The search for decent audio equipment, especially for use with gaming, can be a tired affair. Everyone has their divisive opinions on what brand, model version and type is best, from Sennheiser to Sony, open-backed to closed. What did seem common, however, was the almost universal stigma against gaming branded headsets by audiophile communities. But after spending more than a week with Astro’s 2013 A40 headset and mixamp—a device that can add virtual surround sound to any stereo headphones – I’m not convinced that disregard is justified.
They certainly know how to make a good first impression. The box is impressively large, and removing the sleeve reveals fun, graffitti-styled art across all its faces and sides. It then folds open three times to unveil its well packaged contents – the headset sans microphone in one compartment, the mixamp device in another, and finally the detachable microphone, cables for nearly every situation and quickstart guide in the last. I quite enjoy packaging for electronic devices, especially those for computer components, and Astro has made one of the most professionally designed yet cool boxes I’ve ever owned.
The devices themselves are equally well crafted. The Astro A40 has a sleek profile, with sharp curves that ring the circumaural ear cups, customizable tags that attach to their exterior via magnets, and detachable equipment – such as the microphone that can be connected to either ear cup—to prevent unwieldy cables or appendages from creating a messy appearance on the desk. The cups can also be swiveled, allowing the headset to be laid flat. The padding is a soft fabric that neither gets too hot nor causes discomfort, even after hours of play, providing a lightweight, comfortable fit. It even sits over my prescription glasses without causing any pinching.
The headset does grip the head a little more than I’m used to, though. I spent some time fidgeting with it for the first day, and while I still prefer the pillow-like touch of velour padding, I eventually forgot it was there. In fact, its tighter seal does provide a slight amount of isolation to outside noise, despite being a semi-open design. Just don’t expect it to mask the sound of gunfire from anyone nearby. They’re not a set of cans to take on the bus or in a busy room.
It is mostly made up of hard plastics, however, but that’s to be expected in this price bracket. They at least feel fairly industrial, with the exception of the headband. That upper support is not particularly pliable. I’ve become wary of stretching it too far, for fear of cracking it in half, and I certainly wouldn’t advise dropping the Astros on any hard surfaces.
The mixamp is the real jewel of the bundle. It comes in a fairly portable form factor – about as long and wide as my hand – and is packed with connection options and features. Its black finish with its silver accented knobs, hard, glossy top and soft sides has a construction its competitors can’t quite match. It never looks nor feels cheap, and sits proudly next to my expensive audio equipment.
At the front are ports for the headset, as well as an Xbox Live chat cable that needs to be run to the controller, and two daisy chain ports to link multiple mixamps together via 3.5 mm mini-jacks. The rear houses inputs and outputs for a variety of devices – 3.5 mm optical in, 3.5 mm auxilary for connecting an MP3 player, a 3.5 mm output for streaming purposes, and a mini-USB input for power. The top as a number of smooth knobs and buttons to control exactly how the audio is heard. There is a master volume knob, but one of my favorite featured of the mixamp is the voice chat mixer control below it. When playing on my Xbox 360, it allows me to balance the volume between the game or the voice chat. Turn it to the right, and my friends get louder while the game gets quieter, and vice versa.
The other buttons control power, enable or disable surround sound, and lastly a equalizer, new for this year’s model. The equalizer has four different modes—Pro, Core, Media and Sport. I have even less to complain about the mixamp than the headset, but it took me some time to figure out just which equalizer mode I had selected. There’s no explicit indicator on the device itself aside from an LED ring, similar to the light surrounding the Xbox 360 controller’s guide button, and that information on the quick start guide was almost too small to see. All told, very minor complaints.
Setup was a breeze, in no small part to the very helpful quick start guide that shipped with the bundle. For the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC, all that’s required to power and deliver audio is to the connect the USB and optical cables—though the PC does require an optical output with Dolby Live support, typically not found with motherboards – and configure the systems’ audio options to utilize the right output and surround modes. Thankfully, all the supplied cables are very long, and I had no problems running them from my systems to the couch seven feet back. The downside is that this does add a tangle of wires to my lap and across the room to the entertainment center.
Once I had hooked the headset and the mixamp to my Xbox 360 and later the PC, I ran it through a number of scenarios in gaming, music and videos. This first test was a several hour play session of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, a good experiment for bass and positional cues. The Astro A40 and mixamp succeeded in enveloping me in the game wonderfully.
Immediately apparent, the headset has a deep bass signature. I felt every explosion that rocked my screen. It’s more even than the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros resting beside me, a pair known for their bass impact. Mids are recessed as a result, and some detail is lost, but it never distorted the field. While it’s not as clear as the more expensive offerings on my desk, I find myself enjoying the extra kick of the Astros. It’s rather engaging and fun, though serious gamers may prefer more calmer cans for competitive gaming. I prefer to feel the thunder of a Warthog over my head instead of just hearing it, and the Astro delivers.
Due to the semi-open design, the sound stage is decently large. There is a good sense of depth to the audio, and when paired with the mixamp the positional cues are fairly accurate. I could easily tell where sound was registering from, helping to pinpoint enemies in Call of Duty and react in time to necromorph threats in Dead Space 3. My immediate rear was naturally slightly harder to determine than with a full surround setup, as the mixamp is only simulating surround, but with eyes forward it wasn’t difficult to gauge if something was to my aft. The effect is incredibly accurate with all other directions.
In music and movies, the A40 is just as capable. The bass keeps them lively and involved, but I don’t recommend using the Core preset on the mixamp’s equalizer. Its signature is rather flat. Instead, the Media and Pro presets work best at bringing out the headset’s energy.
And while I could hear the enemies better, my friends could hear me clearer, as well. I’ve had experience with the mixamp in the past, though only with a pair of headphones and a clip-on microphone. On the computer, I’ve used several desktop offerings from Logitech and Creative. The Astro’s detachable and bendable microphone puts them all to shame. I no longer sound like I’m speaking through a tunnel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mute when lifted to an upward position, but there is a handy mute button on the speaker cable. But its signal is carried along the lone cable from the headset, freeing me of the extra mess from clip-on microphones.
It’s not difficult to recommend the A40 headset and mixamp, either separately or sold together in the fantastically packaged bundle. The mixamp’s surround sound is the best anyone can get with the exception a full blown 5.1 setup, its mixer feature extremely useful, and the device can be used with any pair of stereo headphones. And while I had been told for so long to avoid gaming headsets, I honestly find myself reaching for the A40 over my more expensive headphones when it comes time for multiplayer gaming due to its easier setup. Astro’s reputation is well earned, and the A40 bundle is definitely worth considering for anyone wanting a great headset and surround sound effects without having to ruin their bank account to do so.
An Astro A40 and Mixamp unit was provided by Skullcandy for this review.