It wasn't long ago you needed to buy a set of purpose-made cans if you wanted a pair of gaming headphones. Thanks to how the PlayStation 4's and Xbox One's controllers are designed, though, that isn't the case anymore. For Xbox, all you need to use your favorite pair of headphones with Microsoft's latest console is a $35 adapter. So how does a company known for its high-end gaming headsets like Astro compete?
With the A40 Xbox One Edition. This $200 headset bests its adversaries, but faces stiff competition from an unexpected place: other Astro headphones.
Gallery: This is how Astro does Xbox One headphones | 17 Photos
Astro products have never been inexpensive by any measure, but the flip-side is they're an investment, not a throwaway purchase. The company has only released a handful of models since the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hit the scene. Rather than becoming obsolete like so many other headsets with the release of the PS4 and Xbox One, Astro instead issued firmware updates to make the wireless MixAmp modules and the A50 compatible with the new systems.
What do the new A40s offer the old ones don't? Well, the biggest addition is the M80 MixAmp that plugs directly into the Xbox One controller. It replaces the console's aforementioned adapter, but essentially performs the same tasks: voice/game audio balance and one-button muting. Where it differs, though, is the M80 offers three different EQ settings -- no bass, medium bass and lots of bass -- and replaces the 3.55mm headphone input with a roughly 4-foot linguini cable and 3.5mm headphone jack that plugs into the base of the left earcup. Oh, and the mute button/volume knob combo is huge and super easy to get to even without looking at the controller. Setup is a cinch as well: Just plug the M80 into your controller, the cable into the headphones and you're good to go. One wire, zero frustration.
I've been using my MLG-edition A40s as my go-to headphones for home use since 2011; I'm intimately familiar with them. They sound great for everything -- even voice transcription -- and are the gold standard I compare every gaming headset to. They're unobtrusive, comfortable for long periods and are easy to use. The new A40s are different in that regard, but only on a superficial level. Rather than all-black styling, these are a light gray with baby blue accents. If you're a Detroit Lions fan, these'll be right up your alley, but others might not be so into them.
Functionally, nothing has really changed. You can still swap the boom mic from earcup to earcup, and the magnetic earcup covers (officially called "speaker tags") are removable for any customization you'd want to do.
As for audio, they deliver the clear, earcup-rattling (literally) sound I've come to expect from Astro gear. From watching slack-jawed as three gigantic mechs duked it out in Titanfall to tearing through a French vineyard in Forza Horizon 2and popping headshots on grunts in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, everything I played with these headphones sounded killer. Honestly, they even betray the stereo-only nature of any audio the Xbox One controller outputs. I even plugged my trusty A40s into Microsoft's official headset adapter and they couldn't hold a candle to these. Sound was much more full and enveloping in my A/B tests, feeling like it wrapped around the back of my head as opposed to existing exclusively on the side of each ear with my old setup.
However, if there's a downside, it's what the M80 does to your controller's battery life.
I was surprised when the different EQ modes applied to incoming voice chat, too. It was always easy to find a solid mix between game and chat audio, and even adjust the balance and sound mode setting without taking my eyes off my TV. That's another aspect Astro's always excelled at while others have fallen woefully short: trying to cram too many buttons in too small of a space. It's easier to use than Microsoft's adapter in that sense, too.
However, if there's a downside, it's what the M80 does to your controller's battery life. Because it draws power from the gamepad itself, the Xbox One controller's miserly power use goes right out the window. With a fresh set of AAs, I got a low-battery warning after about 12 hours of use across three gaming sessions.
Is all of this worth the $200 investment, though, especially if you already own Astro's other headsets? That's hard to say and depends entirely on what your priorities are. You could get a pair of their A50s and have 7.1 audio and wireless chat for $100 more. Meanwhile, $250 would get you a set of the traditional A40s, the wireless MixAmp Pro (which grants 7.1 surround and Dolby Digital audio), but you'd need a wire for chat. Here, you get stereo and a built-in amp in one discreet package. Astro tells me that if the Xbox One ever starts outputting two-channel virtual surround via the controller, the M80 can deliver that. However, it's limited to analog sound, which isn't quite as accurate as digital.
In a vacuum, the A40s are an easy recommendation, but they get a lot harder to justify when you look at the rest of the company's product line -- especially if you own more than just an Xbox One. My advice? If you can't spare the extra $50, save for a bit longer and grab the vanilla A40s.