As much as I adore music, I find it difficult to use headphones when I’m home. It’s not for lack of options — I’ve got a pair of AirPods, some gym headphones, and some luxurious over-ear cans. But once I put them on, like clockwork, life accelerates around me. My lovely partner will begin chatting about her day and my dog will decide now is the perfect time to demand some attention. It doesn’t help that, should I choose to watch some esoteric anime, my partner will — understandably — don her own headphones to drown out the sound (and the conversation). It all adds up to music I can’t truly enjoy, and interactions I can’t fully appreciate.
Audio company Dolby thinks it has the solution. Instead of helping you escape from the outside world, the $600 Dolby Dimension headphones do the opposite, making it possible to have actual conversations with someone without missing a beat. Literally. With its laundry list of features, including active noise cancellation, the biggest sacrifice you’ll make will come from your wallet.
Right off the bat, the Dolby Dimension are the most comfortable pair of over-ear headphones I’ve worn in a while. The majority of the headphones are wrapped in soft black leather, including the pair of earcups resembling a split avocado. Eyeglasses fit comfortably, too, a plus when you’re watching a two-hour film. On the right earcup are a trio of buttons you can use to quickly switch between three synced devices. Using the Dimension app, you can switch between up to eight devices — enough room for the whole family.
On that same earcup is a touch-sensitive panel for controlling playback and volume. You can also double-tap it to toggle between active noise cancellation and Dolby’s intriguing LifeMix feature. As far as noise-cancelling goes, the Dimension does a decent job, nearly matching the silence induced by headphones from Sony, Bose, or Marshall.
LifeMix turns any mundane task into an ASMR enthusiast’s dream, and is one of the Dimension’s most interesting perks. The Dimension’s five integrated microphones, used for active noise cancellation, are also used to mix the sounds of your environment with your music. Each noise becomes uncharacteristically augmented, including every finger snap, keyboard tap, or rustle of paper. You can adjust the sensitivity through the app, or turn it off completely to enable active noise cancellation.
Conversations through LifeMix, however, are a mixed bag. At lower volumes, you’ll be able to understand everyone well enough, though you’ll have to get accustomed to the faint echo that comes when words said right to your face have to go through a little audio processing before reaching your ears. For watching TV or listening to some quiet jazz, it’s perfect — I was able to have a conversation comfortably and without misunderstanding. At louder volumes, however, LifeMix fails to make conversations decipherable over the cacophony of whatever you’re listening to in the first place.
Pairing headphones with televisions isn’t new, but can make a huge difference in terms of enjoyment if all you’ve got are your built-in TV speakers. Wireless TV headphones already exist, requiring additional hardware like an RF transmitter you connect to your TV. Dolby Dimension connects exclusively via Bluetooth. To pair the Dimension with a TV, you’ll need either a Bluetooth-enabled TV, a set-top box like an Apple TV, or Dolby’s own $70 Bluetooth adapter, which supports two headphones simultaneously.
You can expect up to 15 hours of music, and take advantage of the Dimension’s low power mode to squeeze out enough time for one more episode. Turning on features like audio virtualization and head tracking (simulating the shifts in audio when you turn your head left or right in relation to stationary speakers) shortens battery life down to around ten hours. When you’re done, just place the headphones on the magnetic charging dock (or use the Dimension’s increasingly outmoded Micro USB port). It won’t compete with traditional noise-cancelling headphones in that regard — but then again, Dolby wants you to wear these inside the house, not on the road. Good thing, too. These things are big.
You’ll also deal with a few classic over-ear headphone drawbacks. While they are indeed capable, portability isn’t the Dimension’s strong suit. The earcups, unlike other over-ear headphones from companies like Master & Dynamic or Bose, don’t twist into a storage-friendly profile. There’s no folding or transforming into a smaller footprint, either. In addition, it’s impossible to use them as traditional wired headphones, as the Dimension lacks a headphone jack.
There’s also the act of wearing them in the first place. Wearing headphones means you’re, well, wearing headphones, and probably don’t want to talk to anyone. Even with the Dimension on, I found talks with my partner to be shorter, even though I was able to understand her pretty well, and she knew I could hear her. In some cases, I’d catch her glance at me, then the Dimension, only to return to her book or phone. When she did initiate conversation, I had to make sure the active noise cancellation was off, otherwise her words fell on deaf ears.
So for those living with actual humans, Dolby’s Dimension could either make or break your desire for conversation. And if you’re rolling solo, and just want some headphones to use so you don’t wake the neighbors, you’ve got other options — including other Bluetooth headphones with features similar to LifeMix, like Sony’s 1000XM3.
$600 is a hefty price to pay for anything, especially headphones. When you can snag Bluetooth headphones like the Jabra Move for under $100, or the noise-canceling Marshall MID A.N.C. for $280, you have to ask what you’re really getting besides some comfy cans. But Dolby’s maiden voyage into headphones is an exciting one, bringing stellar audio quality, comfortable design, and some smart family-friendly features to your living room. The ease of switching devices alone is definitely worth the extra few bucks. But are they worth it? That depends on who you want to talk to (or, more accurately, not talk to).