When the makers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare introduced the perk system for improving your character's weapons and abilities, one of the originals was the ability to move silently. That perk has remained in each iteration of the popular game ever since. It's known as Ninja in the most recent releases and illustrates the importance one of the most underrated aspects of gaming: precision audio. It's ironic that not hearing an enemy sneak up behind you drives home how important good sound is in gaming, but it's apt. Footsteps of players not using Ninja are a cinch to pick out if you've got good audio. I recently tried out two sets of headphones that promise such an advantage.
The Razor Megalodon ($146.99 at Best Buy) is a gaming headset featuring 7.1 surround-sound that incorporates the Razer Maelstrom Audio Engine, a platform designed to deliver superbly realistic surround sound. Lightweight and padded with very comfortable cloth-covered ear cups and headband, the Megalodon can be comfortably worn for hours of gaming with no danger of sweat slide (you know - after hour six of your COD marathon you lose your third consecutive team death match and throw your head back and shout, "nooooo!" and your headphones go flying). The noise-filtering boom mic swivels 270-degrees, allowing you to use it on the left or right side of your face.
But all that audio functionality requires a pretty complete set of controls, which the Megalodon delivers with a tabletop control panel that bisects the headphone's cord, midway between the USB connector that plugs into your PC and the earphones. The panel has toggles for switching between 7.1 surround (for gaming) and 2.0 stereo (for music), a volume control wheel and mic mute/sensitivity. It also has a centre button that controls the earphone speakers and bass level.
These are some pretty sweet cans. Whether it's a video or a game, the headphones deliver excellent sound and, although I was initially critical that the set is wired rather than wireless and requires the control console, neither has been a detriment. In fact, the control panel sits right beside my mouse pad and it's proven simple and efficient to adjust features, mute the mic or flip between 7.1 surround and 2.0 stereo with a quick press of a button.
My one complaint is that even though the headphones are adjusted the their smallest setting, they still wobble a bit. Now, given the choice between admitting I have a tiny melon and believing Razer made some kind of technical slip and all their headphones are (by default) XL, I blame them. Seriously though, it would be nice if they were just a tad more snug. Otherwise, hard to complain about something that puts the Ninja back into your game.
The other set of headphones I've tried recently are Logitech's Wireless F540s. I call them chopper headphones because they remind me of the things the medevac pilots in M*A*S*H wore. The name even sounds like a war bird - the F-540 Vulture, or something. Despite being huge and not especially light, they were quite comfortable. My main beef is they slip and slide with aggressive head motions - something that's hard to avoid when your gaming gets intense (or you're dodging flak over the Yalu river).
However, what sets the F540s apart from other headsets is they work with Xbox 360 and PS3; cross-platform splendour that adds versatility to a hardware segment usually tied to specific consoles or PC. Out of the box, the set includes a wireless base station that you can connect to your PS3 or Xbox 360. Cords include Micro-USB headset charging cable that plugs into the headset and base station, RCA audio cable, 2.5 mm cable for Xbox 360 voice audio and Mini-USB cable for PS3 voice audio. Sifting through the box and setting up for the PS3 required use of the manual (shocking I know - manuals come with these things?) to figure out exactly which cords went where, but the process took a total of five minutes and has worked flawlessly since.
Sound quality, which is very good, seems enhanced by the headset's ability to block outside noise. I've played around with noise-cancelling headphones that use "active" noise cancellation (technology that creates sound waves that suppress outside noise) rather than "passive" noise cancellation (snug-fitting muffs that seal your ear) and find the F540s do as good of a job of blocking out the dog barking at the back door and my wife yelling from upstairs as any other premium headset I've tried.
One other nice thing about the Logitech set is they're dead simple to operate. There are two volume wheels - one for sound, the other for voice chat - and a mic mute button located on the left ear. They're easy to find and adjust, as is swinging the boom mic. The ability to tune out chatter can not be stressed enough. While multiplayer has its enjoyments, listening to some twit spit racist or homophobic invectives because you keep fragging him is definitely a turn off. While most games allow you to mute individuals, tuning everyone out (or just lowering the volume) is a nice touch. Mic audio is good, according to people I've chatted with, and the best thing - when you flip up the mic it mutes itself.