Re(al)view: Acoustic Research ARW200 5.1 Surround Sound Headphones

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Traveling can make you a headphone nut. Flying, hotels, limousines, Rolex watches, and conference centers- lot's of time in no man's land where you need a little something to do. We are currently on the east coast and since AR has been so kind as to send us a new set of surround sound cans, we figured there could be no better time to try them out. If you like to watch movies and are particular about how they sound, this may be the [surprisingly inexpensive] trick for you.
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When we opened them up, we were a little confused because the heaphones are so small. Smaller than the headphones we looked at last week. We assumed buttressing, extra straps, and maybe a helium filled, titanium superstructure would hold up what we expected would be a very large and complex set of speakers. SIX drivers divvy up the space that rests on the outside of your ears; they should have been huge. We thought we received the wrong product. There was this badge on the side that seemed to confirm what the packaging appeared to be lying about:
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Then we discovered a little box inside and everything became clear. You see; these are portable (yeah, had to look that word up) and fold into a very comely travel case. It's also really well padded- HARD padding. In fact, if we have to eventually surrender these babies, the case will [mysteriously] not make it into the packaging. Apologies in advance to the recipient:

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So, if you haven't already guessed, it is pretty hard to get real 5.1 surround out of your typical headphone jack... at least, the surround sound that is encoded on most DVDs. You could fake it or create echoes or whatever, but that ends up sounding like listening to music in the bathroom.

So what is ya ta do? USB, coupled with some proprietary software, is the only practical conduit to decode the actual channels present on the disc. AR has put together a pretty fancy lookin' USB plug that matches their design language to hook you up:

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How comfortable are they? They are fine- not amazing, but practical. They put all their R&D into the functionality which is actually quite good. Looking at the padding below, it is easy to see what we mean- seriously, don't sweat this- they won't hurt you:

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Do they work? Yes indeedily-do-biddy-do. It may not be as convincing as your home theatre set-up, but all channels are present and accounted for. The best way to get yourself primed for the experience is to run their test sequence in the software they provide. It tests each speaker, announcing its designation in rapid succession. Then when you watch a movie, you will have been prepared for what is possible.

We watched the movie Wall-E to test out the ARW200's and found that all his zipping around was much bigger than the screen would ordinarily allow.

Another thing we discovered is that these headphones can play LOUDly. Much louder than what anything else we have plugged into the computer. This has to do with the fact that they are plugged into the USB port, rather than the headphone jack whose volume limitations are determined by onboard amplifiers. Anyhoo, be careful- don't overdo it.

In the end, these are something you should try out. They work for regular stereo sound as well, so you don't have to carry an extra briefcase full of headphones to cover all listening conditions. They sound quite nice as regular computing cans; clicks and beeps sparkle with militant authority and fullbodied IM alerts abound. A little bright perhaps, but better than your headphone jack and ipod phones.

We didn't try gaming with them, being out of town and all, but the assumption is that they will rock in that department.

Get yours here. About $60...

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