The next generation of video—call it 360-degree or volumetric or just 3D—is exploding across the world. But even as technology democratised 360-degree videos, the audio capabilities have not been able to keep pace. Recording 360-degree audio has meant heavy, expensive equipment, often many times the size of the camera. However, things have now changed for the better.
The Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset may look like a regular pair of earphones, but is actually the simplest way to record great binaural audio using just your iPhone. As the company says, the Sennheiser Ambeo actually has ears in the form of powerful microphones on the outside of both the earpieces.
The Ambeo looks like earphones that are made for the gym with earpieces that go around the ear and stay in place. They have a distinct chrome grill outside which houses the microphones. Before I get into the 3D audio, you need to know that these are good earphones for regular use too. They come with active noise cancellation—easy, given they have microphones
too—and do not really cut you off from what’s happening around you. The audio quality is quite good as I discovered during a recent flight. But then you can use it only with an iPhone as it has only the lightning port. In fact, I pulled them out of the bag to plug into the in-flight entertainment system before I realised that this was just not made for that, and I am not one to carry converters.
I saw the Ambeo for the first time at CES in Las Vegas. I was impressed by the 3D audio capabilities and was ready to be intimidated by all the high-end technology behind it. And this was the most surprising part. There is none that the user has to be bothered about. It is as easy as plugging the Ambeo into the iPhone while you are shooting video. Yes, there is no app needed for recording the binaural audio. The video that is shot with the Ambeo plugged in and switched on comes with exceptional 360-degree audio, without any technical mumbo-jumbo.
The 360-degree audio quality is really good. I used it to record some video during a trip to the spectacular Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. I recorded the Indian Ocean from the ramparts of the old Dutch fort using an iPhone X and the Sennheiser Ambeo. When I played it back, I could hear the sound of an auto slice through the recurring sound of the waves. The auto was behind me on the road and I had not noticed it. Also, there was the clear drone of a motor boat which I had again missed though it was in my frame, cutting through the blue waters and heading to the deep sea.
With the few minutes of the video, I realised that the Ambeo actually does a better job than what you would hear naturally, at least at my age. There may be some good uses for this. Also, you have the option of controlling the recording to loud and normal, with the latter to be used when the environment itself is loud and the microphones don’t have to stress too much. The controller also has volume rockers and a power button to switch on a recording.
Given that the Sennheiser Ambeo is not that expensive and is so easy to use, I think you will see, or should I say hear, a lot more 360-degree audio being added to even a regular flat video. Yes, Sennheiser will need to work on its Android version quickly to increase adoption in countries like India. Also, there should be a way to use this with a proper 360-degree camera like the GoPro Fusion. Still, the Sennheiser Ambeo is in my books one of the most innovative audio products in recent times, one that has the potential to be a real game changer.
* Estimated street price: Rs 19,990