The console gamer’s selection of headsets is surprisingly slim. If money is no option, you can go ahead and break the bank on a pair of MLG-approved Astros or some Tritton headgear and be all set. The rest of us, however, are still left with a few quality brands that won’t deflate wallets… quite as much. Skullcandy, which currently manufactures 2 Xbox compatible sets, and long-time gaming audio standby Turtle Beach are two stand-outs in this market.
Turtle Beach offers a recently updated series of three Xbox “Earforce” headsets. The X1, X31 and X41, priced at $50, $100 and $200 respectively.
EDIT: Turtle Beach has recently added a $29 low cost headset, the XLC to their line up.
Although the X41 features Dolby 7.1 surround sound, the benefits of a headset are just as noticeable in simple stereo for most non-audiophiles, and it’s hard to justify the price tag, especially when the Xbox 360 only natively supports 5.1 surround.
This leaves the X1 and X31 as budget-minded choices. Both perform similarly, save for a few differences. The X31 features toggle-able bass boost and stereo expander effects, and it is wireless. Being wireless, as we’ll find out, is a double-edged sword. If you don’t mind the wires, save some money and frustration and go with the X1.
I find the added effects on the X31 only occasionally make me think “wow, that sounded good!”, and often throw off levels to the extent that you can’t hear certain sounds/speech. When playing FPSs like Call of Duty, I keep these effects turned off by default for the most accurate audio reproduction anyway. None the less, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on between the console and I, which meant going cordless was a much more tempting option.
So I decided to splurge and go with Turtle Beach’s middle-tier X31. You’ll still get some cords though. Three, in fact. Two cables come out from the RF broadcasting unit, a USB power cable and the RCA (red/white) jacks which get the audio. You’ll also have to attach a line from the headset to your controller if you want to chat.
Being wireless, the X31 also uses 2 AAA batteries. They last a good ~15 hours, which is decent for even a heavy gamer. When the batteries run out, a loud and incredibly annoying screeching sound is occasionally heard before the audio cuts out. The feature of squeezing every bit of power out of a battery may increase play time, but the whole battery changing ordeal is still very annoying and frantic in the middle of a game session. You should have an extra set of AAAs on hand regardless. And of course, I’d recommend rechargeables in this situation, even if they won’t last as long.
The piggy-back RCA jacks allow you to plug into any line of audio, which means that although the microphone won’t function, you can use the headset to listen to any aspect of your theater system that it’s tapping into.
Having a headset of any kind will almost assuredly up your game, and give you that bleeding edge. It can also provide a better audio experience for those without a nice surround/hi-fi system. At the very least, it’s a great way to play late at night, or in the middle of it all without bothering, or being bothered, by anyone else. These benefits go without saying, and are definitely present in the X31 and it’s counterparts.
Besides the battery changing issue and the interference, we’ve got a nice solid product in most situations, although I’ve still got some… issues.
The new series of Earforce headsets has addressed some problems with the first series, mainly the fact that since chat audio is now coming out of the same speakers as game audio, it’s hard to differentiate. “Chat Boost” is a feature that monitors the game audio, and adds gain to the chat audio whenever it gets loud.
However, during explosions or loud events it’s still often difficult to tell what your buddies are yelling, or screaming at you. Turning down the actual game audio allows you to hear chat just fine, but at the sacrifice of those all important footsteps.
More complaints come from the line that connects the controller to the headset. For one, the lower connection is a right-angle plug, which seems to get in the way no matter what angle you turn it. The in-line chat volume/mute switch is also overly sensitive, and located in a spot that’s simply too inconvenient to get to during gaming. Xbox got it right with the selector being attached right at the base of the controller, why can’t we see a more similar design?
And finally comes the fact that like most wireless tech, the X31 operates on the same old 2.4GHz band. The same as your controller, your Wi-Fi, and your home phone. Get all these devices working at once, and it’s going to get awfully crowded, meaning something’s going to drop faster than an off-guard sniper using tactical layout. I’ve experienced controller disconnects upon receiving a phone call… although this kind of problem depends on where you’re living.
The audio quality of the transmitter is clear and crisp, even with all this airborne congestion – up to a certain extent. When we upgraded from a wireless G router to a wireless N, the interference got unbearable. (N uses up much more of the spectrum). Even with the router in an opposite room, a good amount of strategic positioning was required to get them to stop interfering with each other.
Beyond those flaws, the X31 really shines as a economically-viable pro gaming accessory. It feels comfortable once you get used to full-ear headphones (at least for the first 5 hours), looks good (when your girlfriend isn’t around) and provides crisp, performance-enhancing audio. Not like you’ve never heard that phrase on the internet before.
If the next iteration of these headsets fixes the chat-line issues, and maybe ditches the audio-effects in favor of a lower price tag, Turtle Beach will have a main-stream/hardcore gaming gem. Until then, the X31 is a fine choice for those who need wireless connectivity, but it comes along with a few inconveniences.