Categories
ergonomics

Valve Index : Ear ergonomics

Originally published by Skarredghost in December 2019. Edited to correct my original spelling mistakes and some images updated. All images copyright of immersivecomputing.org unless otherwise indicated.


Introduction by Tony @ SkarredGhost

“Today I publish the third and last part of the interesting deep dive on the Valve Index comfort by Rob Cole. If you lost the other two parts, here you are the link to the first one, and here the link to the second one. He also wrote a very interesting article on VR ergonomics some months ago.

Rob first tried VR in 1991 and has become an enthusiast of the tech ever since. Because of his background in industrial design, he has always had a strong interest in the design and the ergonomics of the VR headsets. At Immersive Computing (see his Instagram account) he carries on this interest, exploring the technology always starting from the human perspective, putting the human at the center of his experiments and analysis. This post is the result of such kind of experimentations on the Valve Index headset. I hope you will enjoy it!”


For this third article, we will concentrate on the Index Ear Speakers.

The first article has already covered my experiments with the Index Facial Interface, whilst the second article looked in depth at the Index controllers.

The Index Ear Speakers

When I first saw the “leaked” images of Valve’s new VR headset it appeared to have headphones on adjustable arms, similar to the Oculus Rift CV1.

leaked image valve index
Leaked images of the Valve Index (image??)

Though looking closer, the “headphones” had metal mesh on both sides but no ear cushioning. Each speaker was canted slightly inwards to face the angle of the ear, they were attached with a sliding adjustment arm; perhaps these were “off-ear” (extra-aural) loudspeakers instead of the on-ear headphones of the Rift.

I wasn’t going to learn any more by looking at the pictures though it got me thinking about why audio is so important, so I read what some experts had to say.

If you talk to any director, they’ll say music is fifty percent of the movie.

Hans Zimmer  (Film score composer)

Sound is important because it can tell us about character, place, and time. It’s important because it informs us and moves us in ways visuals can’t, and because certain combinations of sound and visuals can evoke what neither can do alone. It’s also potentially important because it can help to determine what we see. But why be shy? Visuals are sometimes important because they help to determine what we HEAR. 

Randy Thom (Director, Skywalker Sound)

Sound is what truly convinces the mind is in a place; in other words, ‘hearing is believing.’

Jesse Schell (Video game designer)

There was lots of information available on the importance of sound in cinema and video production including video gaming and virtual reality. Many studies reported a close relationship between the video and audio channels with a significant cross-modal influence of audio on visual quality, and vice versa.

As new headsets become available with higher quality visual displays, it wouldn’t be a stretch to posit that a high-quality display should be matched with high-quality audio (and high-quality haptics), to provide sensory consistency in Virtual Reality.

Surely high-quality audio is just for audiophiles?

Try listening to your favourite music using high-quality audio equipment to experience a clear separation of instruments and the reveal of subtle, hidden details; you may notice things you’ve never heard before in your favourite songs.

Whilst I don’t see myself as an “audiophile” I am someone who appreciates good quality sound. I’ve always bought quality audio headphones and have owned a number of Hi-Fi audio separates and home cinema systems.

It’s enjoyable to have high-quality audio when listening to music or watching movies but I’ve come to understand over the past three years that high-quality audio is even more important for virtual reality to help convince the user they are “present”, as Jessie Schell said “..hearing is believing”.

So why not just use audio headphones or earbuds then?

For VR headsets without their own headphones or with ineffective audio but boasting an audio socket; audio headphones or earbuds may seem like an ideal solution, but for 2 important concerns.

  1. FrictionOnboarding is further complicated by fitting headphones or earbuds over, under or into a VR headset. Putting on and taking off isn’t much fun, especially with unstable VR applications causing system crashes, requiring more frequent removal and refitting. The inevitable tangle of cables and unwanted interactions between head straps cause the loss of visual sweet spot, headphones that move off ears, earbuds that get yanked out, straps that need re-adjusting. All of this is irritating causing “friction”.
headphones vr headset
A tangle of straps and wires, there seems to be someone in there somewhere??
  • 2. Sound quality. It depends on the headphones. Beats Audio vs. Sennheiser vs. Beyerdynamic have a very different sound. Different models from the same manufacturer have a different sound.  Different headphones designs also have different sound quality affecting the overall quality of your VR experience. Open back, Closed back, Noise-cancelling, On-ear headphones, Over-ear headphones, earbuds… there is a lot of choice, but many are optimised for music rather than VR.
vr  headsets audio
There are many different headsets and many different headphones, the audio possibilities are endless, who knows how each will sound differently?

Someone who knows a lot more about sound than I ever will, Emily Ridgway at Valve, has commented sound in VR this way:

The tonal sound quality of some headphones can interfere with the subtle frequency colorations of binaural simulations. For example, headphones, where mid-high frequencies are either exaggerated or muffled, will most likely interfere with the subtleties of HRTF filters, resulting in a poor sense of directional sound in games and VR.

In contrast, onboard audio reduces fitting friction and eliminates any awkward moments involving cables, as well as providing developers with the benefit of a known audio system for application development on that VR headset.

Whilst I did find many quality headphones from audio brands worked well for VR in terms of pure audio; the good quality sound and reduced friction of the Rift CV1’s built-in audio system was welcome – a real “quality of life” improvement, no doubt.

Having used many headsets with both built-in audio and with many different models of audio headphones, it was very encouraging to see Valve paying particular attention on their new headset with those built-in speakers, or whatever the ear pods actually were.

So its called “Index”, what about those ear pods?

So after Valve released the first public information we found out the headset was called “Index” and the ear pods were actually “BMR Ear Speakers”. Later on, this reason was given by Valve for not choosing a headphone-based design like those used on the Vive DAS or Rift CV1:

Delivering sound directly into the ear canal bypasses the natural listening process caused by ear and head interacting with real sound waves. Listeners miss out on the tonal sound signature created by the ears, head and personal geometry. This can result in sound appearing as though it’s imagined, or it’s coming from inside one’s head, even if the audio content is highly spatial and physically simulated

Valve

Some smart thinking going on there at Valve no doubt, but what exactly is “BMR”?

Balanced Mode Radiator technology

BMR stands for “Balanced Mode Radiator”, a different design of speaker to the conventional “pistonic” drivers you find inside conventional headphones and loudspeakers.

An early proponent of BMR in the audio space were British company Cambridge Audio, who explain it like this:

BMR, or Balanced Mode Radiator, is a new and patented technology that brings a number of exceptional advantages to audio reproduction. Traditional speakers separate treble and mid-range speakers in order to provide good sound. BMR technology on the other hand, helps create a full-range sound by providing treble, mid-range and even a little bass all in one neat little package!

how does bmr work
(Image by Cambridge Audio)

Even from smaller more compact speakers, you can hear the difference for yourself by listening . Thanks to BMR, you get a wide range of frequency for such a deceptively small speaker.

Cambridge Audio

Valve’s BMR ear speakers were developed in partnership with Tectonic who already made a wide range of BMR speakers for different applications; but as far as I’m aware this is the first time that BMR technology has been used in a VR headset.

The image below shows another Tectonic BMR with a larger diameter speaker and driver which is used for manufacturing high quality home cinema soundbars. 

tectonic bmr
Tectonic BMR speaker (Image by Tectonic)

Valve then released their “Deep Dive” series with one blog post concentrating on the ear speaker project, showing all the different audio systems Valve used during their prototyping stage:

By using BMR drivers, we are able to ensure consistent sound quality, without coloration, even if the speakers are slightly mispositioned on the side of the head. This is due to the unique way that BMRs radiate sound. At low frequencies they behave like traditional speakers. The electrical signal comes in, and the entire diaphragm (front part of the speaker) moves back and forth tracing the shape of the signal. However, the real magic happens at higher frequencies.

When the wavelength of the bending waves travelling through the diaphragm is similar to the size of the diaphragm, traditional drivers start to go into ‘break-up’ modes which cause the diaphragm to bend and ripple, creating very sharp peaks and dips in the frequency response that, in addition to sounding bad, are very placement sensitive. BMRs are designed to exploit the natural behavior of the diaphragm, balancing the vibrations from different areas through optimized material selection, mass loading and extensive design simulation.

Valve Corporation
Very clear but a little quiet

When I received my Valve Index at launch on 28th June I was very interested to try out the “BMR ear speakers” and compare them to my audio headphones and the on-board headphones I’d used on the Vive DAS, Vive Pro and Rift CV1.

The first thing I noticed was their range of adjustment; the ear speakers are mounted on pivoting arms with a sliding adjustment mechanism which allows:

valve index speakers adjustments
Allowed vertical movement of Valve Index speakers (red line indicates range)
  • Vertical movement (speaker drops below the ear or rises above the ear), the image shows the maximum raise and maximum drop that is possible using the sliding mechanism, the gap difference between the red bars showing the range of vertical adjustment.
Allowed rotational range of movement of the Valve Index speakers
Allowed rotational range of movement of the Valve Index speakers
  • Rotational movement (pivots around mount relative to ear), the image shows the full range from full forward to the full rear. It’s typically used in the orientation shown in the image with the full rear rotation being used when fitting the headset (so speakers are clear of ears) and for storing the headset so it is not resting on the ear speakers.

The combination of vertical (drop and raise) and rotational (pivoting) adjustment enables the user to place the ear speaker across a wide area which should cater for many different users with ears in different places.

valve index speaker fitting
Fixed distance of the ear speaker of the Valve Index to the ear
  • Depth adjustment (closer to ear or further from ear) this was a fixed distance as indicated by the red bars in the image, it’s not adjustable apart from a small bending action at the top of the speaker arm which doesn’t translate to any meaningful adjustment as it just springs back when you let it go.

I was surprised it was not adjustable but figured the BMR ear speakers needed to be at a set distance or they didn’t want people pushing them against their ears?

Powering up the Index, I adjusted the ear speakers to find their “sweet spot” (they do have one) and tried some different VR applications which quickly demonstrated that the ear speakers had the clear definition and good separation typical of a high-quality driver.

However, the bass was a bit lacking and overall the audio was a little too quiet.  I wondered if I’d missed a setting in Windows 10 or Steam VR as the audio volume sliders were set at 100% but it was still too quiet compared to other audio systems I’ve used for VR.

Being an off-ear, “open” audio system with an air gap between the speakers and my ears, it also needed an increase in volume to block out background noise.

Looking around the VR forums on the internet, I found other Index owners with similar questions asking about raising volume levels, with several people asking if there was something wrong with their BMR ear speakers and they needed replacing them. Maybe the ear speakers needed more power than headphones?

Adjusting Windows sound equalizer and various settings in SteamVR including checking the box marked “Vive audio gain” (popular suggestion on Reddit) made no volume differences. I tried moving the BMR speakers to make sure the “sweet spot” was aligned as best possible with my ears, but without any real difference as they simply weren’t loud enough. 

The background noise issue

With the BMR speakers seemingly underpowered, initially, I was not impressed with Index’s audio: background noise was breaking immersion as an unwelcome but everpresent audio guest.

The ear speakers were not loud enough to smother my ears in VR sound as I could still hear the noise of my PC (even on silent mode) and noises of the city such as traffic, sirens and the occasional aircraft.

I should also mention the “2.0 Base stations” that are used for SteamVR, these have a slight but noticeable high pitched whine when running, it was always there in the background, a bit distracting.

Something had to be done to block the noise, so it was time to try some headphones; I quickly removed the BMR speakers which was easily done with a Torx T6 driver.

valve index bmr speakers
BMR speakers, removed from the headset

Removing the BMR ear speakers revealed the mounting which has a keyed shape and 2 electrical contacts for the “pogo pins” used on the ear speaker. As the T6 fitting is tightened against the inside of the headstrap arm, it locks the ear speaker and headstrap’s keyed socket shapes together, creating a firm perch for the ear speaker to hang off and rotate around. 

Index speaker mount
Valve Index speaker mount showing pogo pin design for audio channels
Headphones as a temporary solution

The Index has a hidden audio output tucked away behind the magnetically attached face gasket. As this was just after launch I was still using the standard (narrow) face gasket – which had just enough clearance for the 3.5mm jack plug of my Sennheiser audio headphones.

Several pairs of headphones I tried would not fit as the audio socket is deep requiring a long jack plug, but there is limited clearance for this behind the plastic base of the face gasket, causing a sharp bend in the cable or lifting the face gasket base off the headset mounts.

Since headphone leads with long molded strain relief sleeves and thicker cables could not accommodate such a tight bend, I purchased a shorter and thinner audio lead (for smartphones) for my Logitech headphones so I could use them with the Index.

Index with Logitech headphones
Valve Index with Logitech G series headphones

Removing the BMR ear speakers and replacing them with headphones definitely helped as they have a closed, over-ear design which shielded my ears from much of the background noise. However, plugging my headphones into my smartphone or directly into my PC allowed much louder volumes, so I suspected there was a PC software issue at the heart of this problem.

I switched several times between the BMR ear speakers and my headphones with the BMR’s working well enough in rhythm music games like Beat Saber, although the bass still lacked weight and the music needed to be much louder. The headphones got hot in Beat Saber adding to overall heat stress when playing Expert+ levels.

As the Index controllers have the higher quality HD LRA haptic motors, some louder audio and bass were much needed to match the controllers’ haptics and provide the all-important “sensory consistency” for VR immersion. 

For quieter, non-gaming applications, a great example being Wevr’s “The Blu”, I found the background noise a real problem with the BMR’s as it dramatically reduced the quality of my experience.

The otherwise amazing “Reef Experience” at 144hz and 2.0 supersampling on the Index was overpowered by the noise of my PC, the base stations and road traffic vehicle noise in local streets. It was much better when used with headphones to block the background noise and since its not an active experience, there was no heat issue.

On a number of early mornings I moved my PC into the corridor outside the VR room, road traffic noise was minimal although the base stations still made their whining presence known when using the BMRs.

Wide face cushion arrives

Thankfully after weeks of discomfort using the standard (narrow) face gasket, I tracked down a file by Anonymous Hermit for 3D printing a modified “wide” face gasket plastic base.

As was explained in my first article, I had found the Index’s standard face gasket to be too narrow for my average width face which had caused facial discomfort, optical misalignment and a need for constant adjustment

The 3D printed version soon arrived from Ninja Prototype in China, I faced it with industrial-strength Velcro to mount aftermarket Vive face cushions which worked well, but fitting the wide gasket had the unfortunate effect of further reducing clearance for a headphone cable if wanting to use separate audio headphones.

Initially, I failed to find anything that would fit, all headphone leads or their strain relief sleeves fouled the wider plastic base of the face gasket, causing it to lift off the magnets used to secure the face gasket’s plastic base into the headset faceplate.

(left) Standard face gasket just fits the headphone cable. (right) Wide face gasket being pushed off headset

After hacking a short Logitech headphone splitter cable (for microphone and headset setups) by cutting off one lead and shaving down the molded strain-relief sleeve on the remaining 3.5mm jack plug, it was just thin enough to sit behind the face gasket.

When fitted to the Index with some velcro wrap securing the lead to the head strap it provides a short extension lead to bypass the face gasket with a 3.5mm audio output socket at the end (just like the original HTC Vive) for plugging any headphones into.

Index audio lead
Index audio lead allowing use of headphones with wide face gasket
Equalizer APO vs. Nvidia GPU driver

Despite my mods, I still couldn’t get enough audio power to my headset, a problem I’d also had with my previous headset, a Lenovo Explorer WMR, which had been used on the same PC earlier in the year with separate audio headphones.

Thankfully, the VR community came to the rescue with talk of using Equaliser APO to solve this “low volume” problem by adjusting pre-amplification. I’ve never heard of it so I looked it up on-line and found out this:

Equalizer APO is a parametric / graphic equalizer for Windows. It is implemented as an Audio Processing Object (APO) for the system effect infrastructure.

It’s a free download made by Jonas Thedering, and crucially importantly for the Index ear speakers, it can access audio pre-amplification where an adjustment needs to be made.

From reading through the research, I found out the Nvidia graphics card driver was applying a -6 negative setting in the pre-amplification stage of the graphics card’s audio system. Plugging my headphones straight into my PC bypassed this problem, as the motherboard audio sockets run off the motherboard’s onboard audio with its own drivers and not through the Nvidia graphics card.

This was causing significantly less power to be available for audio on any VR headset which was connected to a Display port or HDMI port on my Nvidia RTX2080Ti graphics card. I downloaded Equalizer APO and installed it on my PC, a bit confusing at first but after slowly going through the various settings I found the pre-amplification control panel.

Equalizer APO valve index
Equalizer APO screenshot

After running the “Configuration Editor”, I added my Index HMD and restarted Windows.  After the restart, I opened the configuration editor and could now see my Index as the primary audio, so I adjusted the pre-amplification gain first to +8, and then later to +10.

The difference was immediate with a big increase in volume level, the audio performance of the BMR ear speakers dramatically changing as they “came to life” with a much fuller sound with punchier bass, finally!

I found this gave me the ability to go plenty loud and easily block out background noise in many applications whilst still only using ¾ of the volume slider in SteamVR. 

Warning: It’s easily possible to set the gain value too high and potentially damage your hearing, the ear speakers or both.  Be careful with the volume settings! 

It’s very easy to adjust Equalizer APO from inside VR by displaying the configuration editor on your desktop so you can view it inside SteamVR and make any adjustments you need. As well as pre-amplification, it is a full-functional equalizer, so have fun playing with your sound. It might well help with some applications that have poorly mixed audio or require bass adjustment.  

Asymmetrical ears

With the volume levels now more than sufficient, I quickly noticed a new challenge, my left ear was feeling more sound pressure (i.e. too loud) whilst my right ear felt comfortable, there seemed to be a difference maybe a left/right volume balance issue?

Everything was as normal so I tried reducing the left side volume, but this started allowing background noise to bleed into the left side with unwanted results and reduced the “soundscape” with a bias to the right (where the higher volume was playing).

Next, I decided to perform a simple physical check: how much gap was there between each ear speaker and each of my ears? It is hard to look at yourself whilst you are wearing a headset and there was no one around to take a photograph. Sliding a finger up, I found a generous gap on the right, but much less gap on the left, it was much closer to my ear.

valve index speakers asymmetry
View of the fit of the left and right speakers to the ears. The difference is noticeable and meant my left ear was getting too much sound pressure

Taking some photographs later on showed what was now obvious: human asymmetry at work! Human beings are surprisingly asymmetric with subtle variations shown across our heads, hands and bodies.

As immersive computing technology develops and we reach towards retina display, these subtle variations of human asymmetry will need accommodation, something I’d already experienced with the higher resolution Index which benefitted from making ergonomic adjustment to suit my face and hands – these ear speakers are no different in that a “good fit is a good fit”.

After looking again at the ear speakers, I still saw no depth adjustment to cater for this common occurrence of slightly different shape/size ears. Over-ear headphones or on-ear headphones cater for such asymmetry without many issues by using a sprung, adjustable headband design.   This tends to work well unless the individual is an outlier, but with such a huge range of different headphones on the market something can often be found by doing some research.

Firmly holding the right BMR ear speaker and headband, I tried manipulating the mounting to pull the speaker further away from my head but there was no meaningful adjustment, just a slight movement but no permanent gain and any increase in force just threatened to snap something internally.

Trying to change the depth of the speakers of the Index, with no success, just concern about snapping something plastic

I reached out to Valve, not expecting to hear back, but to my surprise, I had a reply by email from one of Valve’s hardware engineers:

RC: “Due to my natural asymmetry I find the left speaker very close to my ear, whilst the right speaker has a noticeable gap to my right ear. I’ve been looking at this again, obviously the speakers do not have a depth adjustment to accommodate this asymmetry. One idea is a spacer with matching contact pins to move the left ear speaker outwards so the spacing gap becomes equidistant. I call this a  “Pogo Biscuit” and am building the spacer to test the concept”.

Valve: “There is actually a little bit of horizontal flex in the speaker arms. If you press lightly and hold them in towards your ears, you might find it does result in a small noticeable difference in volume. If this is enough to compensate for your particular case, then a possible solution might be as simple as putting a wedge between the speaker arm spring and the head strap to hold it closer permanently on the side it’s not loud enough. In the long term, we are actually looking at better accommodating horizontal positioning of the speakers for future revisions of this hardware. It’s great for us to get this feedback, so thanks again for the email”.

The idea for a “Pogo Biscuit” came about when thinking about a simple way of adjusting the speaker depth: rather than trying to redesign the mechanism, simply move the mounting point for the left ear speaker 10mm further off the headband to create a larger ear gap.

Pogo biscuit

During the wait for my ear speaker RMA, I spent some time working on my “Pogo Biscuit” idea. I wasn’t quite sure how to manufacture it or even build a prototype as the spacer would need to be very small whilst containing 2 electrical-pin pass through and providing the “key” shape to mate with the Index’s head strap and the ear speaker itself. I was aiming to replicate what was already there, but with a 10mm extension.

Pogo biscuit research
Work in progress with experiments on the Pogo Biscuit

Providence smiled as the next day there was a post on the Valve Index subreddit from the Anonymous Hermit, asking Index owners for accessory ideas so the Hermit could do some more CAD modeling and 3D printing. I reached out to Anonymous Hermit and sent them my idea for the “Pogo Biscuit” which the Hermit liked and got to work on.

The following day, an email appeared with a link to their design of “Valve Index Speaker Spacer” on Thingiverse with 3 different depth biscuits at 10mm, 5mm and 2mm to allow fine tuning if required.

Pogo Biscuits on Thingiverse
Pogo Biscuits on Thingiverse and my 3D printed samples

After finding a 3D printing company in London with low minimum orders I asked them to print all 3 depths of spacers so I could experiment and have some spares.  £40 and a week later I had a bag full of printed spacers and set to work making a working prototype using one of the 10mm spacers to test out the theory which seemed sound enough.

Figuring out the contact pins was tricky, as the ear speakers use “pogo pins” which are spring loaded to take up any variance when fitted, the spring loaded pins pushing tight against contact pads to maintain good electrical contact. There was no simple way to build such small, spring loaded pins, so I went shopping for headphones but I could not find any using pogo pins that could be cannibalised for my Pogo Biscuit prototype.  

I took careful measurements and I realized that if I built accurately the connection, it would work without pogo pins as long there was good metal to metal contact without excess pressure on the contact pads.

Looking at the wheel of my bicycle gave me a lightbulb idea: I could use bicycle spokes which are threaded at one end for the fitting to the spoke nipple. I found some steel spokes and screwed them through the hole already moulded into the spacer, which let me fine tune the contact depth so that the pogo pins on the ear speaker would compress to make electrical contact but without being crushed.

“Pogo Biscuit” being built, checking depth of spokes before cutting male side

I then cut down the spokes on the other side and slowly reduced the length using a Dremel tool by cutting and re-checking against the headset mount.

Grinding spokes to build the Pogo Biscuit prototype

I built two prototypes (one a bit scuffed from catching the Dremel), fitting the best looking prototype to my Index headset which showed the idea worked really well and took care of my asymmetry problem.

valve index how to solve asymmetry
Pogo Biscuit solving the asymmetry problem

Producing these “pogo biscuits” at scale was going to be expensive as it would need pogo pins and tooling for injection molding of the spacer as there was concern about the fragility and long term durability of these small parts when 3D printed.

5.4 degree ear speaker spacer

Soon enough, Anonymous Hermit was back in touch, with a simpler but smarter take on the ear speaker asymmetry problem. Instead of building the Pogo Biscuit with its difficult to construct pogo pins, they presented a much simpler design for a “5.4 degree ear speaker spacer”.

They had worked out with some maths the correct angle for a subtle wedge which would place the speaker pod further off my head whilst maintaining the correct angle to face the ear. 

5.4 degree spacer on Thingiverse
5.4 degree spacer on Thingiverse

The design was hosted on Thingiverse but Hermit kindly sent some spacers free of charge so I owe them a beer if our paths ever cross in person. About a week later, a small envelope arrived with a USA postal stamp, containing a selection of 5.4 ear speaker spacers printed in an orange-red colour.

Spacers arrived directly from the US thanks to Anonymous Hermit

Fitting these to the left ear speaker was easy although fiddly, reusing the existing T6 fitting. I found it useful to “load” the spacer onto the speaker before gently lifting it up to the headset so the spacer does not shift. As I wanted to increase the distance between left ear and left ear speaker, I orientated the spacer with its wider section at the bottom, causing the ear speaker to move further outwards.

spacer for speaker of valve index
Ear speaker with the 5.4 spacer designed by Anonymous Hermit

Depending on the orientation of the spacer, it’s possible to move each speaker further in or out from the fixed position giving an extra depth adjustment for those with asymmetrical ears and heads.

This smart idea is simple to print and adds a vital ergonomic adjustment to the toolbox of the Valve Index owner. Fantastic work by the Anonymous Hermit in providing a very neat, precise solution to the ear speaker asymmetry issue. 

valve index asymmetry adjusted
The asymmetry has finally been adjusted and both ears are being equally blasted with sound

As I often mention in my articles, an extension of this ear speaker spacer idea would be using 3D head mapping to determine optimum depths on a per ear basis.

Many Valve Index speakers on my desk…thanks to Steam Support…for the support!
BMR ear speakers or separate audio headphones?

With the ear asymmetry taken care of using Anonymous Hermit’s “5.4 degree ear speaker spacer” and the low volume problem banished using Equalizer APO, I felt it was a good time to rethink the choice of using Index with the BMR ear speakers or with separate audio headphones.

One question, is it better using BMR ear speakers or separate audio headphones?

  1. Depends on your environmental situation (background noise)
  2. Depends on the application (music rhythm game or quiet ecological experience).

With my asymmetry addressed and volume raised I came to very much prefer the BMR ear speakers with their excellent sound quality and reduced onboarding “friction” over my separate audio headphones.

The BMR speakers sounded very good whilst the off-ear design kept ears cool and untouched by headphone cushions, a great quality of life upgrade for VR headsets.

The feeling of having nothing on my ears was really appreciated when playing fast games of Beat Saber and Pistol Whip; the reduction in heat compared to wearing over-ear or even on-ear headphones was substantial.

If you’ve ever gone jogging in headphones you’ll understand why earbuds are better for active movement. The BMR ear speakers provide the same lower temperature benefit but with far superior sound quality to any earbud and many headphones.

In terms of pure sound quality (compared to studio-quality audio headphones) I felt they still slightly lacked bass, which is something I read that the manufacturer Tectonic had worked on during the development of these custom BMR drivers with Valve. But with higher volume levels in applications with well mixed audio they had a good bass weight which was satisfying in Beat Saber or shooting games.

Even more impressive, though, was the openness, depth and size of the VR soundscape the BMR ear speakers created by interacting with my ears and head’s physical anatomy to provide the best audio I’ve ever heard in a Virtual Reality headset.

Something to note though is that they will quickly expose any applications with poorly mixed audio, and there are many out there, especially older titles. In contrast, the recently released Pistol Whip really shows off the BMR ear speakers at their best with an incredible audio experience where the BMR ear speakers really shine.

Pistol Whip Valve Index
Playing Pistol Whip with the Valve Index

For people with constantly noisy backgrounds, the BMR ear speakers may not be ideal, you would have to increase volume to dangerous levels to block out background noise, and during quieter “experience” type applications, even a high volume level would not block out background noise.

Potentially for LBE (location-based entertainment) and Arcade operators using Index, the preferred choice could be gaming headphones for sound isolation where numerous users are in neighbouring booths, although this would need to be balanced against the increased friction of using separate headphones.

For the Index’s intended market who will set up dedicated VR spaces (it’s only sold B2C at the moment to early adopters and enthusiasts) the use of headphones is a genuine solution for more noisy environments, or if the user wants a heavier bass for their rhythm title.  This has to be weighed against the increase in body heat, ear discomfort and onboarding friction from using separate audio headphones.

The Takeaway

Summarizing, the main points about the Valve Index speakers are:

  • High-quality drivers with great clarity and separation
  • Big open soundscape that feels more “real” in VR
  • Bass is less weighty than studio quality headphones but still sufficient at volume
  • Lack of contact with ears lowers overall body heat stress
  • Lack of contact with ears means no pressure from ear cushions = less stress
  • Reduction in onboarding friction improves “quality of life” for regular use
  • No “depth” adjustment to move speakers closer to or further out from ears
  • Speaker depth can be adjusted with 5.4 degree ear speaker spacers
  • Lack of power was due to Nvidia GPU driver setting -6 in pre amplification
  • Nvidia GPU driver issue can be resolved with Equalizer APO
  • Noisy environments may require headphones i.e. gaming arcades, festivals
  • Quieter applications may require headphones if background noise is present
  • Not all headphone leads may fit due to limited clearance behind face gasket
  • Wide face gasket users will need slim extension lead as clearance is very tight

And this closes this series of posts by Rob Cole, that I want to hugely thank for these high-quality detailed articles on the ergonomics of the Valve Index. Many people asked me questions on these posts, and I will be very happy to put you in touch with Rob for whatever question or collaboration proposal: you just have to shoot me an e-mail!

But before, make Rob feel your love about these posts with some nice comments!

Thanks for reading! Rob Cole, immersivecomputing.org

By immersivecomputing.org

Human exploration of the immersive computing interface

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