With its Exofield Theater technology, JVC has joined the headphone virtualization market. The initial Exofield product, the XP-EXT1, is supposed to produce an immersive sound-field similar to a 7.1.4 speaker system in its unique headset. Unfortunately, I discovered that it falls short of that claim.
Headphone virtualization, which involves manipulating audio for playback on headphones to make it sound like it’s originating from various directions outside your head, isn’t a new concept. More than 20 years ago, I saw a demonstration of what would later become Dolby Headphone. I recall sitting in the middle of a surround-sound speaker array, listening to a soundtrack through headphones. I took removed my headphones to make sure I wasn’t hearing anything from the speakers, which were perfectly silent. I recently wrote a review of Sony’s new 360 Reality Audio technology.
Features of XP-EXT1
The XP-EXT1 is a compact and lightweight wireless headset and separate processor that measures 10.5 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches (WxLxH) and weighs only 18.7 ounces. With soft, thick earpads and a padded steel headband, the headset is circumaural (around the ear). A proprietary dual-band 2.4/5.0GHz wireless protocol is used to communicate between the processor and the headphones. It can transmit audio frequencies ranging from 12Hz to 24kHz from any of the digital inputs, according to JVC (assuming a sampling frequency of 48kHz).
The processor features three HDMI inputs, an optical digital audio input, and a stereo analog audio input with left and right RCA jacks, as well as one HDMI output. Dolby Atmos or DTS:X audio is upmixed to 7.1.4 in the headphones, and the processor also upmixes 2-channel and 5.1 audio to 7.1.4.
The headphones include 40mm, drivers, with neodymium magnets and are rated for a frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz (no tolerance given). Its lithium-ion battery is expected to last up to 12 hours before requiring recharging.
The XP-EXT1 optimizes its processing for a user’s particular ear shape, similar to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio with select of the company’s headphones. The XP-EXT1 plays a series of test tones on the headset, which has microphones in each earcup that measure how the sound is affected by your particular ears, rather than relying on a photo of your ear as Sony does.
In actuality, data is then compared to a database of speaker characteristics and saved in the processor. The system can keep up to four different measurements in memory, allowing different members of your home to use it. Visit the JVC Exofield website for a lot more information on how this works.
You start the measurements in one of two virtual “rooms,” Theater Room 1 or Theater Room 2, using the proprietary JVC Exofield app, which is available for iOS and Android. “Theater Room 1” “creates a large sound field and a sense of natural space.” Recommended for a variety of topics (sic). Voice sharpness and bass power are focused in ” Theater Room 2.” Action films and live video are recommended.” ty, the microphones peek through the cloth that covers the drivers, giving them the appearance of being in-the-ear mics.
On the top face of the CPU, there are a few buttons and indicators. The power button is located to the left of an input selection button and a sound mode selection button. Labeled LEDs indicate the selected input and sound mode. The Input button also displays a range of information on the TV or projector screen, and the Sound Mode button pairs with the JVC Exofield app-enabled device through Bluetooth. Other LEDs indicate whether or not the Bluetooth connection is active, as well as whether or not the input source is Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. A User Data button on the right cycles among the four measurement memories, while an Exofield button turns on or off the effect.
A small connector called Setup is located on the front of the machine and is utilized throughout the customizing process. The headphone has a similar connector; to take the measurements for your ears, use the special, provided cable to link the Setup ports on the processor and headset.
There are a few controls on the headset as well, some of which are unique to the Exofield system. A power button and LED indicator are located on the rear of the left earpiece, while a small USB charging connector is located at the bottom. The Exofield on/off and input-selection buttons, as well as the Setup jack, are located at the bottom of the right earpiece.
They are different sizes and thus easy to find by feel. Unlike the volume up/down controls on the back of the right earpiece, which are physical buttons, the volume up/down controls on the rear of the right earpiece are touch-sensitive, making them more difficult to locate by feel.
I was pleased to discover that turning off one device also turns off the other; really convenient! Additionally, turning on the headset turns on the processor. However, turning on the CPU does not turn on the headphone for some reason.
The app will be used to control the system the majority of the time. In fact, you’ll need it to complete the customising process. It also allows you to adjust the volume, choose the input and sound style, and turn on and off the Exofield effect. The incoming audio format and headphone battery level are also displayed on the homepage, which is a great touch. Unfortunately, the personalization memories are hidden in the menu system; they should, like the input and sound mode, be accessible from the site.
With multiple configuration submenus, the settings menu is fairly extensive. You can rename and delete measurement presets, change things like center and LFE channel gain and L/R balance, enable DTS Neural:X and Dolby Surround and use the Dolby and DTS decoders’ dynamic range control. You can also change the audio sync delay, the priority of digital inputs, and other system settings.
Surprisingly, the device running the program can record up to six measures, but only four are stored in the processor. This allows you to quickly switch between various parameters in the processor.
The setup instructions are printed on a single, large, foldout piece of paper, which is really awkward, as I’m seeing more and more these days. The directions were a little unclear at first—the numbering reverted back to 1 after the first four steps—but after a while, I figured out what to do. (The actions to finish the fourth item on the first list are in the second numbered list.) Charge the headphone batteries first, then download the app and connect everything, including the processor and headphone setup cord. Then you’ll need to take the customized measurements, which are broken down into many steps.
I first installed the app on my iPhone XS before pairing it with the processor. I was notified right away that a firmware upgrade was available, which took around ten minutes to complete.
I kept getting an error message telling me to check the headphone power and connections when I first tried to perform the measuring method. The setup wire was not entirely seated in the processor’s jack, as it turned out. The connection was rather strong, and it took some effort to fully seat it.
The app repeatedly flashed a notification indicating that the Bluetooth connection to the processor had been lost. When I clicked “OK,” the program reloaded and the connection was restored. The connection was lost a couple of times, and I had to re-pair through the phone’s Bluetooth settings.
I took my own measurements using both Theater Room methods and saved them in different memories. The test tones are a sequence of fast clicks that alternate between the earpieces, followed by frequency sweeps in both ears at the same time.
I connected an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-ray player, a Roku Ultra streamer, and a Dish satellite receiver to the XP-HDMI EXT1’s inputs to test the processor. The processor’s HDMI output was attached to one of the Denon AVR-X6200W AV receiver’s inputs, which fed a Sony XBR-65A1E OLED TV and a PSB Image speaker system.
When I discovered that the XP-EXT1 processor passes signals even when it is turned off, I was overjoyed. That means you can leave it connected and utilize the system with speakers when it’s turned off and headphones when it’s turned on; very handy!
I started with the Blu-ray edition of Gravity, which boasts one of the best Dolby Atmos soundtracks I’ve heard. I watched the opening sequence and the sequence inside the International Space Station in particular. The sound field was partially outside my head, but it was not noticeable—until I switched Exofield off, which brought the sound completely within my skull. When I re-enabled it, the directional sounds as Kowalski flies around with his jetpack were very effective, at least from left to right and some front to back; there wasn’t much sound from “overhead.” The ISS sequence has a bit more overhead energy, particularly during the fire.
I switched between the Theater Room 1 and 2 measurements while I listened. Theater Room 1 was brighter, whilst Theater Room 2 had a lot more bass and a more muffled and congested vocal.
Then I watched some of the first episode of Foundation, which is also in Dolby Atmos, on Apple TV+. Again, I had a sense that the sound was coming from somewhere other than my head, but it wasn’t clear until I compared it to Exofield shutting off. And the voices still sounded hollow, albeit the dialogue intelligibility was slightly improved in the headphones in this case; the series’ general vocal mix is pretty terrible. The sound of the boy approaching the Vault was incredible, and it was the most immersive sound I heard during my tests.
Loki, which is available on Disney+, is another good immersive-audio test. I saw a few minutes of Episode 3, which had a very wide sound field. The bullets that fell on Laminitis-1, in particular, displayed exceptional directionality. Voices still sounded hollow when compared to speakers, although they were a little more present than before.
On DVD-Audio, I played the Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, directed by Cristian Mandeal and performed by the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. This 5.1 recording includes a “crowd perspective” in 96/24 MLP and a “stage mix” in lossy DTS, among other alternatives. Exofield created a considerably broader and cleaner sound field than when the effect was turned off, which sounded highly closed in and congested. I also experimented with the various EQ sound modes: Cinema and Music both sounded a little veiled, whereas Flat was a little bright.
I also listened to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells 2003 on DVD-Audio in 5.1. This is an upgraded version of a classic I used to listen to in college, and it sounded great on the XP-EXT1.
As you might have guessed by now, the XP-EXT1 did not impress me. Yes, it extended the sound environment beyond my head a little, but not as much as other headphone-virtualization systems I’ve heard. It also didn’t generate a lot of front-to-back or above directionality. Worse, it drastically altered the sound’s tonal characteristics—less so with high-quality content than with lower-quality audio, but always noticeable.
Listening to movie soundtracks without bothering others in the house is the perfect use case. However, I do not recommend using it as a wireless headphone without Exofield enabled; the sound is highly closed in and congested when used as a traditional headphone.
Then there’s the cost, which comes in slightly under $1,000. That’s a lot of money for a subpar performance at most, and in my opinion, it’s too much to suggest.