Although we typically focus on the graphics in blockbusters such as Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4, audio is a big part of the experience as well. This is particularly true for games such as Alien: Isolation where graphics may set the scene, but it's the unsettling audio that leads to soiled trousers.
I have long relied on Logitech 5.1 speakers when playing games. I used the Z-5500s for the longest time before recently moving to the Z906s -- both of which I assume audiophiles would frown upon, but they have packed enough punch for me to enjoy many games over the years.
Now that I am a father, however, those speakers are too loud for me to enjoy the combined 500 Watts RMS of 5.1 audio. I'm stuck with gaming headsets these days but the thing is, since I've always preferred desktop speakers and a dedicated mic, I haven't spent much time or money on headsets.
Having only ever bought relatively cheap headsets with proportionally cheap audio quality, it seems about time for me to upgrade. In the process of settling on a new headset, I've acquired six sub-$100 gaming-oriented models from separate hardware manufacturers to compare in a roundup.
I have models from Kingston, Polk, Gigabyte, Razer, Logitech and Tesoro. Most of these companies are not known for their audio products, so it'll be interesting to see what they deliver. It goes without saying but we will anyway: audiophiles may want to bail now because these headsets aren't for you.
For testing we will be using the Asus Xonar Essence STX dedicated sound card where possible. Apart from comparing sound quality itself, we will also be paying close attention to attributes such as build quality, comfort, software, connectivity, mic clarity and other criteria relevant to a gaming headset.
Logitech has several impressive looking gaming headsets in its G range, including the wireless G930 or the leather-clad G35. However we have decided to look at the more affordable G430 headset which costs just $80 and offers some pretty nifty features for the money.
The G430 is clearly designed to match the new G402 Hyperion Fury and G502 Proteus Core mice with its bright blue highlights. At first we thought the set was ugly, but for whatever reason its looks grew on us.
It could be down to the fact that once you have them on they are extremely comfortable. Its ear cups are made out of performance-sport cloth which not only feels nice but lets them breath, minimizing sweat. Another great advantage of using this material is that these parts can be removed and put through the washing machine.
There is one disadvantage to the breathable performance-sport cloth and that is sound leakage. If you are sitting next to someone wearing a pair of G430s that are playing loudly, chances are you can hear what they can.
The cups can be rotated up to 90 degrees which allows them to lay flat on the desk or rest nicely around your neck between games. Depending on your preference rotating cups can be a beneficial feature or an annoyance. Typically I prefer fixed cups, but the build quality of the G430s is good enough that they work well.
Each headphone is powered by a 40mm driver with a frequency response of 20Hz-20KHz. There's 32 Ohms of impedance and the sensitivity rings in at 90dB SPL/mW.
As this is a headset, there is also a noise-cancelling microphone which is mounted on a rather long boom on the right headphone. This is a unidirectional mic with a frequency response of 50-20KHz. It can be muted with a sliding switch on an inline control box almost 70cm down the G430's blue braided cable. The inline control box also allows for quick volume adjustments.
Speaking of which, the G430s have you well covered for cable length with well over two meters of the stuff. For most, that is an excessively long cable, but you can wrap up what you don't need.
At the end of the cable you'll find two 3.5" audio connectors, a green one for the headphones and a pink one for the mic. Additionally, the G430 also comes with a USB dongle that acts as a sound card. This is required for using Logitech's software-based 7.1 surround sound . For those wondering we cracked the USB adapter apart and found a cheap 2-channel CMedia CM6502 USB audio chip.
Audio Quality: For the money, we think it's going to be difficult to find a better sounding headset than the Logitech G430. It sounds crisp in first person shooters and clear even at ear-bleeding volumes. The bass was punchy but not over the top and we felt that the headset generally did well to produce a full range of sounds.
The emulated 7.1 surround sound works well once setup using the Logitech Gaming Software, though the USB sound quality isn't as good as an affordable sound card. That said, it can be configured to deliver better sound (the default settings are weak). Sounds such as footsteps or gun shots were easier to pin point in the 7.1 surround sound mode, so that will no doubt appeal to gamers.
The noise-cancelling mic works extremely well. Voices go through clearly so teammates will hear you barking orders.
Pros: Comfortable even for folks with a big head and/or ears, excellent build quality, competitively priced, has great software and decent features such as a sleeved cable and inline controller. Can be plugged into a sound card for better quality audio.
Cons: While the 7.1 surround sound mode is neat, we were disappointed in the resulting drop in audio quality and we disliked how much sound leakage there was with the cloth ear cups. It also couldn't hurt to have some more color choices.