|If our eyes are the windows to the soul, then what does that make our ears? Doorways to our internal sound stage, that's what. But listen up, it doesn't matter how gnarly the guitar riffs your favorite musician is playing or how intense the in-game effects are, if your headphones aren't up to the task, then you might as well go back to the days of MIDI files Ad Lib sound cards. Second-rate headsets rob you of delightful high notes and brain rattling bass, of the subtle sound of footsteps when an opponent tries to sneak up behind you or the blast of a grenade you just hurled behind enemy lines.
Conversely, a high-quality headset doesn't just upgrade the audio, it unlocks a brand new experience. We're not being melodramatic here. For the same reasons you won't find $20 bookshelf speakers powering a home theater setup, a pair of headphones picked up from the clearance rack at K-Mart shouldn't be your go-to cans for listening to music or playing games.
What separates a premium headset from a blue light special? It's a combination of things, from well designed drivers to comfy ear cups that kiss the sides of your head with a gentle yet firm caress (now we're being melodramatic...a little). And then there's the overall feature-set, the premium extras like a noise-canceling microphone and 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.
Unfortunately, there's only so much you can discern from a headset's spec sheet, and with so many to choose from, you'd have to invest an obscene amount of time and money auditioning each one. We don't want you to have to do that, so we went and rounded up five high-end headsets from four different manufacturers, including:
|Corsair Vengeance 1500 Dolby 7.1 USB Gaming Headset|
|Going in alphabetical order, the first up to bat is the Corsair Vengeance 1500 Dolby 7.1 USB Gaming Headset. This is Corsair's flagship USB headset, though it sports a middling price tag of $100 MSRP and around $80 street. It has a built-in DSP (Digital Signal Processor) and, as you'll see below, an aggressive design befitting a hardcore gamer looking to intimidate his foes at a LAN party.
Design and Comfort
The hardest thing to wrap your head around with Corsair's 1500 cans is the price tag. At around $80 street, you might expect Corsair to skimp on build quality or features, but that's not the case here. This is a heavy-duty headset that comes ready to rumble with no setup required (a software download is optional). And don't worry if you're not known for your delicate touch, it would take some effort to destroy the 1500s. The gigantic ear cups attach to solid chunks of plastic that are screwed into a second layer with a brushed aluminum motif on the outside. Each ear cup swivels, a welcome feature if you're one-handing the headset like a DJ.
A thickly headband provides a layer of protection on your head for those late-night gaming sessions, and combined with the featherweight design, you can wear the 1500s comfortably for long periods of time. The headband is adjustable on each side, and with each ear cup fully extended, you could wrap these things around King Kong, with room to spare.
On the flip side, younger gamers and those with small heads might find these a bit large, even on the lowest setting, so keep that in mind if you fall into either category.
Speaking of large things, the padded ear cups themselves are rather big and feature extra-deep memory foam. These will encircle all but the biggest ears (Mr. Spock might need a custom headset, but most everyone else will be okay) and provide a bit of distance so that they're not mashed up against the sides of your head.
Inside the large ear cups are 50mm drivers. According to Corsair, the extra size compared to more common 40mm drivers allows for less distortion and more accurate sound reproduction.
Extending down on the left side is a somewhat flexible boom microphone that's adjustable with a series of clicks, just like the headband. We like that mic and headband arms click into place, which prevents you from accidentally readjusting them over time.
An in-line control module extends about a foot-and-a-half down the cable and allows you to adjust he volume up or down, as well as mute the microphone with a dedicated button. A ring surrounding each volume button glows blue when the headset is plugged in. When the microphone is muted, the rings flash red and blue. The module isn't heavy at all, though we still wish it came with a clip, which we could use to attach to our shirt for convenience.
Sound QualityInstalling Corsair's software isn't required to use the headphones, but it's definitely recommended if you want to get the most out of these cans.
When we turned our attention to gaming, the 1500s perked right up and delivered bone crushing sound effects, though it largely depends on the source. In Counter Strike: Source, for example, we found ourselves getting trigger happy with the shotgun because of the satisfying blasts that emanate from the 50mm drivers. But in Duke Nukem Forever, the sound effects weren't as pronounced, in case you're one of the three people playing that game.
One neat feature of the 1500s is Virtual 7.1 surround. Through software, 5.1-channel audio gets up-mixed to a virtual 7.1 sound stage to help with positional audio. We never felt the need to use it, as the 5.1-channel audio does a good job of letting you know when a enemy is sneaking up your six, but it's there nonetheless.
|Corsair Vengeance 2000 Wireless 7.1 Gaming Headset|
|Corsair's Vengeance 2000 Wireless 7.1 Gaming Headset is one of two in this roundup that offers wire-free operation, the other being Creative's entry. The transition to wireless carries a $50 premium over the Vengeance 1500 reviewed on the previous page, and is a good value at $150. We actually spotted it selling online for $100 shipped from a couple of reliable vendors (Amazon and Newegg), and if it stays that way, you're only looking at a street price difference of $20.
Design and Comfort
As the next step up in Corsair's Vengeance series of headsets, it makes sense that the 2000 is similar in form to the 1500, though it's not an exact replica with an amputated cord. It's hard to see at a glance, but the 2000 offers a slightly tighter fit than the 1500 with the arms fully retracted. On this editor's head, the 1500 covered the ears and needed no adjustment from the default position, whereas the 2000 needed the arms extended a couple of notches for the same fit. Gamers will smaller craniums will appreciate this.
Like its wired brother, the 2000 features a padded headband and sizable ear cups. It has a similar aggressive aesthetic with angled arms made of sturdy plastic and layered with a brushed aluminum-looking finish
The padded headband on the 2000 is a little wider than on the 1500, though we're not sure why other than to further differentiate the two products. Both are comfortable, and though the 2000 is toting an internal battery, it's only about 0.16 pounds heavier, not enough to make a noticeable difference.
Inside these foam padded ear cups are the same 50mm drivers found on the 1500. They wrap comfortably around your ears to mitigate outside noise and apply enough pressure to ensure a snug fit without feeling like you've stuck your head in a vice. And, because it's there, we'll point out the blue fabric on the inside of each ear cup, another differentiating characteristic over the 1500.
On the left is a pliable microphone that ratchets up and down, and bends left and right dependent on how far or close you want it in front of your mouth.
The left ear cup is also the control center. There's a large plastic button to turn the headset on and off, and below that sits a metal volume roller wheel with a textured finish. It clicks into place as you adjust the volume up or down.
Over to the right is a mini-USB charging port. By going this route instead of using, say, AA batteries, Corsair is able to keep the weight down, though it also means keeping track of the USB cable. A status LED lets you know if its fully charged (green), is charging (amber -- slow pulse), is low (red -- fast blinking), or is off/dead (no light). One thing we found annoying is when the battery gets low, the headset beeps every 60 seconds to let you know. That's fine if it only did it once or twice, but it continues and doesn't offer a way to turn it off.
Sound QualityCuriously, the software panel for the 150 looks slightly different than for the 2000, though both function similarly and give you a bit of fine grain control over how the headset sounds.
Over on the highs, the 2000s try their best to turn in audiophile-like performances, but falls short of delivering the kind of crisp notes that a true audio purist will want to hear. That's to be expected of a gaming headset, and one that streets for a Benjamin, but it's something to be aware of if your main goal is to strut around your wine cellar listening to Mozart.
Gaming performance, once again, was an area Corsair earned high grades in. This is essentially a repeat of the 1500, but if you skipped over that review (boo!), the 2000 delivers satisfying booms and deep sound effects when necessitated. This is of course dependent on the source they're coming from, but if a title is known for great sound effects, the 2000 will reproduce them with satisfying results.
As for the wireless functionality, we never lost a signal roaming upstairs or downstairs in the basement, with the dongle plugged into a PC on the main floor. However, things quickly went downhill when stepping outside into the backyard. Corsair rates the wireless functionality at up to 40 feet, but you're not likely to see that kind of distance through obstructions like walls and doors. So, for wandering about from room to room, the 2000 is totally up to the task. But if you're hoping to lounge out by the pool, performance is going to depend on what's between your headset and the dongle.
|Creative Sound Blaster Recon3D Omega Wireless|
|The other wireless gaming headset in our roundup is Creative's Sound Blaster Recon3D Omega Wireless, which is actually two products in one. In addition to the headset itself, it also comes with Creative's Recon 3D USB Sound Processor, essentially an external USB soundcard. This set sells for $250 MSRP, or about $215 street, which qualifies it as the most expensive of the bunch.
Design and Comfort
Creative's been in the business of PC audio for roughly three decades, and that experience shows in the audio quality portion of our testing, but what about comfort and build quality? The Recon3D Omega is all business. The headset doesn't feature aggressive angles like Corsair's two entries nor does it have the hip flair that Rosewill's cans bring to the table. Instead, Creative opted for a semi-professional look that's short on frills (it glows blue) and high on comfort.
It's a lightweight headset with thick plastic reinforced by steel arms. Both ear cups swivel to lay flat, making it easier to stow them away for traveling, and there's a bit of play to the inner padding for a more customized fit.
A comparatively small strip of padding lines the headband. You can feel a large cushion of air underneath if you press down with your finger. Though the strip doesn't run the entire length of the headband, or even most of it, we didn't have a problem with any of the exposed regions grinding against our head or anything of that nature.
When you adjust the length of the headband, you'll see another thick strip of plastic with a metal lining. The lining is thin enough that you can still easily pry apart the headphones when putting them on, though you don't need to treat the headset like something fragile.
After spending several hours with circular ear cups, switching to the Omega headset with its more rectangular/oval shape made for a noticeable transition. The same is true if you're used to the Omega's design and then switch to, say, either of Corsair's ear cups. Is one better than the other? That really depends on the person wearing the headset and, to an extent, the shape of their ears.
Circular ear cups do a better job of surrounding the entire ear, while the oval design more closely follows the shape of a 'normal' ear, creating what feels like a cozier fit. We're not completely sold one shape over the other, so aside from pointing out the difference, it's not an area we intend to over-emphasize. However, we will point out that the hollowed portion of Omega's ear cups are a little on the small side.
Inside the ear cups are 50mm Neodymium magnet drivers, the go-to size for high-end gaming headsets. When fully charged, the drivers pump out high volume audio, which you can adjust via two physical buttons on the left ear cup. Right below the volume buttons is a power button.
There's a tab on the bottom of the left ear cup that, when removed, gives you access to a mini-USB port to recharge the built-in battery, as well as an Xbox 360 mic input (more on that feature in a moment). Finally, there's also a detachable microphone, a feature that's not unique to the Omega headset but is definitely appreciated.
Shown above is Creative's Sound Blaster Recon3D USB audio device. It's basically an external USB soundcard and you can actually purchase the Recon3D by itself and use your existing headphones. The only wireless headset that's compatible is the Omega Wireless, but as far as wired cans, they're pretty much all fair game.
The Recon3D gives the Omega an advantage over the other headsets in this roundup because of the additional hardware and sound processing that's baked into the device. It's armed with a "Sound Core3D" quad-core sound and voice processor, which is impressively powered by a single USB port. Several DSPs come together to form the heart and soul of this audio chip, which can decode Dolby Digital streams and perform various audio-enhancing tricks.
While we're focused on PC audio, we'd be remiss to leave out the fact that this headset and USB soundcard bundle also works with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles. Even the necessary cables are included. This is a boon for dorm room students or multi-platform gamers in general who are able to switch between all three game boxes (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) with a toggle on the side of the Recon3D. Well played, Creative.
A wireless link card plugs into the top of the module, which then allows you to roam around with your Omega headset. If you're sitting by your PC, you can toggle THX effects and Scout Mode (we discuss this below) by pressing the corresponding button on the module. There are also volume up/down buttons, a mute button, head and microphone inputs, optical/auxiliary input, and a mic sensitivity switch (low, mid, and high).
Sound QualityCreative unloaded a big bag of tricks in the Omega/Recon3D bundle, all of which is neatly assembled into an easy-to-navigate front-end. But first, we had to ignore misleading requests to install additional software.
Lest we're tempted to hold a grudge over Creative's attempt to push its utilities, all was forgiven once we spent some time playing around with the Recon3D's software. While it's not a true soundcard, it's operates like one and offers lots of knobs and dials to play with to enhance the Omega's audio.
The first time you pop in a CD, watch a movie, or fire up a game it becomes immediately clear why the the Omega/Recon3D combination demands a premium. Explosions and gunshots have a deeper grumble and bang, and bass heavy tracks sound better than they did on your Alpines in the 1980s; Eazy-E would have loved these headphones.
As seems to frequently be the case, bass performance comes at the expense of highs, and it even tends to monopolize the musical performances. If you're more interested in soprano-like vocals or soft melodies, you can turn off the bass boost in the THX TruStudio Pro and play around with the EQ settings, but you're never going to feel like you're sitting in the middle of a symphony. That's really only bothersome until you load up a Guns 'N Roses playlist, at which point the sheer volume will have you wanting to jump off furniture and smash guitars -- reason enough to turn the volume down when playing Guitar Hero with little Billy on his playset.
A unique feature to the Recon3D is Scout Mode. It's a proprietary technology that supposedly helps you hear enemies from further away, a trick it pulls off by amplifying noises around you. The claim is that you'll discern footsteps sooner than you otherwise would have, giving you a decided advantage over the competition. Does it work?
Yes and no. In our tests, enabling Scout Mode boosted nearby sound effects, though not just that of footsteps. Ambient noise is boosted too, so while it might be a marginally helpful feature in one instance, in the next it's just a louder setting for sound effects in general. If you find it useful, that's great, but we don't recommend making a buying decision based on Scout Mode alone, if at all.
Either way, the Omega is a fantastic headset for gaming and movies, and a very good one for listening to music. If you don't think you'll benefit from the Recon3D peripheral, Creative's Tactic3D Omega Wireless is the same headset minus the add-on for $50 less ($200 MSRP).
Finally, let's talk wireless range. The Omega proved itself a distance runner, allowing us to roam about outside in the backyard, during a snowstorm no less. Each time the signal would start to drop out, we'd stop for a moment and it would come back strong, a process we repeated for well over 40 feet.
|Roccat Kave 5.1 Surround Sound Gaming Headset|
|Roccat is a relative new kid on the block in the U.S. market. The company turned its attention stateside a little over a year ago so that American gamers could experience "some serious German engineering." We've seen a steady flow of products from Roccat over the past 12 months, including the Kave 5.1 Surround Sound Gaming Headset reviewed here. The Kave is a true 5.1 headset with three speakers in each ear cup, plus a vibration driver. You can find the Kave online selling for around $120 street.
Design and Comfort
Roccat's Kave, along with Rosewill's 5.1 set, are the two that are the most compact when the ear cups aren't extended. If you have a small head or are in the market for a headset for little Johnny who you're trying to raise as a PC gamer, these are the two of the bunch that have the best change of fitting.
The Kave adjusts to wrap around large heads too, and everything in between. One thing that's immediately apparent when you slip your head into the Kave is the weight, especially within the ear cups. Keep in mind that it's toting additional drivers for 5.1 channel audio, so a bit of additional heft is to be expected. It doesn't feel like a bag of bricks, but you're not going to forget you're wearing them the way you would a baseball cap (as opposed to, say, a football helmet).
Aesthetically, the Kaves look sharp and feature a rubberized coating on the ear cups. That means they're less prone to fingerprints, especially compared to glossy finishes. We also have to give Roccat props for the thick metal band that extends from one ear cup to the next. These might be the sturdiest headphones of the bunch, which is another reason why they're a little heavier than the others.
Three square-shaped pads with hollowed-out centers line nearly the entire length of the headband, which is actually fairly short compared to other headsets. We can only speculate, but one reason Roccat may have designed the cushioning this way rather than using a single, large strip is that it adjusts to the contours of your head.
We'll get to the drivers in a moment, but first we have to point out the high quality stitching, both along the rim that runs around the opening and surrounding the outer ear cups as well. Roccat says they're hand-sewn, and while it's a subtle touch that some people might never notice, it goes a long way in showing the company's care and attention attention to detail.
What isn't likely to go unnoticed is the rectangular opening in each ear cup. While it may appear that someone (or some machine) did a poor job cutting out a hole, this is by design to accommodate the angled drivers. Roccat isn't trying to simulate 5.1 audio through software trickery -- the company wants to deliver spatial sound through multiple drivers that are aligned at a 12-degree angle. This, according to Roccat, is what will allow gamers to tell which way noises are coming from. The funky cushioning is also mean to block out external noise.
Roccat calls this a "Tip ''N Control Desktop Remote." We're more inclined to think of it as a the biggest inline remote we've ever seen. It's a rather large box that dangles from the cord, and as its name suggests, it's meant to sit on your desk.
A volume wheel rotates like a classic iPod to adjust the volume up or down, and in the center is a gigantic mute button. If you want to mute the microphone, there's a separate button on the side of the remote. When muted, the tip of the mic glows blue, providing a gentle reminder that your teammates can't hear your instructions (and if it isn't glowing blue, they're just ignoring you).
A lid opens up above the volume wheel to reveal independent volume controls for the different drivers, including center, front, rear, and sub. If you're only using stereo mode instead of 5.1 channel audio, just the front dial will do anything, as you're not taking advantage of all the drivers.
Sound QualityWe were a bit surprised that Roccat didn't include any special drivers or setup software with the Kave, nor will you find any on the company's website. However, bear in mind that in order take full advantage of the Kave, you need either a dedicated soundcard or onboard audio that supports 5.1-channel audio.
We started off our testing by listening to music in stereo mode. Sonically, the Kave's range is similar to the other headsets in this roundup, though for better or worse, bass performance doesn't dominate the sound spectrum. If you like a lot of bump with your grind, the Kave will leave you wishing for a little more than it can provide. Conversely, if you've always wanted a gaming headset that doesn't overemphasize the low end, the Kave is calling your name.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Kave doesn't hit the highs like an opera singer, and neither do any of the other gaming headsets reviewed here. But it does do a good job with what its got. We really enjoyed the raspy highs from Audra Mae & The Forest Rangers singing, well, just about anything, but in particular The Unclouded Day (from Sons of Anarchy) and Forever Young.
Stereo sound isn't the Kave's playground, however, so we unleashed the headset on several 5.1-channel samples and gaming titles that support it. This is where the Kaves really shine, so long as you adjust your expectations. Even with the angled drivers, the Kaves are no match for a 5.1-channel speaker setup. But as far as headphones go, they do a remarkable job letting you know where the sound is coming from. The effect is especially enhanced if you tweak the individual volume dials; we found the best results by turning down the front volume a quarter of the way while leaving the rear dial cranked up.
You'll also want to spend some time playing with your soundcard's equalizer settings, if available, to put a little more emphasis on the lows. That's were the most fun is had when playing games, and the Kaves stop a little short of delivering bone crunching blows on the low end.
|Rosewill 5.1 Channel Gaming Headset with Vibration|
|The least expensive entry in our roundup is Rosewill's 5.1 Channel Headset with Vibration. Rosewill sells this headset for $65 shipped, a remarkably low price tag for a set of cans with 8 speakers (front, center, rear, and subwoofer in each ear).
Design and Comfort
Don't be put off by the price tag, Rosewill's headset doesn't feel overly chintzy or otherwise poorly constructed, though you can tell where the company may have cut a corner or two. It's an extremely lightweight design to the point where you could fall asleep with Rosewill's headphones on, if you so desired, and the cord is long enough to plug into a PC a fair distance away from the bed.
The RHTS-8206 isn't meant to sleep in, however; it's for gaming. Towards that end, we wish the ear cups would clamp just a little tighter than what they do. While we like the lightweight design, you could shake these cans right off your head if you swing around violently enough.
Each ear cup swivels around so that the headset can lay flat, as seen above, and also rotates 180 degrees so that the drivers point outward instead of inward. They have a glossy black finish with a red circular accent and Rosewill's brand imprinted on the right cup. A flexible microphone snakes out of the left ear cup and is removable. When attached, it swings up and down, and you can also bend the metal arm into any position you want.
The plastic arms of the headband pull down far enough to fit heads of all shapes and sizes. Even Paul Bunyan could wear this headset, though he'd also crush it since it lacks anything sturdier than plastic.
A think piece of ruffled padding is attached to the entire underbelly of the headband, and if you're not careful, you'll end up tearing it. Over the long haul, it might rip anyway, just from the rigors of daily use. You'll want to be careful when lugging it around to LAN parties or, if you're a college student, back and forth between your dorm room and parent's house on the weekends. The lining on the pad just isn't very thick.
A rubbery material surrounds the outer portion of the headband too.
The same padding that's used on the underside of the headband also encircles each of the ear cups. That means our concerns are the same -- the padding's not all that sturdy and we could see it ripping over time. You also have to be careful when handling Rosewill's headset so as not to yank the protective film away, which we accidentally did during our unboxing. The actual padding is, however, fairly thick and covers the ears without any discomfort.
Each ear cup houses four drivers, including three 40mm Neodymium magnet drivers and a vibrating subwoofer.
Rosewill's inline control module has big, yellow buttons to turn the volume up or down, as well as separate buttons to mute the audio and/or the microphone. Blue LED indicator lights at the top let you known when the device is on, when the mic is muted, and when vibration mode is engaged.
There are two levels of vibration, which is best described as force feedback for your head. If you're not into a little shake, rattle, and roll with your rock & roll, you can disable the function altogether.
Sound QualityOnce again, you don't need to install Rosewill's software to use its USB headset, but it's highly recommended that you do. Doing so will give you access to a wealth of settings and, most importantly, unlock the vibration feature that Rosewill so prominently touts.
Let's start with music. The vibration feature adds a new dimension to songs, especially bass heavy tracks (isn't that always the case with these gaming headsets?). Rosewill's headset will massage your head as you listen to Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind, though it also works surprisingly well on other types of music. We loaded up an old bluegrass song and worried that the vibration effect might be overbearing (again, you can disable it anytime you wish), but the effect was much more subtle, as it should be.
Here's the rub. If you do decide to disable the vibration feature, Rosewill's headset reverts from Superman to Clark Kent, unable to deliver powerful lows. Bass performance is okay, but certainly not spectacular. That's problematic if you crave deep rumbles without the earthquake in your ears. On the opposite end, Rosewill's headset did well with high notes, allowing Christina Aguilera to pierce your eardrums when she wails on certain Burlesque tracks.
When playing games, the vibration feature adds a heightened level of immersion, similar in effect to rumble pads. It's engaging the sense of touch, giving you a small taste of being on the battlefield rather than just looking in.
As for the 5.1 surround, well, don't expect miracles. It's hard to tell the difference from the front and rear drivers, especially after experiencing the angled sound in Roccat's Kave headset.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: If there was a recurring theme in this roundup, it's bass performance. Some of the headsets we tested were better than others at bringing the boom, but for the most part, these gaming headsets chose to emphasis the low end for satisfying sound effects when playing games. Not all headsets performed the same, however. Rosewill's cans brought the shake, for example, while Creative's earphones delivered high quality audio with the aid of an external soundcard.
We're not being diplomatic when we say that each of the five headsets we reviewed are serviceable solutions for gamers. None of them did a poor job, though there were a couple that stood out and earned our Editor's Choice award. The first is Creative's Recon3D Omega Wireless. It's the total package in terms of features, performance, and comfort. Armed with an external soundcard, you could say it had an unfair advantage over the competition, but it also came at a cost -- Creative's cans are the most expensive out of the five we reviewed. If you can afford them, they'll reward you with high quality audio, plenty of settings to play with, and wireless operation.
The other that stood out was on the opposite end of the pricing spectrum. We're talking about Rosewill's $60 headset, which are just plain fun to use. They're lightweight, are able to stretch vocals into the highs, and look pretty snazzy to boot. Build quality isn't on par with Creative's, and it doesn't hit the low notes like the Omega does, but they're not fragile and the vibration feature, if you're into that sort of thing, adds another dimension to music, movies, and games.
Corsair's Vengeance 1500 and Vengeance 2000 Wireless headsets stood out for their aggressive design, sturdy build quality, and overall sound quality. This is especially true when it came to bass reproduction and grinding or booming sound effects. Each set packs a punch in the low end, and given the small street price disparity between the 1500 and 2000 (~$80 and $100, respectively), we'd recommend splurging $20 for the wireless functionality.
Finally, Roccat's Kave is a solid entry in this roundup, and its 5.1 positional audio was more defined than the other participants. Granted, it's not the same as a true 5.1-channel speaker setup, but the angled drivers do a good job of letting you know where sound is coming from, which is no easy task for headphones. We also like that you can independently tweak each of the driver channels through the desktop remote.