Sennheiser RS 180 wireless headphones -- wi-fidelity
Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.
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It's been several years since I've owned a pair of wireless headphones, so I jumped at the opportunity to take a pair of Sennheiser RS 180 wireless headphones home for a tryout. I knew the technology had changed quite a bit and wanted to find out just how much.
Sennheiser's been building quality headphones for some time, and that expertise was apparent with the RS 180s. The headphones had a real sturdy heft to them. That's not to say they were heavy, just well-constructed. With cheap headphones I sometimes feel like I'm just balancing them on my head. With the Sennheisers I knew I could just set them in place and they would stay in place.
And they were very comfortable to wear. Since it was my intention to do some marathon listening sessions, that was a very good thing. A nice, thick padding under the headband kept things light. I never really felt anything pressing down on me. The earcup padding was wrapped in velour. This breathable fabric not only provided a soft cushion, but it also kept heat from building up inside the earcups, so my ears never felt overly warm.
The main controls for the headphones were buttons built into the earcups, and with a little bit of practice, I was able to operate them without removing the headphones.
The big story, though, was the sound quality. The RS 180 transmitter sends an uncompressed 2.4GHz audio signal to the headphones, so the sound I was getting was robust and full. Of course, different sound sources have different qualities. When I listened to an Internet radio station with a compressed 128Kpbs stream, it didn't sound as good over the 'phones as the Apple Lossless tracks streamed from my music library. But relatively speaking, the radio stream still had a fair amount of sonic detail and presence.
The RS 180 transmitter was a model of simplicity. All I had to do was connect the AC adapter to the wall, connect the transmitter to my receiver (or other audio source), and it was ready to go. It only took a moment for the transmitter to find the headphones and select the proper frequency with minimal interference. Within a few minutes, I was ready to do some serious listening.
One note about first-time setup. The transmitter doubles as the charging station for the headphones, which come with rechargeable batteries. When I first opened up the RS 180s, I had wait a few hours while the batteries built up a charge. An indicator light on the front of the transmitter let me know when they were ready to use. After that, though, as I moved the transmitter around, hooking it up to different sound sources in different rooms, the system was always operational within minutes.
The transmitter accepts both RCA stereo plugs for two-channel input, and a single minijack plug, so I could use it with anything from a home theater system receiver to an iPod. And a few things in between.
Being able to watch TV late at night without disturbing everyone else in the house (or the next apartment) has always been one of the appealing features of wireless headphones. And its where the Sennheiser RS 180's performance most impressed me. The transmitter automatically processes the level of the signal, which evens out the extremes in volume. That meant I didn't have to continually adjust the volume when the show stopped and the commercials began. For our small TV/DVD setup in the den, it also meant I had a better listening experience through the headphones than I did without them!
The leveling also helps keep the dialog prominent, making it much easier to hear even when there was a lot of other noise in the scene. Another way the 'phones helped keep the dialog front and center was with their balance control. Some older shows and movies have a mono soundtrack, and it's not always centered when it's broadcast. Centering that mono signal helped bring the dialog out more, and kept one ear from becoming more fatigued than the other.
Of course, as I changed channels, I sometimes had to readjust the volume and occasionally the balance, But as long as I stuck with a single station — like for a movie or two — I didn't have to do anything but just enjoy the show.
While I didn't hook up the RS 180s to my iPod, I did run a stereo minijack line from my computer to the transmitter. For my music listening, I didn't need the balance control — even when I was listening to Internet radio. The uncompressed signal really made a difference with my lossless files. I felt like I was hearing all the details in the tracks, particularly in songs I knew well. Even the compressed tracks sounded pretty good, although the difference in sound quality was immediately obvious. All in all, I enjoyed some long listening sessions in the comfort of my favorite chair — something that normally can't happen given the chair is on the opposite side of our great room from where the computer sits.
According to Sennheiser, their 2.4GHz wireless audio signal has a range of up to 320 feet — line of sight. Well, our great room isn't that great, so I can't say if that's true. I do know that I could move around anywhere in the space and get a clear, strong signal. And I could even go into other parts of the house and still have the same sound quality. When I set the system up in our den, I also experimented with walking around the house. Our den is a very small room, and I found the signal cutting out as I made my way down the hall. From the great room, I could get a signal underneath in the basement. From the den, no.
Actual coverage depended on how many walls were in the way, and in some cases, what was in them. I noticed a sharp cutoff when I passed hidden duct work, for example.
On the whole, the Sennheiser RS 180 wireless headphones performed admirably. They were comfortable to wear, simple to set up, and delivered great sound from all of my test sources.