Surround sound with headphones


Distinguished Member
So: I'm in the market for a home cinema sound system. Started off a while back with the idea of spending £2500 or so - Toshiba 510, Denon 3802, Acoustic Energy Aegis Evo 3B, something like that. Have been ratcheting up my budget ever since. After not liking anything cheaper I now find myself considering a system in the £15000 bracket - perhaps Arcam FMJ DV27 / AV8 / P7 into B&W Nautilus 803/HTM1/SCM1/M&K MX700.

While comments on the latter system and alternatives are welcome, I can't really afford £15000, so I'm exploring alternatives. And one that occurred to me is: what about headphones?

The other day (at a point when my price-level was about £8000) I was listening to a Denon AVC-A1SR, hooked up to some B&W Nautilus 805/HTM2/CDM SNT speakers. Now the Denon amp has Dolby Headphone processing ability, so I tried attaching my faithful Sennhesier HD600 headphones - and the effect was really quite remarkable.

As I'm sure you know, the Dolby Headphone algorithm models the user sitting at the sweet spot of a 5.1 speaker system. It calculates not only direct sound but also wall reflections, and then does HRTF calculations. The end result is that you get surround information through the headphones.

The positional information you got wasn't as impressive as I got from the speakers. You could tell easily when a sound was rushing from left to right, or from front to back, but you'd have had to think about it to locate a single static sound. But the clarity of it, the ability to resolve every sound individually, to be able to analyse not just what people were saying but what their accents were: that was really very impressive. MUCH better than the speaker system.

So here we have some £120 headphones seriously challenging £4000 of speakers with some power-amplification on top.

So that brings me to my question: does there exist any kind of stand-alone device that can take a 5.1 input (either as a digital stream or as 6 pre-decoded analogue signals), perform something like a Dolby Headphone calculation on it, and output it as two line-level analogue channels that can then be fed into a decent headphone amp?

So far the closest I've found to this is the Pioneer SE-DIR1000C. But, quite aside from the fact that it's only sold in Japan, this has an integral wireless headphone setup which is of no interest to me. There is also a processor product from AKG, the Hearo 999 Audiosphere digital processor which sounds somewhat similar, although it's difficult to figure out from their website whether this actually does what I want or not.

Can anyone suggest a product that meets my needs? Failing that, can anyone suggest a place where I could get such a thing built reasonably cheaply as a piece of bespoke hardware?


Distinguished Member

This may be of use to you

To be honest while Dolby Headphone is quite impressive, there´s no way that it can compete with a full blown 5.1 speaker system IMHO. I have Sennheiser HD580´s and whilst you can hear the little details easier (down to the fact the sound is right in your ears), there´s no gutwrenching bass or proper front to rear pans. Left to right pans are ok.

I much prefer the proper speaker system.:)


In my opinion, the HD600 will rival all but the best speakers as far as detail retreival. Im not sure how this translates to 5.1 though. They are no £120 cans either.......did they not start life at nearer £500?

You may well notice a similar thread, im not sure it will help though. The thought occurred to me whilst posting on it that you could get the bass using the likes of the kell tactile transducers..... would this work? Or do these things still make a fair bit of noise?



Distinguished Member
Sennheiser HD600s have a list price of £250, but you can buy them for as little as £120 if you don't mind going to an Internet box shifter. See, for example, here.

It really comes down to cost. I'd probably rather listen to a film on some B&W Nautilus 803/HTM1/SCM1 speakers hooked up to a decent multi-channel power amp, but this costs ~£9000, if we ignore the DVD player and processor. The headphone setup will cost more like £800 depending on how much the theoretical Dolby Headphone processor costs, and assuming £300-£400 for a decent headphone amp. Seeing as I already own the HD600s and a fairly respectable headphone amp (Graham Slee Projects' "Solo" - unconventional but highly effective piece of kit) it works out even cheaper. I mean I'd like to use a Lexicon MC-12 as a processor, but that doesn't mean I can afford one.

Given that a person only has two ears it ought to be possible to reproduce any sonic experience accurately over headphones. Look at binaural recordings. It's just a question of whether anyone's actually attempting to do it. (Of course Dolby Headphone may, with the benefit of hindsight, turn out be a cheap shortcut; I don't know).


Distinguished Member
Oh, and thinking of bass response, the official frequency range supported by the HD600s is 14Hz-39kHz. Compare that to the average subwoofer to tweeter frequency range of a speaker system.

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