Pioneer SE-XB1 Review

Pioneer SE-XB1

“The XB1 is an all around excellent product that really shows off the potential of Dolby headphone technology.”
  • Fantastic for movies and gaming
  • Slight hissing can be noticeable during quiet moments while playing music and movies

Summary

The XB1 is an all around excellent product that really shows off the potential of Dolby headphone technology. Directional sources like movies and gaming encompass the listener, recreating the theater experience. Sound coming from the wireless headphones is clear and interference is very minimal. As an amplifier and processor, the XB1 does a decent job both with the included set of headphones or if you decide to tether your own headphones to the unit. Even though they require line of sight for use, the convenience will make it hard for you to return to the wired world.

We would like to thank Audio Cubes for providing us with this review sample.

Introduction

There have been several attempts at surround sound with headphones, and even more attempts at cutting the wire. The Pioneer SE-XB1 takes a stab at both and comes out a winner. The XB1 is the Xbox branded version of the DIR1000, another pricey cordless option from Pioneer using the same technology. The Pioneer product line is rounded out with the budget DIR800 headphones which have a more narrow frequency response. The DIR1000 and the XB1 are basically the same unit, except for the color of the casing and headphones. There is some speculation that the XB1 has a processor based bass boost, but we found no visible evidence of this – no on/off button, indicator light, or differences in inputs/outputs. It either exists and cannot be controlled by the user or it is only a myth. We could not find any definitive information one way or the other.

Pioneer SE-XB1

Pioneer SE-XB1 headphones and processing base

Features and Design

The Pioneer SE-XB1’s use infrared (IR) transmission for broadcasting instead of the more flexible radio frequency (RF) technology. IR requires a clear line of sight to the base unit, which can be annoying if you plan to wander while you use them, but alternative RF carries three major drawbacks. With the proliferation of wireless routers/phones/joysticks/etc, the airwaves tend to get cluttered with crosstalk. While this isn’t a major problem for most peripherals with some form of error correction, the effect of interference is immediately evident with headphones. Another major concern is filing with the various communication agencies, like the FCC which can delay product launches and in some cases send the developers back the drawing table for small tweaks. The final concern is simply an issue of privacy. RF penetrates walls, while IR stays within the room.

As we mentioned, the XB1 is one of the first headphone/processor combos to support Dolby Headphone (DH) technology. Anyone that has had a chance to audition the technology will tell you that it is the best reconstruction of the Dolby 5.1 experience with only two channels. Not only does it reproduce the 2D directional aspects (front, back, left and right) but also more subtle ups and downs, creating a complete sphere of experience. Most of the other options on the market use proprietary technology that transcodes the directional cues.

As for as construction and design, the SE-XB1 is simple and straightforward. The back of the base unit has one set of stereo RCA inputs and one optical input, in addition to the power and headphone charging wire. The front has a button to select from three Dolby Headphone modes, a Dolby Pro Logic II button, on/off, and a volume knob for use with a set of headphones plugged into the front analog headphone jack. The top of the base has a double wire frame for placing the headphones on while charging. One unfortunate design flaw is the charging setup. The XB1 uses a power cable that connects from the base to the headphones, resulting in an unsightly tangle of wire that can never really be put away. We would have liked to have seen Pioneer avoid plugging anything into the cans, and used something like an induction coil used in electric toothbrushes, or a set of charging pins as is the case with most rechargeable mice with docks.

The headphones themselves are nicely weighted, sized well, and comfortable. The only real concern is that there is no set sizing; only a spring loaded band automatically adjusts to the user’s head. We can see this not working out for some people, and feeling too loose for some of the more picky consumers. One ear has a volume control, the other the charging plug. IR receivers are mounted on both sides for optimal signal integrity. The headphones turn on automatically after the user puts the headphones on their heads, however depending on your head size, the headphones may not stay on consistently.

Performance

The SE-XB1 performed excellently in all gaming, movie and music tasks. For gaming, we used True Crime: Streets of L.A. on the Xbox while on the PC system we used Unreal Tournament 2004 and Doom 3 through an Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro sound card. For movies, we tested the XB1 with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Spiderman, and Kill Bill vol.1. For music tests, we used MP3s encoded at 320 kbps, CDs, and DVD-Audio discs. MP3s came from Front Line Assembly’s Implode and New Order’s Get Ready. CDs used were Covenant’s Northern Lights, and Lamb’s Fear of Fours. The DVD-Audio tests were performed with high resolution and surround tracks, including Holsts: The Planets and Bjork’s Verspertine. We also used a pair of Sennheiser HD580s connected to the processing unit.

In gaming performance the SE-XB1s were absolutely excellent. Directional cues were very accurate and the bass was noticeably strong, but not overpowering or booming. True Crimes sounded a little bright and over-precise, as if the channels were too dispersed. Compared to a 5.1 channel speaker setup, the channels felt more dispersed in DH2 and DH3 modes. DH1 centered the sound too forward. Unreal Tournament and Doom 3 performed much better with smooth blending in DH2 and DH3. Again, DH1 felt too forward heavy sounding. Doom 3 was downright disturbing with all the audio misdirection’s in the game. Also worth noting is that the audio theater isn’t just circular – front, sides, and back – but spherical. Sounds come from above and below the plane of the camera, which is uniquely impressive when you hear it for the first time.

Movie performance was simply outstanding. The spherical audio space really shined during some of the Spiderman web swinging sequences and Lord of The Rings battles. Cinematic music surrounds the listener, and recreates a complete theatrical atmosphere. We found the DH2 mode had the best directional balance. During quiet and dialogue-only moments in the movie Kill Bill we noticed the presence of a little background hissing. Overall, the XB1 has the best directional sound of any processing method we’ve tried, but the headphone clarity was more along the lines of a second tier headphone.

We were not as impressed with the XB1’s music performance. While it was above average, there was a noticeable background hiss. MP3 and CD performance were nearly indistinguishable, and at higher volumes there was some clipping at lower frequencies. The clarity was excellent on highs, lows, and midrange, but the hissing at middle and high volume levels detracted from the listening experience. DVD-Audio playback on multi-channel tracks offered the same great directional mixing as the games and movies we tested, but when listening to high fidelity tracks, background noise ruined the experience.

It should be noted that using the Sennheiser HD580s connected to the headphone port, the directionality was severely impacted. There appeared to be no up and down directionality, and the audio space was severely muddied. While the amplifier was able to pull out some details in music tracks, in every other aspect, the listening experience was diminished. It is very clear that not every set of headphones will be compatible with the new Dolby surround-sound processing specification.

Conclusion

Overall, we really enjoyed the Pioneer SE-XB1s for their multi-channel precision and clarity. In gaming and movie tasks, the XB1s come out at the top of the pack. However, some background hissing and muddied add-on headphone performance are drawbacks power users will want to consider before dropping the serious cash the XB1s will cost you. One thing is certain: Dolby Headphone technology is the wave of the future for theatric simulation. The Pioneer SE-XB1 is one of the only DH options on the market, and showcases the technology well.

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