Sony MDR-HW700 Wireless Headphones Review
Nine channel surround from a pair of headphones - is that possible?
What is the Sony MDR-HW700?
Sony made some fairly lofty claims when they launched their new HW700 digital surround wireless headphones.The manufacturer promised the 'world's first' 9.1-channel listening experience using only a pair of headphones. To achieve this the HW700 employs sophisticated psychoacoustical processing to create nine virtual channels from the stereo imaging produced by headphones the user is wearing. This type of technology isn't new and there have been headphones that create a 5.1- or 7.1-channel experience available for some time but the HW700 is the first pair of headphones to try and add a sense of height within the perceived sound field. You can pick up a pair of HW700 headphones for around £450 and obviously if your primary purpose is to listen to stereo music then there are better and cheaper options.However, for those wishing to replicate a surround experience without waking family or neighbours, a pair of HW700 headphones can start to make far more sense. First of all the headphones come with a separate processor that includes three HDMI inputs and one output, so not only does that help justify the price but you could actually use the HW700 with a number of separate devices. More importantly, if noise is an issue, then you can still enjoy your favourite movies at a high volume and a sense of surround without annoying other people. Finally, whilst it might not be their primary purpose, you can also listen to music through the HW700s. Of course, all this is academic if they don't deliver on their primary promise, so let's find out.
Sony MDR-HW700 Design and ConnectionsThe actual headphones themselves certainly feel well made when you first pick them up, with a pleasingly solid and well engineered construction. On closer inspection, the materials are largely composed of plastic, along with a fake leather effect but, even, so the overall build quality still justifies the price tag. The black and matte silver finish is certainly attractive, whilst the textured feel of the closed backs is a nice touch. The head band is heavily cushioned and the over-ear cans themselves are well padded, making the HW700 comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
The headphones themselves certainly look attractive and are comfortable to wear for long periods.
The headphones are wireless, using a 2.4GHz and 5GHz dual band transmission system to avoid sound interruption. There is real-time automatic tuning that that chooses a free channel without any sound interruption before the signal can be blocked out. The headphones have various controls on both earpieces, allowing you to control everything without ever leaving your chair. On the left hand can there is an on/off button (although the headphones automatically turn on when you open them up) and a USB port for charging the battery, which can last up to 12 hours. On the right hand can there's a volume dial, a button for selecting the input and one for selecting the sound field effect modes. There is also a button for accessing and navigating the menu system.
Along with the MDR-HW700 headphones themselves, the system includes the DP-HW700 digital surround processor. This small black box is a little light and plastic in terms of its construction but it does include three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output. The processor can pass through both 3D and 4K, whilst the HDMI output also supports ARC (Audio Return Channel). There is also an optical digital input and output, along with an analogue stereo input using RCA connectors. Finally there's a DC in 12V jack at the rear and Sony include an AC adapter power adapter, along with a 1.5m USB cable for recharging the headphones and a 1.5m optical digital cable.
The processor includes buttons for turning it on and off, selecting the input, effect, matrix and compression, along with access to the menu system. There are indicators on the front that show the current input, whether the audio is two-channel or multi-channel, which effect has been chosen, whether the matrix is Dolby PLIIz or DTS Neo:X and whether or not compression is being used. At the side there are switches for changing the dB of the line input, selecting auto, 2.5GHz or 5GHz for the wireless band and selecting mode1 or 2 for HDMI control. The latter defaults to off and must be turned on in the menu if you want control over HDMI.
Sony MDR-HW700 Setup and MenusThe provided digital surround processor is fairly sophisticated for a transmission unit provided with a pair of wireless headphones and as such will require a little more care than usual when setting everything up. If you aren't passing HDMI through the processor to your display, you can still easily control the unit from the headphones but depending how far away you're sat, you might find it difficult to read the indicators. Alternatively, if you're very close you can set the unit up by using the buttons that are actually on it but to get the full benefit from the entire system it best to actually use the on-screen menus. For the purposes of testing we connected a Blu-ray player, a Freeview PVR and a Now TV box to the unit and then connected it directly to our TV. Conversely you could position the unit between your receiver and your audio system and your display, thus providing you with the option of using the headphones when you don't want to make any noise.
The menu system, itself, is relatively simple and straightforward, with a text based layout and easy navigation using the dedicated button on the headphones, themselves, or a combination of the compression button (hold down for two seconds to access the menu) and the effect and matrix buttons for navigation. The main menu page provides options to control the level of the centre channel and the LFE channel, along with a sync feature that uses increments of 1ms. There's also a dual mono feature for multiplex broadcasts and a TV+HP audio out for simultaneous audio from the TV and the headphones. In addition you can turn on or off the control for HDMI feature, the HDMI pass through and the front display mode. There is also a second page which shows the current signal being received, along with information on the audio format, number of channels, which matrix function has been selected, which input is being used, any effects or compression, the centre and LFE levels, the wireless frequency and the battery power of the headphones.
The inclusion of a separate surround processor is useful, adding 3 HDMI inputs and 3D and 4K passthrough.
Sony MDR-HW700 Sound QualityIn terms of audio support, the HW700 is fairly comprehensive and the processor can handle all the major formats, up to and including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. The processor can also accept linear PCM up to 7.1-channels, along with high quality audio sources up to 192kHz, 24-bit. When using the headphones themselves, the system also adds virtual playback of both Dolby Pro Logic IIz and DTS Neo:X up to 9.1-channels. The HW700 uses VPT (Virtualphones Technology) to create the effect of three channels at the front, along with two side, two rear and two height channels. There are also various effects modes including a Cinema mode, developed in conjunction with Sony Pictures, a Game mode to improve localisation of sounds for effective game play and a Voice mode for watching dialogue heavy programmes like the news.
We started by using the headphones to watch general TV programming, along with a catch-up of the first three episodes of the fourth season of Game of Thrones, courtesy of our new NOW TV box. The HW700 did an excellent job of placing you in the middle of the action, with a surprisingly cohesive sound field. Our only negative observation was that sometimes the centre channel drew attention to itself, feeling slightly dislocated from the onscreen action. This was less noticeable in a modern movie soundtrack where the centre channel is often mixed down within the rest of the audio but more so when it came to dialogue heavy TV programming. Using the Voice effect could be used to make dialogue seem more associated with screen itself, rather than appearing to emanate from just in front of it.
Of course, the main reason for buying the HW700 headphones is to experience a real sense of surround envelopment when watching content with multi-channel soundtracks and thankfully they proved to be very effective. There was a very real feeling of being within a three-dimensional space and the localisation of effects was surprisingly precise. The ideal test of this is Gravity, where the audio is deliberately moved around a 360 degree sound field as it follows certain characters. The voices of Sandra Bullock or George Clooney could distinctly be heard as they moved around you and the panning of effects from front to back and from one side to the other was genuinely seamless. The low frequency but muffled audio effects as sounds are inducted through the space suits were also reproduced extremely well, giving many scenes a highly visceral sensation.
Whilst we were impressed by the ability of the headphones to deliver an enveloping seven channel sound field, we were also amazed when we used the PLIIz and Neo:X features. To our surprise there was a genuine sense of height to certain effects, especially fly-overs, which added a new dimension to the audio. When we tried the Blu-ray of Pacific Rim, which has plenty of bass in the soundtrack, the HW700 continued to impress. It managed to deliver a surprisingly deep amount of bass that provided plenty of impact to the numerous fights between the Jaegers and the Kaiju. However, these low level frequencies didn't dominate the audio and were very well integrated into the overall sound design. In addition the headphones retained an excellent dynamic range, moving from quiet scenes to those of Hong Kong getting trashed with a thrilling ease.
The result was a hugely entertaining experience and anyone looking for a way of enjoying multi-channel soundtracks without waking the neighbourhood is sure to be pleased. Aside from the previously mentioned Voice mode, we also experimented with the Cinema mode, which we found less useful, often just boosting the overall audio rather than adding any real value. Conversely the Game mode was handy, especially with first person shooters, placing you right in the middle of the action and allowing you to pin point noises within the 360 degree sound field. The HW700 could go fairly loud without distorting, although pushing the headphones too far could affect the sense of surround envelopment, especially when in Cinema mode.
If you want to use HW700 headphones for listening to two-channel audio, then they're more than capable of delivering a perfectly acceptable performance. Whilst the headphones can handle high resolution audio and the level of detail was reasonable, the headphones seemed better suited to more aggressive recordings rather than anything too subtle. The reality is that the HW700 system has been primarily designed for listening to film soundtracks and in that sense they are a success but for anyone thinking of using them for listening to a lot music, there are better and cheaper options. However as a wireless solution the headphones worked very well and we had no problems with the connection or the HDMI switching on the processor.
Sony MDR-HW700 Video Review
The headphones created a realistic three-dimensional sound field and were thus able to deliver an enjoyable surround experience.
- Effective surround presence
- Easy to setup and use
- Attractive design
- Comfortable to wear
- Multiple HDMI inputs
- 3D and 4K passthrough
- Not ideal for stereo listening
Sony MDR-HW700 Wireless Headphones ReviewThe Sony MDR-HW700 headphones are a good example of a product that has been designed for a specific purpose and largely delivers on the promise it makes. The combination of the wireless headphones and the digital surround processor go a long way towards justifying the price; whilst the 3 HDMI inputs and 1 HDMI output are genuinely useful. The support for ARC and 3D and 4K pass through are also handy, whilst the simple menu system makes setup quick and easy. The digital processor itself is rather light and plastic but the headphones are attractive and well made, whilst all the padding makes them comfortable to wear for long periods of time. The processor supports all the major formats, as well as high resolution audio and adds virtual 9.1-channels via the headphones themselves.
For those looking for a way of enjoying multi-channel soundtracks without having to worry about making any noise, the HW700 headphones are an ideal solution. The performance with movies was excellent, creating a real sense of three-dimensional space and allowing you too localise audio cues very effectively. The result is an enjoyable surround experience and the addition of Dolby Pro Logic IIz and DTS Neo:X means that there is even a sense of height to some of the effects. We weren't as impressed with the Cinema audio mode and if you primarily want to listen to two-channel music there are better and cheaper options. However the HW700 system does exactly what it says on the tin and, despite the cost, whether you're watching movies or playing games, you're sure to be pleased with the results.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £450.00
Ease of Use8
Design and usability8
Value For Money8
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