Gaming Headset Buyer's Guide & Roundup
Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA2
Virtual surround sound is one way to get surround sound in a headphone. Another method is to put several speakers into each ear cup, literally simulating a surround sound speaker setup. One of the first gaming headphones to attempt this was the Zalman ZM-RS6F which featured three separate speakers per ear cup. While it was novel for its time, it had mediocre performance and sound quality. Since then several companies have designed their own "true surround sound" headsets and we'll be checking out one of our favorites, the Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA2 gaming headset.
It's worth mentioning right away that many headphones that try to cram more than one speaker into each ear cup end up sounding terrible. There is a reason why all audiophile and studio grade headphones are stereo designs. Multiple speakers crammed into a tiny ear cup simply creates too many sound wave and timing issues to work most of the time. Not to mention the price (and quality) of the drivers must be dropped since there are more of them. However with careful design, the idea can be made to work as proven by the HPA2.
|Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA2
| Frequency Response
|| 20Hz - 20kHz (front)
20Hz - 20kHz (rear)
80Hz - 16kHz (center)
20Hz - 500Hz (sub)
| Driver Design
|| 40mm speaker (front & rear)
30mm speaker (center)
30mm vibration coil (sub)
per ear cup
| Cable Length
||6 ft (1.8 m)|
| In-line Volume Control
| In-line Mic Control
| Input Method
||1/8" (3.5mm) plugs|
| Frequency Range (mic)
|| 50Hz - 15kHz
| Microphone Pick-up Pattern
| Removable Microphone
The Ear Force HPA2 has an interesting input method. It uses separate inputs for the front, rear, center and mic input/outputs, just like a surround sound speaker set. There is also a USB plug which is only used to provide power to the in-line amplifier. This means that you will need a sound card with analog surround sound outputs in order to use the HPA2.
Design & Comfort
The HPA2 is the only headset in our round-up to feature a multi-driver design. Each earcup holds a total of four separate drivers. There is a 40mm unit for the front channel located towards the front of the ear cup and another 40mm driver for the rear channel towards the back. The center channel is a 30mm driver located between and above the two 40mm drivers. Located behind all these drivers is a 30mm magneto-resonant vibration coil which acts as the subwoofer. The end result is like having a set of surround sound speakers crammed into each ear cup.
Amazingly the HPA2 looks like a normal headset, unlike most other multi-driver headsets which have odd shapes in order to accommodate all the drivers. Despite having 4 times the normal number of drivers per ear cup, the HPA2 has standard sized circular ear cups and don't weigh much more than regular full-size stereo headphones. The bottom of the left ear cup has a mic input for the included detachable boom mic. The mic has a snake-style boom than can be rotated and bent in any direction for optimal positioning.
As previously mentioned, the HPA2 has connections similar to a surround sound speaker setup. There are separate plugs for each of the surround sound channels. You might think this creates quite a cable mess but it's actually implemented quite well. The HPA2 includes a splitter cable that allows you to simultaneously connect the HPA2 and a set of surround sound (or stereo) speakers to your sound card at the same time. The input cables are also split quite close to the plugs, so for most of the cable length, all the cables are combined into one.
About a foot and a half down the cable is an in-line control pod. Unlike the control pods on the Creative Arena Surround USB and the Razer Megalodon, the Ear Force HPA2's control pod isn't a sound card. It's just an amplifier. There is a main volume control as well as separate level controls for each of the four sound channels. Oddly, there is no control or mute for the mic, a glaring omission. Just above the in-line amplifier is a quick-release plug. This lets the HPA2 disconnect from the amp and the rest of the cabling with a tug so you won't accidentally drag your whole computer over if you stand up without taking off your headphones.
The design of the HPA2 is fairly standard. The earcups can rotate up and down but not back and forth. They are also not collapsible. The headset is made entirely of plastic and the headband is a two piece design. The structural piece consists of two thick plastic wireframes which are fixed, but can bend. The second piece is a flexible rubber-like headband that's connected to the headset by spring-loaded bands. This allows the inner piece to conform to the shape of the wearer's head.
Overall, the HPA2 is relatively comfortable to wear. The ear pads are soft and plush and the clamping pressure is low. However we found the HPA2 to be less comfortable than the other headsets in this round-up. The biggest problem is the shallow ear cups. Perhaps because of the number of drivers, the ear cup structure is very thick and the padding is too shallow. When worn, the padded inner area of the ear cup ends up resting on your ears because the ear cup surround doesn't provide enough clearance. This makes the headphones feel more like super-aural designs rather than the circumaural design they appear to be. Despite this, we were still able to wear them for hours at a time without fatigue.
While the Ear Force HPA2's don't particularly impress in terms of design and it isn't the most comfortable headset, it really shines when it comes to sound quality. Since the audio channels are separated and each channel gets its own dedicated driver, it's possible to individually tweak the levels for the drivers. This allows for a level of control over the sound beyond that of a simple equalizer.
By far, the HPA2 has the most pleasing bass out of the headsets in this round-up. While it can be a slight bit boomy at times, the bass is very entertaining and really brings out the impact of explosions and gunshots. The HPA2 has a distinctly theater-like sound and a lot of that can be attributed to be immense volume and depth of bass they have on tap.
In terms of spacial positioning, the Ear Force HPA2 headset is very good. While we have tried half a dozen other multi-driver surround sound headsets, the Ear Force HPA2 is one of the few that actually pulls off the surround sound part. Compared to virtual surround sound headsets, the HPA2 has no noticeable digital processing noise/artifacts. The sound character of the HPA2 is most similar to that of a surround sound speaker setup. Sound separation between channels seemed more distinct than with virtual surround sound and the sound stage also seemed wider.
The Ear Force HPA2 sounds best with native surround sound sources, just like a surround sound speaker setup. The HPA2 also handles stereo inputs well, and they act just like surround sound speakers in that regard. When presented with a stereo source, the surround speakers simply don't play anything. This results in a slightly reduced volume but that's easily remedied with the in-line volume control.
The HPA2 worked very well in games. Sound staging and positioning was excellent. The surround sound effect was uncanny at times. While virtual surround sound algorithms will sometimes mess up and place a sound effect in the wrong place, since the HPA2 uses discrete channel inputs just like a 5.1 speaker setup, the surround sound always seemed to be spot on (assuming your sound card is up to par).
The HPA2 did suffer from a lack a of clarity compared to some of the other headsets and especially the headphones (see next 2 pages). In a direct comparison with the Sennheiser and Ultrasone headphones, the HPA2 seemed a bit dull and slightly muffled. Some of the finer details in the sound were simply lost. However in terms of pure audio pleasure, the HPA2 gets top marks. The Ear Force HPA2 also worked very well with movies. DVDs sounded great in surround sound. They also do a pretty good job with beat-driven music, though they don't sound quite as good as some of the other offerings in this round-up when it comes to classic rock, jazz and classical.
The Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA2 is a very interesting package full of pros and cons. It provides the highest subjective audio pleasure of the headsets in this round-up. It also offers a pretty good feature set and one of the best surround sound experiences. Yet it falls closer to the bottom of the pack when it comes to comfort and it's a bit fussy to install compared to the simpler USB headsets. However in terms of overall value it gets top marks thanks to a very reasonable MSRP of just $99. If you look around you'll be able to find a brand new HPA2 for as low as $70 without much trouble. If you already have a nice surround sound audio card and don't mind a super-aural headphone design, then the Ear Force HPA2 can help you get the most out of it. But if you're using integrated audio or you can't stand super-aural headphones, you might consider one of the other headsets in this round-up.