Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset (review)
4.6Overall Score
Price (RRP): $469.95 Manufacturer: Sennheiser

Oh, we’ve reviewed so many earphones here. But the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is something very different. It’s not just for listening, although it allows that. It’s mostly for recording. Recording in a very special way.

Features

The Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is a wired earbud set for listening to music from an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. And it’s also a set of high-quality stereo microphones for recording sound to an iPad, iPod or iPod Touch. The special way I mentioned is what’s called “binaural” recording. That’s a fascinating subject, and I’ll return to it shortly.

So, wired. Since iPhones don’t have analogue connections any more, it’s Lightning connector only. The cable feeds into a relatively large pod – it measures 72mm by 22mm by 9mm and weighs 12.6 grams – which houses the controls, the Digital to Analogue converter (for sound playback) and Analogue to Digital converter (for recording).

Ambeo

Sennheiser and Apogee

Now, the Ambeo is being sold here by Sennheiser, and the box is labelled for that brand, acknowledging only that it’s “Powered by Apogee”. Apogee is a company best known for making digital products for professional recording: DACs and ADCs and mixers and such. Apogee calls the Ambeo Smart Headset a co-development between it and Sennheiser. At least in the US, Apogee also sells the Ambeo direct. I figure that the DAC and ADC used by the Ambeo would largely be Apogee’s work.

From the top of this pod are two cables leading to the earpieces. These feature wrap-around hooks for the user’s ears. The earpieces use silicone tips – Sennheiser provides three different sizes. On the outside of the earpieces are grilles covering electret microphones. They’re for the binaural recording. Given Sennheiser’s lineage and the quality of its devices, I’d expect that it is responsible for the microphones and transducers in the earpieces.

On the right-hand cable there’s another small pod. This is to house the small microphone used for hands-free phone operation. The Ambeo is powered by the iPhone but Sennheiser says that it “will not … have a major impact on battery life.”

The Ambeo comes with a soft, cloth pouch for holding the headset when it’s not in use.

Binaural recording

This is the truly special thing about the Ambeo headset. So, it’s worth spending a few words on what binaural recording is. Stereo sound attempts to capture the position of the musical instruments and other sound sources in space. In a basic, purist system, one puts a couple of microphones some distance from the instruments, and some distance apart. The output from each goes to its own left or right channel. Ultimately, it’ll be played back in the home, left and right channels to the respective speakers. The stereo image is produced by the mixing of the sound in the air of your listening room.

It works, but it’s kind of a fake.

Microphones instead of ears

Binaural recording uses microphones placed in the position where one’s ears are located. The microphones are omnidirectional – which means that they capture sound at more or less equal levels from all directions. But the sound that they capture is modified by a head – fake or real – between them. In other words, what the microphones are capturing is the sound that your ears actually hear.

Ambeo

It is this which is recorded. And when you listen to a binaural recording, you are supposed to use earphones or headphones. The sound that was just about to enter the ears of someone (or the ears of the dummy) in the recording studio is piped right into your ears.

The result is usually more “real” sounding than traditional sound recording and can be eerily three dimensional.

So that’s why it came to dominate recording technology, and virtually all recordings are binaural these days. NOT!