By Dylan Rhodes posted Sep 02nd 2010
As I write this I’m settling in for a flight to Europe, where I’ll be talking about the new HS1 USB Gaming Headset. But while this is the beginning of a long trip across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s also the end of a journey that has lasted for more than a year.
For me, the journey started when I was talking to some of the folks who work back at the Corsair office, asking them what they use for gaming audio. Everybody has a headset, a nice set of speakers, or both. But what surprised me was that how many of them had also invested in a nice pair of headphones just for listening to music. Now, these are some pretty hardcore gamers, who’ve invested a lot in their gaming gear. But they recognize that even higher-end gaming headsets often aren’t up to the task of reproducing music. Few of them are terrible (the gaming headsets, not my co-workers), but if you’ve been listening to, say, Dark Side of The Moon for 20 years or more, you know how it sounds. When you try to listen to it with a gaming headset that’s been tweaked to push an artificially boomy low end, Pink Floyd’s just going to sound wrong.
So, that was one of the problems we set out to solve: creating a headset that sounds awesome with games, but yet provides faithful, compelling reproduction of high-quality audio recordings.
Early on in the process, we gathered every gaming headset we could and put it on a HATS — a Head and Torso Simulator. It’s a sophisticated piece of equipment that simulates human hearing. Give it an audio source, whether it’s headphones, a headset, or speakers, and you can graph the audio performance as a human hears it, not a microphone.
When you look at the frequency response curves for gaming headsets, the results are somewhat shocking. First, I’ll point out that when you’re designing headphones or a headset, you don’t want the frequency response to be flat, as you might if you’re designing a set of studio monitor speakers. This is an interesting subject in itself (at least to me, anyway) to which I may dedicate another blog post down the road.
But back to the point: the response curves for many gaming headsets aren’t even close to being optimal. As we expected, many of them have an overboosted low end. The result with such a headset is that you’ll immediately notice that weaponfire, explosions, and similar carnage sound pretty dramatic. Such a headset will pass the “20-second test” if you’re playing a game, but once you try it with a piece of music that you know and love, you’ll see that something’s wrong.
Audio engineers like to speak of a “double hump” response curve. It refers to the practice of boosting the lows and the highs. It’s a practice employed by some of the manufacturers of those all-in-one audio systems sold in the big box retailers, and some gaming headsets do it, too. As with headsets with an overboosted low end, you’ll get the lows and highs and it will sound good in the short term, but as you dive in to music and movies, you’ll notice that vocal response can suffer.
The secret to a great-sounding headset? It’s simple in concept, but — as shown by the long nights spent over the past year — takes careful execution. Design an ideal response curve, pick the right hardware, and tune, tune, and re-tune until you hit that curve. Adjust the baffle geometry. Try endless combinations of materials. And don’t stop until you get it right.
I mentioned a 20-second test above. We’ve built the HS1 to also pass the 20-year test: that is, a headset that will be true to the music that you’ve known and loved for 20 years. And if you get an HS1, after you’ve put it through its paces with games and movies, listen to Dark Side of the Moon again. You might just notice details you’ve never heard before.