Dolby is a trusted name in audio, but its latest product is a little different. “Dolby Dimension Headphones” isn’t an audio standard, like 5.1 Surround or Dolby Atmos, but a new wireless headphone set you can buy.
Dolby crammed the Dimension Headphones full of their audio tech, both licensed (technology that’s sold to other manufacturers to use in their products) and exclusive to this rare hardware release. Things may stay that way, or they may not: at $600 a pop, Dolby is unlikely to sell so many Dimension Headphones that it won’t consider licensing some of this new tech. That being the case, it’s worth breaking down what it’s all about.
The Dimension Headphones use standard Bluetooth wireless, but they have more going on inside than perhaps any other pair of cans on the market. The electronics inside contain a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor—the kind usually seen in Android smartphones—to run all of the audio wizardry crammed inside. The set supports Bluetooth 4.2 and Low Energy profiles, along with standard smartphone calls via five microphones, APTX high-quality sound, and a 100-foot operating range.
Audiophiles will be glad to hear that the set includes beefy 40mm drivers with a 20-20,000 Hz frequency range—fairly standard in this upscale portion of the market. You can pair the headset to three different sources simultaneously, like a phone, laptop, and home theater system—there’s even a quick switching button to jump between them. Touch controls offer phone-style swipes for volume and tracking.
You can charge the set in the usual way via a MicroUSB cable, but Dobly also includes a swanky magnetic charging cradle in the box.
Dolby LifeMix is Advanced Noise Cancellation
The Dimension Headphones feature active noise cancellation, an electronic system that uses microphones and audio processing to cancel out persistent low-frequency noises. That’s not a new feature; active noise cancellation has been around for decades. But LifeMix is a new trick in the Dimension Headphones and a novel approach to the feature.
LifeMix lets you change the level of noise cancellation, from totally off to “boost” at 11 (exactly the opposite of the old Spinal Tap joke). But in addition to blocking out the noises around you, LifeMix can highlight exterior sounds instead. This lets people focus intently on music or movie audio while still listening for external noises, like a baby monitor or doorbell. Advanced audio algorithms isolate frequencies of human voices for particular clarity.
You can control the LifeMix feature using the touchpad on the headphones, or fine-tune it using the paired Dimension smartphone app. Speaking of which…
Multi-Device Pairing Controlled With Your Phone
These headphones can handle three simultaneous connections, but anyone willing to drop $600 on them probably has even more gadgets they’d like to hook up. The Dimension smartphone app can handle an additional five connections, swapping them out on the cans’ one-touch physical controls without the need to unpair and re-pair the headphones themselves. It’s a handy feature, provided your Android or iPhone is one of the devices you always want to connect to (and that seems like a safe bet).
Head Tracking Always Has The Right Angle
The Dimension headphones include a head tracking feature. Why? The answer is a little unorthodox, at least outside of the realm of VR. The system uses directional sound virtualization—the same tech that powers “virtual” surround sound from just two drivers for video games—to simulate sound coming from a single directional source, like a TV.
Combined with the virtual surround of Dolby Atmos, which is enabled in most newer Blu-ray home video releases and home stereo receivers, the head tracking component creates a consistent profile with the sound of the movie coming from the TV, no matter which way your head is actually pointed. So if you suddenly turn your head to the right for an ambient noise you heard via LifeMix—say, a baby monitor—a sound intended to be on the center surround channel will come mostly from the left headphone driver, instead of equally from both.
It’s a neat trick, and one that wouldn’t be possible without Dolby software and some pretty sophisticated hardware running at both ends. But it might also be a bit disorienting if you’re expecting a standard headphone listening experience, so it’s a good thing it’s optional.
Will Other Headphones Get These Features?
It’s unclear. Dolby doesn’t typically sell hardware directly to consumers, preferring to license its software and services to everything from electronics manufacturers to stadiums and movie theaters. Barring a radical shift in the company’s direction, it seems unlikely that Dolby is eager to compete with the likes of Sony, Bose, and Sennheiser.
That being the case, it wouldn’t surprise us to see some of the proprietary technology in the Dimensions Headphones leaking out to other headphone manufacturers, specifically in high-end sets aimed more at home use than travel or sports. Dolby may be using its branded set to test out some of these features as it develops yet more standards for its partners to include in future products.
Or, Dolby could buck our expectations and make Dimensions its own line of consumer audio products. Stranger things have happened. We’ll likely see in late 2019 or early 2020, when a replacement set of Dolby Dimensions Headphones would be due, or similar products from Dolby’s partners begin appearing.