Binaural audio certainly isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt that 3D recording and playback really does add a mind-blowing dimension to the sound spectrum. It’s one of those quirky things – if you know you want it nothing else will do.
If you are looking to invest in a binaural device, then from our extensive research, the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is up there with the best. Its limitation is that it can only be used on iOS devices, but in terms of sound quality, comfort, functionality and value for money, we think it’s the best binaural microphone out there. It represents a great way to get into binaural audio.
- So what is binaural recording?
- Sennheiser – proven German quality
- The Sennheiser Ambeo Headset: under the microscope
- The Sennheiser Ambeo Headset in use
- What’s in the box?
- Pros and Cons
- The Bottom Line
So what is binaural recording?
Simply put, it’s recording the environment around you exactly as you hear it in a true three dimensional soundscape. Stand in the middle of a forest. You’ll hear sounds to your left, right, front and behind.
A binaural microphone (or headset in this case) not only enables you to capture the sound in 3D, faithfully recording everything exactly as you heard it; but you can also play the audio back in the same way – on any device. One word sums up binaural audio – immersive.
Without going all gooey eyed, this is all about capturing memories and experiences as much as anything else, faithfully recreated at your fingertips ready for playback days, months or even years later. This could be video plus audio or simply audio.
This is an actual musical performance recorded binaurally. Put your cans on, close your eyes and drift off to another dimension – literally!
Sennheiser – proven German quality
Sennheiser has been producing premium, high quality audio equipment since 1945 and its pedigree in the marketplace is indisputable.
Back then, the German manufacturer made tube voltmeters. Today, it’s a 2,800 employee global enterprise producing a wide range of exemplary audio products – from in-ear monitors and microphones through to headphones and soundbars.
You’ll see Sennheiser equipment used extensively in live and studio environments everywhere so a big plus is the assurance and peace of mind you get from using equipment from a world renowned, highly respected company.
The Sennheiser Ambeo Headset: under the microscope
The Sennheiser Smart headset is essentially a binaural recording and playback device in one. The technology behind it is a joint venture between Sennheiser and Apogee with the latter contributing tech like proprietary Soft Limit and mic preamps, plus precisely tuned A/D (analog to digital) and D/A (digital to analog) conversion.
The binaural ‘bit’ happens via two omnidirectional microphones located on the outside of each earpiece. These microphones are designed for three purposes: 3D Audio recording, transparent hearing and active noise cancellation. More about those later but for now feast your eyes and ears on this video from Sennheiser.
Talking technical specs
Available in black or white, the Ambeo headset features a very musical 15Hz – 22Khz frequency response and a maximum sound pressure level (SPL) of 112dB. Short cable lengths can be a real pain with audio equipment but at 1.16m on the Ambeo, this should be more than enough for the majority of applications. The overall weight is just 3.2oz.
No limits (well, one big one really)
We should state early on that a hefty limitation – for some at least – of the Ambeo device is that it’s iOS only.
Rumour has it that Sennheiser will release an Android version sometime in the future but they’ve been saying that for ages now so don’t hold your breath. For now, if you’re an Android user, you’re out of luck as far as this particular device is concerned.
For Apple aficionados, we’d guess you’re most likely to use this device when you’re out and about with your iPhone, but you could use an iPad or even an iPod (does anyone still use iPods?).
The Ambeo works seamlessly with iOS 10.3.3 or later, but remember folks this is generally for iOS mobile device use only. Actually that’s not strictly true: it won’t work with PCs, but it is possible to hook it up to a Mac via a USB-C to Lightning cable like this product offered by Anker.
Audio only anyone?
If you’re not interested in recording video and just need an audio solution, apps like Apogee´s MetaRecorder tick all the right boxes. This app is particularly high quality and can record audio in WAV or CAF formats up to 24-bit, 96Khz. Download it here.
Alternatively, the iOS voice memo recorder or other stereo audio recording apps will work fine with the Ambeo.
Moving from top to bottom, the Ambeo comprises four main elements:
(1) Dual-purpose over the ear earphones, which house a pair of omnidirectional microphones for binaural recording on the outside and earbuds for playback on the inside
(2) a conveniently located inline microphone for making and taking phone calls and using voice control on your phone. This is mono only
(3) an inline remote control unit which acts as a control center for various functions
(4) the Lightning connector for plugging into your device
The Remote Control
A really nifty part of the Ambeo headset is the inline remote control module which, as its name suggests, enables you to easily and efficiently control various functions on the fly.
It’s a relatively large unit so it does add some weight, but we think this is a minor trade-off against the sheer usefulness of the unit. There are five buttons on the remote: a Situational Awareness rocker switch (more about that in a minute); Volume up and down buttons; a start/stop/accept calls button and a user assignable Smart Slider. A red light indicates when you’re in recording mode.
Before we go any further – although technically you don’t need it to use the Ambeo, we’d strongly recommend downloading the dedicated ‘Sennheiser Ambeo SmartHeadset app’ from the Apple store.
Developed in collaboration with Apogee, it’s free and unlocks a wealth of additional functionality to enhance the user experience, like controlling input levels, toggling between EQ presets, configuring Situational Awareness settings and disabling or enabling voice prompts.
A grand title perhaps but make no mistake, Situational Awareness is one of the many aspects that makes the Sennheiser Ambeo Headset so good.
It comprises two elements: Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) and Transparent Hearing (TH) that are selectable via the far left hand rocker switch on the remote – or you can disable both. The former, when activated, tunes out background noise and ambience, meaning you can concentrate on the music without distraction.
It’s important to note here that if you’re expecting Bose style noise-cancelling wizardry you’re going to be disappointed. Sennheiser’s noise cancellation circuitry works on the phase cancellation principle but it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.
We also found that overdoing the noise cancellation has a direct influence on sound quality so experiment with the settings. Fine tuning is available through the app.
Transparent Hearing is useful because it enables you to blend your surroundings with your music. Sometimes you simply have to be aware of what’s going on around you and TH gives you that control – whether it’s at a concert, in an urban street of in a quiet space.
This is ideal for bikers, walkers, joggers and anyone else who wants to be aware of what is going on around them without removing their headphones. Again, fine tuneable via the app where there are three presets to choose from – Reduce Level, Natural Level and Amplify Level.
- Reduce Level: in terms of hearing protection, we wouldn’t want to suggest that the Ambeo headset can replace earplugs in noisy environments such as concerts but this setting will reduce ambient noise – and if this happens to be music at a gig you will get a reduction in volume. In the same way, this setting will help reduce wind noise
- Natural Level: surrounding sound is neither reduced nor amplified and is a good starting point when recording with the Ambeo
- Amplify Level: what it says on the tin really. Surrounding sound is amplified so you can hear every nuance
We did say the app is worth downloading and being able to set Recording Level is very useful addition. Once you discover the delights of binaural recording it’s natural that you’ll want to try the Ambeo out in different environments. Sennheiser has got you covered here because the device features two recording levels – natural and reduced.
Sometimes, when recording a band for example, the volume could get a tad hot and you may find the audio clipping. In these instances you simply select the ‘reduced’ option. For most situations however, ‘natural’ would be the one to go for. Like anything with options, experiment to find what works best.
Initially, we though just two recording level options would be limiting but for the vast majority of applications it’s absolutely fine. It just works.
With four selectable options, the app also gives you ultimate control over EQ for playback purposes. You can choose from Flat, Bass, Hi-Fi or Spoken, and for those who like to personalize their own EQ settings, there’s a Custom option for doing exactly that.
The Smart Slider on the remote control is also pretty useful. Used in conjunction with the app, you can customize the slider to your own personal tastes. Use it to launch your favorite audio or video recording app for example.
What’s more, if you enable Voice Prompts in the app, you can get audible confirmation of settings changes made with the Situational Awareness rocker switch and Smart Slider.
Not everyone reads manuals but let’s face it they can be downright useful. Always have the Sennheiser Ambeo user guide to hand when you need it – a convenient reference for the Smart Headset’s features and controls. It’s all there in the app.
Keep up with updates
Update your Smart Headset: check the current firmware version and update if necessary.
The Sennheiser Ambeo Headset in use
Correctly fitting earbuds – the key to success
The Sennheiser Ambeo headset uses a ‘behind the ear’ approach to position the earphones for correct operation. The ear loops are manufactured from soft, pliable rubber and are comfortable in use. They also ensure the omnidirectional microphones are correctly positioned to capture external sounds.
The internal side of the headset – the listening bit – is equally as important. Human lugholes come in all shapes and sizes which can be problematic with in-ear earphone products like the Ambeo because poorly fitting earbuds can totally wreck sonic quality.
In fact, poorly fitting earbuds make Jack a dull boy – bass response in particular suffers significantly; as does the effectiveness of noise cancellation.
So as with any ‘in-ear’ earphones, we can’t emphasise the importance of snug fitting earbuds to form a tight seal in the ear canal enough. Good job then that the Ambeo headset comes with three differently sized sets of earbuds.
And it’s perfectly OK to mix and match. It’s highly possible that a person’s right ear canal is different to the left so try different permutations. There’s no right and wrong here.
The right and left earpieces are easily distinguishable – look for a ‘L or R’ marking on the inside of the ear hook just above the ear adaptor. When placing the earpiece into the ear canal, the hook extends behind the ear.
Be picky when it comes to earbuds because they’re pivotal to the success of the Ambeo headset. Experiment – and if necessary swap out the supplied earbuds for alternatives, like these from Shure.
More about apps
Sennheiser says the list of apps that are compatible with the Ambeo is continuously being updated. There’s a full list on the website – check the FAQs here
What’s in the box?
Everything you need actually. The Ambeo Smart Headset; three pairs of earbuds – small, medium and large; a soft case and a quick start guide which is also available in electronic format here:
A pretty generous two-year warranty is offered from the date of purchase with a valid purchase receipt from an authorized Sennheiser or Apogee dealer.
Pros and Cons
There’s much to like about the Sennheiser Ambeo Headset:
- We hope we’ve emphasized the binaural qualities of the Ambeo headset but it would be remiss of us not the mention its quality as a playback device. With properly fitted earbuds, the sound is surprisingly good considering the size of the headset with decent bass, mids and highs. These are high quality earphones.
- And remember you can playback your masterpieces through any conventional stereo headphones. The immersive 3D audio is amazingly lifelike and puts you, the listener in the place where the sound was recorded.
- Pretty good. The around the ear arrangement works well in terms of comfort and stability – meaning the headset can be used for relatively long periods of time without fatigue. It may be a different story for some spectacle wearers however so make sure around the ear set-ups work OK for you
- Having a firm foundation in use is important both for maintaining that ever-important seal in the ear canal and stopping them from falling off
- Get the app. It’s free and excellent.
But nothing’s perfect is it:
- Apple users rejoice; Android users despair. The Ambeo headset is iOS only. Android users will have to look elsewhere – something like the Hooke Verse which is a great alternative.
- This is not a limitation of the Ambeo as such but be aware that phone calls, Skype, Facetime etc. will all be in mono. Some users have reported that when making phone calls on the Ambeo, the volume to the receiving person can be on the low side.
- Noise cancelling is OK but not earth shattering. Don’t expect Bose performance.
- The remote is excellent, but on the heavy side – it can pull on the actual earphones themselves. Also if you’ve got chunky digits, it’s easy to press the wrong button.
- The supplied small nylon bag, while offering a degree of protection, isn’t particularly rugged. This will depend entirely on its intended use, but consider getting something altogether more substantial like the Ruggard HV-220 (link). At this price, Sennheiser really should offer a better case.
The Bottom Line
By virtue of the fact that this is an iOS only device, it’s always going to be divisive. We hope that Sennheiser release an Android equivalent soon because surely they must realise they’re alienating a sizeable chunk of the market otherwise?
That said, as a device with everything taken into consideration, this is, in our opinion the best binaural microphone/playback device out there. It’s comfortable to wear, has some really useful features and there’s a dedicated app for it which enhances its appeal.
The fact that it’s manufactured by Sennheiser is the icing on the cake as far as we’re concerned. If you’re gagging to sample the delights of binaural audio, this should be top of your list. Providing you’ve got an Apple device of course!