The Headphones That Didn't Screw Up a Second Chance to Succeed the First TimeS

Say this for Performance Designed Products, makers of the Afterglow Wireless Headset, a slick, luminous gaming accessory which promises universal functionality and evokes the costume design of Tron. They are very confident this will work, right out of the box, the very first time. Yet that has never been my experience in reviewing about half a dozen headsets, especially any that rely on being paired with a wireless transmitter.

And so, too, it was not the case in my first attempt with the Afterglow. It's a good thing this product is advertised as extremely durable, because I was very close to verifying at least that claim.

The problem, after a thorough investigation, was not the manufacturer's fault. Nor was it mine, and I have a multi-console setup with a video capture hard drive and a signal switcher that definitely places me well outside the demographic most likely to buy a $90 pair of headphones.

See, the Afterglow and its USB transmitter are paired at the factory before they are shipped. What I got was not a production unit. Some marketing contractor slapped a headset and the wrong transmitter in the box sent to me—which was not consumer packaging. So this is not a problem any consumer should face. A PDP engineer swore to me there are now 10,000 units out in customers' hands and what I dealt with has not been a technical support complaint at all.

But it does not excuse the fact that PDP did not include, in the instruction manual, directions on how to re-pair the headset and the transmitter yourself. There's confidence, and there's carelessness. A consumer who buys a device with wireless functionality reasonably expects to be able to correct its pairing himself before getting on the phone with technical support. So, as a result of this headache, PDP has set up a couple of web pages (here, and in a support FAQ here) with information on how to fix this problem. I followed the steps provided, and everything indeed worked fine.

On to happier subjects. At $90 the Afterglow offers affordable, solid audio and versatility with a headset whose main virtues are powerful sound and a rechargable, long-lasting battery—going up to 10 hours. That's a big advantage over some higher-end sets that snack on double A batteries and cost twice as much. The rechargeable battery complements a design geared toward long gaming runs. The headset is comfortable, the over-the-ear cups provide sensory immersion and, really, I find it to be an attractive piece of equipment.

The Afterglow's drawback is mainly in chat audio that is pedestrian at best. Of those I played with, the most said in my chat mike's favor was that it was cell phone quality. Some test messages I recorded and re-played for myself on Xbox Live didn't prove them wrong. The packaging says the Afterglow has a noise-canceling mike but the rest of the audio still came through a little muddy, with some chop and skip. And though the USB transmitter declares it has a 100-foot range, which presumes it's not dependent on line-of-sight, going around a doorway 12 feet away reduced chat audio to garble. Again, this is a console gamer's headset, so the majority of chat will be done in close view of the console. Just don't expect to go to the fridge and continue the party chat while the game is paused.

Afterglow Universal Wireless Headset Specs

  • Price: $89.99
  • Wireless Frequency: 2.4GHz
  • Wireless Range: 100 feet ("whole house") though masonry walls will obstruct the signal. Chat audio performance decreases sharply with distance.
  • Ear Coupling: Circumaural (Over-the-Ear)
  • Audio Input Type: RCA or standard headphone jack.
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz–25kHz at 115db
  • Speaker Diameter: 50mm
  • Magnet Type: Neodymium
  • Battery: Rechargable by USB, 10 hour life claimed

As for its wireless claim, any experienced gamer should know what that really means here. There still has to be a way to get the audio from the console to the transmitter and, yes, that requires cabling. The inconvenience is manifested most in consoles using HDMI video, as you'll still need to run audio component cables into your TV, so the Afterglow's transmitter can piggyback onto them. There is support for using your TV's headphone jack, if it has one, but that introduces the TV's volume into your listening experience instead of taking a straight signal. If you're going to use chat on the Xbox, you'll need to wire the Afterglow to your Xbox 360 controller. Again, no surprise there.

In terms of audio quality, I picked up a lot more background hum with the Xbox 360 than I did on the PS3, for some reason. The volume control switches balance between chat and game audio and with game audio driven up all the way, you'll get plenty of buzz. It's easily wiped out by any low-frequency atmospheric sound. There isn't much in the way of equalizer presets. You get basic audio, a bass-boost, and "immersive" surround audio with the touch of a mode button. The mike will glow one of three colors to tell you what mode you are in. Another thing, if you're getting no chat audio, tap the Afterglow's main power button, as it controls mute when powered on (you have to hold it to power it off). The glowing end of the chat mike will flash once every 60 seconds if it is muted, which can be hard to notice if you're distracted.

The Afterglow easily lives up to its universal compatibility claim, though you need to know your way around your menu setup (particularly the PS3's) to make sure all of its features are working properly. The audio-in jack means you can use it for PC gaming or even just to listen to mp3s or Internet radio off a mobile device. Though the Afterglow is primarily a gaming console accessory, listening to music on it was quite enjoyable.

PDP was so distraught over what happened with my Afterglow that, in addition to setting up the web page on how to correct devices that had come unpaired, on Friday it sent me another headset altogether—this one the same as any consumer can get off the shelf. Just take it out and plug it in, seemed to be the unspoken message. I did, and it worked, right out of the box.

And that's the first time that happened.