Sennheiser/Apogee AMBEO IEM/Earphone Binaural Recording Rig.

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Feb 9, 2018.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Youtube review:

    Photo: http://dalethorn.com/Photos/iPhone7p/Headphone_Sennheiser_Apogee_Ambeo_01.jpg

    Sources: iPhone7+ and other iOS-11 i-devices.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the playback** sound of the Sennheiser/Apogee AMBEO IEM/earphone binaural recorder (AMBEO hereafter) are based on comparisons to other IEM's (Sennheiser IE800, RHA T20, FI-BA-SS etc.), to a few reference headphones, and to notes I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I'll describe how I relate to this IEM (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use these earphones) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    **Since this review is primarily about the IEM/earphone and its high fidelity sound reproduction, interested readers can find full details about the binaural recording features on the usual commercial sites. I'll just say that it works very well, and when recording it's not necessary to have a perfect ear-canal fit. When recording, the earpieces need to be in their approximate positions in the ears so that the microphones are positioned correctly. Only the playback requires a good ear-canal seal for proper bass and treble balance, since the microphones face outward and aren't concerned with the ear canals. When I first used the AMBEO, recording with the iPhone camera worked perfectly with no special settings on my part - just plug the AMBEO into the phone, put the earpieces into the ears, and start recording. I have some short samples on my youtube site, but of course it's necessary to play those through headphones to hear the binaural sound perspective.

    NOTE: For me, the sound of most IEM's varies widely depending on the eartips used and how well they seal for bass balance etc. in the ear canals. But, I have a good sense of when I'm getting the proper ear-canal seal, by pushing the earpieces in until the treble drops noticeably, then backing off until it pops back in - crude but effective. I won't try to describe an absolute frequency response for this earphone, because of the variability for different users. For users who are curious about that, I recommend checking the headphone test measurement websites for their response measurement charts. What I want to describe are the tonality and musicality issues, assuming of course that the sound is good hi-fi, and the AMBEO is indeed excellent hi-fi. The music tracks listed below were selected to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of this earphone, so hopefully the comments in that list will point up its most important sonic qualities.

    My IEM experiences include the Final Audio FI-BA-SS (hard and bright), the Sennheiser IE800 (wonderful), the B&O H3 (slightly bright and a bit lean, but good), the RHA T20 (like the H3), several Soundmagic models (decent sound that varies between a lean bass and an emphasized but woofy bass), the Xiaomi MI-IF Piston (as good as or better than the Soundmagic earphones), the Thinksound USP1, and now the AMBEO. Comparing the AMBEO to the USP1, the AMBEO impresses me as very neutral, compared to the "v-shaped" signature of the USP1. I can't say much more about the flavor of the AMBEO for the reasons listed above, but unlike many headphones and earphones that have a fairly neutral sound, the AMBEO goes very deep into the bass with excellent weight, and the upper treble harmonics are rich and detailed.

    The AMBEO's earpieces have their microphones on the outside and the eartips are on the inside. The over-the-ear/behind-the-ear hooks appear to be permanently molded to the earpieces, so there's no other way to wear them that I can see. The total cord length from the earpieces to the Apple Lightning plug is ~48 inches, with the control box about 15 inches down from the earpieces. The control box has buttons for start/stop and volume up/down, as well as a rocker switch for noise canceling (ANC) on/off and environmental awareness on/off. The environmental awareness works in changing the background noise level during playback, but I haven't found the ANC to do much of anything. There is also a slide-switch that adjusts gain(?) when recording, but per the above, that won't be covered in this review.

    In spite of my reticence in describing the AMBEO's basic signature or frequency response, I will say that I like it better than anything I've used since I had the Sennheiser IE800. I prefer a fairly neutral sound, with solid deep bass impact and a sparkly detailed treble that's not bright. I can't compare the AMBEO to the IE800 or any of the latest high-priced IEM's, since I don't have any of those on hand, but I'd be pleased to pay full price for the AMBEO for music listening alone since it's that good. The binaural recording feature is the extra perk that makes this quite the bargain.

    In previous IEM reviews I've included the following music samples with comments about how the earphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the AMBEO compares with each individual track.
     
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has amazing detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The AMBEO plays this extremely well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled perfectly by the AMBEO.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can really feel the weight they carry with the AMBEO.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The AMBEO plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled perfectly by the AMBEO.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The AMBEO plays the voices with enough low end warmth to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are very crisp but well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The AMBEO reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the AMBEO renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The AMBEO plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is fairly realistic.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The AMBEO reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The AMBEO plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates an excellent deep-bass response. Overall, the AMBEO plays this music extremely well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The AMBEO plays this track perfectly.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track have a good impact with the AMBEO. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The AMBEO provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the AMBEO does those near-perfectly.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The AMBEO plays this with amazing weight and detail, such that you can hear/feel the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the AMBEO is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is impressive with the AMBEO.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the AMBEO renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The AMBEO's reproduction of the 'clop' sound is lighter than what I'd consider tonally accurate.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The AMBEO conveys that drama as well as any headphone that I've heard. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is bright and highly detailed, and the AMBEO renders the tones and transients extremely well.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The AMBEO's reproduction is excellent, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The AMBEO delivers the impacts with strong weight and good detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.
     
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Here's a video (audio only) that I made of the HomePod in the Apple store. It opens as I'm recording with cupped hands behind the earpiece mics, to screen out some of the customer/store noise, then I back off from there and remove the earphones from my ears so the sound is no longer binaural (i.e. the soundstage collapses).

    Unfortunately because of the store's background noise, I had to be closer to the speaker than what I would have liked, and thus much of the power and projection of the speaker's sound isn't captured well here.

     

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