As the popularity of online multiplayer games has grown, two-way headsets that enable communication with other players have become increasingly common. Some, such as the headphones. Turtle Beach is tackling the challenge from a different angle with its Ear Force HPA ($99) two-way headset, which actually incorporates four separate drivers into each earpiece to deliver discrete front, center, rear, and subwoofer signals from 5.1-channel PC sound cards. In terms of its surround-sound performance, the Ear Force HPA can't quite compete with a decent set of 5.1-channel multimedia speakers, but it's as close as you can get with a pair of headphones.
The Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA is a large headset featuring a very comfortable self-adjusting soft fabric-covered headband and leatherette ear pads that fully cup your ears without pinching them as some headphones do. The microphone is highly flexible to facilitate positioning and can be unplugged from the left earpiece when not in use.
A 4.5-foot-long cord segment that emerges from the Ear Force HPA's left earpiece terminates in a proprietary connector that, in turn, plugs into the controller module of an included 7-foot cord segment. The other end of the cord segment splits into a power adapter connector as well as 1/8-inch front, rear, center, and mic plugs to facilitate connection with 5.1-channel sound cards. Connecting the color-coded headphone plugs to our Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Pro sound card was straightforward, but because the Sound Blaster's only mic input is a 1/4-inch jack that's located on an external breakout box, we had to place the box on the ground next to our PC and use a plug adapter to enable a connection to the mic. If your sound card has a similar design, you'll want to purchase an extension cord rather than duplicate our jury-rigged setup.
Turtle Beach supplies an AC adapter to power the headphones' built-in 6-channel amplifier, which is housed in the controller module. Because you can't use the headphones without plugging the power adapter into an outlet, the Ear Force HPA isn't a good choice for road trips. The controller module conveniently includes an overall volume control plus individual level controls for the front, surround, center, and sub channels but doesn't have a microphone mute control comparable to what you'd get with some two-way headsets. Turtle Beach also includes a set of splitter cables to enable simultaneously connecting the headphones and 5.1-channel multimedia speakers.
In video games such as Half Life 2, the Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA created an enveloping sonic canvas and made it easier to track the positions of enemies than other headphones we've gamed with but fell short of delivering pinpoint-accurate sonic queues you'd get from a good 5.1-channel multimedia speaker set. During "The Riker Maneuver" scene of the Star Trek: Insurrection DVD, the headphones gave the soundstage a multidimensional quality, with the surround channels making us feel as though we were in the midst of the falling rocks. At first, we really didn't see what all the hype was about with the Ear Force HPA's built-in "subwoofers." Then we tweaked our Sound Blaster's bass redirection feature, adjusting its crossover frequency to the highest possible setting and firing up Bass Factory 808's Woofer Warm Up. The 'phones kicked some major bass, aggressively rattling the sides of our head without distorting. To see how the newfound bass prowess translated to video games, we jumped back into a deathmatch round of Half Life 2. Grenades and RPGs exploded with a percussiveness we've felt only with high-powered subwoofer/satellite multimedia speakers sets. The bass output was no less impressive with DVDs. However, unless you're a bass-crazed hip-hop fan, we wouldn't recommend the Ear Force HPA for music listening as it sounds a bit too harsh and in-your-face when playing tunes.
The Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA's microphone worked as advertised, but informal recording tests showed it to be noisier and more hiss-prone than that of the ($99) two-way headset. That said, the Ear Force HPA's mic did provide a fuller, more natural sound than the mic on Logitech's far less expensive ($29).
As long as you have a 5.1-channel sound card and can cope with the Ear Force HPA's excessive cabling requirements, it's a superb choice for gaming and PC-based DVD viewing applications. It considerably eclipses the performance of Turtle Beach's nonpowered step-down model, the ($79). Console gamers, meanwhile, will want to check out the , a modified version of the HPA that works with the Xbox and the Xbox 360, including communications support for Xbox Live.