Monday, November 22, 2010

Astro's Headphone Solution

Like many an urban apartment-dweller, I do a fair amount of gaming while wearing headphones. Not only do they spare my neighbors and roommates from the usual Sturm und Drang of videogame combat (seriously, it only takes one emplaced-gun segment to prompt a call from your landlord), headphones also add a great amount of immersion to most games and they allow me to parse and understand a game's audio in a clearer, more comprehensive way.

Over my life, I have owned a lot of headphones, from cheap-o sets bought on the go to incredibly expensive noise-canceling rigs. For the last few years, I've been down to a couple mainstays: my primary set is a pair of now-discontinued AKG K240 Studios and I've got some Sony MDRs as a second pair for recording sessions.

The Sonys sound fine, but they're closed-backed and they have a kind of brittle upper-mid frequency, so they feel a bit claustrophobic. The AKGs, on the other hand, are semi-open and really breathe; even crushed digital audio has depth and warmpth. They're a handsome set of phones as well, and are incredibly well-designed and comfortable. I can wear them for hours at a time and my ears never get tired.

The big challenge with the AKGs has always been that if I want to play online while wearing them, the 360 offers no built-in voice solution. The only way to make it work is to wear a 360 headset over my headphones, change the voice setting so that voice audio goes through the speakers, then turn it up until I can hear it. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't really work; game audio always thunders over my teammates' voices and I can never really hear what anyone's saying.

As I began to play more and more games online, it was becoming clear that I needed to invest in a good mic-and-headphones-in-one setup. But here's the quandary—all gaming-centric headphones sound terrible. Seriously. I'm sure someone out there can tell me about some amazing wireless bluetooth 7.1-surround headset that defies that rule, but I've yet to experience it. For all the bells, whistles, surround-sounds and integrated boom-mics, none of these headphones appear to be able to simply sound good.

Also, for some reason there is a dearth of of articulate, trustworthy reviews of these products online; so many write-ups talk about features, cables, boxes, wires... and then say "Sound quality is solid" or some such unhelpful vagueness. As a result, I've had to fend for myself—at conventions, stores and demo booths, I tried headsets by all the major brands, and have never been impressed. I get the sense that the companies that make these headphones are electronics companies first and audio companies second; they just don't seem to care about creating a product with good, responsive speakers and neither, it would seem, do most of the gamers who keep them in business.

Case in point: a couple years ago I bought a Tritton AX360 gaming headset. It was around $100. I told myself that it'd be the one big buy that I'd make on game audio, that I'd finally have something that would both allow me to communicate with friends online AND give me headphone surround. After all, the Tritton had "real surround," with tiny surround-sound speakers built into it's earcups! What could possibly go wrong?

Not Lovely.
Suffice to say, they completely sucked. Game audio was bizarre-sounding, and adjusting the levels of the mid- or rear-speakers using the cable's in-line tuning knobs was a fiddly disaster. The audio quality was brittle and cold, with high frequencies often clipping and low frequencies cut entirely and replaced by the headset's "rumble" capability. Worse, the AX360's attached microphone is a piece of trash connected with cut-rate parts and a tiny, delicate reciever. Worse still, there is no included method to adjust microphone or voice volume—the mic goes straight into the 360 controller and you have to go into preferences on your 360 and turn voice volume all the way up. Which, as I've already pointed out, doesn't really work.

Wait, wait, this post isn't just me complaining! I only mention the Trittons because I just saw a mostly-positive review of Tritton's new Black Ops-centric headset on IGN. The review calls the audio performance "top-notch" and says the headset creates "rich, three-dimensional surround sound audio." It also states that "the decoder box includes a number of controls for tweaking sound performance, including time delay, which hardcore audiophiles will enjoy but most won't even bother to use." Enjoy? Enjoy? My god man, there isn't a soul alive who enjoys spending every game wondering if the unreadably tiny knob that controls the front two channels should be set to "4" or "5." No, my guess is that the Black Ops headset is just as much of a mess as the regular AX360 that I own. Fortunately there is a much, much better option out there.

That option, of course, is the Astro A40 Gaming Mixamp. I've been aware of this thing for a long time, coveting it from afar, trying it out at several cons and press events, reading product reviews and wondering if it really lives up to the hype. Astro offers a $300 bundle that includes their own gaming headphones with the mixamp, but the amp can be purchased separately and it works with any headphones. Hey, wait a sec! A small mixamp that works with both PC and consoles and can output headphone-surround to my own headphones? Why, that's exactly what I've been looking for!

So in honor of my 30th birthday, I splurged and got one. About five minutes after unboxing it and turning it on, I could tell I'd made the right decision. It works flawlessly—audio from an optical cable is downmixed into Dolby Headphone Surround and played back through my beloved AKGs. And let me tell you, for an audio-centric guy like me, the change to headphone surround is huge. It's kind of the next best thing to getting an entirely new console.

Turning on headphone surround pushes the game's audio back and outwards, granting each sound effect depth and placement. It's particularly noticeable on open-world games with great audio design like Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 2. It's also been a good way to parse the differences between different games' sound work, such as between Assasin's Creed: Brotherhood and last year's Assassin's Creed II. In the new game, effects placement has been greatly improved, with voices coming and going as Ezio moves about Rome. It's the kind of thing I'd never have noticed before, and it's awesome.

Voice integration is also a snap. I put a small Skype mic over my AKGs and plug it into the Astro's headphone-in, then run a second cable from the mixamp to my 360 controller. The amp splits its output between game audio and voice audio and allows me to adjust the balance between the two with a knob, and it works without a hitch. Finally, after years of joining an Xbox Live party with a friend only to hear "You there bro? Hello? Helloooo?" I've got something that works well, every time.

As accessories go, the Mixamp is definitely a bit on the hardcore side; I paid $130 for mine (though I recommend getting the rechargeable battery pack as well, though, so final price was a bit more). But happily, it turns out the company is in the midst of releasing a wireless version for only $99 through their site. So, it's not a TOTAL wallet-buster.

And when it comes down to it, I absolutely feel as though I got my money's worth. The A40 is a nice-looking, cleanly designed, intuitive and well-made piece of audio gear, and it freakin' works. From the comfort of my favorite pair of headphones, I can finally chat with my friends online, swap war stories, share tactics, and debate who gets the chainsaw and who takes the gas can. And of course, should we ever feel the need to turn on one another, I'll be able to hear right where they're hiding.
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