Without a doubt, the latest and most popular trend in gaming accessories has to be the wireless headset. If comments on our most recent reviews are any indication, our readers are obsessed with finding the best-sounding headset for the lowest price. Of course that sort of compromise never comes easily, which ultimately leaves gamers with a conundrum. Do they spend over $200 on a surround-sound rig or settle for an analog design? For that matter, is there that much difference in sound quality?
We've been getting a considerable number of requests to review the Astro A40 Wireless System, and after three weeks with the device, we can safely say that it is easily one of the best-performing surround-sound headphones we've ever used. However, this type of quality and performance doesn't come cheap--the A40 system will set you back $280, almost the price of buying another game console. And setup can get a little dicey, especially if you have more than one console you'd like to use.
Before we dive into the specifics of our review, let's refresh ourselves on what the system includes and how it's sold. The A40 Wireless System includes a pair of Astro A40 headphones and the MixAmp 5.8, which wirelessly transmits and receives the digital signal from your game console. These products can be purchased separately, but Astro sells them bundled as the A40 Wireless System. The system is available in black or white; the latter of the two will begin shipping at the end of January, according to Astro's site.
If there's a set of headphones you're really attached to, the MixAmp 5.8 can work with them--just don't expect the same ease of use when it comes to game chatting via Xbox Live or PlayStation Network.
The first thing we noticed about the A40 headphones was how light they are. Historically we're used to painfully heavy headsets that eventually take their toll on our heads, but the A40's unique lightweight design prevented such an effect.
The headphones have a sort of mechanical look, with visible screws and wiring throughout. That said, they are surprisingly comfortable, padded, and fully adjustable. The headphones have a wire that extends from the left cup, which terminates in a double-pronged audio and microphone plug. This can be attached to either the audio-only or audio and voice included cables.
An adjustable boom mic is also included, which can be attached to either the left or right ear cup. Astro includes a magnetic replacement shell for use with either cup, designed with a hole for the boom mic to extend out of.
The MixAmp 5.8 system includes a base transmitter and small oval-shaped receiver, the latter of which must be wired to the A40 headphones. There do seem to be a lot of wires here for a wireless system, but it's the audio that travels wirelessly--and that's about it.
The transmitter is a square box that sits next to your console, accepting a Toslink connection (for surround) or a standard headphone jack for analog audio. The base also allows for digital audio passthrough that can go back into a home theater system so that constant plugging and unplugging doesn't need to occur. Two USB ports also flank the rear of the device, allowing for a connection to a PS3 for game chat. Up front is a simple power button and Dolby Digital on/off switch.
The receiver unit has a volume dial and game/voice chat mixer so you can achieve a desired balance of the two streams along with option of a bass booster.
Setting up the A40 Wireless System is mostly painless, although if you wish to use the system with more than one console you're in for a headache if you don't have a universal Toslink-out connection.
Unless your receiver provides you with such a luxury, the constant plugging and unplugging of an optical cable can get tiresome. We've looked at a few possible workarounds for such a situation and will update this review with solutions if they prove viable.
Other than the occasional logistical hurdle, setting up the A40 should be a short affair. Once the optical audio cable is plugged into the MixAmp's transmitter base and powered, it takes a simple sync operation to get the receiver hooked up. We had no difficulties connecting another optical audio cable to our home receiver's input for digital audio passthrough when we weren't using the A40 headphones.