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Sony MDR-DS5100

Cocooning Yourself in Surround Sound

Headphones/ Cars Go Multi-channel

By Jim Bray

Surround sound technology is poised to make inroads into some new areas.

Headphones, for example. Getting the sound of multiple speakers from two headphone cups is at best a challenge. It was attempted some years ago with a crop of generally crummy quadraphonic headphones, an experience that was enough to convince me it couldn't be done.

That was then and this is now, and the always-innovative engineers are again promising to free humanity from the slavery of their couches and armchairs.

Why would you care?

Well, many wouldn't, but one fact of life with audio systems is that of the so-called "sweet spot" - the one place in the listening room where the sound from all the speakers comes together in the most delightful way possible. In a surround sound system, and all things being equal, this is generally someplace in the middle of the room. Chances are it may be nowhere near where your favorite armchair rests, however, which means you may be getting more sound from some speakers than from others.

This imbalance can be fixed somewhat by using your balance controls, especially in conjunction with the surround sound processor's test tone generator, but all you really end up doing is moving the sweet spot somewhere else and that means everyone else in the room could be thought of as sitting in varying degrees of "sour spots."

Sony's MDR-DS5100 is the first of a new generation of product designed to ensure that anyone with $500 can have a sweet spot, and carry it around the room as they move. Billed as the world's first headphone system to carry both the "Virtual Dolby Digital Certification" and DTS (Digital Theater Systems) Virtual 5.1 Certification" the company claims it offers "best seat" theater-quality listening regardless of your location in the room.

Meant to be used with DVD Players and other audio components that offer Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround or DTS Surround Sound, the "open air" phones (they don't have big cups that shut out the world when you wear them) are also wireless - so you can supposedly wander around at will, within reason. Sony says the phones' transmitter has a range of about 33 feet, so it should work in most home theaters.

The transmitter uses infrared light to get the signals from the transmitter to the phones. This is the same basic technology as what's used by most remote controls, so it shouldn't pose a problem. I hope the audio transmission quality has been boosted a tad, however; I tried some IR wireless headphones several years ago and thought the audio quality was far too buzzy. With luck, this has been addressed by now.

Sony' system includes built in Decoders for Dolby Digital, Dolby, and DTS Surround modes, as well as Dolby Pro Logic. Audio signals get to the transmitter via either an optical digital input or a gold-plated analog plug.

The Sony product may be the first to hit the market, but more are expected to follow.

Another new place for surround sound to surface is in your vehicle, thanks to some automotive-based products that are being unleashed onto unsuspecting rush hour traffic.

One of the first is Fujitsu Ten's Eclipse DVD 5.1-channel sound/visual entertainment system, a setup up that combines front and rear speakers with a front-center speaker and rear subwoofer. Add the Digital Decoder unit (Model 39011), and your favorite wheels are transformed from a mundane piece of transportation into a "home theater to go."

The company claims the system lets its lucky owners "experience reference-quality sound from any seat in the vehicle," boasting that they've used some high tech digital wizardry to address the abovementioned sweet spot issue to the satisfaction of everyone in the vehicle, regardless of where they sit (except the trunk). We'll see.

The Eclipse DVD system can be operated hands-free by hooking it into a separate voice-controlled vehicle integration system that also controls a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation system.

Naturally, such stuff doesn't come cheaply. Fujitsu's suggested retail price for the DVD unit is $1,599.99, with the DTS/Dolby Digital Decoder retailing for an extra $799.

Oh, and did you want a TV monitor to go with that?

A nice little LCD monitor will cost hundreds of dollars more - and don't forget to mount it in the back, where it won't distract the driver.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.

 

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Updated May 13, 2006