Review: 3D Audio, Sennheiser's AMBEO Smart Headset and The Final Stop

- “Binaural audio.” It’s nothing new. Jump on YouTube, follow that rabbit hole and an hour or two later, you've watched dozens of videos recorded with it. It is audio recorded in such a manner as to reproduce sound as you hear it naturally. Happening all around you, in 360 degrees. It used to be that recording audio like this would require equipment costing thousands of dollars but with the advancement of recording technology, Sennheiser has brought to market a product which puts the technology, often called “3D sound,” into the hands of modern content creators at a price that is attainable.

 

The Sennheiser AMBEO smart headset binaural recording headphones are a niche product for a niche market. They aren’t for everyone, but those who can utilize this product will not be disappointed by its performance. For $300 you get a set of over-the-ear hook earbuds which work only with iOS devices due to their Apple MFi-certified lightning connector. The headset features active noise cancellation, which augments the passive noise cancellation that most earbuds naturally possess. The combination’s execution on the AMBEO produced impressive results in my testing, more on that later. As you look at the hardware, you’ll also notice the microphone grills on the outside of the earbuds and two inline modules hanging from the headphones. The smaller of the two is the inline mic which allows you to take calls and operate SIRI, or whichever voice assistant you’re using on your iOS device. The larger of the two is where the magic happens. This module allows you to turn active noise cancellation on or off, activate the “transparent hearing” feature which allows you to open the earbuds up to the sound coming from your surroundings, as well as control music and call functions.

For 3D recording, there’s also a slider which allows you to adjust microphone sensitivity. You’ll know the 3D mic is on when you’re recording video on your iOS device and the red light on the control module is aglow. Then, based on the noise levels of your location, you can used the slider to open that mic’s sensitivity all the way up (the deafult), or reduce the level if you’re at a concert or monster truck rally, for example.

There are two sets of microphones on the AMBEO headset. The only mic, or in this case, mics which are binaural are the two (one each side) on the outside of the earbuds. The placement of these microphones is what allows for the capture of audio which is reproduced binaurally. The microphone on the inline mic for taking calls is mono only. The capture and processing of audio on the AMBEO is aided by Sennheiser’s partner Apogee who tailored software and hardware with a mic preamp and tuned analog/digital and digital/analog conversion.

I’ve had the opportunity to test out the headphones on two different occasions, though I’ve also had a demo try for everyday use. The first occasion was during the initial launch for the AMBEO headset in downtown Los Angeles, when I posted this video to introduce people to the technology- you must listen with headphones on to get the 3D effect:

I was immediately floored by the quality of the active noise cancelling after I recorded that video then went to play it back. I was still in the middle of the concert when I played back the song I’d just recorded and the noise cancellation was so strong that I thought I was listening to the current performance and what I’d recorded was being completely drowned out. I had to actually take the headphones off to check what I was actually listening to. It was that good! The performer on stage was playing a completely different song than the one I was listening to, but when I put the earbuds in my ears, I couldn’t hear the concert in the background at all. I was completely immersed in my recording. What allowed me to be duped though, was not just the noise cancellation, but the 3D audio. The recorded audio was reproduced so life-like that it tricked my brain into thinking that I couldn’t have been listening to what I’d recorded because it was too pristine and “too natural” given my environment.

The second opportunity to listen to 3D audio that the AMBEO records was at a private screening for a short film shot using the AMBEO, sponsored by Sennheiser. It was a clever short called “Final Stop,” shot entirely on iPhones, using AMBEO to capture sound. The film, directed by Roxanne Benjamin, was a short thriller with a really fun twist. I don’t want to ruin it, the runtime is just 7 minutes, so check it out for yourself now on YouTube:

After the film, the Sennheiser folk set up a haunted house-like experience for attendees to walk through and record the experience using the AMBEO headsets and their iPhones. I’ve uploaded that video here, so you can check it out. As with the previous two, headphones on in order to get the full effect.

At the end of the day, as stated in the beginning of this review, these aren’t for everyone. That said, you’re getting Sennheiser quality sound here and over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones with this quality of sound and active noise cancellation tend to run in this price range anyway. In this case, if you purchase these you’re getting the ability to record some pretty impressive audio should you find yourself in a situation or venue worthy of having that option. The only glaring downside to the AMBEO is that if you use anything other than iOS, you’re out of luck.  If you’re a content creator looking to try experimental methodologies for creating cinematic experiences then you should at the very least give these a try and see if you can use them to add something unique to your toolset.

Disclosure: Sennheiser provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.
 

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