Revisiting the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset  

Few things spark more controversy than virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in video production. Some — including major news organizations — believe altered reality will have a major impact on the future of storytelling. Others believe it will be a big bust. However, major manufacturers are betting heavily on its success.

While news organizations like Reuters estimate the VR market alone could surpass $40 billion by 2020, manufacturers used NAB, 2018, to showcase a wide range of new technology aimed at making VR and AR production easier. Major players like Google and Facebook are working to find compelling content.

Jim Anderson, recording engineer and producer.

Jim Anderson, recording engineer and producer.

Regardless of what we believe will be the outcome of this new technology, it is not cost effective for the masses to experiment with it. Major audio producers like Jim Anderson, who showcased extraordinary 3D recordings at the last AES show in New York City, used the best high-end gear. Most others are betting big bucks on the technology they are using as well.

For those with more reasonable budgets, Sennheiser, a major player in binaural sound, has a way to get your feet wet without breaking the bank. Sennheiser’s Ambeo Smart Headset ($299.95) is a compelling entry level way to experiment with 3D stereo sound.

Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset with iPhone

Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset with iPhone

Essentially, the Smart Headset allows anyone to record 3D sound with or without video using any Lightning connector-equipped Apple iPhone or iPad. The result is immersive and spatial sound that can be reproduced on a pair of headphones.

The Smart headset works with the iOS device as normal headphones do (yes, you can still make phone calls) but also has two high-quality omni-directional mics in the earpieces for recording using a built-in mic preamp, SoftLimit technology and an Apogee AD/DA converter to move the audio on and off the iOS device.

Once the audio is recorded, it can be mixed on tools like free edit suites like Facebook’s Spatial Workstation (Mac or Windows) or G’Audio Works (Mac only).

Neumann KU 100 Binaural Microphone

Neumann KU 100 Binaural Microphone

Neumann, a Sennheiser-owned company, began making one of the most popular professional quality head-size binaural recording devices in 1973. The current model is the Neumann KU 100, priced at $8000. Binaural sound is far from new.

Sennheiser has taken all of their surround technologies and branded them Ambeo. It’s a marketing term, but it contains any technology from the company that could be used for altered reality sound.

In the Sennheiser Smart Headset, the two earpiece microphones are spaced at binaural width by the listener’s head, which captures the subtle differences in timing, volume and timbre that occur as sounds from different directions reach each ear. It works in exactly the same principle as the dummy head.

When the recorded audio is played back on any pair of headphones, it simulates the way sounds are heard naturally by the ears. This results in a 3D surround audio experience that places the listener directly within the captured sound field. This technique captures sonically-rich events like urban streets, live concerts, skating rinks or the beach in stunning detail.

I’ve been using a pair of Smart Headsets and am impressed by the excellent sound quality. I don’t use them for VR, as much as for sonically-rich video sound or standalone music recording. And that’s the point, don’t be limited in thinking Ambeo products — any of them — are only for VR. They are not. That’s just the way they are being marketed.

Binaural recording can make audio sound dramatically better and used to enhance anything where the viewer can wear headphones. Think of dramatic sound effects on recorded books or other storytelling, where headphone are normally used.

Sebastian Chafe, Strategic Innovation Manager at Sennheiser

Sebastian Chafe, Strategic Innovation Manager at Sennheiser

Sebastian Chafe, Sennheiser’s strategic innovation manager at the company’s research lab in San Francisco, said about ten years ago Sennheiser saw a number of new developments that would allow new immersive audio experiences to come to wider audiences. These included greater headphone ownership, powerful mobile computing and Internet-based content distribution. So that was behind the initiative to create a new market for an old technology.

The Ambeo Smart Headset was designed simply to allow users to easily capture immersive audio on a mobile iOS device. With that, comes the ability to capture and reshape audio to tell stories in an impactful way. That’s where the creativity of the individual comes in. The user must discover how to embrace the technology to break the mold. The Smart Headset is a low-cost way to do just that — VR or not.

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