Inside and out, Astro Gaming's A40 Audio System is the best designed and packaged consumer electronics product I've used in half a decade, other than Apple's popular line of iPhone and iPod products, with which it runs neck and neck, save on one point: sold exclusively via the company's Web site, the A40 comes as an overall better value than Apple's high-end, coveted shiny bright things.
Although the exceptional full-sized "can"-style A40 headphones and the small — two decks of playing cards, vertically stacked — A40 MixAmp are available for individual purchase, the two devices are intended to work together to create a full 5.1 discrete-channel 5.1 Dolby Digital personal gaming/theater system in a compact unit. To carry forward the playing card analogy, Astro Gaming has succeeded, in spades.
The A40 system sells for $250 via their Web site, and Astro claims, in an FAQ item explaining their direct-order-only policy, they went this way because retailing the product through games boutiques and big-box electronics retailers (their examples, GameStop and Best Buy), the product would sell for as much as $400, making it unaffordable or ridiculously indulgent, or both, for most gamers, even the hardcore breed.
The two main components of the A40 system are the headset with detachable, adjustable "boom" microphone, and the A40 MixAmp. The headset is comparable in quality to any good pair costing $200 or more — and Astro direct-sells the phones solo for $200. Factor in that this set isn't a stereo model: Inside the left and right enclosures are all the requisite "speakers" for providing a full, bass-pounding 5.1 audio experience that is somewhat superior to many meticulously designed and installed home theater systems selected from appropriate, excellent individual components, or "separates." The A40 is head and shoulders above any home-theater-in-a-box offering, even the high-end branded kits, unless that giant box costs you about $5,000.
The A40 MixAmp supports two flavors of 5.1 surround sound: 5.1 Dolby Digital, for which there is a standard TOSLink optical cable input, and Astro Gaming's own surround implementation extrapolated from standard two-channel, two-lead audio inputs, otherwise known as "stereo," via industry-standard RCA inputs. Astro's extrapolated, or simulated, surround experience is in spirit a direct descendant of Dolby's original, analog ProLogic surround sound, which delivered some amazing home movie surround effects, just as Astro's implementation does with gaming and movie surround sound via their MixAmp.
On its face, if you have a an audio source — game console, PC or home theater playback deck — supporting 5.1 Dolby Digital via TOSLink optical output, there's no good reason to connect the MixAmp via RCA leads of the alternate analog stereo outputs. The extrapolated surround audio is a nice feature for older or less-capable equipment lacking optical out, but if you have TOSLink out, it's hardly required. It remains a requirement of A40 system ownership that you at least try out their implementation of simulated surround sound processing. It's outstanding, surpassing the tried, true and excellent extrapolated multichannel audio processing of my Onkyo A/V receiver.
The headset's microphone quality, adding in-game voice communications, is as solid as everything else in the kit. It's detachable via a standard 3.5mm mono jack in the headset, and the A40 system comes complete with three interchangeable covers for the headset speaker enclosures, so you can configure your listening experience — mic left, mic right or no mic at all — with no gaping empty mic socket on the outside of the headphones.
The covers attach, get this, not by some easily breakable plastic tab or metal-hook locking system, but magnetically so you can swap mic sides and headphone configurations as many times as you please without worrying you'll wear out the cover plates. The plates are designed so you can leave them off, letting in a lot of ambient sound, dampen noise somewhat by applying just the covers, or temporarily line the plates with included foam inserts for an instant pair of near-DJ-style cans, effectively isolating your gaming experience from crowded venues, such as gaming show floors or rowdy LAN competitions. (Both earpieces even flip sideways, designed to properly fit in the case, but the 90 degrees of clockwise rotation has the fringe benefit of allowing a quick listen to someone standing at your shoulder.)
The headset cable includes an inline mic mute switch, clearly color-coded for the mute position; and Astro also includes a cable allowing you to use any other stereo headphones you may prefer with the MixAmp, although do remember stereo headphones are not designed to support the A40's 5.1 surround features.
The small MixAmp, complete with its own slick protective slipcase, does quintuple duty: It handles 5.1 Dolby D surround sound decoding; it processes two-channel extrapolated surround sound; it provides native in-game voice-chat support for both PC and Xbox 360 platforms; it handles local and completely private team communications, accomplished by daisy-chaining multiple MixAmps via a connector bracket perfect for close quarters or a plenty long audio cable, both included; and it allows for mixing, again via one of a couple of included audio cables, an additional stereo signal on top of simulated or decoded surround sound. This means that you can connect an iPod, other MP3 player or any stereo audio source via the included cable or using a $4 RCA two-channel-to-3.5mm-phono-plug splitter.
Let's look at that last feature first. Some games — many on Xbox 360, fewer on PC, very few as yet on PlayStation 3 — support storing digital copies of your own music on your gaming platform, creating and using personal playlists during gameplay. However, no gaming platforms support protected Zune Store- or iTunes Store-protected music, which can exclude a huge portion of your music collection from use as your own in-game soundtrack. In the MixAmp, you have an analog stereo input to which you can connect not only any traditional audio source, but also an iPod, Zune or PC, allowing you to use your whole music collection in-game, digitally rights-managed or not. And you can do this for about the price of a month's supply of unleaded gasoline (yeah, I'm crying right along with you), not a healthy down payment on a Mercedes Benz sports sedan.
Mix control for the auxiliary stereo input is ingeniously missing from the MixAmp. To read Astro's documentation, they're almost apologetic for the fact you'll have to use the volume control on your audio source to control the in-game music mix. But it's not a shortcoming; it's good design. Controlling the music mix via the music player's volume control leaves only two fader-style knobs on that little box: a big, obvious wheel for master volume, and a smaller knob, tactile equal balance mark, for mixing game audio with in-game voice. This avoids common, much-maligned trip to Knob City, eliminating, in the heat of online battle the blind reach that winds up cranking up that lunatic screaming "You're garbage!" at you when what you intended was blasting Kasabian's "Club Foot" while you stomp the loudmouth back into the swamp whence he sprouted.
The isolated, private team-chat feature, which operates "cold" to the online voice system — that is, you can't hear it on the network — will be a boon to competition players and LAN-party enthusiasts. The in-line mute switch on the headset cable cools your mic for in-game audio; muted, anything you say goes out to your local team only, not everyone in the game. With the daisy-chained A40s, you can successfully operate your own squad within a large online team even if the game doesn't support squads; and this feature also easily creates, if your fellow gamers agree or the competitive event suits, the capability to use team tactics in open-mic, solo deathmatch-style multiplayer modes. Also, Astro isolates the auxiliary stereo audio inputs from daisy-chained MixAmps, so if your thing is Suge Knight's legacy and a teammate is more of a Soggy Bottom Boy, neither of you will suffer, nor must there be team agreement on what type of, if any, music will be playing during the match.
The MixAmp operates on USB power, which in today's world of omnipresent power-standards-compliant USB ports on, well, everything, should provide a readily available source of constant power. If not, the MixAmp operates on four AA batteries, and Astro offers a USB-rechargeable battery pack for $20. At that price, it's a bit less than you'll pay for a quality rapid-charger packed with just a couple of AA rechargeables. It's your choice: USB power, disposable batteries, Astro's own USB-rechargeable pack, or your own AA rechargeable kit with separate wall-outlet charger.
The A40 comes with a viper's nest of about every audio cable you'll need for PC, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3*. This may initially appear daunting, but you only need two or three cables for any particular platform, and you'll quickly discover, via the included illustrated connection chart, which cables you need for each platform and any one of multiple configurations you prefer. I'm not a competition gamer, I don't live in an area with an active public LAN-party gaming community, and my friends and I have about aged out (or procreated out) of organizing our own private LAN events. However, I did have the circumstance arise while reviewing the A40 system: I was headed out of town for a few days of vacation, and I needed to review a multiplayer console title during that time. Our inn, in what amounted to the sticks, had broadband Wi-Fi, so I packed up and took the A40 system as the most compact, capable audio solution without sacrificing 5.1 Dolby D or in-game voice support required to properly review the title. Although the whole works (including the A40, console, wireless controller, 20" LCD display and HDMI-to-DVI cable) was far less complicated to put up and tear down each evening than you'd imagine, the A40 was by far the quickest and easiest part of the mobile installation. And all of it easily fits inside the zippered headset case, with MixAmp protected by its own slipcase, cables, detachable boom microphone.
Astro sells only one other optional item for their A40 audio systems: a TOSLink optical cable, available in different lengths. The cheapest, shortest, and in most cases entirely sufficient (two meters) cable goes for $20, which can sell at most consumer electronics stores for about three or four times that price. If you're only going to be using your optically connected A40 around the house, skip the cable if you wish. If you're going to step outside with the A40 system packed in your gaming kit, even but once or twice a year, steal this cable for $20. Also important, the connectors have large, easily grasped plugs, and the connector fittings snap well enough to the MixAmp's and source device's chambered optical cable connections, but they do not seal there like many cables do, as if stuck fast with epoxy. This is very important for on-the-move gaming, as you won't wear out or damage the plastic connections by constantly plugging and unplugging them; and, perhaps more important for the LAN/competitive gamer, when someone trips over the cable, it will pop out of the stressed connector rather than staying put and yanking your console onto a concrete floor, or eviscerating the audio guts of your PC gaming rig.
The sound quality of the headset and the processing performance of the MixAmp both exceed excellent. You'll find stuff in your games' audio you didn't have a clue was there. Try playing Burnout Paradise via a TOSLink-connected A40 audio system. Sure, it sounds great on your good-quality digital 5.1 home theater system, but, hey, that doesn't sound like an engine revving, that is an engine revving. And those crashes — who knew, but Criterion put right in the game the sound of each panel of those flash rides shredding to steel ribbons.
The MixAmp component does not support 5.1 DTS matrixed audio, only 5.1 Dolby Digital's matrixed signal, and, of course, analog two-channel audio. Some audio and film professionals have a preference for DTS, but this is due to some potential advantages of DTS in the studio and commercial cinema environments; in the home, one is as good as the other. Thanks to Microsoft's certification requirement for games supporting digital surround sound to sport 5.1 Dolby Digital, Dolby D is the standard in console gaming multichannel audio. Surround-sound games that don't include it are considered feature-deficient by modern standards, but if you do lack 5.1 Dolby Digital in your source material, you always have Astro's stellar implementation of extrapolated surround sound.
For the family gamer, the gal or guy who is now more regularly called mommy or daddy, not only may your spouse not care to hear the throaty rumble of you capping Chimera at one o'clock on Sunday morning, but you also desperately don't want to wake the kids because that slaps a nonnegotiable night-night to your private gaming red-eye event. Alas, that 5.1 digital sounds so great, bombs away and tunes blaring (remember, all this applies to your favorite movies in home media formats, too). With an A40 audio system, have both: an ideal entertainment audio environment and domestic serenity.
Finally, the factor that pushes the Astro Gaming's A40 Audio System to the top: Forget integrated in-game voice chat, forget isolated team chat, forget mixing your own music into a game's surround sound, and forget the compact form factor and sundry cables included for nearly every convenience. Purely on the merits of the 5.1 digital discrete-channel processing and audio reproduction, the A40 adds a new dimension, an upgrade, to your existing games as significant as moving from a standard-definition television to a high-definition model. The penultimate commendation: I frequently used the A40 when there was no reason, when I wasn't at the moment putting it through my critic's paces, and there was no call for private listening, just because it's that good.
* Due to PlayStation 3's Bluetooth or USB-audio input support, in-game voice chat support for Sony's console requires a mic-level USB device. If you have a SingStar USB microphone device for PS2 or PS3 — they're the same — you already have what you need. Most other class-compliant (driver-less) mic-level USB audio input devices will work as well — Griffin's iMic product works perfectly. On their Web site, Astro provides simple instructions for connecting PS3s for in-game voice support. The A40 audio system is otherwise fully compatible with Sony's flagship console.
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