Wireless headphones are great as a concept, but faced with the reality of their sound cutting in and out, high background noise levels, and subpar sound quality, we've always preferred wired models. Recently, headphones, but now with the SE-DIR800Cs, Pioneer has upped the ante. While the Sonys were superquiet and clear, they lacked deep bass and didn't play that loudly. The Pioneers correct those lapses and add built-in Dolby Headphone processing that more effectively recreates surround effects. With a list price of $399, the Pioneer SE-DIR800Cs are expensive, but it's worth noting that we've seen them selling for much less online.
The Pioneer SE-DIR800Cs weigh just 8 ounces--pretty light for full-size headphones--and we found the self-adjusting headband made for a very comfortable listening experience over many hours of use. The transmitter/charger base houses the system's electronics, as well as the controls to select your surround decoding format of choice: Dolby Digital, DTS (for surround-encoded DVDs), or Dolby Pro Logic II (for a matrixed surround effect from stereo music or older movies). The DIR800Cs also offer a Dolby Headphone mode, which is discussed in greater detail below. Three inputs cover every connectivity contingency: RCA stereo analog inputs, plus optical and coaxial digital inputs to connect with your DVD player and A/V receiver. We're not sure why it's there, but the base has a headphone output jack that you can use with corded headphones. As for batteries, the headphones use two AA nickel-metal hydride cells, which you recharge using the base unit. The headphones' left earcup has a volume control button for adjusting the sound level.
We've tested more than a few headphones with onboard Dolby Digital and DTS surround, but these Pioneers are the first equipped with Dolby Headphone, which offers the potential for more realistic surround effects. Dolby Headphone enhances audio originating from multichannel sources (Dolby Digital and DTS), surround-enhanced stereo (Dolby Pro Logic II), and even those in two-channel stereo. The processing is adjustable over three settings: DH1 simulates the sound of a small room; DH2 sounds like an average-size room; and DH3 recreates the acoustics of a small movie theater. We preferred DH2 because it was the most natural to our ears. Traditionalists can turn off the surround processing and listen in standard, nonenhanced stereo as well.
The Blue Man Group's The Complex Rock Tour Live DVD sounded fantastic over the SE-DIR800Cs. The band's hard-hitting dynamics came through loud and clear, and the crowd's ambience appeared further back, behind us. We're not about to claim Dolby Headphone duplicates the enveloping sound of a 5.1-channel speaker array, but it's far more speakerlike than stereo. In fact, once we were engrossed in the movie, we forgot the sound was coming over headphones. The sound was extremely clear, but if we had one criticism of the DIR800Cs, we would have wished for a little more bass.
Next, we tried the Goldmember DVD to see if the disc's DTS-encoded, surround mix would decode via Dolby Headphone. No problem; it was just as convincing as Dolby Digital. So it was on to CDs--again, we were impressed. The headphones' "open" quality brought out the best in rock, jazz, and classical CDs.
To reiterate, the DIR800Cs' sound was indeed noise-free, so long as we stayed within range of the transmitter; we heard minor crackling sounds only when we started moving out of line of sight. That's better than every wireless headphone we've tested other than Sony's MDR-DS4000s. Overall, however, the Pioneer SE-DIR800Cs sounded clearer, played louder, and had more and better bass than the MDR-DS4000s. They even bested the sound we were getting from our corded headphones in that the DIR800Cs were more open, with their sound less stuck inside your head. That's not to say you can't still get better sound from corded headphones, but performancewise, these Pioneers certainly rate near the top of the current crop of wireless surround headphones.