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If you do much multiplayer gaming, a good headset with microphone is pretty much a must. And if that gaming consists of shooters of the Call of Duty variety, a surround-sound headset can make the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of being dominated by a hyperaggressive 12-year-old, thanks to the ability to pinpoint the direction of important sounds—sounds like, you know, shooting.
It’s natural to be skeptical of the idea of surround-sound from a headset; early attempts at the technology were underwhelming at best. But Astro’s A50 absolutely delivers in this regard, presenting a near-seamless, 360-degree sound field that puts Dolby’s Pro Logic IIx technology to excellent use to simulate a seven-speaker setup. Yes, that’s simulate; it’s important to note that this headset can’t actually accept a 7.1 signal. Instead it takes a 5.1 signal and, through intelligent processing and what may very well be dark magic, adds two more virtual rear speakers to allow for smoother transitions when sound sources are moving behind you. That may sound like one of those marketing inventions that doesn’t actually do anything, but in this case the headset absolutely delivers.
And for 300 bucks, it had better. Yes, you pay a premium for this kind of quality. But luckily the headset has a lot more going for it. For one thing, the build quality is excellent, giving the unit a solid feel and heft that nevertheless proves exceptionally comfortable for long gaming sessions. The boom mic mutes itself when flipped up, and a large rocker controls the balance between chat and game audio.
The transmitter is also smartly designed. It draws power and data from USB (cable included), and also sports a USB out (and another cable) for charging the headset. It gets surround data through its optical-in (look, another cable!), but also packs an optical-out for easy integration into a home-theater setup. You’ll need your own cable for that one, sorry.
But speaking of cables, a small wrinkle for us Mac owners: While any remotely current Mac includes an optical-out, only the Mac Pro has a traditional Toslink out; Apple’s consumer-focused machines use a hybrid 3.5mm jack that will require an inexpensive Mini Toslink adapter to accept a standard optical cable. And while the A50 will accept sound to the transmitter over the USB connection, it won’t be surround...so you’d be wasting about 200 bucks.
Yes, without the surround-sound magic, this headset would probably only be worth about a Benjamin, because while the surround technology is impressive, the actual sound quality isn’t exactly top-of-the-heap. This is partly the fault of the wireless design. Although the headset boasts “KleerNet” 5.8GHz technology and suffered zero interference in our wireless-saturated office, there’s a noticeable falloff in clarity at the highest frequencies.
Audiophiles will notice a lack of cymbal shimmer and a small-but-noticeable flatness in very high-pitched vocals. It’s also possible to discern a very mild white-noise hum—completely normal for wireless cans, but still disappointing for such a pricey product.
But then, this headset isn’t designed for audiophiles to listen to lossless stereo signals; it’s for surround-sound gaming, dammit. And in this regard, it more than delivers: Those slightly anemic highs are counterbalanced by powerful lows and a shocking lack of distortion even at ear-splitting volumes. Even the mic quality is above-average, prompting this reviewer’s teammates to comment on the clarity of voice chat.
The bottom line. Though positioned at a premium price, the A50 absolutely delivers premium quality. The wireless design leads to some small compromises in sound quality, but when it comes to the gaming applications the headset was designed for, it’s going to prove damn hard to beat.
Mac or other device with optical output; most Macs will also require a Mini Toslink adapter (around $5)
Excellent surround effect. Solid, comfortable form factor. Very smart design.
Pricey. Not true 7.1 sound. Slight loss of clarity and mild white noise from wireless.