If we were to use one word to sum up our first impressions of the Roccat Kave headphones, we'd say "chunky". If we had a full sentence, we'd say "oh no, not more surround sound headphones!"
Traditionally, headphones that attempt positional sound are awful, whether simulated or with discrete speakers. Primarily, it's an issue of sound stage and panning that's never quite been achieved correctly, particularly the transition from side to rear.
Plantronics sidestepped the issue with its GameCom 777, by making the surround sound optional in the form of a USB dongle. The headset's individual 3.5mm jacks could then be plugged into this USB dongle, which in turn could be plugged into the computer. Surround was turned on by a switch, meaning you could even have the convenience of USB without the effect if you desired.
The Kave's connections, on the other hand, can be best described as nuts. It's got a rather large brick hanging off its cable, from which a mass of cables spew forth like the kraken's tentacles: 3.5mm jacks for centre, front and surround speakers, another for the microphone and a USB cable.
The Kave's microphone can rotate a full 360° but is so flexible that you'd be hard-pressed to tell whether it's rotating or bending. Several times when intending to stow the mic up, it simply flexed instead. Ultimately it has the same result, but can catch you off-guard the first few times.
The USB cable allows the attached brick to change the system volume through a jog wheel, mute it by pressing a button in the middle of said jog wheel and mute the microphone using another button, lighting up the microphone to let you know that no sound is transmitting. That's not all: peel back a lid on top of the brick, and you get independent volume sliders for centre, front, rear and sub channels, along with a hardware switch for "game" and "movie" modes. "Game" has no post processing, while "movie" attempts to push voices closer. We've never been fans of presets of any type, but we'll leave it to others to decide whether it's useful for them.
Travel-wise, taking the Kave with you isn't a good idea. While the earcups do fold nicely into the headband and the microphone detaches, the cabling is thick and long, and the brick doesn't disconnect.
Putting on the Kave immediately dampens sound around you. It's not as supremely isolated as SteelSeries' 7H, but it still does a passable job of cutting off the outside world. After the dampening, the second thing you notice is the audible hiss. The moment you plug in the USB cable it starts, regardless of volume level or whether you have any of the 3.5mm cables plugged in.
Thumping it into "game" mode, we threw in Karnivool's Themata and started playback. While the soundstage was a little claustrophobic through stereo audio, the tone was reasonably good, with cymbals fresh and bass clearly defined. Strangely, mid-tones seemed lacking in definition and sparkle, causing things to sound a little muffled.
Opening up to 5.1 using our X-Fi's CMSS-3D feature, and adjusting the hardware sliders on the brick, the Kave came into its own. While the soundstage still felt overly restrictive, we suddenly got our mid-tones back, with overdriven guitars surrounding significantly more ferocious than we can remember. Feeling buoyed, we loaded up Half Life 2: Episode 2, and threw it into 5.1 mode to see what would happen.
Marvel upon marvel, these headphones actually work in 5.1! Where others seem to have panning issues particularly between the side and rear channels, the Kave managed to transition fairly well, with only the limited soundstage hurting it, and everything feeling far too tight and close to your ears. One thing we did notice: whether playing music or games, the "sub" volume slider on the brick did nothing, with the centre channel doing more to increase bass (as it should).
The Kave passes muster as the first 5.1 headphones we've seen that actually produce decent positional audio. While a set of speakers will always do better in this regard, and the soundstage is rather claustrophobic, the Kave doesn't do too badly at all.