The wireless gaming headset suffers tremendously from inherently flawed drivers that mangle surround sound. The hardware and stereo quality are at least commendable, but these can’t really justify the $150 asking price.
July 2012 R. Scott Clark
It’s a well-known fact that headphone cords are evil. Tangled knots, snags, and those strange line marks on our necks that we discover in the morning are all indisputable evidence of this. Well, I for one have had enough of it, and look forward to joining my HTPC and couch-gaming brothers in a new cordless utopia.You see, Corsair has sent me their latest Vengeance 2000 Wireless 7.1 for review. No doubt this will be as good as its most excellent wired headset that came before it, only without the corded woes, and without the surround sound since that too was a burden. Wait, what? Read on to see how the Vengeance 2000 disappoints as I put it through a record 38 compatibility tests in my in-depth review.
Before I dive straight into the negative aspects of this headset and why it fails to live up to my expectations, it’s important to point out where the Corsair Vengeance 2000 actually succeeds since it’s in many ways still a good headset for stereo. Let’s start by going over the physical design, since Corsair has made numerous improvements here that deserve recognition.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that the Vengeance 2000 is much more comfortable to wear for extended gaming sessions than the corded Vengeance 1500. Though, the 1500 was until recently the second most comfortable headset I’d ever worn, it tends to clamp down where my jaw meets my ears unless I position the headband just right. This headset eliminates this clamping entirely but does so without feeling loose either.
The Vengeance 2000’s weight is another non-issue, weighing about the same as the 1500 despite the extra payload of a new battery and charging circuit. This might be attributable to the material changes that were made to the headband, giving the trim a rougher plastic feel. The new headband still seems to be fairly durable, doing well to resist caving in under pressure. The pivot joints also seem to be well-built and oiled, freely moving without squeaking in either direction.
Next up on the list of improvements is the fantastic volume roller on the left earcup, drawing obvious mental ties to Logitech’s G-series headsets. The wheel is made of textured metal and has a light ratcheting effect to it for precision stepping, featuring a perfect amount of resistance that allows for swift volume adjustments. The control here is so good that I’ll often find myself using the headset’s volume roller over the controls on my keyboard, and will even try and fail to reach for it when using the older Vengeance 1500 headset that lacks it.
The left earcup also serves as home to a solitary button for controlling power, made complete by a flashing blue light that cannot be disabled. A microphone mute button is unnecessary here, replaced by a semi-flexible microphone stalk that self-mutes when swiveled upright.
The earcups have also changed ever so slightly from past models, their swivel movement is now reversed so that when you twist them flat, the headset will lay flat instead of rocking back and forth on the outer edges. Better still, the earcups are now attached to the headband with a dual-hinge design that allows for more freedom when tilting up and down. The earpads are made of the same breathable memory foam as before but have been trimmed down a few millimeters in their depth. Though the shallower earcups still excel at creating an immersive sound stage, I no longer consider the headset to be as isolating. If anything, it’s a healthy cross between the Vengeance 1500 and the Razer Megalodon that allows for more interaction with your LAN buddies at lower volumes without getting too open-ear.
The wireless aspects of the Vengeance 2000 are fairly vanilla, doing little to set the headset apart from its competitors. Corsair’s wireless kit includes an integrated lithium-ion rechargeable battery rated for 10 hours, a 2.4GHz RF transceiver, a transceiver dock with an integrated 5-foot USB cable, and a 5-foot USB A to micro-B charging cable. These implements do well enough to cover the basics of wireless just dandy, but for a street price of $150 I guess I was expecting a little more in the way of premium features.
What I would have preferred to see here is a charging solution built into the transmitter dock such that I only need to have one cable plugged into my computer for the headset at any given time. Likewise, a 5GHz frequency option would have been nice for gamers living in apartment complexes with overcrowded 2.4GHz spectrum, and configurable buttons for skipping tracks in iTunes or answering Skype calls would’ve been an absolute treat.
Even without these added niceties, the headset’s wireless performance still lives up to my expectations for performance. My own testing shows that the battery can last a solid 10 hours and 26 minutes at a comfortably loud 33% volume. This should be plenty of time for most gaming sessions, but don’t expect to watch the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy on a single charge, let alone a Farscape marathon. Also, be forewarned that the headset will emit a warning beep once every minute once a low battery threshold has been hit that might prove irritating to some. Of course, you can always plug in a charging cable and continue playing games uninterrupted.
In my modestly-sized townhome with four serviceable 2.4Ghz wireless networks in range, I found wireless interference to be a non-issue that has yet to interrupt my VoIP calls or gaming. In fact, the only times I ever encountered wireless interference was when I walked behind a wall, stood next to the microwave, or went down into the basement. As much as I lament the ability to nuke a Hot Pocket and listen to music at the same time, my newly-found wireless freedom in the living room and bedroom is a significant improvement over the short leash of my corded headsets, especially since I like to pace around during Skype calls.
I should point out that the wireless hardware in the Vengeance 2000 brings about a soft hissing noise whenever an audio source is active in Windows. You can hear the hiss in XBMC’s menu screens or during periods of dead silence in games and movies, but just about any level of music or ambient effects will quickly drown it out. To be fair, Logitech’s wireless G930 suffers from the same issue, but to a lesser extent.
A safety booklet included with the headset makes reference to the lithium-ion battery being removable, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to remove the battery until the headset’s ready to be retired and recycled. Corsair has explained over a series of emails that they’re committed to servicing headsets with worn-down batteries through their RMA warranty process rather than asking users to install the batteries themselves. For users outside of warranty, Corsair plans to sell replacement batteries for a nominal fee, though the fine details here still need to be ironed out.
It’s been a strange and mildly-frustrating ride to see where Corsair has taken their drivers throughout the Vengeance lineup. With the mice and keyboards, the main points of criticism were various bugs and poor documentation, though that’s slowly being addressed. With the Vengeance 1500 headset, stability was never an issue, though the reskin of C-Media’s drivers caused its own set of minor problems.
Now with the release of the Vengeance 2000, we have a whole new driver that’s been stripped down to a skeleton feature set. Once downloaded and installed from Corsair’s website, users will have access to a new headset control panel featuring a giant “Bypass” button to toggle on/off C-Media’s Xear 3D surround effect. There’s also a 10-band equalizer, volume and mic sliders, and a room-size selector for the surround effect.
Word from Corsair is that the new design is the result of marketing giving direction to simplify the interface to only provide essential controls. Though improving user accessibility is always a noble goal, I feel as if Corsair has taken the ethos of simplicity to a worrisome extreme here that ultimately hampers customization and compatibility.
So what’s been taken out from the Vengeance 1500’s driver, you ask? Well, the Dolby Headphone surround virtualization and Pro Logic IIx upmixing have both been stripped out completely, and there’s nary a peep as to why. Left/right balance and the microphone loopback controls have also been cut – the loopback now permanently enabled at a soft volume. C-Media’s Virtual Speaker Shifter is also missing, not that it ever worked properly with the Vengeance 1500, so don’t count on being able to adjust the channel positions and volume manually.
Perhaps most worrisome is that outside of Corsair’s software, the speaker count in the Windows Audio control panel is made inaccessible. Contrast this to past Corsair headsets where the speaker count could be manually configured from Stereo to 5.1 and 7.1 surround, which played a vital role for those headsets’ outstanding game compatibility ratings. Though it’s common practice for headset manufacturers such as Logitech and Razer to disable manual speaker configurations, they will at least set the output channels to 7.1 surround to help preserve compatibility with games. With the Vengeance 2000, Corsair saw fit to leave the speaker count as plain old stereo, thereby preventing numerous games including Grand Theft Auto IV from even enabling surround sound. I’ll be covering this massive oversight in greater detail later on in the review.
So with the new drivers being as crippled as they are, is it possible to revert back to the v1.1 drivers that are used by the HS1 and Vengeance 1500 headsets? Unfortunately, no. It’s not even clear yet if the Vengeance 2000 uses the same C-Media CM6302 chip as the older headsets, since Corsair went out of their way to intentionally obscure the audio controller string in the Information dialog box. Rather than showcasing the actual codec used as is commonplace with other C-Media hardware, the drivers now report a mysterious “Vengeance 2000” audio controller that leaves us all guessing.
To its credit, the Vengeance 2000 does a bang-up job in Bypass mode, doing well to follow on in the Vengeance 1500’s footprints for stereo quality. The sound isn’t exactly the same between the two – the Vengeance 2000 has a deeper bass response – but the overall sound quality is still quite phenomenal. The 50mm physical drivers allow for clearly-defined highs, mids, and lows that blend well without overpowering one another, and manage to retain a clean sound even at high volumes. Better yet, there’s now plenty of kick for those who like to feel their music.
Corsair offers a total of eight presets for their Equalizer that have again been tuned to match the physical drivers as explained on their blog. Included in these are four EQ presets specifically geared for audiophiles, said to make music sound more open or mellow. I personally dislike these audiophile settings for their overbearing low ends and can’t help but chuckle as my comical perceptions of the audiophile label are reinforced, but ultimately this doesn’t matter since you can always tweak your own variations of the most excellent Reference EQ setting and save them for later use.
And my, how the Vengeance 2000 brings out the nuances in music when the Reference EQ is applied. Every subtlety and peculiar twang in Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV is well represented by the 50mm drivers, and the masterful tones of the album’s piano solos are made truly haunting and emotional to listen to. Genres of music with an emphasis on high frequencies such as my beloved chiptunes do just as well to feel truly energetic. I’m still trying to decide which Vengeance headset I prefer overall for general music listening, but one thing is resoundingly clear to me: in a contest of stereo quality alone against its closest competitor, the Vengeance 2000 blows Logitech’s G930 completely out of the water.
Like most surround headsets these days, the Vengeance 2000 takes the path of virtual surround sound over true surround sound. That is, the multi-channel audio is reproduced from only two physical drivers instead of six or eight, in much the same way that you listen to your surrounding environment with only two ears unless you’re a mutant. The pitch and latency cues that your brain picks up on for surround are simply preprocessed for a generic ear and delivered over two channels is all.
Personally, I view virtual surround when done right as superior to true surround technology, in that it allows for a lighter headset with fewer components that have the potential to fail. Virtual surround also holds the benefit that all sounds are produced from the same large drivers, as opposed to true surround headsets that often deliver the rear channels over smaller 20 or 30mm drivers. This prevents characters and effects from sounding tinny behind your person.
Of course, what truly makes or breaks virtual surround sound is its implementation by firmware or drivers, and in the case of the Vengeance 2000 the drivers have failed us all miserably. Though enabling the Xear 3D surround engine does indeed create a virtual room that spaces out your movies, games and music in a small reverb chamber, I’ve found it impossible to tell the front, side, and rear channels apart in a number of applications.
Three of the applications that surprisingly failed testing are VLC, Windows Media Player, and XBMC Media Center, sampled using a couple of multichannel test files from Microsoft. For VLC, the program does recognize that the USB headset supports 7.1 surround since that option is made available within the Audio Device menu. We can also tell that the program is indeed delivering a surround mix to the drivers since we can hear the low-frequency bass effect if the 5.1 or 7.1 settings are chosen. The issue at stake here is the playback and differentiation of the front/side/rear channels. These are only able to be discerned by gradual softening of the volume – something that can also be heard just as clearly on a plain stereo headset, but without Xear 3D’s funky echoes.
XBMC Media Center also allows for configuring up to 7.1 surround within the program’s settings, and we can again tell that the program is processing surround audio since the LFE test can be heard. But just like with VLC, the front/side/rear channels are indistinguishable from one another. With Windows Media Player the LFE effect is audible once again, but here too I find a practical distinction between front and rear channels.
I’ve sampled a number of other test files and movies with these applications and even dragged my roommate into the testing process just in case my own ears were defective, but ultimately neither of us could find a single song or movie with a working surround. This is quite unfortunate, as it means I won’t be using this headset with my home theater PC for late-night movie watching.
Ignoring the front/rear issue for a moment, what about Xear’s spatialization? Much like Dolby’s offerings, the reverberations produced by the virtual room help to reduce ear fatigue during extended listening sessions, and to some extent give you the impression that you’re listening to a live performance of your favorite band. Using the Studio room size seems to work best and does wonders to brighten the image of electric guitars, the melody in Iron Maiden’s Hallowed Be Thy Name brought vividly to life.
The surround effect doesn’t work well with all music, however, with Machinae Supremacy’s Winterstorm feeling excessively hollow just as it has with every other surround headset I’ve reviewed. Xear 3D also seems to have an issue with heavy influences in a track such as the crashes in Perfect Dark’s Credits Theme or the plucking segment in Machinae Supremacy’s Return to Snake Mountain (3m05s-3m45s). These forceful moments are noticeably compressed, the overall feel of the music losing out on much of its dynamic punch. Thankfully this side-effect doesn’t sound anywhere half as bad as the extent to which Creative’s CMSS-3D destroys music, but the overall feel is similar. If you do end up purchasing this headset, I recommend that you try listening to music both with and without Xear to find out which works best for you.
Over my last few years of reviewing USB headsets I’ve noticed that game compatibility can be quite fickle and tends to vary wildly between models. Usually, this is as simple as a game having a working surround or plain old stereo, but other times you get weird quirks such as a rotated surround field in Valve’s Portal or muted rear channels in OpenAL games only. What’s troubling about all of this is that the headset manufacturers never seem to be aware of these issues until after the product is already on store shelves.
To make matters worse, consumers will often buy these headsets and later become frustrated or angry once they find out their favorite game doesn’t have a working surround. A part of this problem obviously lies with the manufacturer for not thoroughly testing enough games, but I also fault the reviewing press for paying little (any?) attention to the issue. Or perhaps they too are falling for the placebo effect and think that noisy reverberations must mean that positional surround is working. Sigh.
In any case, now you know why I put such a strong emphasis on surround testing. My tests include standing next to a static noise source like an open flame or talking NPC and then quickly rotating my in-game character to hear the HRTF. Tossing grenades works just as well, and I’ll do repeated blind tests just to be certain of my findings. When I put the Vengeance 1500 headset through a grueling 36 game and application tests, I was floored to see a whopping 89% compatibility – the best of any USB headset I’ve reviewed to date! Let’s see how its wireless cousin fares in comparison.
|Battlefield 2||Fail||All combinations of settings result in stereo sound.|
|Battlefield: Bad Company 2||Pass||Surround works okay.|
|Battlefield 3||Pass||Surround works great! Ensure that Enhanced Stereo is disabled.|
|Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare||Pass||5.1 works great with surround coming out of rear channels!|
|Call of Duty 5: World at War||Fail||Unable to initialize 5.1 surround sound due to Windows speaker count.|
|Call of Duty 6: Modern Warfail 2||Pass||5.1 works great with surround coming out of rear channels.|
|Call of Duty 8: Modern Warfare 3||Pass||5.1 works okay with surround coming out of rear channels.|
|Counter-Strike: Source||Pass||7.1 works great!|
|Crysis Warhead||Fail||Unable to differentiate front and back, even with s_SpeakerConfig=7 in gamedir\system.cfg file.|
|Darksiders||Pass||Surround works okay.|
|Dead Space||Pass||5.1 works great with surround coming out of rear channels!|
|Dead Space 2||Pass||5.1 works great with surround coming out of rear channels!|
|Deus Ex: Human Revolution||Fail||Stereo only.|
|Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim||Fail||Stereo only.|
|Enemy Territory: Quake Wars||Fail||Unable to initialize 7.1 surround sound due to Windows speaker count.|
|Fallout 3||Fail||Stereo only.|
|Fallout: New Vegas||Fail||Stereo only.|
|Grand Theft Auto IV||Fail||Unable to initialize 5.1 surround sound due to Windows speaker count.|
|Half-Life 2 (no episodes)||Pass||7.1 works great!|
|Killing Floor||Fail||All combinations of settings result in stereo sound, even after redirecting OpenAL by removing DefOpenAL32.dll and disabling "System Driver".|
|Left 4 Dead 2||Pass||7.1 works great!|
|Mirror's Edge||Pass||Surround works great!|
|Portal||Pass||7.1 works great!|
|Portal 2||Pass||5.1 works okay.|
|Prey||Fail||Unable to initialize 5.1 surround sound due to Windows speaker count.|
|Quake 4||Fail||Unable to initialize 5.1 surround sound due to Windows speaker count.|
|Red Orchestra 2||Fail||Hard to tell, but the surround seems eerily similar to the game's built-in HRTF for stereo speakers. Not enough spacing between channels for intuitive sound placement if it is working.|
|Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter||Pass||Surround works okay. While the V2000's HRTF is clearly more pronounced than the basic pitch-shifting that the game employs with a traditional stereo headset, the V2000's relatively smaller sound stage makes it less intuitive than the V1500. (Both headsets set to Cinema room size)|
|Team Fortress 2||Pass||7.1 works great!|
|Unreal Tournament 2004||Fail||All combinations of settings result in stereo sound, even after redirecting OpenAL by removing DefOpenAL32.dll and disabling "System Driver".|
|Unreal Tournament 3||Fail||Stereo only regardless of OpenAL configuration setting.|
|The Witcher||Pass||Surround works okay.|
Ouch! The Vengeance 2000 only passed in 17 of the 38 tests, scoring a meager 45% compatibility rating. The few games that did work seemed to largely be either Valve titles or modern AAA shooters with large followings such as Battlefield and Call of Duty. Though the mainstream at the very least is covered, there’s a still ton of other great titles that were tragically left behind in Stereoville, many of which aren’t even that old yet.
I think a large portion of the compatibility issues can be attributed to the way this headset presents itself to Windows in the name of simplicity. As you’ll recall, the Vengeance 2000 is left permanently configured in the Sound control panel as a stereo device. This means Grand Theft Auto IV, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Quake IV, and Prey will not allow you to select multi-channel surround through the in-game audio settings. Moreover, these four failed titles are only the games that actually present surround as a menu option; it’s possible that numerous other games without menu options including Fallout 3 and Skryim fail to deliver surround sound for the exact same reason. There’s also the possibility that whatever’s causing VLC and Windows Media player to playback 2.1 audio is in-effect here as well.
On the bright side of things, the Vengeance 2000 never exhibited any weird bugs like a rotated surround field or game crashes. Surround either worked or I had functional stereo, so I can’t say that the Vengeance 2000 negatively impacted my gaming any more than a traditional headset would. For the games that did work, surround ranged anywhere from fair to rather good, seemingly working best when the room size was set to Cinema. But even with these working titles, I must say that I still preferred the Vengeance 1500 overall. The Dolby directional sound in that headset just feels much more precise than what Xear 3D could ever muster with the Vengeance 2000. If you have a pressing need for wireless but value surround gaming over stereo music quality, you’ll be much better served by Logitech’s G930.
The microphone quality of the Vengeance 2000 is significantly improved over the Vengeance 1500, in that “s” sounds are no longer as sharp, and the noise floor during periods of silence is also reduced. Speech is perfectly clear for games and Skype calls, but there’s still just enough of a noise floor to be unsuitable for professional Youtube commentaries unless you clean up the audio in Audacity first before uploading.
The microphone’s sensitivity appears to have been dropped, presumably to minimize the pickup of mouse clicks and nasal breathing. You can still hear these sounds, but they’re much less noticeable than before. The tweaked sensitivity comes alongside the fact that recordings, in general, are now softer as you can see in the below waveforms. Unfortunately, this side-effect can’t be overcome since there’s no mic boost option in the drivers, but I don’t think you’ll need it so long as you set the recording volume to 100% and speak in a normal tone of voice. Players in Team Fortress 2 pub servers had no problems understanding me using the built-in voice system.
As I noted earlier in the review, Corsair took out the option to disable the microphone’s loopback and left it permanently enabled at a soft volume. Some may cry foul at this, but I personally think the loopback effect has a low enough latency and is set at the perfect volume to compensate for the earcup padding. I’m able to hear my own voice as I would talking normally but no louder so as to be distracting. Finally, you’ll be delighted to know that the soft yet high-pitched earcup whine which was an issue with the Vengeance 1500’s active mic has been completely eliminated from the Vengeance 2000, even when the mic is muted. Good riddance.
The Corsair Vengeance 2000 isn’t all bad. Corsair obviously spent a bunch of time making small refinements to their headset design, and hopefully, we’ll see these changes preserved in future products. I’m especially fond of the new volume roller, lighter weight materials, and improved microphone. The extra bass and kick are also nice since it still seems to blend well with the highs and lows the 50mm drivers have to offer, but I’d be careful about upping the bass any further than Reference. Perhaps the most impressive tweak is that the clamping feel has been completely eliminated, placing the headset on par with Razer’s Megalodon for extreme comfort.
What bothers me is that despite all of these positive changes, the Vengeance 2000 ultimately fails to deliver on its promise of surround sound gaming. A compatibility profile of < 45% is simply inexcusable, especially in light of the fact that only six months ago it was a Corsair that bested all other headsets I’ve reviewed to date. Throw in the fact that you can’t watch movies in surround sound, and you’ve lost most of the reason to pick up a wireless headset in the first place. HTPC lovers and couch gamers should definitely be looking elsewhere for their wireless surround fix.
In the meantime, Corsair seriously needs to rethink its strategy when it comes to selling this headset. Either drop the “surround” label and lower the price accordingly or roll out a new driver that restores surround compatibility and lost functionality. A $150 street price would have been fine if the Vengeance 2000 actually worked as advertised since the stereo quality and comfort help justify the premium cost, but right now you can find other gaming-oriented wireless headsets for $50 less with good enough stereo, decent comfort, and vastly superior surround.
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