Monday, June 19, 2006

home theater speaker: Surround Your Head With Sound

Mike Kobrin - PC Magazine

June 16

Stereo audio is nice, but 5.1-channel audio provides a much more immersive experience for movies and even certain kinds of music. So how can you get that surround-sound effect late at night while the kids are sleeping or when you're on a red-eye flight across the country? Why, 5.1-channel headphones of course!

"True" 5.1-channel headphones actually have multiple speakers in each earcup, with the intention of emulating the front, rear surround, center, and subwoofer channels of a home theater speaker setup. Surround sound with headphones is not as convincing as it is with actual speakers located in front and behind you, but it provide much better experience for movies than standard stereo headphones. Most of the difference is in how the headphones handle bass; movies generally require more "rumble," which occurs in a very low frequency range. To get this effect, many surround headphones wind up being bass-heavy, making them less suitable for listening to music.

I have tested three different solutions—the FID irock! 1051 Theater Surround Headphones, Voyetra Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA, and LTB WR-51 Cinema 1—for getting the most out of your DVDs without driving your family or neighbors nuts whether you're at home or on the go.

The FID irock! 1051 Theater Surround Headphones have three speakers in each earcup. The headphones plug into your PC's USB port, and you can use the included software to adjust the level of each speaker independently. The build quality is pretty cheap, though, and they're not the most comfortable headphones on the market. Still, they do provide a low-cost entry into the surround headphones space.

The Voyetra Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA has four speakers in each earcup, with the subwoofer driver overlaid over the other three speakers. Interestingly, the low-frequency driver vibrates a bit to give you a bit more rumble for explosions in movies and games. They require a 5.1-channel sound card with discrete outputs for each channel, though Voyetra also makes a 5.1-channel USB adapter called the Audio Advantage Roadie for systems without a 5.1-channel sound card (check back soon for my review of that product). An inline controller gives you separate volume wheels for each audio channel. The best thing about these headphones is that they sound excellent even for regular music listening, and they're quite comfortable.

The LTB WR-51 Cinema 1 have three speakers in each earcup, but they distinguish themselves by being the world's first wireless 5.1-channel headphones. The headphones receive audio signals over the 2.4-GHz frequency band from a base station which you can plug into your PC or standalone DVD player via coaxial or optical digital cables. The headphones are very comfortable, and with a little tweaking of the equalizer on your PC or stereo system, these sound pretty good for regular music listening. But the wireless signal isn't particularly robust, so you'll get some dropouts if you move around too much.

Want to know what else distinguishes these headphones from one another. Then check them out on our comparison table.

Depending on your needs (not to mention your budget), one of these headphones could give you the surround sound you've been craving. Read on to find your best fit.

Reviewed in this story:

FID irock! 1051 Theater Surround Headphones ($39.99 direct)
These entry-level surround headphones plug into your PC's USB port.

Voyetra Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA ($99.95 direct)
These headphones require a 5.1- or 7.1-channel sound card, and they sound excellent for both movies and music.

LTB WR-51 Cinema 1 ($345 street
These wireless 5.1-channel headphones let you enjoy movies without being tethered.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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