Hands on: DTS Headphone: X review

'An externalized sound experience'

What is a hands on review?
DTS CES booth

Early Verdict


  • +

    Makes headphones sound bigger

  • +

    Customizable and personalized

  • +

    Reportedly works on any headphones


  • -

    Adoption by device makers still light

  • -

    Performance across range of headphones and media yet to be tested

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At its CES booth inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, DTS is ushering attendees into a small, dark room called the "top secret sound facility," where the roar of the bustling convention is muffled by thick, black walls.

Inside, you're treated to "the DTS Listening Xperience," emphasis on the X; this is a demo of DTS's new Headphone: X technology, which makes wearing headphones sound like you're in a room full of speakers.

Device makers like the Chinese smartphone maker vivo are already incorporating it into their handsets' firmware, and DTS hopes to announce more partners soon.

And since Headphone: X is built into devices it works with any pair of headphones - from the best money can buy, to that pair of earbuds that came with your smartphone, according to DTS Public Relations Manager Michael Farino.

The real deal

DTS showed off Headphone: X throughout 2013, but only in prototype form. Now it's coming to market, and what we heard at CES was the real deal.

What Headphone: X amounts to is what DTS Field Applications Engineering Team Director Luis Paz called "an externalized sound experience."

That's an accurate term, because based on the demos we saw (well, heard) at CES, it really does make the experience of wearing headphones sound like you're surrounded by external speakers. Somehow the audio sounds like it's coming from all around the room, even though it's coming out of the headphones pressed against your ears.

DTS sound listening xperience headphone:x

The "DTS Listening Xperience" demo in the back room had attendees standing in the center of the room, surrounded by an 11.1 surround sound speaker system. The speakers emitted sounds individually, demonstrating the spacial properties of an 11.1 system.

Then each listener's headphones made the same noises, and they sounded almost identical, proving that Headphone:X can accurately emulate the experience of being surrounded by speakers.

Projections on the walls of the room showed a lengthy elevator ride and an alien abduction, with sounds seeming to come from everywhere when in reality they were simply coming out of the headphones.

DTS refers to this as "true surround sound in headphones," because the sound is not just directional, but spatial as well.

Simulated space

Again, it's not specific to particular pairs of headphones, though some, like the latest headphones from Skullcandy and Turtle Beach, will come fine-tuned for the Headphone: X tech.

But while Headphone: X "shines with multi-channel" audio, as Farino put it, it supposedly also improves the sound of even stereo audio tracks.

Headphone: X "lives on devices," Farino told TechRadar, and uses audio tracks' metadata to simulate that "true" surround sound. The metadata can contain cues that will tell Headphone: X exactly what type of environment profile to simulate, from an intimate studio or living room to a concert hall.

On such specially tuned media, such as a Wolverine clip playing on a Vivo handset in the booth at CES, a small "HP: X" icon appears in a corner so you can turn Headphone: X on or off.

Conversely, if no metadata is present for Headphone: X to read, it will turn to a default setting.

DTS CES booth

"Obviously, we want to build [Headphone:X] into the overall architecture of the device," Farino said. But it could also be delivered to devices within apps, he said.

DTS also has a headphone partner program with a cloud-based database so users can select what headphones they're using. Each has its own custom sound profile that the software takes into account.

"We take into account - let's say, the deficiencies of each of the different types of headphones, so that we compensate for that, so that we can create the same experience," Paz told TechRadar.

And Headphone: X comes with a "listening test" that measures each user's personal listening curve and compensates for it, creating a personalized experience for each user.

Early verdict

What DTS showed of at CES is impressive, but there are a lot of variables that need to be sorted out before it can be decreed a resounding success.

For one thing, device makers will have to adopt it on a wide scale, and content makers will need to include the required audio metadata for the Headphone: X tech to sound as good as it did in DTS's pre-designed demonstrations.

And although DTS promises that Headphone:X will improve the sound of any pair of headphones, that remains to be seen as well.

Michael Rougeau

Michael Rougeau is a former freelance news writer for TechRadar. Studying at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Northeastern University, Michael has bylines at Kotaku, 1UP, G4, Complex Magazine, Digital Trends, GamesRadar, GameSpot, IFC, Animal New York, @Gamer, Inside the Magic, Comic Book Resources, Zap2It, TabTimes, GameZone, Cheat Code Central, Gameshark, Gameranx, The Industry, Debonair Mag, Kombo, and others.

Micheal also spent time as the Games Editor for Playboy.com, and was the managing editor at GameSpot before becoming an Animal Care Manager for Wags and Walks.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.