AKG Acoustics
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 11/9/2004 1:32:04 PM ET 2004-11-09T18:32:04

Home theater systems can sound terrific.  I’ve heard some amazing ones and also a few that sound a little less than terrific.  What they all have in common is that they’re able to reproduce sound at realistic movie levels.  That makes them less than perfect when others nearby are trying to talk on the phone, read, or sleep.

Enter AKG’s Hearo 999 Audiosphere II a wireless, rechargeable, surround-sound headphone system.  That’s a mouthful.  Let’s go over these descriptions one step at a time.

I think AKG makes some of the best headphones on the planet.  I personally love their top-of-the-line K1000s.  They’re more of an ear speaker than the semi-open, circumaural set of ‘cans’ in the Hearo 999.  Also unlike my K1000s, the Hearo’s headphones are wireless (operating in the 864 MHZ band).  That means you’re not tethered to your stereo/home theater system.  You can listen to the Hearo system nearly anywhere.

The headphones themselves have an on-off switch, plus volume and balance controls – all on the outside. They have a rechargeable NiMh battery inside – good for about 5 hours of listening per charge.  It takes less than 2 hours to do a full recharge.  They weigh 12 ounces – which doesn’t feel heavy when you have them on.

The controller box at the working end of the Hearo system is a very clever device.  It’s not only a digital transmitter for the headphones, but it’s a Dolby Digital and a Dolby Surround Pro-Logic decoder with four sound presets (Norm, Music, Movie and Voice) each with three settings for fine tuning, plus a three position stereo ‘room simulator’, and an integrated amplifier so you can use conventional wired headphones and get surround sound effects.  There’s even a set of controls to contour the headphones to the actual geometry of your ears and head.  I promise I’m not making this up.

Setting-up the Hearo 999 is very simple.  First, plug in the headphones’ wall charger and make sure the batteries are charged.  Next, plug in the controller box and wall charger — and attach the wires to your home theater/stereo or TV or game console.  I used a digital optical cable to attach my DVD player (there’s a coaxial digital input too) — and regular analog RCA cables to plug-in my HiFi system.  So far, so good.

I turned on the headphones and all I heard was a constant beep. Hearo was telling me that it was receiving zero signals.  The beeping was replaced with music as soon as I turned on the controller box and made sure both were operating on the same wireless channel.  There are controls on the headset and the controller if they’re not.

I fiddled with all the controller settings.  I found that for my tastes, I prefer the regular ‘Stereo’ setting for two-channel recordings, Dolby Digital for surround-sound DVDs and that the standard ear-shape setting sounded best for me.  Other settings may sound best for you.  You have many choices.

How it sounds
The most important factor with any surround-sound system is how it sounds.  The Hearo 999 sounds very good indeed.  AKG’s "XXL capsule using Varimotion technology" and computer-optimized membrane geometry and digital wireless technology make great, clear sounding headphones.  They’re able to reproduce movie theater sound levels when called for — watching and listening to DVDs through the Hearo system was pretty impressive.

AKG Hearo 999
AKG Acoustics
Home theater in a briefcase: Hearo 999 comes in a metal, Haliburton-sytle case.
I think Hearo’s wireless feature is terrific.  I was able to listen in the living room, in the dining room, in the kitchen, in the bathroom and even the bedroom at the other end of my home.  I was able to exceed Hearo’s limits but I was a lot further away from the controller box than AKG’s 50 meters optimal range.

While I like the surround-sound effect from DVDs, I less thrilled with the simulated surround effect from CDs.  DVDs sound very, very realistic — on a par with some of the better home theater systems I’ve heard.   But, I think CDs should be listened to in the Stereo mode.  They sound more accurate that way (and the volume goes a little louder) in that mode.

An elegant surround-sound headphone system like the Hearo should include an elegant way to charge the headset batteries.  I’d like to see some sort of cradle for charging the headphones rather than just laying them on their side and plugging a wall charger into a jack.

The Hearo 999 system isn’t cheap.  It retails for $1,199.  Don’t compare it to a regular set of headphones — it’s a lot more than that.   You should compare it to a full surround-sound home theater system.  You can even buy extra headsets, run them off the same controller box allowing friends and family to listen and enjoy — all at their preferred volume levels.

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