Thoughts on Headphones for Home Theater Page 2

Surrounding Your Head
Headphone surround processing has never really caught on, not that there haven't been serious attempts to get it right, and Dolby Headphone had some potential for widespread adaptation. It was regularly spotted on AV receivers a few years ago, but nowadays not even top of the line Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony or Yamaha models offer Dolby Headphone. Marantz is the only major brand currently offering DH, but just on a few models (the AVR 7005 receiver is one). When I last heard it I thought DH was a wee bit better, more spacious sounding than stereo, but only a little better. SRS also offers a headphone processor, but again, it's not all that effective.

Just when I had all but given up on bona-fide surround over headphones I tried the Smyth Research Realiser A8. When I heard it for the first time I whipped the headphones off, I couldn't believe the sound wasn't coming out of the demo home theater system's speakers! No, the sound was all in my head, but it really sounded like the speakers. Amazing!

So the Realiser A8 produces vastly superior headphone surround than any processor I've heard to date. There's a good reason for that: in addition to its proprietary processors, the Realiser A8 comes with a pair of tiny measurement microphones you place in your ears that document the unique characteristics of each listener's ears, head, and torso in a specific sound environment, like your room. Test tones are sequenced through the speakers for a couple of minutes, while the Realiser A8 performs the calculations required to reproduce the sound of the speakers in the room over headphones.

The Realiser A8's spatial realism is downright astonishing, but I'm a pretty fussy listener, and I heard differences in tonality and dynamic impact between the headphone's sound and the speakers --- a Verity Audio Parsafal Ovation surround system and a Zu Essence. Both speakers sounded better than the headphones, but the biggest differences were noted in dynamics and bass. The processor has a bass output that can be used with a tactile transducer, shaker device to restore some of the bass' visceral quality to headphone sound.

The latest Realiser system retails for $3,360 (you can also use any headphone with the system). So it's expensive, but substantially less than the price of a seven-channel, high-end speaker system. The "Head Tracker" device that keeps the image stable when you move your head adds $175 to the cost of the system.

In the U.S., the Realiser A8 is sold directly through Smyth Research and a few brick-and-mortar retailers.

Thing is, I'm perfectly satisfied with stereo home theater. I have a lot of headphones, but I gravitate to my Audeze LCD-3, Grado RS-1, and Sennheiser HD-580 for the bulk of my headphone home theater listening sessions.


Editors Note: Thanks Steve, thought provoking as usual.

Like Steve, I've used two channel headphone home theater listening for a long time now, and am quite satisfied as well. Generally speaking, I like a headphone with a somewhat more elevated bass for movie and TV listening. Steve's choice of LCD-3 suites the bill with its extraordinary bass extension. I'd recommend the V-Moda Crossfade LP2, BlueAnt Embrace, and B&W P5 at lower pricepoints between $200 and $300 for movies and TV. (They are also good cellphone headsets.) I also strongly agree with his recommendation for the Sennheiser RS 220 wireless can for high-end wireless listening, and will add that I thought both the RS 180 (open) and RS 170 (sealed) were very good.

I too thought Dolby headphone was quite good, and really wish it would appear on more gear. My understanding is that the licensing costs were far to high for manufacturers to regularly include it. Though I felt the room reflections in it were a bit bothersome, they are easily ignored and I usually found myself well immersed in the surround quickly. No, it wasn't outside my head, but is was nicely localized in my headspace, so to speak.

My experience with SRS has been generally poor. I've found it to be murky sounding and not well localized at all. I do need to listen to their latest iteration carefully though --- it's now the go-to surround decode for Sennheiser products. I will look into this in future.

I've heard the Smyth Research Realizer, but not calibrated to my ears. It was still better than most other things I've heard. Kalman Rubinson has a Realizer review on Stereophile's website. He's an unabashed headphone hater, but loved the Realizer and said it's the only way he'd ever want to listen to headphones.

In my experience with the various headphone surround processors over the years is that while they often offer improvement, it comes at significant expense and the improvements provided are not large. I think the subtlety of these devices makes them less commercially viable in the broad market, and they tend not to survive as a product.

Bottom line, I'm with Steve: Movies sound quite good two-channel over headphones. And given the fact that it's either very expensive, or very difficult, to acquire alternative surround synthesis products that deliver significant improvement over the two channel experience, most times I think the best thing to do is nothing at all.

So ... sit back, relax, and enjoy the movie. I'll make some popcorn.

Resources Details on Dolby Headphone.
Details about SRS on Headphones.
Smyth Research Realizer web site.
Smyth Research Realizer review by Kalman Rubinson on Stereophile, and by Scott Wilkinson on Home Theater
No really good Head-Fi threads on this that I could find, there are a couple here and here.

If anyone knows about good threads on this topic on Head-Fi, AVS forums or elsewhere, I'd love for you to mention it in the comments.


13mh13's picture

I've got a lot of cans, too, including Senn 580, 600, 650 and IE-8; AKG-701 (yuck!) and Grado HP-1, 325i and SR-80, and even some classic Stax ES. And several upper-end IEMs.
My go-to cans for "video" are dt-880. They effectively bring more mid and treble detail fwd due to their DF response. The Senn 580-650 are, IMO, too dark for "video" -- dialog and sound efx need to be up-front. Grado's are okay here but not good for LONG-TERM (=long listening session) ---what you want for video/movies -- as they are too uncomfortable + not enough deep bass.
Not really into "movies"; for me it's mostly docs and educational/Discovery channel stuff played on a combined PC/mini-HTPC. And YT "bites" (including Tyll's tutorials -- MUCH better than Harry Potter and Spider-Man ;) So, maybe, other cans are better for movie audio.

IAC ... I ALWAYS use xfeed. I rarely use speakers for ANY audio listening, so cans are important.

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A cheap and good DSP to use with headphones. It took me while but I finally got things right and the image I got was pretty convincing.

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FuzzyD's picture

I don't think your comment that Dolby Headphone is only found today in high end Marantz models is correct (unless things just changed within the last few weeks). Just 2 months ago I was shopping for a new receiver and having this feature was a requirement of mine as I do a lot of late night gaming and I use headphones for this. I believe all of the Marantz models have it if you look at their downloadable specs sheets on their website. Yamaha also has their own "Silent Cinema" for headphone surround which is it what I went with and am very happy with. I believe Denon had Dolby Headphone very recently so that must be a new removal in that line.

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I have watched House at the end of the street horror movie and I connected the Sennheiser RS 220 headphones to the home theater. The sound was amazing and I could enjoying a nice horror movie without disturbind my room mate.

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