloping me—with a natural sound quality, not an awkward and overprocessed one. The Binaura Sound Environment B102A is a system worthy of a Home Theater test drive.
The B102A is Binaura's first consumer audio product, having spent three years in development. The Binaura Audio Signal Processor (BASP) crunches the numbers of a 5.1-channel digital soundtrack. It's equipped with serious digital-to-analog converters that reproduce the left, center, and right information for the main speaker unit and direct the low frequencies—the crossover is preset at 180 hertz—to the subwoofer. The BASP further adds an appropriate phase delay to the surround-channel signals; it sends the left surround material to the left front driver and the right surround material to the right front driver. This approach simulates those delays you hear when a sound on your left reaches your left ear before your right. It approximates the sound mapping that the human brain performs to establish the sound source in your environment.
So, these virtual-surround speakers provide a source of emanation for the original soundtrack's discrete audio signal. This combination of speaker design and phase manipulation does not require the presence of walls for surround-channel reflectivity, although a back wall can enhance the 3-D effect, particularly at high frequencies. Three custom full-range drivers—dedicated left, right, and center channels—reside in a funky enclosure that radiates forward, upward, and to the sides. The drivers' right-angle positioning in the speaker baffles aids in the creation of surround effects in the absence of surround speakers.
Plug. Plug. Plug. Done.
A single proprietary five-pin cable connects the two boxes. Electronics in the subwoofer cabinet send signals to the front drivers—and that's it. The subwoofer resembles a generic computer tower, and you are somewhat limited in your options for its placement due to the front-panel LED readout. But, if you prefer an out-of-sight location, you can wire in the handy little receiver (included) and place it in view of the twelve-button, does-everything-necessary infrared remote control. The main speaker is rather small, and you can even wall-mount it with the included kit and instructions. At first, I mistook the cabinetry for plastic, when, in actuality, it is a wood product coated with various glossy finishes.
When you power up the B102A cold, it defaults to the TV input, as Binaura recommends the system for use instead of, or in conjunction with, your TV speakers. The Binaura Vocal mode addresses the common complaint of muffled dialogue from onboard TV audio, even from stereo-equipped televisions, which can create a less-than-satisfactory phantom center channel. This Binaura technology moves the mono dialogue to the center channel, while the broadcast's true stereo portion goes to the left and right speakers. The blue "center speaker" buttons on the remote can bring out vocals even further. You can also independently adjust the bass volume and master volume, to make the most of your source material. An occasional burst of static hit me when I powered up the TV or worked a DVD's menu.
1 Loaf + 1 Fish + . . . ?
While it definitely favors the front soundstage, the B102A offers a surprising room-filling experience. The surround channels during Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World were certainly not discrete, but they did seem to creep in from the sides, indeed "surrounding" the listener. I heard some mild distortion of the high frequencies and some slight clipping with shouted voices, specifically when I ran the system at full volume. I cured these maladies in my setup by lowering the volume from a setting of 50 to a more modest 40, which was still an ample volume level for my medium-sized home theater. I often for-
got that I was hearing a total of only 120 watts and just two speaker boxes and not six. A fair amount of detail is evident in the "Under Attack" chapter of Master and Commander, but busy action scenes seem to push the system to its limits. While the front-ported, side-firing sub does add fury to the proceedings, it lacks the sharp jolt of a traditional, high-powered kicker. Still, the bulk of scenes in this and other movies come off well throughout, more so than with big set pieces.
This two-box system somehow preserves the distinct directionality of the action and dialogue in a 360-degree scene like "Gabriel's Rescue" in The Patriot. Again, shouted dialogue at high volumes was slightly clipped, but I easily corrected this by backing off on the volume a tad. This is a bass-intensive movie. At the default 0 sub setting, the big explosion in chapter 15 is ample, but, when I turned it up to 10, it was formidable. The illusion of two surround speakers is convincing—there's a genuine sense of front-to-back depth, in addition to the front-channel separation. The system offers wonderfully immersing sound with games, too—a digital optical input is included for use with PlayStation 2 and Xbox—but, since the Binaura doesn't reproduce true 5.1 positional audio, I would probably not trust it with my "lives."
The Binaura Sound Environment B102A is clearly a lifestyle product: Its choice of colors makes it décor friendly, and it is compact and easy to install and use. And, yet, upon my every test, I was impressed by what I heard—a richness and complexity of sound beyond what should logically emanate from one small loudspeaker cabinet and a subwoofer. I'm glad I made it to that meeting in the snowy desert after all.
• Outstanding home theater audio performance from a lifestyle product
• Extremely quick, convenient setup
• Processes DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 signals for a room-filling effect, from only two boxes