Headphones Guide: Wireless Headphones
Updated: December 5, 2012

Guide to Wireless Headphones
and Surround Sound Dolby Headphone Technology

A Practical Guide to Headphones

Ever get told to turn it down when listening to your favorite music track or when watching a movie? Wireless headphones may be your relationship-saving solution!

Today's technology is such that one can still enjoy a great home theater sound experience and feel immersed into the movie action with a good pair of wireless digital headphones featuring virtual surround sound headphone technology; the latter makes it possible to enjoy multichannel surround sound over a two-channel ordinary headset.

In this guide to headphones, we first discuss headphones and wireless headphones in general. We then explain how to choose the right pair of headphones; in the process, we show you how certain headphone accessories may help maximize your headphone listening experience. We also discuss in substantial detail surround sound headphone technology and why technologies such as Dolby Headphone are essential for a more natural out-of-the-head listening effect.

Sennheiser RS180 Digital Wireless Headphone with automatic level and adjustable balance control

Sennheiser RS180 Wireless Headphones

Rated as one of the best wireless headphones for the audiophile, the RS180 comes complete with automatic level and adjustable balance controls; instead, the slightly less expensive RS170 targets the home theater enthusiast and comes with 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.

Headphones... but not just any pair of headphones

Surely, there arise many instances when you have to refrain from using the home theater or listening to your favorite CD because someone in the house is sleeping or studying in another room. Or simply because it is too late at night to switch on the AV receiver without getting told to turn it down by your neighbor in no uncertain way!

In these circumstances, a good pair of headphones is your only way forward.

Finding the right headphones should not be a problem; there are many interesting options at all price brackets. The basic requirement here is to find a pair that feels comfortable when in use; but there is a lot more to finding the ideal pair for your needs.

The classical headphones will cancel out all ambient noise. Other headphones are so small that they fit right into your ear canals.

Many often complain that the use of headphones makes them feel somewhat restricted while headphone listening misses on the detailed expansive sound field so much possible with a correct speaker setup. Well... this needs no longer the case. Today's wireless headphones make it possible to move around while still enjoying audiophile quality sound wherever you go as long as you are within the supported range for your system.

In addition, Dolby Headphone and other virtual surround sound technologies still make it possible for the headphone listener to enjoy an expansive sound field; though it is not an exact replica of what you get with a speaker setup, it is still very close and still creates a more natural surround sound field—one that is not only more natural than that in-the-head effect created by standard headphones, but even more comfortable to listen to for extended periods of time.

For these reasons, this series of headphone guides focuses mainly on wireless headphones rather than wired systems; and not any wireless headset but wireless digital headphones featuring virtual surround sound technology.

This does not mean that we do not cover wired headphones as well. Where applicable, our guides take a more holistic approach to headphones, in particular, when discussing headphones basics and buying tips. This is necessary as both wired and wireless headphones have their pros and cons that one needs to be fully aware of before making a headphone purchase.

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What is the fuss about... Wireless Headphones?

A wireless headset lets you enjoy the flexibility of moving around without catching a long cord on something and wreaking disaster; there is no cord to get tangled up in!

Connecting cords are no longer an issue and you no longer feel 'tied up' to your AV receiver. This non-restrictive feeling is a big plus in favor of wireless headphones; psychologically, it helps in making the headphone experience closer to that enjoyed through standard speaker systems.

In addition, the latest digital wireless technology employed in most wireless headphone systems means that these transmit uncompressed digital audio between the sender unit and the headset. The result is CD-quality sound; this does not mean you would get the same low signal-to-noise ratio levels as with a wired system because this is not the case, but rather that all audio information contained at the source will be available at the headphone end.

Combine this with a good quality headphones system such as the Sennheiser RS 180 Digital Headphone system featured above, and there you can enjoy audiophile quality sound over your wireless headset.

But there is even more...

In reality, wireless headphones open up a whole new world of listening possibilities. Not only, you can use your home theater whenever you want, you can even enjoy your favorite music in audiophile quality while moving around the house, without having to carry a portable player.

The wireless transmitters send audio from your AV receiver or stereo system to a pair of battery powered headphones. Most headphone sender units or transmitters connect to an audio source headphone jack or stereo RCA output; some models support an optical audio input.

Most wireless systems use either 900MHz radio frequency (RF) technology or 2.4GHz wireless digital audio technology to let you enjoy great sound over a 100- to 300-feet transmission range. By contrast, wireless headphone models using infra-red technology (IR) requires that you stay within line of site of the transmitter to operate.

As with everything wireless, wireless headphones have their disadvantageous as well. Not only are these more expensive than wired headphones, but for the same price, you get better sound quality with lower noise levels from a wired pair than from a wireless set of headphones. In addition, they run on batteries to operate, and therefore they feel heavier and add the inconvenience of battery replacement; in this respect, models incorporating re-chargeable batteries are more convenient and cost-effective in the long run.

And not just wireless but... Wireless Headphones with Virtual Surround Sound Technology

If you really want to enjoy the best sound when listening through your headphones, a wireless headphone solution is simply not enough; you need a system that incorporates virtual surround sound technology. Here comes Dolby Headphone technology, the most popular virtual surround headphone technology in use today.

A major difference between speaker and headphone listening is the unnatural effect produced by the classical stereo headphone, whereby sound appears to be coming direct from inside your head, instead from around you.

This contrasts heavily in particular with the more relaxing enveloping sensation produced by speakers in both stereo and even more so in a multi-channel audio set-up.

Extended listening to this unnatural in-the-head effect often leads to listener fatigue. This is a state of mental fatigue that in the case of headphone listening is caused by the state of confusion that the mind finds itself in. Confusion because the mind knows better that sound cannot be generated inside the head and therefore, it no longer believes the source of the sounds the ears are hearing.

The use of virtual surround sound headphone technology—like Dolby Headphone—changes all this. Virtual surround sound technology makes use of digital signal processing (DSP) technology to convert a multi-channel audio source into a special 2-channel sound track that can be played over ordinary stereo headphones. The process introduces sonic spatial cues such as different delays between the different channels and signal phase-shifts to trick the ears into believing that sound is coming from a multi-channel audio speaker setup placed around the room.

The really good thing about these headphone technologies is that compatible wireless headphones featuring Dolby Headphone or some other virtual surround sound technology are relatively easily available and affordable. It is true that there is always a price to pay for quality, in particular if you are after audiophile quality sound. We still suggest opting for the best quality pair of wireless headphones you can afford as some entry-level systems tend to exhibit an audible hiss during quiet music passages or movie scenes especially with higher volume settings; this can make an otherwise enjoyable listening experience rather frustrating.

Products like the Pioneer SE-DIR800C, the Ear Force PX5 Programmable Wireless 7.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound Headset with Bluetooth, and the Sennheiser RS170 all represent attractive virtual surround options capable of very good quality sound.

And if you are after audiophile quality, the Sennheiser RS180 featured at the top of this page is one of the best relatively affordable wireless headphone solutions; its only problem is that it does not include surround sound technology. However, if your AV receiver features some virtual surround sound technology for headphone listening, you can still enjoy spacious surround sound via the Sennheiser RS180 headphones.

Headphone Guides - Section Index

Headphones Basics - Identifying the right pair Buying Tips
We discuss headphones basics to help you identify the right pair; we then discuss wired versus wireless headphone. We conclude the article by presenting a few headphone buying tips.

Dolby Headphone (1): An Overview
We explain in simple terms Dolby Headphone technology, or rather the acoustic principles that make this virtual surround headphone listening technology possible. In particular, we examine the use of 'virtual speakers' to generate the out-of-the-head effect and that helps reduce listener's fatigue.

Dolby Headphone (2): System Requirements
In this second part, we look at what is needed to enjoy Dolby Headphone technology. We also examine its limitations vis-à-vis multi-channel speaker systems. Finally, for those who would like to discover more, we present a short list of links for further reading.

Headphone Accessories: Maximizing your Headphone Listening Experience:
We conclude this series of headphone technology guides by pointing out how best to maximize your headphone listening experience using one of the most important headphone accessories - the dedicated headphone amplifier.

We also reveal how to treat the [.1] in a multi-channel audio. Many complain that when it comes to headphones, they do not 'feel' the bass. Surprisingly as it may seem, yet it is still possible to feel the shake when listening to your headphones even though the subwoofer is turned off! More info is available here.

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 Headphone Guides

Articles covered under this section

Blue bullet  Headphones Basics and Buying Tips: Identifying the right pair

Blue bullet  Dolby Headphone (1): Overview

Blue bullet  Dolby Headphone (2): System Requirements

Blue bullet  Headphone Accessories: Maximizing your Listening Experience

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

Home Theater Guides

Recommended Technical Guides

Wireless Speakers Systems

Wireless Media Players

Surround Sound Formats

TV Viewing Distance Guide

Room Acoustics and Soundproofing

Home Theater Seating

Installing Speaker Wire

HDMI Cable Guide

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