When I spoke to Editor Jon Woods about reviewing more hardware for MMORPG and he gave me the go ahead, I looked around to see who I had seen at various shows and I warned the PR firm handling TRITTON that I was tough on headsets but TRITTON was brave enough to take me on and offered me two models, their budget model, the AX 120 retailing for $69.99 and their AX 720 for $129.99. Both are closed-type circumaural headphones – that is to say, they have hard, closed ear cups that cover the ears completely. They also have detachable boom-mikes.
AX 120 Features: Indpendent Game And Voice Volume Controls Break-Away Inline Controller 2 Full Range 40mm Drivers Frequency Response: 25Hz-22KHz
AX 720 Features: Independent Game And Voice Volume Controls Break-Away Inline Controller Digital Audio Control Box Dolby® Digital 5.1 Audio processing Digital Optical input 2 Full Range 40mm Drivers Frequency Response: 25Hz-22KHz
The fit and finish of the headphones are lovely. The AX720 especially, is smooth and slick, reminding me of shiny Sci-Fi helmets. The AX 120’s ear pieces turn in to make a more compact package for toting around. The foam covering the ear cups are also removable and replaceable.
Let me start by saying I’m tough on sound and music in games and the reproduction of that sound and music in loudspeakers and headsets and I’ve written about sound and music in MMOs several times over the years, for this site as well as others. Did I say tough? Let’s say very tough. That’s because I review games and gaming hardware on a part-time basis. In my day job, I work in the high-performance audio industry. This one in particular: http://www.genesisloudspeakers.com
The generally accepted hearing range for humans is 20 to 20. That is 20Hz to 20kHz. To put that in perspective, the lowest pedal note on a pipe organ goes down to 16Hz, a sound that is felt and excites rather than is heard. The sound of tiny bells and the annoying hum of those old CRT TVs are about 16,700Hz. The brain interprets sounds that cannot be heard which is the reason why live music will always sound richer than the recorded and compressed, and why bright high pitched sounds can cause fatigue which translates into discomfort and headaches.
However, the human ears are most sensitive to sounds in the 1kHz to 4kHz range, and that is what most mass market consumer audio equipment is designed for.
I brought the headphones into the office and ran a frequency response curve. Both pairs of headphones had similar frequency responses which leads me to conclude that they use the same drivers. Left and right curves were very similar, showing that the headset is well balanced. As headphones has to take the resonance into consideration in the design and make use of it, we are looking from about 500Hz up on the diagram below. The frequency response between 1kHz and 4kHz isn’t too bad but the extreme hump and dip from 5kHz to 20kHz is pure distortion – which causes fatigue as the brain continuously tries to interpret the audio signals it receives. I sighed. That meant I would have to take this in very small doses – i.e. very short listening sessions.
Critical Listening with Music
Since I had the headphones in the office, I took over the listening lab and picked out several pieces of music to listen to. I wasn’t really worried about fidelity and how true voices and instruments sounded. I was interested in how the headphones would handle soundstage and imaging – as this was most important in gaming headsets. You want to know where those gunshots are coming from. Where did that dragon’s roar come from? I was also interested to see if they had the resolution – how well they would handle complexity – the intermingling of sounds when there was a lot going on, a raid for example in some dungeons consist of several teams of players handling different mobs.
A good pair of headphones should produce good soundstage and imaging – the “field” in which you heard the music and where the players / singers are. You should be able to close your eyes and know that the singer is in front of you, perhaps a little to the left. If the performer is a drummer that is moving across the stage, up to you and back down again, you should be able to see that in your mind as the sound moves around you. With a good pair of headphones, you are IN the action.
In both sets of headphones, movement and directionality was muddled. Unless the drummer was to my extreme right or left, I could not tell exactly where he was, besides somewhere vaguely in front me, until he got up to the front of the stage and then I could tell when he moved from left to right.
The Dolby setting on the AX720 – meant to simulate “surround sound” compressed the soundstage. Instead of opening it up as I had expected, it boxed it in.
Test with MMOs
EverQuest – with Ventrilo. I took a jaunt to the Rathe mountains to see if I could hear the direction that Hill Giant footsteps were coming from. Nope. Now this is also a failing with the sound from EverQuest. Even when set up with a 5.1 surround, direction was often confused.
DDO and Global Agenda – with built in voice and some directional sounds. Explosions, thunks and whacks. Again, with separate voice and game volume controls, the headsets performed credibly.
Ambient sound was good and clear, directional sounds were muddled, but MMOs have traditionally not handled imaging and directionality well.
Test on Xbox360:
Lost Planet is a game we actually demo with at Genesis. The sound, especially in 5.1 is fantastic. Even in two-channel, the image and directionality is still exceptional. The headsets lost it completely. Except for extreme left and right, all the action felt as if it was happening on top of my head. Firing up the Dolby emulating 5.1 on the AX 720 did not help. It fact, it constricted the sound stage even further, just as it had during music reproduction.
Voice / Sound
With separate volume controls for game sound and voice, the headsets performed well enough. I could tune the game sound down to hear my team mates, but the resolution – the handling of complex sounds are just not there. This is not unexpected from budget headsets and the separate volume controls make up for it.
The AX720 comes with a separate control box which allows two head sets to be plugged, and an optical cable. The separate control box provides a separate volume control, the Dolby switch and looks slick, with a black face plate and orange air vents to complement the matte white box, giving the impression that there’s a mucking nice amplifier chip in there that requires venting. Removing the rubber stickers under the amp, I opened it. For the price, I wasn’t expecting anything really fancy in the amplifier chipset. I wasn’t wrong, a quick internet search will yield the specs on the PT8501 amplifier chip, and the vents are a nice decorative touch. For dual headset use with a friend while playing, the amplifier is a nice added touch, but as mentioned before the Dolby processing did not impress.
The included optical cable resonates harshly, making sounds brighter than needs be. I would recommend purchasing a better cable if you prefer to use the optical output of your sound system with this headset.
Ergonomic fit is a very personal and subjective test, how do the head phones fit? They are comfortable, although the AX720 felt a little on the heavy side. I prefer my headsets to sit lightly and grip lightly. The construction of the AX120 is more open and lighter, slightly more comfortable. Again, like mice and keyboards, touch and feel is personal. The response from others I had try the headsets on were the same. Look good, feel good.
The design is slick and the AX720 especially, is an attractive package. The fit and finish, the impression one receives from just looking at the product on the shelf or handling it is great. Actual sound, not so. To be fair, I am judging these Budget Gaming headsets to Professional headsets which run from twice the price (without the amplifier) to 10x the price point. However, as I play MMOs (and other games) for longer than a half hour at a time, I would prefer a headset that would not cause listening fatigue as these do, due to the high frequency distortion. Despite how comfortable they are and how nifty the AX720 looks, for that alone, I cannot recommend these headsets.