The “Old Horse” of the Herd
Sennheiser is a German company specializing in Pro-Audio mics and headphones and Professional Audio is the term used for the world of recording, play-back and broadcasting – i.e. concerts and such. Sennheiser stepped into the gaming world with their introduction of headsets only a few years ago, garnering some excitement in the Pro-gaming community and providing added credibility to the world of Gaming Audio. Thus I reached out to them and asked for their median headset model for review. Not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either. I received the PC161.
The Specs, Fit & Finish
The PC161 is a closed-type, supra-aural headset. That is to say, ear-pieces with hard covered backs and the ear cups sit on the ears rather than surrounding them. As befitting a company that has been in the business for many years, even the packaging is engineered well. I did not need to take a bowie knife to it or curse while trying to open the packaging, it opened easily. The headset looks and feels functional. No extra blings and whistles. It is one of those well designed headsets where beauty can be found in its simplicity. It has simple pleasing lines and a boom mic that folds up.
I found that the head-set could stand to be more comfortable, with a little more give on the arms and perhaps a little more cushion on the ear pieces. The arms on each side lengthen easily with stops and unfortunately, my comfort zone was in-between two of those stops. However this is not to say that they were uncomfortable and as with any piece of personal electronic equipment, the fit and comfort is purely subjective.
The PC161 also has the longest cable (3 meters – almost ten feet) of any of the headsets I’ve reviewed, a boon for those with couch on one end of the room and electronics on the other. There is also an inline volume control which can bring the volume up to rather crazy decibels and a sponge cover is provided for the adjustable microphone.
I broke the headsets in for a couple of weeks by plugging them into my laptop and running games and music in the background while I worked. Then I used them for conference calls, games both on the PC via a dedicated soundcard, and consoles via a B&K processor, watched a few movies, and finally I did critical listening with music with a Benchmark DAC acting as headphone amp, sometimes with CDs, through a tube pre-amp, sometimes with a music server. Then I shot a “curve” – a frequency sweep using CLIO to see how well the speakers are balanced and to see the frequency response curve. For comparison or reference, I used the NOX Specialist which falls in the same price range.
The curves are impressively flat – which is a good thing – and both sides were a very good match. Exactly what I would have expected from this company.
Voice, Game & Movie Sound
The PC161 sailed through these sessions with top marks. Conference calls I made with them were clear, individual voices easily discerned and I could imagine the placement of speakers around a conference table. I sat back with some old action movie favorites – Bond, James Bond – and enjoyed how well sound effects were handled. The voices and chat in general could be heard through the cacophony of gunfire and explosions although a separate voice channel volume control would have been handy at times (without having to resort to software controls).
Imaging was clear – as pinpoint as could be with headsets. A feel of distance and direction was nicely imparted. I was playing Final Fantasy XIV at this time, and enjoyed the sound of the game. The sawing sounds a woodworker made as I approached, footsteps approaching and fading away. The ambient sounds and music were well conveyed. I also jumped back in EverQuest and EverQuest 2 to chat with the guild on Ventrilo and a couple of “betas-which-shall-not-be-named.”
Critical Listening with Music
“Sennheiser?” My brother asked, “Cool! Let’s listen to some high-res tracks!”
“Wait a minute,” I protested, “You said I was bullying the NOX!”
“Sennheiser’s been around 40 years. We should bully them!” was his response.
What he was alluding to was that the NOX Specialist I had reviewed last was a new kid on the block whereas Sennheiser had over 40 years (a check showed it’s been around for 75 years) of experience to fall back on when designing the gaming headset.
However, I wasn’t really testing for musical fidelity, I was testing for soundstage and imaging – as this was more important in gaming headsets, although musical fidelity is always bonus. You want to know where those gunshots are coming from, where your enemies are. I was also interested in testing their resolution – how well they would handle complexity – the intermingling of sounds when there was a lot going on.
Listening to a particular piece for imaging and resolution, the PC161 showed off its colors as I could hear the drummer moving up and down the stage, circle around me and finally back up stage right and slam the door. The interplay of voice parts in Bach’s Motets was crisp and clear. As well as the headsets had handled explosions in movies, it handled the bass of Way Down Deep by Jennifer Warnes and No Sanctuary Here by Chris Jones (Stockfisch Records), well. The stated frequency response of 15Hz was easily proven by how well it handled the dinosaur footsteps in Jurassic Lunch and the drums in Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. I threw everything I could at them. HD tracks, organ music and sound effects I knew were well below 20Hz (the accepted threshold of hearing) and complex bells that were above 20kHz. No distortion, no fuss, no muss, but unfortunately, also no magic, no bloom, no sparkle. The lush interplay of sounds in Novus by Santana and Domingo, and Time to Say Goodbye with Brightman and Bocelli which can raise goose-bumps, did not. The syncopated beats of Latin music did not thrill. Lively upbeat pieces did not elicit any foot tapping. In short, the PC161 isn’t musical.
Unlike the NOX Specialist, the PC161 is not a “Lifestyle” headset, it is designed to handle game sound, not for listening to music. Changing the volume with the in-line volume control actually changed the sound. Not critical in sound effects but absolutely critical in music.
Being a music lover, I tend to “ooh” and “aah” over musical “magic” more than the flatness of the frequency response curve and the tightness of the match of the left and right speakers, which the sound engineer in my brother pronounced “very, very good” several times (yes, he was impressed). It’s easier to rhapsodize over how well a piece of music is delivered than how well an explosion is, or how well you can hear human speech in the midst of a cacophony of sound. Can you hear what Bond is yelling through the sound of helicopter in flight or your raid leader yelling “More DOTS!” in the middle of a 32 man raid? You ought to.
The Sennheiser PC161 has the resolution to handle complex sound and delivers the human voice with ease. Engineered to be a gaming headset, not audiophile headphones, I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a gaming headset at that price range.