Wireless headphones have been around for a while, but it's only been in the past few years that quality has gotten high enough for discerning listeners to consider using them. Many manufacturers, for instance, have turned to infrared (IR) technology for wireless signal transmission, which powered the Turtle Beach X4 we looked at last year. Overall we felt the IR radius was a bit narrow and we really disliked the fact that they didn't work well while using a plasma TV.
The Turtle Beach X41 headphones are essentially the same product, but instead of using an IR signal, this headset takes advantage of an RF (radio frequency) to provide wireless audio. Besides a few hiccups and a hefty price tag, the X41s are one of the best wireless gaming headsets around.
While the Ear Force X41s are designed with the Xbox 360 in mind--they include a removable microphone and connections for chatting on Xbox Live--the headphones will actually deliver convincing surround sound from nearly any home theater source, thanks to their built-in 7.1-channel Dolby Digital processing.
The Ear Force X41 headphones include two main components: the wireless headphones themselves and a base station that houses most of the necessary jacks. The base gives you the option of either using a digital audio connection or an analog signal via a set of stereo RCA cables (red/white). That means that they will work with pretty much any audio source--anything with an optical digital output (such as a DVD player or the Apple TV) or standard analog line outs (pretty much everything). You could easily use the X41 headphones with a PlayStation 3 or Wii, but just don't expect to take advantage of voice chat--that'll only work with the Xbox 360.
The system boasts both Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic IIx processing; the former handles the bit-stream surround soundtracks on DVD and Blu-ray movies and most video games, while the latter does a decent job of creating a faux-surround effect from any stereo source. The X41s' transmitter base also have a line-in volume control allowing you to just adjust the level of the incoming source. Up front there's also a headphone jack with a volume adjuster that will play the same audio being broadcasted. Finally, the base also features a "bypass" button that will allow you to hear unprocessed audio.
Setting up the Ear Force X41 headphones is fairly simple. For Dolby Digital processing, you'll use the included 7-foot optical cable to connect your Xbox 360 (or another digital source) to the "digital in" port on the transmitter base. If you're also using an AV receiver and surround speakers, don't worry; there's a digital out port for passing the signal on, so you don't have to constantly unplug and plug in wires whenever you want to play using the headphones.
For power, the X41s ship with a USB cord that plugs directly into the base unit. You can plus the USB end of the wire anywhere (including the 360 itself). We had an empty USB port on our cable set-top box, which worked fine. We should note that USB power is your only option here. The unit does not ship with a USB-to-AC adapter.
In terms of comfort and design, the Ear Force X41 headphones are a bit heavy on the head, but not to the point where they feel overwhelming during long gameplay sessions. On the left ear cup is where you'll find the controls and ports, including a volume adjuster, a power button, bass boost, and the port for the chat adapter that hooks into your Xbox 360 controller. The left ear cup is also home to the flexible microphone boom. We really liked that the boom is detachable, as it can become distracting when not in use. The right ear cup is where you'll install the two AAA batteries. Turtle Beach includes a pair in the packaging and claims they should work for at least 25 hours, but we do recommend getting some rechargeable ones.
In terms of sound quality, we were impressed with the overall channel separation. During our trial with Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer, we could easily tell when an enemy was behind us because of the footsteps and gunfire. During the most intense combat, we were able to visualize all of the action and tell where it was coming from in our virtual space. Our only complaint with the headphones is that they don't really allow for complete noise reduction or isolation. If there is other sound playing in the same room, you may notice it more than you'd like.
A few times during our testing we experienced a brief pop and breakup of audio but couldn't recreate it. It's possible it was because of Wi-Fi interference, since the headset operates on the same 2.4GHz frequency that Wi-Fi routers do.
We enjoyed having a volume adjuster on the side of the headphones, but didn't really notice much of a discernible difference when turning the bass-boost switch on. It does add a sliver of richness, but it's not drastic, by any means. If you're concerned with maximizing battery life on the headphones, we'd recommend leaving the feature off.
Our experience with using the X41s to chat during gameplay was excellent. Incorporating chat requires you to connect the headphones to your 360 controller via the included wired adapter. This is almost exactly the same adapter that is on the end of the Microsoft-branded headset, complete with a microphone mute switch and volume wheel. A wireless solution for chat would have been ideal, but we'd imagine this would severely compromise battery life on the headphones. While we didn't necessarily notice it in action, Turtle Beach claims the X41s contain an autoadjusting chat-volume feature to compensate for noisy gaming sessions. Regardless, there was never an issue with hearing anyone during our online play with Modern Warfare 2.
Overall, the Ear Force X41 headphones provide a great-sounding experience for playing games when using external speaks isn't an option. We'd imagine a few gamers would even prefer the X41s, regardless of the situation, as they provide accurate 7.1-channel surround-sound effects. Similarly, this is certainly a well-advised alternative for those gamers who don't have an external surround-sound system. The $200 list price is a bit steep, but with online prices closer to $180, you could think of it as an alternative to buying three mediocre games. And, when you consider that the Ear Force X41 headphones are compatible with almost any source, they may be the only wireless headphones you'll need for a while.