Review: Sony Pulse Wireless Headset delivers satisfying audio for a very reasonable price
Finding a great gaming headset is always a little intimidating. If you’re like me, you really just want a pair of comfortable, great-sounding cans that you can wear on the couch without looking ridiculous. Wireless headsets with good connectivity are a bonus because you don’t have to worry about tangling up extra wires. Of course, Playstation 3 owners have the advantage of being able to pair almost any Bluetooth headset with Sony’s home gaming console, but the sound quality and comfort of most Bluetooth earpieces leave something to be desired; plus, you run the risk of looking like a crazy person talking to yourself on the couch.
Enter the Pulse Wireless Headset: Elite Edition, a $150 wireless headset from Sony that feels comfortable, sounds great, and makes it clear to onlookers that you’re engaged in some sort of digital entertainment but does so without ostentatious logos or flashy design. The Pulse sports the same oversized earpieces and virtual 7.1 surround-sound technology as the official PS3 wireless headset, while adding some fresh features and eliminating the old boom mic in favor of hidden mics nestled in the left earpiece.
As with Sony’s last PS3 wireless headset, you connect the Pulse to your PS3 by means of a small USB wireless adaptor (which also works with the USB ports on your PC). The USB connection allows the Pulse to talk to your PS3 as if it were a controller, a neat feature that causes your headset’s battery level, current sound profile, and mic status to appear onscreen when you tap the Playstation button on your controller.
During testing the headset battery lasted 4 to 6 hours on average, and you can charge it via the USB-to-microUSB cable that comes with the headset. The unit also comes with a 3-foot, 3.5mm audio cable you can use to wire the Pulse to your iPhone, your HDTV, or any other device with a 3.5mm audio jack. You can also run the audio cable from your HDTV to an audio jack on the USB wireless adaptor, which will wirelessly transmit the TV audio as stereo sound to the headset. It's kind of a pain, but it works when you want to play games on other consoles or watch TV without disturbing others.
Another 3.5mm audio port is nestled just below your left ear on the rim of the Pulse headset, and beyond that you’ll find a microphone mute button as well as a slider that adjusts the mix of in-game audio and voice chatter. The microphones hidden inside the left earpiece do a serviceable job of picking up your voice, isolating it from ambient sounds, and relaying it to your teammates during gameplay, but the voice pickup is a little weak for my tastes; multiple times during testing I had to shout or cup my hand around the mics in order to make myself heard clearly.
But the big selling point of the Pulse headset is the inclusion of BassImpact, a fancy buzzword for a pair of motor modules on either side of the headset that vibrate the earpieces when low-frequency tones are played. It’s a clever gimmick that’s fun to use when you're playing games or listening to music with lots of bass, though the feeling of having your head rattle and roll with every heavy drop or big explosion can be headache-inducing after a few hours. Thankfully, you can adjust the strength of the vibration (or just switch it off entirely) by dialing a slider on the rear of the right earpiece up or down; you can also switch between multiple sound modes by tapping a tiny button nestled beneath that BassImpact slider.
There are seven different modes ranging from “Racing” to “Movie” to “Shooter,” and each has a unique sound profile and BassImpact vibration pattern. Swap over to Music mode, for example, and the headset will vibrate based on the bass track of whatever you’re listening to; switch to Racing mode, and your headset seems to emulate the thrum of your engines (and those of your competitors). Flip the headset over to Shooter mode, and your ears will rattle with the booming staccato rhythm of automatic rifle fire.
Finding the right mode that's right for you makes a big difference; play Borderlands in “Movie” mode, for example, and the headset will vibrate based on how strong the bass is at any given moment; the crunch of boots on the ground thrums between your ears with the same strength as the sound of a shotgun blast. Switch to “Shooter” mode and the vibration seems to increase exponentially with the strength of the bass, such that you barely feel footsteps but a nearby explosion will leave your head buzzing. The BassImpact is arguably my favorite feature of the Pulse headset, and while you won’t want to have it dialed up to maximum strength all the time, it’s a great way to make playing games a more palpable experience.
Evaluating headsets is always tricky because everyone hears things differently; in my experience, the Pulse headset sounds just as good as gaming headsets that cost twice as much. During testing I repeatedly switched back and forth between the more expensive Astro A50 wireless headset and the Pulse headset while playing games on both a PC and a Playstation 3, yet I was reliably unable to discern a significant difference in audio quality. I did notice that bass-heavy tracks from an old Beastie Boys album sounded a little muted and tinny when BassImpact was completely switched off, though that may simply be because my ears had grown accustomed to being physically shaken every time Biz Markie dropped the mic.
Obviously, the BassImpact modules work well even when you aren’t playing games; you can plug the Pulse into your iPod (or any other device sporting a 3.5mm audio jack), and the headset will still pulse along to the music. I got the best results sticking with the "Music" preset, though you can experience music in a whole new way by switching the headset over to "Racing" or "Shooter" while playing bass-heavy albums. Though Pulse headset sports some shiny plastic and a broad PS3 logo on each earpiece, it’s subtle enough that you shouldn’t feel awkward about wearing these cans on the train or out in public.
The virtual surround sound functions superbly well when listening to music, and it can be toggled on and off by tapping a small button along the underside of the right earpiece. It works pretty well for playing games, though it’s difficult to discern where sound is coming from more accurately than general cardinal directions. During testing I was able to reliably place enemies in front or behind me based on the sound of their movement, but the audio difference between “footsteps behind you” and “footsteps behind and to the left of you” was too subtle for practical use. Of course, you may have more luck if you possess a particularly sharp set of ears.
If you don't need your headset for anything more than playing PS3/PC games and occasionally listening to music, Sony's latest wireless headset is an excellent bargain. It’s no substitute for a proper 7.1. surround sound home theater system, but the Pulse headset is a hell of a lot cheaper and simpler to set up. The audio quality and comfort of the Pulse is comparable to more expensive gaming headsets, and there’s really nothing else like the BassImpact system currently available on the market. Multi-platform gamers seeking a single wireless gaming headset solution will need to look elsewhere, but Playstation 3 owners ought to take advantage of having access to a comfortable wireless gaming headset that sounds great for $150.