All other things being equal, I’d guess most of us would rather have wireless than wired headphones. It is pretty obvious that cords get in the way, cords require you to remove headphones to get up and find an old CD, and cords restrict your dance moves. Of course, cords are so much a part of headphones that we don’t think about the limitations they impose. Sennheiser has, however, thought about it, and they’ve produced a broad range of wireless designs—ten different designs in all, to cater to various budgets and tastes. Are these a valid alternative to their wired brethren?
Consider this wireless headphone if: you crave the freedom of wireless headphone listening and want a balanced, low coloration sound.
Look elsewhere if: you want the last word in clarity and bandwidth, or if you prefer to fine-tune your headphones via amp selection.
• Treble: 9
• Midrange: 8.5
• Bass: 8
• Soundstaging: 10
• Dynamics: 8
• Value: 10
The Sennheiser RS 180 under review here is the top of Sennheiser’s RS line of wireless headphones, and seems to be the model most oriented to accurate musical reproduction. The RS line uses RF (Radio Frequency) wireless signals to transmit sound from a source (CD player, iPod or PC with DAC and line out) to the headphones. Sennheiser claims that the RS 180s work up to 100 meters from the transmitter (a small vertical box that sits next to your source). In practice, I found the RS 180s worked up to about 75 feet, which is still substantial in the context of normal rooms.
The RS 180 wireless headphone system utilizes Kleer's uncompressed digital wireless audio transmission technology, operating at 2.4 GHz. The transmitter can serve up to four pairs of headphones, so you can listen to movies or music with friends. The transmitter module also serves as both a headphone stand and charger. The input to the transmitter is analog, via a supplied cable terminated with RCA male connectors. The connector on the transmitter is a 3.5mm stereo mini jack, so you could also connect the line out of an iPod with the appropriate cable or docking station.
The RS 180 headphones themselves have controls for mute/power, volume and balance, so that you don’t have to return to base for these adjustments. The controls are on the right earcup, and seem to have been designed without reference to actual human bodies. The buttons are on the bottom of the earcup, which pretty much forces thumb operation (or contortionist use of the right hand fingers). But even my smallish thumb was much larger than the buttons, making accurate operation a bit difficult. Not only that, but the combination mute/power button is between volume up and volume down, which invites scenarios where you accidentally silence and/or turn off the RS 180s, when in fact you wanted to raise or lower volume. Recognizing that the power button also doubles as a mute button makes it position seem more logical, but even so I’d rather have it in a different place. After some use you get more adept at running the controls, but they require more thought than is ergonomically ideal.
Incidentally, we asked Sennheiser to comment on the placement of the RS 180 controls and here is their reply. “The button layout was placed where it is after years of feedback from customers who used the RS 130 and RS 140 and complained that when leaning back in an easy-chair, the volume knob hit the chair and was raised or lowered without the user desiring the change. Although the layout is on the underside of the headphone, it best prevents the controls from being accessed accidentally.”
While on the subject of ergonomics, I found the earcup design to have moderate pressure and good long-term comfort. The headband, however, is a bit stiff and needs to be readjusted periodically.
Okay, enough hardware description, already—what about the sound?
Let’s get right to it: these are pretty darn good headphones, wireless or wired. Unlike many headphones, the RS 180s sound basically balanced across the broad frequency range. By that I mean that bass, midrange and treble are presented at roughly even levels in comparison with live music. Many headphones have an obvious bass or treble boost, or a big dip somewhere in the midrange. Sometimes this is euphonic, sometimes not, but in any event the RS 180s avoid these issues.