Nothing enhances the gaming experience like a nice headset. Surround sound creates an immersive experience, and turns the footsteps of a foe into a dead giveaway of his location. Single player campaigns become journeys you won't want to back out of. Online, having a mic makes gaming into a social experience, letting you chat with your teammates, and coordinate tactics on the fly.
The Astro A50 is this kind of game-changing, experience enhancing headset, and at $300, it really should be. Thanks to Dolby Pro Logic IIx, it offers digitally mixed, 7.1 simulated surround sound. It's exactly what you need to feel enemy rockets rip past your face, and it's versatile enough to provide a good movie watching or music listening experience as well. Finally, the fact that it's compatible right out of the box with the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and any PC or Mac with an optical port, makes it more versatile than the Tritton Warhead 7.1, a comparable $300 headset that's Xbox-only.
Astro Studios is well known in the design space. In 2006 it spun off Astro Gaming, which has been competing with the likes of Turtle Beach and the Tritton brand from Mad Catz to produce the premiere gaming headset/home stereo alternative. While the Astro A50 isn't perfect, it's damn close, and the wide range of products it works with makes it a solid investment for tech fans with crowded entertainment centers.
The Astro A50 offers deep bass, crisp highs, and thanks to that Dolby Pro Logic IIx capability, software enabled sound mixing as good as any 7.1 headset on the market. Its only real flaws are a bulky design and a somewhat clumsy interface. You'll also need to pick up an adapter or two if you plan to connect to anything without an optical port, like a MacBook Pro. We also found that Astro's estimated 12-hours of battery life was a bit too generous, making a $7.99 Play and Charge Cable a must.
Also, there's an essential firmware update that fixes an issue with the A50s that causes an intermittent "pop" in the audio. If you purchased the A50s, make sure to download the update and install it.
With great audio power comes a plus-sized headset; the Astro A50 is big and bulky, but still manages to be surprisingly comfortable. Every piece of the headset that comes in contact with your head, meaning the earpieces and the underside of the headband, is covered in soft, foam-like cloth. You'll definitely notice the weight of the A50s sitting on your head, but the gentle points of contact make it easy to wear. During long gaming sessions or while watching a movie we eventually forgot we were wearing it. You'd have to wear the A50 for a truly extended amount of time for it to become uncomfortable or tiring.
The fit of the A50s is not as snug as some headphones we've tested. It might feel a bit loose if you're used to something tighter, but we quickly go used to it. A more relaxed fit makes it easier on your ears, but it does mean the audio bleeds a bit. If you're cranking the sound, people around you will be able to hear it faintly. Just don't listen to any secret messages with enemy spies around.
Since the unit is large, Astro made a good choice in giving it a stealthy color scheme. The matte black finish is attractive and subdued; no need to draw any more attention to the oversized A50s. Red, semi-exposed cables running up the sides of the headband serve as an eye-catching highlight.
The microphone is super bendy and durable, and has one clever feature: pointing it straight up locks it in place and mutes it. It's a neat and convenient bit of design, but we still would have appreciated to option to simply remove the mic. Being able to tuck it straight up is a great feature for LAN parties or long gaming sessions, but makes you look like an unemployed cosmonaut when you're watching a movie. It would be nice if we could just take it off.