I’ve been testing surround sound headphones for almost three years now, and it never gets old taking the new set out of the package and setting up for a review. It gives me an excuse to play games with lots of explosions and music, as well as bust out some favorite movies designed for the theatre sound experience. The set I put through its paces this time was the Vibras 5.1 CH Surround Sound Xbox 360 Gaming Headset from Track-Scan.
For those of you unfamiliar with Track-Scan, they primarily make audio equipment for use by fans of auto racing. They rent and sell scanners and headphones so fans watching rednecks drive in circles can eavesdrop on driver and pit conversations. They’ve been in the business of headphones for quite a while and diversified into gaming audio in late 2008. The Vibras 5.1 CH Surround Sound Xbox 360 Gaming Headset released in time for 2009 CES where it won an innovation award.
The Vibras 5.1 (I’m not typing the rest of that again) for 360 is identical to its sibling USB unit, other than the color (white vs. black) and the device connection cord. The headphones have a 3 prong mini audio jack connection which attaches to the Dolby decoder. The decoder has 3 volume controls to mix the output from the 5 speakers in each ear, and attaches to any device with an optical out port with the included optical cable. There’s also a power cord for the decoder adding to the volume of cables required to make use of the device. This is sadly the norm for almost all ultra high end gaming headphones.
When connecting to the 360 for XBL, there’s also the requisite cord to connect the headphones to the controller connected to the microphone. This cord has an audio and mute control for the chat volume which requires 2 x AAA batteries. The microphone is on an adjustable post and is detachable from the headset.
I actually started using the Vibras 5.1 to play Star Wars Galaxies quietly after my wife goes to bed. My PC motherboard has an optical audio out, and I figured this was as good as any way to begin with the headset.
The first thing I noticed about the Vibras 5.1 was the strength of the construction. In comparison to both the Tritton AX Pro and Astro Gaming A40, the Vibras 5.1 is a far smaller form factor. This leads to natural concerns regarding the heartiness and longevity, but the plastic used for the unit is dense enough to be strong while remaining somewhat flexible.
The ear pads have a nice soft cushion and cover even my large ears fully. Unfortunately, due to a decision not to go with ear cones, the pads put a not insignificant amount of pressure on the ears. The rigidity of the plastic combines with a lack of significant adjustment for larger heads to make the unit uncomfortable to wear for longer periods of time. My wife put them on and found them comfortable to wear, so clearly smaller heads will find the Vibras to be more comfortable.
Thankfully, that’s the only major thing wrong with the unit. After a few nights of Star Wars Galaxies
, I turned my attention to NHL 2010
. While it isn’t a game where surround sound plays a major role, I wanted to focus on the microphone and XBL
features before I got really in depth into the sound. While any headset is an improvement over the XBL
headset that ships with the 360
, the Vibras 5.1
is clearly head and shoulders above the included unit. I found the audio to be clearer (even if the overall quality isn’t better), and the microphone seemed to pick up my voice far better and stayed in place longer.
I recently installed a RCA surround sound system in our living room and followed a lot of the same testing rituals I do with the headsets. So I knew exactly where my DVD of Top Gun was when I went to test the Vibras 5.1. There isn’t a better way to test surround sound than having an F-14 Tomcat go screeching from your right ear to your left ear and back the other direction a few seconds later. I still remember sitting in the theatre and feeling the jets coming from behind before I could see them on the screen, and I look for a similar (if less impressive) feeling when listening to the movie through surround sound units. I don’t really get it from my RCA system because of the size of the room and the relative lack of power from the system, but I did get it from the Vibras.
I experienced similar sound while playing several other 360
games (Halo 2
, etc.) and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
The power of the sound in the Vibras 5.1 comes from the fact that the unit is powered by 5 drivers in each ear instead of using the Dolby headphone technology which imitates surround sound using delay and echoes. While the smaller drivers used to reach the higher audio ranges can sometimes sound tinny on higher volumes, I didn’t detect any distortion; even at volume levels that hurt my ears. Units with the Dolby headphone technology avoid the tinny sound because they’re using a single driver to provide all of the sound, but they often lack the crispness provided by multiple drivers. It’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make, especially as I prefer to have volume at a level that allows crisp sound without feeling overwhelmed.
While the hardware is overall very good, and provides clear sound, there’s one more problem; the price. Track-Scan lists the price at $249, and though I found the unit listed for $199 on several other websites, it’s simply priced too high. Even with the simple controls, the quality hardware, and the clear crisp sound, the TRITTON AX Pro is a better value at $179.99.
In the end, I can recommend this unit simply on audio quality alone; it’s phenomenal. I’d say it’s slightly better than the Astro A40 and at least on par with the TRITTON AX Pro. If you wear a size large hat or larger, you probably need to look somewhere else due to the pressure the unit puts on the ears. It’s too expensive to use as a replacement for the XBL headset unless you’re looking for a single solution for all of your sound needs (and have a smaller head).