The AXPC is a great gaming headset for gamers that offers true 5.1 surround sound over a single cable without breaking the bank, although it may not be fully compatible with all the latest OpenAL games at this point in time.
Surround sound is like dual monitors and satellite radio. Once you have it, it's hard to go back. So when your new neighbor calls the cops on you for having the volume too loud, or you're attending a LAN party with no speakers permitted, it's imperative to have a backup plan. Enter the Tritton AXPC gaming USB headset, offering true 5.1 surround thanks to 4 individual drivers in each cup, rumble feedback, and a detachable boom mic to keep those late night gaming sessions rocking. Did I mention it's USB? Full review ahead.
Tritton's Audio Xtreme PC USB headset initially threw me off by the orange and black motif. I knew I've seen them at a LAN party before, and I was right. The base design is from German manufacturer Speed-Link's Medusa 5.1 USB headset, right down to the boom microphone, chipset, and plastic molding. But don't be put off by that - while the AXPC is essentially a re-branded product, there are a number of reasons it should not be discounted.
First and foremost, the Medusa line of headsets is highly recommended across a number of online communities and has an established reputation of quality. Second, the only easy ways to actually get your hands on a Medusa headset are from Medusa-USA or eBay, both of which will run you above $120 whereas the AXPC is a meager $80. Third, the in-line control offered by Tritton is a far cry better than that found on the Medusa, actually offering volume controls for each channel as well as the master volume. Granted, the included carrying case isn't hard shell like it is with the Medusa, but for the price and ease of availability, I'll let that slip. Origins aside, let's move onto the actual review.
Head to head between the Medusa and AXPC.
Design and Comfort
When it comes to long lasting comfort, the AXPC is bar none. The cushioned headband is rather long to begin with, but can be expanded on the sides like most headsets to fit the biggest of heads and a wide mix of hats and hairdos. Both cups are also well balanced and have the ability to slightly tilt vertically, as well as rotate backwards 90 degrees to create a perfect fit flat against your head.
As circumaural cans, the AXPC USB headset does a decent job of filtering out ambient noises and providing a sealed sound chamber that's essential for good bass. The mere fact that they're circumaural means there's no pressure on the outside of your ears that can cause fatigue over time (at least much faster anyway), and the pads are also rather large removing the condensed feeling that some other circumaural headsets provide.
All things considered, there are really only two things that could potentially burden you when wearing the AXPC. The first is the weight of the cans, enough to eventually fatigue your neck or make them slip off if the headband wasn't adjusted properly. The second is the simple fact that they're circumaural. Some users (myself not included) find that their ears get rather hot with the lack of ventilation. Of course, it's always a good idea to take breaks every now and then anyway. That's what the kitchen and restroom are for.
The Audio Xtreme PC's microphone is also rather interesting. Not only is it detachable with a gold plated connector, but in addition to swiveling around on the joint, the entire microphone stalk is made from a highly flexible metallic material that's much easier to position than your standard plastic wrapped mic stalk. Think of it in terms of a snake light. The only downside here is that since it's rather long, it looks goofy when swiveled up against the headband, but hey, that's why it's detachable. And just like how the microphone is easy to move and set aside, the AXPC ear cups are easy to put away, folding against the headband for easy storage in the included carrying sack.
Moving further down the AXPC's cord is the inline control pod. Here it's possible to adjust Windows' master volume via a rocker dial that doubles as a mute button when pressed in, as well as control the volume levels of the four individual channels that make up the surround sound experience: front, center, surround (rear) and subwoofer. As with most headsets that provide their own individual volume control separate of the Windows volume, it's best to leave the Windows volume at full blast and turn the individual channels up to the desired volume, otherwise bass is noticeably absent. A microphone mute button is also present, which will change the status LED on the pod from blue to red when muted.
There's about 23.5" of cord between the USB headset and the control pod, which lets the pod rest close to the belt level even for taller gentlemen. An alligator clip on the cord can be used to keep the pod handy by attaching it to your shirt so the pod isn't moving on its own accord.
C-Media Drivers in Windows
While the AXPC USB headset will work under Windows like any other USB Audio Device, it requires the drivers to be installed for all of the 6 channels to work properly. Otherwise, only the front channels will actually work, even after selecting "5.1 surround sound speakers" from the Advanced Audio Properties window. The volume control is also wonky until the drivers are installed, behaving unpredictably when used.
Once the drivers are installed, things are sorted out and it's now possible to switch back and forth between stereo (front drivers only, as they're the best sounding at 40mm) and 6-channel modes. I find myself toggling between these two modes frequently, as when 6-channel mode is selected, stereo audio will not simply double back to the rear speakers, but will be upmixed into 6 channel mode similar to Creative Labs' CMSS audio processing. The end result sounds rather spacey, and removes some of the subtle sounds in a song in my opinion. When watching DVDs or playing games with native 5.1 audio, I select the 6-channel option, and surround sound is passed straight through. More on these options later.
A bonus feature of installing the drivers for the C-Media CM106-L chipset in Windows is native DirectSound 3D Hardware processing, as well as EAX2 sound effects. Not only is this more CPU efficient than software mode, but it also makes many games sound richer as reverberations and echoes are added. This is especially evident in Unreal Tournament 2004. Last but not least, installing the drivers allows for a number of effects to be used with the microphone, which I'll cover later in the Microphone section of the review.
Unfortunately at the time of writing I do not have a copy of Vista to test the AXPC with, although I do know that a beta driver for the 32-bit edition of Vista exists on Tritton's website. I'll be sure to update this review with my findings as soon as I'm able to.
Rabid Apple fans need not bite as Tritton's AXPC also works in Mac, only no drivers are necessary. Just like the setup procedure for the previously reviewed Altec Lansing FX5051, all that needs to be done to setup the AXPC in OS X is to configure it through the Audio MIDI Setup application, found in the /Applications/Utilities folder.
Select USB Audio as the default input and output devices, and then also select it next to the Properties For: header and press the Configure Speakers button. Click the Multichannel tab, then select 5.1 Surround from the drop-down menu, followed by the Apply and Done buttons. Once finished, surround sound will work in Quicktime and every other program except Apple's DVD Player. I recommend using the free and open source VLC player from http://www.videolan.org/ instead, as it actually utilizes all 6 channels without hassle.
Here's where things get subjective. The very fact that everyone's ear is formed uniquely like a thumbprint while the drivers in each ear cup remain in the same position is one factor in this equation. Loud music while driving is the other. As such, the following is merely my experience, and some of you may think that the Audio Xtreme PC's sound is better than I do while others might think it's worse.
To be honest, I won't go as far as saying that the AXPC lives up to the positional accuracy of a dedicated speaker system. It's close, and definitely better than a stereo set, but the difference is still there. For one thing, I noticed the center channel to be slightly off balance, shifting slightly towards the left. Also, the fact that the positional sound is huddled so closely to my ear throws off the timing my brain's been accustomed to for the 20 something years I've been around. Don't get me wrong, the difference between front and back is distinct - my ears hear the sounds from a behind (and slightly elevated) position, and the tone produced by the rear 30mm drivers as opposed to the 40mm front drivers is easily noticeable (a little tinnier). Simply put, the overall difference between the AXPC USB headset and a standard 5.1 speaker system is that I have to pay more attention to those subtle cues and it takes me slightly longer to determine a sound's position with the AXPC.
FPS Game Testing
Using the AXPC USB headset in games under Windows XP produced mixed results. In a nutshell, many games work flawlessly with the headset while others lack meaningful sound in the rear channels. For the games that do work, I found that 3D HRTF positioning was incredibly useful in pinpointing enemy fire, especially in Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Oblivion, and Call of Duty 2, where it was mostly used in pinpointing enemy foot steps. Unreal Tournament 2004 also took advantage of the positional audio, although as many gamers know that game focuses more on reflexive counter attacks than pinpointing enemies.
The rumble effect that goes hand-in-hand with the subwoofer channel also provided a welcome extra dimension to my gameplay by emphasizing explosions and vehicle movement, although it didn't get as crazy as the stereo analog AudioFX headset from eDimensional does. Then again, the AXPC's rumble feedback was more refined than the AudioFX, and there are no flashing lights to distract the LAN gamers around you.
In three games however, I noticed that there was a serious issue with the AXPC's positioning ability. These include Quake 4, PREY, and Battlefield 2142. For Quake and PREY, audio from the rear was missing entirely. If I were to talk to a character and turn completely around so that he's facing my back, what little I could hear was ambient noise. This issue does not exist with my 5.1 speakers coming through my onboard Realtek ALC850 AC'97 sound, as I can hear the character through the rear channels loud and clear.
For Battlefield 2142, I couldn't tell the difference between front and back at all. In addition to this, there were pops in the audio under both Software and Hardware rendering modes, although the pops I also experience with my onboard sound card but not as frequently. In all three titles, there is sound coming through the rear channels, it's just that those sounds are ambient noise and aren't the sounds that should be coming in from behind.
If I had to take an educated guess as to why those three specific games perform poorly with the Audio Xtreme PC, it'd probably be because they're all OpenAL titles with heavy ties to Creative Labs and the X-Fi soundcards. Could it be that OpenAL is simply trying to access the 7th and 8th channels that the CM106-L chipset supports but aren't there physically? I'm not sure, but I am sure that something needs to be done about this issue.
Seeing as how Vista killed off DirectSound, I will be seeing more and more titles come out with OpenAL sound paths that could potentially have these same issues with the AXPC. Until C-Media or Tritton rolls out a new driver to combat this issue, I'll be playing those games in Stereo mode. And just to reiterate, there is an AXPC driver for the 32-bit Vista on Tritton's website, but I unfortunately can not test it at the moment to see if these issues also exist under Vista or not.
VoIP Microphone Testing
Microphone quality was superb, and the superior positioning ability of the snake light-ish microphone stalk also played a key role in audio clarity. Throughout several Skype and Teamspeak sessions there was never a single moment when a friend could not understand me, and they all marveled at the audio clarity coming through to them. A +20dB mic boost feature exists which can be extremely useful for voice applications that don't provide their own amplification, although a small amount of hiss is introduced.
As mentioned previously, by installing the drivers in Windows there are a number of options to play around with in conjunction with the microphone, including key shifting and voice cancellation for karaoke when listening to music. What's more interesting is the Magic Voice effect, which creates an echo effect for the microphone, or provides voice changing that can be used for anonymity and messing with your friends. The available voice changers each add their own echo effect, and can make you sound like a generic male, a tomboy, a chipmunk submersed in water, or the Master Control Program from Tron. This is more fun than it sounds, and you can hear the different options for yourself in this audio clip. Since the microphone and speakers are controlled by the same sound card, it's also possible to listen into your own conversation to hear how you sound in real-time, although if you're like me you'll find it's hard to speak under this condition.
Music and Movies
Back to the listening experience, for music testing I used my standard selection of highlight music including Cypress Hill's Dr. Greenthumb for listening to bass, Nine Inch Nails' Eraser for its use of subliminal sounds, Rage Against The Machine's Ashes in the Fall for ear splitting highs, and Guess Who's No Time for midtones. To add all these categories together, I used Daft Punk's Aerodynamic.
I found that the AXPC worked remarkably well for music, after a bit of tweaking that is. Stereo music generally sounded best under stereo mode (naturally), as no upmixing was necessary and music was well preserved in the 40mm drivers as opposed to coming out of the relatively tinny 30mm drivers when in 6-channel mode. Highs and midtones are also unusually well preserved, proving to me that the AXPC can be taken seriously outside of gaming. The only issue with Stereo mode is that bass is somewhat suppressed at higher volumes, until enhanced in either iTunes or the 10-band equalizer within the C-Media drivers - not really an issue for me. Strangely enough, No Time and other 60's and 70's songs with a vocal emphasis like those from Pink Floyd actually sound better in 6-channel mode.
I paid especially close attention to the vibration effect throughout these songs, as it's this feature that I've instinctively turned off when using the AudioFX headset (it drives me nuts). Unfortunately the vibration feature can't be turned off on the AXPC without muting the subwoofer channel, although when in Stereo mode with heightened bass it's not really distracting anyway... I actually appreciate it, which surprised the heck out of me. The rumble only becomes an issue when listening in upmixed 6-channel mode, but even then it can be dealt with by enabling one of the optional Bass Enhancements modes for Soft Music, General Music, or DVD Title.
The one feature I truly enjoyed with Tritton's AXPC USB headset is listening to live recordings of some of my favorite bands with the EAX enhancements enabled. Cypress Hill's Live at the Fillmore and Nine Inch Nails' And All That Could Have Been albums with the Concert Hall effect turned on were simply fantastic!
Finally to test a DVD, I popped in my copy of Lord of the Rings 2 - The Two Towers and watched the climatic battle sequence in native 5.1 surround. Dramatic music, whizzing arrows, clanging swords, screams from behind and pounding orcs that set off the rumble motors... they all sound great on the AXPC, putting ordinary headphones to shame. Impressive would be an understatement here.
5.1 surround sound actually works
Single cable installation
Light vibration increases immersion
DirectSound Hardware with EAX 2 extensions enabled
Does not work in latest OpenAL titles
Tritton has a great product on their hands here. Inexpensive enough to compete with other gaming headsets and comfortable for extended gaming sessions, the AXPC USB gaming headset does a great job recreating the sounds of a true 5.1 speaker system for your personal listening pleasure. Music sounds great after a few small tweaks, DVDs sound phenomenal, the boom microphone's crisp, comfort is splendid and the rumble feature brings you one step closer to total immersion without becoming a distraction. I'd tell you to buy these in a heartbeat, if they'd only support the latest OpenAL titles in Windows XP. At least until a driver fix is rolled out, I'd advise against picking these up just yet unless you're one of those gamers who doesn't plan on buying any newer titles and focuses primarily on Counter-Strike.