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Pioneer SE-DIR800C Wireless Headphones Review

With the high-definition video capabilities of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s easy to overlook the quality of the consoles’ audio output. A quick glance at the rest of the home theater, though, shows Blu-ray Disc players and HD-DVD players, both of which make it harder to forget about audio due to their support of uncompressed and master tracks. Traditional surround-sound systems do an admirable job of capturing aural quality, but a full-blown system can be both expensive and inconvenient. That’s where Pioneer’s SE-DIR800C wireless headphones come in.

The Pioneer SE-DIR800C wireless headphones are an ideal introduction to surround sound for those who are just entering the Dolby Digital scene. The headphones’ big selling point is their infrared reception of Dolby Digital, ProLogic II and DTS signals, which lets consumers crank up the volume and immerse themselves in full surround-sound audio without disturbing family or neighbors. Simply plug-in the base with the AC adapter; connect an optical, coax or stereo line to the back of the base; and turn on the headphones. In no time flat, the surround-sound audio is up and running, without running a bunch of wires or placing speakers around the room.

Considering their retail price of around $300, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C headphones had better perform well, and by and large they do. Whether playing a videogame or listening to a Blu-ray or HD-DVD movie, the headphones do a fantastic job of picking up highs and lows in the respective audio track. This is due in part to the Dolby Digital sound processing, but also to the headphones’ noise-canceling construction. Unlike many wireless headphones that have a softer earpiece that “mushes” around the ear, the SE-DIR800C earpieces are ruggedly built and have a distinct cup that completely envelops the ear from the moment they’re put on. As a result, the headphones block more background noise (a whirring computer, a dishwasher, etc.) than other surround-sound headphones we’ve tested or owned, which lends itself to a much more “private showing” feel. This personal-showing feeling is carried over to the audio itself, which with these headphones truly sounds as though you’re sitting in a room surrounded by speakers — not wearing headphones.

Unfortunately, the headphones just don’t have quite enough customization options for the big-time home theater buffs. Although the headphones include on-earpiece volume control, neither the headphones nor the base includes any bass/treble adjustments, nor is there any user input when it comes to changing the audio mode (normal, cinema or music) when listening to Dolby Digital. The decoder in the headphones’ base does support the option for manual selection in ProLogic II mode, but in Dolby Digital it automatically selects the most-appropriate mode. The sad fact is, though, that sometimes the “default” mode doesn’t really sound the best, so the ability to choose modes regardless of the output (Dolby Digital or ProLogic II) would have been a nice inclusion. It’s not like they didn’t have room for that extra button; the base is pretty large size (8.25″ wide, 4.5″ deep and 2.25″ tall).

Although it’s hardly a beast, the base is large enough that its front panel accommodates a host of arguably unnecessary status indicators. These indicators point out which mode the headphones are receiving, which channel they’re on, and whether the base is receiving a digital or analog signal. All these lights give the front of the base an almost Star Trek-like quality, as if Pioneer wanted owners to feel that they were getting their money’s worth with all these blinking status indicators. For all intents and purposes, though, you’ll never really tinker with the settings or inputs, rendering the indicators moot.

One factor that won’t be moot to home-theater enthusiasts is the headphones’ infrared transmission rather than their operation on a 2.4GHz frequency. Because of the infrared transmission, the audio is crystal clear when the user sits in front of the base, but it becomes scratchier the more you angle yourself away from the base, and it cuts out entirely if a wall or other object comes between the base and headphones. This doesn’t seem like a big deal; how often do you keep a movie running while you step away from the TV? But such interruptions do happen, whether it’s grabbing a drink from the fridge or a snack from the pantry, and a 2.4GHz transmission would’ve let the user continue listening to the movie uninterrupted.

Another minor inconvenience is the rechargeable nature of the headphones’ batteries. Whereas other wireless surround-sound headphones have the charger built directly into the base, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C banks on the user owning a separate battery charger. The headphones’ batteries have about a seven-hour life per charge, which should suffice for all experiences outside of a Lord of the Rings marathon. But having to remove the batteries and charge them in a separate piece of hardware is a bit inconvenient, and may the audio gods help you if you forget to turn off the headphones’ switch during an extended mid-movie break.

Yet in spite of these issues, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C wireless headphones are a great solution for surround-sound newbies, who will frankly just be thrilled to have 5.1 audio in their home. With its comfortable earpieces, great high/low differentiation and support of multiple inputs, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C more than meets the needs of entry-level surround-sound consumers. Audiophiles looking for a few more options and more-advanced transmission technology may want to look elsewhere, but if this is your first foray into the world of digital audio, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C is a perfectly suitable solution.

Score: 7.8
Great earpieces and noise-canceling qualities, but the infrared transmission seems outdated, the recharging mechanism is a pain, and the form factor of both the base and headphones leaves a bit to be desired.

— Jonas Allen

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