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Why DTS Headphone: X Isn’t Ready For Fans of Surround Hi-Fi

by November 10, 2017

It's been a few years since the official unveiling of DTS Headphone: X, a new technology that promises to change how we listen to music, movies, and television using our favorite headphones. Now, that technology is finally starting to roll out, with the most recent introduction of the Nubia Z17S Android smartphone, early adoption has been slow moving. Let’s take a further look into why you may want to hold off on buying into DTS Headphone: X and even do a little demo ourselves to see what you may or may not be missing out on.

When it made its debut nearly four years ago at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, DTS Headphone: X was met with anticipation and perhaps even the lofty expectation that the new format would rise above headphone-surround standards previously set by DSPs and “virtual surround” effects. The new headphone-surround format launched a partnership with Hans Zimmer and a special edition of the Man of Steel soundtrack album that you could download separately if you bought the album on CD. Even if you didn’t care for the film, the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is a thrill ride of sound, even without DTS - you might believe your ears can fly!

Although improved surround sound through two-speaker headphones has been promised by various means of delivery from true 5.1 or 7.1 gaming headsets that pack multiple tiny speakers into the earcups - to DSPs and special recording methods like Binaural + a specialty of the Chesky record label found on some of its high-res digital downloads. The results were sometimes impressive, but more often than not failed to bring the full surround effect to your headphones.

Early Reviews Disappoint

Z+ SetupNow, DTS Headphone: X can be downloaded in an app and it has launched a special release of Superunknown, Soundgarden's breakout hit album from the early 90s. The good news: DTS Headphone: X promises to deliver not 5- or even 7-channel sound, but 11 distinct channels. On the surface, that should allow a listener to hear things previously undetected when using a source's original mix.

The bad news: the special edition of the album supporting DTS Headphone: X isn't cheap - in fact, it's outlandishly expensive at just under $100.

But is it worth the money? Not so much, says Lifewire's Brent Butterworth, who found it difficult to clearly find differences between the original album and the new one using DTS Headphone: X. In the end, Butterworth was forced to conclude his review by writing, "it's hard for me to imagine that anyone would like the DTS Headphone X mix of Superunknown better than the original stereo mix." Given that the original stereo mix of Soundgarden's album can be had for roughly one-fifth the price, that's quite the slam of DTS Headphone: X.

The inclusion of DTS Headphone: X in the new Nubia Z17S Android smartphone reveals that this technology isn't going away anytime soon, and may evolve and improve as its popularity grows. Still, there's no denying that, thus far, DTS Headphone: X has failed to live up to the lofty bar it set for itself a few years back.

Test DTS Headphone: X Free – on the Z + Music App

Anyone with an Android or iOS smartphone and a decent set of headphones or earbuds can test DTS Headphone: X for themselves. Go to the appropriate app store and simply download the Z + Music app. Install and setup is a snap, the app walks you through everything you need including selecting what kind of headphone you’re using. The intro is given by Hans Zimmer himself who personally provides viewers of the app’s intro a glimpse into his personal studio. Then Zimmer guides you through the audio experience, presenting all 11.1 channels individually. The app lets you download various Hans Zimmer soundtracks, excellent choices when testing audio. As a big fan of some of Zimmer’s soundtracks, I couldn’t resist testing DTS Headphone: X on the Z + Music app for myself. It happens that the Man of Steel soundtrack is available on the app, a high-res version of the soundtrack has been a staple for years on my main headphone rig. But Zimmer recently raised the bar with the otherworldly soundtrack for the movie Interstellar – a magnificently practical high-fidelity test for any headphones. Interstellar, Man of Steel and a few other semi-recent film soundtracks by Zimmer are available as on the app.

Dynamic Range

The ultimate test of any headphone’s dynamic range can be found on Zimmer’s Interstellar soundtrack. Plug in your favorite pair of headphones, get yourself into a relaxed state of mind, and playback the track “Stay” from interstellar. It’s slow moving but starts delicately subtle as slowly a wall of background bass eases its way into the otherworldly soundscape. Much of the instrumentation, including the foreboding bass is from what sounds like an organ played in a magnificent cathedral. Toward the end of the track, the music has evolved from low, subtle tones to a wall of orchestral chaos as the organ takes center stage. It’s a great track on an all-around great album. Unfortunately, that particular track is not available as a free sample through Z + Music

DTS Headphone: X on Z + Music Listening Results

Interstellar SoundtrackAfter listening to some of the included free samples from the app, I can only conclude that the experience was underwhelming. 

I went into testing with an open mind, knowing for certain the experience wouldn’t be on par with my main headphone rig while listening to my favorite headphones (Audeze LCD-3 & Koss ESP-950 if you’re interested). But my primary listening Bluetooth earbuds that used for testing are no slouch, the RBH EP-SB have been my go-to for audio on the go since I first tested them back in 2015.  

The intro with Hans Zimmer walking you through the effects is notable, as with many two-speaker headphone surround effects, it exists more as a way to train your perception of each channel’s directionality rather than knocking your socks off with the wow factor that they managed to make a simple pair of headphones sound like a whole room multi-channel audio system. A diagram of all 11.1 speakers is displayed as Zimmer talks you through what each channel sounds like individually. More obscure channels like left-rear height may result in the listeners thinking… “Okay, if you say so, I guess that’s what audio coming from left-rear up high sounds like.”

The REAL Problem with DTS Headphone: X

It’s not that the surround effect isn’t good, it’s at least as good at presenting directionality as the best surround effects I’ve heard. But the real problem is in the implementation of DTS Headphone: X. With special Headphone: X tracks, DTS takes digital music back at least a decade. Honestly, I’m not even certain if it’s my lack of understanding or if it’s intentionally this confusing, but exactly what I’m getting if I buy any music through the Z + Music app is still a mystery. But it appears that all you get for your money is the ability to playback purchased tracks through the app on your phone. This is not acceptable!

If you’re buying music online, you deserve nothing less than a file you can transfer and index into your main music library and play back over any computer or media player. So, welcome to 2007, when we were still struggling with DRM, protected files, and restrictions. No thanks! Competent surround effects over headphones can be baked into the recording and played back on any media player, Binaural + does this on DRM-free files that sound amazing.

Surround Sound Music

Does surround really do anything for music? The debate rages on. But I remain open-minded. I’ve heard some impressive examples on DVD-Audio in full surround systems and Binaural + over headphones. Frank Zappa’s Halloween album on DVD-Audio, mixed by his son Dweezil Zappa, is one of the all-time great surround mixes. It’s a great album without the surround mix, but the immersive surround mix puts you in the center of a Zappa performance in New York on Halloween making it one of the most unforgettable listening experiences you'll find. But I can’t truly judge the musical surround experience of Zimmer’s soundtracks or a Soundgarden album through DTS Headphone: X, because I can’t transfer the files into my main library and listen to them over my main system.

DTS has been one of the great contributors to the audio industry, the company’s technologies have given me and surely anyone reading this, many memorable listening experiences.

But DTS Headphone: X needs time to mature as a format. Foremost, there needs to be more content. Then, the biggest problem with the format for fans of hi-fi is that DTS seems content to keep Headphone: X a mobile-only technology. Keeping Headphone: X tied to a mobile app may be a lucrative decision that will sell to the mainstream. But it's unlikely to make inroads into the hi-fi community.

DTS seems happy to position Headphone: X as an add-on to new cell phones like the Nubia Z17S as the format lives on as the kind of bloat-ware that comes with new devices. It's likely to impress the average consumer's first time listening to multi-channel audio over standard stereo headphones and you can’t blame the company for not going out of its way to serve the hi-fi niche. But if DTS wants Headphone: X to gain the street cred of the growing headphone hi-fi crowd and a thumbs up from Audioholics, it has a long way to go. Until I can easily test DTS Headphone: X on my main headphone audio system – it’s just another app on my phone.

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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Recent Forum Posts:

Thunder240 posts on October 02, 2018 15:34
I agree with you in your criticism of the Z+ app and its regressive ploy of charging for tracks that are locked to the app. However, it’s not fair to knock DTS Headphone:X as a technology because of Z+. If Z+ were the only means available of listening to music/soundtracks encoded in DTS Headphones:X, I’d grumble but I’d understand your criticism. But this simply isn’t the case.

Besides the fact that several computers and mobile devices (not Apple’s) have DTS Headphone:X decoders built in, there is another iOS app called nPlayer Plus that has a decoder AND a built-in browser. So, buy the app for $8.99 (specifically the Plus version), then go to settings and activate DTS Headphone:X, then use the built-in browser to browse to the DTS website, where you can find at least 5 video clips with DTS Headphone:X encoded audio tracks. Watch them, and voila! Note that alternatively to you can download them, place them on a DNLA server, and play them back in nPlayer Plus via DNLA

The only thing to be aware of when using the nPlayer Plus browser to watch video clips with DTS (or Dolby, for that matter) is that after they start playing in the browser window, you’ll need to click the ‘play’ button in the lower right corner to get the video to open in a dedicated browser window. Then, click the codec logo (DTS:X, Dolby Atmos, whatever) to activate the codec. Finally, you’ll be prompted to disable Quicktime, which you must do. It’s a little more complicated than it needs to be, but it works.

Lastly, I *think* you are factually mistaken when you write that DTS Headphone:X is a mobile technology. If my understanding of the DTS literature is correct, any audio encoded in DTS:X is reducible to Headphone:X. If so, presumably you just need to configure your DTS:X capable receiver to output 2 channel, then use stereo pre-outs to run signal to your Headphone amp. (Admittedly, I haven’t tried this.)

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
Pickleman posts on November 27, 2017 18:05
I can’t locate the Z + Music app in the appstore.
Help please
gene posts on November 10, 2017 13:59
It's been a few years since the official unveiling of DTS Headphone: X, a new technology that promises to change how we listen to music, movies, and television using our favorite headphones. Now, that technology is finally starting to roll out, with the most recent introduction of the Nubia Z17S Android smartphone, initial reviews are mostly underwhelmed. With a limited and expensive music library thus far, will DTS Headphone: X make waves in hi-fi, or is it destined to remain just another smartphone app?

Read: Why DTS Headphone: X Isn’t Ready For Fans of Surround Hi-Fi
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