9.5 out of 10 – IGN GEAR

18 Dec

As the gaming industry has grown and gained new ground in mainstream commerce, so has the marketability of accessory products. What was once a segment of the industry populated only by a few enthusiast developers has since expanded into a full-spectrum field of low-to-high end manufacturers. While this change has given consumers a larger selection of products, it has also stifled or distracted from the companies whose foundations were built upon the principles of delivering quality products to people who, like them, simply love video games. These companies still continue to thrive, but few seem to penetrate the market like mainline manufacturers. Occasionally, however, a company can break into the market with a solid, straightforward product, and the right ideals. One such company is Astro Gaming, who have developed a stellar reputation through their association with Major League Gaming.

We met with Brett Lovelady, CEO of Astro Gaming, on IGN Gear’s Tech Fetish Podcast and learned a bit about the company. Astro Gaming stemmed from a product design firm, Astro Studios, which has worked on everything from sports watches for Nike, to the Xbox 360 for Microsoft. While the firm was closely tied to the gaming space, Lovelady informed us that Astro Gaming was developed in order to cut out the middleman; to bring Astro’s designs directly to the consumers. The company’s inaugural product was the Astro A40 Audio System, a surround sound headset designed specifically for gaming. While we are a bit late to the party for a review, we were given a sample of the A40 Audio System for evaluation. Does it live up to its reputation as the competitive gamer’s choice or company’s admirable intentions?

The answer, as you would expect, is not clear-cut. There are many things to like about the A40 Audio System, but it’s not without its faults. But before we get into that, lets go over what the A40 System actually encompasses, which, as it turns out, isn’t as simple as a headset and cable. While the A40 headphones can be purchased individually, the A40 Audio System incorporates the headphones and a dedicated mixer system. With the complete system, users can integrate the A40s with nearly every platform, including PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and a host of other media devices. The A40 Audio System’s mixer, dubbed the A40 Mixamp, accepts optical audio connections as the primary input source from consoles and home theater systems. Additionally, the A40 Mixamp accepts stereo RCA connections, 1/8″ audio cables, and digital coaxial inputs, which can serve as primary sources in the absence of optical digital or as simultaneous secondary sources.

The only way to achieve full Dolby Digital performance with the A40 headset is with digital optical connections, which can only be used with the A40 Mixamp. Both the A40 Headset and the A40 Mixamp can be purchased individually, $199.99 and $129.99 respectively, or they can be purchased in a bundle as the A40 Audio System, which retails for $249.99. Obviously the bundle is the better value, but it is still a hearty amount of cash compared to some products. So the question becomes whom exactly is the A40 aimed toward, and what do you get, performance wise, for your $249.99 investment?
First off, anyone considering spending $249.99 on a headphone system has to be in one of two camps: the highly competitive, hardcore gaming market, or the mature gamer market with more expendable income. In either demographic, the consumer is undoubtedly looking for performance and functionality, with a splash style.

For the most part, the A40 Audio System delivers to both markets fairly well. The design and construction of the A40 Audio System takes a minimalist approach that avoids aesthetic gimics like elaborate multicolor finishes and LED illumination. The headset itself features a light frame with multiple swiveling mechanisms for increased versatility. As you would expect, the headband can be extended to accommodate noggins of nearly every shape and size, but the extension mechanism is reinforced by a small metal tube that shields the connection wires and prevents users from inadvertently breaking the ear cups off from the main frame. The ear cups themselves utilize a highly padded, but extremely breathable material that wraps fully around even the largest of ears. The extra air passage that the padding allows does result in a significant loss in exterior noise reduction. On the flip side, Astro’s choice in padding also doesn’t insolate a whole lot of noise either. Those around you will be able to hear the audio emitting from your headset after reaching volume level. The lack of noise reduction, from interior or exterior sources, could be a problem for those looking to eliminate noise from their late night gaming sessions, but for others this might not be much of an issue. Those looking for complete sound elimination should be steered elsewhere, but for those looking for a significant reduction in their after-hours noise, the A40s should do just fine.

But really, the A40s are designed specifically for those who do their gaming in more public settings, perhaps at LAN parties, with small groups, or even during league play, for this demographic the A40s offer some very specific benefits. Those who err toward the more hardcore end of the spectrum stand to benefit from several key features: the A40 Audio System’s interchangeable ear plates, high-performance microphone, and daisy-chainable communication system. First off, the A40 Headset uses magnetized ear plates on the outside of both ear cups that can be swapped out at any time. The benefit of this is to allow users to add a custom flair to their headset by using a number of graphical plates made available through Astro Gaming, or by hand-finishing them themselves. The swappable ear plates also serve as a means of accessing the A40’s snap in microphone port. Both sides feature a port for the mic, which allows for players to pick which side as a matter of preference. The mic port not in use can be concealed or both can be covered for microphone-less use by ear plates provided by Astro.

As we mentioned, the snap-on microphone is incredibly high-performance. It is flexible and built for the road, but it is also highly directional. The microphone picks up only the sound of a user’s voice, and is so powerful that it must be placed inordinately far from the speaker’s mouth. But the A40 microphone’s strength is also one of its weaknesses. The sound is so clear and resounding that many of the Xbox Live players that we played with complained that it was too loud over the other users. We often found ourselves having to move the microphone several inches away from our mouths in order to balance it with players speaking through other sources. One other simple solution that seems to have been overlooked by the Astro Gaming crew was means of controlling the microphone volume outside of console or PC-based settings. Neither the inline wire nor the A40 Mixamp incorporate volume controls for the microphone output.

For communication volumes other than your own output, the A40 Mixamp offers a dedicated knob for balancing voice communications and in-game effects. The dedicated communications mixer gives a much broader mix range than the standard console or PC-based microphone. Perhaps the most standout communication feature of the A40 Audio System is the A40 Mixamp’s daisy-chain feature. The A40 Mixamp uses a looped audio signal for personal use, but when multiple A40 owners are gathered together for group play, each system’s can be connected to form a closed voice communications circuit. In other words, when each user’s A40 Mixamp is lined up and connected, they can communicate directly with one another on a physical connection. The daisy-chain feature eliminates the delay and signal degradation of using software-based communication clients.

While the daisy-chain feature will only effect competitive players with teammates with A40 systems, it’s certainly a cool addition to the system. Another cool feature of the system is the potential for secondary audio inputs that mentioned earlier. Users can connect anything from MP3 players to PC’s iTunes library to the A40 Mixamp through a number of input methods. The audio is then filtered into the headset output, and like the daisy-chain feature, gives significantly better audio quality than software-based output. As for the audio performance of the headset itself, the A40s are superb. The sound field is rich and three-dimensional, and we were able to effectively locate sources of sound (often sneaking up behind us in Call of Duty 4), and eliminate them. The natural equalization of the headset is a bit subdued in the lower end of the spectrum, but highs and mids are crisp and vibrant. Those looking for a little extra low-end response can tweak the output by altering the EQ on other parts of their audio chain (PC EQ, receiver EQ, etc.).

Overall, the A40 Audio System from Astro Gaming represents the pinnacle of personal gaming audio. Although it is designed for the pros, nearly everyone in the intermediate or hardcore range can stand to benefit from its features, design, and construction. The price might be a bit steep for some, but for those willing to drop the cash, it’s a sound investment. And, for a company that is so clearly committed to advancing the platform rather than simply capitalizing on it, it’s an investment that will satisfy your conscience as well. — Scott Lowe (9.5 out of 10 overall)

See the original review here.

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