I fell into an audio hole a few years back where all of a sudden, the sound coming out of my PC became important enough to me that I went and splurged on a nice dedicated sound card for my PC + a nice pair of cans to listen to them through. I also really love surround sound, and while I've got a setup for my TV, I didn't have anything for my PC but the virtualized surround stuff which has never really worked for me. That being the case, I recently studied up on and bought a pair of Surround Headphones that don't just virtualize the surround sound but instead has a bunch of separate drivers in each ear cup pumping out the sound. Figured I'd do a little write up in case anyone was interested in my thoughts =P
These are the pieces of hardware that I currently have hooked up to my PC and that I will be going over in brief detail.
- ASUS Xonar Essence STX $189 at NewEgg
- Astro Gaming Wireless MixAmp 5.8 $219 at Amazon (Discontinued)
- Grado SR 225i Headphones $200 at Amazon
- Sennheiser Momentum Over-Ear $300 at Amazon
- Razer Tiamat Elite 7.1 $170 at Amazon
- Klipsch Image S4i Headset $52 at Amazon
- Etymotic Research HF3 $149 at Amazon
A dedicated sound card
I don't understand a lot of the jargon that goes into sound quality and whatnot, but I did my research and boiled it down to two cards. I don't remember what the other one was, but this one won out even though it was pretty damn pricey for straight up audio. As soon as I plugged it in, there was a noticeable jump in the quality of the sound coming out of even my default speakers. Though, not a $200 jump -_-;; Still, the hardware came along with a really robust piece of software to control the audio and over the years, I think it was a worthwhile purchase. Especially if I was going to be using better quality speaker components. Supposedly the virtual surround sound that this card puts out is really good, but for whatever reason, those features have never been compatible with my ears. The back of the card has a red/white component output, a fat jack headphone and mic output/input and a single optical out. While it was more than sufficient for the hook ups I was going to use at the time of purchase, not having the standard PC 6 jack sound outputs bit me in the ass once I get the Razer Tiamat since that thing only plugs into multiple jacks instead of a single optical to power its surround.
The audio quality jump you get with this sound card is only significant if you're using high quality speakers/headphones. If you're not upgrading both, I'd recommend you go with the speakers/headphones but if you've got a nice pair, then the card is worth considering.
Astro Gaming Wireless MixAmp 5.8
These were produced mostly for Console gaming but I picked them up to have a wireless solution to the optical out on my soundcard. They also provide the simulated surround that's all the rage but again, doesn't work for me. The wireless on the other hand is really nice. There is very little static (not noticeable unless there is zero other sound and even then, low) and the battery life is very good. I typically need to charge it only once a week or so. The main draw of this unit though was that they work with any pair of headphones you plug into them and aren't limited to a single headset that's paired with the broadcasting end. The dual benefit of using these is that I can also carry the receiver to the couch when I play PC games on the TV. In these situations, having a volume knob right next to me is also very useful. Unfortunately, this model has been discontinued and the ones you can find seem to be going for higher than the original MSRP.
If you want wireless sound, these are a great purchase. The static is very low, latency unnoticeable (cept for maybe sound based timing games) and most importantly, they work with ANY pair of headphones. A major plus since most wireless headsets tend to try to bring the price of the overall package down by using less than awesome headset components.
Grado SR 225i Headphones
Those incredibly weird, oldschool looking pair of headphones on the right are the cleanest sounding headphones I've ever used. After lurking around on a bunch of audiophile boards, I settled on picking up a pair of these as they were always talked about with high regard. They are basically the best sound you'll get for your buck prior to jumping into things that are $300+ and while I was very interested in nice sound, I'm not completely insane! The sound produced by these are a jump above every other pair of headphones I've ever used. They are open in the back which means that I can still be aware of my surroundings but also means that the sound pumping into my ears will also bleed out so if you want isolation and to not bother anyone nearby with your games/music then these are prolly not for you. Another factor you'd have to take into account is that the bass on these are nice, but definitely not booming. I feel like they're at the correct levels, but some people just love feeling a deep rumble and this doesn't provide that. Pretty much, these offer a very clean and clinical sound so if that's what you're looking for, look no further. They do have a few faults though. I'd say my ears started to feel a bit sore after having these on for around 5+ hours and the cable is super thick (which I suppose might be a good thing) so you won't be wearing these around the house and especially not out for a jog.
These are freaking fantastic. Unless you're someone who highly values THUMPIN' BASS, these will not do you wrong. Everything just sounds accurate and I'd guess you can't get better sound for this price.
Sennheiser Momentum Over-Ear
As much as I love my Grados, I ended up needing a pair of headphones that are closed so that I can listen to my music and whatnot without bothering everyone around me. Also, due to the bleeding sound it was impossible to use those in any sort of public setting without bothering the hell out of everyone around me. I went on the hunt for a nice pair of over-ear headphones that were light weight and also worked with my iPhone and I came upon these. The closed back really gives the sound a different feel from Grados. The sound is very nice and warm with a thicker bass than the Grados but it doesn't sound aggressively bassy. It blocks out sound from the outside world and does a solid job at keeping sounds from bleeding out as well. I also dig how they look so that's a bonus. They're comfortable to wear for extended periods of listening and work very well with iOS devices. They also come with two separate cables, one with and one without the 3 button iOS dongle so if you're not using them on an iPod or iPhone you won't be carrying the extra weight.
They are a bit expensive being right at the $300 mark but they really sound amazing. Compared to the other headphones I listened to while shopping around, these just sounded the most right. I really appreciate how light they are as well though they don't fold over for easy transport.
Razer Tiamat Elite 7.1
So, finally tired of not having surround sound on my PC, I started digging into non simulated surround sound in a headset and decided to try these things out. Now, before I start to tell you about these, I have to explain that my super sound card doesn't support the type of connections this headset requires. That being the case, I'm currently using them plugged into my RealTec HD Onboard sound -_-;;
The first thing I noticed when I put these on, were how goddamn comfortable they were on my head. I've gone through a number of PC headsets over the years and compared to my previous experiences, this felt like jumping into a nice, soft leather couch. My somewhat large ears were incredibly comfortable inside the cups and the padding on my head also felt great. I have yet to experience any discomfort or pain from wearing these, which is a good sign. Another cool little thing is that the mic actually can be pushed into the earpiece in its entirety. I'm fine with headsets where you can angle them vertically but having them entirely out of the way when not in use is nice since they can never get caught on anything and I don't have to see it in my periphery vision. The little control dial is also sleek and easy to use.
Now, onto the most important thing about this thing. The goddamn surround sound. It works, and it works well. I've got a 5.1 set up for my TV and while it's not THAT good, I can easily tell when a sound is behind, to the side or in front of me, which is amazing for a comfortable headset. Years ago, I had another pair of real surround headsets that were put out by a company called Tritton that were equally excellent except that they were heavy as hell and would actually cause my neck to hurt after a few hours. There isn't much else to say about the surround other than it works so moving on.
The sound quality on these are somewhat disappointing. Compared to the Grado, there is an instantly noticeable drop in audio quality. That is a bit of an unfair compassion to make though considering that the Grados cost more and only have to power two drivers instead of the 10 drivers that are packed into the Razor's. And I'm not saying that the sound quality is BAD by any means. Movies and games sound fine, just not great. The bass in these headphones are also much thumpier (legit term) than the Grado which is sorta what you want for gaming. Also, I have to point out that when I plug them into my dedicated sound card, they sound better (though still not in the same league as the grado) so the onboard sound card is also partly to blame.
These do what they advertise in that you get actual surround sound in a headset. It has nice features, is super comfy and in my opinion, looks pretty damn cool. That being said, the sound quality is average which is actually an impressive feat if you consider that there are 10 drivers packed in. If simulated surround works for you, I'd stick with a headset that produces better sound but if you're like me, these'll get the job done admirably.
S4i and HF3
These two I'm putting in here as a side thing for anyone with an iPhone or an iPod. Both these headsets are made specifically for an iOS device and have the appropriate controller with volume up, down and middle click buttons + a mic. They are both in-ear which is the only way to have great sound for headphones IMO.
I'll start with the S4i. These were my first pair of non stock iOS headphones and they were really awesome. The bass was deep and sound quality very good. The controls are located at the point where the two sides combine into one. The location is perfectly fine and was only bothersome when I was at the gym as they're right where the barbell comes down on my chest so I'd have to move them up over by my shoulder. For the price, pretty freaking awesome though they're not the best -_-;;
Now here are the best goddamn earphones I've ever used, iOS or not. These are like the headphone equivalent of the Grados. The bass isn't as deep and instead they just sound accurate. The sound at every other range is incredibly crisp and you can hear every individual instrument as if they are separate instruments instead of just part of a larger sound. It's hard to explain but if you hear them, you'll understand. One of the nubs that you can use are these foamy tips that you squish then stick into your earhole at which point, they expand back out forming a tight seal. I have sort of strange shaped ear holes so I always had a bit of sound leakage nomatter what size nubs I used to use but these foamy tips lock in all the sound perfectly. These are the pair I recommend to my friends (the ones willing to drop some pretty hefty cast) when they ask what headphones I recommend.
I fully endorse both pairs. The Klipsch ones are perfectly fine and sound better than the stock iOS white buds and come at a relatively cheap price while the Etymotics deliver better sound that most full size headphones I've tried. They're a tad bit expensive but I've seen sales where they've dropped to right around $100 and they also carry slightly cheaper models though I've never listened to them so I can't say whether or not I like em =P
If anyone has anything else to add or other headphones/headsets/soundcards they like, please add em! =)