Component Reviews

Pioneer SE-DIR800C Digital Wireless Surround Headphones


Published on June 4, 2013

Pioneer SE-DIR800C Digital Wireless Surround Headphones
SRP: $400

Components:

Infrared transmitter unit 
Cordless stereo headphones
Vertical stand for phones
AC wall wart
2 rechargeable batteries (approx. 16 hours usage time)
Coax digital cable
Manual

Features:

Can create up to five virtual speakers in your head from DTS or Dolby Surround digital sources
Built-in Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS 5.1 decoders
Has three levels of Dolby Headphone technology for two-channel sources
Transmission range of up to 26 ft.
Built-in volume control on transmitter for plugging in corded phones as well as on wireless headphones
Low profile, modern design of transmitter; use horizontally or vertically
24-bit A/D and D/A conversion, uncompressed

Pioneer Electronics USA
Box 1760
Long Beach, CA 90801-1760


Somehow these cordless phones have been well-reviewed online, although most reviews have pointed out that one always gets the best audio quality with wired headphones rather than wireless ones. (Just as wired audio of any sort is more reliable and sounds better than wireless.)  It’s been available for some time, but I must say this is the first unit I’ve come across that shows that the Dolby Headphone process may actually work, but unfortunately the sound quality of these phones is very poor compared to basic wired headphones such as the Grado SR-80s or even the SR-60s. I formerly had some quite good wireless phones (Amphony) but they didn’t attempt to create a pseudo-surround field, and the manufacturer was unable to repair them when they failed.

The phones only weigh eight ounces and are quite comfortable. There is no noticeable background noise as with some wireless phones. The infrared signal was good, although one could lose it by turning your head around or moving some distance to the left or right of the transmitter. I don’t know if the fault is in the actual headphone design or in the many electronics involved in even the non-processed wireless option, but the phones sound like poor horn speakers, with little bass end and a hollow sort of sonic which emphasizes and distorts certain higher frequencies at high levels. My wired (and of course much more expensive) AKG K1000 phones (with their separate dedicated AKG amp) sound 100% better. So it was difficult to access the sonics of the various electronic processes the DIR800C provides, making me wish instead to evaluate them with a pair of better cordless headphones.

The variety of processes offered by the little transmitter box is exceptional. It has a separate designation of TRE-D800. There is a serious omission in the user manual in not clearly pointing out that the pseudo-5.0 surround from DTS and Dolby digital codec soundtracks will not work at all if you use the analog inputs rather than the digital. At first I attempted to use the analog stereo inputs because my Integra preamp has neither digital coax or optical out. So to use the pseudo-surround function on movie soundtracks would require switching the optical or coax output from your disc deck to the headphone transmitter, and then changing it back again for speaker playback. The digital inputs only support 44.1K and 48K sample rates, so you must set your deck for 48K downsampling of 96K and 192K sources.

The top of the transmitter has a well for charging the two rechargeable AA batteries. There are three different options on the front of the transmitter for four different functions: Decode, Dolby Headphone, Pro Logic II, and Input (2 digital and 1 analog). There are three buttons on the top to select the latter three functions (decode is automatic). When you have the proper digital input connected and are playing a disc, one of the three LEDs for Dolby Surround, Pro Logic II, or DTS Surround, will light up. I found the effect a rather subtle improvement over that of Pro Logic II on stereo sources. I tried a couple movies and one of the Naxos audio-only Blu-rays. There did seem to be sounds coming from the back sides, but everything was happening in my head rather than sounding like it was coming from surround speakers out in the room, as it does with the only successful such process I have heard – the $3000 Smyth Research SVS Realizer. (DTS is also working on their similar Headphone X process, which may be more reasonably priced.) The surround effect wasn’t even close to that of the Surround Master component from stereo sources, which I recently reviewed.  The bottom line here is that I much preferred the sound with my away-from-the-ears wired AKG K1000 phones.

Next I tried out the Dolby Pro Logic II options with plain  as well as Pro Logic-encoded and Dolby Surround-encoded stereo sources. There are three LEDs for Movie, Auto, and Music. How the circuit can possibly decide between Movie and Music sources if you put it on Auto I have absolutely no idea (they would be the same), and neither did my tech person at Pioneer, who is asking the designers about that. Naturally the matrixed surround effect was better with the encoded sources, but with standard stereo it would probably be quite good if the headphones were of better sonic quality.

Finally I tried the three Dolby Headphone options: DH1, DH2 and DH3. My previous impression of Dolby Headphone on various receivers and preamps was that it was totally useless and wrecked the sound by adding too much reverb and strange equalization. At least the HeadRoom crossfeed circuit option on their headphone amps doesn’t change the sonics (though I don’t feel it’s worth it).

However, this is the first time I have seen three different options of Dolby Headphone offered.  Most components using the process have just one, which is probably similar to the DH2 option here.  That also was the only one which sounded halfway normal when listening to stereo sources with the Pioneer wireless phones. DH1 didn’t have much of an effect, and DH3 added way too much reverberation. I could imagine the Dolby Headphone setting to be quite useful if only the phones themselves sounded better.  This component would be popular with non-golden-ear consumers who love to push buttons and make A/B comparisons. It’s really nice to have wireless headphones for late-night video viewing or music listening, and avoiding family members tripping over your headphone cable. I’m still looking.

—John Sunier




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