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The Gizmo Guy: Now Hear This

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By Gordon Meyer

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There are a handful of audio companies that can be said to set the standards everyone else aspires to, whether it’s in the professional or consumer arena.  Sennheiser is one of those companies, beginning with their professional microphones (Fritz Sennheiser is credited with inventing the shotgun microphone) and soon branching out into headphones.   So when a company like Sennheiser announces a new model of high end wireless headphones, I was anxious to check them out. 

I often work out of my apartment, not only writing pieces like this, screening Blu-rays of movies whose structure I want to study, and editing my own video projects, including doing rough audio mixes.  At the same time, I like to be on good terms with my neighbors, so I can’t always crank up the sound as loudly as I’d like.  Yet one of the reasons I do want to crank up the sound is so I can get a more realistic idea of how what I’m editing and mixing, or for that matter screening, will play in the intended environments.  Well engineered headphones not only help me stay friendly with my neighbors, they can also often let me hear things I might not catch through conventional speakers, unless they are really high end.

The Sennheiser RS 170 headphones are full sized, over the ear headphones that deliver on their promise of ultra-high fidelity audio.  There are even options for both a bass boost and simulated surround sound via the Dolby Headphone algorithm.  More on the latter in just a bit. 

So, let’s begin with the most important question.  How do they sound?  As far as 2.1 channel audio is concerned, these $370 headphones deliver the kind of clean, well-defined audio you would expect from a $1,000 speaker system, especially when the dynamic bass boost is activated. Whether it’s dialog, sound effects like explosions, or the subtle nuances of a string quartet, the RS 170s deliver terrific 2.1 channel sound.

The Dolby Headphone option, which claims to accurately simulate 7.1 channel sound is another story. The RS 170s use a standard analog stereo cable with no option for multi-channel digital audio input and then process that two channel source into pseudo-multichannel audio.  While there is a sense of audio wrapping around you, the actual audio imaging or placement leaves a lot to be desired.

There’s a segment from Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” I like to use to test surround sound imaging because when it works right, you distinctly hear Mickey Mouse’s voice as he walks off camera to the left side of the audience, then behind, to the right side and ultimately right front.  In other words Mickey’s voice almost completely encircles the audience.  But with the surround feature enabled, there was, instead, only a vague front to rear to front movement. I didn’t distinctly hear Mickey’s voice around and behind me the way I would with discreet external speakers.   

Because the 170s are wireless, they use a pair of AAA batteries, which are installed in each ear cup.  Sennheiser includes a rechargeable set.  The Kleer wireless technology is rated at 260 feet, assuming a clean line of sight between the headphones and the transmitter base.   Going from one of the rear bedrooms (where my workspace is located) out to the front resulted in sporadic reception, no doubt due to the walls.  Still, within the confines of my workspace and the immediate surroundings, it was nice to be able to move about without being tethered to my desk.  The range was definitely acceptable.

Here’s the bottom line.  As long as your audio monitoring requirements don’t extend into surround sound, the Sennheiser RS 170s are really good for listening to dialog and monophonic or traditional two channel stereo tracks, especially if you want the freedom to walk around while listening.  And when you want to take a break from your Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut screen, they’re pretty good with an MP3 player as well.

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Guest Tuesday, 07 July 2015