Poor Man’s Surround Headphones.

by Steve Connors

Disclaimer: Try this project with a pair of inexpensive or disposable headphones first. Otherwise, purchase one or two additional sets of ear cushions for experimenting, so that the headphones can be restored to original condition if desired. Neither the author nor HeadWize is responsible for any damage to headphones or earbuds that results from building this project.

I came up with an idea to make surround sound headphones from a pair of old but nice stereo headphones to use with a SB Live soundcard. I have a surround sound system with 5 speakers, but there are a huge number of gamers that just can’t blast the neighbors and family late at night. Quad headphones ? … a blast from the past but they seem to have disappeared. My main problem was finding a good reasonable set for my SB Live.

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Figure 1

These surround headphones use three sets of earbuds to supplement the stereo headphones for front/back sound – 2 rear channel earbuds and 1 front channel earbud per side. My main headphone is a Sony Digital Reference MDR-CD60. I got them at WalMart a couple years ago for 10 bucks. For the back speaker effect, I’m using Sony Walkman earphones MDR – E821Lp with Mega Bass. I use Koss earbuds for the front speaker effect. Someone said you couldn’t get front/back effect. Well, I beg to differ. As long as you can tell where sound is coming from, the brain will figure it out, and the surround immersion is complete.

[Editor: Adding an acoustic simulator.to the front channels may enhance the realism of the soundfield.]

Having two earbuds for the rear channel does help compared to just one to help resolve the characteristics of behind vs front. In my setup, the back is a tad louder and bass is pumped up. To power the rear channels, I have an old Labtec PC stereo speaker set that has a headphone jack (I’m sure there are endless ways to get the signals to the back earbuds). The front channel headphone/earbud combo is just plugged into the headphone jack of the SB Live.

Here are step-by-step instructions for making the surround headphones:

1. Make buttonholes in each ear cushion – 1 front, 2 back. Earbuds along the back of the ear ended up being the best location for me.

2. Use two sony earbuds with mega bass as buttons in back; these need the bass turned up just a tad and the volume cranked up.

Note: they are to be used in a way they really weren’t made to be, i.e., kept loud as possible just to point before they distort. Yes it will take two earbud, but hey! I had a couple of them sitting around.

3. I’m using Koss earbuds in the front ear cushion buttonhole.

Note: all earbuds face toward ear. [Editor: for ideas on how to position the earbuds, see the section on multichannel headphones in Technologies for Surround Sound Presentation in Headphones.]

4. Two stereo splitters hooked to 20ft extension chord. I bought my stuff at Radio Shack. Get the gold-plated versions.

5. The back earbuds go into one splitter/20ft extension.

6. The front earbud and main headphone speaker go into the other 20ft splitter extension.

7. Make it neat and put connection mess in a little sack. Tie top of sack. This will protect connections, allow easy access and keep them from being pulled apart.

8. Fix up the wires now … group neatly. Earbuds at top taped neatly to the Y of headphones. Headphone and front earbud all neat and secure.

9. The rear channel earbud extension goes to the headphone jack of the Labtec speakers.

Note: I just happend to have a Labtec CS900 in the closet with stereo headphone jack and bass, treble, and volume controls. I’m thinking up ways now to get a graphic equalizer into the fray. Why ?… because it’s there. The nice thing is to have some control of bass and treble, not to mention volume. Getting the rear channel earbuds to work means they have to be pushed. They have to reproduce back whispers, low rumblings, etc. and still sound clean.

10. The headphone/front earbud extension goes to the front headphone jack of your SB Live.

11. Set up your SB Live up to headphones … read the docs … they won’t be much help with the surround headphone setup, but you basically have a quadrophonic surround with 4 speakers.

12. Make all neat. Secure and protect lines to achieve max range of wires. I ended up with good 15 feet.

The headphones look fairly good now that I have wires organized down the cord. I’ll end here but would like to say that the front-back and right-left directions can be tweaked with the SB Live mixer and SB Live value experience positioning toys. You will have to go to Audio HQ – mixer – view -> check the box to show balance sliders on mixer.

They work pretty good, but as you can imagine, getting the depth front and back is the promise land of directional sound. For me what this does is creating an obvious difference when sound is coming from the back. I can really pinpoint where someone shoots at me now.

One drawback thus far. I’m all headphones. I’m going to use a toggle switch from Radio Shack to send SB Live signals to the surround sound receiver. That way I can just change my SB Live settings from the 4-speaker quadrophonic surround to 5 speaker surround… flip a switch and presto, I’m using speakers.

c. 1998 Steve Connors.

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