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.
The receiver itself must also be powered, and Astro offers a separate $20 rechargeable battery for purchase on the company Web site. Customers can also make use of the included three AAA batteries, though we're not entirely sure how long they'll last. That said, we didn't need to replace them during our three-week testing of about 15 hours of gameplay. The rechargeable battery can be powered and charged by a standard USB cable too.
That's about all the setup required for the A40 Wireless System, impressively simple compared with other surround-sound devices we've tested.
The A40s are among the best surround-sound headphones we've ever tested. To be clear, the A40 Wireless System only simulates surround sound, but its performance in doing so is top-notch.
We tested the surround-sound performance with a variety of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games, in addition to Blu-ray versions of "The Fifth Element" and "Star Trek." The films sounded great and did an impressive job of channel isolation simulation, but it was games where the A40s really shone.
Using the A40s with Call of Duty: Black Ops on Xbox 360 was an absolute dream, especially during our various multiplayer deathmatch sessions. The ability to customize the mix of chat and game volume proved extremely useful and all of our teammates reported being able to hear us clearly. We should note that the use of Xbox Live game chat requires the connection of another wire (from the Xbox controller to the MixAmp receiver), so players will be tethered to the receiver and controller.
Bullets seemed to whiz by our heads and the A40 did a great job of helping us locate enemy team members with its directional sound allocation.
Next we switched things up with the terrifying Dead Space 2, a game that features fantastic sound design with its creepy atmosphere and shrieking Necromorphs. Hearing the horror and screams in outer space was quite an intimidating experience with the A40s, forcing us to refrain from testing the hardware at night.
Moving over to the PS3, we popped in LittleBigPlanet 2. While the game doesn't rely on surround sound for much of its core gameplay, the A40s still provided a new layer of audio that we could barely hear without them--the little nuances and the clicking of gadgets and levers were all audible.
Out of curiosity, we took the headphone connection from our receiver and plugged it into the MixAmp's transmitter base. Surprisingly enough, the sound quality was almost as good as with the digital connection, though channel separation and surround simulation were nowhere near as accurate or noticeable.
The A40 Wireless System's price should be the most anyone pays for simulated surround sound. Make no mistake; while the system does a fantastic job, it may not be the solution for every gamer. For those interested in quality wireless headset console gaming, we still have to mention the Logitech F540 (now available for as low as $100) as a much more affordable alternative.
The A40 Wireless System is something for audiophile gamers that demand discreet audio channel separation and accurate simulation. If the $280 price tag is a bit high, why not bring your own headphones and match them up with the MixAmp 5.8, available for sale separately direct from Astro for $140.
Up until now we've recommended Turtle Beach's X41 wireless surround-sound offering for prospective gamers. While its $170 price tag is certainly more attractive than the A40's, its performance and build quality are no match for the A40.