Jun 7, 2006

USB Headsets: What You May Not Know

I frequently play WoW with a headset for voice communication, and I think most of our spouses get tired of the endless gunfire and explosions when we're playing FPS's. So, most of us find the need to play with headphones on at some point or another.

While recently building my new PC (see previous posts on that project starting in April '06), I found out something very interesting: a USB headset bypasses your sound card entirely.

I had specced in a nice Sound Blaster X-Fi sound card for my new rig, specifically because of their well-received CMSS-3D headphone technology, which was supposed to be the best simulated surround sound technology for a headset ever.

Upon getting my new system assembled, I was very surprised and a little bummed out to discover that the nice $50 Logitech USB 350 headset that I'd been using for over a year would not make use of my powerful new sound card in any fashion. So, I wanted to put the word out.

Certainly, there are positive features to a USB headset. If you're playing on a laptop, or another system with a less-than-stellar soundcard or integrated sound, then you'll most likely benefit from the digital signal processing chip that is a component of most USB headsets. Moreover, if your system is not the most powerful, a USB set will reduce some of the system burden by processing its own sound.

If you're a gaming enthusiast with a nice, turbo-charged sound card though, buyer beware. The USB headsets are typically about $20 more than the normal analog type, and if you've got a decent sound board, you're getting nothing for your extra cash.

As far as the X-Fi and its fancy 3D surround processing for headsets goes, I got to test it out last night. I'd ordered a new Plantronics Gamecom 1 headset (not the Gamecom Pro 1 - that one is USB), along with Plantronics' very handy headset/speaker switch. (Without this switch, if you alternately uses an analog headset and speakers, you must crawl under your desk to swap jacks when you change between headset and speakers - annoying and inconvenient.)

Short story, Creative's CMSS-3D processing is not hype - it sounds great. There is a very clear distinction between sounds that are in front of you and those that are behind you. I've no idea how they do this, but the positional audio is as effective as a set of 5.1 surround speakers - quite impressive.

In summary, as the saying goes, usually you get what you pay for. If you're a gaming enthusiast with a powerful dedicated sound card though, the extra $20 or more for a USB headset won't get you the added value you might be anticipating. Get yourself the analog version of the headset you like and continue to enjoy all the whiz-bangs that you expected from your cool sound card.

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