Plenty of PC headphones and audio cards offer a "headphone surround-sound" mode, but it's often little more than a sophisticated reverb mode that uses psychoacoustics to trick the mind into thinking it's hearing something beyond a stereo (2-channel) source. That's why the Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA headphones were so impressive. The full-size headset included four actual drivers in each earcup (center, front, rear, and "subwoofer"), effectively strapping a full 5.1 speaker system to your head. The result, unsurprisingly, was some of the best headphones-based surround effects we've ever heard. The catch was the HPA's design: it required four minijack connections to a PC audio card, and it actually needed its own AC adapter to power its built-in amplifier. Thankfully, Turtle Beach went back to the drawing board and now offers an alternative: the Ear Force AK-R8. The new headset ($150 list) utilizes the same multidriver earcups as the HPA, but it connects to PCs with a single convenient USB plug.
The Ear Force AK-R8 is a full-size over-the-ear headset, with a self-adjusting, over-the-crown headband and ear pads made of soft leatherette and lined with felt material. Despite its relative bulk, it's comfortable to wear for extended periods. The aforementioned four discrete drivers in each earcup provide a more directional surround-sound experience than you'll get from a standard set of headphones, which have only a single driver for each ear. The removable boom microphone, 7 inches in length, is highly flexible and can be used for IM chat, Voice over IP (VoIP) communication, and online PC gaming. The AK-R8 also features an inline remote module, dubbed the Audio Advantage SRM (AASRM), that sits between the headphones and the PC. Additional control and options are available via the included software interface.
To reiterate, the Ear Force AK-R8 is a big step forward in terms of connectivity and convenience from the preceding HPA and HPA2 models, both of which required external power supplies and a tangle of connecting cables. Instead, the AK-R8 needs just a single USB connection to your PC, which handles both audio and power. As such, it will also work with computers that lack sophisticated surround soundcards, such as laptops.
The AASRM module is extremely light, no wider than a credit card, and a little over a half-inch thick. The proprietary headphone connector cable and USB cord, when plugged into the module, are a combined 8 feet in length. The module includes both line-in and line-out connectors for recording and playing digital audio with an external source; analog minijacks and (via the included adapter) S/PDIF (optical) connections are accepted. The module also features 1/8-inch stereo headphone and microphone jacks. (All of those connections are simply optional and intended for advanced users who need more functionality; everyone else can stick with the single USB link.) The volume dial on the module also doubles as a mute control when pushed inward. Built-in stereo microphones on the module can monitor outside noise when wearing the headphones and can record voice, music, and other sounds. Note, however, that only one of the three mics--the snap-on boom, the ones built into the AASRM, or the module's external input--can be used at any given time.