Alienware AW988 Wireless Headset
What immediately struck us about the Alienware AW988 Wireless Headset is its lightweight design. At 380 grams (0.84 pounds), it is noticeably lighter than HP's Omen Mindframe, which checks in at 480 grams (1.05 pounds). The removable dongle adds a touch more weight, but it is a negligible amount and is not likely to spend much time stored in the actual headset anyway.
The design language on the AW988 is distinctly Alienware and similar in style to the company's desktop PCs, though a bit more reserved. Alienware kept it rather simple with a matte black color scheme and subtle RGB lighting—each earcup sports a small, illuminated alien head logo and a pair of accent lines. The company also stamped its named into the headband in all capital letters, but it doesn't light up and therefore doesn't draw too much attention to itself. Score a point for the resisting the temptation for something more gaudy.
It also feels sturdy despite being so light, and though the construction is mostly plastic, both the earcups and headband are dressed up in a soft-touch rubber coating. This gives the headset a pleasant feel and adds to the overall sleekness of the design.
The earcups swivel so you can lay the headset flat or more easily toss it into a backpack for travel. And because of the angled design of the earcups, which are flat on the bottom, you can stand the headset up on your desk. It's a nice touch, as most headsets can't do that.
Alienware lined the earcups with thick, breathable fabric. It also labeled the inside of each one so you can tell at a glance which is the left earcup and which one is the right. The left earcup is also home to the pull-down microphone—when you pull it down, an audio tone says "Mic on," and when you flip it back into place it says "OUCH!" Just kidding, it says "Mic off," just as you would expect. If you're unsure it it's on or off for whatever reason, or just need reassurance that your teammates can (or can't) hear you, there's a mic status button on the left earcup. Press it and that electronic voice will repeat itself.
This is flanked by a volume wheel and a chat/volume balance button (we found it best to leave it centered, but it's there if you need it). Those are all on the side of the earcup. On the bottom there is a 3.5mm audio jack, a micro USB connector for charging the headset (with the included cable), and a handy sound profile button. This allows you to cycle through preset sound profiles without having to hop into Alienware Control Center software (more on that in a moment).
What about the power button? You'll notice it's not pictured...or is it? The alien head on the left earcup stealthily takes on the function of a power button. Score another point, if you're keeping track.
From a comfort standpoint, Alienware earns high marks. Thick, breathable fabric lines the earcups and there is sufficient padding on the adjustable headband that complement the lightweight design. We had no trouble wearing the AW988 for extended gaming sessions. This is about as far removed as you can get from feeling like you've put your head in a vice grip, without having it be so loose that you could shake it off with reasonable force (it's possible, but you'd need to do some serious headbanging and would kill a few brain cells in the process).
Simply put, it is an excellent fit.
While we give the AW988 high marks for its design, feel, and comfort, getting it setup was somewhat difficult. That should never be the case with a headset—all that should be required is to plug it in and, if necessary, install a driver and/or software. However, Alienware recently retired its dedicated Alienware Headset Center software and integrated the functionality into its Alienware Control Center, which is a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app.
Initially, we ran into trouble getting the headset recognized in the app. We tried setting it up on two separate systems, and in both cases, we could hear sound through the headset, but couldn't make any adjustments in the Control Center—it just wasn't being recognized. We finally got it working by uninstalling the the software and headset driver, rebooting, installing the headset driver again, rebooting, installing the Alienware Control Center, and rebooting one final time. We're not sure if that's the magical combination that gets it working or if we just got lucky, but either way, this could have gone a lot smoother. Looking online, we are not the only ones to run into this issue.
Once we finally got it recognized, it was a whole new ballgame. The sound sprang to life, and we were presented with fine grain control over the lighting and various audio settings. Importantly, the software lets you turn the 7.1-channel virtual surround sound on or off, which is not something we could do on the Omen Mindframe. You might find that having virtual 7.1 surround sound it helps in games, but for listening to music, the headset sounds better when you turn it off, plain and simple.
There is also an equalizer with several pre-configured profiles, including Flat, Punch, Deep and Bright, Warm and Crunchy, Bright, Deep, and Custom.
When listing to music, the EQ settings have a noticeable impact on performance. This allows you to tweak the audio to your particular tastes, whether you prefer more focus on the low end or desire a brighter sound that highlights vocals.
We sampled a variety of tracks, and the takeaway is that the AW988 delivers a solid mid-range listening experience. It does not excel in any particular area, nor does it fall flat. Listening to Denim by Cypress Spring, for example, there is good separation between the high melodies and underlying bass, without knocking your socks off on ether end of the spectrum.
For better or worse, Alienware's headset does not bring a heavy boom. Some people prefer that the bass knock them around a bit, even if muddies the overall sound profile, while others would rather have a more muted low end. If you fall into the latter category, you will be pleased that the bass is not overdone on this headset. It does have some punch, just not the billowing booms that some other headsets focus on. However, if you're like Tigra and Bunny, you'll be disappointed that this headset doesn't hit harder.
We found the headset performs best on tracks that have a coffee room feel to them. What Happened by Corey Smith is a good example. It sounds like you're in the room with him as he strums on his guitar and laments his love life. It doesn't do as well on tracks that have heavy bass, but otherwise offers good clarity on mids and hights. Listening to Annabel by The Duhks, for example, the soft plucking of the banjo comes through clear amid the ringing guitar strings and vocals.
Gameplay is where the AW988 stretches its legs and gets comfortable. While there is no substitute for a true surround sound setup with speakers spread out in front, on the sides, and behind, the 7.1-channel virtual surround on the AW988 works rather well. In the screenshot above, I'm about two seconds away from being shot dead in Apex Legends. However, that was after hearing enemy movement from behind and turning around. I was the first on our squad to recognize the threat, and subsequently the first to be mowed down, a sacrifice I made for the greater good of grabbing a screenie.
Sound in games comes through loud and clear. It doesn't get so loud as to give you a migraine, but certainly there is sufficient volume, to the point where you're not wishing the dial would turn further.
Loud or soft, in-game sounds are easily discernible, such as footsteps crunching in the dirt and bullets whizzing by your head. Explosions don't offer up the same level of grumble as headsets that exaggerate the lower end, and some people might be disappointed about that if they're used to more rumble. However, the overall sound profile is appropriate—it's easy to be immersed in a game, rather than having the audio serve as a distraction.
Overall, this is a good headset for gaming and an above average one for listening to music. It doesn't quite live up to the price tag in terms of sound quality, but the high comfort level and wireless capability keep it from being egregiously overpriced.
Now let's have a look at the AW959 Elite Mouse...