Turtle Beach Ear Force DSS Review

Indybird - 2010-07-14 21:31:20 in Speakers/Headphones
Category: Speakers/Headphones
Reviewed by: Indybird   
Reviewed on: September 5, 2010
Price: $89.95


Having a surround sound speaker system for games and movies is a definite advantage in immersion these days. Both games and movies have had surround sound (5.1 and 7.1) for a while now, but unlike movie-watchers, gamers are a little slower in adopting a full-on surround sound system for their purposes. Why? Perhaps budget, noise, space or even the need for online communication. They could get a 5.1 headset but, lets be honest, that technology is really still in the works (unless you want to spend a lot of money). What has come a long way since the advent of 5.1/7.1 is surround sound processing. Some examples being Dolby’s headphone technology, their Virtual Speaker and Creative’s CMSS-3D. Based on how our ears interpret different directions of sound hitting the eardrum, these technologies take the normal 5.1/7.1 input of a movie or game and output it on stereo speakers in such a way that it will sound like surround sound.

Here today is Turtle Beach’s offering in this department, the Ear Force DSS. The DSS is a USB powered processor box that sits between your computer and stereo headphones. It takes Dolby Digital 5.1/7.1 input and processes it using Dolby Headphone technology and/or Dolby Pro Logic IIX. The best part is, being that it takes a standard optical S/PDIF, you can use the DSS on any device that has or is near a USB port. This is what makes it compatible with PC, Xbox 360, PS3, or even a standard DVD player (provided you have a USB nearby). The DSS is looking to be a pretty attractive product, lets see if it fulfills its promise of immersive surround sound on any stereo headset.

Closer Look:

The Turtle Beach Ear Force DSS comes in a small cardboard box with a window in the front to display the device itself. On the front you have the name, very brief description, some Dolby logos and a picture of some guy who is having way too much fun playing his games. I wonder if the Xbox 360-shaped window is some kind of extra subliminal advertising about the DSS’s gaming purposes? Around the back we have all of the same plus a detailed diagram of the connections on the DSS and a short paragraph about the product. On the side of the box we have even more detailed straight-on diagrams of the connections.









Despite having advanced processing capabilities, the Earforce DSS is a pretty simple package. You have the manual, USB A to USB mini cable, optical S/PDIF cable, analog audio cable and a Turtle Beach sticker.


Now that we've seen the Ear Force DSS from afar, let's see it up close.

Closer Look:

The Ear Force DSS is, simply put, a small plastic box. It could fit right in your hand. On the top you’re given the same basic features as listed on the box, but also present are four LEDs and a button. These let you know if the device is receiving Dolby Digital, if it has a Digital input, if Pro Logic is Enabled or if you’ve pressed the Dolby Bypass button.
















Moving on to the sides, on the left you have the power on/off switch. On the front you have the main volume, headphone output and USB pass through. Being that the device doesn’t use any data, just a little bit of power, it can pass the USB through so you’re not down one port. This is especially nice on the Xbox 360 and PS3 beause they normally only have 2 ports. On the right side you just have the Bass Boost wheel. Around the back are all of the things you would rarely adjust/disconnect such as the analog stereo input, anolog input volume, optical digital S/PDIF input and USB mini input.



The Earforce DSS is looking pretty solid, let's find out how it sounds.




Digital Optical S/PDIF, analog 3.5mm
Analog 3.5mm
2.25 (W) x 3.5 (L) x 0.75 (H) inches (56 x 88 x 20 mm)
Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic IIX, Dolby Headphone
Xbox 360, PC, Playstation 3, Analog 3.5mm sources
USB (with pass-through)




All information courtesy of Turtle Beach @ http://www.turtlebeach.com/products/audio-processors/ear-force-dss.aspx



To test the Turtle Beach Ear Force DSS I’m going to test it in games, movies and then finally music.  Even though the DSS is primarily designed for games and then movies, the music will test the device's pure digital to analog conversion quality. I’ll be testing the DSS using the Turtle Beach Ear Force Z2 I reviewed recently. For a soundcard, I’ll be using the Razer Barracuda AC-1.  It provides 5.1 and 7.1 output via optical S/PDIF cable and supports Dolby Digital Live.


Testing Setup:


To test out the DSS’s gaming performance, I started up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for PC. Since Windows should be set to 5.1, the game defaulted to this also. The first thing I noticed was that the sound on the previously mids-strong Ear Force Z2 was pretty even. I can only assume it comes from the added simulation of having more speakers, but I’m not actually sure. During intense gaming I couldn’t really distinguish front from back.  Having the simulated center speaker, however added to the "direct-front" sound and added a slight dimension of frontal audio.  



Next, I put on “The Hurt Locker” to test the Ear Force DSS’s movie performance. “The Hurt Locker” has won several awards for sound so this made it an ideal choice. While listening to the movie I found that the DSS slightly enhanced the stereo image of the movie, but I really could not hear the difference between front and back.  This is surprising because, unlike during Call of Duty, I could not even hear a "front" center speaker; everything simply sounded left-right the whole time.



Lastly, I'm going to test out the pure digital to analog audio quality with some music tests. For reference I use Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Delilah, Us and Them by Pink Floyd and lastly Propane Nightmares by Pendulum. Each of these songs have distinct qualities which make them great as reference tracks for testing audio equipment. All three songs are played straight off of their CDs through VLC media player. To start, I put on Samson et Delilah. Here I noticed very little difference over the base headphones. Some subtleties like chimes in the background seemed to be picked up a little better, but nothing major. Moving over to Pink Floyd, I noticed some slightly stronger differences. As I noticed during the movies, stereo sections of the song seem to stick out a little more. After some more careful listening, the DSS seemed to "shift" parts of the music more to the sides or into the middle. Now, though this tinkering with the stereo image might seem sacrilegious to some, I found it added an an interesting new depth to the listening experience. This tendency of the DSS will likely be a matter of preference for users. Finally I threw on Propane Nightmares by Pendulum. Much like Samson et Delilah, this song didn't seem to be affected much by the DSS. Vocals seemed a little more "centered", but other than that I could not pick out any differences.

In the end, most users will most likely end up using the "Dolby Bypass" option on the DSS for listening to music. When this is enabled, all audio processing is disabled and the stereo sound is sent directly to the analog stereo output. This provides the most true-to-recording listening through this device.


Overall I found the Ear Force DSS slightly improved stereo imagery, but did not really contribute to a surround sound experience. On a similar note, I don’t quite understand the purpose of having Dolby Pro Logic IIX on a device that simulates 5.1/7.1 on stereo headphones. What you are essentially doing when you turn this on is up-converting stereo audio to 5.1/7.1 which is then simulated back over stereo headphones.  Through all of this processing you are going to lose a lot of the original stereo, especially due to the inclusion of a "center speaker".  The addition of the "Dolby Bypass" already solves the issue of stereo audio through the DSS, making me wonder even more why Pro Logic IIX is included. 


The Ear Force DSS is an interesting take on a concept that has been in development for a few years now. Surround sound simulation seems fairly reasonable from stereo headphones because we do, of course, only have two ears.  However, I just don’t think that the processing technology is quite there yet. The DSS did have great audio quality performance. As I’ve mentioned, it actually enhances the stereo imagery in movies (and debatably in music also) . This, and the "Dolby Bypass" function actually makes the DSS great as a simple digital to analog converter for headphones, despite that not being its main purpose.  Aside from the great base audio enhancements I really could not distinguish surround sound in my Ear Force Z2 headphones.  Along with the inclusion of Pro Logic IIX (which, as I discussed, is somewhat unneeded here), the DSS has a lot of processing capabilities that go to waste.

I can’t really recommend these for their purpose of simulated 5.1 or 7.1 audio, but enhancements to stereo listening plus USB power and Bass control still make it a useful device. You’ll definitely get better results from your stereo headphones for stereo listening, but don’t expect any magic from surround sound in games and movies.  Though it still has some great features, the surround performance keeps it from being worth the $90 price tag.