WIRELESS HEADPHONES After listing the best wireless heaphones of 2012, it's now time for an in-depth review of one of the best value for the money cans at the moment; the Sennheiser RS 160. These have a lot in common with its younger siblings RS 170, and the RS 180, but at a significantly lower price. If you have a hard time deciding what to get, we'll also discuss the differences between the different models in the wireless "RS" series in this entry.

Analogue vs. Digital

Wireless transmission is always sensitive to interference of some kind, especially when sharing the same frequency as other devices nearby. Wireless headphones have been around for a while. However, older models usually relied on analogue radio as a means of audio transmission, meaning that the audio quality was at best on par with just that; analogue radio. It also had the same issues that are common with FM radio. They were prone to have static, especially when moving away from the transmitter.

The RS 160 were Sennheiser's first set of wireless 'phones to use a new, digital technology, enabling a lossless digital signal to be transmitted to your ears. This means you'll instead full, crisp CD quality, rather than low fidelity radio quality, which of course was a huge improvement. Moving from analogue to digital, doesn't guarantee that all problems with static or interference can be ruled out, however. This leads up to the next segment:

Interference / signal strength

The HDS 160's have a green light flashing every now and then, letting you know they're still on, in case you forgot to turn them off after use.
My test environment is cluttered with wireless mice and keyboards, cell phones, wi-fi connection and other wireless electronics that technically could interfere. Considering these aforementioned obstacles, the RS 160 actually perform really well. I'm not experiencing any hiss, clipping or other type of interference or breakup, which is a huge relief.

2.4 GHz is a frequency that is especially common, shared by most wireless computer accessories like mouses and keyboards. This is also the case with the Sennheisers, which transmit digital audio at 2.4 GHz as well as 2.8 GHz, and the transmitter automatically switches between the two as it sees fit, to achieve the best result in a given situation. And it does indeed seem to work out pretty well for them.

At an early point in my testing I did have a bit of background hum, however, that became apparent as soon as the headphones were turned on. Nothing you'd notice while listening to your favourite death metal record, but quite annoying when leaving the headphones on in an idle state. Should you experience this issue, you need to adjust your volume settings on the device. The transmitter and the 'phones themselves have their own volume adjustments, and when you have both cranked up, you'll get this annoying hum. So here's what you need to do to get rid of it:
  1. Have the headphones on in their idle state (ie. turn off any music or other content you have playing, to clearly hear the hum).
  2. Leave the transmitter at full volume.
  3. Gradually turn the volume on the headphones down, until you can't hear any more hum.
  4. Adjust the volume on your audio source (computer/mp3 player/HiFi etc.) accordingly to make up for the volume drop.
After a couple of weeks of use, I can assure the cans have now been dead silent when they're supposed to. Hopefully it will work just as well with your setup.

The box they came in. Interesting how the little Asian boy in the picture wears a totally different pair of headphones... Some gaffe the Sennheiser people must have done!

Range

I have the transmitter hooked up on the second floor, and decided to try moving around a bit to see how far I could get without losing signal. Not until I made my way down to the ground floor, the sound would occasionally start to cut off, as I was moving around. The signal was so fickle that sometimes as little as a nod or turn of the head could disrupt the connection to the transmitter, making the sound cut off for a brief moment. The range is officially approximated to 60 feet, or roughly 20 metres, and I'm guessing this distance is measured in line of sight. 

In comparison, the RS 170 does up to 80 metres (or 260 feet) effectively, according to their specs, which of course is a great improvement that may or may not be worth the extra dough, depending on what your needs are.

Sound Quality

Sennheiser's is widely recognised for their "flat" tonal response, held back bass, and overall pleasant, clear audio reproduction. And these particular 'phones are of course no exception.

Sound-wise, the Sennheiser HDR 160's (the headphones that come with the RS 160 set) don't exactly offer studio quality, lacking that absolute definition and clarity required for such usage. They're not very bass heavy, but not specifically trebly either, giving them a somewhat compressed tonal response. To my ears, they seem to peek somewhere in the upper midrange.

I'm personally not a bass junkie, but I like a nice "thud" from the kickdrum, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, the Sennheisers are a bit sloppy and smoothed out in the lower register. That's also a good way to describe the sound of the RS 160 overall; it's very much smoothed out and compressed sounding. This, again, make them less suitable for any sort of sound engineering or production use, but the headphones should by all means suffice for plain music listening, and definitely for watching late night television. Especially with an EQ placed in between, to make up for the rather midrangey dynamic range.

The wireless Sennheiser RS (HDR) 160 accompanied by the rather plain Sennheiser HD 215, super-comfy noise cancelling Sony MDR-NC60, and the studio quality Beyerdynamic DT-250.
As reference, the phones I mainy use are the Beyerdynamic DT250 (closed studio 'phones), and a pair of noise cancelling Sony MDR-NC60. Both these offer a better clarity and punch, especially the Beyers. But they've obviously been played in properly, which this new pair of Sennheisers still hasn't quite gotten the chance to do, perhaps.

While the pricier open RS 180 might offer a more airy, and broader soundscape, I don't see how it would have a better dynamic range, with richer bass and treble. But if you get the chance to try them both, go ahead and see what sounds best through your ears.

Comfort

As far as comfort goes, HDR 160's are not too bad. They have very soft padding around the ears, dressed in some sort of faux leather material. I also have another pair of cans from the same German manufacturer - namely the Sennheiser HD 215, but rarely use them due to discomfort. The problem with those is the circular shaped pads and the lack of depth inside the cups for the ears. First of all, I don't see why they keep making circular earpads in the first place; how many people have circular ears? While leaving a lot of breathing room inside the cans, the HD 215's still have no room for earlobes, unfortunately. Neither do they have any room for ears that are anything but flat as the highway. I don't have ears that stick out particularly, but still I have hard plastic constantly pushing against the ears while wearing these. And it's all because of its flat inner construction.

Soft ear pads that don't let much air in.
The HDR 160 aren't this bad, luckily. Not that there's much room here either, depth-wise, but at least enough to not leave any discomfort. If you buy any headphones, especially Sennheisers, it's always a good idea to try them on first, if possible, or buy from someone who can offer some kind of satisfaction guarantee, in case they don't fit your ears.

Another thing worth mentioning is the heat factor. These tend to get rather hot around the ears after a pretty short while. Hotter than any of my other closed, around-ear headphones, actually. But if you can handle them the first half an hour, they don't seem to get any worse from there on. If you've previously had issues with heat, the open RS-180, or the new RS-220, might be a more suitable alternative for you.

Materials and durability

The RS 160 and RS 170, which have more or less the same headphones included, seem quite solid. Flexible as they are, they bounce and bend quite easily. Even though they seem to be entirely made of plastic, they don't appear stiff at all. They could have chosen a better material for the earpads, however, which don't breathe a lot causing your ears to get hot. The higher RS 180 model has some sort of velour material for the earpads, which could be a nice upgrade from the RS 160 and 170's fake leather. The three models all have the same form factor, so if you happen to find a pair of spare velour pads, be sure to give them a go!

But whatever you do with your new headphones - make sure not to sit on them!

Battery life

Battery compartment, hidden behind each of the ear pads. Replacing the supplied 750 mAh AAA batteries with something more powerful might be a good idea if you want even longer charging cycles.
The RS 160 set came with two Sanyo 750 mAh rechargeable AAA batteries included in the box. The battery life is approximated to 24 hours per charge, according to Sennheiser's specs. I've run this pair a few hours a day for about a week now, still on their first charge, so that statement appears to be valid. If that's not long enough for you, you could always extend the charge cycles by replacing the supplied 750 mAh batteries with something juicier like a pair of 1200 mAh's, which should nearly double the capacity.

Combined transmission and charging unit

Worth mentioning about the RS 160 is it that there's no nifty charging facility included in the box. That's also the main difference that would justify the higher price point of the RS 170/180 models, which both come with a combined transmitter/charging cradle that you can just leave the 'phones on, and they'll charge automatically. At the other hand; whilst the pocket-sized transmitter that comes with the RS 160 may be less convenient for charging, it offers you great portability instead, as it can also be powered by 2 AA batteries and brought easily with you outside along with a laptop, for instance. For charging, the RS 160 comes with a Y cable, however, that lets you charge the transmitter and the headphones at the same time. The transmitter itself doesn't need any batteries, as long as you don't yank it out of the wall socket.

Headphones and transmitters interchangeable with other models

The RS 160's teeny-weeny transmitter doesn't look like much, but it's does a good job while staying portable (unlike other models).
Also worth mentioning is that the RS-160, RS-170 and RS-180 all use the same digital transmission technology, which means that their transmitters are compatible with one another. So if you for instance buy a set of RS 160, and later want to add a pair of open headphones, such as the 180's, you can just buy the extra cans separately, without shelling out for an extra transmitter/charger unit that would normally along with. This saves you a lot of money, as the transmitter alone is about half the money that you'd spend on the RS-180 set. When bought separately, the headphones of the RS series are called HDR 160 for the RS 160HDR 170 for the RS 170, and so forth. And as I mentioned earlier, you can match these models and transmitters as you please. You'll often find the sole headphones at about half the price of the full sets, which make them real bargains after acquiring your first set of these!

Sorry, no quasi-surround sound in these

The other difference between the RS 160 and the RS 170/180 , apart from the different transmitters, is the lack of an optional surround mode feature, which the RS 170 and higher also has. This isn't exactly true Dolby surround sound to begin with, but merely a virtual up-scaling of the stereo signal. And from what I've heard, it's apparently not that impressive anyway. So if you the surround feature is a must, the Sony MDR-DS6500's would probably be a better choice, as far as portable, wireless surround sound goes.

Price

The RS 160 can be picked up for as little as £79.99 on Amazon UK (around $100-185 for the US) , which is less then half of what the RS 170 (£150 / $250) and RS 180 (£179 / $260) currently go for. This makes them an excellent deal for essentially the same product, using the same lossless, digital audio transmission technology without the annoying static and other interference that the cheaper radio transmitted wireless headphones are so prone to suffer from.

The Verdict

Great product that does what it's supposed to without interference of hassle. A significant step up from the older radio transmission models, that can be found for just a little less, making this product good value for the money. For some extra functionality and longer range, the RS 170 and RS 180 models are also worth a closer look, but at a significantly higher price point.
/theJo

The Good
  • Solid wireless performance without interference.
  • Decent comfort.
  • Long battery life.
  • Small transmitter means great portability.
  • Affordable/Good value.
The Bad
  • Narrow dynamic range: "midrangey" sound.
  • Limited signal range.
  • Ears getting hot rather quickly.
  • No surround feature.
  • Charging not as convenient as with the higher models.
  • All plastic.

Very Good
7.5/10

See also