Dolby Dimension review: headphones for your homeNovember 14, 2018
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wearing headphones a lot. That’s not too different from normal – I wear wireless headphones all the time when I’m commuting or working at the office. But the new Dolby Dimension headphones aren’t meant to be worn while commuting or on the go, they are designed to be worn in your home. So, instead of using my Sonos speakers, my TV’s soundbar, or the speaker on my phone, I’ve been wearing the Dimensions at home whenever I’ve been listening to music, streaming YouTube, or watching TV and movies.
The $599 Dimensions are Dolby’s first self-branded consumer product. They are over-ear, wireless Bluetooth headphones loaded with Dolby’s audio technologies and a few unique features you won’t find on the average wireless headphone. The most obvious difference with the Dimensions is that they are not designed for travel at all: they don’t fold up, they aren’t easy to pack, and they don’t have battery life that can compete with the best from Sony and Bose.
Instead, they are designed to be worn in your home, connected to the things you use to consume content, whether that’s on your phone, tablet, laptop, or TV. Since wearing headphones inside the home isn’t always the most natural or comfortable experience – especially if you have a family that you’re not trying to totally ignore – Dolby developed specific features for the Dimensions to make wearing them at home easier. There’s head tracking, so your audio will sound like it’s coming from a fixed location, like a TV screen. There’s the ability to save up to eight pairings and quickly switch between connected devices with buttons on the right earcup. And most significant is the LifeMix system, which lets you listen to your music, video, or other content, while still being able to hear your surroundings.
All those features do make it easier to use the Dimensions if you frequently switch between your phone, tablet, or TV when at home. And the Dimensions have a comfortable design that’s easy to wear for hours at a time.
But their advantages haven’t convinced me that their price and limitations are worth it.
The Dimensions have a large, over-ear design with premium-feeling leather-like material covering most of the earcups. The headband is padded with the same material and uses metal for the rest of its structure. At 330g, they aren’t the lightest headphones I’ve ever tested, but their ample padding and large, oval earcups make them comfortable for long stretches.
The backside of the right earcup is home to a power button and three device buttons, which you can program to switch between your most commonly used devices with the Dimension smartphone app. The right earcup also has touch controls for volume, track skipping, accessing a virtual assistant, and toggling the LifeMix feature. Swipe controls on headphones are often clumsy, imprecise, and frustrating, but the Dimensions’ are at least a little more responsive than others I’ve tried.
The Dimensions have 40mm closed-back drivers – standard for many over-ear headphones – which are tuned by Dolby’s various audio technologies. Interestingly, Dolby does not claim that these headphones reproduce Atmos sound or even mimic 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound systems, but just claims that when you use them for “entertainment created in Dolby Atmos, you’ll automatically get the best sound for it over a Bluetooth connection.” The company also does not claim that they are tuned for any specific activity, but in my tests they are most impressive for cinema content with lots of dynamics. The Dimensions have a wide soundstage, with crisp details that really lends them to use for watching movies.
That isn’t to say they sound bad for music, they just aren’t as impressive as when I wear them during a movie. The Dimensions do not have a flat sound signature, but they don’t unnaturally emphasize bass and are largely pleasant to listen to. You could describe their sound as “clinical,” as they lack warmth, but I don’t think anyone will be displeased with it.
Outside of those limited controls on the headphones themselves, configuring the Dimensions is largely done through the iOS or Android app. You can toggle Dolby’s audio enhancements, manage paired devices, and adjust the LifeMix level. Though you can have up to eight device pairings stored at once and set three of them to the buttons on the headphones themselves, it’s not possible to have the Dimensions paired to more than one device at a time, which can be limiting when you have them connected to a tablet or TV and then want to answer a call on your phone. Fortunately, the app control is done over Bluetooth LE, so you can still manage features even when the headphones aren’t connected to your phone.
One of those features you can toggle is the head tracking, which will make the sound appear as if it’s coming from a fixed location, like your TV. Turn your head away from the TV and the sound will shift to the side; turn back and it will seem like it’s coming from the TV itself. It’s a neat trick and it’s cool that it doesn’t require any extra hardware – all of the tracking is done via accelerometers in the headphones themselves.
Dolby claims up to 10 hours of battery life when virtualization and head tracking are enabled and up to 16 hours when those features are turned off. Neither of those stats compare favorably to Sony’s 1000X Mark III or Bose’s QuietComfort 35, but since the Dimensions aren’t designed to be used on the go, even 10 hours between charges is fine for home use. When it comes time to recharge them, 15 minutes on the included magnetic charging dock provides up to two hours of use, while two hours on the dock will charge them completely. There’s also a microUSB port on the bottom of the right earcup for wired charging.
The LifeMix feature is what Dolby is really pushing as the Dimension’s big differentiator. Like many headphones with active noise canceling, there are multiple microphones on the outside of the Dimension’s earcups. But instead of using them to cancel out exterior noises, Dolby uses the mics to mix in your environment’s sound with the content you’re listening to. You can adjust the level of the mix from full noise cancelation to a boosting of outside sounds, so they are louder than the content you’re listening to using the Dimension mobile app.
The idea here is if you’re watching something on your tablet while someone else is watching TV, you can still hear them and have a conversation without having to take your headphones off or pause your movie. Or maybe you’re a parent watching a movie at night and don’t want to wake the kids, but still want to hear your movie as its intended and not have to watch it with closed captions on. The Dimensions will allow you to hear everything in your movie and still be able to hear if the baby wakes up.
At least, that’s what Dolby promises the experience is like. In reality, it’s less impressive. Though other headphones, like the Sony 1000X Mark III, can pipe in external audio for situational awareness, the Dimensions do seem to actively mix the external audio with your content in a more effective and pleasing manner. The app provides twelve different levels of mix, which is probably more than most people would bother to fiddle with. The higher levels, which provide more ambient sound, tend to amplify the exterior noises in strange ways, providing an almost ASMR-like experience, while the lower levels might as well just be cancelling the noise.
No matter what level I set the LifeMix to – which, frustratingly, can only be adjusted in the app, the headphones can only toggle between full ANC and the last LifeMix setting you had – it was still difficult to hear other people talking when I was playing content in the headphones. I could tell that someone was saying something, but in order to really understand them, I had to pause the content or take the headphones off, largely defeating the purpose of the feature.
LifeMix also can’t overcome social norms. Wearing headphones provides social cues to other people that you are not listening to them, even if you can hear every word they are saying. Compared to other headphones, the Dimensions do make it easier to hear my wife when she says something to me, but they don’t make her want to talk to me while I’m wearing them.
I do think that they can appeal to some apartment dwellers looking for a cinematic experience without the burden of large speaker systems and irate neighbors, but most people are better served by a quality soundbar for that purpose.
Overcoming social norms around headphones is the Dimensions’ biggest challenge, which they don’t conquer. It’s just more comfortable for me to use speakers, soundbars, or even closed captions when appropriate, than to wear headphones at home. And it’s frustrating how poor the travel experience is with the Dimensions – they are big, cumbersome, have poor battery life, and don’t even have a 3.5mm cable option for in-flight entertainment systems. Even though the Dimensions sound impressive, are comfortable to wear, and have nice materials, it’s hard to justify their high price tag when I can’t even use them in most situations where I want to wear headphones.
It’s likely that Dolby will put this kind of technology into other products, including more portable headphones, and that might make me more interested in them. But for now, I’m saving my $600.
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