WHAT: Astro A30
PRICE: $150 ($230 bundled with mixamp)
WHY COMPLEX IS CO-SIGNING: Astro is already known for its hardware design (they're the firm behind the Xbox 360 and Alienware rigs) and its headphones (the A40 is at the top of the heap for MLG gaming cans), but with this "cross-gaming" unit they take aim at the casual/commuter market. The result? +10 for headshot...
Gaming headphones are great, and really do make a difference in online multiplayer, but they suffer from a few problems: cord overload, aesthetic concerns (really, those joints are HUGE), and maybe most importantly Single Use Syndrome. Sure, they're great for gaming, and maybe watching movies, but there's not a chance those things are leaving your living room. And that's what Astro's looking to change with these. The A30s use an ingenious "QuickConnect" system that lets you swap out cords so that you can use them for console or handheld gaming (Xbox360 or PS3), or with iPhones and MP3 players.
By using Dolby Headphone sound instead of full 5.1 sound, they no longer need to cram four speakers into each earpiece, making for a much more streamlined profile: the A30 look more like Skullcandy or WESC phones than studio-quality engineer cans, and clock in at just about half the weight of the A40s (188g vs 324g) (plus actually look better than most regular headphones). Interestingly, the smaller on-ear fit, rather than an over-ear/circumaural one, means that sound leakage is all but obliterated; we've been around someone wearing these playing PS3 at deafening volumes without anything trickling out from their headphones.
The design legacy of Astro Studios comes into play as well. Just like the A40s, the A30s have magnetic plates that are swappable, and even fully customizable a la Nike iD. They've already done artist series with Upper Playground, but we have to admit we're not even mad at the unadorned Space Invader-esque design.
But how does it sound? Surprisingly rich, to be honest. Despite the good things we'd heard about Dolby Headphone, we didn't expect them to deliver a full gaming audio experience, but playing through Battlefield Bad Company 2 with the audio set to "War Tapes" was insane. At one point, we were running through an abandoned rebel camp and were able to track down an annoying radio that was behind us and to the left. They're great for multiplayer, with individually adjustable game and voice volume meaning you can hear (and be heard) crystal clear, even over the ruckus of a tank. If you're using them as subway headphones, the foam fit means that you can zone out without blasting your eardrums out (but if you want to, no one'll know you're doing it with a Hell Rell mixtape). As we write this, they're plugged into a laptop for Itunesy goodness, and beat out our usual headphones for sound quality.
Are there downsides? A couple—they're not quite perfect. Gaming with them requires Astro's mixamp, which delivers great sound, and cuts down on the cord overload of the Trittons—but does so at the expense of running on battery power, which it sucks down like Divine Brown (word to outdated '90s references). Four AAs that need to replaced every 8-10 hours or so means rechargeables are all but a must. And while they're extremely comfortable, the on-ear fit means they can feel a bit snug after a couple of hours. (Of course, if you're gaming for more than a couple of hours at a stretch, you should probably take breaks anyway, so who knows, maybe this is a public service.) For what they deliver, though—top-tier gaming audio that's versatile enough to work as amazing street and work headphones—it's a small price to pay. Whether you're in the market for gaming cans or just a new set of general-use ones, these are worth the price.