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Creative Arena Surround USB

The next headset we're going to take a look at comes from a familiar name in PC audio, Creative Labs. Creative has a large selection of headphones and headsets in their catalog, over two dozen total, and nearly half of them are gaming oriented headsets. Out of this selection we've chosen the Arena Surround USB Gaming Headset for its large feature set.

The Creative Arena Surround USB headset is a virtual surround sound headset with a detachable boom mic. As the name suggests, the headset uses a USB interface. It actually has a Creative X-Fi sound chip built right into the slightly oversized USB plug. This simplifies connectivity as there is only one cable to plug in, and it also means the headset functions independently from the computer's sound card. Unfortunately, it also means you won't be able to use it with non-computer devices, like an MP3 player.

 Creative Arena Surround USB
 Frequency Response
 20Hz - 20kHz
 Driver Design
 40mm per ear cup
 105 dB
 Impedance  32 Ohms
 Cable Length
 8 ft (2.5 m)
 In-line Volume Control
 In-line Mic Control
 Input Method
 Frequency Range (mic)
 80Hz - 16kHz
 Microphone Pick-up Pattern
 Removable Microphone
 Price (sale at NewEgg)

Despite the USB interface, the Creative Arena Surround is entirely plug-and-play. We tried it on several computers with different versions of Windows and hardware combinations and in each case the headset's drivers installed automatically and we were immediately able to use the headset and mic. Since this headset carries Creative's X-Fi branding, it's got some tricks up its sleeve too. After installing some control panel software from the included driver CD, we were able to enable a variety of digital processing effects. One of the coolest features is Creative's VoiceFX voice masking feature that lets you alter your voice. The headset also features Creative's background noise suppression technology, called Creative Silencer.

Design & Comfort
The Creative Arena Surround has a traditional design and is not collapsible, although the ear cups can be turned 90 degrees, presumably for storage purposes. The headset is made of plastic with a metal band through the middle. The plastic has a slightly glossy finish and feels surprisingly durable. The headband is covered in a pleather-like material which is lightly padded on both sides and the ear cups are padded with memory foam covered in the same pleather-like material. The headset feels very light and although the plastic looks kind of cheap, it felt durable and seems like it would survive a fair amount of abuse.

The microphone connects to the left ear cup and is fully detachable. The mic is able to swivel around and can be pushed out of the way when not in use. The mic boom is also very springy and can be bent, although it won't stay that way once you let go. There is a small in-line control pod with a volume rocker switch and a microphone mute switch. The pod has a clip built into the back. It's worth mentioning that the cord between the headset and the control pod is thin and very flexible, but the cord from the control pod to the USB connector is twice as thick and a bit stiff.

The Arena Surround headset receives top marks for comfort. The plastic headband is very flexible which results in the feeling that the headset is resting lightly on your head, instead of clamping onto it like with some headphones. The ear cups are big and don't interfere with wearing glasses. The memory foam pads are soft and plush which, along with the headband's low clamping pressure, results in total comfort, even during extended use of several hours. The only complaint is the pleather ear pad material helps thermally insulate the ear cups and after extended use on a hot and humid day, they tend to get a bit toasty.

The Creative Arena Surround USB headset features a built-in sound chip with EAX support, located in the extra-long USB connector. There is only a single driver per ear, but it uses digital signal processing to produce virtual surround sound. The virtual surround sound is always on and stereo sources are up-mixed using Creative's venerable CMSS-3D algorithm, which is part of the EAX technology set that's been in use on Creative's sound cards for years. CMSS is one of the less aggressive virtual surround sound algorithms we've encountered over the years. It produces a less pronounced surround effect, but there is also less distortion.

Sound Quality
The Creative Arena Surround USB has good sound quality. The midrange was solid and the bass is tight, punchy and it's available in spades. While the Razers have solid bass, they pale in comparison to what the Arena Surround has on tap. Unfortunately the highs seem a bit rolled off and soft. This makes them the opposites of the two Razer headsets. While the Razers emphasized highs and lacked midrange, the Arena Surround is the other way around. If you prefer light and sparkling highs, the Razers might be more to your taste, but the Arena Surround is a better pick if you enjoy solid midrange. Overall the headset produces a very pleasing sound that works very well for games, movies and most kinds of music.

The virtual surround isn't especially convincing but it doesn't get in the way either. In games, the surround sound worked well in the sense that we were able to hear sounds all around us. It really increased immersion in the game and made us feel like we were in the thick of the action. However sounds located behind us lacked positional accuracy. While we were able to detect that sounds were coming from behind, it was often hard to pinpoint their location. However, this is still an improvement over standard stereo, in terms of both immersion and positional accuracy.

Music sounded good, though at times we did notice some very slight distortion. This is likely due to the always-on virtual surround algorithm which introduces a small amount of distortion from the digital processing. With stereo sources, the virtual surround up-mixing seemed to significantly widen the soundstage. The virtual surround will also do some odd things with some music tracks, like placing certain sound effects behind you. While this isn't necessarily bad, it's odd to say the least when the cymbals in a favorite song is suddenly coming from behind you and the backing track seems to be coming from all around you.

The microphone performed very well. Voice recordings were clear and background noise suppression was good, though not spectacular. In-game mic usage was positive, people reported that we sounded good and our voice was clear and free of background noise. Silencer background noise suppression works as advertised and helped reduce the effect of background noise, though it didn't always eliminate it.

Overall, we liked the Creative Arena Surround USB. It's an all-around great package with plenty of features and excellent sound quality. It sounds good with music and movies but gaming is where it really shines. While the virtual surround sound isn't quite the equivalent of a surround sound speaker setup, it's pretty close in games that support surround sound, not to mention much more practical. At the current price of about $99, the Creative Arena is fairly priced. Though there are many gaming oriented headsets going for cheaper prices, they also lack the Arena Surround's feature set. Add in the fact that it's comfortable to wear and comes with some cool features like VoiceFX voice modulation and active microphone noise suppression and you've got a solid value.

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