Review: Astro A50 Wireless Headset

I don’t have much luck when it comes to headsets, regardless of what their perceived quality may be. I owned a number of cheap ones in college during my World of Warcraft days that had to be replaced on a regular basis, and this was in addition to the fact that they were simply uncomfortable to wear. Some of the “high end” ones didn’t do me much better, instead turning into a tangled wad of cords that became more of a hassle to use than just simply slipping on the one that came with whatever system I was playing on. When I tried one of the Astro A50’s at E3 2012, I had high hopes for a headset that I felt would address many of the concerns I had in investing in one. Now that I’ve had a chance to put one through its paces, it’s time to see if my impressions were lasting.

The first thing that will likely catch your eye when you receive one of the A50’s is the package design. Astro had mentioned when introducing their product that they pride themselves on the boxes that they ship to their customers, and it’s easy to see why. It’s neatly designed, and the sturdy box can be used to store the headset when putting it away or traveling with it. When you open it up, you’ll receive the headset (of course), a wireless transmitter, a stand that neatly houses the transmitter and allows the headset to neatly drape over the top of it, as well as numerous cables to hook it all up. The package also includes a quick start guide to show you how to quickly setup your headset to work with your PC, Xbox 360, or PS3. The device is pre-paired as well, so you don’t have to sync the transmitter and the headset together prior to use, which is nice. However, if your setup isn’t as simple as what is outlined in the quick start guide, there is not a full manual to fall back on. In fact, as of this writing, the website does not yet have a full manual, which is a bit alarming given how long the product has been out now. There are FAQ’s as well as a very active forum community to help address concerns that you might have, but keep in mind that you might have to do quite a bit of legwork to get the product to work with your setup, as I had to (more on that in a minute).

The transmitter hooks up to your console via an optical cable that takes the sound from whatever game you’re playing and blasts it to your headset via a 5.8 Ghz wireless connection. There’s also a mini-USB cable that connects it to your system and powers the device. You can then connect another mini-USB from the transmitter to your headset to charge it (and it can charge without the console even being on). Even better, if you have multiple consoles, you can have the USB plugged into one and just simply move the optical cable from one system to another. If you’re playing on the Xbox 360, there’s a cable that connects the controller to the headset for the voice chat, much like the standard headset that comes with it, which is rather unfortunate if you’re looking for a truly wireless experience. The PlayStation 3 (or your PC for that matter) doesn’t require an additional chat cable.

My hookup experience, as alluded to earlier, was not without its fair share of problems. My Xbox 360 is one of the older models, and as such, lacked an optical port. Now, this would not be such a big deal if I used component cables that had the optical port on the end of them, but I was hooked up via HDMI and I wasn’t going to compromise my video quality for the sound. Fortunately, you can buy adapters that plug into the A/V port on the back of your old-style Xbox 360 and have just an optical port (and the red and white audio ports if you need them) while simultaneously using HDMI. The tricky part was finding one that didn’t restart your console if you happened to switch inputs on your television. Monoprice has a RCA/Toslink audio adapter doesn’t have this problem and is super cheap, so I recommend checking it out if you find yourself in the same boat as I. My older model PS3 had the necessary optical port, so fortunately there were no issues there.

Once I cleared that hurdle, there was just one other concern: the cables provided are way too short to be of practical use to me. Both the mini-USB and the optical cables that need to connect the transmitter to your console are only a meter in length (or just over three feet, if you prefer). I currently have an entertainment center that has my consoles resting in compartments underneath my TV. Therefore, I don’t have room for the provided stand, nor do I have much room to shove a headset in there to try to charge it. Again, I recommend looking for a longer optical cable in this situation (though be careful, as some of them don’t fit securely, depending on the device) as well as a USB extension cable. With these I was able to move both the stand and the transmitter to a nearby shelf that is far more convenient, as well as more pleasing to the eye, than it otherwise would have been.

Putting my initial setup adventures aside, once it’s up and running, the A50’s are quite nice. They’re incredibly comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, as they cover your ears rather than crush them. I have problems finding headsets that don’t give me an earache after an hour, so this feature alone is a huge selling point for me. There was one night where I even fell asleep with them on.

Fully charged, the A50’s battery should last around 8-10 hours or so, though you can have them plugged in and charging if you have a mini-USB that can reach. If you leave them idle without any kind of sound coming through them, they will automatically shut off after five minutes to conserve battery, which is nice. The only problem is that if you are using them only for voice (again on my Xbox 360), it doesn’t count this, and it will shut itself off. I only had it set up this way while waiting for the adapter, so this was a temporary hindrance. Also, I wouldn’t recommend them strictly for voice chat anyway.

All of the settings that can be utilized are located on the headset, including a game/voice sound balance button on the right ear that will make the game quieter and the voice louder or vice versa. The actual volume control is located right below, and there is a switch right next door that adjusts the EQ settings according to what it is you’re doing. There are three settings: setting one is for unaltered sound, setting two is primarily for gaming, and setting three is for other media, like movies and music. If you need to mute your microphone for any reason, all you need to do is lift it up, which is a huge improvement over fiddling with a switch.

The transmitter has a setting that can broadcast in Dolby Digital 7.1, which is life changing if you don’t own a surround sound system in your house. Much of my experience was spent on Borderlands 2, and to be able to hear the crunch of every footstep and to be able to tell what direction a voice or sound is coming from really enhances the game. Despite being wireless, there didn’t appear to be any sort of delay between the audio and the visual, nor any interference of any kind from nearby devices. The same was true in voice chat, where any kind of lag can spell doom for you or your teammates, especially in a competitive setting (such as a game like Battlefield 3).

You can find the A50 headsets on Astro’s website and they’ll run you $299.99. Whether or not it’s worth the price of admission will depend on a few things. If you don’t own a surround sound system and play multiplayer games frequently, I would absolutely recommend them, as they sound amazing, are comfortable for long sessions, and don’t require you to fiddle with cords each time you use them. If you mostly play single player games and already have a Dolby Digital setup in your home, you can still get some use out of them if you don’t want to disturb others in your home or have other devices you want to plug them into. This is definitely a headset made for gaming, and for that purpose, they function incredibly well.

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