When it comes to professional audio, there are plenty of choices, but very few audio companies cater specifically to gamers. That's one reason why ASTRO Gaming has managed to garner such a cult following over the past few years. Its products are expensive and they're not sold in stores, but the gear is made with an attention to detail that is often lost in today's instant consumption world.
As a design company, ASTRO has been involved with gaming for a number of years (they're the company responsible for the look of the original Xbox 360 case), but as far as audio is concerned, ASTRO made its big break with the debut of the A40 headset and original Mixamp. Designed with the professional gamer in mind, the original Mixamp was a hit on the MLG circuit and with hardcore players. While many purchased it for home use, the Mixamp didn't always integrate easily with home setups simply due to its wired nature. Using it meant being tethered to your console.
With the release of the Mixamp 5.8, the team at ASTRO has gone back and redesigned the Mixamp. It still shares many of the same features as the original, but this time around, the home user was the primary focus. After playing with a retail unit for a week, we can safely say that ASTRO hit its mark.
Much like other ASTRO products, the packaging is worth noting, if only for the obvious effort involved. There are no blister pack annoyances here. After removing the slipcover, the Mixamp 5.8 opens up as if it were a small cabinet. The cardboard "doors" are held in place with small magnets. Inside is the Mixamp 5.8 base unit, receiver and an assortment of cords.
Our unit came with the power adapter, an optical audio cable, an Xbox 360 chat cable, a USB cable (for powering the receiver in a pinch) and an adapter that combines a separate mic and headphones into a single plug. The latter is useful if you want to use a headset that was designed with the PC in mind, as those typically have the mic and speakers broken out rather than on a single plug as the Mixamp requires.
Oddly, the system only came with a quick start guide. There was no manual to be found. Given the ease of setup, it's not a big deal, but it comes across as an obvious omission given the care put into the rest of the packaging.
The core of the Mixamp 5.8 is the base unit, which is otherwise known as the TX. The TX contains the audio decoding hardware (a Freescale 56374 DSP), which is capable of processing Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic IIx and Dolby Headphone signals. It's small, lightweight and easily tucks into a corner. It does require an AC power supply, though. You can't run the TX off USB power like the original Mixamp.
Compared to the standard Mixamp, the TX unit is a bit light on the connection options. An optical connection is provided for audio input, and there is an aux input for use with the optional PS3 USB chat cable, but that's it. The plethora of analog and digital inputs found on the original is gone. If you planned on using the Mixamp 5.8 system with any classic analog audio gear, think again. However, the TX does add an optical output that serves as a pass-through option. This allows you to leave the TX plugged into your setup, even when you're not actively using it.
The receiver portion of the Mixamp 5.8 is called the RX. Shaped like a small potato, it fits comfortably in the hand. You can also use the optional belt clip. The RX features a headphone jack, Xbox 360 chat cable connection, a volume dial, a game/voice mix dial and a bass boost button. The bass boost option is a nice touch, but the effect is minimal.
The RX is powered by three AAA batteries. You also have the option of plugging a USB cable into an auxiliary power port in a pinch. USB power can run the RX, even when the batteries are totally dead.
While the lack of connectivity options may be the Mixamp 5.8's biggest drawback, the system's biggest advantage is the ability to support multiple wireless receivers. Each TX can be paired with up to four simultaneous RX units, allowing multiple players to use the system at once. The original Mixamp was limited to one player.
In terms of audio quality, the Mixamp 5.8 is close, but not quite at the level of the original Mixamp. Transmitting at 5.8 GHz, the system faces very little in the way of external interference, but it puts out a noticeable hiss even with no input. The same level of distortion on the wired Mixamp didn't happen until you turned the volume all the way up. With the Mixamp 5.8, the hiss is audible even at low volume. While the hiss is there, it's not very loud, and it's not something you're apt to notice unless there is no other sound playing.
Range-wise, the Mixamp 5.8 is impressive. The RX kept a solid connection to the TX base station, even when both were on opposite sides of a 1,200 square-foot office with multiple walls in between them. Unfortunately, this range comes at a cost. The RX eats batteries for lunch, with a full set of AAAs getting around 12 hours of use before dying. When the batteries are low, you're guaranteed to know because the RX emits the shrillest sound you've ever heard as a low power notification. It's sure to get your attention, but it's also a guarantee that you won't be using the RX until the batteries run completely dry. The alert sound really is that annoying.
Ultimately, the Mixamp 5.8 is an intriguing solution, but whether it's a good choice depends on how you plan to use it. If you're looking for flexibility in terms of connection options and portability, then stick with the original Mixamp. When it comes to convenience and quality, it's hard to beat. If you're willing to give up a bit of flexibility and overall audio quality for an increase in convenience, the Mixamp 5.8 may just be right up your alley. In less than five minutes, it can turn any pair of headphones into a wireless Dolby Digital solution. That's not bad for a single Benjamin.
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