Today’s smartphones are capable of shooting video at very high resolutions but still lack any means of capturing good 3D audio. Now, Sennheiser has come up with a solution for iOS users in the form of its new AMBEO smart headset. Co-developed by Apogee, a big name in the professional audio space, the AMBEO is capable of recording binaural audio, which can then be heard using any ordinary pair of headphones.
This makes it one of the first headphones to offer binaural audio recording on a smartphone, which is definitely a very interesting solution for anyone looking to capture true spatial audio, on a budget. Let’s take a look.
The AMBEO is a pair of in-ear headphones with an earhook design, so they wrap around your ears when you wear them. The hooks themselves are made of soft rubber so they are easy to put on and take off. They’re light but we did feel some fatigue after prolonged usage. The silicone ear tips fit snugly in your ears. We did find that the pair that comes already affixed to the earbuds a bit loose for our liking but the larger sized ones in the box did the job better. You get a small and large pair of ear tips (plus the medium size that’s preattached), and a cloth carry pouch.
The biggest feature of these headphones is that there's an omnidirectional microphone beneath the metal grille on each earbud, which is used to capture 3D audio. The microphones are placed strategically on the outside of each earbud so that the audio you capture is almost exactly what would be going into your ears. The two microphones will always be aligned to the direction your head is facing, and this gives the listener the feeling of actually being right in the spot where a recording took place.
The AMBEO's cable has a control unit that’s placed just after the ‘Y’ splitter. It contains the circuitry for mixing the positional audio, along with buttons for media playback, and switches for various features such as active noise cancellation. The control unit is also quite light but unfortunately there’s no way to clip it to your shirt or jacket so just hangs there. The 1.16m cable is long enough, and terminates into a Lightning connector. The AMBEO is an Apple MFi certified accessory, so there shouldn't be any issues using it with iOS devices.
Currently, only the white version of the AMBEO is available in India. It looks good, but in our climate, it’s a challenge to keep white plastic looking pristine. Even though we were extra careful in our usage, our review unit picked up a bit of dirt and grime after just a few days.
The earbuds have a frequency response of 15-22,000Hz, but there’s no mention of the size of the drivers. Overall, the AMBEO smart headset is built well and feels fairly durable, even though it might not look the part.
The headset is primarily designed to work with the default iOS camera app. When you switch to video mode within the app, the red LED on the control unit automatically turns on, signifying that the headset's omnidirectional microphones are ready for recording. Of course, you don’t have to record a video; the microphones kick in even with apps such as Apple’s Voice Memos and Apogee’s Meta Recorder. Some third-party apps are also supported, including Telegram and Twitter, but many others such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, etc, aren’t supported yet.
Positional audio recording works just as advertised, and it's pretty amazing. The microphones are incredibly sensitive and mange to pick up even subtle nuances around you. Whether it’s birds chirping in the trees or the rumbling of vehicles on a busy road, everything is conveyed with great accuracy when heard through any good pair of headphones. The best part is that you don't need any special equipment to hear positional audio, since the sound captured by both microphones is mixed and saved as standard stereo audio files. The effect is not as apparent when played back through stereo speakers, as binaural audio is typically meant to be heard with headphones.
There’s a slider on the control unit which lets you switch between ‘natural recording level’ and ‘reduced recording level’. For most scenarios, the former works best, while the reduced level mode is meant for very loud environments, such as a concert, to prevent the sound from clipping. You can change the function of the slider through the Apogee SmartHeadset app, to either launch a designated app, or mute the in-line microphone. You can even add equaliser presets for music playback using this app.
In addition to binaural recording, the AMBEO is also a very good pair of headphones for listening to media. The active noise cancellation works well and can be activated with the white rocker switch, just next to the media playback buttons. One you get a good seal with the silicone ear tips, the bass response is very good. Low frequencies have a good punch and are controlled nicely, without overpowering other frequencies. Tracks like Pray For Me from the new Black Panther OST are delivered with crisp vocals and good soundstaging. Mid-range frequencies are also well detailed, with a decent level of separation between instruments, which we noticed in tracks like Wonderwall by Oasis. The volume level is excellent, and even at around 70-75 percent, music was loud enough for us.
If you’re using these headphones in public places then you can enable ‘Transparent hearing’, which channels ambient sound through the omnidirectional microphones and into the earbuds, so you’re aware of what’s happening around you. This sounds a lot more natural compared to other headphones we’ve tried which have this feature. You can amplify the level of ambient sound, which is useful when you want to listen to what's around you without taking the earbuds out of your ears. There’s also a separate standard in-line microphone for voice calls, which also offers good sensitivity. Neither us nor people we were calling faced any audio issues even when on the move.
The Sennheiser AMBEO Smart Headset is currently the only pair of headphones for iOS devices that lets you capture 3D spatial audio, which makes it rather unique. The binaural audio effect is amazing, and adds a new dimension to the videos you record. This headset could also be useful for anyone who wants to capture positional audio for VR applications. Other than this, it also sounds good when listening to media, and active noise cancellation is always nice to have. The ear hooks can get a bit fatiguing after a while and it’s a shame we don’t have the black version in India yet.
The AMBEO smart headset is definitely worth considering if you’re looking to add some quality spatial sound to your home or professional recordings.
Price (MRP): Rs. 19,990
Ratings (Out of 5)