Review: Razer's Kraken 7.1 headset delivers great virtual surround sound at a reasonable price

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At a Glance
  • Razer Kraken 7.1

San Francisco’s a fine city, but like any major metropolitan area the most common option for housing is a “cozy” hole in the wall with little room for furniture, much less hefty, neighbor-vexing sound systems.

Enter the gaming headset: a decent pair of cans will offer an appreciable aural improvement in merry-making, whether you’re taking potshots at zombies or enjoying your new Britney Spears record. Razer’s latest is the Kraken 7.1, a gorgeous piece of equipment bedecked in the peripheral maker’s trademark black and green-LED motif. A mere $99 gets you two ear pieces (one for each ear), a mic, and a lengthy USB cable to plug it into your PC or Mac.

The Kraken 7.1 is comfortable, if a little gaudy.

I kid. Like any good technology arms race, the modern headset needs to do a bit more than serve up sound to command lofty prices. The Kraken has chosen to prey on my one weakness—virtual 7.1 surround sound, a game changer (in the right games) that would otherwise require setting up more studio monitors and audio cable than my humble abode has square footage for.

A natural evolution

Last spring I lent an ear to Razer’s Tiamat 7.1 gaming headset, and enjoyed it immensely. It’s expensive ($200) and requires a 5.1 or (ideally) 7.1 surround-sound capable sound card or motherboard to be a worthwhile purchase. When you have all that, you’ll still spend a bit of time twiddling knobs to get the audio just right. But once that’s all set, the ten drivers built into the Tiamat’s ear pieces serve up a luscious surround-soundscape that’s just about worth the price of entry, if you’re picky about something as nebulous as sense of space and aural immersion in games.

The virtual surround sound emulated by the Kraken 7.1 makes a huge difference in games that support it.

Now cut the Tiamat's price tag in half, eliminate much of the fiddling, and you’ve got a solid idea of what to expect from the Kraken 7.1. The headset employs Razer’s 7.1 virtual surround sound tech; PCWorld’s Alex Wawro checked out the standalone version of Razer Surround earlier this summer, and approved. It’s actually rather neat, though you’ll need to install Razer’s Synapse 2.0 software to tweak any settings—par for the course with most of Razer’s new wares. Synapse will let you calibrate the surround sound, a simple process that involves looking at a circular diagram that shows where sound is supposed to originate from, then shutting your eyes and tapping your arrow keys or scrolling your mouse wheel until the audio clip “lands” in the right place.

Now, you can’t simply plug in 7.1 surround sound gear and expect a world of difference. While every modern game is technically capable of spitting out environmental audio that’s cognizant of your position, you’ll get the best results from titles that are optimized with this sort of technology in mind. I’ve found that first-person shooters tend to take far more care with crafting 7.1-friendly experiences; fire up titles like Metro: Last Light, Dead Space 3 or Battlefield 3 for best results.

7.1 surround sound makes a big difference in the way you play atmospheric first-person shooters like Metro: Last Light.

These games do a heck of a job employing aural tricks to plant you in a particular place and inundating you with audio cues that tip you off to the baddies lurking around you. It's especially valuable during firefight—battles bolstered by 7.1 surround sound audio are an event unto themselves. Better players than me will take advantage of being able to hear those telltale footsteps, but even occasionally knowing a backstab is coming a second or two before I’m dead is its own little reward.

Excellent audio quality from budget hardware

Little of this would matter if the headset sounded terrible. Thankfully, this headset does not sound terrible! The Kraken 7.1 delivers clear, rich audio in both games and music without missing a beat. Need more bass? A bass boost setting lets you tweak lower frequencies. Want to tweak your mic? A few sliders let you adjust your voice input settings and adjust the ambient noise reduction sensitivity. Tired of buzzwords and want to get down to brass tacks? Dive into the equalizer and fiddle to your hearts content. Everything sounds great, and you can make it sound greater still by mucking around in Synapse.

The tiny LED at the tip of the boom mic shuts off so you know it's been muted.

Voice input comes care of a digital boom microphone tucks neatly into the left ear cup, and sounds great. The mic sits on a flexible arm so you can adjust it to your heart’s content, and a tiny mute button sits on the end so you can chew that sandwich without disturbing your squadmates; pressing the button shuts off the LED at the tip of the mic, a brilliantly simple way of letting you know when you’re transmitting or not. The headset is also incredibly comfortable: the big, comfy ear cups wrap tightly around around my head, and while they won’t block out the outside world they will give you a cloistered audio experience—you’ll want to turn the volume down.

The Kraken 7.1 isn’t perfect. I always complain about wires, and this is a wired headset. But there’s a slight difference here. Many newer headsets bundle some sort of volume control gadget—the Plantronics Rig and Razer Tiamat both come equipped with a volume puck or brick that the headset plugs into. This leaves you with quite a bit of slack as you’ll only need to negotiate the distance between headset and puck, which will be within arms reach. The Kraken 7.1 needs to be plugged directly into your PC, which can be a hassle. In my case, that’s behind some monitors, around the back of my fairly large desk, and into the rear of my PC. If you’re gaming on a laptop, you’ll be fine. In my case I still had a fair amount of slack, but less than I’d like.

On a related note: mayhaps I’m spoiled, but it’s been years since I’ve used a headset that didn’t feature some kind of on-the-fly volume control, something the Kraken 7.1 is sorely lacking. The audio shortcut keys on my keyboard work in a pinch, but we don’t all have keyboards with loads of extra buttons on them.

I also ran into two technical issues. One was my own fault: my teammates complained that my voice sounded buzzy, as if I were transmitting from inside a hornet nest. I took a quick trip to the rear of my computer, switched USB ports and the problem was solved. The second issue was a bit odder—my review unit’s right earpiece is decidedly louder than the left. A quick trip to Windows’ volume mixer fixed the balance issue, but I’m still troubleshooting what the cause could be and lamenting that Razer’s Synapse serves up all sorts of bells and whistles, but doesn’t offer a simple Left-to-Right audio balance toggle.

So what are you paying for exactly? Truth be told, the Kraken 7.1 feels a lot like the original Kraken Pro ($80) with Razer’s surround sound technology baked into its configurator. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Razer Surround will start to cost $20 next year, so the Kraken 7.1 is essentially taking an updated version of existing hardware and bundling the software into the price.

Bottom line

Is the Kraken 7.1 worth $100? Sure. But if you already own a pair of stereo headsets you’re in love with, grab Razer’s Surround software instead. If you loathe wires, I’ve been rather smitten by the Creative Sound Blaster Tactic3D Rage ($90) for some time now, though it admittedly isn’t as comfortable. And if you’ve got even more cash to spend—as well as a sound card—get the Razer Tiamat, which is awesome. But if you’re right in the middle—demanding comfort, don’t mind wires, and want a solid 7.1 surround sound experience without spend beaucoup bucks—the Kraken 7.1 headset is an excellent choice.

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At a Glance
  • Razer's Kraken 7.1 wired gaming headset feels comfortable, sound great and doesn't cost an arm and a leg.


    • Excellent audio quality.
    • Reasonable price.


    • Lack of discrete volume control is a nuisance.
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