March 8, 2012

Sennheiser X320 Review

Sennheiser X320 Review

It’s unmistakeably clear that Sennheiser are forming a competitive front against Turtle Beach, who, despite not being known for the audio quality of their products, have a clear stranglehold on the Xbox 360’s game audio headset market, which has a strong presence in the Call of Duty series’ multiplayer. Sennheiser are clearly aiming for a similar target market with their “hear to win” audio encompassing a 15-23,000Hz frequency response, and full stereo sound. Also included is a noise-cancelling microphone which mutes when folded up away from the face, and a bass boost function.

The headset itself is attractive enough, with Sennheiser’s signature sleek, black-and-grey plastic design offset by an Xbox 360-aesthetic-inspired green circle around each of the ear-cups. Function and form are given equal attention, with the headset’s attractive design giving way to an easily-adjusted headband that will likely fit any head size, and a sturdy but flexible feel. Unfortunately, this is where one of the headsets shortcomings becomes immediately clear: the headset shape just does not suit a normal-shaped head. As you can see from the featured picture, the headphones curve to a certain extent; however, what does not become clear in that picture is the fact that the angle of the curve is so pronounced that the bottom of the cups dig in slightly to the bottom of the ear, while a slight space is left between the top of the cups and the top of the ear. Unless you have a head like a Hammerhead Shark, there’s no getting around this, and flexing the cups to the point where they are parallel to the shape of one’s head (forcing the headband to a very wide angle) makes it feel as if the band is going to snap. Additionally, despite the cushioned headband, the headphones are actually slightly uncomfortable on the head. I can’t be sure whether this is simply because I haven’t worn in the headphones enough, or because the cushion is simply too rigid. It feels as if the bare plastic is pulling against your head, when in fact the truth is that the cushion is simply resting on your scalp. Despite these shortcomings, the headset is still reasonably comfortable. It doesn’t squeeze, so those suffering from headaches due to headset tightness (myself included) need not worry, and the initially-awkward feeling of the headset is soon forgotten. Over the hours I used it, I was not subject to the fatigue the most headset users usually succumb to, leading me to believe that there might be some strange ergonomic design that, despite feeling a bit odd on the head, delivers long-term comfort. While it doesn’t feel like the chaise lounge of audio equipment, I certainly wouldn’t call it uncomfortable; its ear-cups will fit most ears, and the flexibility and adjustability of the headband ensures that users will have no trouble getting a comfortable, albeit unconventional, fit.

One of the most initially striking about the headset is the amount of cable included in its clamshell packaging. The German designed packaging lacks superfluous plastics (due to a nationwide protest against it some years ago), and is easily opened and accessible, with no scissors required. The relatively-small package disguises the 4m of somewhat-complex cabling required to give the headset its game audio functionality. The headset cable extends for 50cm into a small control panel featuring controls for game volume, voice volume, and a bass boost button (more on that later). A 4m USB cable extends from this control panel, and is plugged into the Xbox 360; on the same USB jack is a 2.5mm auxillary port; the cable belonging to this port is an RCA converter, which plugs into the back of your TV. The process involving the connection of the RCA cable to the TV can be a complicated one if you already have cables using your RCA ports, and the only instruction provided is a diagram. In most cases, though, a bit of tinkering can resolve any problems. The RCA plugs aren’t the final step, though: a 2.5mm plug is inserted into the aforementioned control panel, and then into the 2.5mm port on the bottom of the Xbox 360 controller, giving you your voice chat functionality. Mercifully, the 4m main section of cable comes with a velcro strap affixed to it, enabling easy rolling and storage when the headset needs to be packed up. I would also advise you to keep the included cable ties wrapped around the cables permanently, as keeping the full amount of cables neat and tidy after first unrolling them is almost impossible. The nest of cables that results if a cable tie is not utilised is actually unbelievable.

Now, you’ve waited long enough; arguably the most important part of a headset is the quality of its audio output (followed closely by the quality of its microphone). I tested the headset extensively throughout multiple games, the first of which was Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Almost immediately I was put off by the sound quality with the bass boost function deactivated, and found that my distaste for the audio quality sans bass boost was consistent through each game that I played; as such, I left the bass boost on. Without bass boost, most audio sounded tinny, with explosions and gunfire often popping and hissing as the audio hit the end of the headset’s frequency range; with bass boost, the popping and hissing continued, but the tinny sound was mostly eradicated. The overall sound quality is a step up from that of Turtle Beach, but is still lower than most PC headsets, meaning that PC gamers are likely to be disappointed with it. Most players, though, won’t be deterred by the slight decrease in quality, and will find the headsets fine for console use. My only wish for this headset is that there was some kind of EQ software that could be installed on the Xbox 360 so that the user could balance the sound and frequencies, as there were points were voice and gunfire just didn’t sound correct, and volume levels of these same sounds didn’t match up and remain consistent in certain situations. If action and gunfire isn’t the reason you play videogames, then you’ll likely find the sound quality to be even better, as the extreme highs and lows of gunfire, explosions and such like, probably won’t be present. Skate 3 sounded quite nice, although going from my PC-use SteelSeries headset to this meant that the music was a bit tinny to my ears. Forza 3 also sounded nice, but the dynamics of the engine volume, screeching tires, and cars crashing meant that the headset was, once again, a bit overwhelmed. Overall, though, the sound quality was quite good, and definitely stands up to what most PC headsets can offer.

The microphone quality was just fine for Xbox LIVE. There is a definite limit on the amount of voice data that can go to and from the LIVE servers, so vocal quality is restricted; the X320 bumps right up against this wall of restriction, delivering the best voice quality possible over the Xbox LIVE network. Voice and speech is clearly distinguishable, and lacks the tinny, computerised sound that some mics deliver: this enables players to more easily identify each other just by the tone of their voice. And, if, for whatever reason, the quality of the microphone or earcups falters, and you find yourself unhappy with the headphones, Sennheiser offers an excellent 2-year warranty.

The X320 is exponentially better than anything that Turtle Beach have served up, and will easily find itself at the forefront of the third-party console-based audio peripheral niche (and what  a niche). While some games push the X320s a bit harder than it can handle, the times where this happens are rare, and most players will find no problems with the headset. The sound can be a bit tinny without the bass boost, so I certainly recommend that you turn it on straight away. While it can’t compete with the heavy-hitters of PC audio, it definitely tries, and sets a new standard for what console-based game audio headsets can do. Despite its good quality, I would struggle to recommend it at the moment, mainly because of its $200 price point. I own a SteelSeries Siberia headset, and despite its better performance, it retails for, on average, half the price. Based on this, I’d suggest that you wait a few months before looking at the X320; it’s definitely worth trying, but I would be hesitant to spend $200 on it, given the fact that it doesn’t hold up to a decent 5.1 surround sound system. That said, if you live in an apartment, or some such thing, and are after a quieter gaming solution without sacrificing sound quality, these headphones may be your only option.

The final verdict? I wouldn’t spend $200 on it, but I can say that it’s definitely a good-quality headset. The X320 benefits from Sennheiser’s dedication to audio excellence, and even though hardware restrictions prevent it from achieving greatness, it’s definitely a class-leader. Wait a few months, though, because I can’t say that I’d buy the headset for $200. Wait at least until it’s down to $150, and you’ll be able to overlook the tiny list of minor problems, and focus on the fact that the X320 delivers what videogame consoles are sorely lacking: a good headset.

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