Razer bills the Tiamat 7.1 as the first "true" 7.1 gaming headset. Ten individual drivers are arrayed about the ear cups, mimicking a traditional surround sound speaker set up in a confined space. But headsets are tricky: everyone has a distinct perception of audio fidelity, and the divide between bad audio and audio overkill is going to vary by user. So I'll be objective: the Razer Tiamat 7.1 is absolutely worth the $179 price tag -- if you own a 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound capable sound card.
The audio component works as advertised: the sound is crisp, and in the right games the sense of immersion and space is simply awesome. But if you've used surround sound headsets before, you're likely familiar with that feeling. And this is where the tricky subjectivity of it all comes in -- sound cards deliver arguably improved audio fidelity and quality, but software-driven, wireless headsets that simply emulate that surround sound effect sound great too.
There's more to a headset than arguments about audio fidelity. The Tiamat is incredibly comfortable, sporting large, faux-leather cups that remain snug during lengthy sessions, without becoming especially warm or sweaty. An elastic band stretches to fit around my head comfortably, so I never feel constricted while wearing it.
The build is solid -- sturdy, but offering just enough flex to assuage any fears about damage while in use. I've snapped expensive wireless headsets in the past by simply sliding them from my head down to my neck and back again repeatedly, but the Tiamat wraps around my oversized skull with ease.
The microphone retracts into the left ear cup, sliding in and out with ease. I've owned quite a few headsets, most of which offered detachable microphones. This seems like a good idea until a voice conversation requests pop up suddenly (I spend a lot of time playing MMOs), and you have no idea where you stashed the mic. Voice input quality is good if you're using a sound card (more on that in a bit); when I plugged the Tiamat into my motherboard's audio outputs, my teammates remarked that I sounded a bit scratchy, and distant -- specially, like a robot in a well.
The volume control unit is a wonder in and of itself. It's about as large as an oversized deck of cards, and consists of a volume knob, a volume toggle switch, and three buttons -- one for muting the microphone, a second for toggling between speakers and the headset, and one for swapping between 7.1 and 2.0 output modes. The volume knob serves as a large button; press it to mute the audio on the fly.
The toggle switch is arguably my favorite feature. You can use it to quickly swap between the headset's individual speakers, and adjust each volume level independently -- the lighted dial around the volume knob indicates each level individually. There's a lot of freedom here; I found a sweet spot for every single setting, but I would've loved if there were some ability to save profiles -- one setting for multiplayer matches that keeps the rear speakers dialed up a bit, and a balanced setting for role-playing games, as an example.
Another great, oft-neglected feature of headsets is that speaker and headset toggle switch. There's a micro-usb port on one end of the volume control unit, where you can plug in the included speaker input dongle. Plug your speakers in to that, and you can automatically swap between headsets and speakers on the fly. I kept the headset on for games like Battlefield 3. In League of Legends, where pinpoint audio accuracy isn't necessarily a must (at my skill level, anyway), I swapped over to my speakers. The intricate volume controls don't work with standard speakers, but it's still a definite improvement over needing to set audio output sources manually in games, or in Windows.
A braided cable tethers the Tiamat to your PC. It's rather long, but I hate cables. Wires will negate any connectivity or fidelity issues you may run into with wireless headsets, but... I hate cables. It's a personal choice, really.
The audio jacks on the Tiamat's cable connect to your sound card (or motherboard), but there's also a USB plug that powers the volume control unit. I ran into some trouble here; a loud, annoying buzz filled the ear cups wherever I plugged the Tiamat in. Razer's FAQ explains this problem away -- every single one of my motherboard's USB ports apparently have a grounding issue. User experience will vary, but I needed an external USB adapter to get rid of the buzz.
Of some importance: the Tiamat looks really, really good. You won't ever see the subtle green glow or the bold, exposed drivers, since the thing is on your head. But rest assured that you look great.
But at what cost? The Razer Tiamat 7.1 will set you back $179, which isn't bad. But to get best surround sound experience, you're simply going to have to shell out extra cash for a 7.1-surround capable sound card. A 5.1 surround sound card will work (as will standard stereo inputs), but you'll be missing out on the extra drivers baked into the headset.
As PCWorld's Desktops editor, I'm fortunate enough to have a large array of PCs and components at my disposal. At home, I dusted off a relatively ancient (2010) Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium sound card and slapped it into my personal PC. But many folks simply don't have a dedicated sound card. Just a few years ago, this sound card requirement wouldn't have been a big deal. But motherboards have come a long way, and for many of us, built-in analog audio outputs have been good enough.
That's a bold claim to make, but hear me out. I'm no audiophile; I appreciate the immersion and detail that a proper surround sound setup affords, but there are plenty of headsets on the market that deliver an excellent experience, despite being software driven. My current go-to set is Creative's Sound Blaster Tactic3D Wrath ($140). Purists will lambast wireless headsets, but any perceived loss in audio fidelity melts away when I'm free to get up and make a drink without missing out on crucial audio cues or conversations.
It's a value proposition, really. If you're using an older motherboard, or simply aren't impressed with your current audio setup, a sound card is going to be a great investment. Once you have that sound card (or if you already own a 7.1-surround capable card), the Razer Tiamat 7.1 will serve you well. If you just want great audio and don't care that it's virtual and not "true" 7.1 surround sound, options abound.
This story, "Review: Razer Tiamat 7.1 Gaming Headset" was originally published by PCWorld.