Review: Binaural Battle
Immersive recording doesn’t have to be an ordeal, it’s as easy as chucking in some ear buds. We review Hooke Audio’s Verse and Sennheiser’s Ambeo Smart Headset to compare the latest renaissance of binaural.
VR may still be finding its legs, but immersive audio is well and truly available to anyone who cares to give it a go. Decent binaural capture devices have often required shelling out big bucks or nicking a mannequin head from your local Vinnies and supergluing omni capsules to the ears.
No more, these days you can simply buy a pair of in-ears with integrated microphones and use your own melon as the dummy head. They’re reasonably affordable, too, so there’s no excuse not to record every intrepid adventure in pure binaural sound.
If you’re new to this whole binaural thing, and wondering why on earth you’d even bother. Well, the whole idea of binaural recording is to mimic the natural sound coming into your ears. In broad strokes, the lump between our shoulders creates a distance between our ears. The difference in time between when a sound arrives at one ear versus the other helps us determine whence it came. It all gets a bit fancy when you start talking about Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF), which takes into account the size of your head, and the shape and size of all its attached anatomy, as part of the fine-tuning process.
By sticking microphones where your ears are, it basically captures the sound coupled with the effects of your HRTF. Now, no two HRTFs are the same, and yours will be different to mine, but generally speaking, these do a very good job of capturing the sensation of ‘being there’. They immerse you in the perspective of the person who recorded the event.
If you’re in the market for affordable binaural sound, there are a few of these earphone options available to you. Hooke Audio’s Verse; Sennheiser’s Ambeo Smart Headset, which is powered by Apogee conversion; and Roland has its basic CS-10EM earphones, which look like a Walkman accessory circa 1999. We received a pair of both the Verse and Ambeo headsets, and decided to take them on an immersive journey to see which worked better for our ears.
Hooke’s founder Anthony Mattana was the first to re-engineer the binaural concept into a smartphone-enabled pair of earphones. He was able to raise over $160k for his idea on Kickstarter in 2014, more than his $100k goal. Since then, he’s built on the success of Verse, and just recently released a full update to Hooke Audio’s companion application, which — as well as giving you more camera control, and better phone support — now allows you to record 4K movies, and also records .wav files, but more on that later.
Back to the marquee feature of Verse — it’s completely wireless. The audio is piped into your phone or device via Bluetooth. Regardless of whether you’re into binaural or not, this is a remarkable feature. Bluetooth has never been bothered with low latency transmission. It’s happy to get the audio into your ears ‘sometime’, which makes watching a movie on your phone with Bluetooth headphones like sitting through a two hour-long thunderstorm. Qualcomm has tried to solve this with various flavours of AptX, which reduce the latency to bearable levels. Hooke hasn’t solved the phone-to-headphones latency (it’s still laggy), but it’s almost perfectly synced up audio and video when going the other way. With the combination of its own algorithm and custom app, Hooke is able to record video and audio together with an imperceptible latency of 0.0042ms! Genius.
Previously, the app was limited to 1080p video and .mp3 file formats, leaving you to look longingly at the higher resolution of other recording apps. The video has been taken care of, with the option of recording in 4K with the new update. However, the ability to record in .wav is a little bit of a misnomer. While technically true, the .wav files are really just the same .mp3 recordings wrapped in a WAV header, not uncompressed recording. There’s still a small tradeoff for going wireless, but the mp3s do sound good.
Alternatively, in the box you also get a nifty cable doo-dad on a mini-hose reel. On one end it’s got a micro-USB connector, and on the other a two-pronged tail with a 3.5mm stereo jack and a mini-USB jack. The former lets you plug into any DSLR mic input, or audio recording equipment for super-high resolution recording, while the latter lets you go straight into a GoPro.
Binaural really makes sense when it’s paired with visuals, and chucking it into your camera usually gives you control over gain. When plugging into your computer, the Verse gives you a naturally healthy level without the need for a gain control; however, I did get a ground loop hum when I plugged it into my MacBook Pro. It’s not uncommon for computers to introduce hum, and it would disappear when I touched the chassis. Unplugging all of my other devices minimised it, but didn’t eradicate it. Thankfully, it only seemed to affect the sound I was hearing; the recording went through unscathed. When plugged into the stereo input of a Zoom H6, it had a higher pitched sound coming through, which did turn up on the audio. On a Panasonic GH5s camera, it still wasn’t as clean as the wireless transmission. I’ll hazard a guess, and lay the blame at the cable manufacturing. I’d recommend recording to the Verse app and syncing up audio in post.
HOOKE AUDIO VERSE
SENNHEISER AMBEO SMART HEADSET
SENNHEISER GOES WIRED
Sennheiser has chosen a different path with the Ambeo Smart Headset. Rather than pleasing everyone with a device-agnostic wireless setup, it’s hardwired for iOS; opting for a Lightning connector at the end of its cable. It’s a little more of a straightforward design.
Up top, it’s the same arrangement of mics over earphones. Going down the cable there’s a microphone for voice calls, then further down there’s a chunky cable brick with controls for starting/stopping music, and adjusting the headphone levels. Either side of that are a toggle you can use to change the ‘Situational Awareness’ setting, which can either use the ear mics to actively cancel noise, or engage a level of ‘Transparent Hearing’, whereby the signal from the mics is plumbed through the headphones. There are three levels of Transparent Hearing — Reduce, Natural (which approximates the sound you would hear if you didn’t have earphones in), and Amplify.
There’s also a Smart Slider, which you can set up — using the Ambeo Smart Headset app — to toggle between different states. It can do everything from launch your favourite recording app to toggle the mic recording level between Natural and Reduce. There’s no other gain settings, but those two seemed to work for most applications.
Because the Sennheiser unit is wired, it can go straight into an external app like Røde Rec ($9.99), which has become my go-to no-fuss iPhone field recording app. With it, I was able to record stereo files at up to 24-bit/48k WAVs on my iPhone. Alternatively, you can use Apogee’s own Metarecorder ($7.99 if you want to record more than a minute, $22.99 if you want to control simultaneous recording on four other iPhone devices), which allows you to record at up to 96k with the Ambeo headset. However, it’s strictly iPhone only, no connecting it to your computer, or DSLR, or Android phone. On the other hand, it does work with Apple’s built-in camera app, giving you binaural recordings linked directly to your video.
PLASTIC BUT FANTASTIC
Both units feel relatively plasticky; you’re paying for the tech inside, not for a luxury pair of headphones. The mics on the Sennheiser are protected by a robust wire mesh, while the Verse mics sit flush with the exterior of the plastic housing. As a bare setup, even the act of walking indoors will induce wind noise in the Verse microphones. The Sennheiser’s aren’t similarly susceptible. Hooke does provide little foam windmuff ‘booties’ that go over Verse’s microphone housings. It does make it slightly harder to keep the foam plugs firmly in your ears, but did help cut down on wind noise.
Outside on a blustery Melbourne winter day, the Verse’s booties definitely helped cut out some of the gusts when compared to the Sennheiser. Though don’t expect deadcat performance from either. If you’re recording a first-person vlog of your rollercoaster adventure, it’ll be partnered by a well-captured binaural representation of the wind rushing by your face. Verse also exhibited more noise in its recordings than the Sennheiser, when recording sources of the same level.
FIT FOR PURPOSE
As far as headphones go, Verse sounds like a pair of relatively standard Bluetooth in-ears. They’re slightly better than a pair of Blue Ant bluetooth in-ears I have, but slightly worse than a wired pair of generics I also possess. Bass isn’t the issue, as Hooke has provided enough silicon and foam eartips to get a good fit; the foam ones do a better job of blocking out external ambience.
They do the job, but as is the case with standard driver configurations, they get crunchy in the upper mid range and don’t deliver really airy tops. They’re also fairly loud, so you’ll likely have them backed off your usual settings. They essentially do what other Bluetooth in-ears do in this price range. Considering the main focus is on the binaural recording side, it’s not bad.
By comparison, the Sennheisers were a bit more hyped. The top end is more present, but it can be a little bit artificial sounding; like it’s overcompensating for the lack of drivers. While the onboard noise cancellation eschews the need for dense foam eartips, there’s only three sizes of silicon buds provided, which doesn’t make the best fit for some.
Both function well enough if you can only carry one pair of earphones with you, but I wouldn’t rely on either pair as your sole headphones on a longer trip.
They’re both easy to use. As far as pairing Bluetooth headphones goes, the Verse and my iPhone 8 found each other within a couple of seconds, and were able to pick up that connection any time I switched Bluetooth on or fired up the Verse.
Because the Verse is tied to its own recording app, it reduces the number of controls required on the actual unit. There’s only one button to figure out. Holding it down turns the Verse on and off, with the LED backlight lit up blue. A second long-press flashes the LED red, for pairing your Bluetooth device. It also starts and stops recording with a single button press, illuminating solid red for the duration of your recording.
It’s really straightforward, and while you do get used to the button position, it would have been useful if there was a raised decal on the button so you could more easily locate it while it’s behind your ear.
Interestingly, the recording level on the app is set in a similar way to a compressor threshold. You pull the ‘fader’ down to turn up the gain. Another way of looking at it is you’re bringing the gain level closer to the source. You simply have to watch the meters don’t exceed your gain marker. In the Verse app, once you’ve recorded a video you also have to wait for it to export into your library, which was roughly realtime. You can’t close the app during that process or you’ll lose your video. Audio recording was instantaneous.
WILL YOU IMMERSE?
Despite ‘it’s 2018’ being a catchall for everyone’s opinion of how things should be. I personally don’t care if earphones are wired or wireless. Not to say I don’t carry Bluetooth headphones when I travel — I do — but I don’t see either of these units becoming my go-to headphones; I’d only use them when I wanted to record binaural audio. Because of that, I’d just as readily plug in a cable as a I would switch on Bluetooth.
As far as microphone performance goes, they both sound great. I did find the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset had lower perceptible noise, and the uncompressed, high-resolution capabilities might mean more to you than Hooke’s wireless functions.
That said, I can see the primary use for a pair of binaural headphones occurring outside your home, in which case, the Verse — with its ‘bootie’ wind muffs — provide a less wind-affected representation of the great outdoors. It’s also cheaper and wireless — two stars which usually don’t align. Again, a huge hats off to Hooke for developing a ‘realtime’ Bluetooth codec!
Either way, it’s just magnificent that there’s the option to record binaural in a heartbeat. With Instagram TV threatening to become the next big long-form video platform, it’s more important than ever that we can get quality audio into our phones. For people doing travel and nature docs, this would be a surefire way for viewers to engage in a deeper way with your content. For musicians looking to up their Insta game, getting someone to film you playing while wearing a set of these binaural in-ears will increase your engagement levels by 1000.
The good news is that recording in binaural doesn’t mean it has to be listened to with headphones on. You’ll still get a stereo signal, it just won’t be ‘immersive’.
If you couldn’t be bothered with Instagram and wonder how on earth you’d integrate binaural capture into your workflow, look no further than legendary mix engineer, Tchad Blake. At NAMM, the die hard binaural fan had Hooke Verse in-ears dangling around his neck like a pair of glasses. He was amped about the ease of access to one of his favourite technologies. His suggestion was to use them as the occasional secret sauce for both recording and mixing. ‘Mixing?’ You ask. Yep, Tchad’s ideas involved chucking them in your ears and dancing between your studio monitors to add some out-of-this-world panning movement to your mix.
So whether you’re going for out-of-this-world effects, or more true-to-this-world immersive recordings, these really do provide the goods at a very keen price.