5 out of 5 – ExtremeTech

08 May

As we mentioned in a recent PC Gaming Headset roundup, a good headset is a gamer’s best friend. A great number of online multiplayer games on the PC have integrated voice chat, and gamers frequently use products like Ventrilo or Teamspeak for those that don’t. If you’re not talking with your friends and teammates (or enemies), you’re missing out on half the fun. Plus, a good headset serves double duty as a good pair of headphones, allowing you to hear the game sounds more clearly in a noisy environment or to play at a decent volume without disturbing the neighbors (or your family).

Of course, the quality of headsets vary widely, and it has been our experience that you just can’t get a good experience with that $20 special from your local office supply store. We were certainly interested when Astro Gaming announced their A40 Audio System, a headset and mixer/amplifier (sold separately or together) that promised exceptional design and quality for PC and Xbox 360 gamers. Astro Gaming is an offshoot of Astro Studios, the same design firm that worked on the Xbox 360’s sleek enclosure and controller, along with products from Apple, Herman Miller, Sony, Virgin, and more.

In fact, right from the unboxing you get the impression that you’re in for something a cut above the competition. We haven’t seen this much care put into the packaging design since the last time we opened a higher-end iPod or Zune box. Yes, the A40 Audio System is sleek and has an impressive feature set, as should to justify its premium price. But does it deliver the quality you’d expect from a $250 headset-and-amp combo? Let’s find out.

The A40 Audio System is comprised of two parts (headset and MixAmp), sold separately or together in a price-reduced bundle. The combined system costs $249. The headset by itself is $199 and the MixAmp is $129, so buying them together is a significant difference in price. Let’s start with the headset.

Fresh out of the (frankly, kind of impressive) box, you’ll notice the headset comes in a hard protective case so you can throw it in a bag on your way to the LAN party or tournament and not worry about damage.

The headset proper is a good-sized circumaural (over the ears) type, with a detachable boom microphone. The headset comes in black or white, and is extremely comfortable over long periods of use. The size adjustment mechanism is one of the best we’ve used, and the earpieces turn 90 degrees to lay flat “DJ style” when you hang them around your neck.

The sides of the earpieces have little detachable plates that snap on magnetically, and the headset comes with three of them—one with a hole in it for the detachable mic, and two without for a cleaner appearance. With these snap-on plates you can move the mic to the left or right, or get rid of the “mic hole” if you plan on only using the A40 as headphones. There are little foam rubber inserts that can rest under these side panels to help deaden outside noise and prevent some of the headphone sound from bothering those around you (on a plane or in a very quiet room).

The headset cord stops short about a foot from the left earpiece with the microphone mute switch; you attach one of two cords to this connector. One cord ends in the 1/8-inch stereo headset and microphone jacks typical to PCs and the other is a single 1/8-inch 4-pole jack meant to plug into the A40 MixAmp, should you get that as well. Astro throws in a 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch adaptor if you’re going to plug them into a stereo.

Overall, the design and implementation of these headphones is the best we’ve seen. They’re among the most comfortable, easy-fitting, secure, and appealing PC headsets we have ever tested. Of course, it’s almost one of the most expensive.

The A40 MixAmp

Perhaps the more interesting part of the A40 system is the MixAmp, a headphone amplifier and mixer companion product. Open the box and you see the MixAmp in the middle, surrounded by an absolute flurry of cables.

You get a stereo 1/8-inch jack to left/right RCA cable connection, for hooking the MixAmp to your PC (or really, any audio source). There are two cables terminating in stereo 1/8-inch jacks, a half-meter one for hooking up your MP3 player and a two-meter long one for plugging the MixAmp to your PC’s microphone input. There’s a thick USB-to-mini USB cable for providing the unit with power, a one meter 2.5mm stereo jack for plugging in your Xbox 360 controller, a dual stereo jack to 4-pole plug adaptor so you can hook up any non-Astro PC headset to the MixAmp, and a long 4 meter RCA to RCA-passthrough cable so you can plug the MixAmp into a source like the Nintendo Wii or other stereo output.

You also get a nice little carry case for the MixAmp. On the top of the MixAmp unit are two dials and two buttons. The big dial is volume, the small one is the mic/sound mixing level. The left button is power, the right toggles Dolby decoding.

Did we say Dolby decoding? Yes, the MixAmp performs Dolby Digital decoding from either optical TOSLink or Coax input, Dolby Pro Logic II from any analog cable, and spits out Dolby Headphone. Just plug your PC or game console into the optical or coax connection and press the Dolby button, and you’ll get that full 5.1 experience translated into Dolby Headphone virtualization. We tried it on multiple connections and with several games and movies, and it works great.

On the backside of the unit is a wide array of inputs. The front side is a little simpler, featuring just two plugs. One is for your headset, the other is a 2.5mm plug labeled “controller.” You connect the 2.5mm cable from this to the headset jack on the bottom of your Xbox or Xbox 360 controller and you can use the MixAmp and headset as an Xbox Live headset. But Xbox Live headsets just transmit the voice channel—your game audio comes out of your TV speakers or other sound system. Well, with the MixAmp plugged into your Xbox/Xbox 360’s audio output, it will mix the Xbox Live chatter with the game sounds. The small dial on top lets you adjust the mix from “no voice, all game” on the left to “no game, all voice” on the right.

The MixAmp is a powered headphone amplifier at heart, so it needs juice. It runs off the USB connection, or four AA batteries. Astro sells a $20 rechargeable battery pack that trickle-charges when you plug the unit into a USB port. It takes a long time to charge—like leave it overnight—but the charge lasts a good while. And yes, it charges when plugged into your Xbox 360’s USB ports, even when the 360 is turned off.

Last but not least, the red part of the bottom of the MixAmp snaps out to reveal a pair of jacks and plugs. You can use these to daisy-chain multiple units together, so if you’re playing a local game on a LAN, the daisy-chained units will perform all audio decoding instead of going through your PC. The result is a private “channel” of sorts, with much higher sound quality because there’s no compression going on.

Final Thoughts

Okay, so the design and feature set is killer. The A40 headset and mixamp together are everything we want in a PC/console headset, from Dobly Digital and Dolby Headphone to a stylish design and comfortable fit. None of that matters if the sound quality isn’t equally excellent.

Fortunately, it is. The headphones are equal to the best we’ve heard in a consumer headset—far better than many “gaming” headsets and light years beyond the general purpose inexpensive headsets you get at most computer or office supply shops. To put it in perspective, they’re on par with the $100—150 Grado or Sennheiser headphones you’d buy at an audio shop. We feel Sennheiser’s high-end PC headsets have marked the high point for microphone quality until now—the A40 headset’s mic is of similar quality.

It’s hard not to love Astro Gaming’s premiere product. The headset and MixAmp are simply excellent, high-quality gear with slick design, a great feature set, and fantastic sound quality. If there’s a downside, it’s the price. Sold separately, each of these items represents quite a premium over other products, and even together, $250 for gaming headset goodness is a hard pill to swallow. We have often warned about the fleecing of gamers here at ExtremeTech, lamenting the vast number of products that are slightly modified from normal consumer gear, given a “gamer” visual makeover, and marked up to unreasonable prices. In this case, we can honestly say that you’re not paying big bucks for just a marginal difference in quality. This is one high-priced gamer product that, for once, gives you what you pay for.

See the original review here.

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