SpExCue: Role of spectral cues in sound externalization - objective measures & modeling

Spatial hearing is important to monitor the environment for interesting or hazardous sounds and to selectively attend to them. The spatial separation between the two ears and the complex geometry of the human body provide auditory cues about the location of a sound source. Depending on where a sound is coming from, the pinna (or auricle) changes the sound spectrum before the sound reaches the eardrum. Since the shape of a pinna is highly individual (even more so than a finger print) it also affects the spectral cues in a very individual manner. In order to produce realistic auditory perception artificially, this individuality needs to be reflected as precisely as required, whereby the actual requirements are currently unclear. That is why SpExCue was about finding electrophysiological measures and prediction models of how spatially realistic (“externalized”) a virtual sound source is perceived to be.

Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) systems aim to immerse a listener into a well-externalized 3D auditory space. This requires a perceptually accurate simulation of the listener’s natural acoustic exposure. Particularly challenging is to appropriately represent the high-frequency spectral cues induced by the pinnae. To simplify this task, we aim at developing a phenomenological computational model for sound externalization with a particular focus on spectral cues. The model will be designed to predict the listener’s degree of externalization based on binaural input signals and the listener’s individual head-related transfer functions (HRTFs) under static listening conditions.

The naturally externalized auditory perception can be disrupted, for instance, when listening via headphones or hearing-assistive devices, and instead sounds are heard inside the head. Because of this change in externalization or perceived distance, our investigations of spectral cues also served to study the phenomenon of auditory looming bias (Baumgartner et al., 2017 PNAS): sounds approaching the listener are perceived more intensely than those that are receding from the listener. Previous studies demonstrated auditory looming bias exclusively by loudness changes (increasing/decreasing loudness used to simulate approaching/receding sounds). Hence, it was not clear whether this bias truly reflects perceptual differences in sensitivity to motion direction rather than changes in loudness. Our spectral cue changes were perceived as either approaching or receding at steady loudness and evoked auditory looming bias both on a behavioral level (approaching sounds easier to recognize than receding sounds) and an electrophysiological level (larger neural activity in response to approaching sounds). Therefore, our study demonstrated that the bias is truly about perceived motion in distance, not loudness changes.

Further, SpExCue investigated how the combination of different auditory spatial cues affects attentional control in a speech recognition task with simultaneous talkers, which requires spatial selective attention like in a cocktail party (Deng et al., in prep). We found that natural combinations of auditory spatial cues caused larger neural activity in preparation to the test signal and optimized the neural processing of the attended speech.

SpExCue also compared different computational modeling approaches that aim to predict the effect of spectral cue changes on how spatially realistic a sound is perceived (Baumgartner et al., 2017 EAA-ASA). Although many previous experimental results could be predicted by at least one of the models, none of them alone could explain these results. In order to assist the future design of more general computational models for spatial hearing, we finally created a conceptual cognitive model for the formation of auditory space (Majdak et al., in press).


Erwin-Schrödinger Fellowship from Austrian Science Funds (FWF, J3803-N30) awarded to Robert Baumgartner. Duration: May 2016 - November 2017.

Follow-up funding provided by Oculus Research, LLC (now Facebook Reality Labs). Duration: March 2018 - July 2019. Project Investigator: Robert Baumgartner.


  • Baumgartner, R., Reed, D.K., Tóth, B., Best, V., Majdak, P., Colburn H.S., Shinn-Cunningham B. (2017): Asymmetries in behavioral and neural responses to spectral cues demonstrate the generality of auditory looming bias, in: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 114, 9743-9748.  (article)
  • Baumgartner, R., Majdak, P., Colburn H.S., Shinn-Cunningham B. (2017): Modeling Sound Externalization Based on Listener-specific Spectral Cues, presented at: Acoustics ‘17 Boston: The 3rd Joint Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the European Acoustics Association. Boston, MA, USA.  (conference)
  • Deng, Y., Choi, I., Shinn-Cunningham, B., Baumgartner, R. (2019): Impoverished auditory cues limit engagement of brain networks controlling spatial selective attention, in: Neuroimage 202, 116151.  (article)
  • Baumgartner, R., Majdak, P. (2019): Predicting Externalization of Anechoic Sounds, in: Proceedings of ICA 2019. (proceedings)
  • Majdak, P.; Baumgartner, R.; Jenny, C. (2020) Formation of three-dimensional auditory space. In: Blauert, J.; Braasch, J. (Hrsg.), The Technology of Binaural Understanding: Springer, Cham, S. 115-149.  (book chapter)
  • Li, S., Baumgartner, R., Peissig, J. (online: 2020) Modeling perceived externalization of a static, lateral sound image. Acta Acustica, Bd. 4 (21).  (article)