So Drop just posted about the next upcoming collaboration product with the title "Our Most Requested Headphones" https://drop.com/buy/our-most-requested-headphone-launching-2-18-21/talk/2779308
Fair point, the title was probably taken from various polls run in the Audiophile Community sections. Problem is, Drop's polling system is centered around linking products that already exist, not products that do not exist "Yet."
Thus the most requested headphone, I believe, is one that nobody has made yet. Perhaps rather expressed, "If somebody has made it I am not aware of it."
So what do we want? More importantly: Why do we want it?
Stay with me on this, brevity is not my strong point. However, enough of you endorsed my snarkfire response to Drop's post that perhaps I should outline exactly what we were expecting an audiophile vendor to be putting together.
To start with there have been two major pushes on higher-fidelity / higher-accuracy audio in the consumer space in the last couple of months. These pushes should have coupled with un-addressed or un-leveraged audio advances over the last couple of years, but for some reason, haven't seen a wide retail presence.
Xbox Dolby Atmos / DTS:X :: The Baseline
Microsoft's Xbox Series X/S support Dolby Atmos as a spatial format. There are other headphones on the market supporting Dolby Atmos, but the general consensus has been that the AstroGaming, Plantronic, and Corsair headsets suck. Either the audio quality is terrible, or the products are overpriced. To the point that Microsoft has built there own Atmos-Compatible wireless and Bluetooth headset that they plan to sell for $100(US): https://www.xbox.com/en-US/accessories/headsets/xbox-wireless-headset
An interesting take-away from Microsoft's hard-specs is that they "could be" achieving this higher-fidelity / higher-accuracy audio solution with 40mm drivers on a Bluetooth 4.2 compatible headphone using Bluetooth's SBC codec for transfer. I doubt it, I don't think you'll actually be able to process a Dolby Atmos Stream over Bluetooth 4.2, but that does mean the Xbox Headphones will work with wide range of Linux based systems such as Android and Chromebooks. I'm also not explicitly discounting Dolby Atmos over Bluetooth 4.2 given Microsoft's remote-play push. I'm not sure how that's going to work, really, but maybe there's a way of pre-formatting an Atmos stream inside of SBC so that the Atmos effect carries over a limited network connection. Still though, haven't had hands on, don't really know how well it's going to sound.
Playstation Tempest: More Questions than Answers
Sony's Playstation 5 brings along an entirely new audio system called Tempest that builds upon HRTF. Now, where Dolby Atmos is a perhaps universal standardized formatting for audio encoding and presentation, Tempest is more pitched as a real-time mixing solution. Theoretically "Any 3.5mm" jacked Headphone should be capable of offering a Tempest Experience, but that's caveated by comments that there would be a list of "Compatible" headsets for Tempest audio by Sony. Between the Tempest audio engine likely never appearing as USB or PCIE sound-card for Windows/Linux, the difficulty in obtaining a PS5, and no actual list of compatible headphones appearing on Playstation.com, Tempest audio support comes across more as a wishlist feature than an actual purchase requirement.
To recap really quickly, both Microsoft and Sony are pushing higher-fidelity / higher-accuracy audio solutions for their respective consoles. Microsoft, at least, is promising this higher-fidelity / higher-accuracy in a wireless solution that costs only $100(US), while apparently using transfer tech introduced... in 2014.
Bluetooth Audio that isn't from 2014
So, third point is Bluetooth 5 LE Audio. It was introduced in December 2019. As far as I am aware, while there are number of ARM and x86-64 platforms shipping with Bluetooth 5 controller's, there aren't actually any headphones using B5LE audio chipsets. It would not be unfair to say then that audiophiles are wondering just where the B5LE headsets are, and what's taking so long? Fair point that Pandemic Lockdowns certainly slowed production, and maybe that's why Microsoft's own product is running with B4.2 rather than something a bit more modern.
THX Spatial Positioning in a Dual Channel Configuration
The fourth point is a set of headphones that I wound up with as a Christmas Present. The Razer Kraken Kitty Edition headphones: https://www.razer.com/gaming-headsets/Razer-Kraken-Kitty/RZ04-02980200-R3M1
The story behind how I wound up with the Razer's is largely tangential to the points to be made here, but perhaps worth going over. Last year before Twitter started aggressively locking out, overtly censoring, and just not making available posts from accounts with any kind of political content deviant from Twitter's paid interests, I fired a comment at Razer that I'd happily buy the Kitty Editions if they came in a Royal Purple or Fehlani Blue. (If the second one doesn't make any sense to you, just roll with it). Fast forward a bit and I was commissioned to build a computer for a player in the City of Heroes community. In the course of making that system I found myself pouring over spec sheets for gaming specific headphones with USB connections. I came to the conclusion that the Razer Kraken's Kitty Edition THX Spatial Audio features, software/hardware mixing, and style were a compelling combination. Thus those became the headset I recommended to the player. Fast forward just a bit more, and that player sent me a pair for Christmas.
This is where we pick back up to the points here. Now that I have the Kraken's in hand, I can compare them to the Drop products I have. Okay, fair enough, the Kraken's do not have the same audio-fidelity to my ears that the Drop SDAC+02 amp can manage with even the entry-level driver-based HE-35x's. That being said, I have synthetic ear canals. Most "Surround Sound" solutions don't work for me. My HRTF profile is, in a word, complicated. So the Razer Kraken's Virtual surround sound working effectively out of the box on my ears was a surprise. I can come up with any number of technical reasons why the Razer/THX solution delivers a determinable surround sound effect for me when the only other headset to manage that in the past was Zalman's ZM-RS6F. A legendary massive headset that packed 6 separate speakers and pretty much required it's own amplifier.
Also, as a side note, I'd really like to see somebody from Drop have a chat with Zalman about making an updated version of that headset with lighter construction and better drivers, but I digress.
What I don't know is if the THX solution in the Razer Kraken is if it's ability to deliver a surround-effect is unique to the physical driver design in the Kraken's, reliant on specific functions in the Kraken's DAC, or if that THX solution can be applied to any specific dual-channel configuration with a low-enough latency for response. Say a higher-fidelity / higher-accuracy platform. Say something like the planar-magnetics used in the Drop/HiFi-Man HE-5xx collaboration.
Open-Backed: More than the Soundstage
I focus in on the HE-5xx not because I've had time in them, but because I've had significant time in the HE-4xx's and HE-35x headphones. What I love about the HE-4xx planar magnetics is that their open-backing does not isolate me from the world around me. I can still hear people talking at normal volume levels. I can hear my cat at the door. I can hear my phone ring. I can put music playing on an external speaker while playing a game.
What I don't like is that because the HE-4xx's and HE-35x's are perfectly cylindrical I have no easy way to distinguish the left and right channels. Add in my aforementioned complicated ear canals and lack of spatial determination, and I have an embarrassingly high number of times of using both the headphones and never realizing I had them on backwards. I love the HE-5xx if only because the tear-drop design gives a visual indication of which way the headphones are supposed to set.
I get the appeal of a closed set of cans with heavy noise isolation. Sometimes you really want to be swept away into the experience of the audio itself. Problem is, the market is relatively flooded with dozens of gamer-centric headphones offering low-latencies and enough noise cancelling to drown out an Impellitterri concert.
In the announcement thread of the upcoming next Drop Collaboration there were posters noting they routinely only placed one earcup actually on an ear. Twitch, Youtube, Mixer for a while, are filled with videos of gamers wearing their headphones canted to one side or another. Obviously then, there's a market for headphones that don't isolate the player from their outside world.
This, to me, holds true beyond gamers. Anker's Soundcore brand started life as a company called Zolo. Their initial product was a set of earbuds offering Audio Transparency: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1792059063/liberty-the-first-zero-compromise-total-wireless-e
A feature that was so popular Anker's targeted audience were confused when the follow-up Liberty Pro 2's dropped the feature: https://us.soundcore.com/collections/true-wireless/products/a3909
Which then became a huge selling point for the Q30's: https://us.soundcore.com/collections/frontpage/products/a3028011
I like the Zolo/Anker/Soundcore approach of enabling an option on whether or not the consumer wants to be isolated from the outside world. Having bought the first Liberty+'s and the Liberty Pro 2's I also grok why the feature was skipped in the second generation. Audio Transparency absolutely slaughtered battery life in the earbuds, and perhaps is better suited as a long-term practical use technology in something with a bigger power source to draw on. Granted this circles back around to the shots fired at Bluetooth earlier. One of the design goals of B5LE was to cut the power draw and enable devices that could achieve the same audio performance for a longer duration of time.
Speaking of Design: Who could actually put this together?
Drop has already worked with THX on a number of different products, including an in-headphone amplifier (the Panda). Thus there's already a possible relationship there to work with THX to build a wireless controller that supports Dolby Atmos / DTS:X as exposed in the Xbox Series X/S platforms, and supports the THX Spatial Engine as exposed in the Razer Kraken on Windows. Now, Razer doesn't presently issue a driver package for supporting the Kraken's mixing software on Linux, and I do think that could be a major marketing point for Drop/THX in offering that kind of spatial enhancements on Linux devices.
Granted, Drop's not really into the software development business and THX probably isn't keen on providing software updates and fixes. So there's some open questions here on exactly how spatial mixing could be presented and maintained while being a consistent user-experience. How much of the THX spatial / Dolby Atmos / DTS:X mixing is exposed as selectable functions inside the headset's firmware, and how much is exposed or controlled through an app?
From a hardware standpoint Drop is known for remanufacturing products somebody else has already designed, but is increasingly stepping out into making bespoke custom products from the ground up. What's been outlined is the kind of product Drop is in a position, in terms of manufacturing contacts, industry contacts, and marketing placement, to bring to life.
Putting It Together: What We'd Like
So, now let's bring all these points together.
The product that we'd really want then is something that has the following bullet points:
- connect wirelessly to an Xbox with Dolby Atmos / DTS:X support
- connect wirelessly to a PS5 with Tempest support
- connect wirelessly to a Windows or Linux system and expose THX's spatial positioning
The following points are probably negotiable based on the previous requirements:
- leverages modern connection hardware for maximum fidelity on wireless connections with the maximum battery life
- planar magnetic for superior soundstange?
- ribbon magnetic for power/performance tradeoffs as in the Panda?
This could probably drill down further since everybody has their own ideas on what ear pad combinations and other aspects matter. What's being outlined isn't just stuffing the HE-5xx components into a Razer Kraken Kitty Chassis, bolting on a wireless connection system, and changing the colors for a Sai-Edition product release. This really reads like a bespoke product that requires carefully phrased licensing agreements (e.g. Steelseries and Razer both generally maintain separate versions of products for Xbox and Playstation support), because it's a product that doesn't actually exist (yet).
- actuated driver for technical implantations/cost?