5.1 for Your Noggin

Who says you need speakers for discrete surround sound?

Listen To Believe (LTB) offers an assortment of discrete 5.1 headphone systems for just about every home theater or gaming scenario, depending upon your tastes and budget. Three transducers within their own independent speaker chambers are positioned inside each ear cup to render a true 5.1-channel experience, including dedicated delivery of center-channel and subwoofer information. Because they can work with both the optical and coaxial digital audio outputs of a source component, most headphone models can serve as a secondary audio solution, in addition to whatever speakers we might be using. Is the optical audio output from your DVD player already running to the receiver? No problem, since most DVD decks also offer a coaxial output. LTB's optical input also makes it a great match for PlayStation 2, Xbox, or Xbox 360.

The AC3 Amp 5.1 Headphone Amplifier System ($189) includes a digital amplifier capable of level-adjusting each of the six individual audio channels, a built-in Dolby Digital 5.1 decoder, an infrared remote control, and one set of the lightweight, comfortably cushioned LTB Platinum headphones. (An optional second set of headphones is also supported by the amp, with independent volume control for both.) All LTB headphones offer their patented SafeBass technology, which restricts the low frequencies from reaching potentially harmful levels.

And then there's the unwired version, the LTB WR-51 Wireless Surround Sound Headphones ($299), the first and only of its kind to combine discrete Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction with wire-free operation, and who wouldn't love that? Three send/receive frequencies are available from the base to the headphones, varying from 2.4 to 2.5 gigahertz. These multibanded RF signals are prone to interference from microwave ovens and some home cordless phones, so a little experimentation might be necessary to establish the ideal connection. The WR-51 uses FSK modulation/demodulation, which creates a buffer of audio data in the receiver, in this case the headphone, to prevent audio dropouts. A handy DC output jack in the base, right next to the DC input from the AC adapter, allows the high-capacity lithium-polymer battery pack inside the right ear cup to recharge when the headphones are parked and attached via a small wire. The right ear cup also carries an on/off button, while the left side has channel selection and volume up/down controls. Unlimited headsets can work off of a single base unit.

The wireless headphones in particular offer surprising front-to-back separation on Dolby Digital 5.1 movie soundtracks. Bass can be impactful with the volume turned up full, but the SafeBass feature prevents the ride from being, well, mind-blowing. The low-end clipping can be noticeable, but, overall, I would say that the bass on the WR-51 sounds a bit more natural than on the wired headphones. Dialogue, while not spectacular, was always clear enough. We can't get much more "near field" than headphones, and so this is a different experience from even the smallest home theater loudspeaker setup, but, after a brief "get acquainted" period, these wireless headphones seem to disappear, leaving only the soundtrack. They are also easier to wear for long stretches, thanks to the M.I.A. cord.

I still have my gripes about the bass cutoff, but, if I can still hear bass when I'm 80, maybe I'll send LTB a nice note thanking them for going easy on me.

LTB Audio