It seems like every product on the market today costs more now than it did even just a year or two ago. Sure, the Xbox 360 has dropped in price, and every now and then you can get 20 cents off a gallon of gas (after buying $100 worth of groceries). But even when prices stay the same, manufacturers just reduce the size of the product (16 oz bottles of water are replacing 20 oz bottles in groceries all over the country). So, I’m happy to report that for once, you get something that’s just the right size, and worth what you pay for it (even if the price tag is on the high end). I’m talking about the headset and audio mixer that comprise A40 Audio System from Astro Gaming.
Astro Gaming might not be a name that’s familiar to some of you. While you may not know their name, you definitely know some of the products designed by their parent company, Astro Studios. These are the folks that brought the world the sharp clean look of the Xbox 360, the out of this world image that is the Alienware series of PC’s, along with several other high visibility products designed for use outside of the gaming arena.
The headphones, available in “Astro” black or white, are made of a high quality plastic that feels rugged but not too heavy. Instead of the load-bearing tension band that many headsets favor today, the A40 headset uses a cushioned pad across the top of the headset to help distribute weight and increase comfort. The cones of the headset are surrounded by felt covered foam that is firm but comfortable, and could rest against the ear without crushing the earlobe. In fact, the cones actually fit around my ears, resting against the side of my head as these types headphones are intended to fit. This unit is far and away the most comfortable of all of the gaming audio headsets I’ve covered.
It’s also the most adjustable of the gaming headsets I’ve tried with the unit capable of being far too large for my rather sizable head. The cable between the two cones is well protected, running inside the headset band across the top of the head. The boom microphone is over 6 inches long and works like a pipe cleaner. It stays in whatever position it’s bent into, and you should be able to find a position you like for it. In addition, the microphone can be plugged into either side of the headset, a feature missing from almost every other headset on the market.
As with any audio output device, the sound you get is only as good as the sound input device. In this case, it was the Xbox 360, for many games of Battlefield: Bad Company and NHL 08. The A40 headset is a Dolby Digital and Dolby Headphone 5.1 surround sound device. I know a lot of devices try to say those things, but when the A40 says it, it says it very loud, and very clear. The battle sounds were intense, sharp and clear. The surround sound worked perfectly, I really did feel that the soldiers following me were talking into my ear from behind. In NHL 08, I focused on testing the microphone, and I felt like I was far better able to hear and communicate than using the Xbox provided headset.
The other half of this dynamic duo of sound is the A40 Mixamp. It doesn’t look like much on the outside. A sleek black box about the size of an old Sony Walkman cassette player, on the top it has a very large master volume knob, a much smaller balance knob (the mixer), a power button, and the button to activate the Dolby system. The back has inputs for left and right RCA, Coax, optical, and MP3/Audio mini-plug. It also has an output to the microphone jack of a PC sound card. The unit can also accept power via the mini usb port located amongst the audio ins and outs. This is almost a necessity for longer gaming sessions, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The bottom of the unit has the headset connection, as well as a connection for audio in from the controller (which you use to mix in the audio from Xbox Live). This is also where the daisy chaining connection is, through which one of the two best features of this unit comes. These connectors allow multiple A40 Mixamps together. This allows you to do lagless team chat, and with the audio disconnected from Xbox Live, private team chat. The mixer allows you to adjust the balance between game and voice, so you can put the emphasis on the audio you’re interested in. We daisy chained our pre-production unit together with our production unit, and found that the chat was sharp, clear, and so much better than talking over Xbox Live that it will be hard to go back to that for team play.
The two items I haven’t talked about are both big positives for the unit, and in juxtaposition, the two reasons the unit didn’t earn a straight “A” for a grade. The first is the battery life. This unit goes through batteries faster than any other piece of equipment I have ever seen, 4 at a time no less. I went through the best “AA” Energizers commercially available in less than 2 hours. The solution to this is to purchase the optional rechargeable battery pack (which charges while the unit is powered via the usb port) with the unit, which fully charged I was able to get about 6 hours of quality play out of.
The second item is a little more nitpicky on my part. I mentioned the unit has a MP3 input which is nice because it allows the user to add any audio they like without having to set it up in-game. What the unit lacks though, is a second mixer to balance the MP3 audio with the other two inputs. Having two balancers would have allowed the player to really crank the music during particularly tedious dialog, or tone it down quickly during an intense team battle. File this under nice to have, but I can’t imagine it would have been too hard to add this feature.
Obviously, these two small issues don’t greatly diminish the quality audio and professional level feature set of the product. The price tag ($269 including the not so optional rechargeable battery pack) is going to mean this unit is not for everyone. But if you’re playing a lot of Xbox Live, a lot of local team multiplayer, or just want to be able to better control how loud 13 year olds can call you “Noob” without having to mute them, you should seriously consider the A40 audio system.