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5 Surround Sound Headsets

5 Surround Sound Headsets
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PC gamer, console gamer, movie-watcher, or music-listener--which surround sound headset is right for you? Logitech, Psyko, Plantronics, Tritton, Razer

Headphones are a requirement, whether you need them in order to prevent the noisy movie from waking a significant other, or to sneak in a 15 minute gaming session without the kids hearing, or simply to listen to music at a volume that suits you without the neighbors calling the cops. For many scenarios, headphones are simply a better deal than speaker systems and a home soundproofing project.

Beyond mainstream entertainment, businesses save money making calls over headsets on Skype or other VoIP applications. Hardcore gamers love high-quality headsets for their portability and ease of use (they're easy to take to LAN parties, competitions or on the road, and provide good sound quality).

Most PC users don't have surround sound speakers at their desks. For many, this type of set-up would be too cumbersome since it would require placing speakers behind the desk, with cables spewing from everywhere.

Surround-sound headsets solve all of these problems, can be used for multiple purposes, and with the current prevalence of HD content and games with surround sound audio feeds, we think now is the time to buy a pair. Here, we look at five of the best new surround sound headsets to see which ones work best for each listening scenario.

Scoring

To score each headset, we ran multiple tests for comfort, convenience, surround-sound quality and stereo quality. Then, based on the scores, we looked at the price and determined which is the best value. Here's exactly how we tested:

Comfort: To be worth buying, a headset meant for both gaming and watching films has to remain comfortable for the longest expected movie session (about three hours). Most films are not this long, but many are. Most users don't prolong a gaming session or webchat for longer than three hours. For each headset, we noted when discomfort first set in, when it became a real nuisance to wear, when it became unbearable, and the after-effects of wearing each headset. We timed the length of each wearing session, and gave scores based on length of comfort, and the severity of soreness (or absence of discomfort).

Convenience: How easy is installation? What system requirements does the headset have? Is storage and cleaning easy? Is it space-efficient? What accessories does it come with? Depending on your home, workplace or living style, each of these factors might have different importance to you.

Surround quality: The reason to buy a surround sound headset over a standard one is the quality of audio beyond two channels. In this test, we look at how well sound is rendered directionally, using both Blu-ray films and video games that support either 5.1 or 7.1 audio. (Only two of the tested headsets support 7.1, and most surround-sound audio feeds only support 5.1.) Scores are based on directional accuracy and loudness.

Stereo quality: Because most audio content is still produced in stereo, each headset must be able to play in 2.1 audio as well as, if not better than, standard headphones.

Overall: This score is an average of the prior tests, which have been contrasted with the current street price. This means the most affordable headset may not be the highest-rated, nor will the highest quality headset necessarily be affordable. The best balance of quality and affordability will provide us with our winner.

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  • 1 Hide
    airborne11b , July 30, 2009 2:06 AM
    I have the G35 headset myself and I am very happy with it. Its very comfy to wear for long periods of time, it looks cool, and I love the macro buttons on the headset. Fun for on the fly voice modding. Space squirrel always gets people laughing in vent. People tend to also mention to me that I sound very crisp and clear and always ask what kind of mic I use so they can get the same lol.
  • 0 Hide
    xc0mmiex , July 30, 2009 3:53 AM
    bump for Plantronics 777... great headset, built like a tank, unlike the review i find it very very comfortable and i have a pretty large head, mic is perfect(constant compliments over vent), loud enough to lay it down on the table and use as speakers... had it for about a year, no problems... used it for every type of gameplay (even used it for CPL CSS leagues, great if you rely on sound a lot)
  • 0 Hide
    quantumrand , July 30, 2009 4:15 AM
    The best surround sound headset I've ever tried is the Turtle Beach HPA2. It's very affordable (about $70), and the directional sound is really quite accurate. I'd say the only downside to it is the subwoofer, but what do you expect from a headset?

    It's also very comfortable, but constantly gets bad reviews because of its HPA1 predecessor. The HPA2 has a new foam ear cup which makes it easily wearable for hours.

    One other benefit (at least for me) is the USB powered amp. I was hesitant at first because of how dirty USB power is, but the transformer really does clean it up just fine. I game with my laptop, so it's nice to only have to plug in my laptop charger and get on with it (my laptop is a bit rare in that it has the 4 3.5mm ports for 7.1ch output).
  • 0 Hide
    dvanholland , July 30, 2009 2:42 PM
    I personally like the SteelSeries 5H v2 USB Headset. I don't use the sound card that it comes with though. The microphone retracts into the headset.
  • 0 Hide
    Gryphyn , July 30, 2009 5:36 PM
    A buddy of mine has the Logitech G35s and loves them. I have the Tritton Ax Pros and love them as well. They can be a little heavy, but never uncomfortable. I love the detatching mic.

    One thing to note about the Trittons is there is a version for less than $100 without the breakout box; it only has 5.1 analog jacks for your soundcard. It is a deeper silver color (and also the one I purchased).
  • 0 Hide
    eklipz330 , July 30, 2009 5:59 PM
    i think im fine with the simulated surround sound from my creative hs-900's
  • 0 Hide
    jamezrp , July 30, 2009 7:26 PM
    Quantumrand, Turtle Beach does make some great headsets, but they stick with console-only, for the most part. On top of that, their latest headset came out almost 8 months ago, though they do have some new stuff coming up.

    dvanholland, I have heard good things about the 5H v2, but they're also fairly old. Not sure what they've got planned for the future.

    Airborne11b and gryphyn, the G35s are great, and I see why you and your friends like them. The Tritton AX Pro is also great, but I remember first opening it and cursing. Why the hell are there so many cables! They do have a cheaper set that doesn't include the audio controller, but that's a different model and its PC only. They've got some new ones out now that look pretty nice as well.

    xc0mmiex, when I first used the 777's, I thought they were great. Literally did a drop test to see the damage, and it was a champ. But over time they became very annoying, at least to me and others testing them, very tight on the ears. If it works for you, great! Best deal on a surround sound headset out there yet.

    Just so you all know, the market for surround headsets isn't going to grow very much. Tritton is pushing it hard, as is Razer with the Megalodon and soon Psyko Audiolabs, and Turtle Beach, so the expensive sets will have pretty big price drops come holiday season.
  • 2 Hide
    akoegle , July 30, 2009 7:38 PM
    I just ordered a set of the tritton AX Pro based on this review. Dont let me down Toms!
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , July 30, 2009 7:58 PM
    Astro A40 are the best IMO...
  • 0 Hide
    jamezrp , July 30, 2009 8:27 PM
    Rol, we spoke with the guys at Astro for a while before deciding not to include the A40's in this roundup. They are obviously very good headphones; the reviews for them have been glowing for two years. But they are two years old, and we were looking for newer sets. Astro has something new planned, but not for a bit, and we already delayed the roundup to include Razer's Megalodon and Psyko AudioLabs' 5.1.

    But I do agree, the A40's are a great set.
  • 0 Hide
    Gryphyn , July 30, 2009 10:19 PM
    The cheaper Trittons with 5.1 analog inputs only are called the Tritton Ax51 Pro. The Tritton PC Pro has a USB connection, but the volume control box isn't great.
  • -1 Hide
    waxdart , July 31, 2009 8:47 AM
    I personally don’t think any of these things are worth it. Whilst playing crisis a while back I started to really notice just how bad the sounds in the game was. Or more to the point the lack of sounds.
    The trees were moving but I couldn’t hear them. The waves were smashing on the shore, nothing.

    A good things animators where taught back in the good old Disney was “See a sound, Hear a sound”. “Immersive” games fail really really badly. The headphones may be great but the games don't show you want the head phones can really do. You're getting 40% value.

    Other options:
    Granted there is no mic for the Panasonic 5.1-channel Wireless Headphones type but they are very good. Used them whilst in japan.

    But I’d say - get yourself a very decent set of stereo headphone. You’ll hear more detail and they can be used for more things than games.

    I got these a month ago. Grado 80i http://www.gradolabs.com/frameset_main.htm
    You need a good amp.
  • 2 Hide
    jamezrp , July 31, 2009 10:13 AM
    waxdart, I couldn't disagree more. While I haven't put in Crysis in awhile, games like Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, the recent Section 8 beta, and plenty of others use and have great surround sound. Stalker and Clear Sky are two more. Dead Space used surround sound excellently, and Mirror's Edge did it properly.

    Some games don't even offer surround sound. If you can't hear things in other channels, I'd suggest making sure your PC settings are properly set, that your speakers/headphones are relaying in surround, and that the in-game settings are set for surround. Most are not default, so look into it.

    As for high-end headphones, I can't comment on them. I know people who use them, audiophiles who think music is junk at anything less than CD quality, and are willing to put up thousands of dollars to get what they consider good equipment. Practically speaking, it's never worth it, though I do understand the reasons for it. If you like them, great, keep going. But surround sound is not up to the audiophile level yet. On the same token, it does work, though it is up to developers and producers to ensure content is made in surround.
  • 1 Hide
    icepick314 , July 31, 2009 3:57 PM
    i've been using Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA2 for a long time...

    it has 5.1 input and i already have Sound Blaster Audigy Platinum so i didn't need AK-R8 headset...

    a good headset is a must for playing games late at night and don't want to disturb others while having good directionality and sound quality...

    i say spend a good money and get a decent set so you'll be happy with many hours of late night gaming session...
  • 0 Hide
    Th-z , August 1, 2009 12:22 AM
    I have one question, if you are using surround headsets, what should the game's audio setting be? Headphone or 5.1/7.1? (if a game has those to choose from).
  • 0 Hide
    jamezrp , August 1, 2009 1:34 AM
    Th-z, it depends on your headphones. If they do 5.1, then you set it for 5.1. If they do 7.1, and mind you most do not, then you set it for 7.1.

    Also, most games do not feature 7.1 surround sound. Neither do most HD movies. Valve titles like Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 do, but very few others do as well.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , August 1, 2009 8:56 PM
    the real question is how do these stack up to creative x-fi's cmss3d and a pair of decent sennheisers.
  • -1 Hide
    dingumf , August 4, 2009 1:06 PM
    Sennheisers aren't surround sound. Not yet.
  • -1 Hide
    waxdart , August 4, 2009 1:08 PM
    jamezrp , Well you missed the point didn't you.

    Where in my post did I say anything about games not having surround sound? Or my PC setup? Even if I did have only 1 channel configured, why would there be silence at any point?

    Do you have silent zones in your house? When I listen, I’m surrounded by sound 100% of the all the time. Air pressure being what it is.

    So I'll try again just you.
    The ambient sound in games is still awful. Not an mp3 background track playing rain fall or a storm. Real things you can see moving in the game with no sound attached.

    Go out side and count all the sounds you can hear. It's in the 1000s.

    If you think Mirror's Edge had accurate great sound then you have sold yourself a bit short. Sound in games is way behind the the RnD that goes into graphics.

    We have Holophonic Effects - 3D Sound recordings which work very well with headphone. Why not have it in games? 5.1 / 7.1 setups are not needed. Just 2 earphones and a monster DSP chip to drive the soundscape.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiR-ZT4X4eg

    >>it is up to developers and producers to ensure content is made.
    Yeap and they are not.

    ??Practically speaking, it's never worth it ??

    Spending 1000s on a machine to play games is practical. :)  yet I still do it.



  • 1 Hide
    jamezrp , August 4, 2009 2:53 PM
    waxdart, what you're talking about has nothing to do with headphones and everything to do with game development. No wonder we're not communicating properly. While I absolutely agree with you that sound in videogames, that triumphant on only the rarest of occasions and even then is still not great, ambient noise is perhaps the hardest thing to do in a virtual world. Having spoken with developers about this in the past, I can safely say that many don't want to touch the subject because of how complex it becomes.

    I remember a few years back a discussion on water effects. Water, seemingly easy to program, is nearly impossible to do realistically. And the more realistic it becomes, the more stress it puts on the machine, not by multiples, but by magnitudes. Sound poses not only a similar problem in processing power, but of physical sound. Having thousands of sounds for one specific scene when there are hundreds of scenes, even if some are used several times over, is realistically impossible. No development studio would have the time, resources or budget to do it in the standard development cycle.

    My personal opinion on how to make the best sound is to literally recreate real-world physics and give all objects in the world their true properties: a tree in-game will have the actual proportions to a real tree. Same density, same weight, same thickness...etc. Then, when an object (which has similarly true proportions) touches or hits it, the physics will calculate the actual sound, thereby reproducing it and not requiring any recording.

    As for holographic effects and other 3D sound technologies, some work and some don't. The point of surround is to better spatially orient gamers in the game. It's not so much about immersion as you seem to be pointing out, but about making sure players can perform actions more accurately, be it listen for gunfire, aim at enemies or just turning the camera wildly while someone talks to you to hear the sound come from all directions.

    And yes, for gamers even with nearly unlimited budgets, sound systems go up to millions of dollars. Thousands will get you, if you're lucky, a semi-professional set of 2.1 speakers, nothing more.
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