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Over the last few years here at B&H, I've done my fair share of hands-on headphone reviews. However, I haven't really spent much time looking at the wireless options that are available. To be honest, I've never really had a great experience with various wireless headphones in the past. Recently, I took 3 offerings from Sennheiser for a spin and let me just say, I may be a wireless convert from here on out.
The models that I used are the RS 160, RS 170, and RS 180, which are all part of the same family of headphones. As you move up the line, each headphone gains more features. Each model has the same overall physical design with around-ear cushions, an adjustable padded headband, and a few control buttons in the right earcup. Each set runs on rechargeable AAA batteries and includes the headphones, a wireless transmitter, a multi-region power adapter, and an audio connector cable. The higher-end models come with a few additional accessories that we'll discuss later.
One of the more important elements of all 3 models is that they use KLEER wireless technology to transmit uncompressed digital audio and control data. KLEER is similar to Bluetooth, but offers greater wireless range, better audio quality, and does not require pairing. With typical Bluetooth wireless headphones, you have to go through a pairing process to get the transmitter and headphones to "talk" to each other, which can take a few attempts and be quite frustrating. KLEER headphones are plug-and-play. This was my first experience with KLEER headphones and it was terrific. Audio quality couldn't have been better; I never experienced a bit of interference or distortion. I didn't test the wireless distance, but with advertised ranges of 60, 260, and 320 feet, you should have plenty of room to wander. The maximum range of Bluetooth headphones is 30 feet, so these Sennheiser models offer anywhere from double to ten times the wireless range. Pretty impressive stuff. As far as wireless control of the various volume, bass boost, and other controls offered by the headphones, they all worked extremely well. If I clicked, the button responded appropriately without the need to click multiple times in order for a function to engage.
|Control Buttons in the Earcup of the RS 170|
Pairing the headphones was never an issue, because it's not needed. I believe that each model is pre-paired from the factory with its respective transmitter. Sennheiser's literature states that you can use up to 4 pairs of headphones with a transmitter. However, I could not pick up any audio from the RS 170 headphones when using the RS 160 transmitter, so I assume you'll need 4 identical sets to take advantage of this feature. This is also a benefit, because it allows you to connect multiple units in the same household without interference. You can operate an RS 180 with your TV in the living room and an RS 170 with your computer in the bedroom, and the signals won't cross over.
The RS 160 is the base model for the series, but it's still a great set of headphones. It includes a small disc-style transmitter, the multi-region power adapter, and a 3.5mm (aka 1/8") stereo audio cable. Setup is surprisingly simple; I was up and running less than 5 minutes after opening the box. The transmitter can run on AC power or a pair of AA batteries. This versatility is extremely useful. If you want to be using your laptop somewhere without the inconvenience of being connected to a wall, then all of the components can simply run on batteries. The audio plug is a widely-used standard, and will connect to the headphone jack of an MP3 player, laptop, portable DVD player, or pretty much any other device.
|RS 160 with compact transmitter|
The power adapter comes with 4 different plugs, allowing you to use it anywhere in the world. If you want to recharge the headphones, a handy power splitter cable is included that allows you to connect the transmitter and headphones to the AC adapter at the same time.
Installing the included rechargeable AAA batteries into the headphones is a snap. The ear cushions pop off with an easy twist, and you insert one battery into each earcup. Reattach the cushions, and you're ready to go. This also makes it easy to replace the cushions should they ever wear out.
During long-term use, I experienced no fatigue. The thick leatherette ear cushions and headband padding are extremely comfortable, and the headphone pressure allows them to fit snugly, but not squeeze your head. The headphones have a closed-back design that does not allow sound to pass through. This design, combined with the around-ear cushions, helps to block out ambient noise so you're not distracted by your environment when you want to focus on your own soundtrack. These headphones would be great in an office environment. The transmitter is small enough to easily hide away on a desk, and the closed-back design will block out the typical office clatter, leaving you in your own world.
Sound quality on the RS 160 is excellent. Solid bass, crisp treble, and clear midrange and vocals. I really have no negative comments in regards to the audio quality, which is no surprise given Sennheiser's track record in the pro audio world.
When you first look at the RS 170 headphones, they seem pretty much the same as the RS 160. Well, in a lot of ways, they are. They have the same physical design and overall audio quality. Everything that there is to love from the RS 160 is found in the RS 170. I'd say, however, that the RS 170 would be more at home in the living room, whereas the RS 160 might be better with a laptop or MP3 player. I believe Sennheiser made the RS 170 with the movie-watcher in mind.
Instead of the compact disc-style transmitter, the RS 170 comes with a taller transmitter that also acts as a charging cradle for the headphones. Unlike the transmitter for the RS 160, this transmitter runs on AC power only. All of the other accessories from the RS 160 are included, but now a 1/4" plug adapter and a 3.5mm-to-RCA adapter cable are packaged in as well. These adapters let you connect to pro-level audio gear and home theater systems more easily.
|RS 170 includes a transmitter/charging cradle|
The other distinguishing characteristic of the RS 170 is the addition of Bass Boost and Surround Mode buttons to the right earcup. The Bass Boost adds an extra level of bass, while the Surround Mode takes elements from the stereo audio signal and simulates a more immersive experience.
The Bass Boost certainly works, but it's ideal only for certain occasions. When watching a dialogue scene in a movie, this mode added a distracting and unnecessary amount of low-end rumble to the overall track. However, during an exciting car chase scene this mode made engines and other low-end effects much more lively and increased the energy of the scene. Because the button to engage the bass mode is conveniently located on the earcup next to the volume controls, it's easy to toggle on and off as you like.
I'm always skeptical when it comes to anything "simulated" in audio, and that skepticism was present before I pushed the button to engage the Surround Mode on the RS 170. In general, headphones provide a much better stereo experience than any set of speakers built into a TV. When you put on your headphones and a vehicle travels from left to right, you hear that motion in your headphones much better than you would from your TV. So would this surround mode improve things? Surprisingly, it worked pretty well. During the same chase scene mentioned above, this mode added some interesting dynamics, smaller sound effects came alive, and I could get a better sense for effects being placed "behind" me. Even during a quiet dialogue scene the sounds of birds chirping in the background was improved and added a greater sense of depth to the audio.
|Audio cable, ¼" adapter, RCA adapter, and multi-plug adapter, included with the RS 170 and 180 (160 includes audio cable and power adapter only)|
Overall, with the same comfort and audio quality as the RS 160, plus the ability to engage Bass and Surround modes as desired, the RS 170 is a great headphone for music, and especially for movies. The only drawback when compared to the RS 160 is that the transmitter is not as versatile because of its larger size, and the fact that it does not have the ability to run on battery power like the smaller transmitter. However, that's a minor drawback in an otherwise excellent set of headphones.
Here's where things get a little different. While I'd classify the RS 160 as a great mobile and general purpose wireless headphone, and the RS 170 as a great movie headphone, I think the RS 180 has been designed to be an especially great music headphone. The RS 180 comes with the same accessories as the RS 170. The only difference is that the transmitter/charger has a set of RCA jacks in it in addition to the 3.5mm connector. However, the included cables still require use of the 3.5mm plug, so if you want to connect using just RCA cables, you'll need to supply your own.
|The RS 180 transmitter adds RCA jacks in addition to the 3.5mm jack|
Unlike the RS 160 and RS 170, which are closed-back and have leatherette cushions, the RS 180 is open-back and has soft velour cushions. The cushions still fit around the ears, but offer a more cozy sort of feel. The open-back design offers a more natural-sounding audio response than the closed-back headphones. This may also result in a small bit of audio leakage, and some more ambient noise seeping in on you as well. The closed-back models offer great privacy for both the user and those nearby. The open-back RS 180 isn't likely to disturb anyone; it just doesn't offer the same kind of isolation. This tradeoff may be well worth it for the improvements in audio quality though. With the RS 180, treble seemed clearer and bass was deeper but not artificial. The overall sonic experience was simply a joy.
|Note the open-back "grid" on the earcup of the RS 180|
The RS 180 drops the Bass and Surround modes offered by the RS 170. Instead, it has controls for left and right balance. Press the Left button, and the left earcup gets a little stronger than the right one, and vice-versa. This is handy if you have a little bit of hearing loss in one ear, and need to balance things out. There's not much more to be said about this particular model. It offers a cozy and comfortable fit and excellent audio quality without a lot of extra bells and whistles. But I didn't miss the bells and whistles, and I don't think you will either. If music is your primary concern, then you could do a lot worse than hooking up the RS 180 to your sound system.
My first experience with KLEER technology has been a lot better than I expected it to be. None of the headphones manifested the interference, drop-outs, or pairing issues that I've experienced with Bluetooth wireless headphones. Each model sounded great and offers its own unique set of strengths. I love that each model comes with a multi-country power adapter, that they run on rechargeable AAA batteries, and that they have a two-year warranty. Everything you need in order to use the headphones is included in the box. I would have liked it if one of the models also offered full bass and treble EQ controls. Perhaps they'll introduce a "190" model that does this. The available headphones certainly have great balance and tone, but the option for adjustment would be nice.
Overall though, if you've been on the hunt for some wireless headphones for use at the office, with your home theater, or your laptop and have only been looking at Bluetooth, RF, or IR options, I'd highly recommend checking out one of the KLEER offerings from Sennheiser. They may just have you singing a different tune about wireless audio.