Zalman ZM-RS6F Surround Sound Headphones

Audio|Video|Misc

March 28, 2004 by Russ Kinder

Product
Zalman ZM-RS6F Surround Sound Headphones
Manufacturer
Zalman
Market Price
US $54.95 at SharkaCorp

Gentle Reader, your first question may be: "Why is Silent PC Review reviewing headphones? Aren't headphones supposed to be, you know, not silent?" While it does seem off-topic on the surface, there are some good reasons why this sort of product, and this product in particular, is right up our alley:

  • Why review a pair of headphones? One of the basic reasons for reducing the noise coming from your PC is to stop it from drowning out the noises you actually want to hear. Rarely is pure silence the goal, more often the goal is the removal of the distracting noise coming from the computer. Perhaps this review could be considered part of "Step 2" of SilentPCReview: "Now that you've gotten rid of the noise you don't want, how do you get the sound you do want?"
  • Why this particular set of headphones? Well, largely because of who made them, Zalman. Few companies have made as big an impact in the silent PC market as they have. If Zalman wants to make the leap from stopping noise to making it, we might as well give them a listen. Besides, they were a big hit at CES in Vegas late last year.

FROM ZALMAN

Features:

  • Real Surround Sound Headphones produces a real surround field as if it is being reproduced from a complete multi-channel speaker system with separate front, rear, and center channel speakers, and thus enhances discrete sound source, directional, spatial, and realistic effects.
  • Enhanced spatial and realistic effects by separating front, rear, and center speakers.
  • Easy achievement of real surround-sound by connecting the front, rear, center jacks to the 5 channel (or more) sound card in your PC equipped with a DVD-ROM for games or DVD movies.
  • Real Surround Sound field close to a complete multi-channel speaker system
  • Excellent fidelity, enhanced localization of on-screen sound, clear dialogue hearing and better feeling on a discrete sound.

SPECS

Model
ZM-RS6F
Unit Type
Electro Dynamic Round Type Micro Speaker
Frequency Response
50Hz ~ 20KHz (Extension Effective)
Sound Pressure Level
89 dB +/- 3 dB at 50mW
Impedance
16 Ohm at 1KHz
Nominal Power
0.02W
Maximum Power
0.15W
Weight
11.24oz (316.8g) without packaging
Cord
Straight, Triple entry 9.8ft (300cm)
Plug
3 headphone jacks (3.5mm)


Photo courtesy of Zalman

Continuing with their recent trend, Zalman packages the Theater 6's in a retail-friendly clamshell. The headphones come encased in a hemispherical dome that's clearly meant to show off the product in the best possible way on a store's shelf.


Out of the package they're surprisingly beefy; 11 1/4 oz's in total weight with ear pieces that measure 14cm across.


Photo courtesy of Zalman

The size and unusual shape of the ear pieces has a functional reason, each of them contains 3 independent speakers, so that the Front, Center, and Rear channels each has a dedicated source.


Photo courtesy of Zalman

Overall the design is quite nice. The headband, while being all plastic, is sturdy and wide, and has a padded leather/fabric center portion that proved to be comfortable even after prolonged wear. One thing to note: these headphones are not for those with petite-sized heads. I consider myself to be of average skull size, (unusually thick, I've been told, but average in outside dimensions) and I had to keep the Theater 6's at their minimum size. You would have to have a head a la Charlie Brown to need to fully extend the adductors.

The ear cups are a little skimpy with the padding, but fairly typical of other headphones in this price range. The contact pressure is lighter than others, but even without it they did a decent job of sealing out extraneous background noise.

Owing to their 5.1 capabilities the Theater 6's require a 3-plug attachment of the source.

For PCs, this generally means that you'll have to plug the headphones into the back of your machine. Thanks to the extra long three meter cord, there is plenty of length left after routing it back. In fact I was able to move around pretty easily in the workshop without worrying about running out of cord.

One element that's noticeably missing is in-line volume control. The Theater 6's provide no method of volume control other than at the source, an inconvenient method while gaming or moving around away from the PC. Ideally there would be independent in-line controls for each of the Front, Center, and Rear channels, as much fiddling was required to achieve the proper balance in use. For games in particular it often meant pausing or exiting the game to return the Audio Properties panel to make adjustments, then restarting the game to see the results.

TESTING

All testing was done a SoundBlaster Live 5.1 soundcard, using Audio CDs, DVDs, and PC games are source material. Unlike most other products we've tested, these results are purely subjective, different listeners would likely draw different conclusions.

The testing was broken down into two general categories: Multi-channel, using DVD movies and PC games to test the 5.1 capabilities, and Stereo Audio, using audio CD's.

  • Multichannel

Surprisingly good. The theater 6 does a commendable job of recreating the surround sound environment. Much better than I had expected headphones to do. On DVDs the dialogue transitioned nicely from left to center to right, and on games such as Call of Duty, when I got shot in the back, it sounded like I got shot in the back. Of major annoyance was the level control between the 3 channels. Ambient sounds that came from both Front and Rear simultaneously, such as explosions, often drowned out Center channel sounds. The fact that these simultaneous F/R sounds would be using 4 speakers, while the Center only sounds are only using 2 was probably the cause of the volume difference. Lots of inconvenient fiddling with the controls was required to achieve the proper balance. Overall the soundstage wasn't as broad or clearly defined as what's capable with a conventional set of speakers. My aging set of 4.1 Logitech Z-540's produce better 3D positioning, but its certainly better than what you could hope to hear from 5.1 sound simulated through a pair of conventional headphones.

  • Stereo Audio

Surprisingly bad. Sorry, but that's the plain truth, as I hear it. The soundstage is jumbled, hollow, and full of conflicting artificial resonances. The theater 6's subpar frequency range of 50Hz~20KHz and 89 dB sensitivity really shows when listening in stereo. They seem to try to compensate for a lack of low-end range by adding globs of warmth and coloration. (For comparison the similarly priced set of Sony MDR-V300 that I own have a range of 18Hz~22Khz, and the highly regarded Grado SR60, also at a similar price point' have a range of 20Hz~20Khz. Both also have significantly better sensitivity as well, 100 and 98dB, respectively) For the music listening portions I A/B'd between the Zalman, the Sony, and a borrowed Grado: The differences were substantial, and not in the Zalman's favor. Adjusting the Audio Properties to use the Zalman only as stereo headphones, and not 5.1, is inconvenient, and did little to improve performance anyway.

Conclusion:

If you're a gamer who doesn't want to let your late night frag-a-thons disturb the neighbors, the Zalman theater 6 is a good choice. Ditto if you're looking for a convenient way to get the surround sound experience from a DVD without the bulk of a speaker system. The small collapsed size and sturdy construction of the theater 6 would make it perfect to throw into a laptop bag for an airplane-bound movie buff. But if you use your PC to to listen mostly to music, there are better headphone choices.


Pros:

Good design and build quality.

Nice extra long cord.

Small collapsed size make them extra-portable.

Surprising effective 5.1 performance.

Cons:

Charlie Brown sized headband.

No in-line volume controls.

Poor stereo audio performance.

Much thanks to Zalman for the Zalman ZM-RS6F review sample.

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