Astro Gaming A50 (Gen2)
For $300, the Astro A50 earns top marks for sound, comfort and multi-platform versatility but remains deeply marred by buggy firmware.
The A50's ear cushions were the most comfortable in this comparison. Like the G930, they are soft, spacious and deep. Eschewing faux-leather, Astro opted for a less sweaty felt-like material. It's a synthetic fiber and the cushions are dense so it still gets pretty hot, but it was still less sweaty. Keeping them pristine looking may require a lint roller. Also, unlike leatherish materials, fabric allows for increased sound venting which can be an issue for listening loudly in quiet spaces. The A50 seemed to handle this pretty well though. The headband adjusts to my large head with a little room to spare, so chances are it will fit your cranium too.
Out of the box with no EQ tweaks, subjectively, I felt the A50 delivered better audio than the SteelSeries H Wireless. That's a good thing for Astro considering the A50 only has three possible EQ presets. By comparison, the H Wireless sports a 5-band equalizer which allows you to dial in the sound you like. Because input into your A50 will likely come from a secondary analog or optical source (i.e. your sound card), you do have the option of using external EQ controls to fine tune your game or music audio. Surprisingly, half of the headsets had a problem producing bass. Not the A50. Astro's entry produced tight bass but also retained its clarity. If you want your audio to thump, the A50 is a safe bet.
Astro likes to tout KleerNet, an SMSC radio technology standard which delivers uncompressed "lag free" audio. KleerNet is tri-band, operating on 2.4GHz, 5.2GHz and 5.8GHz frequencies. SMSC says the 5.2GHz spectrum is utilized for surround sound, which theoretically gives the A50 an edge in bandwidth over its closest competitor, the SteelSeries H Wireless. As with all dual-band entries, the A50 didn't skip a beat when attempting to take it down with purposefully generated interference. Latency, which was measured by monitoring the round-trip time it took for mic input to reach the ear, was less than 100ms and identical to the H Wireless. They both tied for the fastest headset. The distance at which the A50 operated allowed me to visit adjacent rooms, faring only slightly better than the H Wireless. Only single-band 2.4Ghz headsets, namely the Logitech G930 and Corsair H2100, could venture farther out than the A50.
The A50s mic is possibly the best in this roundup. Subjectively, it produced the most natural and clearest sounding input. The A50 employs dual-mic noise cancellation, a feature found on many headsets but somehow not the H Wireless. Theoretically, this helps isolate your voice and ignore unwanted background sounds. As with most headsets though, though the results are subtle and minimally effective. Wind noise was only an issue while walking directly under or in front of a fan set to an aggressive speed. The A50 handled wind far better than the H Wireless, but less well than most other headsets.
Features and Value
It is easy to fault the "value" of any $300 headset. When compared to its equally expensive high-end peers though, the A50 didn't fall short at delivering core features: sound quality, reliability and basic headset controls.
The important stuff makes it to the headset here: volume roller, chat mix adjustment (game versus voice volume), three EQ settings and a raise-to-mute mic. Surround sound is on the transmitter. You'll find firmware updates for both the transmitter and headset, tri-band wireless and what was subjectively the best 7.1 surround of all of our contenders. I believe the spacious earcups helped here, adding perceivable depth to already great sounding headphones. The A50 is multi-platform, suitable for both PCs and consoles. The base station or "MixAmp" also serves as a basic mixer, sporting a 3.5mm auxiliary jack, optical SPDIF in and SPDIF out. The headset itself also has a 2.5mm jack, something console gamers will find useful but not an aspect I tested.
The battery lasted about 6.5 hours under the synthetic test which keeps the earphones and microphone continually busy. With this in mind, the A50 had the weakest battery life but still provides ample time for most gamers. If the battery runs out, the headset can be charged while in use. However, the supplied USB cable is a mere 2 feet in length, so a longer cable may be in order if you find yourself in this situation.
Overall Quality and Impressions
For $300, it is no surprise the Astro A50 ships in an impressive box. Included are the few cables you'll need and one of the most well-designed set of instructions I've seen. This is a very sturdy headset with definite gamer appeal in terms of both style and features. The stand is a bit cheesy (the instructions even state it is designed to be put together once and only once) but perfectly functional. This is actually the only headset to come with a stand so it's really just a deal sweetener. The package includes a few cables and SPDIF optical to coax adapter which make its connectivity second only to the H Wireless.
The A50 came dangerously close to being my perfect choice except for one thing: ridiculous firmware issues. Trying every permutation of recent firmwares for both the transmitter and headset together, I could not find a combination that did not have at least one issue.
The first issue I run across was audio notifications being clearly audible to friends. Whenever the battery is low or a setting is changed, the A50 provides its wearer with audible cues. These sounds were transmitted at full volume even with the mic in the mute position. Thankfully, rolling back to the last available firmware release fixed the audio notification issue. However, the older firmware introduced two new issues: five-minute auto shut off even while listening to music and a quiet but periodic buzz/hum in the right ear cup.
For the auto shut off issue, I had temporarily set the A50's USB transmitter as the default playback device. Although this was fine on the latest firmware, the older firmware didn't consider audio fed through USB playback as "in use" and would power down the headset within 5 minutes of turning it on. Switching back to SPDIF (or aux) input for playback solved it, which is necessary anyway for chat mix to work.
The periodic buzzing in the right ear was fixed by upgrading the headset firmware again, but keeping the transmitter firmware downgraded. This also solved the auto shut off issues, but the audio notification problem returned. There was also now a very faint hum in both ears. To make things more complicated, I could barely hear myself speak as the mic monitor volume inexplicably lowered to inaudible levels. This setting is not user adjustable. If all of that wasn't bad enough, on at least one of the firmwares I was unable to control the volume on the mic via Windows -- it simply ignored volume controls. Wow. Really, Astro?
Appealing to support was useless as well. Astro always replied promptly, but the responses were always canned. The community forum also has many complaints about the same issues I experienced above. Once again, there are prompt replies but no official solutions and even some "user error" attitude. Unfortunately, Astro appears to be apathetic to its customers.