We have to say straight off the bat that the purchase of a binaural microphone 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 splendor and then play it back and hear it exactly as it was recorded, then you need a binaural microphone.
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.
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.
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. 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?
- Top 6 Binaural Microphones
- 1. Best Overall: Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset
- 2. Runner-Up: 3Dio Free Space
- 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. Scenes Lifelike VR Recording Earphone
- 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 3D sound it’s absolutely paramount. What are the highs, mids and lows like? 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. Aspects like sound quality can pale into insignificance if it feels like you’re wearing a pair of breeze blocks in your ears.
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.
Top 6 Binaural Microphones
1. Best Overall: Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset
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 ear canals via snugly fitting earbuds. Three sizes are supplied for optimum comfort and sound quality.
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 sound quality: good low, mid and high frequency sound separation
Easy to use
Compact, convenient all-in-one construction
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 sound quality largely dependent on how well the earbuds fit
You have to pay extra for a protective carrying case
Not the cheapest
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
The 3Dio Free Space binaural microphone is unlike the other 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 pick up sound in exactly the same way a person would hear it. 3Dio has many years’ experience in the binaural recording field so they should know their onions.
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 is shipped 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.
In every respect this is a pro unit. Across the audio spectrum the Free Space delivers a punchy, warm sound. From low bass grunt to zinging crash cymbals and singing acoustic guitars, it’s all there.
Great sound and build quality
Good value for money considering it’s pro equipment
Very few. More mounting options would be nice
Consider this product if:
You need a high end product that oozes professional quality. It’s 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.
Whilst the Hooke Verse won’t win any awards for aesthetics – the ear mounts look a bit like your Nan’s hearing aids if we’re honest – the recorded sound quality is excellent with very good spatial quality. 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 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 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’s 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.
Dual operation – record and monitor
Decent sound quality – 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 recording without breaking the bank. The quality is fine for the price.
This bundle comes with a few extra goodies: iFi Ear Buddy attenuator cable, Blucoil USB audio adapter, 6ft headphone extension cable, earphone hard case and a Y-splitter.
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 microphones 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.
The sound quality from the SP-TFB-2’s is indeed excellent with good sound 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 recordings will thank you for it.
Great lifelike sound quality 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 quality, 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.
Android users may be getting a tad paranoid about the lack of binaural microphones available for their platform and the Scenes Lifelike VR recording earphone will do nothing to allay those frustrations – because this is an iOS-only device.
For no frills operation, these extremely lightweight earphones tick all the right boxes as no extra apps are required. This is an in-ear device featuring Scenes’ patented ‘Shark Gill’ shaped earbuds. Again, fitting the buds snugly can be a bit of a challenge but there are five different sizes supplied (XS, S, M, L) to cater for aural receptacles of all shapes and sizes.
Construction wise, we found the connection between the headset cable and digital in-line box is far from positive. It’s a micro USB connector and it’s far too easy to separate in our opinion.
In the sonic department, the Scenes Lifelike recording earphone produces lifelike, high quality binaural recordings straight into your iOS device. Unfortunately we can’t say the same about playback quality. You’re far better off using a decent set of cans for that.
Interestingly, for those not wanting to use these as an in ear device, Scenes also offers an optional dummy head arrangement – complete with silicone ears!
A bit futuristic looking perhaps, but the idea here is to provide a stable platform for recording purposes. All you need to do is pop the earphones into the dummy ears start recording.
Simple to use. Decent recording quality
Great for recording 3D video
Dummy head available
In-ear buds not for everyone
Sound quality affected significantly by poor fitting earbuds
Can’t make phone calls
Connection between phone and in-line control not great
Consider this this product if:
You want a no-frills, easy to use, lightweight binaural earphone. Great for recording but it won’t win any awards for playback quality.
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 sound quality 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 ticks all the right boxes.