Virtual reality sounds terrible. The bevy of 360-degree video cameras are visually immersive, but what they lack is convincing 'lifelike' audio. Cue the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset, which we first saw at CES 2017 in January. It has an omni-directional microphone on each ear that record the sound surrounding the videographer, from whatever angle it comes in from. Is this a new personal audio frontier?
The concept behind the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is simple; it can record moving sound. If you take a video of a car driving from left to right across the shot while wearing it, the audio will move with it. Using an omni-directional microphone in each ear, it records the audio where you hear it. And it gets better; the recorded audio can then we played back through any regular pair of headphones.
Although Sennheiser's expensive Ambeo VR 3D Microphone was released last year – and it first debuted its MKE 2002 binaural microphone back in 1974 – its Ambeo Smart Headset is the first consumer-grade ‘personal virtual reality’ product with a omni-directional microphone. It’s not on sale yet; that’s due to happen in summer, but we got our ears on an early, working sample at the IFA Global Press Conference 2017 in Lisbon, and put it through its paces around the streets of the Portuguese capital.
For now, these earphones only exist for the iPhone; the audio cable is terminated in Apple Lightning (which also provides the power), though Sennheiser told us that it will also develop a version for Android devices. The Apple Lightning termination is critical because it takes advantage of new audio processing features in OS 10.3.1, the most recent update. In fact, the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset doesn’t work at all if you attach it to an iPhone running 10.3.0; we tried just that, and found that it defaults to the iPhone’s microphone.
The mesh-covered binaural microphones themselves on each earbud are rather large, though they don’t feel heavy, and in our test the in-ears fitted snugly.
Thankfully, 3D audio capture is pure plug and play. Controls are on an in-line remote on the cable, though there’s not much to explore; the binaural mode is always-on, the volume buttons are standard issue, and there’s the usual mic for hands-free calls. There is a ‘transparent audio’ control for reducing or increasing background noise, but that's about it. Inside the in-line remote is an analogue-to-digital converter and Apogee’s SoftLimit tech, which syncs the timing, volume and timbre of the sounds captured from different directions to create the 360-degree soundfield.
So when would you ever need to record your own immersive 3D surround sound? The answer is simple; anywhere you record video already.
We took it out around Lisbon city centre, taking short videos of street scenes, buskers, trams, a live band and even a Venezuelan pro-democracy demo in the main square. We found that the omni-directional sounds effects were most effective when the audio sources were close, and when particularly there two distinct sounds came from either side of us. And the Ambeo Smart Headset really does put the 'personal' into personal audio; we felt like a walking microphone, with every movement of my head altering what audio we captured.
For example, a busker playing a saxophone was very clearly on our left-hand side, and audibly moved to the right-hand side of the soundstage when we turned around. However, trams and vehicles behind us or more than about five metres in front did not appear to create much in the way of moving audio. The closer, the better.
Not only does it produce multi-directional audio, but the Ambeo Smart Headset also creates much clearer, sharper and fuller audio than any of the microphones built-in to the iPhone 7 that we used for this test, and without any significant hiss. That’s not all a massive surprise; when recording video it always makes sense to use a separate microphone or one on a pair of earphones rather than rely on the phone itself.
Swapping between using the microphone on the Ambeo Smart Headset and that of the phone, the latter seemed very muffled and indistinct. So using the Ambeo Smart Headset brings a jump in sound quality per se, as well as adding binaural audio effects.
The binaural sound effects are impressive, and they do really add something that the virtual reality era is missing or, at least, will miss once VR hits the mainstream; 360 degree sound is the future. Despite the main feature being theoretically complicated, the form factor is familiar and it's so easy to use – there isn't even an app. Videos can be exported from the iPhone to a computer or tablet for listening to that same exact, original binaural sound field via any pair of earphones or headphones, or through a home cinema’s surround sound system.
However, the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset's biggest win isn't in creating binaural sound, but just in capturing better, more intricate sound. That's underlined further by the fact that these are also just plain great stereo earphones.
However intriguing the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is, it does have some limitations. Firstly, you have to record audio while wearing a pair of headphones. That’s not something that is going to come naturally to most of us, and it means that whenever you’re recording video, you must always face in the exact same direction as where you’re pointing your phone's camera.
Another issue is the Ambeo Smart Headset’s sporty styling. They look like fitness earphones, with a bright, white over-ear hook design that some will love, and some will hate. The final problem applies to binaural audio in general; it only works through earphones and headphones. Our collective reliance on smartphones for entertainment means that video is increasingly consumed on a personal basis, so binaural video seems like a good idea. Will it catch-on? Perhaps, though we suspect that it will remain a small niche, and that any mainstream success will be tied to the success (or otherwise) of virtual reality headsets.
With these simple, sporty earphones, Sennhesier has come up with a compelling product. Forget the intricacies of what it's trying to achieve, and why; the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is largely about just recording better sound.
Is immersive 3D surround sound the new audio frontier? The death of stereo sound has been predicted many times, but as anyone who has donned a VR headset knows, something has to change, and fast. Offering something genuinely new and exciting, the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset are an impressive addition to any videographer's arsenal, but however impressive it is, we question if there's a real desire to record sound in 360-degrees in this pre-VR era. However, if you've started creating 360-degree videos, the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is a must-have.