Finding a good gaming headset really shouldn't be as hard as it is. And yet for the longest time, I couldn't find a decent set of gaming headphones. Until Astro came along, that is.
It seemed simple enough: I like playing video games with headphones. I was starting to play more games online, and liked to chat with my friends. But I found I couldn't use an Xbox's headset along with headphones, and I couldn't find a way to get good surround sound out of my regular headphones.
- 5.1 Headphone Surround
- Integrated voice-chat
- A simple interface
- Speakers that weren't crap
Seemed easy to find, right? It wasn't. Several years ago, I dropped just over $100 on a pair of (now obsolete) Tritton Xbox headphones that spectacularly failed to meet my expectations. The speakers themselves were a joke, tinny and terrible, and the voice integration was insane. The headphones had 5 actual speakers in them, so there was an in-line controller for the entire 5.1 setup that let you adjust the levels on every possible channel. It was a fiddly nightmare, an endless combination of settings for headphones that never sounded good in the first place. They sat, unused, in my closet for several years until I put them out on the curb—I couldn't even bring myself to try to sell them online.
I almost swore off gaming headphones after that. But then, I discovered the Astro headphone mixamp. Finally, an audio solution that provided exactly what I was looking for, and best of all, it would work with any headphones. I bought one and plugged in my trusty old AKG K240 Studio headphones. It worked exactly as advertised.
As I played more and more games online, it became clear that I'd want to get an Astro headset with an integrated microphone, so I wound up with the corresponding A40 headset. I loved (and still love) my Astro headset and mixamp, and as the years passed (and I began to play video games for my job), I've never stopped using them.
The A50 wireless headset ($299, available online) represents Astro's shot at combining the Astro mixamp and A40 wireless systems into one wireless package. For the first time, there's no more mixamp—the two big Astro knobs are now integrated into the headset itself, as is the Xbox microphone-to-controller cable and a new, digital EQ setting. Here's a breakdown:
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- You plug your console or PC's optical cable into the back of the A50. The receiver automatically decodes the dolby signal into 7.1 headphone surround, which is automatically beamed out to the headset.
- The receiver is powered by a USB plug, which can be plugged into any game console or a PC.
- On the Xbox 360, voice chat requires that you plug an included cable from the headset to the controller. On PS3 and PC, it requires only that you plug the USB and select the device as an audio input. It's slick and works well.
- The voice/audio mixer is now located on the right earplate, which is an interesting location but works quite well. Ditto the volume knob, which is now on the bottom of the right earcup.
- Simple. While the A50 lacks the elegance of the mixamp, it's still nice and easy to access all of the headphones' features. That's because they're designed around two core functions: Audio and voice. That focus is reflected in the design.
- Good connectivity. The receiver has an optical out for optical passthrough, and a USB out that lets you charge the headphones when you're not using them. It's also got an analog 1/8' input, in case you want to broadcast an analog signal to your headphones.
- Privacy. The A50 headset is closed-back, meaning that there's no venting around the ears. That seals in the audio, which means that the constant explosions and heavy machine-gun fire won't distract your significant other/roommate even when he/she is in the same room. As someone who has shared living space while blowing stuff up on a regular basis, this is actually a valued feature.
- Variable EQ. This is a neat feature that isn't all that useful now, but might be in the future. The headset has a three-stage EQ setting that moves between flat, bass boost (presumably for watching movies) and "Astro," which cuts some of the boomy low-mids to clarify the signal. I use the "Astro" setting for just about everything, as I found the previous EQ to be too mid-heavy for my taste. In the future, the Astro representative I spoke with told me that they might have customizable EQs for various pro gamers or game designers that would match up with their game or preferred setting. It seems a little bit unlikely that this feature will get too much traction, but it's a neat option and in the future should allow for a welcome amount of customization.
- Little touches. The microphone is automatically muted by flipping it up; flip it down, and it unmutes. The volume control moves very slowly, and is easy to fine-tune. The packaging, believe it or not, is actually a plus: It's well put together with an eye for design. The headphones themselves are eye-catching, bold and handsome.
- Lots of glorious cables. The A50 comes bundled with every type of cable you'd need to plug in just about any sort of system. Anything extra you might need can always be purchased online for incredibly cheap, but it's nice that it comes with everything you'd need right out of the box.
- It works. Simply put, the A50 does everything it's supposed to do, and it does it well, with minimal hassle.
- Plastic. When it comes down to it, I'll never be 100% on board with a plastic pair of headphones. Particularly not one that costs more than $100. Particularly not one that costs $299. That's because plastic headphones break, plain and simple, and these ones will probably break too. I've had my AKGs for coming up on 10 years now, and I'd imagine I'll have them for many more. That's because they're vinyl and metal, and it would take some real doing to break them. I wouldn't feel comfortable dropping the A50s onto a hardwood floor or accidentally knocking them off a high shelf. Like I said: Plastic headphones break.
- Minor audio hiccups. Every five to seven minutes, the A50's audio will hiccup, like it's "blinking." It's a tiny fade-out that's almost unnoticeable in the midst of a video game session. However, I watched some movies and TV using the A50, and it became much more noticeable when I was just sitting listening. I asked Astro about it, and they said that they're aware of the issue and are working on a free firmware download that should address it. If and when they release that firmware update, I'll update this review. For now, it's a small but annoying issue. 8/28/12 Update: Good news: True to their word, Astro has issued a firmware update for the A50 that remedies the audio blink-outs. I installed it by plugging my base station and headset in to my PC, updating through a slick app from the Astro website, and re-syncing. The audio issues mentioned in this bullet-point have yet to resurface since I updated the firmware. Good show, Astro.
- Audio quality. The audio quality on the A50s isn't up the standard of the headphones I use to listen to music. It's fine for gaming—great, even—but I'd never sit back and listen to an album on the A50's. Part of that is the closed-back design—the sound doesn't move around all that well, and as a result, listening sessions can feel somewhat claustrophobic. Music doesn't have a chance to stretch out and "bloom" in the way that high-grade headphones can. If these headphones didn't cost $300, I wouldn't hold them to that standard, but they do, so I do.
- No analog output. This is a necessary concession to putting the mixamp into the headset, but it's still a knock against the A50 over the A40/Mixamp combo. It's now impossible to get Astro's great headphone functionality on a non-Astro headset. I mention this because I love the Mixamp's flexibility in this regard—you can use their headset, your own headset or, as I often did, use a headphone splitter to get headphone surround and also send the mixamp's audio out to a set of speakers.
The Astro A50 is a fine headset and a worthy investment. It's a robust piece of equipment that is pleasant to use, attractive to look at, and does exactly what it needs to do with minimal fuss. Those who don't require wireless functionality might consider picking the A40 headset/mixamp combo, as it allows a bit more flexibility and the open-back headset sounds a touch better. But if you're looking for a wireless gaming headset, the A50 is a hell of a thing: a confident realization of each of Astro's various audio products into a single entity.