On test: Orbitsound BAR A60 soundbar; Ted Fletcher interview
Many consumers have become more discerning about what they listen to in their homes. They’ve realised what has been missing from the aural experience over the last 10 years and they’re keen to make amends.
The world appears to have finally, thankfully, moved on from an era where no one seemed to care about good quality sound. The public’s love affair with downsizing their music collections, downgrading their experience to low bit-rate MP3 files, listened to through cheap’n’fizzy, treble-heavy, bass-light speakers, is largely, blissfully over.
Vinyl is back, with sales at a 25 year-high, and the concept of “high-definition” everything has caught on for all forms of audio, from music to TV to films to streaming services.
What this means for the audio industry is an increased demand for quality playback hardware. In tandem with a consolidation approach for many consumer devices in the home, people want a great-sounding, convenient, catch-all solution for audio playback, which hopefully won’t cost them the earth.
We want to experience our favourite TV and movies, not just watch them, and we want to be able to play our music, videos, streaming services - online everything in fact - from all our digital devices via Bluetooth. All at the touch of a button or two.
With the social space in many homes centred around the TV, the myriad sound demands frequently fall to the built-in speakers on these huge flat-screen behemoths dominating our living rooms - and in many cases, they’re found wanting.
Good sound is hard to get right - and it’s also expensive. The audio feature set is therefore often one area where TV manufacturers slim down the provision. If you want to enjoy better sound, you’ll need to bring better speakers to the party. Enter the soundbar.
This is an area that has really taken off in recent years, offering that seductive one-tool-to-play-them-all audio feature set. Typically bought as a sonic extension for the TV set, they also serve as stereo systems in an age of streaming services and online music libraries.
Orbitsound is a new British technology brand with a long pedigree within the audio hardware business from its founder, Ted Fletcher. The BAR A60 soundbar on test here is its second soundbar product, following the successful launch earlier this year of the larger and more expensive A70.
The A70 was well-received by reviewers when it launched in 2015, winning numerous awards, the few gripes being its size and its cost, pushing £500. The A60 addresses these comments by being both smaller and cheaper, clocking in size-wise at 69cm x 6.5cm x 7.4cm and price-wise at £399.
The new A60 retains the A70’s form factor: a long black oblong of engineered wood for the soundbar and a large subwoofer. The soundbar can be table or wall-mounted, so its positioning in the room is entirely up to you. As the subwoofer is wireless, this can be sited anywhere nearby.
Orbitsound's USP (unique selling point) is its patented ‘airSOUND’ technology. Having established his design and manufacturing reputation in the mid-1990s with the Joe Meek line of professional studio recording equipment – compressors, EQs and mic preamps – audio industry legend Ted Fletcher (once a member of The Cameos, longtime backing vocalists for maverick ‘60s record producer Joe Meek) introduced ‘airSOUND’, his concept for single-point spatial stereo sound.
Questioning the established status quo for stereo sound reproduction – namely, there has to be a left speaker and a right speaker, one for each ear, with the sweet spot for the listener being the triangulated point directly between the two – Fletcher refined his concept for spatial stereo sound.
While he initially explored the idea of creating a stereo effect from a mono speaker (an idea that held promise for guitar amplifiers), the airSOUND concept is now being put to good use in Orbitsound’s soundbars.
An Orbitsound soundbar projects sound into the listening environment (i.e. your living room) from multiple speakers in the device, both regular front-facing speakers and proprietary side-firing airSOUND speakers.
The speakers on the front convey the overall sound that both ears hear, while the speakers at the sides produce the information that makes each of the listener’s ears respond differently. The sound is also naturally modified by the listening environment (e.g. your living room).
Heard on it’s own, the side-speaker element of the sound would not make much sense, but this special ‘spatial’ element mixes in the air of the room with the sound coming from the main front speakers to create a solid stereo image which can be appreciated by anyone in the room, wherever they happen to be sitting.
Now, instead of the listener being obliged to maintain one single optimum listening position in order to hear a true stereo picture, the airSOUND system offers stereo reproduction from any position in the room. This is the Orbitsound difference.
There is no acoustic signal processing or digital DSP involved: it is the arrangement of loudspeakers in the soundbar that creates the sonic impression. That, plus the 300 watts of sound power on tap.
That’s the science behind the design. How does the BAR A60 perform in real-world listening tests?
The answer is exactly as intended: significantly better than the stock fitted speakers in our test television (a well-specified, mid-range, popular television model from a major Japanese brand).
This is the BAR A60’s primary intended function, its raison d’etre: something to elevate the aural experience of watching TV and films and streaming content, be it music or YouTube videos.
Set-up is simple, straight out of the box, with the soundbar’s touch-sensitive, backlit front control panel housing all controls. The A60 has remote control learning for your TV remote control: a one-button push puts the soundbar into learn mode and you simply fiddle with the volume up and down buttons on your remote until the soundbar gets it. There is also an Orbitsound remote control supplied with the A60, for those who want to use it solely for music reproduction, no TV.
There was some initial experimentation to figure out the best balance between the volume on the soundbar and the volume on the TV or the Bluetooth device. Usually, turning the soundbar down and the device up gave the best signal-noise ratio. With the soundbar cranked up high, there was a little audible hiss, as you might expect. It’s easy enough to figure out the sweet spot and the soundbar retains the level when put into standby mode using the touch-sensitive on/off button at the far-left of the display.
With the wireless sub-woofer (which is included in the BAR A60 package, not as an optional, additional purchase), modern television and film soundtracks gained a huge amount of low-end weight and heft. The effect was less obvious when watching old TV shows or movies, when the soundtrack was pretty much entirely mid-range, with little to no pronounced high or low detail, but the sound as intended was reproduced faithfully and with good definition.
The BAR A60 also serves as a Bluetooth speaker for playing music from a computer, tablet or smartphone, exponentially uprating the playback quality for such devices. Both aptX and NFC connectivity is available, so connecting any device wirelessly was straightforward. Press the Bluetooth icon on the front of the soundbar, wait for your device to recognise and pick up the signal, job done. With an iPhone, this process took a mere 30 seconds. There is also an optical jack for the TV hook-up and a 3.5mm analogue line in jack for older or more specialised devices.
There simply isn’t a computer or smartphone on the planet that could match the audio playback quality and sheer volume of the BAR A60. Browse content on your device; route the sonic element through the soundbar; flip your wig. With the volume cranked up and the sub-woofer moving air, you’ll be feeling the difference as much as hearing it.
We watched all manner of TV shows and films during this time; played multiple games titles on Xbox and PlayStation consoles; streamed films via various web services; played Blu-ray versions of classic albums we know and love; and hooked up smartphones and tablets to play mp3 files via Bluetooth.
More than once we were conscious about disturbing the neighbours with the volume or wondering if passers-by in the street would be able to hear what we were watching with unerring clarity. The impact and shock of explosions in some films we watched and games we played was almost too real.
Having lived with the BAR A60 for three months, it became very easy, very quickly to take for granted the richness and breadth of its sound. It’s a natural sound, not harshly digital, or “toppy”, or otherwise obviously effected. It’s simply better. Only when we turned off the subwoofer as an experiment and all the low-end goodness simply disappeared did we appreciate how much it was lending to the sound in the room. Equally, turning off the entire system and reverting to the built-in TV speakers was a crushing lesson in aural disappointment.
There is a lot of competition for the average consumer’s in-home audio hardware spend, with soundbars in particular a hot niche, just as iPod docks were 10 years ago. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. You can drive the cost down and most likely kiss goodbye to a lot of the audio quality you hoped for and most of the features you might actually enjoy. You can drive the cost up and up and pay more than your television is worth for an admittedly beautifully engineered piece of tech that should last a lifetime.
What Orbitsound offers is a unique balance between these two worlds. The airSOUND spatial stereo concept is no gimmick and Fletcher’s years of designing pro-quality audio hardware can clearly be heard. The A60 is not cheap - £399 of anyone’s money is not an insignificant investment - but you get a full system for this, with no need to sacrifice any features or add expensive extras further down the line.
We’re listening to the BAR A60 playing in the adjacent room whilst typing this, streaming music from an iPhone, with the A60 volume cranked up pretty loud, and Madeleine Peyroux could easily be singing in the next room, performing live in person. The sound is real, natural, unhyped, warm, an authentic reproduction of the recording, pretty darn close to how the artist intended it be heard - simply put, a pleasure to listen to. Isn’t that how music should sound?
The Orbitsound BAR A60 is exclusively available from Currys PC World.
Product: Orbitsound BAR A60
The Fletchers of Orbitsound
Where did the inspiration for the Orbitsound/airSOUND technology come from? Is it in any way analogous to the M/S mid-side studio recording technique, for example?
Ted Fletcher: For years, while working in studios and installing monitoring systems in radio stations, I wondered about the intricacies of stereo imaging and the horrors of the ‘sweet spot’; how the better the imaging was in a monitoring system, the more critical became the listening position.
From studio recording I had recognised the advantages of ‘sum and difference’ microphone techniques where you could achieve a wonderful ‘spatial’ sound with a pair of microphones at a single point. At a little recording session in my home studio in Devon, I used the ‘mid/side’ technique (as it is usually called) on a choir of backing singers. During that night I wondered if there was a way of working that system in reverse and instead of getting a wide stereo recording from a single-point microphone, I might be able to achieve a wide stereo sound from an arrangement of loudspeakers at a single point.
After a lot of thought, the next morning I assembled some cardboard tubing and a pair of small loudspeaker drivers in a ‘sum and difference’ arrangement, then routed the stereo sound through my mixer in such a way that the output drove the loudspeakers as sum and difference. The result was startling; I could re-create the exact sound of the studio and there was no ‘sweet spot’!
It took a further five years of workshop experiment and trials to achieve a commercially viable system, but it is true to say that the origin of airSOUND took place overnight!
Daniel Fletcher: I was very active in making equipment for professional studios at that time from our Devon studio with Ted. I remember jury-rigging speakers into different configurations to test the airSOUND technology. Whilst I could hear how well it worked from the very first attempts, it took Ted’s experience to see the potential on the wider stage. It was through his perseverance that airSOUND became the complete and consumer-friendly technology that it is today. The ‘Eureka’ moment was quite muted, but as we worked on the technology and improved it, we gradually started to realise that this could be a viable and effective improvement on the stereo that the world has got used to living with.
What has been the evolutionary path of the Orbitsound/airSOUND technology?
Ted Fletcher: The origins of the technology go back a very long way, to experiments carried out by Alan Blumlein at HMV in Hayes in mid 1931. He, and a couple other engineers were searching for a way of making the sound of film dialogue come from the areas on the screen where the actors were placed. Blumlein made some ambisonic recordings that still exist, but he was restricted by the limited technologies of the time and although he was instrumental in developing stereo disk cutting equipment, he never extended his work into loudspeaker systems.
Daniel Fletcher: I do remember the first [Orbitsound] prototypes varying in size and shape, from the largest being a Tannoy Lockwood studio monitor with smaller nearfield monitors firing sideways, to many modified radios and stereo systems, to tiny models that used cardboard tubes, plastic pipes and wooden and cardboard boxes. As people who made studio equipment, we were not thinking in terms of building consumer audio - we saw our role as creators of technology and looked to get existing companies to adopt our way of thinking.
We presented to many well-known and leading companies: makers of cars, laptops, phones, audio equipment. We were never laughed at and our demonstrations always impressed, but we hit upon a wall of politics. However good the technology was or sounded, the required changes to any product are so substantial to include airSOUND that introducing it to something that exists is not really viable at all.
Companies at that time were thinking in terms of DSP algorithms to improve the listening experience - something we were absolutely opposed to. We always tell ourselves that nothing is wasted and it was through these unfruitful meetings that the idea of proving to the world that airSOUND works through our own consumer brand (Orbitsound) was born.
What have been the technological and/or engineering design and build challenges you’ve had to overcome, e.g. in delivering the quality of sound you were striving for?
Ted Fletcher: It’s interesting that my primary aim, having got a practical airSOUND system, was to introduce it as a high-quality radio. As a small start-up company we approached radio manufacturers by modifying their own radios and showing them how airSOUND gave startling improvements. The results were surprisingly negative and we quickly realised that airSOUND is a destructive technology; it highlights fundamental deficiencies in the ‘normal’ way of doing things such that established business could not admit that they had been wrong for years, they could not scrap their existing technology even if they admitted the superiority of airSOUND.
It’s a sobering, even chilling, thought that the whole idea of two-speaker ‘stereo’ is fundamentally flawed. No matter how carefully designed the system, the sounds perceived by the listener are changed by common sounds coming from sources a distance apart and further distorted by complex interactions and reflections.
Perhaps it is an excuse that loudspeakers are naturally not very good at their job; although airSOUND is a superior way of producing sound, it still uses conventional loudspeakers and so we have a continuous development programme to improve the quality of sound.
Daniel Fletcher: There is a colossal weight of ‘stereo’ thinking and assumption in the industry. Much of it is just as relevant to airSOUND as it is to normal stereo. However, there is an awful lot of it that simply does not apply and there are many rules that are unique to airSOUND. We have had to re-learn audio for ourselves based on our own experimentation and perceptions.
Having been working with airSOUND for 10 years now, the lessons learned certainly give me a different way of hearing reproduced audio. There are different requirements of loudspeaker drivers to a normal systems and amplifiers. Having to work with amplifiers, drivers and DSPs that often are optimised for two channels is a constant battle, but there is always a way.
For soundbars such as the BAR A60, I think the biggest challenges are probably the same as any soundbar manufacturer will face. I like to think that we take a slightly different stance, however. Any customer will want a soundbar that is sleekly low profile. As audio people, we know that small drivers and speakers are difficult to make cover the whole audio spectrum adequately, so we draw the compromise more on the side of audio quality rather than aesthetics or slimness - after all, if an Orbitsound product doesn't sound great, there would be no point in buying it!
How important is good quality sound?
Ted Fletcher: ‘Quality’ is a strange word; Our long and detailed acoustic studies have shown that it's a question with many answers. A radio that is used to listen to Radio 4 in the mornings needs good intelligibility, but not extended thumping bass. A feature film needs great ‘immersion’ and spatial depth, high-volume capability and wide dynamic range. A hi-fi loudspeaker needs ultimate definition and frequency range with total ‘naturalness’. So the answer to the question is that the quality of the sound is of supreme importance and we work all the time to provide the particular ‘quality’ demanded by the exact market for the product. The BAR A70 and BAR A60 are supremely TV soundbars, but they make fine hi-fi loudspeakers, too!
Daniel Fletcher: Every day I think audio quality is more important. And it started out pretty important! It is true that in the early days of creating products, we learned a lot and made mistakes. After all, we were entering a completely new field (consumer audio). However, as time has progressed, I realise more and more that success in the consumer world is only possible if you are loved by consumers for some reason. For us, I want Orbitsound to be known and loved for creating products that sound uniquely great.