Speed-Link Medusa 5.1 Home Edition (SL-8796) Headset Reviewhardnrg -
Music seemed to be a good starting point for the testing, as I could try out a wide range of tracks that I am very familiar with. I listen to music every day on both my home system, made up of hi-fi separates, speaker and headphones, as well as portable audio including a different set of headphones, mp3 player and mp3 mobile phone. Having such a wide range of audio devices and experience working with club sound systems really helped me when assessing and "tuning-in" the myriad of controls available.
One of the key aims of this particular area of testing was to bring the headset frequency response as close to my hi-fi separates and portable audio as possible and, at the same time, find the settings that allowed me to drive the headset as loud as possible without distortion. A balance of power, frequency response, and clarity, is something I aim to achieve with all audio equipment and I wasn't going to drop my standards for the Medusa headset.
I selected a number of music tracks that are particularly loud with very tough bass content to fine tune the sound controls of the soundcard and mp3 player. This selection of tracks produced distortion easier than most other tracks when driving the headset at high volumes and proved to be very useful for fine tuning the bass and EQ settings to allow distortion-free playback of all musical sources.
Breaks / Hip-Hop
Baobinga - The Bashment Track
Mr Scruff - Shelf Wobbler
Azzido Da Bass - Dooms Night (Timo Maas Remix)
DJ Deekline And Ed Solo - Touch Your Toes
Mr Oizo - Flat Beat
Drum n Bass
Aphrodite - Chinois
Alex Reece - Pulp Fiction (Lemon D Remix)
Brockie & Ed Solo - System Check
Nukleuz Kollective Pres Cortina - Take Me Higher (Sy & Unknown Hardcore Mix)
Praga Khan - Injected With A Poison (Hixxy Remix)
Dougal & Gammer - X-Treme (Exclusive Clubland Remix)
Dub Taylor - Something, Sometimes
The Delta - MJ. Error
Huntemann - Discotech (Monika Kruse @ Voodooamt Remix)
Umek - Posing As Me
The musical testing was by no means limited to these tracks and I auditioned the headset for many, many hours over a wide range of music including much less "heavy" tracks that were also demanding in other ways that helped fine-tune the mid to high frequency ranges.
Results: optimal settings for Audigy2 ZS soundcard
It took some time to adjust the Audigy2 ZS's controls to give a slightly better frequency response. The headset is very capable of an energetic and involved performance while maintaining detail and clarity, but a little bit of tweaking is required to supply the amp with just the right input signal to achieve the best sound. With the centre/sub channels connected to the amp normally, I could not achieve a decent balance between the lower frequencies produced by the subwoofer and the front channels. The sub certainly was producing bass, but almost to the point of being sub-sonic! The headset was pulsating with the bass enormously, and yet there was a lot of lower end bass missing. After trying every combination of soundcard settings possible and reading several forums for recommended settings, I tried swapping the centre and sub channels by using a 3.5mm-to-2x phono adapter and the supplied 6x phono adapter and managed to get a much more balanced sound.
While the bass problem was solved, I therefore "lost" the centre channel as it was now being fed by the subwoofer output. There seems to be a problem with the Audigy 2 drivers in that you have to choose between having a centre channel and zero subwoofer output (bass redirection: off), a centre channel and sub-sonic subwoofer output (bass redirection: on), or no centre channel and balanced subwoofer and other channel bass reproduction.
Here are the settings of the soundcard's mixer, bass management, graphic EQ, and surround up-mixing panels:
Treble: 50% (ie. flat)
Source (Wave): 75%
125 Hz: +2.11dB
250 Hz: -1.22dB
500 Hz: -1.05dB
1 kHz: +1.10dB
2 kHz: +1.82dB
4 kHz: +2.57dB
Subwoofer volume: 100%
Bass redirection: enabled
Crossover frequency: 10 Hz
Creative Multi Speaker Surround (CMSS)
Enable CMSS 3D: enabled
Stereo focus: 0%
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the crossover for the "subwoofer" performs best when set at 10 Hz. Increasing the value only reduces the amount of bass sent to the subwoofer channel! This is because it is actually being driven by the centre channel output. Another odd anomaly is that the amp produces an audible hiss at low volumes (0~25%). It is only really noticeable in the 0~10% range and I had the amp at somewhere around 25-40% for most of the review and actually only noticed the hiss at the very end of testing!
Stereo sources such as mp3 only come through the "front" channels by default on the Audigy2 ZS. CMSS 3D up-mixing (stereo to 5.1 matrixing) allows all channels to receive sound, and it sounds marginally better than front only, but since CMSS needs to be turned off for movies and games, it's more convenient to just keep CMSS off all the time, and it still sounds great! When CMSS is enabled, the headset has slightly more bass extension thanks to routing the bass to the sub speakers, but the room simulation effect can sound a little strange at times.
In short, using the "front" left and right channels alone is only very slightly inferior to using all the channels for music. So if you are lazy like me, you can just leave CMSS disabled (it has to be disabled for listening to true 5.1 content - i.e. games and movies) as the difference is very subtle.
Results: optimal settings for iRiver iFP-899 MP3 player
As the Medusa headset comes with an adapter for stereo-only sources, I thought it would be interesting to see how they fared without the amp and no 3D up-mixing / matrixing.
50 Hz: +15dB
200 Hz: -3dB
1 kHz: 0dB
3 kHz: +3dB
14 kHz: +6dB
I think the dB ratings on the MP3 player's EQ settings are somewhat arbitrary as applying a +15dB boost to a band centred around 50 Hz would normally be asking for trouble. So I think rather the shape of the corrective EQ curve is the most meaningful thing here. It is extremely similar to the EQ settings I use with my Koss Portapro headphones and, to the Medusa 5.1 Home headset's credit, the sound produced from the headphones is impressively close to that of the Portapro's. The Medusa headset is noticeably quieter at the same volume however, and the bass extension isn't quite as deep. This seems to indicate that the headset would fare better when driven from an amplifier as the same characteristics can be heard when trying to drive Sennheiser HD575 headphones from the same player.
While I had the headset connected to my MP3 player, and since it has a line-in/mic socket, I decided to connect the headset mic and try out the voice recording feature. This MP3 player does real-time encoding up to 320kbps for the line-input mode, but for voice recording it is limited to a more sensible maximum of 160kbps at a 44.1kHz sample rate. Even at the lowest setting of 32kbps, the sound recorded was extraordinarily clear and was far superior to the player's internal microphone. This initial test proved very promising for the likelihood that the headset mic would be able to provide a high level of sound quality for online voice communication.
MoviesAfter finding the best settings for stereo sources, I was itching to test some true 5.1 content to see how the Medusa headset handled multi-channel audio. I selected a number of movies with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby DTS 5.1 audio that have a range of sounds from soft dialogue, to gunshots, front-to-rear "fly-by" projectile sounds, explosions, and environment acoustics. Here are the movies I chose for testing:
Dolby Digital 5.1
Resident Evil: Apocalypse
House of Flying Daggers
Dolby DTS 5.1
War of the Worlds
Reversing the centre and sub channels makes the bass work properly, but also the source's centre channel is routed to the "sub" speakers and therefore is a little bit quiet and muffled. The sub speakers certain extend way above the quoted 120 Hz upper limit and seem to be almost full-range speakers themselves. Connecting the centre and sub channels normally meant the sub's bass was almost non-existent as it seems the Creative driver's bass redirection and crossover does not work as intended. Basically, one way round you get all the sound information but the dialogue is a bit quiet, and the other way round you get a clear centre channel but a significant portion of the bass is missing.
The headset's centre and sub speakers are not at fault here, it is the Creative drivers not allowing the correct crossover behaviour. It seems the Creative X-Fi series has different subwoofer behaviour that acts normally when using certain settings, but for the Audigy 2 series, there is no perfect solution. Unfortunately I don't have access to an X-Fi soundcard to test the claims of others. Another solution I came across was to use the 3rd party kX drivers, so I installed the newest kX drivers and tried out a few recommended solutions. This proved fruitless so I tried the newest Creative drivers in case they solved any issues. No success whatsoever. This worried me a little, as I didn't think it boded all that well for 5.1 gaming.
VoIP - Skype, MSN, Ventrilo, Teamspeak
Up next, testing the microphone for levels and also assessing clarity for people listening to me. The sound quality of the microphone was extremely good in all Voice-Over-IP applications and many of the people that I conversed with actually commented on how clear I sounded (compared to before when I used the Creative desktop microphone). One of the biggest differences is that the headset mic picked up my speech and very little background noise, whereas the Creative desktop mic picked up everything in the room including my main computer cooled by 11 fans! The 4 metre cable length quickly proved itself to be very useful during conversations as I could easily get to just about anywhere in my room to find something and not have to take the headset off.
Unreal Tournament 2004
Need For Speed: Carbon
Tomb Raider: Legend
The last part of the testing I expected to be the most fun, but also the most important, as I would be testing 5.1 surround from both DirectSound3D and OpenAL multi-channel games, while at the same time being able to converse over VoIP. The fun part quickly gave way to frustration and annoyance as I discovered that the centre/sub and bass redirection problem in movies was even worse in games. There simply wasn't a 100% working 5.1 solution in games as there are huge voids of bass in front of, and behind, the player. This means that the resulting sound is completely unnatural, so a grenade or gunshots directly in front or behind a player sounds like leaves rustling in the wind, but to either side of the player the same sound you can feel it vibrating your head and hear the full frequency range. No matter which combination of adapters, driver settings, or even custom 3rd party drivers I used could remedy this over many, many weeks of testing.