Audio Tests: Output QualityBefore we begin, it is important to note that multichannel headset audio is something of a taboo among audio enthusiasts for several legitimate reasons. First and foremost, multichannel audio requires many more drivers than stereo audio. Packing all of that hardware into a very confined space is an unlikely recipe for aural excellence, which is why high-end vendors avoid the concept entirely. Second, the cost of a typical 5.1 headset falls into the range of what audio enthusiasts consider to be the domain of good, entry-level stereo headphones (like the Grado SR-60). With a larger number of drivers and only a small price premium, multichannel headsets like the AXPC and AX360 tend to suffer from subpar audio fidelity when compared to their traditional peers. Theoretically, gaming puts more of a premium on the accurate directional reproduction of sound than its aural fidelity, therefore, the question of whether or not Tritton has managed to make that tradeoff worthwhile will be the focus of this discussion.
With that said, we will begin our analysis with music: the application that is least suitable for these headsets. Thereafter, we'll briefly pause in the land of multi-channel AV source material before arriving at our final destination: gaming audio. Our first step in this journey was to configure both headsets for stereo output--leaving 5.1 mode enabled without advanced phase-shift technology similar to Dolby Digital Pro Logic II is a waste of time. With the headsets configured correctly, we spent hours listening to an assortment of music from the hip-hop, R&B, and pop genres. In general, this audio was reproduced at above-average quality for headphones in the $25-50 range, but was decidedly below average for products the $60-70 range. When rock and orchestral pieces were introduced into the system, the headsets began to sound extremely congested and blurred. There are two reasons for that: first, these devices lack a proper crossover (a unit that metes out frequencies to the drivers that are best suited to handle them), allowing high frequency signals to make it to the subwoofers. Second, Tritton's decision to substitute quality subwoofers for vibration units--a decision that we feel typifies "gaming-specific" marketing--does terrible things to both units' frequency response. Rather than displaying a smooth bass response across the 20-250 Hz portion of the spectrum, our frequency sweep tests uncovered a severe response falloff above 90 Hz and below 40 Hz, and a straight bass-for-vibration substitution in between. Because of the way that many popular songs abuse this small slice of the spectrum, there were many situations where we simply could not tolerate the headsets' constant vibration, with reactions ranging from mild annoyance to outright nausea, and either had to avoid these tracks or turn down the subwoofer dial on the remote to the point where the low frequencies of the music disappeared altogether.
Fortunately, multichannel sources from movies and high-definition TV shows fared decidedly better. Although each unit continued to be plagued by poor low-frequency response (something that was especially evident when watching explosion-rich films like Transformers), the fact that multichannel audio is encoded in such a way that it can only be played by the speakers for which it was intended helped to mitigate the distortion caused by the missing crossover. When compared to similar multichannel headsets like the Saitek Cyborg 5.1, the AXPC and especially the AX360 (thanks to its Dolby Digital decoding hardware) did very well, providing a solid sense of width and depth in the soundstage.
In our gaming tests, we spent over 30 gameplay hours in Company of Heroes, Call of Duty 4, and Team Fortress 2 to make certain that our impressions regarding the gaming capability of these headsets were accurate. Interestingly, they performed fairly well. Although the multichannel reproduction inherent to any 5.1 headset cannot be compared to a real surround sound system due to the limited physical separation of its drivers, both headsets did a good job of making the player aware of where objects were in relation to his or her surroundings, a feat that includes objects to the rear of the listener--something that stereo headsets cannot hope to accomplish. However, due to the fact that the rear surround drivers are significantly smaller than the ones in the front and to the sides, signals emanating from the rear of the AXPC and AX360 tend to stick out like sore thumbs due to the fact that they sound rather tinny. Furthermore, if the sources producing these signals wander to the left or to the right of the player by a significant margin, the front surround drivers have a tendency to overpower the other drivers. Even after much tweaking, we found it difficult to differentiate between a sound directly to one side and one that resided slightly to the rear. Overall, however, these headsets offered better spatial fidelity than the stereo headsets in their price range due to their numerous drivers, but they did so at the cost of accurate and shall we say, musical, reproduction. Our verdict on whether or not the small-to-moderate gains in directional representation are worth the large loss in fidelity is mixed, and feel that the deciding factor will likely be a matter of personal preference. Ignoring the players who have the wherewithal to purchase an expensive ($200 and higher) stereo headset for the moment, it is likely that the audience who will be most pleased with the AXPC and AX360 consists of gamers that are dedicated to multiplayer first-person-shooters and watch multichannel-enabled video on a regular basis.
Audio Tests: Input QualityFor our input tests, we relied heavily upon CD-quality recordings acquired using Audacity to gauge the raw input generated by the AXPC and the identical-sounding AX360. However, we also factored in the subjective analysis provided by trusted gamers that were contacted via three popular VOIP services: Skype, Teamspeak and Ventrilo. In all of three of these tests, the AXPC produced audio that was described as "slightly muffled, but pleasant-sounding." This was borne out by our CD-quality recordings, where vocal reproduction was judged to be warm, accurate, and slightly blanketed. Before we continue to the final portion of the review, it is extremely important to note that due to the fact that coaxial and optical audio on the PC is a one-way street, the AX360's microphone only works when the included G9-to-analog 5.1 splitter cable is used, a process that bypasses the AX360's break-out box, and essentially transforms the headset into the cheaper Tritton AX51. For Mac gamers with a console, this limitation may be acceptable, but others may find that this is a deal-breaking shortcoming. One possible solution that offers the best of both worlds is that of a G9 (9-pin DIN) splitter cable, but were unable to find a manufacturer after calling several reputable dealers around the United States.
The Final WordBoiling down the Tritton AXPC and AX360 headsets to a single, numerical rating is not an easy task. These headsets are remarkably well-built, incredibly comfortable, and offer impressive audio decoding functionality. They are easy to set up, irrespective of operating system, and Tritton definitely pulled out the stops to make the user actually "like" his or her purchase. On the other hand, both units suffer (or benefit, depending on your point of view) from Tritton's decision to implement vibrational feedback instead of quality bass response; a feature that we feel should be the domain of controllers--not headsets. Raw aural accuracy is certainly not the strong suit of these units, but they do offer tangible benefits in terms of positional audio reproduction to compensate. Therefore, our final verdict represents the value that the AXPC and AX360 provide for each unit's target audience. The decision as to which side of the line you stand on is, thankfully, left up to you, the reader.