Published on March 7th, 2011 | by Greg0
Headphones and Headsets: 2011 Audio March Madness
It's that time of year again- tournament brackets and office pools start becoming popular once more as we finally, consistently remember to write 2011 instead of 2010. It's Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Spring Break, Easter, then a long line of pre-summer traditions. One of our favorite traditions around here is the release of the first post-CES gear, which has begun to trickle into the offices. Three seats of personal audio equipment have made their way to our hands recently, and we've put them through a month-long gauntlet of rain, games, and Lady Gaga. Without further ado, we bring you…
Philips O'Neill THE STRETCH. Sleek, comfortable, value. Available in both black and white models, ours was the latter, and immediately caught our eyes. We love fabric cables, which help prevent tangles. One smooth feature here was the stress relief quick-disconnect, a small section of cable that is made to prevent a hard pull from destroying your headphones or pulling your device out of your pocket. They touted the auto-fit system, with an inner band that is made to adjust automatically- and it mostly worked, except for the times we wanted to adjust the fit ourselves, which is then difficult or impossible to do with these.
Balanced nicely, they aren't super-light or truly heavy, occupying the middle ground. The same is true of the sound itself, lacking huge bass, big volume, or any noise cancellation, but performing adequately. Audio was clear, crisp, and a bit cold, performing better on more electronic sounds (dance, techno) than acoustic warmth (opera, jazz). A couple of testers reported being able to wear them for more than two hours at a time, our benchmark for a decent fit. And skiers will especially appreciate the tie-in with O'Neill. The pricetag makes ears happy- under $100 for THE STRETCH is a good deal.
Aerial7 Phoenix. They may look like headphones, but are actually a headset. The styling was sharply divisive- some folks found them gaudy, others nostalgic. Comments ranged from 'plasticky' to 'cool', and ours were the Citron version (five others are also available, with names like Chino, Storm, Soldier, and Eclipse). Swivel earcups are fun for their adjustability, but tend towards being a bit dangerous since they have a tendency to break. These collapse neatly, which should protect the earcups during travel at least. We tried bending and sitting on ours briefly, but stopped before we snapped- they are solidly made, but definitely require a bit more care than some. We would've preferred a fabric cable, but the normal nylon fit the style. They are quite lightweight, which is both a positive and a negative.
Audio was a bit disappointing, on a couple of fronts. Sound was a bit muddy, there was no noise cancellation, the earcups did only a mediocre job of blocking outside sound and we would've liked some more earcup options. Bass was solid, we have to admit, and the volume output on these was impressive. All testers, though, preferred the Philips headphones for all music tests run, with only one or two exceptions for low bitrate files like audiobooks where it was essentially a tie. The built-in mic was nothing special, though we appreciated being able to use these with our smartphones like the iPhone 4, or even with Skype. Folks on the other end reported windy noises, some clicks and pops, and found our voices a bit muffled. Overall, we just didn't feel that they were worth $60- the mic is nice, but the lack of in-line controls means we kept these folded away after testing.
Finally, the Creative Soundblaster Tactic3D Sigma. This is a PC-focused headset, aimed at gamers but suitable for other computer use (Skype and VoIP, music, et cetera). Our gaming crew put this one through the paces, with an ear more towards directional sound accuracy than music. Also, long-term comfort is a bigger priority for this group, where you can wear a headset for eight hours at a time on occasion. Like many others, Creative chose to offer both USB and 3.5mm jack connections, which we like- they claim the THX TruStudio Pro DualMode USB adapter offers better performance though so we focused mainly on that. Mac users aren't left out, either- OSX machines play nice with the Tactic3D. These feature the largest drivers in today's roundup, 50mm, which can mean an overall better (or louder) performance. Thanks to the decent sound isolation in these cups, we left the sound cranked way down- we never could get it to max volume!
We didn't get to try one of the more gimmicky features- their touchscreen controls- but they function apparently much the same as the non-touchscreen version, called TacticControl. The noise-canceling microphone was a bonus, and worked like a charm for blocking out your roommate or mother calling from a distance. The boom mic is nice and somewhat adjustable, and we liked the solid heft and feel of these- they aren't light but the super-plush headband meant comfort even over a day-long session of Crysis 2. Keep in mind that this isn't a true surround experience, but simulated immersion- nonetheless, it was surprisingly convincing. We needed a bit to adjust to the change in sounds- the profiles actually make a difference, and at first our setup made telltale footsteps too quiet and misdirected. But some tweaks meant an actual substantial change in our kill-death ratios- proof that sound can have a real impact in your online gaming performance. And at $70, we were convinced- the Tactic3D Sigmas are now our default headset for PC gaming. They aren't perfect- we would've liked real surround sound, a bit more portability, maybe some customization options- but those are tweaks that up the pricepoint, and these are some one of the best in this category.