Before we proceed with this review, I feel that I need to point out the fact that I rarely ever used headsets for gaming prior to this year. My only real experience with headsets or earbuds comes from my use of them with iPods, Zunes, etc.
It comes down to a comfort issue. I never found a set that was comfortable. With traditional headsets, the ear pads were always uncomfortable, and the frame always slid back and forth on my bald head. With ear buds, my ear canal always became irritated after a while; though to be honest, between the two options, earbuds always ended up being the lesser of the two evils.
And the main reason why I never used headset was because I never needed to. Before having a child, I never feared the volume. I either played games or watched movies as loud as I wanted to, or if the wife complained, I turned it down a bit. Simple. However, after having a baby last December, it suddenly occurred to me how loud even the slightest noises were, and after having woken my daughter a few times due to Master Chief getting a little too rowdy, I just started playing my games muted. I don’t think I need to express to anyone how crappy that is.
When I first started dipping my toes into the world of headsets, I can’t say that I was very educated about the whole thing. A headset is a headset, right? how much of a difference could there REALLY be between the $15 dollar set of Skull Candy earbuds and the $300 set with the giant ear pads?
PAX Prime was the event that opening my eyes….or rather, my ears. On the flight to Seattle, I packed my trusty Zune and Vita…and a set of earbuds. During the flight, I played some Gravity Rush and blasted some Van Halen, my favorite band of all time. Whenever I had some downtime in the hotel, I popped those buds in and listen to some music. Everything was fine…I had no complaints about the sound quality.
One of my meetings on Day 2 was with Turtle Beach. I was familiar with the company only by reputation; I had never actually used any of their products. After being shown some of the new products coming out, I was directed to a setup where I was asked by the rep who my favorite band was. I told her Justin Bieber.
[quote_right]I heard layers of instruments I haven’t before. I heard sound effects in the background that I never knew were there. The bass was so powerful I thought I was going to suffer an ear drum rupture.[/quote_right]No I didn’t…of course I told her Van Halen. I popped on the headset, and “Hot For Teacher” started playing. For those who know the song, you know that it starts with just drums. Then Eddie joins in on the guitar, and then the whole band explodes into auditory awesomeness.
This is a song I have heard hundreds, possibly thousands of times before. I have heard it on everything from earbuds to stereo speakers as tall as myself…but I have NEVER heard it the way I did that day at the Turtle Beach booth. I heard layers of instruments I haven’t before. I heard sound effects in the background that I never knew were there. The bass was so powerful I thought I was going to suffer an ear drum rupture. It was sublime.
I knew right there that I wanted to test more of Turtle Beach’s products out, so after setting up a couple of shipments to the ol’ office, I went back to my crappy old earbuds.
Eventually, TB sent me a set of their Ear Force M1 earbuds, and the Ear Force Z6A headset. These are my impressions of those two sets.
The Ear Force Z6A blew me away with its sound quality. The first thing I tested it out with was my PC copy of Battlefield 3. Which level did I choose? “Thunder Run” and “Going Hunting,” of course. The clarity in “Thunder Run” was astounding. The loud “clacking” of the tank treads came through in a such a crisp, yet violent way. The way the soldiers shouted at each other over all the noise was something I had never noticed before. And when the shooting started, I felt like I was actually being jostled in my chair…no joke. “Going Hunting” was also awesome to listen to. Two highlights from that particular level were when 1) you first come out on the deck for the first time in the rainstorm, and 2) after you take off and soundtrack kicks in. It made me so psyched for the level that I wanted to kick my monitor in.
How about the comfort? Well first off, the Z6A is no small headset…the thing is beefy. I have to admit that I was immediately turned off the moment I saw it. It also comes with a bunch of wires…way more than I was expecting, in fact. I assumed that it would be as simple as plugging it in and moving forward with my life. This was not the case at all, as it comes with a separate amplifier, which involves an additional set of wiring.
First off, the good. The Z6A ended being a lot more comfortable that I was expecting. The frame had a soft, squishy, silicone-like material that molds to your head. It held onto my bald head really well, even staying put through the dreaded “head bang test” of AC/DC songs. Score one for the Z6A. The ear pads were also a lot more comfortable than I thought. I wasn’t really used to using pads that cupped the entire ear; usually, they rest on top of them, resulting in some pretty uncomfortable situations. The Z6A’s were nice and comfy, and even for someone who sweats profusely at the drop of a hat, the pads didn’t bother me. And hey! No sweat either!
There are some things that bugged me about the design of the headset, though. Though I appreciate the separate amplifier and the ability to control the volume of all five channels independent of each other, the need for additional wiring made hooking up the headset a very messy affair. To begin with, the headset doesn’t just plug into the headphone jack on the front of my computer. It involves three connections directly into my sound card, with a fourth for the microphone, if you so choose. The three wires then connect to another set of three wires, which receives the wires coming from the amplifier….which is all connected to the headset itself. To top it all off, my tower was not placed in an ideal location, and the wires were stretched extremely taut while I was testing it out; though to be fair, that is no fault of Turtle Beach’s.
Regardless, the Z6A is an impressive device. Each ear cup holds 4 individual amplified speakers, including dual subwoofers. The speakers are also angled specifically to ferry sound at a better angle into the ear. The extendable mic also moves out of the way easily, and isn’t too intrusive. Speaking of the mic, you can hear your voice in the headset while you’re speaking. And best of all, no batteries required for the Z6A…it’s all USB powered.
The next item I received is the Ear Force M1 earbuds. I took to these a lot easier than the Z6A, since I am much more familiar with buds. Interestingly enough, I didn’t find these to be very comfortable. I wasn’t a big fan of the wrap-around ear design of the wire. I tried to get the buds to fit in my ear canal without wrapping the cord around my ear, but they wouldn’t fit. Apparently wrapping was the only way to go.
However, the discomfort is a small price to pay for the quality of audio that comes out of these little buds. It’s very clear to me now how inferior my current set of earbuds is after experiencing the M1. I tested them out on my PC with Battlefield 3, the same two levels as with the Z6A. Amazing. I then plugged them into my Zune. Amazing. Then my Vita and 3DS. Again…amazing. It’s truly a disservice to use the native speakers on the Vita and 3DS, as they are garbage compared to listening to them through a good set of earpieces. In fact, I almost feel bad for the sound producers, as they clearly spend a lot of time on the audio for these games…audio that most people will probably never hear the correct way.
The M1 is made with 10mm drivers in the ear pieces with neodymium magnets for top notch audio quality. The rubber on the ear pieces themselves create a nice seal for superior noise cancellation. While the ear wrap what annoying, it DID ensure a nice, secure fit. And of course, there’s an in-line mic, something my current set doesn’t have.
Both the headsets I got a chance to review are fantastic. They are premium products, and their quality reflects Turtle Beach’s commitment to quality. If anything, it opened my eyes to the inferiority of my current set of earbuds. It’s very simple; you get what you pay for, and I paid less than $20 for mine. Both sets are currently available through the Turtle Beach website; the Z6A for $99.95, and the M1 for $59.95.