In case you haven't noticed, gaming isn't as quiet as it once was. Even the so-called "casual" games like Peggle and Puzzle Quest offer an audio experience equal to the most expensive triple-A titles of years gone by, and these days, it's not enough to be able to hear everything going on around you: you need to be able contribute some of your own noise to the ruckus as well.
Enter the Tritton AXPC and AX360 headsets. Intended for gamers that want to contribute to their team without sacrificing the rich audio experience that their surround-sound speakers offer, these headsets utilize a number of discrete drivers that give the AXPC and AX360 the ability to reproduce 2.1 or 5.1-encoded audio, irrespective of platform. Rather than relying on your system's built-in audio decoding support to translate bits into sine waves, both headsets include the hardware necessary to support a number of important codecs. The AXPC, with its USB-powered in-line remote, features support for the C-Media CM106L codec, which can decode EAX 2.0, Direct Sound 3D, and the now-antiquated A3D 1.0 specification. Although this chipset also offers preliminary OpenAL support, the consensus on the web (confirmed by our own testing using Quake 4, an aging but still-popular first-person shooter) is that Tritton's implementation is too buggy for widespread use. Given the fact that the AXPC drivers have not been updated for the past year, it's probably safe to assume that the effort to provide OpenAL support for this product has been dropped.
On the higher end of the spectrum, AX360 features a mcuh more svelte in-line remote, because the chore of decoding audio in hardware has been transferred to a discrete, self-powered break-out box. This unit features both coaxial and optical (S/PDIF) inputs, twin G9 headset ports, and analog 5.1 output capability. With its with Dolby Digital Live! 5.1 decoding support and G9-to-analog 5.1 splitter cable, the AX360 is designed to work in a hybrid environment encompassing a mixture of computers and next-generation consoles.
Design, Ergonomics, and DurabilityFirst things first: these headsets look sharp. The Tritton AXPC, with its black and "dragonfly orange" color scheme is one set of cans that you can wear without completely stripping yourself of your dignity (assuming you had any to begin with). Modeled directly after the Speedlink 5.1 Medusa headset, the Tritton AXPC features inwardly collapsible ear cups, a rotating boom headset (also removable), an integrated cable clip and velcro cinch, and a large microfiber bag that makes storing the headset a snap. The AX360, while acoustically identical to the AXPC, substitutes the AXPC's bold color scheme for a much more subdued (and perhaps more professional) blue and black exterior. Because these headsets house multiple drivers and internal rumble motors, they weigh a good deal more than other circumaural headsets. However, the thick layer of foam padding on the ear cups and headband means that wearing a Tritton headset all day will not result in a splitting earache--on the contrary, we found that they were remarkably comfortable throughout our testing, which included a pair of marathon 6-hour gaming sessions. During these extended trials, we found that both boom microphones were exceedingly easy to tweak. With their rotating mounts and metal-sheathed cabling, once you place the microphone in the position you prefer, it stays there--even if you try to spell your name with it. When you're done talking, flipping the microphone up and laying it flat against the headband is a brainless and secure method of storage. Unless you regularly bang your head against your desk in frustration, there is little chance of the microphone coming crashing down in your face.
While gaming, the AXPC and AX360's in-line remotes serve as a quick and dirty method to tune each headset on the fly. Because the AXPC lacks the AX360's break-out box, its remote serves as a command center for all things audio, offering a system-wide volume rocker switch and four independent volume control wheels (the only feature that the AX360's remote shares): one for the front surround, center, rear surround, and subwoofer drivers. While the rocker switch is easy to blindly adjust, the wheels are not, giving rise to the theory that Tritton wants you to set the balance of the speakers, and then rely on the main volume control from that point forward. It works, and it's also one of the few cases where gaming in Mac OS X results in a better user experience, thanks to Apple's tried-and-true volume overlay and Leopard's Audio Midi Setup utility (which is at least as good as the AXPC's Windows control panel). Whereas Windows asks you to press and hold the volume control until you reach your desired volume (inevitably blowing your ears out in the process), adjusting the volume in Mac OS X simply requires a few taps of the rocker switch until you find a volume that you're comfortable with. When it comes to controlling the volume coming into the microphone, both the Tritton control panel and the Audio Midi Setup utility offer level adjustment sliders, but only the AXPC's in-line remote includes a pair of buttons that allow users to quickly mute all audio, or just the microphone. With the microphone muted, a blue LED indicator on the remote changes from blue to purple, allowing you to answer that call from your mother-in-law without making a fool of yourself in front of your gaming buddies.
Before we leave the design portion of the review, we'd like to point out some rough spots that are shared by both headsets. First, their ear cups are a bit shallow. Rather than behaving like a true set of circumaural headphones by fully encompassing your ears, these headsets feel more like classic supra-aural sets due to the fact that there's not quite enough space inside to keep from flattening your ears a bit. It's slightly uncomfortable at first, but with padding everywhere, the feeling dies away quickly. For future reference, a bit more padding around the outside of the cans would probably fix the problem quickly and effectively. Under the category of "slightly unnerving" is the fact that the curvature of the headband is insufficient to strongly grip the sides of smaller heads. For those who suspect that they might be a member of this unfortunate group, fear not: we found that applying firm pressure with thumb and forefinger as you work around the inside of the headband should tighten the headset's grip significantly. As we discovered very early on in the review process, if the headband does not apply firm enough pressure, the vibration from the headset will become obnoxious in seconds as the unit will tries to "walk" around your ears rather than vibrate your head. Therefore, we need to stress that finding a proper fit is of paramount importance, and given the wide diameter of the headband, younger gamers may want to steer clear of these products for now.