I was asked to take a listen to the NOX Audio Specialist at E3. “They are a company that made OEM audio products for other companies,” I was told, “This is the launch of their own brand.”
Color me skeptical. I’m tough on sound and music reproduction, and especially on headphones. I’m a classically trained singer and pianist with perfect pitch. I work in high-performance audio in my day job, with speakers and components that are the Lamborghinis of the audio world. Most headphones give me a headache after a half hour at most. Some I cannot bear for longer than ten minutes at a time. The person I spoke to at the booth wasn’t a “talking head,” instead they handed me to the Acoustic Engineer, Ralph Isaacson, almost immediately and we talked tech specs and design philosophy. So I brought the head set home to review.
The NOX Audio Specialist is a closed-type, supra-aural headset. That is to say, ear-pieces with hard backs and the ear cups sit on the ears. This can sometimes be uncomfortable but the Specialist is light enough and the head band “springy” enough that they were comfortable and did not put undue pressure on my ears. They also come with a detachable cable with mini-jack for connecting to portable electronics such as iPods, PSPs, CD players and the like, and a PC splitter with the familiar pink and green color coded jacks. I never remember which designates the mike and which the headphones, so I was glad to see the little symbols on the connectors.
Drivers: Dual 26mm Mylar Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz Noise Reduction: 6 dB @ 1 kHz Sensitivity: 104 dBSPL @ 1 kHz Weight: 0.3lbs
There are two identical speakers in each ear-cup, supporting each other in sound. The choice in material is pretty common for small speakers and Ralph corroborated my deductions when I asked him about the specs of the drivers. “Mylar is really the only option commonly available to ensure that the Specialist headset would retain our expectations of sound quality while keeping manufacturing costs low.” He said, “and both drivers have identically-tuned frequency ranges; it was our intent to do so as this setup lets each driver reinforce the other.”
At E3, we had also talked about frequency response and the curve I took of the headphones was no surprise. “There’s no distortion,” Ralph had told me confidently, “Shoot all the curves you want.”
Headphones take the resonance of the ear canal into consideration in the design and we are looking really at 500Hz on up on the curve below. It shows a common emphasis on the mid-frequencies – where the human voice lies – that rolls off nicely with no distortion in the high frequencies.
Fit and Finish
The Specialist is made for portability and the design is clever. The ear cups fold up. The boom mike retracts. The backs of the ear cups are not just a clever design, they provide finger grips to wind up the mike boom on the left and acts as the volume control on the right. If only listening to music, the tiny switch to turn off the mike is on the underside of the right ear cup, where the mini-USB connector lies. They come in the standard black, or a choice of three accent colors, red, blue and green, packed in a zippered hard case.
Game & Movie Sound
Ambient sound and music aside, MMOs traditionally do not have the best sound in terms of soundstage and image. All Points Bulletin (APB) by Real Time Worlds is the curve breaker in this genre, managing to create an impressive amount of depth of field with its sound. As your character moves around in the world, the sound of vehicles and gunfire fade in and out. You can hear a car radio blasting away as it approaches and then passes you, fading into the distance. The NOX Specialist took this in stride, the handling of sound dynamics managed to create a sense of distance. Imaging was as pinpoint as could be hoped to be achieved with head phones. That is to say, not great but it did contain that bit of magic to impart the impression of direction, depth and distance.
The complex cacophonic sounds of battle did not phase it either as I plunged into combat in a raid or in Lost Planet on the Xbox360 (I used a ¼” adapter and plugged it into my processor). I also took it through several movies. The headphones brought whatever was dominant in a recording boldly front and center. In terms of MMOs and movies this was voices and voice chat. In terms of music, this sometimes skewed the balance as voices were brought far forward from the orchestra.
Given that this is a budget gaming headset and designed to do exactly that – i.e. make sure voice chat was audible over any mélange of sound that could be experienced during game play, I certainly cannot fault it. NOX Audio also sells an adaptor (the Negotiator) separately that acts both as balance control and connects into console controllers. This adaptor is also packaged together with the Specialist in a gaming bundle.
Critical Listening with Music
For a set of entry-level headphones, the resolution is delightful and the fidelity – the accurate depiction of voices and instruments is impressive. I was so grudgingly impressed, I started looking for faults. Since Ralph claimed a frequency response of 20 to 20 (the range of human hearing), I pulled out the heavy guns – High Definition tracks and High-Resolution files. The bass heavy, the complex voices, the clean instrument sounds. I trotted out Aaron Copland’s FanFare for the Common Man. Ha! The gong distorted a little and the sound of the tympani wasn’t true.
“Stop trying to push that poor little thing to distortion,” my brother, the award winning loudspeaker designer I work with, laughed at me. “They are not audiophile headphones.”
No, they are not, and they had handled all the other bass heavy pieces with aplomb. Way Down Deep by Jennifer Warnes, No Sanctuary Here by Chris Jones (Stockfisch Records), the lush interplay of sounds in Novus by Santana and Domingo.
As mentioned previously, voices are brought forward so depending on the recording, this can be just noticeable or it can be awkwardly off-balance like it was in Time to Say Goodbye by Brightman and Bocelli. Despite that, I still found myself tapping my foot and swaying to many pieces of music – even complex Latin rhythms, showing that PRAT (Pace, Rhythm And Timing) was spot on. The NOX Specialist even handled an 8-part Bach motet – complex baroque polyphony without muddling the sound. I love trotting out this particular piece, J.S. Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble for testing resolution.
Color me impressed. Add another zero to the MSRP of $79.99 and we’ll talk about high resolution detail, fidelity, audiophile quality and goosebumps from listening to music. As a budget headset, an entry-level product, indeed the inaugural product by NOX Audio, the Specialist is truly impressive. NOX currently has a 30-day no questions asked return policy. I highly recommend anyone in the market for a budget gaming head-set give this one a trial.