When Astro (newly acquired by Skullcandy) announced that its next gaming headset was going to be the wireless A50, we knew we'd have to try it out for ourselves.
Wireless headsets can be a hit or a miss depending on a few key elements, but given Astro's reputation and track record with gaming audio hardware, we had a feeling these might be something special.
Sure enough, Astro's A50 Wireless gaming headset is a significant upgrade to its predecessor, the A40, though not in the ways you might assume.
Read on to find out why.
What's in the box?
There are two really significant changes that the Astro A50 Wireless brings to the table. For one thing, it's—you guessed it—wireless, though you'll have to slightly adjust the definition of wireless for that to be really true.
But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the mixamp has been tucked away inside the headset itself, despite it being only slightly bigger than the A40.
So there's no separate mixamp, though there's still a transmitter to plug your audio source into. This little black box pulls power through a USB cord from any connected device (not necessarily the one it's taking audio from), and it sends power out to charge the headset's lithium-ion rechargeable battery through yet another USB cord.
So you see, there are plenty of wires involved. Just not when you're using it (usually—more on the next slide). At least they're all included, along with an easy-to-follow quick-start guide and an attractive stand for the transmitter and headset.
How's it work?
Optical output from your Xbox 360, PS3 or PC (or auxiliary sound from a standard headphone-sized jack) feeds into the transmitter, which lives up to its name by transmitting the audio to the headset. The headset is wireless during use, except when you're using voice chat on the Xbox 360, which requires a thin cord from the left earcup to the controller. Whether Microsoft or Astro is to blame, it's an unfortunate oversight, and it starts to grate when the flimsy cord continually pops out of the controller during play.
Other than that, everything functions beautifully, though there are some things that will take getting used to for long-time Astro users and new adopters alike.
The mixamp's new home nestled in the headset's right earcup might be the biggest hurdle, as volume mixing is now handled by pressing on either side of the shell: front side for more game volume, rear for more voice. That might irk some, though we found it intuitive after a few minutes.
The microphone has some new functionality, though it's also a mixed bag of pros and cons. A new muting function—flip it up alongside the headband to turn your own voice off, flip it down to unmute—means the mic can no longer be detached. While some will miss the customization options, this supposedly has the added bonus of reducing ambient noise, and reports (over Xbox Live, no less) confirmed that our voice was coming through crystal-clear.
The integrated rechargeable battery lives up to the hype, lasting roughly half a day before requiring two to three hours of recharging. And unless you're playing in a movie theatre, the transmitter's 30-foot range should have you covered.
Plus the transmitter's 5.8GHz Kleernet wireless connectivity means it's compatible with any Kleernet-equipped sound output device.
And the sound?
Of course, all that would be worthless if the A50 sounded like Apple earbuds, but thankfully it lives up to Astro's pedigree.
Its 40mm drivers proved more than capable of handling anything we could throw at it, be that online games of Halo: Reach and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier or aurally-dense levels of Journey and the pounding beats of Deadmau5's Sound Shapes levels. The bass thrums heartily, and high frequencies are pristinely clear. More importantly, you'll notice new details in every game—even if it's just the layered whispers of the wind—that you may never have picked up on otherwise.
The ear-encompassing headset does a decent job at noise-canceling, and the Dolby 7.1 surround sound (activated via a switch on the transmitter) is executed shockingly well. It performed perfectly in our standard surround sound test of chucking grenades behind us and listening for the "boom."
That said, we did experience some audio hiccups and stutters, and they were worse in some games than others. Astro has released an easily-applied firmware patch to address the glitch and informed us that retail units won't have the issue at all. We can't confirm whether the patch works, since occasional audio drops still occurred even after we applied it, though we suspect the problem may lie with our console.
There are also three sound presets accessible via a toggle switch above the volume wheel on the right ear: one standard, one for gaming, and one for general media. These don't allow for much customization, though Astro's announced plans to add custom profiles in a future firmware update.
How's it feel?
Despite the added bulk and weight (the A50 is about 12 percent heavier than the A40) from the integrated mixamp and built-in battery, the A50 sat comfortably on our heads for up to three hours at a time, and we still didn't feel fatigued from wearing it (just from getting cursed at by 12-year-olds in Halo).
The headphones and headband carry a significant amount of padding, and while we're worried about the sweat and oil build-up over time, we're also thankful for the added comfort all that soft foam provides.
The microphone flips easily up and down to mute/unmute your voice, and the volume and mixing controls are intuitively accessed on the right earcup.
The big question
At $299, the Astro A50 Wireless gaming headset may be a little steep in cost for existing Astro users to want to upgrade right away. That said, for the features and improvements Astro's managed to pack into the A50, new adopters and those with the extra cash need not look elsewhere.
Slight glitches aside, the audio quality is flawless, and the future addition of custom sound profiles only sweetens the deal. Plus, those hiccups have reportedly been ironed out already, though we haven't yet had significant time to fully test that out.
The A50 may seem bulky until you remember everything they've crammed into it, and the loss of customizable mics and headphone "tags" may not sit well with some users.
But the battery life is fantastic and the sound is incredible, and if you can get past the fact that you'll need a wire when voice-chatting on the Xbox 360 (or if you don't plan on using it with Microsoft's console) then the Astro A50 Wireless is possibly the best all-in-one gaming headset available.
Any questions about the A50? Disagree with our verdict? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.