When you have a family, you constantly have to deal with differing sleep schedules. Toddle_o_Geek goes to bed by 8 PM, Wife_o_Geek passes out by 10 PM and I like to stay up till whenever. Those times when I stay up late or even when my wife is enjoying some other form of entertainment in another part of the house (usually Desperate Housewives) I can’t raise the home theater’s volume to a level where I can hear a Eastern Bloc commando sneaking up from my back left speaker. LTB Surround Headphone ads crept into my periphery vision while reading home entertainment magazines for the past few months. Curious, I checked out their website and immediately decided I couldn’t afford their nice wireless surround headphones. A few weeks ago, after reading one too many reviews involving wireless audio that mentioned hiss, I abandoned the wireless headphone idea likening it to leisurely riding a bicycle down an expressway, not pleasent. A scouring of a few online forums (they’re never wrong) led me back to LTB. Maybe I could afford some wired surround headphones.
My LTB 5.1 Personal Home Theater Headphones and AC3 amp (included) showed up about a week later with 2-day shipping (I always place online orders on Thursday evening, which ruins any chance for the immediate consumer satisfaction I was hoping for. when will the weekend join the rest of the week for shipping schedules? The weekend is so stuck up.).
The headphone set hooks up to your AV receiver, or directly to a DVD player, Xbox or PS2 through either the optical or coaxial digital audio output (only Dolby PCM and Dolby PCM supported, sorry DTS you get static). Since I switch all of my audio and most of my video through my Onkyo TX-DS989 AV receiver, I wanted to use its coax digital output to the LTB’s by switching on Record Out. The 989’s manual warned that the digital output would only pass the two front stereo channels. I was hoping whoever wrote/translated the manual was wrong (they were) about the digital output and that it passed a full Dolby Digital 5.1 signal.
After inventorying the boxes contents, I rummaged through my spare cable bin (I have lots of spare cables after moving everything downstairs and needing different cable lengths for connecting all the electronics in the new built-in cabinet to each other and out to the projector and loudspeakers half a room away) for a decent digital coax cable, my best spare was an old MIT (I’ve gone through many digital cables trying to tame a static breakup in loud male voices on movie soundtracks, I think what finally fixed it was my Anthem MCA 2 separate amp). Hook up is easy enough, just run the coax between the AV receiver’s digital output and the LTB’s AC3 amp (this is a tiny piece of kit that you can hide anywhere, a little larger than your typical USB 4-port hub, with a wall-wart power plug and inputs for digital coax and optical and an analog stereo passthrough). With the old standby philosophy, power on peripherals before the main unit, I first powered on the LTB AC3 amp and then the Onkyo, selected my source, pushed the front panel Rec Out button, started a movie and slipped on the headphones. I only heard hiss. I pressed the LTB amp’s only controls, plus and minus buttons, to no effect. I switched the unit off and on again (as always suggested by the IT Crowd‘s Roy) and the headphones blasted my ears with the sounds from Zathura, the last DVD I watched that I remembered having some directional surround effects in the meteor shower in the living room scene. I guess the LTB needed to have a chance to lock into the signal.
The LTB shipped with a remote for adjusting volume and mute (it has both left and right volume adjustment but only one side actually did anything, maybe this was their "universal remote" that does more with their other headphone offerings) which were the same buttons on top of the amp. At first listen, I just used the on-amp controls to adjust volume, but I couldn’t find a level that I liked. On the maximum setting the headphones will make you deaf and on the next notch down they were too soft and the movie lost all sonic impact. I then turned to the remote’s finer volume adjustment. It seems the on-amp controls are a gain trim from the raw Dolby Digital signal and the remote volume adjusts from there. I liked to listen on the highest gain and then adjust one remote volume press down from there. This level was still slightly too loud but I got used to it the longer I listened.
The next issue I ran into had to do with headphone cable length, it’s only 4 feet long. For my initial tests the cable was pulled tight between my head sitting in my home theater’s sweet spot and the LTB Amp in my cabinet, to the point where any simple gesture would pull the unit off the shelf. LTB does sell a 13 foot extension cable through their online store, which I now have (you can’t just use any old mini-plug extension cable because the LTB cable has a special mini plug and surround that delivers all 5.1 channels to the multiple drivers in the headphones, they have a chart that points to the different bits of mini-plug and which channels they send).
The LTB’s listening experience is much more exciting than regular stereo headphones, but no where near the experience of a properly set up 5.1 loudspeaker system. Last night I skipped my way through Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (though all the prequels are terrible, they are impressive home theater demonstration material, I wish Lucasfilm would re-release Phantom Menace with proper color decoding (since it was shot on HD cameras I have to assume it looks great in the Rec. 709 color spec, but through the DVD production got badly switched to SDTV’s Rec. 601 (if you’re curious about what the hell I’m talking about head on over to the AVS Forum) and without edge-enhancement)) looking for obvious active surround scenes. This Star Wars installment had plenty of fly-by’s, laser gun chases and light saber swings to really push the LTB’s performance to their limit (you can easily skip every other chapter in the first two-thirds of the film without missing anything, just following Obi-Wan Kenobi’s detective adventure (Behind the Scenes: George Lucas’s direction: Okay, Ewan, you can play this scene like all the others, just pretend you’re an 8 year old playing Star Wars over walkie-talkies with your teddy bear./ Ewan: Right, so this isn’t the scene with my contractual full frontal nudity?/ George Lucas: Yeah, we have to talk…)). The first major fly-over, the queen’s silver wing ship that tended to blow up as the passengers are safely exiting, had major bass flowing out of the ship’s engines and actually broke up a little in the headphones. Other than this difficult effect, bass performance was exceptional and definitely engaged and grounded me into the movie. Aided by the bass extension the headphones presented a wide front sound stage. The surround effects were less obvious, and ideally, they should be subtle and not overpower the direct action in the fronts. I never felt that effects came from far behind me, like they can with properly spaced and calibrated surround loudspeakers. Laser beams, characters stiffly delivering lines off screen and John Williams score all just arrived near the back of my ear, not the back of my head. Despite this, the headphones still presented a very clear auditory picture of the action on screen.
I switched over to the Xbox and started up EA’s much hyped first person shooter, Black. Playing games where the only sound effects were bullet casings plinking on pavement from your full-auto AK-47 fire and enemies yelling at you in Russian, instantly annoyed Wife_o_Geek, so I had to turn it down so low the bastards snuck up on me and click-bang-game over. The LTBs were the best solution to this situation: silence for my wife and personal, loud combat chaos for me. The LTBs increased the immersion into the game with directional effect cues and, again, solid and exciting bass performance. So much bass I would cringe on the last trigger pull before exploding the nearest propane tank (destruction bonus).
Comfort is an issue you may have with any Surround sound headphones while playing games and watching movies for long periods of time. The LTBs are the most comfortable large, enclosed headphones I’ve ever worn. They did not pinch any nerves on or around my ears. The padded headband did cause me discomfort after two hours.
Geek with Family highly recommends the LTB 5.1 Personal Theater System Headphones. With easy set-up, an upgraded over stereo sound, good LFE/bass performance and extended comfort you should definitely try them out if you want to enrich your late night private movie, game or whatever time, without waking the rest of the house.