9 out of 10 – TEAMXBOX

19 May

The current crop of gaming headsets runs the gamut in terms of pricing. Spend pennies, and you’ll surely have a mind cramp after just a few hours into that marathon online session. Spend a butt-load, and odds are that the definition of The Law of Diminishing Returns will become abundantly clear in a matter of minutes.

At an MSRP of $249.95, Astro Gaming’s A40 Audio System, for some, may ponder the question, “how much better can it be?” A good question that we’ll answer for you shortly. But let’s first get to the hard data on why the A40 Audio System costs as much as a Wii.

There are various configurations and price points of gaming headsets on the market. The major division is between wireless and wired, with the former normally being less-featured to keep the price outside of the stratosphere (i.e. more than the frugal gamer types are willing to spend). The A40 Audio System is part of the wired lineup, and is the apogee of said lineup in terms of completeness and features. The A40 Audio System is like a decked-out Bimmer in fact, with every bell and whistle that you ever wanted in a gaming headset, and a few that you probably didn’t think of, but are noteworthy. On the more basic side, the A40 Audio System features a separate amplifier section which not only handles internal Dolby encoding, but also allows the custom mixing of game and voice chat data (thus the moniker Mixamp). The headset has its standard items too, such as 40mm drivers (made from alloy, which is less common than impregnated paper, but not as esoteric as, say, electrostatic transducers), a heavily padded headband, over-the-ear cups and adjustability for heads from egg to melon.

The A40 Audio System’s goodies don’t stop at the nuts-and-bolts of it all. Atop the impressive list of standard features, the Mixamp contains a separate circuit designed for communication with other amps connected to it. Astro’s patent-pending “daisychain” system may not be that big of a deal to Joe Gamer, but to Joe Clan Gamer, a clear, lag-free comm. line could be the difference between a slash in the ‘W’ column and a wet teabag. This separate communications line for daisy-chained Mixamp’s of the A40 Audio System also rules out proximity-chat detection, provided that the stock Xbox 360 chat line is disabled (the A40 Audio System can run both if desired). Score another one for serious multiplayer gamers.

Whether the aforementioned chitter-chatter is going through a daisy’d Mixamp or the 360 itself, the device used to send said blabber is about as nice as you’ll find this side of NASA. Not only is the A40 Audio System’s mic boom noise-canceling and super hand-malleable, but it also connects via a standard 1/8” jack, and, you guessed it: the headset has both a left and right receptacle. We realize that mic earcup flippage isn’t going to make or break your decision on a gaming headset, but it does illustrate the level of thought that Astro has put into designing the A40 Audio System for true game enthusiasts. Not gamers will appreciate that the mic can be removed altogether– no need looking like a fighter pilot just because you are watching Stealth with a headset on.

A quick jaunt through Astro’s website will make you realize that this “upstart” headset manufacturer isn’t upstart at all. You may not have heard of Astro before, but odds are, if you’re reading this, you interact with one of their designs at least once a day. Yes, Astro handled the Xbox 360’s design, not to mention the designs of beautiful gear by Alienware, Compaq and even for the high-end furniture gurus at Herman Miller. It should go without saying, then, but we’ll say it anyways– you won’t find a better designed 3rd-party peripheral for your Xbox 360 than the A40 Audio System. In fact, you won’t even have to open the packaging to know that you’ve bought something aesthetically-spectacular. Package design is an industrial art in and of itself, and the A40 Audio System proves that with sleek, black and orange hinged boxes with ghost graphics depicting gaming scenarios. Seriously, if a Cartier necklace costing ten-large came in the A40 Audio System’s packaging, you’d be ecstatic. Strip away the sexy packaging and you’re met with more packaging; this time the casing for the A40 Audio System’s phones. The ovoid hard-shell case is slick enough to make any turtle green with envy. Ok, so turtles are already green….so how about greener? Bottom line: the case is not a throw-away. Even the Mixamp comes with a case that is nicer than whatever currently ensconces your iPhone. Last layer away– removable, Steinway-black “speaker tags”, or earcup covers, stare you in the face. These end-caps will surely become custom billboards for gaming’s elite clans. We just can’t stop playing with them, as the four small magnets suck the caps to the earcup backs as if by the supernatural powers of the Amazing Kreskin.

If you can afford them, your ears will thank you.

The Mixamp is no slouch either, looking like a retro 60’s device– perhaps a prop on Get Smart– but in that good, “look what we can do with plastic now” sort of way. The Mixamp’s shell is covered in rubberized plastic to-boot; none of that el-cheapo, flashing-riddled ABS look here. The rest of the A40 Audio System kit is top-shelf too, from the highly rubberized cables to the peach-fuzz-soft earcup materials. If there was one negative in the quality and design, it would be with the headset’s length adjustability. The range might not be enough for those with longer mooks, and the action along the tubular earcup posts is pretty chunky. For $250 out the door, you’re not going to get Stax quality, but for a game-specific peripheral, the A40 Audio System is the new design benchmark.

Unless you completely subscribe to the “function follows form” mantra, using the impeccable styling of the A40 Audio System merely as a conversation piece at your next art open house ain’t gonna’ cut it. Thus, the important question is: “Does the A40 Audio System perform as good as it looks?” Nearly. The aluminum drivers don’t quite extend down to grasp the truly low frequencies, and unfortunately come out sounding a bit colored, especially on the top end. The A40 Audio System’s sonic capabilities are still near the top of the gaming headset world, however, so we may be expecting a bit too much sonically: hoping the aural would somehow match the visual. Aside from the very small gripe in bass extension and tonal coloration, the A40 Audio System performed its Dolby and game/voice duties via the Mixamp with aplomb. The amp’s compact size makes it a pint-sized powerhouse for the serious gaming enthusiast. The four AA batteries it takes is a downside for those that need the range (USB can power the Mixamp), but the rechargeable battery option which is due out soon will make those alkaline nightmares go bye-byes (the rechargeable is worth the twenty dollar asking price). Feature-wise, the Mixamp is quite the pound-for-pound brute too. How often do you find a pre-amp the size of a mid-80’s garage door opener housing both coaxial and optical digital inputs? How about…never.

Two fifty is a big chunk of change in a day and age where gasoline approaches the cost-per-gallon of Starbucks coffee. But if you are more than a casual gamer, and are looking for a complete solution for your gaming and personal audio needs, Astro’s A40 Audio System is where it’s at.

The A40 Audio System’s combination of versatility, style and performance is tough to find from the third-party market for sure. Throw the patents-pending-level features of the A40 Audio System on top of this tasty sundae, and the answer to your questions about which high end audio solution to purchase should resonate loud-and-clear.

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