Acoustic Research AWD510 Wireless Headphones
"Wireless headphones" can mean different things to different people. Many envision Bluetooth portables--either the one-ear cell phone headsets or lightweight stereo models designed for on the go use. But there's also a large market for wireless home headphones, those larger models that are designed to be used around the house for listening to movies, music, or games--either to provide a more immersive experience, or simply to enjoy the entertainment at a decent volume without bothering others in the house (during late night DVD, TV, or gaming sessions, for instance). The Acoustic Research AWD510s fall into that latter category. The headphones, available for about $180, accept analog (stereo) and digital (surround) audio from virtually any audio source.
The AWD510 headphones, like most such models, are a two-part system: a stationary base station and a full-size pair of wireless headphones. The circular base has three separate inputs: one stereo minijack, an optical digital, and a coaxial digital. Acoustic Research also includes the necessary cables for each, including a minijack to stereo RCA adapter. The upshot is that the AWD510s are compatible with nearly any audio source you can throw at them, be it analog stereo (TV, receiver, iPod, Nintendo Wii) or digital surround (DVD player, cable/satellite box, Xbox 360, or PS3). You can connect all three inputs simultaneously, and toggle between them at the touch of a button. The base also includes a power button and a selector for toggling between eight possible radio channels (in case you encounter interference), as well as a rubberized, 3.5-inch-long antenna.
The headphones are fairly standard full-size models with padded earcups that cover the entire ear. The only controls are a power button on the right earcup and volume and mute keys on the left, all of which are easy enough to access while wearing. The cups swivel so the unit can lay fairly flat for easy storage in a drawer or while recharging. The padded headband is flexible and expands to accommodate larger heads, and they weren't so tight that our eyeglasses felt jammed into our skull. For the most part, we found the AWD510s to be relatively comfortable for the duration of a two-hour movie, though--like all such over-the-ear headphones--your ears may get a bit overheated during long listening sessions.
Each earcup of the AWD510s include three separate Neodymium drivers that collectively mimic the setup of a 5.1 audio system--a 40mm one that handles the front-left or -right and subwoofer channels, a 15mm one dedicated to the center channel, and a second 15mm driver dedicated to the surround-left or -right channel. We've seen--and generally liked--the same multidriver design on Turtle Beach's line of Ear Force PC headphones.
The unit's base can decode standard Dolby Digital surround soundtracks found on nearly any DVD, Xbox 360, or PS3 game. Other surround options, such as DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Headphone, or the advanced Blu-ray soundtracks (Dolby Digital Plus, as well as the lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio) aren't available. If that's an issue, stick with the stereo analog input instead--that'll work with anything.
The AWD510s utilize the 2.4GHz wireless range for transmission between the base station and the headphones. That means that other household items including Wi-Fi networks, cordless phones, and even microwave ovens can interfere with the signal. That said, our listening tests were completely free of dropouts or static, and even the omnipresent hiss--commonplace for nearly all RF headsets--was noticeable only on the quietest dialogue passages or light jazz tunes, and then only barely.
Setup is simple--just plug in the base station to your source of choice, power it up, and select the appropriate input (we started with a DVD player using the optical digital input). Powering on the headphones created an instant connection; if you don't get any sound, however, just hold the Mute button on the headphones and the Channel Select key on the base for five seconds to sync them up.
We started our evaluation of the AWD510s listening to music via the analog input. Jazz selections from Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane sounded good, though we noted a slight lack of definition in the midrange. Rocking out with Green Day's "When I Come Around" demonstrated that the headphones' multidriver design delivered sufficient bass, albeit sapped with a trace of muddiness. Classic rock tunes from Boston, Kansas, and Creedence Clearwater Revival sounded OK, but revealed the compressed dynamic range of the headphones--a common weakness of wireless models. That said, we were toggling between the Acoustic Research model and a very high-end Denon AH-D2000 wired model--hardly a fair fight. By comparison, the Acoustic Research pair sounded canned and more "stuck in your head." That said, most everything would probably sound fine to less critical listeners--those who can't tell the difference between a CD and an MP3.
The biggest issue with the AWD510s comes when using the digital inputs. Whenever a sound stream starts--for example, when a TV channel is changed, or when you fast-forward a recording to a new scene--the sound takes a second to start flowing to the headphones. This is not by accident, but by design, said an Acoustic Research representative. The "delay is a preventive solution so that the audio does not blast into the headset when the audio stream begins again." In other words, Acoustic Research is saying this is a protective measure to help save your hearing (and, presumably, to prevent any potential legal action). However, since it just delays the inevitable incoming soundtrack anyway--regardless of volume--the excuse doesn't wash. We suspect the built-in Dolby surround processor just takes a second to kick in. Whatever the reason, it's the one real annoyance with the product.
Acoustic Research doesn't rate the battery life of the headphones, but they were still going strong after 7.5 hours of use (they'll beep every few seconds when the battery gets low). To recharge them, just plug them in to the 10-inch plug that dangles from the back of the transmitter. It's not the most elegant solution, but at least it precludes a large docking station or--worse--yet another AC adapter to keep track of. Just keep in mind that you'll need to keep the transmitter in an accessible location with enough room to place the headphones nearby. Unfortunately, the headphones' lithium polymer battery isn't replaceable, so when it eventually loses its juice a few years down the road (they all eventually do), you'll be out of luck.
The Acoustic Research AWD510s fall well short of our preferred wireless home headphones, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C--but that model costs a good $100 more than the $200 street price of the Acoustic Research pair. Yes, we'd like to see the next model address the initial sound dropout on digital connections and the lack of a removable battery, and the inclusion of more surround decoding modes would be a nice plus. In the meantime, the Acoustic Research AWD510s do a good job of delivering decent quasisurround sound without the hassle of long cords.