We have to say straight off the bat that the purchase of a binaural microphone for 3D audio probably won’t be high on the agenda (or even on the agenda at all) for most performing and recording musicians.
But if you have a hankering to record a performance in 360 degree 3D panoramic binaural audio splendor and then play it back and hear sound exactly as it was recorded, then you need a binaural microphone. Using headphones is the best way to experience the sonic soundstage.
You could of course shell out $8,000 on a Neumann KU 100 dummy head, but if that prospect sends your wallet into cardiac arrest then fear not because we’ve bundled together a collection of somewhat more affordable alternatives to satisfy your binaural audio desires and enhance your binaural recordings.
Using headphones, this approach to recording and playing music is often described as truly immersive and that’s an accurate definition. Imagine yourself in the middle of a jazz quartet recording the performance. If the drummer’s behind you, that’s where you’ll hear him or her on the recording. That’s binaural audio. It’s 3D sound!
But as with everything else in life, there’s always choices so we’ve painstakingly researched the marketplace and put six of the most popular binaural microphones under the microscope to help you make an informed purchasing decision and start recording. For those that simply don’t have time to read the review, our top pick is the Sennheiser Ambeo Headset.
- What criteria did we use?
- 1. Best Overall: Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset
- 2. Runner-Up: 3Dio Free Space binaural microphone
- 3. Best for Android Devices: Hooke Verse Bluetooth headphones with binaural microphones
- 4. Best on a Budget: Roland CS-10EM binaural microphones/earphones
- 5. Sound Professionals SP-TFB-2 in-ear binaural microphone
- 6. Sonic Presence SP15C (USB-C) on ear spatial microphone
- The Bottom Line
What criteria did we use?
For this binaural microphone review we took four factors into consideration:
Sound quality: for any audio product, this is always a primary consideration, but for binaural audio it’s absolutely paramount. What are the highs, mids and lows like in your binaural recordings? What are the microphones like for recording and playback? What’s the frequency (Kenneth) response? Are there any sound enhancement options?
Features: there’s always a degree of subjectivity here, but each of these microphones have features that are designed to enhance the user experience. This review will highlight those features so you can decide if they’re important to you.
Comfort: some of the microphones in this review are worn in the ear so comfort is an important consideration especially if they are being used over a prolonged period of time. A choice of earbuds is always good as not all ear canals are created equally.
Value for money: commonly known as bang for your buck. Is what you’re getting worth the price you’re paying?
Ease of use: what it says on the tin. The simple things in life are often the best.
OK let’s get to it!
1. Best Overall: Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset
Sennheiser is a name synonymous with high quality audio equipment so expectations are high for the Ambeo headset. Fortunately it doesn’t disappoint on the binaural audio front. The 15-22,000Hz frequency response just about covers the entire audio spectrum.
An ingenious design means that the dual earphones are effectively two-in-one-devices – they act as high-end earphones for playback, but also feature high quality omnidirectional microphones for recording in 3D for a truly immersive sonic experience.
The earphones are worn over the ear, but the sound is delivered directly into the left and right ear canals via snugly fitting earbuds. Three sizes are supplied for optimum comfort.
Each earpiece houses the microphone capsules, protected via external grilles which also offers some protection against wind noise.
For greater sound enhancement, an app is available from the Apple Store and built in features like dual recording modes (for quiet or noisy environments to avoid clipping), and ‘situation awareness’ (which controls the amount of outside sounds you can hear so you can still communicate with your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat/dog should you feel the need to), serve as very welcome additions.
For the jetsetters amongst you, Active Noise Cancellation functionality does what it says on the tin. Ideal for reducing engine rumble noise as you jet off on your next vacation or business trip. Don’t expect Bose noise cancelling performance but it’s really pretty good.
A downside of the Sennheiser Ambeo headset is that currently it can only be used with iOS devices (iOS 10.3.3 or later) with connectivity to said device courtesy of a Lightning connector. That’s it. You can’t connect it to anything else. Word on the street however is that Android compatibility is planned in the near future. Read our full review here.
- Sennheiser quality: good low, mid and high frequency sound separation for true 3D audio
- Easy to use
- Compact, convenient all-in-one construction. The microphone capsules are pretty well protected
- A wealth of useful built-in features like Situation Awareness
- Good phone call quality (yes you can take and make calls whilst wearing the headset)
- Can only be used with iOS devices
- Comfort and quality of sound are largely dependent on how well the earbuds fit
- You have to pay extra for a protective carrying case
- Not the cheapest binaural audio device
- Control unit is quite large (but you do get used to it)
Consider this this product if:
You have an Apple device and like the convenience of a high quality binaural microphone – or should that be microphones – coupled with an excellent playback device in the same package. The control unit/interface is more bulky than some other models but you do get more functionality.
2. Runner-Up: 3Dio Free Space binaural microphone
The 3Dio Free Space binaural microphone is unlike the other binaural audio microphones discussed in this review. Visually, it’s bordering on the bizarre – largely due to the two silicone ears that dominate its appearance.
But these aren’t just for hanging Raybans on. Primo EM172 microphones are embedded into the ears that look and act like their human counterparts.
They ‘hear’ sound in exactly the same way a person would. 3Dio has many years’ experience in the binaural audio recording field so they should know their onions. The Free Space binaural microphone is testament to that pedigree.
It’s pretty clear, due to the apparent lack of accessories provided in the box that all the development money has gone into the microphone itself – which is reassuring. The Free Space binaural microphone ships with a single 1/8” stereo jack cable and features two switches – bass roll-off and power. One end of the aforementioned cable plugs into the Free Space; the other into a camera, audio recorder or microphone preamp.
We have to say that the supplied 8 inch connecting lead is pretty short so this could well be restrictive in certain applications. Size sometimes does matter – but you could always use your own lead. A 9V battery provides the power to feed the microphone capsules.
In every respect this is a pro binaural audio unit. Across its 60-20,000Hz frequency response, the Free Space binaural microphone delivers a punchy, warm sound. From low bass grunt to zinging crash cymbals and singing acoustic guitars, it’s all there.
- Great 3D audio sound and build quality
- Good value for money considering it’s pro equipment. Expect high quality binaural recordings
- Very few. More mounting options would be nice
Consider this product if:
You need a high end binaural audio microphone that oozes professional quality. The Free Space Binaural microphone is fine out in the field, but this would be equally at home in the recording studio.
3. Best for Android Devices: Hooke Verse Bluetooth headphones with binaural microphones
Android users rejoice because this is the only binaural microphone in this review that’s compatible with your devices. It works with iOS as well, and, wait for it, it’s Bluetooth, offering around nine hours playback time and eight hours recording time on a full charge.
You’ll need to download the appropriate app from your store of choice to enable to the wireless capability, but when compared to arguably its nearest rival, the Sennheiser Ambeo, the lack of wires and unbound freedom is a definite plus point.
Through said app, you can also, for an additional $4.99, access additional sound enhancement functionality like reverb and delay and gain control. A no-brainer.
While the Hooke Verse won’t win any awards for aesthetics – the left and right ear mounts – which house the microphone capsules – look a bit like your Nan’s hearing aids if we’re honest – the recorded binaural audio quality is excellent with very good spatial characteristics. Unfortunately, the bane of most all-in-one devices such as this is the playback quality which in the Hooke Verse’s case is only average.
With the included recording cable, you can capture 3D binaural audio to any device, even if they don’t have Bluetooth, like DSLR cameras, GoPros, Field recorders and more. And remember, once the audio is recorded in 3D, it stays in 3D – whether you’re wearing the Verse headphones or not.
The over ear design won’t suit everyone but six different ear tip options certainly help the cause in this department.
On the negative side, the phone call quality isn’t the best and as with all Bluetooth devices, dropouts are always a potential issue. In our opinion though the unbridled freedom offered by wireless connectivity far outweighs this minor inconvenience.
- Good price for the available features
- Compatible with Android
- Bluetooth freedom and wired capability means the best of both worlds
- Aesthetics. They’re a bit hearing aid-esque
- Can take a long time to save 4K video
- Occasional Bluetooth dropouts
Consider this product if:
In a nutshell – if you’ve got an Android device and you like the idea of Bluetooth, then this is the device for you. Good value for money too.
4. Best on a Budget: Roland CS-10EM binaural microphones/earphones
Roland gear is legendary in muso circles so it’s good to see the Japanese giant make an appearance in this review. These are extremely lightweight earphones that come with a selection of earbud sizes for optimum comfort and windshields for outdoor use.
A standout feature with the CS-10EMs is that they provide combined in-ear monitoring and recording – essentially two functions in one.
To take advantage of both functions however, you’ll need a suitable recorder. The CS-10EMs need 2-10V of plugin power from the microphone jack on the recorder and you’ll also need a line out/phones output to hear what you’ve recorded. Unlike others in this review, this unit won’t work with mobile phones.
The real plus point with these earphones is the price. They represent a really cost-effective entry point into binaural audio recording and when you factor in Roland quality, we reckon it’s something of a done deal.
At this price point there are inevitably compromises – although not too many. We thought the Sennheiser Ambeo headset had the edge in terms of sound with more balanced highs, mids and lows but the Roland offering, with their 20-20,000Hz frequency response certainly weren’t far behind. And, they’re kinder on the wallet.
But, in quieter environments, the CS-10EM earphones can be noisy. The signal to noise ratio won’t win any awards and as a general comment, they are a little over-sensitive.
- Awesome price
- Dual operation – record and monitor
- Respectable sonic quality producing good binaural recordings – well it is Roland
- You’ll need a dedicated recorder with the right inputs and outputs
- Not the best signal to noise ratio
Consider this product if:
You want to try binaural audio recording without breaking the bank. The quality is fine for the price.
Like the Sennhesier Ambeo, the Sound Professionals SP-TFB-2 is a binaural microphone that sits in the ear – but that’s where the similarity ends.
The omnidirectional mics in the SP-TFB-2s are fitted with in-ear holders that sit within the pinna – the visible folds on the outer part of the ear – without affecting the ability to hear external sounds whilst recording.
Essentially, this means the microphone capsules are placed where they should be for the best possible results – right next to the ear canal. Everyone’s pinna is different so the recordings made in your own ears will be the most realistic
Once in position they are very comfortable although getting them there can be a bit of a challenge. Practice will make perfect.
Sonically, the SP-TFB-2’s are indeed excellent with good separation and consistency across the frequency spectrum. You’ll need a recorder with plug in power to use these microphones (Zoom H4n anyone?) and connectivity is via a 1/8” (3.5mm) mini-plug.
There are two sensitivity options available and windscreens are supplied if recording outside floats your boat. A downside with this product however is that to record loud sounds, you’ll most likely need to purchase a separate battery module. Even recorders with plug-in power may not cut the mustard on mega loud recordings.
And that’s because recording loud and bass heavy sounds simply requires more grunt to drive the condenser mics and prevent distortion. This will effectively double the price but your binaural recordings will thank you for it.
- High quality sound and separation
- Comfortable to wear (with practice)
- Value for money (even with the additional battery module)
- Inconspicuous (unless you’re using the windshields)
- Additional battery module required for recording loud sounds
- You’ll need a recording device with plug-in power
Consider this product if:
You want great sound, a discrete design and ease of use. The manufacturer has recognised that not ears are created equally and incorporated the innovative ear pinna design into these microphones to compensate. Despite the additional kit you may need to buy to operate these, they still represent excellent value in our book.
The SP15C binaural microphone from SonicPresence is a no-frills spatial sound recording device that works on both mobile and desktop devices.
It’s an over the left and right ear set-up but the microphones themselves are located to the front of the ear to facilitate full 360 degree recording of whatever you’re attempting to capture – a musical performance, sounds of nature or anything else that takes your fancy.
Note that there’s no playback facility on the SP15C. This is a recording device only folks – but it does work with more than 25 audio and video apps across mobile (iOS and Android) and desktop platforms (iOS and Windows).
There’s a full list here but you do get a wide smattering of choice from Garageband and Apogee MetaRecorder through to Audacity, Logic Pro X and WavePad. Please do check the full list for detailed compatibility information because the device you intend to record on will be a deciding factor here – as will whether you need to record video or purely audio?
Sound wise, the microphone does a good job of capturing a wide variety of sources and boasts 24-bit/96kHz capabilities so it’s no slouch in the recording department.
But do note this is a USB-C device so it’ll work with iPad Pros (2018 or later) and iPad Airs (2020 or later) but for iPhones and older legacy gear you’ll need the appropriate adapters. And good news for non-Apple protagonists, the SP15C does work with Android devices.
- Decent true to life sound reproduction with good spatial sound separation
- Works with multiple platform devices
- Good value for money
- Microphones are located at the front of the ear so you could wear these and earbuds at the same time
- From our research it seems some glasses wearers find these difficult to put on and take off
- The connecting cord could be longer
- You may well need to buy an adapter to hook this up to your device which is extra expense (and bulk)
Consider this product if:
You want to dabble in binaural recording inexpensively and need a no-frills earphone to get the job done. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about the SonicPresence SP15C, but there’s nothing bad either. Middle of the road.
The Bottom Line
There are no bad performers in this group but we chose the Sennheiser Ambeo headset as our top pick because of its exellent sound and range of features. It’s also an iOS only device. For Android users, it’s a one horse race – the Hooke Verse. For more pro applications, the 3Dio Free Space binaural microphone ticks all the right boxes.