Updated: December 5, 2012

Dolby Headphone Technology - Part 2
Equipment Requirements and System Limitations

What are your options with Dolby Headphone Technology?

In the first part of this headphones technology guide, we explained what Dolby virtual surround headphone technology is all about and how it creates that out-of-the-head effect so important to an enjoyable headphones listening experience.

In this second part, we first show you what options are available to enjoy this fantastic headphone technology. But nothing is perfect; we conclude this article by examining its limitations vis-à-vis a speaker setup.

Sennheiser RS170 Digital Wireless Headphones with virtual surround sound technology

Sennheiser RS170 Wireless Headphones

Rated as one of the best wireless headphones capable of exceptional sound clarity, featuring dynamic bass and virtual surround sound headphone technology.

Up to four headsets comprising a mix of RS180 and RS170 can be operated via a single transmitter, while the wireless headset recharges via the cradle.

Dolby Headphone:
What do you need to enjoy this headphone technology?

In the first part of this article, we have seen how the Dolby algorithm for headphone listening generates what are referred to as 'virtual speakers'.

These virtual sound sources make it possible to play a 5.1-channel sound over an ordinary pair of stereo headphones. The resultant headphone listening experience is practically the same immersing experience one enjoys when listening to sound from a multi-channel speaker setup.

The good news for headphone users is that you do not need much to enjoy this headphone technology! Dolby virtual surround headphone technology works well for all listeners and with any multi-channel audio program source; no custom adjustments are needed. Equally important, even an ordinary pair of headphones will do as long as you have a Dolby Headphone encoded sound source. But as with all home theater equipment, audio quality improves with the quality of your gear.

So... What do you actually need to enjoy this great headphones listening technology?

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There are three basic approaches to this virtual surround headphone technology

The Built-in Decoder

The easiest way is to buy it as part of an A/V receiver, DVD-Video or DVD-Audio player, laptop PC, game console, TV, etc. In reality, it can be included as part of any product that normally provides a stereo headphone jack.

Though the possibilities of incorporating Dolby Digital Headphone in system hardware are endless, yet up to very recent, there were only a few products that offered build-in Dolby Headphone decoders even though the technology have been around since 2001. Luckily, things are starting to change in that more mid-range AV receivers are now starting to feature some virtual sound expansion technology for headphone listening.

Harman/Kardon AVR-3600Home theater receivers within this category worth considering include the affordable Harman Kardon AVR-3650 featured on our site under the AV receivers section of the site and the Marantz SR6006 premium category AV receiver.

Both are excellent receivers with a great GUI and one of the most complete feature specs. As expected, both support this headphone technology for a more spacious, open sound with headphone listening.

An alternative to the AV receiver is a headphone pair with a built-in Dolby Surround Headphone decoder. The latter is somewhat more common than the AV receiver solution. Again, as with the case of the AV receiver, available options are still very much limited and mainly available on premium headphone models.

Worth taking note here that Dolby Headphone is just one of a number of proprietary virtual surround sound technologies for headphone listening. Irrespective of the technology in use, the aim is always that of producing a more realistic out-of-the-head effect with 5.1-channel sound.

Among the few interesting headphone systems available with virtual surround sound technology, one finds the Pioneer SE-DIR800C, the Ear Force PX5 Programmable Wireless 7.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound Headset with Bluetooth, and the Sennheiser RS170 featured above.

All three systems come with very similar features, are comfortable in use, and use 2.4GHz wireless digital audio technology for the best results. Above all, they all represent attractive virtual surround options capable of very good quality sound. However, out of the three, it is the Sennheiser R170 that delivers the best expansive audio quality; the R170 is also the one that in our opinion is most suitable for audiophile listening.

Encoding Software

The situation is somewhat different when it comes to software applications for your desktop or lap-top PC. A search online using the term 'downloadable Dolby encoding headphone software' would soon reveal a number of readily available applications for immediate use.

Pre-encoded Soundtracks

As already expressed earlier on, it is possible to enjoy this fantastic technology that lets you experience your home theater to the full without annoying your neighbors using an ordinary pair of stereo headphones, without the need of any special equipment.

BUT in this case, you would need a Dolby Headphone pre-encoded soundtrack. Some DVDs come with a pre-encoded headphone soundtrack; all you have to do is plug in your favorite pair of headphones into the headphone jack of your DVD player or A/V receiver and select the Dolby Headphone soundtrack from the DVD menu; and it's all done!

No special hardware or decoder is required because Dolby Headphone processing has already been applied to the soundtrack; in other words, the resulting signals are pre-encoded as a special Dolby Headphone soundtrack.

Pearl Harbor DVDThere is one problem thought: Unfortunately, there are only a few titles available that support a Dolby pre-encoded headphone soundtrack; these include:

- Pearl Harbor

- Pearl Harbor (Vista Series Director's Cut)

- T2: Extreme DVD

Note: If you are making use of a pre-encoded Dolby surround headphone soundtrack, make sure that any digital signal processing (DSP) modes often referred to as simulated soundfield modes e.g. Cinema, Hall, Live, are disabled.

Engaging this type of DSP on your AV receiver will severely degrade the pre-encoded Dolby Headphone soundtrack.

Technology Limitations

The Dolby Headphone algorithm is primarily designed to simulate the soundfield created by a 5.1 home theater speaker system. This means this algorithm is not able to virtually produce the enhanced sound stage created by the surround back channels in extended surround sound formats such as THX Surround EX and DTS Extended Surround (DTS-ES).

To be fair though, Dolby Digital Headphone technology was never meant to virtually re-create extended surround sound formats. There is one exception though.

The latest update to the algorithm can reproduce a source that incorporates Dolby Pro Logic IIz preprocessing introduced in 2009. This means that Dolby Headphone is able to provide a convincing 7.1-channel virtual surround sound experience.

Dolby Pro Logic IIz technology introduces the concept of 'Height' speakers for the fronts (as further detailed in our Dolby Surround Sound Expansion guide); instead of the Back surround speakers used in a standard 7.1 speaker setup.

Is this Headphone Technology a Replacement to a Home Theater Speaker Setup?

Not quite. But then it all depends on whether you want to enjoy your home theater with your family and friends, or whether you are bound to use your home theater with the volume almost completely turned down because maybe a family member is sleeping or studying in an adjacent room.

From a pure sound perspective, Dolby Surround Headphone technology is capable of virtually re-creating in an amazingly faithful manner, the imaging and soundfield created by a 5.1 multi-channel speaker system. In other words, it is capable of creating that same immersive soundstage of a surround sound system, even though it doesn't quite match the same detailed imaging produced by a real five-speaker setup.

This is because through a correct speaker placement in a 5.1 channel system, it is possible to impart a level of sound detail not possible with even the best quality headphones.

But... If you ever need to make use of a pair of headphones, ensure that you will make use of either Dolby Headphone technology or some other virtual surround sound technology designed specifically for headphone listening. This not only leads to less listener's fatigue when using headphones, it also helps transform your headphone listening from less-than-ordinary to a most enjoyable and immersive sound listening experience.

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article

Blue bullet  What do you need to enjoy Dolby Headphone technology?

Blue bullet  Basic Options: The built-in decoder, encoding software, and pre-encoded soundtracks

Blue bullet  Limitations: Is Dolby Headphone technology a replacement to a home theater speaker setup?

 Headphone Guides

Articles covered under this section

Blue bullet  Wireless Headphones: Introduction

Blue bullet  Headphones Basics and Buying Tips

Blue bullet  Dolby Headphone (1): Overview

Blue bullet  Headphone Accessories: Maximizing your Listening

Detailed Index of headphone guides appearing on our site is available here.

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Recommended Technical Guides

Wireless Speakers Systems

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Surround Sound Formats

TV Viewing Distance Guide

Room Acoustics and Soundproofing

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