LTB Audio LTB-AC3 5.1 Surround Sound Headphone System
After more years writing about sound technology than I care to count, I've had two revelations of note: A full 5.1-channel speaker system is too much for some people, while, for many of those same folks, traditional stereo just isn't enough. With content—movies and games—growing ever more sophisticated, we need adequate gear on which to enjoy it. However, not everyone has the space, the budget, or even the basic technical know-how to wire five speakers and a subwoofer.
For some people, Listen To Believe (LTB) Audio's new LTB-AC3 "true 5.1" headphones might be the key. Targeted first and foremost at the high-end gaming market, the system's decoder/amplifier module offers a digital optical audio input to mate with Xbox or PlayStation 2. There's also a coaxial digital connection for just about any DVD player, with a hard selector switch in between. The padded, over-the-ear headphones park a total of six "independent speaker chambers" right where you need them, three on each side: left and right versions of front, surround, and center channels. Although the LTB-AC3 doesn't include a dedicated microsubwoofer, it piggybacks bass reproduction into the left and right main drivers. LTB's SafeBass technology decreases low-frequency output and mixes it down into the left and right channels to protect the listener's hearing. LTB Audio positioned and angled each chamber to work with the shape of the ear to yield an effect similar to that of a properly configured 5.1-channel speaker system. (See the cutaway illustration on the following page.) It's pretty convenient, especially with the tiny remote control that raises and lowers the volume for two sets of headphones individually or mutes the system.
A PS2 console can connect directly to the rear of the outboard amp unit via optical cable, and a DVD player connects via optical or coaxial cable (both are included). To connect an Xbox console, you'll need an upgraded A/V cable with an optical port or, even better, an A/V cable that outputs via coaxial (also included). There's also an analog stereo input for sources such as TV, CD players, etc., which are then upmixed to a simulated surround format. The amp requires AC power, and the headphones plug into one of the two jacks on the front of the amp. This proprietary plug is rather unusual. It combines three separate contact points along the 3.5-millimeter miniplug, and another in the RCA-type base carries the discrete information from the Dolby Digital decoder to the multiple independent speaker chambers inside the earcups.
Highs and Lows
I auditioned a variety of movies and games and found that, when these LTB headphones were good, they were very good. The experience is more akin to a spacious, highly detailed stereo mix with extremely clear dialogue than it is to a traditional 5.1-channel environment. The many separate drivers impart a definite directionality and exquisite nuance. I noticed this particularly with some quieter bits, mostly in the higher frequencies, that might otherwise have been lost. The open-air design also prevents an unnatural isolation from the real world. As with all surround sound headphones used in video applications, the soundfield will detach from the image if you turn your head drastically, so try to do so sparingly. Unfortunately, LTB's efforts to shield the listener from potentially harmful bass levels have resulted in a demonstrable clipping. This transforms many low-frequency effects into a hollow ringing sound that I can only compare to bowling pins being knocked over. This is an undeniable reminder of just how much boom is present in modern soundtracks, as the ringing was prevalent in many film sequences. The lack of sufficient bass in most headphones has been a longstanding gripe among audiophiles, and, well, the SafeBass feature is certainly no solution.
Considering how well these LTB-AC3 headphones work with portable DVD players, a battery-operated model would be a welcome addition. Since LTB Audio manufactures other 2.4-gigahertz products, perhaps wireless 5.1 is also a possibility.
• Surround your skull with discrete front, rear, and center-channel signals
• Reproduces high frequencies better than lows
• A handy complement to your Xbox, PS2, or DVD player