Problem: you want to watch a movie or play a game in glorious surround sound. But someone in your house is sleeping, studying or just annoyed that you are playing BioShock for the third time to get all the achievements. The solution: wireless surround-sound headphones. We tested the three of the most popular models to ensure that you won't buy the wrong one, become sad then throw your life away with booze and drugs.
Price: $300 retail, $230 street
Impressions: You'll notice the solid build quality immediately. Featuring soft cups that fit around your ears, the headphones turn on automatically when placed on your head. Testing out Superman Returns, we were impressed by bright trumpets and deep, powerful planets whizzing by our head during the opening credits alone. When Superman returns to the Kent farm, we felt and then heard the subtle roar of an asteroid approaching from behind our ears—while dishes clanked in the foreground and water gurgled in the middle of our ears. We were able to appreciate the crisp, distinct sound design in a way we never had before.
Price: $250 retail, $200 street
Impressions: We were disappointed that while the earcups appear oversized, they didn't wrap around our ears all the way. So even when the sound localization—our made-up term for how far or close the sounds felt from our ears—may have actually been slightly superior to the Sony model, we wondered why Acoustic Research didn't seal the deal and disconnect us completely from our wives/kids/lives by covering 100% of the ear. On the sound front, the AWD510 had a tinniness that was a real turn-off. It might have been a product of compression: on the other end, the headphones never once roared, and often left us craving more.
Price: $170 retail, $110 street
Impressions: See the two headphones above these? They have two things in common. 1. True surround sound capabilities. 2. They run on 2.4ghz radio signals. These Sennheisers are a cheaper alternative, instead supporting SRS (fake 3D sound with only two speakers) and IR (infrared) data streaming. So how big are these compromises?
Actually, the SRS works pretty well. You won't get those a-ha! moments like, say, when Superman flies by the screen and you'd swear his cape is in your face, but there's a lot to say about really good stereo-esque sound attached to your head. It's the IR that's a deal breaker. From the second we put the headphones on our ears, we heard a hiss that never left and occasionally got worse. And it's a shame, because otherwise the headphones sound pretty good, though mid- to low-range speech left a bit to be desired.
Price:$475 retail, $275 street
Impressions: (We didn't like our picture). There's no doubt, this pair of Pioneer headphones emphasizes clarity. The moment that stuck out most for us was during the space credits, a shattered meteor whizzed by our heads and we could distinguish more pieces, eyes closed, than on any other model. If the Acoustic Research model features good localization, the Pioneers sound even better. The catch? They cheat you out of the low ranges almost completely. And the effect is like eating reduced fat cheese: it seems alright in the first bite, but you're missing a whole dimension of fulfillment. Ultimately, they feel like a headphone experience.
Oh, and these bad boys are infrared as well, but we didn't encounter problems like we did with the Sennheisers (we could only make the sound fail by placing our hands in front of both our ears). As we've found with previous experience, avoid cheap IR headphones...they will probably just disappoint you.
VERDICT: We favor the Sony DS6000, especially since they're cheaper than Pioneer's offerings. From their easy dock charging to their very solid (and best-rounded) listening experience, we wouldn't mind turning off the speakers if it meant we were turning these on.* The Pioneers come in a close second, but felt like surround sound without a subwoofer: technically impressive, but at the end of the day, coming up a bit short on our id factor.
*But buyer beware, the Sony system's powerful radio transmission has occasionally interfered with both our Wi-Fi connection and, surprisingly enough, the clarity of our wireless Xbox LIVE headsets. We still recommend the product, but it's something to keep in mind if you have a small space and heavy Wi-Fi dependence. The Pioneer model should cause no such interferences.
Also of note, Panasonic has an interesting competitive model we were not able to acquire at the time of this testing.