Five years ago, it seemed like ASTRO Gaming came out of nowhere. This small team with the all-caps name made its mark by debuting one of the first headsets appropriate for pro gaming. A solid mix of comfort and quality made the Astro A40 headset a standard-bearer among hardcore gamers. When paired with the Astro MixAmp, the system allowed for seamless mixing between game sounds and voice chat, giving teams their own dedicated local chat channel.
Almost three years after the A40 debuted, ASTRO released the Wireless MixAmp 5.8. Although it dropped some of the inputs of the wired version, the Wireless MixAmp 5.8 offered full freedom of movement and preserved the audio mixing and Dolby Digital decoding that made the original so popular. The main complaint with the wireless system was the fact that it had a receiver. ASTRO wanted to get rid of the receiver, so it came up with the A50, which debuted at E3 2012.
We got a look at the new headset, and first impressions are certainly positive. From a hardware perspective, the A50 is basically an Astro A40 with a wireless MixAmp receiver magically jammed inside. There is no external receiver and (almost) no wires hanging about. It's just you and the headset unless you're on an Xbox 360. In that case, you still need to piggyback a voice cable from the A50 to your controller.
Looking at the A50 headset, it looks nearly identical to the A40, though this time around, the cans over your ears are closed instead of open. We didn't really get a chance to play around with the audio during the short hands-on time, but if the Astro A30 is any indication, the closed cans should give the A50 a stronger bass hit than the A40 and its open design.
Button-wise, the designers at ASTRO had to move the key MixAmp controls to the headset. At the base of the left ear can, you'll find the USB charging port and the Xbox 360 voice input. At the base of the right ear can is the volume control dial. Farther up on the can is a voice/game audio slider, which is used to control the mix level and a power button. The controls aren't visible when wearing the A50, but they appear to be in easy-to-reach places. We'll have a better sense of ergonomics once we get a review unit in hand.
One button that is noticeably absent is the microphone mute. On previous headsets, this was included on the connecting wire. Here, ASTRO has incorporated a positional mute. If the mic is flipped down, it's enabled. If the mic is flipped up and out of the way, it's muted.
Now, the bad news for existing ASTRO hardware owners. Even though the new MixAmp transmitter looks nearly identical to the Wireless MixAmp 5.8 transmitter, the two are not interchangeable. The A50 headset and transmitter use newer Klearnet technology, so they can only connected to other Klearnet hardware. This means that if you purchase a laptop or TV with Klearnet built in, you can use the headset without the A50 transmitter, but the existing Wireless MixAmp 5.8 receiver will not connect to the A50 transmitter.
Breaking compatibility was not an ideal outcome, as it means owners who mix and match may need two sets of hardware, but ASTRO told us it was done in order to ensure maximum support for the new A50. Officially, ASTRO is advertising the A50 system as supporting up to four headsets on a single transmitter. Unofficially (i.e., the guys were fooling around at the office one night), they've managed to successfully connect and use 16 A50 headsets on a single transmitter.
As far as voice support is concerned, you are limited to four players on the Xbox 360 and two on the PlayStation 3, though those are limitations of the game console hardware and not the A50 system.
For battery life, ASTRO told us that gamers should expect 10-12 hours of use out of the A50 on a single charge. Three hours will get you to an 80% charge, while five hours will fully charge the A50. What's interesting is that all power for the A50 is done via USB. Even the wall wart has been removed from the transmitter. It is powered by a standard USB cable, so that means you can just hang it off your PC or game console.
Finally, ASTRO said that the A50 will ship with three different default audio profiles. Profile one will be tuned for gaming. Profile two will be tuned for flat Dolby Surround. Profile three will be tuned for movies. Out of the box, you won't be able to tweak with the profiles, but ASTRO told us that the long-term goal is to release a software update that will allow end users to customize their profiles on the PC and then upload them to the headset.
With a retail price of $299.99, the A50 isn't going to be cheap, but as a product, it certainly is enticing. If it holds up to ASTRO's claims, it could end up as the default headset of choice for gamers everywhere.
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