Field Test: Astro A50 wireless headset
[Rather than giving you a review packed full of benchmark numbers and charts, our Field Test series is all about taking technology out of the box and out of the lab. We use it in our everyday lives, and report what we find.]
Optimized for gamers, the Astro A50 takes most of what gamers love about the A40 and cuts the cords. While this pricey wireless headset isn't the best choice for music enthusiasts, it's one of the best gaming headsets I've ever used. The $300 price tag is steep, but the fully wireless setup gives the impression that you get more bang-for-your-buck than with some of Astro's other products.
At its most basic level, the A50 is a wireless version of Astro's previous flagship product, the A40 Audio System. It takes the seperate "mixamp" module, with its massive volume control knob and voice/game fader dial, and integrates it into the earpieces. The A50s use the same 40mm drivers you'll find on the A40s, but they sound a bit different thanks to the closed-back design. Also gone from the A40s are the replaceable tags on the sides of the headphones and the removable mic, but you won't miss them. The usability and wireless functionality more than make up for these minor features.
It all starts with the base unit: a simple, lightweight black box with a TOSLink optical input and output so the sound can come from your PC or console system and continue on to your home theater system or TV. It's powered via USB, and on a PC or Mac that USB connection serves as the mic input, too. (If your PC/Mac has no optical output, the unit functions as a generic USB headset, with audio input and output through USB.) There's an auxilliary 1/8-inch plug for analog audio, too. On the top of the base unit is a power button and a button to enable/disable Dobly 7.1 audio. The headphones translate 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound into Dolby Headphone, which does a remarkably good job of "faking" directional audio with just a pair of headphones.
The base transmits audio to the headset using the KleerNet 5.8GHz wireless audio technology. A handful of wireless audio products already use KleerNet, with others on the way, and the A50s can be easily synced to any of them. I found the wireless connection extremely robust, with a nice long range (at least 25 feet in my small apartment) and absolutely no interference from other wireless devices, bad wiring in my old building, running the microwave...you name it. There is absolutely no perceptible latency or delay in the sound, either. Astro says the battery should last 12 hours or more, but I found this optimistic. In my experience, they needed recharging every 8-10 hours, depending on how loud I cranked them up, which is reasonable. This may be the best wireless audio technology I've ever used, save for one little snag...
On occasion, the audio will sipmly cut out for a split-second. The little blip occurs once every few minutes. It's not all that distracting when playing a game, but obvious and annoying when listening to music or watching a movie. This is a firmware problem that Astro has acknowledged; it says an update is on the way soon to address the issue.
The right headphone has a free-spinning volume dial that resets itself to a low level every time the headset is turned on. Astro says it's to keep you from deafening yourself, and I can believe it. If you keep spinning the dial, these things get loud. Almost dangerously loud. Irresponsibly loud. Fortunately, the dial is not very sensitive, so you have to be really deliberate about deafening yourself. The power and sync button are also located on the back of the right earpiece, along with a three-way audio profile switch. The middle position provides the same "flat" audio profile as other Astro headphones, while the bottom position is the "Astro" profile intended for games. It gives you a little more punch in the bass and upper-mid-range sounds, so you can hear footsteps and other important positional queues. The upper position is supposed to be used for movie and music, but it's terrible. It makes everything sound like it's underwater, with odd frequencies muted more than they should be. Astro intends to release software that lets users create their own EQ profiles for the switch, and it can't come soon enough. I should note that this EQ switch only functions for sound delivered through the optical input. If you're using the USB or auxiliary analog audio inputs, you're stick with the standard flat setting. It doesn't sound bad, but it's annoying that the switch doesn't function for all inputs.
Wondering where the voice/game dial from the old A40 mixamp went? It's now a paddle-switch on the right earphone. Press the front edge and it makes voice chat louder, press the back edge to make game sounds louder. Simple audio cues let you know when you're all the way to one side or the other, or balanced right in the middle.
The left earphone contains the mini-USB charging plug and the little audio jack for Xbox 360 voice chat. Sadly, voice chat still has to come from your Xbox 360 controller via a small wire—it's a limitation of the Xbox 360 spec. The boom mic isn't detachable as it is on the A40 headset, but Astro makes up for it with a clever muting mechanism. Swing the boom up, and you're muted. Swing it back down, and the mic kicks on. A nice touch: there's a soft detent right at the point where the mute kicks in, so you can easily feel if you're muted or not.
Perhaps the most important question for any pair of headphones is: how do they sound? The closed-back design of the A50s allow them to block out external sound better than the A40s, and the low end has a little more punch, but otherwise the quality level is similar. These aren't going to replace a good pair of $200+ dedicated music headphones when it comes to listening to your jams, but the accuracy and precision of the sound is among the best I've heard from dedicated gaming headphones.
The Microphone, too, is among the better-sounding I've heard on a gaming headset. My voice came through loud and clear, but this isn't the kind of studio-quality mic you'd want to record music with. As a mic dedicated to voice chat, it's great.
Comfort and value
It's important that a gaming headset be very comfortable, because gamers tend to play for extended periods. Over hours of use, I never felt that the headband was digging into my head, or that my ears were pinched or hot. You'd think the A50s would be heavier with all the wireless stuff and the battery inside, but it's really a lot lighter than it looks.
At $300, the Astro A50 headset isn't cheap. It's more expensive than most game consoles these days. Despite the steep price tag, and with the notable exception of the firmware bug that causes intermittent "hiccups" in the audio, this product looks, feels, and acts like you're getting your money's worth. It's an investment in quality that I would have absolutely no problem recommending to enthusiast PC or console gamers, provided that Astro quickly fixes the firmware bug.
Update: The A50 firmware update 1.1, released in late August, fixes the noted problem with sound cutting out. It also tweaks volume and leveling, and reduces background noise.