Get out of your seat -- okay, you don't really have to do that. Turtle Beach, however, is certainly hoping its new headset won't have you stuck there. After months of teasing, it's finally here. This is the Seven Series, the company's first set officially bred for Major League Gaming tournaments. It's a contractual title that's already been bestowed upon Astro's well-performing Mixamp and A40 systems. But for Turtle Beach, this is a first: we've never seen the company go after a demographic quite this wide, one that demands not just cross-platform gaming support, but a design versatile enough for everyday listening.
The Seven Series lineup includes the computer-focused Z, the mobile-geared M and the cross-platform XP. For this review, we'll be focusing on the XP bundle ($280), which includes a headset, a virtual 5.1 surround-sound-enabling Audio Control Unit and a console adapter dubbed the Console Interface. (For the time being, those last two pieces won't be sold as standalone products.) While the headset itself might seem like the star of the show, in our eyes the ACU and CI offer the most exciting prospects. Together, they allow for virtual surround sound and voice chat with any set of wired headphones on any platform (much like the Mixamp) while also putting Turtle Beach's tried-and-tested custom audio presets at your fingertips. So what's it like to use? Join us past the break where we'll lay it all out.%Gallery-183126%
Turtle Beach Ear Force XP SEVEN
- Insane levels of real-time audio control
- Impressive audio quality
- Relatively portable
- Frustrating learning curve
- Advance Sound Editor not yet available on OS X
- The headset itself isn't our favorite
The headset is draped in white and black down to the detachable braided cables -- a color scheme we're not in love with. In fact, we felt slightly embarrassed to wear it outside.
Upon unboxing the unit, you'll find the headset, Audio Control Unit and Console Interface, obviously, as well as various cables for hookup. All told, you get a male-to-male 3.5mm aux cord; 3.5mm cables, one with an inline remote / mic and one without; a Toslink cable; a 2.5mm cable for Xbox controllers; and an extension cable for the ACU.
The headset is draped in white and black down to the detachable braided cables -- a color scheme we're not exactly in love with. In fact, we felt slightly embarrassed to wear it outside -- it's just a little cheesy, is all. Though it's predominantly made of matte and glossy-finished plastic, it still feels solid and not at all hollow. While it ultimately feels more premium than, say, a pair of Trittons, it still has some catching up to do compared to what Astro's offering in the same price range. Make no mistake, though: this is the best build quality we've seen from the company since the metal-clad HPX.
The leather headband and memory-foam-loaded earpads provide ample comfort for long sessions, and the earcups are cushy enough to keep the cartilage on your ears protected. The cups also fold flat for resting on your collarbones or for easy stowing inside your day bag. The overall clamping force is a bit tight out of the box, but after wearing it a few times, we noticed the headphones had already loosened up a good deal. Thanks to the closed-back design, isolation from outside noise was very good even on the subway. Currently, there's no option for cloth-wrapped padding -- Turtle Beach says most of the pro players it polled during the product-development phase didn't mind losing some breathability in favor of better isolation. Still, we'd love to see the option for those who just hate getting sweaty ears.
Like some models from Astro and Tritton, the Seven headset has earcups with interchangeable faceplates. While they're not available just yet, you'll be able to order some with your own custom designs. Oddly, the included set features mesh that implies the headphones are open-backed, but really, that's just an unnecessary design flourish. The faceplates snap firmly into place, but you'll probably need the help of a coin to pry them off -- we still prefer the magnetic connection that Astro uses, rather than the snap-on designs from TB and Tritton.
Moving to the underside of the left earcup, you'll find a 3.5mm boom microphone insert and a short cable with a quick disconnect dongle attached at the end. We have little concern that the cable could be ripped from the earcup thanks to its cloth wrap and rubber connection, but its proprietary nine-pin connector ensures you'll be stuck to Turtle Beach for replacement cables. The company says it's for grounding purposes, though that's hard to accept when most headphones at this price point use the standard 3.5mm connection.
Beyond that, the whole quick-disconnect section feels abnormally large with a cable connected. It's especially problematic when you hook up the cable with an included inline remote and mic, as it's simply huge compared to inline remotes on most headphones. On the plus side, the connection is tight and secure, but the button placement of the remote made it tough to find without looking down. Don't get us wrong, it's totally usable, but the user experience doesn't always feel fluid.
This is the first time you'll have this much granular real-time control over your headset's audio.
So, we're not exactly in love with the headset's design, but the Audio Control Unit is another story. This is seriously a game changer for console users compared to what's been available for cross-platform Dolby surround sound decoders in the past. This bus-powered, wired remote feels solid in hand, with function taking precedence over form. Its circular top handles the majority of volume and surround sound settings, while the rest of the remote's top-facing section is split into eight preset selectors for the incoming game audio in either speaker or headphone mode. Notably, all of the presets and surround sound selectors are capacitive. We were skeptical at first, but thanks to a built-in two-second delay between touch selections, we always got what we wanted -- and no, the delay isn't too noticeable. Better yet, all of our taps registered even with sweaty hands.
The topmost section features a physical volume dial that also serves as a mute switch when pushed, surrounded by a circular cluster of LEDs (for clockwise-flowing level indication) and then a secondary outer ring of capacitive buttons and LED indicators. The 1 o'clock position denotes if your mic is muted, while at 3 o'clock is a Dolby Digital status (stereo or surround sound). The 4 o'clock spot is a Master button (for saving settings and quickly returning the center dial to its main volume control), and 6 o'clock features a half-dozen blocks that correspond to your virtual surround speakers. At 8 o'clock is a 5.1 button for toggling between the front, rear, center and subwoofer volumes, and 9 o'clock is the stereo / surround toggle. Finally, the 10 o'clock position is a toggle for adjusting the angle of the left and right, front or rear speakers. Some of these features have been available to lesser degrees on earlier TB headsets, but merely as presets. This is the first time you'll have this much granular real-time control over your headset's audio.
It took us a couple hours to understand how to adjust the audio in the exact ways we wanted.
Running along the left side, you'll find a power toggle, a programmable jog dial (preset as a microphone monitor volume) and another for setting the volume of external sources like MP3 players. On the bottom edge are three audio inputs: a 3.5mm jack for external sources, one for your actual headset and a 2.5mm jack to connect to Xbox 360 controllers for voice chat on Live. On the right edge, you'll notice a volume jog dial for incoming chat audio and a backlit button for switching between speaker and headset mode. Lastly, there's a 3.5mm speaker output at the front of the unit.
On the bottom are three rubber feet that keep the ACU firmly in place on a table and a belt clip (a humorous addition given its large size). As you can imagine, there's a lot of control here -- an overwhelming amount, in fact. It took us a couple hours to understand how to adjust the audio in the exact ways we wanted, and that's partly because the included documentation is quite dense. Thankfully, after many trials with some errors, we loved the control that the unit placed at our fingers, as TB promised. Basically, if you're not willing to take a few hours to really command this thing and understand the audio production in each of your games, you might be better off with the simpler options out there.
As an aside, these units are specifically made to work with the TM1 tournament mixer. Basically, it's a $200 mixing console for LAN setups and MLG tournaments, meaning you could easily set up a multi-headset sound solution of your own. It even features a broadcast channel for commentating, and a dedicated chat system so you won't experience any delay conferring with your teammates. We couldn't get our hands on one for this review, but we hope to give you a closer look in the future.
The ACU features a lengthy cable that terminates in a USB jack and a nine-pin connector. When used with a PC or Mac, the USB connection is all that you'll have to worry about to get started (aside from ensuring your surround settings are correct). For your PS3 or Xbox 360, a small Console Interface is needed. Both the USB and nine-pin connection plug in on the front, while the back has a Toslink input (with a pass-through in case you have other Toslink gear plugged in) and another 3.5mm aux input. A light on its top lets you know that you're active. From there it's a matter of plugging in whatever headset you're going to use into the ACU -- any other setup happens with the software and presets.
Software, presets and sound
Image from an earlier version of the PX5-focused ASE.
Similar to the PX5, this supports Turtle Beach's Advanced Sound Editor (ASE) and Preset Manager (PM) software. Using your computer, you'll be able to make your own EQ presets, and assign them, or ones you've downloaded from Turtle Beach, to the ACU. Mac users are currently left out of the ASE, but the company is actively working on getting the software out eventually. The sooner the better, too, as there are currently fewer than 20 presets available for download, and they're only geared toward Dead Space 3 and Black Ops 2. Interestingly, the whole website experience is akin to your average forum, which is to say download links are spread across multiple threads. Really, an app store would make more sense. Thankfully, for our purposes, the folks at Turtle Beach sent us some of their own EQ presets to test out.
Sonically, the whole package performs extremely well, even if it's a bit low on volume out of the box. The headphones have a thick, smooth tonality with a decent enough soundstage that works well with any EQ and surround setting we chose from the ACU. While Turtle Beach says the headset is voiced for a relatively flat response, we noticed a definite bump in the midrange when using headphones without any EQ. The ACU doesn't push too much hiss in the signal, and operates pleasingly as a soundcard. While the XP Seven and ACU are made for each other, you can certainly connect your own headphones to the unit -- something we know audiophile gamers are going to appreciate. With the ACU, it really comes down to this: you can make a preset focused solely on an EQ that sounds ripe to your ears, or simply forgo a nice mix and highlight certain frequencies for an unfair advantage. Here's the interesting part: although you can load the ACU with all these presets, MLG gamers will be plugging into ones with league-mandated presets and a higher overall volume output.
Sonically, the whole package performs extremely well, even if it's a bit low on volume out of the box.
The real problem with Turtle Beach's preset-packing headsets is that if your chosen game has poor audio onboard, you're going to notice quickly. For example, Dead Space 2 has an extremely immersive sound design, which you really begin to appreciate as you're changing the volumes of the surround sound channels and moving the bilateral angles of the front and rear side channels around your ears. Speaking of those angles, you can move the front-left and front-right virtual speakers in 10-degree, parallel increments from the front side and back to side with the rears. Lowering the volume of the center channel allowed us to kill much of our character's own sounds like footsteps and gunshots, ensuring we weren't scaring ourselves silly. However, moving to Modern Warfare 3, it soon became clear that the only things the audio designers left in the center channel were voice prompts. In those cases, the ACU was too powerful for its own good -- you really begin to want what you can't have. Sure, one could achieve all of this with a real speaker setup, but it would never be this fast to adjust.
You may be wondering about the ACU being only 5.1 instead of 7.1 like most headsets. Put simply, most solutions offering 7.1 really use Dolby PLIIx to matrix two more virtualized rear channels, based on the actual 5.1 info being sent to the decoder box. In effect, it's more of a filler than anything, and essentially unnoticeable to us even after testing headsets for years with the feature. The granular audio controls more than make up for it.
When it comes to mic and chat audio, there is also a good chunk of features. Since the Seven headset blocks out a fair amount of outside noise, the ACU offers voice monitoring so you won't feel the need to shout into the mic. Thankfully, it's also adjustable, which allowed us to dial in the perfect amount of volume for games, chat and our voice. The feature worked more effectively while using the boom mic, with the inline remote coming off as harsh through the ACU. Like TB's other headsets, you'll also find chat boost included, which adjusts the chat volume at the same rate as the game audio changes, while still keeping your set ratio. For example, if the game volume moves up one notch, the chat channel will only move up one notch even if the actual volume is many times lower. Unlike our experience with the PX21 a few years ago, the chat boost was thankfully less aggressive in its attack quickness -- nothing is worse than an ear-piercing spike in volume. In short, the quality from the boom and inline mics is more than acceptable for their intended uses. Don't take our word for it, though, as you can hear for yourself with the audio clips below:
A few design quirks and frustrations aside, we're pleased with the XP Seven Series bundle. Even more than the headphones, though, we're smitten with the Audio Control Unit. The Seven Series headset is a solid enough offering, but there are plenty of other $150 headsets we'd use with the ACU if we could. Compared to Astro's older MLG headsets, this product represents a clear step forward, and we're sure many competitive gamers will enjoy it. If it were up to us, we'd hold off until the ACU becomes available as a standalone product and then pair it with an even better pair of headphones. One thing is certain: the Astro Mixamp has finally been beaten at its own game. It's time to take Turtle Beach seriously outside the living room.