Hands-on: Rebellion headphones serve up spatial 3D sound

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With digital signal processor and head-related transfer functionality, the Rebellion headphones are designed to simulate 3D audio environments

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In a bid to add a new dimension to your music, video and gaming listening experiences, Cape Audio has just launched an Indiegogo campaign for its flagship Rebellion 3D headphones. They're packed with modern tech designed to create realistic 3D soundscapes.

If you've compared a movie/gaming experience using basic stereo speakers versus 7.1 surround sound, you can probably understand the significant differences. While the former will still convey all the audio information, the latter does so with greater depth and accuracy to sound location.

Creating a home theater experience in most headphones can prove to be a challenge, given the standard left and right audio channels at hand. Your typical headphones combine these channels in stereo to create a virtual soundstage for your ears. While listening, you can imagine a live performance in front of you, but never behind or off to the sides – that's where spatial sound comes in.

With its digital signal processor and head-related transfer functionality, the Rebellion headphones are designed to simulate 3D environments. Hardware and reverb algorithms are meant to work together to shape audio by creating differences in arrival. In real life, our brain understands location and distance of sound based on relative volume, frequency, and the time that each ear hears the noise. We know popcorn is popping to our left because our left ear hears it first, louder, and with more of the higher frequencies – this is the type of experience that the Rebellion headphones aim to create.

We were recently given a sneak-peek opportunity to test out a prototype version of Cape Audio's Rebellion headphones. Through its iOS- and Android-compatible mobile apps (also prototypes at the time of testing), we were able to choose locally-stored music and manually play with the surround sound functionality. Since all the hardware resides in the headphones themselves, the app isn't necessary to generate the 3D spatial sound.

The Cape app (prototype) showed a top-down view, with concentric rings spanning from the middle of the screen and track controls at the bottom. As our finger pushed around a movable circle in the app, the perceived source of audio automatically followed suit, smoothly adjusting volume to location and proximity with a surprising amount of quickness. The level of immersion was akin to being within a performance instead of merely facing towards it.

Few are probably going to want to use the Rebellion headphones to place a music performance anywhere else other than close, front and center. However, the technology shows promise in augmenting gaming and movie experiences through spatial positioning. While not true surround sound, the prototype Rebellion headphones made it considerably easy to suspend disbelief.

You'll want to note that VR headsets don't need special headphones to achieve a similar spatial audio result: Utilizing the headsets' sensors and tracking systems, they can provide positional sound strictly on a software level, using any old pair of headphones. In other words, don't pledge for these cans thinking they will do anything for your Vive, Rift or Gear VR experience.

Unlike the Ossic X 3D headphones, the Cape Audio Rebellion offers a bounty of useful features: Bluetooth 4.2 with aptX support, active noise canceling, 3.5 mm jack, hands-free HD voice calling, and a built-in battery that is claimed to last up to 15 hours (wireless with ANC on) per charge. However, the Ossic X still maintains a performance edge by having an array of four audio drivers per ear instead of just one.

Cape Audio's Indiegogo campaign has raised 33 percent of its US$100,000 goal in two days, with another month left of funding to go. Early-bird pledges for the Rebellion headphones start at $189 and come with a 3.5 mm audio cable, micro USB charging cable and earphone bag.

Prototypes for the Rebellion headphones have been developed and tested. We found the minimalist design to be comfortable, the audio detailed and clear, and the active noise canceling quiet yet powerful (i.e. there was no white hiss noise, just a "click" followed by silence). So if production goes according to schedule, backers can expect shipments of the Rebellion headphones to start sometime this November.

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