Connecting to a Sony PlayStation 3 or Microsoft XBOX 360 game console is very simple. Connect the USB charging cable into the mini-USB port on the transmitter and into a standard USB port on the game console. Next, connect the optical cable to the optical audio input on the transmitter and into the optical audio output on the game console. If you were using optical audio from your game console to your home theater receiver, the transmitter does have an optical pass-through. After charging the headset using the included USB charging cable (no AC adapter is included, though), just depress the power button on the back of the right ear cup. The headset and transmitter are paired before shipping from the factory. When powering up the game console, the transmitter will power up as well. The default setting on the transmitter is for stereo output, but depress the button on the right for Dolby Pro-Logic IIx (7.1). When setting up on a PS3 and selecting optical audio as your primary audio output, make sure DTS is turned off, forcing the console to downmix DTS tracks to 2-channel PCM stereo, since the A50 does not support DTS. Although not documented in the Quick Start Guide, Bitstream should be selected under Video Settings/BD-Audio Output (Optical). If using HDMI as your primary audio, you can activate the secondary audio feature, but everything output over optical will be downmixed to 2.0 PCM stereo. For Game Chat (using the attached microphone), select “ASTRO WIRELESS TRANSMITTER” as both the input and output device under Settings/Accessory Settings/Audio Device Settings. For XBOX 360, you will need to connect the headset to your XBOX controller using the included XBOX Live cable. Thus, only PC and PS3 users are truly wireless.
Now that everything is set up and the headset charged, it’s time to demo some material. But first, let’s take a look at the headset itself, which felt quite heavy, but is very well-balanced and quite comfortable once adjusted to your head. On the left ear cup, there is the adjustable microphone, which swings up and down, and mutes when in the 12 o’clock position. At the rear is the XBOX Live cable port and mini-USB charging port. On the back of the right cup, about halfway up, is the power button. Just below that is the 3-position Audio Mode Select button (we’ll come back to that in a moment). And near the bottom of the cup is the Master Volume thumbwheel control. On the outside of the right cup is the Game/Voice Balance control, allowing you to fade between online chat and in-game (or master) audio, which comes in handy when the only chatters are teenagers.
I began with a few music selections in stereo mode, including Into The West by Annie Lennox from the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Peacekeeper by Fleetwood Mac, and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (a rock opera rendition of the H.G. Wells story, narrated by Richard Burton). There are three Audio Mode EQ presets to choose from: Media (1), Core (2), and Pro (3). My headset came set in Pro mode, which, for music and movies, sounded too harsh. Core mode, which is supposed to be a flat EQ setting, sounded nice. Media mode, though, sounded the best when listening to music, providing a warm, expansive, and booming soundfield with little to no distortion. Enabling the Dolby Headphone setting on the transmitter added an even wider and deeper surround presence to the music.
Movies were next, and I started with The Rock, a film well-known for its over-the-top surround sound mix. Listening to the uncompressed 5.1 PCM track in both Media and Core modes, with Dolby enabled, sounded decent, but not quite expansive. Switching to the 640 kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track was a major improvement in surround and low-frequency presence, providing a much more immersive experience. The results were virtually identical with Megamind and The Adventures of Tintin (switching between the DTS-HD MA 7.1 and the 640 kbps Dolby 5.1 tracks on Tintin).
At E3, Astro Gaming’s A50 demo consisted of live gameplay from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. In my review of that game, I gave high praise to the sound design when played through my home theater setup. It was this demo that got me excited about these headphones, and playing the game at home for a few hours while wearing the A50 was a real treat. Gunfire and explosions nearly rocked my body, and I could have sworn I heard enemies sneaking up behind me. Footsteps, in-game dialogue, and gunshots were a bit more distinctive in Pro mode, but overall the sound was still a bit harsh, with increased treble. Call of Duty sounded best in Core mode, in my opinion. During online game play, I enables the chat function, and fellow gamers were able to hear me quite clearly through the attached microphone. When the chat became too obnoxious and distracting, I was able to easily fade them out using the balance lever on the side of the right ear cup.
A complaint I’ve often had with wireless headphones is the amount of interference the transmitter and receiver tend to introduce. This was very evident in my Seinnheiser RS-110 wireless headphones, but those were one-third the price of the Astro Gaming A50’s, and used 900 Mhz RF to transmit their signal. The A50 uses 5.8 Ghz KleerNet technology for its wireless communication, providing audio that is not only free of interference and distortion, but is so crystal-clear, you’d swear you were listening to wired headphones. The rechargeable battery, receiver, and mixer add a good amount of weight (as do the 40mm drivers) to the headset, but the engineers and designers at Astro have successfully balanced that weight along with cushioned headband and earcups to provide a nice, comfortable fit. They also seal out a great deal of room noise, yet still allow enough air to keep your ears from overheating. According to Astro Gaming, users will be able to customize the Audio Mode presets in a future firmware release. The $299.99 price tag may seem a bit steep for most, but the A50 really delivers as a wireless headset both for the hard-core gamer (its intended target audience), as well as the home theater enthusiast looking for a late-night solution for watching your favorite action flick. Highly recommended.