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JVC has entered the headphone-virtualization space with its Exofield Theater technology. The first Exofield product, the XP-EXT1, is said to create an immersive soundfield in its proprietary headphone that’s equivalent to a 7.1.4 speaker system. Unfortunately, I found that it doesn’t fully live up to that claim.
Headphone virtualization—processing audio for playback on headphones so it sounds like it’s coming from different directions outside your head—is nothing new. My first experience with it was a demo of what would become Dolby Headphone more than 20 years ago. I clearly remember sitting in the middle of a surround-sound speaker array and wearing headphones while listening to a soundtrack. The effect was so good, I took the headphones off to be sure I wasn’t hearing the speakers, which were completely silent. More recently, I reviewed the new Sony 360 Reality Audio technology.
The XP-EXT1 includes a wireless headphone and separate processor that’s fairly small and lightweight, measuring 10.5 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches (WxLxH) and weighting only 18.7 ounces. The headphone is circumaural (around the ear) with soft, thick earpads and a padded steel headband. Communication between the processor and headphone uses a proprietary, dual-band 2.4/5.0GHz wireless protocol. According to JVC, it is capable of transmitting audio frequencies from 12Hz to 24kHz from any of the digital inputs (assuming a sampling frequency of 48kHz).
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best headphones, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
Speaking of inputs, the processor provides three HDMI inputs as well as an optical digital-audio input and stereo analog-audio input with left and right RCA jacks along with one HDMI output. Audio encoded in Dolby Atmos or DTS:X is reproduced in the headphones as 7.1.4, and the processor also upmixes 2-channel and 5.1 audio to 7.1.4.
The headphone utilizes 40mm drivers with neodymium magnets, and it’s specified to cover a frequency range from 20Hz to 20kHz (no tolerance given). Its lithium-ion battery should last up to 12 hours before needing a recharge.
Like Sony’s 360 Reality Audio with certain of the company’s headphones, the XP-EXT1 optimizes its processing for a user’s unique ear shape. But instead of relying on a photo of your ear as Sony does, the XP-EXT1 plays a series of test tones on the headphone, which includes microphones in each earcup that measure how the sound is affected by your particular ears. In fact, those microphones poke into the fabric covering the drivers, making them almost in-the-ear mics.
The resulting data are matched with a database of speaker characteristics and stored in the processor. Up to four separate measurements can be stored in memory, allowing different members of your household to use the system. For much more info about how this works, visit the JVC Exofield website.
Using the dedicated JVC Exofield app, which is available for iOS and Android, you initiate the measurements in one of two virtual “rooms:” Theater Room 1 or Theater Room 2. Theater Room 1 “reproduces a wide sound field and natural space. Recommended for various contents (sic).” Theater Room 2 “prioritizes voice clarity and bass power. Recommended for action movies and live video.”
Once you’ve taken your measurements, you can listen in one of five sound modes: Flat, Cinema, Music, Game, and Custom. These are equalization presets; Custom lets you boost or cut five frequency bands independently: 80Hz, 400Hz, 1kHz, 4kHz, and 10kHz. You can also enable or disable the Exofield effect. If you disable the effect, you hear normal 2-channel audio in headphones.
There are a few buttons and indicators on the top front of the processor. To the left, the power button is next to an input-selection button and sound mode-selection button. The selected input and sound mode are indicated by labeled LEDs. The Input button also displays a variety of info on the TV or projector screen, and the Sound Mode button initiates Bluetooth pairing with the device running the JVC Exofield app. Other LEDs indicate if the Bluetooth connection is active and if the input source is Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. To the right, a User Data button cycles through the four measurement memories, and an Exofield button enables or disables the effect.
The front of the unit provides a small connector labeled Setup, which is used during the personalization process. The headphone has a similar connector; to take the measurements for your ears, you must connect the Setup ports on the processor and headphone using the special, included cable.
The headphone provides a few controls as well, some of which are specific to the Exofield system. On the left earpiece, there’s a power button and LED indicator on the back and a mini USB charging port at the bottom. The right earpiece has Exofield on/off and input-selection buttons at the bottom, which are different sizes and thus easy to find by feel, along with the Setup jack. Oddly, the volume up/down controls on the back of the right earpiece are touch-sensitive rather than being physical buttons, making them harder to find by feel.
I was happy to discover that powering either device off also powers down the other one; very nice! Also, powering up the headphone also turns on the processor. For some reason, however, powering up the processor does not turn on the headphone.
Most of the time, you’ll use the app to control the system. In fact, you must use it to perform the personalization procedure. It also lets you control the volume, select the input and sound mode, and turn the Exofield effect on and off. The homepage also indicates the incoming audio format and headphone’s battery level, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately, the personalization memories are buried in the menu system; they should be accessible from the homepage like the input and sound mode.
The settings menu is quite comprehensive, with several setup submenus. You can rename and delete the measurement presets, adjust things like center and LFE channel gain and L/R balance, enable DTS Neural:X and Dolby Surround, and engage the dynamic range control in the Dolby and DTS decoders. You can also set the audio sync delay, specify which digital input gets priority, and other system parameters.
Interestingly, up to six measurements can be stored in the device running the app, though only four are stored in the processor. This lets you swap different measurements into the processor as needed.
As I’m seeing more and more these days, the setup instructions are printed on a single, large, foldout piece of paper, which is very inconvenient. At first, the instructions were somewhat confusing—after the first four steps, the numbering went back to 1—but after a while, I understood what to do. (The second numbered list are the steps to complete the fourth item in the first list.) First, charge the headphone battery, download the app, and connect everything together, including the setup cable between the processor and headphone. Then take the personalization measurements, which involves several separate steps.
I installed the app on my iPhone XS, then paired the phone with the processor. I was immediately informed that a firmware update was available, which took about 10 minutes.
When I first tried to run the measurement routine, I kept getting an error message that suggested I check the headphone power and connections. Sure enough, the setup cable was not fully seated in the processor’s jack. The connection was quite stiff, and it took a bit of force to seat it completely.
On several occasions, the app displayed a message that the Bluetooth connection to the processor was broken. But when I hit “OK,” the app came back and the connection was fine. Once or twice, the connection really was lost, and I had to re-pair from the phone’s Bluetooth settings.
I ran the measurements for myself using both Theater Room algorithms and stored them in separate memories. The test tones consist of a series of quick clicks that alternate between the earpieces, then repeated frequency sweeps in both ears together. After the test tones, the corresponding data are generated, transferred to the smartphone for database matching, and finally to the processor.
To test the XP-EXT1, I connected three source devices to the processor’s HDMI inputs: an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-ray player, a Roku Ultra streamer, and a Dish satellite receiver. I connected the processor’s HDMI output to one of the inputs on a Denon AVR-X6200W AV receiver, which feeds a Sony XBR-65A1E OLED TV as well as a PSB Image speaker system.
I was very happy to learn that the XP-EXT1 processor passes signals through when it’s turned off. That means you can leave it connected and use the system with speakers when it’s off and with the headphones when it’s on; very convenient!
I started with Gravity on Blu-ray, which has one of the best Dolby Atmos soundtracks I know of. In particular, I watched the opening scenes and the sequence inside the International Space Station. The sound field was outside my head to some degree, but it was not pronounced—until I turned Exofield off, which brought the sound entirely within my head. Turning it back on, the directional sounds as Kowalski flies around with his jetpack were very effective, at least left to right and some front to back; there wasn’t much sound coming from “overhead.” The sequence in the ISS has some more overhead energy, especially during the fire.
As I listened, I switched between the Theater Room 1 and 2 measurements. Theater Room 1 was brighter, while Theater Room 2 had much more bass, and the vocal was somewhat duller and congested. I ended up sticking with Theater Room 1, which had a more balanced sound. I didn’t hear much difference between the various EQ presets. Cinema was a bit richer than Flat, so I used that one while listening to movies.
Another test I performed was to turn off the system so I could listen to my speakers. Doing so, I could clearly hear that the XP-EXT1 introduces some tonal shifts; for example, voices sounded a bit hollow compared with the speakers.
Next, I watched some of the first episode of Foundation streaming from Apple TV+, which is also in Dolby Atmos. Again, there was some sense of the sound being outside my head, but it was not pronounced until I compared it with turning Exofield off. And the voices still sounded a bit hollow, though in this case, the dialog intelligibility was somewhat better in the headphones; the overall vocal mix of this series is quite poor. The sound as the kid approaches the Vault was very impressive, the most immersive sound I heard during my tests.
Another good immersive-audio test is Loki streaming from Disney+. I watched some of Episode 3, which had a nicely expansive sound field. In particular, the projectiles falling on Lamentis-1 had excellent directionality. Voices still sounded a bit hollow compared with speakers, but they were slightly more present than I had heard before.
The Simpsons on Dish is in 5.1, and the voices sounded much more hollow than the previous titles. Also, the dialog was much farther back in the sound field than listening on speakers.
Turning to music, I played the Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, performed by the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Cristian Mandeal on DVD-Audio. This 5.1 recording offers several options, including an “audience perspective” in 96/24 MLP and a “stage mix” in lossy DTS. Exofield produced a fairly expansive sound field that was much larger and clearer than it was with the effect turned off, which sounded very closed in and congested. I also tried the various EQ sound modes: Cinema and Music both sounded slightly veiled compared with Flat, which was a bit bright.
I also played Tubular Bells 2003 by Mike Oldfield on DVD-Audio in 5.1. This is an updated recording of the classic I listened to in college, and it sounded nice and expansive with the XP-EXT1. The bass and other instruments moved around the soundfield nicely, though mostly from side to side. Turning Exofield off collapsed everything into my head.
Finally, I listened to “No End to Love” from Living Through History by Joanna Cazden on CD. I know this recording very well; I recorded the entire album and played all the wind parts. With Exofield on, the vocal was very hollow and way back in the sound field, which was still fairly expansive. Turning the effect off, the vocal was more forward, but the entire sound was very closed in. Either way, it sounded very different from playing it on speakers or conventional headphones.
As you might have gathered by now, I was not blown away by the XP-EXT1. Yes, it did expand the sound field somewhat outside my head, but not as much as other headphone-virtualization systems I’ve heard. And it did not produce much front-to-back or overhead directionality. Even worse, it changed the tonal characteristics of the sound pretty significantly—less with high-quality content than with lower-quality audio, but always noticeably.
The best use case is listening to movie soundtracks without disturbing others in the house. But I definitely do not recommend using it as a wireless headphone without Exofield engaged; as a conventional headphone, the sound is very closed in and congested.
Then there’s the price, which is just shy of $1,000. That’s a lot of money for mediocre performance at best—too much in my book to earn much of a purchase recommendation.