by Jonathan Esten, Virginia USA
Introduction to Headset Speakers for Gaming
Massively Online Multiplayer gaming is the fastest growing section of gaming, with games such as City of Heroes/Villains and World of Warcraft only playable online. Let’s be honest, too — most people buy First Person Shooters for the online multiplayer components these days, too. Once the single-player campaign is over, it’s hard to have fun without finding a server and going head-to-head (-to-head, -to-head, -to-head…) with other players.
A big part of the fun of these games, especially the First Person Shooters, is the immersive sound. With 5.1 or higher surround sound and booming subwoofers, you can feel a tank rolling up behind you in Call of Duty 2, listen to the footsteps of an approaching marine in Doom 3, and hear the bullets whiz past your head in Battlefield 2.
Yet another part of the fun of these games is communicating, real-time, with your fellow players. I remember the days of stopping what I was doing and typing a text message to other players on Quake II, but that’s not how we talk to each other today. Now, we actually talk to one another. Traditionally, that meant sacrificing your immersive sound experience one of two ways: You plugged in a microphone and fiddled with it until the interference from your speakers wasn’t driving your fellow players nuts with feedback (usually resulting in turning the volume down lower than you want), or you bought a stereo headset with a built-in boom mic.
I’ve been a headset gamer for awhile. There isn’t a problem with feedback with a headset, and you can set the volume where you want it with the added bonus of not driving the wife/husband, girlfriend/boyfriend, or neighbors nuts. I recognize what I’m giving up, though. In stereo, you can’t really tell if those footsteps you hear are coming from directly behind you, behind you to the left, behind you to the right… that kind of sound cue only comes from 5.1 or 7.1 sound systems. Life is all about compromises, though, right?
Turtle Beach has decided to brook no compromises. With the ambitious Ear Force line of headsets, Turtle Beach aims to provide surround sound to headset users. The Ear Force AXT is aimed at Xbox and Xbox 360 users, and the un-powered X-51 and powered HPA models are targeted toward computer users. I will be reviewing the top of the line Turtle Beach HPA model, available direct from Turtle Beach’s website at $99.95. The other two models are also available from the website for $79.95 each, and all three are available through retailers. Online retailers like Buy.com and Amazon.com have the headsets at substantial discounts.
Does the Ear Force HPA headset succeed at giving the gamer a true surround sound experience? Let’s find out.
Turtle Beach packages the Ear Force HPA in an eye-catching blister pack. Sharp eyed readers might notice that there’s something gray in the hole at the top of the package where a brick-and-mortar store might slide the pack over a metal pole to hang it. That gray thing is made of rubber and is there to reinforce the hanger-hole. The reinforcement is probably necessary — without it, the weight of this set might rip the plastic of the blister pack and drop the headset to the ground! The sealed pack tipped my kitchen scale at two pounds, five ounces.
HPA Speakers in the box (view larger image)
The back of the package presents the features of the headset in detail. Looking at the back of the package, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting and exactly how it is supposed to work. Turtle Beach has done a great job of packaging the HPA headset. Wait a minute, though, what’s that wiring diagram on the bottom telling me?
HPA back of pack (view larger image)
I Have To Plug It In?
Of course you have to plug a headset in, but take a closer look at Turtle Beach’s wiring diagram.
That’s right — the HPA model doesn’t just need to be plugged into the computer, it needs to be plugged into the wall! I had hoped this headset would have good sound quality so that I could carry them as a mobile option instead of my trusty Shure e4c earbuds. My fantasy of roller skating with the cute blonde girl from the Diet Coke commercial while listening to “Starry-Eyed Surprise” from my iPod with the HPA headset came crashing down. Not just the subwoofers in each earpiece require the in-line amplifier to be powered — all of the speakers do. The headset will not work without outlet power.
This is quite possibly a fatal blow for the HPA from the vantage point of most NotebookReview.com visitors. Notebook users are mobile; if the headset simply will not work without outlet power, we’re probably not going to be taking this headset with us unless we’re going somewhere specifically for gaming. Want to listen to some tunes or watch a DVD on battery power? Not with the HPA headset, notebook user. If this hasn’t chased you off, though, let’s take a look at this headset in detail.
The headband of the Ear Force HPA is a very comfortable two-parter. Up top we can see the two solid tension rods that span your head, and underneath that is a self-adjusting headband that comfortably stretches to keep the headset balanced and snug to the top of your head. The inner band has a suede-like feel, perhaps microfiber, so it’ll feel nice on the baldest of heads. Notice the microphone on the left ear piece (Turn it around, dummy! It’s facing the wrong way in the picture…). While it looks like it is a permanent part of the headset, it is actually plugged in with a standard 1/8-inch connector. If you’re playing a game without voice communication, you can get the microphone out of your face by simply unplugging it from the earpiece; a very nice touch indeed.
Turtle Beach HPA headphones (view larger image)
It’s nice that the headband is self-adjusting, and this reviewer found the headset to be very comfortable. It is important to note, however, that the tension rods really do squeeze the cans over your ears. The larger your head, the more you’ll have to stretch the headset apart to get the cans in place, and the greater force the rods are going to exert. With my 7-1/4 inch hat size head, I didn’t find the squeezing to be at all irritating, even after hours of use. Users with even larger heads, though, might feel the pinch.
The ear pads are covered with the standard leatherette that covers most full-size headphones. Hey, if it works, don’t change it, right? Under the leatherette is enough padding to keep the cans from digging in to the sides of your face. The plastic face inside of each can is very close to the ear, though: if you have protruding ears, there might not be enough padding for you. My ears lay pretty flat to the sides of my head, and it felt like I had about enough clearance to slide one, maybe two sheets of paper through. All of the materials used seem to be rather lightweight, so the headset doesn’t feel excessively heavy compared to traditional headsets. It is slightly heavier, though, because of everything packed into the Ear Force HPA.
On most headsets, each can contains one speaker. With only two speakers, stereo headphones are limited to just that: stereo! Directional audio doesn’t seem possible with just two speakers. How could one speaker on my right and one speaker on my left make noise in a way that made it sound like it was in front of me or behind me?
Some manufacturers have produced headsets that use surround sound emulation, driving the harmonics of a standard two-speaker headset to simulate the 3-D soundstage of a 5.1 surround system. While an interesting idea, the headset with this design I tried at the store (Altec Lansing’s AHS602i) didn’t convince me. My notebook also uses SRS, the surround sound emulation used in the Altec Lansing. SRS doesn’t match a real 5.1 speaker setup, but it’s better than nothing.
Turtle Beach has taken a different approach to produce a surround sound experience. It seems like the Turtle Beach designers asked a simple question: Since a 5.1 speaker setup contains a center speaker, front speakers, rear speakers, and a subwoofer, why shouldn’t a surround sound headset?
That’s right; as these images from Turtle Beach show, each can has four speakers built in. Drivers for the center, front, and rear channels sit near the ear while a big subwoofer sits behind them.
Powering the Beast — the Amplifier
The four and a half foot headset cord from the left can ends in a plug that connects to the amplifier module. This six-channel amp has five control knobs so you can dial in the perfect surround experience.
You can adjust the system volume using the large knob on the end of the module where the cord comes out. On the sides of the module are individual knobs for the front, center, and subwoofer channels that are all clearly labeled. The last control knob, marked “surround,” controls the level of the rear channels. Why it doesn’t say “rear” is beyond me, but calling the rear channels the “surround” channels is the convention in audio. When the headset is powered on, the control module’s bright blue LED will let you know.
Plugging It In
Seven feet of cord come out of the amplifier module next to the volume control, ending in five color-coded plugs: a pink mic plug, a green front-channel plug, a black rear channel plug, and an orange plug for the center/sub channels, all ending in standard 1/8 inch connectors, and a black female plug that connects to the AC adapter.
Once you know the color code, connecting the Ear Force HPA headset to a desktop soundcard is a snap. Just follow the diagram on the back of the package that looks like this:
Wait, Did You Say — Connect it to Your Desktop?
Yes, I said desktop. This might be NotebookReview.com, but I’m not going to go into depth on my experience using this headset with my dv4000. Like most notebook users, I’ve got just a mic port and a headphone port. With only the green “front” connector plugged in to provide sound to the Ear Force HPA headset, I can only describe the experience as horrible. This headset needs every connection, and that means you need a 5.1 sound card. Notebook users will have to invest about another hundred dollars in a PCMCIA card like the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook in order to use this headset.
Since my notebook is my primary machine right now, I might consider the additional investment if the gaming experience is worth it. To find out, I took the Ear Force HPA headset to a friend’s house and hooked them into their intended environment: my friend’s gaming desktop with an Audigy 2 ZS. Turtle Beach includes a splitter cable for the front, rear, and center/sub channels, so you can have both 5.1 speakers and the Ear Force HPA headset connected. Using the splitter, I was able to compare the headset to my friend’s existing 5.1 setup by sliding the headset on and off and muting either the speakers or the headset using the volume control built into each.
Alright Already — How Do They Sound?
I plugged the Ear Force HPA into the desktop and fired up Call of Duty 2. I adjusted the amplifier module to my liking and went to war. I won’t give a play-by-play of the adjustment process, but it took a LONG time. Nothing really sounded like it was behind me, so I kept fiddling with the knobs on the amplifier module until I got that experience at least. Finally, I decided it was as good as it could be, and I started gaming in earnest.
I noticed that the surround sound experience blew my SRS dv4000 experience out of the water. The crunch of rubble behind me let me know that my squad-mates were following, and I could clearly hear them pass on my right as they charged headlong into machinegun fire. The stragglers cut to the left, looking for cover, and I knew all of this before they entered my field of vision…er, the screen.
Sliding the headset down around my neck, I powered on the 5.1 speakers for comparison. The surround experience was significantly crisper with the speakers. Instead of knowing the footsteps were somewhere behind me and to my left, I could tell almost exactly where the approaching soldier was and whip around to face him with a flick of the mouse.
Punching the power button on the speakers, I slid the Ear Force headset back on and continued pressing the Allied offensive. With the subwoofers strapped to my head instead of under the desk, I didn’t want to feel the bass so much that it rattled my brains. Still, the bass seemed a bit anemic even with the amplifier knob all the way to the “+”.
I mentioned the anemic bass to my pal and he told me that the Audigy had an adjustable bass crossover. He set that to its highest frequency, and the next grenade blast loosened my teeth. The sound didn’t distort at all, even though the amp was still cranked, but I quickly spun the knob down from its maximum to save my skull. With the sub amp set to just below 50%, I found the bass I wanted and played for about an hour and a half before my buddy came back and wanted to use his computer. Besides a little sweat under my ears from the leatherette pads, there was nothing to remind me that I’d been wearing the headset for hours.
Once I relinquished the computer chair, my friend plugged the microphone into the headset, easily bent it to where he likes it beside his mouth, and joined his team for some Battlefield 2 action. After his own hour and a half of gaming, he asked his teammates for any feedback on how he’d sounded throughout the many battles. All of his teammates knew he was using a new microphone and remarked that it was the clearest sounding on the entire team. They heard a hiss or some feedback from every team member, and my friend’s old $30 headset has a loud hiss, but the Ear Force HPA microphone was much cleaner. A couple folks noticed a slight hiss from the Ear Force, but amid the roar of battle it wasn’t bad.
Since he has more experience with the 5.1 speakers, my friend noticed the difference between that surround experience and that of the headset. With the speakers, he can pinpoint the source of a sound and whip around and put it almost dead-center in the crosshairs with his eyes closed. Like me, he could still tell a general direction, but the accuracy wasn’t as clear. Still, he thought it was miles better than his stereo headset. Having a surround sound experience and clear communication with his team made it a great experience.
One added benefit was mentioned by my friend’s wife. She could read a magazine in the living room down the hall without having to listen to all of the noise from our gaming. “All that disturbed me was the hooting and hollering of you two idiots,” she said.
Gaming Only? DVD and CD Use
While my friend and his wife did other things around their house, I watched “The Replacements” on DVD. The dialog was clear, and the subwoofers delivered some real punch during the action scenes. I could feel a bone-crunching tackle vibrate my own head. I also watched a few battle scenes from the DVD of “We Were Soldiers”. The sound experience was very similar to the one I’d had gaming earlier. Compared to using stereo headphones, I felt like I was right there next to Mel Gibson, standing up in the middle of all the bullets, explosions, and death. The movie was powerful and disturbing in the theater, and I could get a taste of the same experience with the Ear Force HPA headset’s surround sound.
Before my friend’s wife could throw me out, I put in “From Under the Cork Tree” by Fall Out Boy. While the bass response was good for gaming and the DVDs, I couldn’t dial it in so that it was suitable for the music. The bass was either too booming or almost non-existent, no matter how much I fiddled with the amplifier module, the Sound Blaster settings, or the Windows equalizer. For the fine audio of music the Ear Force HPA headset is not as crisp as my trusty Shure earbuds. I might be spoiled by them, but the difference is enough that I’d say the Ear Force HPA is barely suitable for listening to music. The bass is just not refined enough.
The Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA is the best gaming headset I’ve ever used, bar none. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that the surround experience is all that convincing, though. While not pinpoint precise like a good 5.1 speaker system, it is far more immersive than gaming with stereo earphones, even when using surround emulation like SRS. Yet, since this review is for a site dedicated to mobile technology, I couldn’t help but be disappointed overall by this product.
I’d hoped to be able to use this headset with my notebook. I’d hoped to be able to use this headset with my iPod as a change of pace from the earbuds. I’d even had high hopes of using a 1/4 inch adapter and hooking this headset to my home stereo so I didn’t trouble the neighbor on the other side of my thin wall. I couldn’t do a single one of those things. Without all three channels and the power adapter plugged in, the Ear Force HPA simply does not work. I couldn’t use the headset with my own notebook, so I had to use a friend’s desktop. (Ah, that explains why you took the pictures before using it and getting the mic set up right.)
One further niggling point is the mic. It was much better than a cheaper headset’s mic, but at a hundred bucks I’m not sure that I should have to accept any mic hiss at all. If I have to have a powered amplifier in-line chaining me to a wall outlet anyway, why not add a little more circuitry to that module and clean up the microphone signal?
- Decent surround experience — far better than any other headset
- Lets you enjoy surround sound gaming without noise bothering others
- Very reasonably priced — equal experience from speakers would exceed $100
- Microphone pick-up is very good
- Microphone is removable
- Not mobile at all
- Surround experience is not precise — “somewhere behind me” is as good as it gets
- Requires AC power
- Doesn’t work without all 5.1 connections
- Bass response not precise enough for music
- Microphone is better than cheap mics, but there still is a hiss
The Ear Force HPA does a better job of simulating a 5.1 system in a headset than others, and for that it is a good bargain at less than a hundred dollars. Unfortunately, it essentially comes at the same physical cost of a 5.1 system; namely, the Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA chains you to a desk, shackling you with four sound plugs and an AC adapter without which the headset will not function. If you have to stay at the desk, you might as well have speakers that will give you a REAL surround experience.
I would recommend this headset for the consideration of any desktop gamer I know, but for NotebookReview.com, I can’t say this is right for our readers. This is a uni-tasker that should be set up in one location and left there. In order to even use it with a notebook, a 5.1 surround sound card isn’t just a nice addition to your gaming notebook — it is a necessity.
It is too bad that I can’t recommend this product, because it allows you to hear your games in something close to all their glory. The less expensive X-51 includes an adapter for use with stereo sources, but then the 5.1 features are lost and you can’t even use the microphone. Further, without some power, the subwoofers would not be effective. I have seen headsets from other manufacturers that use a USB dongle for sound processing. Perhaps the next step for this line of headsets is a USB version of the amplifier module that processes the 5.1 sound and powers the subwoofers. Perhaps the new Audio Advantage Micro by Turtle Beach is a step in this direction? Sure, that kind of “USB sound card” would add to the price, but if they could produce the same sound with my hypothetical model as the HPA headset, it would be worth a little more than $100.
Many notebooks, like my dv4000, use S/PDIF — a digital sound format. Perhaps a digital version could be created as well. I don’t game on battery power, anyway, and 5.1 surround gaming on my notebook for a hundred bucks would be a steal. In the end, though, Turtle Beach doesn’t have a true 5.1 surround experience perfected for a headset yet; but, they’re getting there.
Pricing and Availability: Turtle Beach HPA model