Sennheiser launched the Ambeo mic in 2016, taking a step into devices that were designed for 3D audio, or audio to support the sort of sound experience you'd expect in VR applications. The Ambeo VR mic does exactly this, capturing sound from all directions to reinforce that spacial definition in VR or 360 content.
The Ambeo Smart Headset joins original mic in having been designed to this type of "3D" audio in mind, but where the original Ambeo mic is a slightly niche offering for professional content creators, the Ambeo Smart Headset falls firmly into the consumer sphere, pardon the pun.
Originally announced at CES 2017, we caught up with some of the very first samples at IFA Global Press Conference 2017. Here's our experience with 3D audio capture.
A smarter headset
Designed to be worn as a normal headset, the Ambeo Smart Headset's most distinctive feature is the mics on the outside of the earbuds. Topped with wire mesh, there's no missing the pair of mics it packs in.
Aside from at the Ambeo Smart Headset is worn like many sports headsets, with an in-ear design supported by over-ear arms for support. It's comfortable enough and fairly easy to fit, although not the most practical for wearing with glasses or sunglasses.
The wires pair up at the inline controller box which is rather chunky. It houses a range of controls that will let you use the headset's functions - from standard multi-press button controls, to playback volume through to more specific control for controlling the "transparent audio" function, offering the ability to turn down the noise of the real world.
The cable then runs down to a Lightning connector for iOS compatibility. At launch Sennheiser announced that there would also be USB Type-C for a range of Android devices, although we've only tested the iOS version.
Why has Sennheiser opted for this design?
The idea is to make the Smart Headset as practical as possible. The all-in-one design reduces the need to have a specific smartphone mic with you. When you're not capturing audio, you'll be perfectly happy listening to music through the headset.
But the message from Sennheiser is really about being able to offer the sound as you hear it, and where better to place the microphones than where you hear it? The separation and balance between those microphones is the same as your ears, so that sound you record should be the same as you would hear.
This gives you a full soundscape based around your head, rather than around the phone that you're holding. There's no chance of covering the mics with fingers or brushing them as you move the phone, but it does mean that if you're filming in one direction and moving your head to look elsewhere, the sound stage will shift with it.
Generally though, from the short time we spent playing with the headset in Lisbon, it's comfortable and easy to use.
Fuss free software
Perhaps the best part of this arrangement is that you don't actually need any different software. There is an app to support the headset - which is powered by Apogee for those interested - but when it comes to video capture, we just used the standard iPhone camera app.
The Lightning port is essential to both power the headset as well as send the information back to the phone, but when capturing video you don't have to change any setting or do anything specific. iOS recognises an external mic and that's what you use to capture to sound.
It's then there on the video that you recorded and available for playback through any audio device or on any platform. Apart from the current requirement to use it with an iPhone, there's no format complications or codec confusions or anything else. We captured with the iPhone, transferred the files to our MacBook Pro and listened to the same great spacial audio over our Sony MDR-1000X headphones.
That also means you can upload it to YouTube, play it through your TV surround sound system and anything else you might want to do. It's as simple as it can be.
Performance first impressions and sound quality
We spent a brief time with the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset and we will be taking a more detailed look at it longer term, but first impressions are good. Firstly, sound playback is good. Listening to a variety of music, we found it to be a nicely balanced delivery, as you'd expect from Sennheiser headphones.
We didn't have any earbud tips with our sample, but this would naturally allow you to get a better fit. We imagine the retail version will give you a range of options, so will potentially offer more secure fit and better sound isolation than in our tests.
When it comes to capture, the first thing we noticed is how sensitive the microphones are. There's real distinction to the sounds it captures. Watching a waiter clear tables, you can hear as things are moved around the table, but there's distinction in the location of other sounds. There are bird noises, music from off to the left by the pool-side bar.
There's a sense that this is realistic noise. It what the location sounded like while we were sitting in that spot. Sensitive mics can suffer from hiss and yes, that could be a problem for the Ambeo, but with its aim of recreating the sound of the place you are, it might never be recording silence which can really make that hiss noticeable - although in the quieter hotel corridors, it still sounds pretty good. It's worth noting that in the outdoor scenes in the video above, there's background road noise.
For us, the best test is listening to that soundtrack with our eyes closed. The realism takes you right back to the location and although we've not had the chance to test it with anything too impressive - just the hubbub of conference hotel life - there's an emotive quality to it.
That was Sennheiser's aim, to make the audio an emotional experience and brings a missing dimension. Our first impression are that this quirky headset achieves those aims. If you're the sort of person who captures video in a wide range of locations and want to boost and widen the sound stage, then this is a very simple way to do it.
Other playthrough functions
We mentioned "transparent" audio before and that's worth a closing mention. The idea with transparent audio is to bring you ambient noise. That's something that a number of sports headsets offer, as well as some noise cancelling headsets, with the aim to ensuring that you're not totally isolated from your environment when wearing the headset.
For someone walking down the street, for example, some noise can be beneficial so you're a little more aware of your environment.
Additionally, you can use the Ambeo Smart Headset to turn down the outside world, like wearing noise controlling ear plugs. The example we were given was at a loud concert, where you could plug in and alter the volume so you don't hurt your ears or end up with tinnitus
We've not had the chance to really test these latter functions, no have we had the chance to use this headset where it's really noisy for capture (like a concert), but we'll update and expand on our findings as we use it more.
There's no price on the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset, we're expecting confirmation and availability around the time of IFA 2017, in September.