New Atlas demoed the Ossic X 3D headphones at CES 2017. Our conclusion? Ossic's take on 3D sound is perfect for VR. The headphones provide an excellent directional listening experience that is niche at present, but Ossic hopes it will work its way into VR, music and film.

What is 3D audio?

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Surround sound speaker systems have the same goal as 3D audio – complete immersion that gives the listener a sense of where each sound is coming from. For this reason, movie soundtracks and high-end 3D games are often recorded in surround sound.

But surround sound speaker setups are expensive, take up lots of space, and don't allow for a private experience unless you're lucky enough to have a devoted room. Directionally, they're limited by speaker placement, so you can't usually pick up sounds below or above you, or from in between speakers. They also keep sound "close" – they're not able to mimic sounds coming from a distance.

3D sound overcomes those inadequacies by creating a sphere of sound around the listener. Sounds come in near and far, from any direction. Imagine hearing weapons firing to your right, while hearing footsteps approaching behind you, and rain falling on the roof above – it's easy to see how sound placement contributes to a powerful sense of immersion in VR.

Until recently, 3D sound has been out of reach for most consumers. The reason is that every listener hears differently based on their head size, ear shape and position in space, so 3D audio systems need extensive calibration to work for each listener.

Right now, high-end VR headsets contain some technology to compensate for this. Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive track and compensate for the listener's head orientation.

But according to Ossic, its own proprietary technology is superior for tracking individual anatomy and ear position through space. Sensors and algorithms calibrate to each user individually, so sound hits the ear in a more natural way.

Despite all this hidden tech, they look much like any other pair of high-end over the ear headphones, with perhaps slightly wider ear pieces. They're light, comfortable and attractive enough. So do they work?

Accurate sound placement in a VR demo

In a word – yes. In our brief hands-on (ears-on?) period, I was amazed how sounds trailed off into the distance, and how sounds coming from behind could raise the hair on my neck.

It's worth describing the demo to get a sense of the headphones' capabilities. We tried the Ossic headphones with a Vive. Once in VR, I was surrounded by glowing orbs that each represented a track of a song. I could reach out and place each orb, and the sound it contains, anywhere I wanted.

After testing the Vive's new Audio Strap earlier in the week, the difference was staggering. When using Ossic headphones rather than the Vive's own, I could throw an orb through the air and it not only grew quieter, I could actually sense it drifting away. I could place an orb at my feet and perceive the sound enveloping my body. When I put one behind my head, it made me jump with its sense of proximity, even though I was the one that put it there.

The Ossic X headphones' biggest major drawback – lack of noise cancellation – limited the demo experience and also separates them from other high-end headphones. In the busy convention center, it was hard to do a close listen on softer sounds to scrutinize the effects more closely. While our hands-on experience was overwhelmingly positive in terms of sound placement, more time – preferably in and out of VR – would be necessary to thoroughly vet them.

Beyond VR applications

While we largely considered Ossic X's capabilities through a VR lens, 3D audio has obvious benefits for the film and music experience as well. In fact, Ossic X is working with Abbey Road Studios music incubation program to develop and test its applications in the music industry.

Currently on Kickstarter

Ossic X headphones were successfully funded on Kickstarter and now have a pre-order price of US$299, with an expected final retail price of $499. Since the experience is so promising, this price point seems well within the budget for enthusiastic VR adopters and audiophiles alike.

Product page: Ossic

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