Thoughts on Headphones for Home Theater

The first time I pitched a two-channel home theater article to a magazine editor he totally lost it. He pounded his desk, suggesting the idea was a crime against nature, "Home theater IS multichannel!" Case closed. I eventually wrote that piece for Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater magazine. Stereo home theater has since become accepted as a viable alternative to five or more speakers and a subwoofer. I practice what I preach and currently use a pair of six foot tall Magnepan 3.7 speakers in my home theater. But when it's late, or I don't want to disturb my wife, I don headphones and enjoy movies and concert videos.

Headphones are also great for anyone seeking a respite from noisy environments. Another plus: room acoustic maladies, echoes, and resonances that can muck up the sound of even the very best speakers are never a concern with headphones. Of course, headphones never sound like speakers, but my Audeze LCD-3 'phones have better resolution that my Magnepan 3.7s.

A lot of recent movies sound great, even low budget films like Local Color. Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl as a cranky old artist teaching a kid (Trevor Morgan) about painting, and life. Listening with my Sennheiser HD-580s it was easy to forget I was wearing headphones. The film's soundtrack transported me to a cramped old house, and when it rained I could hear the sound of the drops hitting the windows off in the distance.

Concert DVDs and Blu-rays, like Peter Gabriel's "New Blood - Live in London" sound great over headphones. The song list mixes Gabriel's hits and music from his recent and thoroughly excellent "Scratch My Back" album. The orchestra's strings and the soft-to-loud dynamics sound live. The massive production never gets in the way and totally supports Gabriel's commanding performance.

I also watched King Kong, and the scenes in the jungle unleashed a huge soundscape of buzzing insects, birds and animal noises. When 'Kong wrestles with dinosaurs and slams them into the ground, the visceral jolts were scaled back, compared with what you'd get from a decent home theater setup.

I usually have my Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player's stereo analog outputs feeding my Woo Audio WA-6 SE headphone amp, but for this article I also tried an Antelope Audio Zodiac 192-kHz DAC/headphone amp and a Schiit Audio Bifrost DAC running off the Oppo's coax digital output. While both DACs sounded very transparent, they didn't have enough gain to play movies loud enough (music was no problem). The WA-6SE was tonally richer than the DACs and still had oodles of detail. The Oppo's HDMI output fed video to my Panasonic TH-50PH9UK plasma display.

Since most of you won't be using a subwoofer, you might favor headphones that deliver satisfying bass power and oomph. So while the better 'phones can deliver low bass, it will always lack the feel-it-in-your-gut impact of subwoofer bass. If you’re a bass freak better stick with sealed headphones that can more effectively pressurize your eardrums than open-backed headphones.

But open-back models, like my Sennheiser HD 580 or Audeze LCD-2 generate a more open, less stuck inside your head soundstage, just be aware that if you crank the volume way up other people may be annoyed by the sound leaking from the headphones. If that's a concern, go for a closed-back model, like the Audio Technica ATH-M50 to minimize leakage problems. If you make a steady diet of headphone home theater, going the wireless route might be a good idea. The new Sennheiser RS 220 would be a prime contender for home theater devotees.


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.

firev1's picture

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.

Brod's picture

Shout out to Creative's CMSS-3D technology - it's good HRTF without breaking the bank.

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.

UltimaTHX's picture

True, the ultimate speaker is the Snell THX Reference

Molly Hurley's picture

Concert is very special event for me :) Justin Bieber is my favorite singer i like it very much When i listen her first song i become fan of Justin Bieber. i want to go on many concert but i cant get the tickets to Justin Bieber concert

lennardgarnett's picture

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.