If it ain't broke, don't fix it -- that seems to be the mantra behind the A50's design. The headset is nearly identical to the tried-and-true A40 ($200 as a standalone product), all the way down to subtle details like the embroidered headband -- the same sort you'd find on a fitted baseball cap. For those unfamiliar, it's a very retro-futuristic design; you're looking at an extremely flexible skeletal frame made from sturdy matte plastic along with two glossy metal tubes that connect the earcups to the headband. That said, discerning shoppers will notice the A50 differentiates itself from the A40 with a non-glossy finish on the outside of the earcups and red coloring on the partially visible internal wiring. The coiled and slightly exposed wiring might seem like a malfunction waiting to happen, but we've never experienced any breaks or snags with last year's A40. So we'd say it's fair to expect the same robustness here as well.
Some tweaks have also been made to accommodate a more couch-friendly experience than the A40 wireless system (i.e., A40 plus Astro MixAmp 5.8). Aesthetically, this means the A50 doesn't have customizable speaker tags, nor can you move the mic to the right earcup on the fly. Not that it matters, because if you're at home, it's not like anyone can see how totally awesome your customizations are anyway. However, this does actually have an impact on the tonality of the A50, which we'll discuss in more detail later.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it -- that seems to be the mantra behind the A50's design.
With that, let's talk about what might have counted as "broken" in the past. As we mentioned earlier, the MixAmp 5.8's performance and versatility were both great, but having a wired headset that plugged into a belt-attached receiver that connected wirelessly to a transmitter was ideal only for a niche group of users. Namely, it was made for those with large living rooms and who wanted the traditional MixAmp experience without tracking wires across the room. It was also a wireless option for those interested in hooking up their audiophile cans like the Sennheiser's 500 series. In the case of the A50, though, the belt pack is gone. Its controls, radios and rechargeable lithium-ion battery are now embedded in the headset itself -- specifically, the left earcup.
Within your thumb's reach on the back of the right earcup is a notched volume wheel, while further up you'll find a power button with an indicator light and a tri-mode switch for sound profiles, which we'll explain in the audio section. The volume roller is placed in a great spot and becomes more intuitive with each use -- you won't be fiddling to find it at all. However, we quickly became annoyed with just how many flicks it took to move throughout the volume range -- we're talking around 50 taps of the thumb. You might think that once your volume is set you'd barely be touching the wheel, but we found ourselves trekking up and down its range in all sorts of scenarios, from new games to music listening. That said, the dial and tri-mode switch function smoothly, and unlike previous MixAmps, you won't notice any static or off-centering in the audio signal while making adjustments.
Moving along to the outside of the right earcup, it's essentially a giant rocker for adjusting the balance of audio coming from games and voice chat. It's convenient to press that big, tactile button and hear a satisfying click, though we did find the sound of its springs to be a bit annoying at lower volumes. Thankfully, the rocker also enables three audio cues to help you gauge the balance. (Additionally, you'll hear these sounds indicating when the headset is powered on or in need of a charge.) Overall, we wouldn't say this system is as intuitive as having a duo of stereo system-like volume dials to control the audio levels like previous MixAmps, but we're at a loss trying to come up with a better implementation than this.
Along the rear of the left earcup sits a mini-USB port for charging, and a 2.5mm input for your Xbox Live chat cable, and we've got no complaints about their placement. The outside features a non-removable mic that's extremely flexible, and positioning it upright will let you quickly mute any potentially embarrassing conversations you might need to have with your roommates. Still, we've got to kvetch at least a little. This flip method (which we've loved on wired Sennheiser headsets like the PC 360) is certainly better than having a mute switch embedded inline with a cable, but its left-side-only mic placement puts you at a loss. It's one of those subtle design elements that make the A40 unique and accommodating to the user, and as understandable as that design choice is, we're just a bit saddened that the option isn't here.
By the way, although the A50's MixAmp TXD wireless transmitter looks largely the same as the original 5.8's TX, A40 owners might be disappointed to learn that the 5.8's MixAmp RX receiver is not compatible with this unit due to differing audio technologies (more on that later). The same goes if you try to use the A50 with the OG 5.8 TX. All that's understandable, for sure, but still a bummer if you plan on having buddies over for split-screen gaming or an intimate LAN party.
Setup and layout
We're happy to report that getting the whole A50 package set up went smoothly -- the hardest part was fiddling with the three plastic bits that snap together to create a stand for the headset and MixAmp transmitter. Aside from those pieces, you'll find a pair of USB cables, a TOSlink cord and an Xbox chat cable. Yes, you'll still need to plug a pesky cable into your controller to talk on Live, since Tritton has the exclusive rights for totally wireless Xbox headsets with its upcoming Warhead. Still, since Turtle Beach offers a wireless controller puck to ensure there are no cords at all, we can't help but be disappointed that Astro has once again left Xbox users in need of a cable for its wireless system -- even if it is one fewer than was needed for the 5.8. Although the wire never separated from our controller, we do wish the connection were a little tighter. From left to right, the back of the A50's TXD features an auxiliary input for your PMP (you'll need to supply your own cable); a USB power socket and an optical input that connects with your console or computer; an optical pass-through and a second USB port for charging the headset. Unlike the MixAmp 5.8 TX, the TXD spares us the hassle of a proper wall wart as it gets its power right from the USB of your gaming system.
Astro, again, managed to leave its wireless system needing a wire for Xbox users.
The cables from the base shoot straight from the back, a setup similar to what you'll find on the Nexus Q. From there, it's a matter of charging up the headset and powering it, and the TXD, up. Annoyingly, the base's buttons are still controlled independently (as on the original), meaning you won't be able to power it on and switch from stereo or virtualized Dolby Headphone 7.1 sound from the comfort of your couch. While we suspect the idea is to keep the base powered on at all times, there are surely many folks out there who'd prefer to avoid such a scenario altogether. It's not like you'd have to do the same with your console. We're happy to report that this time around PS3 users don't have to fork over extra cash for a TX-to-console chat cable, as was the mind-boggling case with the MixAmp 5.8.
All that said, we still have another nit to pick in the cable department. If you'll recall, the A50's internal battery is not user-replaceable. This means you'll need to hook it up to the TXD or your console via USB every single time the battery dies. With our usage, this was about every six hours despite Astro's claim of
12-plus around 10 hours "across platforms." However, we're told that keeping the mic muted should allow for better battery life, and that Xbox users will likely achieve longer runs between charges because of that chat cable. Thankfully, the A50 can function while charging, but the included three-inch charging cord won't get you very far. A longer "Play-and-Charge" cable is available from Astro, but it'll set you back eight bucks. At that price, we're not sure why it's not included in the package. By the way, we're told that battery will last up three years for most users, and that a service replacement program will be available for those who burn out the battery before then.
Hands down, this is one of the most comfortable headsets you'll slap on your noggin. All of the embedded tech makes it noticeably heavier than the A40 (0.81 vs. 0.71 pounds) but Astro's compensated for this with more of its Tempur-Pedic-esque padding. Essentially, there's a floating headband that balances the headset's weight distribution, while the deep earcups and circumaural fit should ensure that the pads will wrap around your ears rather than push against them. We'd be remiss not to mention that the left side of the headset feels noticeably heavier in-hand due to the internal battery, but you might not be able to discern the difference once it's on your head. Better yet, the padding is made of cloth, ensuring your ears never get excessively sweaty after long periods of wear.
Bottom line: we had no issues using this puppy for hours of game play.
Beyond that, the earcups have a long range of adjustment up and down the metal headrails, and the cups fold flat (notably, with the earpads facing down) for resting on your collar when it's time to take a break. Recall that flexibility we mentioned early? It really helps keep the clamping force of the A50 at a minimum, yet its fairly loose fit remains snug enough to provide a solid seal between your ears and the earcups -- it's ultra-comfortable and won't cause cartilage cramps. The only headset that rivals it for us is the PC 360, which loses some brownie points for having pads that push against glasses rather that mold around them like with the A40 and A50. Bottom line: we had no issues using this puppy for hours of game play.
Sound and wireless connectivity
Building on the 5.8GHz solution first introduced with the MixAmp 5.8, Astro also threw in KleerNet lossless audio processing. To put it simply, Kleer is well-known for its wireless DSP, which aims to offer CD-like resolution for audio files, being capable of offering uncompressed, lossless audio. This also means the unit has the ability to interface with other KleerNet-enabled devices. Just like the A40, this headset uses 40mm drivers (rated at 48oHms) despite the 50 moniker, but the sound signature is noticeably different. The most drastic change is the A50's completely closed back design, instead of the A40's optional semi-open or closed back setup handled by its speaker tags. (Essentially, the tags for the A40 can be used as partial blocks for the earcup vents or near-total blocks using its foam dampeners.) Basically, you can expect gobs of passive-isolation and bass.
The A50 produces audio that's warm, punchy and absolutely massive.
As it stands, you'll have a choice between three presets: Media (bass boost), Core (flat) and Pro (treble boost). Following in the steps of Turtle Beach, Astro says users will soon be able create their own custom presets featuring options for "EQs, sidetones, noise-gates and more"; although the company hasn't said when, exactly, this feature might roll out. Out of the box, the A50 produces audio that's warm, punchy and absolutely massive. Media mode is excellent for movie-watching and listening to music, but we didn't use it as much while gaming. This is without a doubt the deepest and wub-wub-iest bass we've experienced, and it definitely drowns out the rest of the mix a bit. Core mode sounds much like the A40 models since the 2011 Edition, albeit a bit less clinical with more extension in the low end and slightly darker treble. The Pro mode essentially pushes out a major boost in the treble, making it easy to discern footsteps and gunshots; although the audio thins out as expected, the sound doesn't become overly sibilant or unpleasant to listen to. Naturally, you'll have to figure out which preset you like best, but we usually found ourselves swapping between the Normal and Pro modes during matches.
One thing is certain: this headset is capable of pumping out great, loud sound. We found no traces of distortion at even the loudest volumes, and we're curious to see how much the sound could potentially improve once Astro lets us set custom EQs. As it stands, we find that Astro's pre-loaded A50 presets for the Media and Core modes are simply too bass-focused at the moment, seeming more like demos for how low it can go.
So how about Dolby Headphone's simulated 7.1? You might want to read up on the More Coverage link below for full details on how the magic happens, but it works great -- just like most quality headsets that use the DSP. The A50 itself is naturally a stereo headset that still maintains a decently wide sound stage compared to the A40, so the added surround effect really does give an impressive "image" of where sounds are coming from. It's by no means necessary for having fun in games like Call of Duty, but it does serve as an aid to hearing sounds as if you were really on the battlefield. That said, you'll still find this advantage in many other headsets, they just might not sound as creamy and crisp as the A50 manages to be.
There are a few minor flaws we have to point out with regards to incoming audio. For one, despite using a 5.8GHz signal rather than the more crowded 2.4GHz frequency (and being only between 10 to 20 feet away from the TXD on average), the sound tended to cut out for a split second multiple times during MW3 sessions on our Xbox. We even did A/B with the MixAmp 5.8 (via optical pass-thru), and weren't able to reproduce the problem -- we're waiting for a response from Astro about this abnormality. Additionally, we're running some more tests with other games and consoles to get some more insight as to whether the problem actually lies with the A50. Secondly, we noticed a small bit of buzzing along with some expected signal hiss. It's usually unnoticeable, but you might hear it creep in when the incoming audio becomes quiet.
Update: Astro has confirmed the problems and says a firmware update will be issued shortly to the alleviate the issue. We'll be sure report back with our results once it's available.
Update 2: We can confirm that the audio cut-out issue has been resolved, along with a variety of other tweaks, which we've detailed here.
Of course this is a headset, and with that designation comes the embedded microphone. We've talked about its external characteristics, so now let's explore it in a bit more detail. The mic is of the unidirectional variety, but it does have a fairly small sweet spot for placement. How do we know this? Well, your voice is actively monitored and the audio is fed into your ears, as with Astro's other MixAmps. This makes it easier to avoid shouting, especially given the thick isolation from the earcups. The monitoring is much clearer, but it's still very low in volume like previous MixAmps, so we'd still prefer it to be much more present in the mix.
As it stands, there is no way to control its level other than moving how close the mic is to your mouth. The problem is that the signal gets distorted if the mic is too close, so we're hoping that we'll be able to adjust its level when Astro rolls out that preset manager we mentioned earlier. In-game, our buddies reported hearing us clearly with only the occasional complaint that we sounded muddled. We'd say it's largely similar to the A40 2011 Edition's microphone, meaning it isolates speech well enough for in-game, but we wouldn't recommend it over the likes of a Blue Snowball for gameplay commentaries.
For the most part, Astro Gaming has succeeded in creating what's likely to be the next hot gaming headset. $300 is a steep price considering how much consoles go for these days, but it's still closely aligned with competing products like Turtle Beach's $270 XP500. It's clear that Astro isn't just dabbling in the home market anymore: it's making an earnest bid to unseat other headset makers. If you've been looking for wireless gaming headphones,
and provided the issue with audio cutting out gets resolved (Update: This issue was recently fixed via a Firmware update, which is detailed above in the sound section), then this belongs on your shortlist alongside the $270 XP500 / $250 PX5 and maybe even the $270 Tritton Warhead (when it stops being vaporware, that is). What if we had to choose, you say (especially in comparison to the wireless A40 system)? We'd say it looks like you've got some great options for serious in-game sound.