Audio is an unsung hero insofar as gaming is concerned. I think we tend to take superb audio for granted, willing as we seem to be to just "make do" with whatever we're given. Poor graphics will slay a high review score every time, but it takes absolutely atrocious sound effects to even register a mention in a review, much less a score alteration. A big part of this might be that, no matter how much work the developers might put into spatial audio trickery, if the end user is equipped with substandard output, then all that work means essentially nothing. It is with this in mind that OTTO, a venerable manufacturer of industrial sound equipment, has put forth the Model OT-8 Digital Gaming Headset. Tailored specifically toward what OTTO thinks gamers need, it is a seemingly impressive piece of work.
I say "seemingly" because in all honesty, the device appears to be a gleaming powerhouse of features, functionality and form — on paper. In reality, as we'll see, the OT-8 falls short of what many hardcore players will want.
Before I get too much further, I'd like to take a moment to explain a peculiar happenstance involving this review. OTTO initially sent me their Model OT-4 Surround Sound Stereo headset. While I could have covered that, it was meant for an entirely different demographic so I felt it would have been unfair to judge it based on the needs of a gamer. The PR crew at OTTO were exceptionally courteous about the snafu and sent us an OT-8. Why am I even mentioning this? Well, it's placed me in a position to not only base my critiques on what I think a headset should be capable of, but it also allows me to compare the OT-8 against other products in the OTTO line. As we shall see, it will make quite a difference to the overall tone of this write-up.
Out of the box, the OT-8 is a lightweight, somewhat bulky, pair of headphones. It has a built-in microphone fixed to a 7" bendy-snake for maximum adjustability, on-board volume control and an on/off switch for hardware SRS functionality. It has a single 68" cable from the left speaker that leads to a USB connector. The factory specifications of the OTTO OT-8 are as follows
- (Speakers) Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz
- Impedance: 32 Ohms
- Signal to Noise Ratio: Better than 58dB@1KHz
- Headphone Sensitivity:96dB
- (Microphone) Sensitivity (at 1KHZ): -40dB
Now, Truth be told, I'm not that much of an audiophile. I don't actually know what most of those numbers mean. I can roughly guess what the signal-to-noise ratio means, but impedance? Frequency response? I have no idea, really. My usual impulse in situations like this is to hit Wikipedia, but in this case, I was met with even more confusing explanations. I'll have to just go with my gut.
Reading the above, it should be clear by now what I meant when I said the OT-8 looked great "on paper." Does that list not look like a superior piece of gear? Alas, almost none of what you see lives up to what it should. Let's go down the list, shall we?
The OT-8 is bulky, yes. I can live with bulk, but I don't really see why it's even necessary to have to do so. There is no real reason why the OT-8 is as big as it is. If you go with what Boris the Blade has to say, "Heavy is guud; heavy is reliable. If it does not vork, you can alvays heet him veeth it." (Bonus points if you know what movie I'm referencing here.) Well, the problem here is that the OT-8 only looks heavy. It's made of plastic, so I doubt you could effectively hit anyone with it without the device shattering into sad little shards. Is this really that much of a bad thing? Not really, but in this day and age of compact functionality, I just don't understand this almost-1970s retro-throwback industrial design. Then again, OTTO claims to have been manufacturing audio hardware for 45 years, so it's possible their idea of contemporary is a little off-center.
The microphone is nice, and it's probably my favorite aspect of the OT-8. It's functional, convenient and exactly what contemporary gamers want and need in a headset. The length of the bendy-snake to which the microphone is attached comes to just the right length, especially when compared to the paltry 4" wire on my Logitech headset mic. The pop-shield on the mic itself is a shade on the excessive side, but when you factor in how many times I've had to suffer the soul-chilling sounds of some strange gaming nerd chewing in my ear during a World of Warcraft raid, that extra foam suddenly seems worth it.
There is onboard volume, but it does nothing. I mean that — it really does absolutely nothing at all. For all intents and purposes, the positive and negative buttons are nothing more than vestigial nubs. The SRS switch does work, but not in the way you might want it to. The onboard SRS functions do nothing more than coat all your audio in an unpleasant murky wash of muffled tones. The OT-8 has no driver disk or configuration software either, so it's not as if I just haven't quite tweaked these to my soundcard's output. The SRS just sounds terrible, plain and simple.
I like the USB adapter, but only because I have front USB connectors on my machine, and that means I don't have to reach around to the back of my tower to plug these in. My Altec-Lansing speakers don't have a headphone jack, you see. At night, when my wife is asleep, I have no choice but to plug my headphones straight into my soundcard. Inconvenience, thy name is personal audio. To that end, for me at least, the OT-8 does indeed have another plus. An odd thing is that their PR sheet makes mention of the market growth of portable gaming. PSP and DS systems don't have USB connectors, guys.
Finally, we have what is, in my eyes, the number one most important factor: volume output and fidelity. This is also where my experience with the OT-4 comes into play (remember, I used the OT-4 before the OT-8). Interestingly, the OT-4 and the OT-8 share the same factory-specs — the same frequency response (20Hz-20Khz), sensitivity (96dB) and impedance (32 Ohms). What this should mean is that the two headsets should be interchangeable in output, with only the form-factor being the true difference. The reality is far different. The OT-4 has the distinction of being the single loudest, and single clearest, headset I've ever used. This thing is a tank — nothing I threw at it could override its bass-response; it was painful to even have on most of the time. As a matter of fact, my wife said the OT-4 was so loud she thought I just had the speakers on. This is while she was in the bedroom asleep behind a closed door.
Now, as I've stated, the OT-8 has the same specs, so it should also be a frightening behemoth of sound, correct? Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. The OT-8 has no guts; its maximum output is among the weakest I've ever heard. I have to push my EQ pre-amp in WMP11 to well past the point where it's clipping, just to get acceptable levels for MP3 listening. In-game, one doesn't have that option, and the end result is audio that's just too quiet. Sure, my wife doesn't complain that she can hear my headphones as loudly as my Altec Lansing subwoofer anymore, but then again, I can barely hear what's going on either, so really what's the point?
In the end, I'm puzzled by OTTO. It's clear from the OT-4 that they're more than capable of pumping out industry-redefining audio fidelity, so why do they seem to have such issues with consistency of acoustic quality? To be honest, the OT-4 suffers pretty much all the same issues as the OT-8 (the SRS doesn't work, neither does the volume, it's also too bulky, etc.), but the fact that two different products from the same company that should be nigh-identical are so totally different in performance does not bode well for OTTO as they try to break into the gaming market. There is potential here — I'll give the OT-8 that much, at least. However, until some new groundwork has been laid covering industrial design, market research and quality control, I'm afraid OTTO won't be getting very far with us picky gamers. For my money, I think I'll stick with my Labtec LT-820s until the next generation of digital gaming headphone from OTTO comes along.