Astro A50 Gaming Headset review £195
7th Sep 2012 | 22:59
Is Astro's A50 the premiere gaming audio package?
Introduction and design
Nothing enhances the gaming experience like a nice headset. Surround sound creates an immersive experience, and turns the footsteps of a foe into a dead giveaway of his location. Single player campaigns become journeys you won't want to back out of. Online, having a mic makes gaming into a social experience, letting you chat with your teammates, and coordinate tactics on the fly.
The Astro A50 is this kind of game-changing, experience enhancing headset, and at $300, it really should be. Thanks to Dolby Pro Logic IIx, it offers digitally mixed, 7.1 simulated surround sound. It's exactly what you need to feel enemy rockets rip past your face, and it's versatile enough to provide a good movie watching or music listening experience as well. Finally, the fact that it's compatible right out of the box with the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and any PC or Mac with an optical port, makes it more versatile than the Tritton Warhead 7.1, a comparable $300 headset that's Xbox-only.
Astro Studios is well known in the design space. In 2006 it spun off Astro Gaming, which has been competing with the likes of Turtle Beach and the Tritton brand from Mad Catz to produce the premiere gaming headset/home stereo alternative. While the Astro A50 isn't perfect, it's damn close, and the wide range of products it works with makes it a solid investment for tech fans with crowded entertainment centers.
The Astro A50 offers deep bass, crisp highs, and thanks to that Dolby Pro Logic IIx capability, software enabled sound mixing as good as any 7.1 headset on the market. Its only real flaws are a bulky design and a somewhat clumsy interface. You'll also need to pick up an adapter or two if you plan to connect to anything without an optical port, like a MacBook Pro. We also found that Astro's estimated 12-hours of battery life was a bit too generous, making a $7.99 Play and Charge Cable a must.
Also, there's an essential firmware update that fixes an issue with the A50s that causes an intermittent "pop" in the audio. If you purchased the A50s, make sure to download the update and install it.
With great audio power comes a plus-sized headset; the Astro A50 is big and bulky, but still manages to be surprisingly comfortable. Every piece of the headset that comes in contact with your head, meaning the earpieces and the underside of the headband, is covered in soft, foam-like cloth. You'll definitely notice the weight of the A50s sitting on your head, but the gentle points of contact make it easy to wear. During long gaming sessions or while watching a movie we eventually forgot we were wearing it. You'd have to wear the A50 for a truly extended amount of time for it to become uncomfortable or tiring.
The fit of the A50s is not as snug as some headphones we've tested. It might feel a bit loose if you're used to something tighter, but we quickly go used to it. A more relaxed fit makes it easier on your ears, but it does mean the audio bleeds a bit. If you're cranking the sound, people around you will be able to hear it faintly. Just don't listen to any secret messages with enemy spies around.
Since the unit is large, Astro made a good choice in giving it a stealthy color scheme. The matte black finish is attractive and subdued; no need to draw any more attention to the oversized A50s. Red, semi-exposed cables running up the sides of the headband serve as an eye-catching highlight.
The microphone is super bendy and durable, and has one clever feature: pointing it straight up locks it in place and mutes it. It's a neat and convenient bit of design, but we still would have appreciated to option to simply remove the mic. Being able to tuck it straight up is a great feature for LAN parties or long gaming sessions, but makes you look like an unemployed cosmonaut when you're watching a movie. It would be nice if we could just take it off.
Setup and interface
One of the best features of the Astro A50 is how it plays nicely with so many different toys. As long a device has an optical port, the A50 will work with it right out of the box. Without an optical port, the A50 can connect to devices (like a MacBook) by plugging a standard 1/8th-inch speaker cable into the transmitter.
Once you've plugged in, syncing is relatively painless. Additionally, Astro includes a very simple Quick Start Guide that explains how to connect to a PlayStation 3, PC or Xbox 360S (an original Xbox 360 will require an AV adapter, component cable or use of your HDTV's optical port).
For most setups, the Astro A50 uses two connections: USB and optical. After plugging into those two ports, syncing is accomplished with by pressing a button on the transmitter and then the headset. LEDs flash for a second or two and then you're connected. When going between different consoles, all the plugging and unplugging can get annoying, depending on how accessible your home theatre is, but syncing is always reliable and easy.
However, on the Xbox 360, the A50 requires the dreaded chat cable to go between the headset and the controller. Unfortunately, since Mad Catz has the exclusive rights to true wireless chat on the Xbox 360 with its Warhead 7.1, this is just how it has to be.
Some devices, such as the PlayStation 3, need you to switch audio sources in the settings menu when going between the A50 and your television's speakers. This is easily accomplished, but may create trouble for other, less tech savvy members of your household.
Interface simplicity is key with something like the Astro A50 headset. When you're taking enemy fire in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or in the middle of an explosive cinematic climax, you don't want to be fooling with the volume controls. While we wouldn't call the A50's interface complex, it's not as simple as some headsets we've encountered, and its method of mixing game and voice sound took some getting used to.
The A50's master volume is controlled with a scroll wheel found on the lower part of the right earphone. It's easy to find at a moments notice, and not so loose that you'll flip it too fast and blow out your eardrums. However, the big Game to Voice balance button on the right earpiece can be a bit of trouble. Pressing the game side turns up the game volume and turns down voice, while pressing voice does the opposite.
We prefer headphones that treat game and voice sound as two individually adjustable channels, rather than the A50's method of adjusting one in relation to the other. It's by no means a deal breaker, but we suggest that you find a level you're comfortable with and then leave this big button alone in favor of the master volume.
Audio quality and battery life
The Astro A50 is strong where it counts, and that's in the sound quality department, strong enough that it justifies its hefty build and heavy price tag. The A50 provides all around stellar sound, with the kind of excellent localization that will take your gaming experience to the next level. It's got a good amount of power and bass, but still retains great sound fidelity without undo distortion. While nothing can replaces a true physical 7.1 speaker set-up for watching movies in your home, the Astro A50 comes as close as we've seen at this price point (yes, headphones do get more expensive than $300).
Being a software-simulated 7.1 device, the sound mixing is very high quality. The mix is nice and wide, conveying the large sense of space that's key to games like Battlefield 3. In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game where localizing enemy footsteps is key to survival, we felt like we had an advantage, but no more so than anyone else with a good pair of surround sound cans. The mix on the Astro A50s is as good as that of the Tritton Warhead 7.1, another device that uses Dolby Pro Logic IIx.
The A50 has three equalizer settings: Media increases bass, Core evens out all levels and Pro turns up the treble for better gunshot and footstep detection while gaming. Media is great for movies and music, providing booming bass without overshadowing dialogue or becoming distorted. Watching Top Gun, we were rocked by the F-14A Tomcats screaming off the runway, but could still make out every lyric to "Danger Zone." While the A50 is a gaming headset first, stereo alternative second, you would not insult an audiophile by making him listen to his favorite album with these cans.
Core, by definition, was a little flat for gaming or music, but was a good balanced mix for general use like watching YouTube videos. Pro was our go-to choice for gaming. It made great use of the very wide mix the A50 provides. Character dialog was still discernable above the din of battle. However, we sometimes struggled to get the voice chat volume to a level that was easy to hear over explosions and gunfire. Chalk that up to the A50's method of mixing game and voice in relation to each other, rather than as two separate channels.
As a wireless device, battery life determines how long the Astro A50 can actually go without being tethered to a USB port for a charge. The charging cable that ships with the headset is only 3-inches long, so when the charge runs out, you're basically done playing, unless you pick up a $7.99 Play-and-Charge cable - sold separately by Astro. You can also use any USB to mini-USB cable of suitable length.
While Astro rates the device's battery life at 12-hours, we found it to be all over the map, sometimes lasting only half that time. Astro reps told us that this is because different devices, as well as use of the mic, drain the battery at different rates.
The Astro gets its best battery life when used with the Xbox 360, where it gets about 10-hours of use. Otherwise, we would say that 8-hours of battery life is a more accurate average, if you'll be using the headset across multiple devices. Thankfully the Astro can charge while in use, but during that time it ceases to be a wireless headset.
Also, the battery is embedded within the headset, and like all things lithium-ion, it will eventually burn out. This will be in a matter of years, but if you keep your A50 that long (at $300 you should), then be prepared to one day pony up for service to have it replaced.
Wireless Signal and Stand
As a 5.8GHz device, the A50 stands among the best in class when it comes to signal reliability. The device is rated for a distance of up to 35-ft, and if your living room is bigger than that, you probably don't need to consider a product review before spending $300.
In an average living room and in our office, a place filled with cell phones, routers and other wireless devices, we never had a moment of signal interruption. In fact, we had to put two walls between the A50 and its receiver before the signal was marred in the least.
The A50's come with a simple plastic stand that the headset hangs from, like a coat on hook. The stand comes out of the box in a few pieces, and clicks together easily. The stand is nothing fancy, just a way to keep your expensive headset above the table.
The stand feels a little flimsy as part of such an expensive package. While it does an ok job of providing storage for the A50, it doesn't display it in any grand way, like the stand for the Tritton Warhead 7.1. We also would have appreciated a clip or two to help keep cables looking neat.
However, unlike with the Warhead, the stand and the receiver are not one unit. With this design, you won't have to haul the stand with you every time you transport the A50s. The stand is inessential and can stay home.
At $300, the Astro A50 is a big investment. That's roughly what an Xbox 360 or a PS3 costs these days! Still, we would recommend these pricey cans to anyone with multiple consoles in their home, or someone who likes to game on PC as well as enjoy stereo sound in their living room.
When going between different devices, the plugging and unplugging can get tiresome, but it's worth it. The A50s provide high quality sound and relative ease of use with a lot of different devices. They provide phenomenal in-game sound, handle team chat adequately, and are good enough for enjoying movies or music.
First, the sound quality was top notch. The Astro A50 has a great mix that provides the sort of sound localization that will change your gameplay experience. Other headsets, like Tritton Warhead 7.1, use Dolby Pro Logic IIx just as well, but the A50 provides better sound fidelity.
It also works on more devices, which makes the $300 purchasing price much easier to swallow. If you game across more than one system, this is the headset for you. It's also good enough for movie watching and enjoying music, which helps to further justify the price.
It's also surprisingly comfortable. You may look like spaceman when you wear this big headset, but you won't be uncomfortable. The soft foam on the ear cups and headband makes the A50 sit very softly, despite its size and weight.
The game and voice mixing. We really would have preferred separate channels with individual volume controls, rather than having to adjust them in relation to each other. It was not exactly a deal breaker, but a bit of an annoyance. It was sometimes hard to achieve a good balance between game sound and voice chat, and when we did, we thought, "Ok, I'm never touching that button again."
The battery was pretty inconsistent, and Astro's claim of 12-hour battery life is not an accurate blanket statement. The performance of the charge varies, depending on what device you connect to and whether or not you enable to mic. Still, you should be able to get 8 or so hours out of it, which is nothing to sneeze at, but selling the Play-and-Charge cable separately is a tad insulting. It's not the $7.99 Astro charges for it (that's a good price, really), it's just that it will probably mean another run to the store. When we pay $300 for something, we expect to get everything we need in the box, especially something as essential as a charging cable of a functional length.
We heartily recommend the Astro A50 to any gamer who wants a powerful, versatile headset. It offers excellent sound fidelity and mixing, and being able to use it on a PC, Mac, Xbox 360 or PS3 makes it worth the money. While going between multiple devices will always be an annoyance of plugging and syncing, the A50 provides sound quality that's worth the trouble.
We were slightly miffed by the variable battery life, but that issue is just plain overshadowed by the powerful sound and flexible options provided by this headset. If you game exclusively on the Xbox 360, you might prefer the Tritton Warhead 7.1 headset, which is better integrated with Microsoft's console than the A50 is with any single device. At the end of the day, however, we prefer a more versatile, jack-of-all-trades headset to an exclusive one, especially at this price point.
If you do decide to pick up an A50, buy a Play-and-Charge cable as well (unless you already own a long USB to mini-USB cable), and make sure to download the latest firmware update, which completely eliminates an issue with sound "pop."