Speed-Link Medusa 5.1 Home Edition (SL-8796) Headset Review

hardnrg - 2006-11-27 18:55:32 in Speakers/Headphones
Category: Speakers/Headphones
Reviewed by: hardnrg   
Reviewed on: February 18, 2007
Speed-Link
Powerdrive Computers
Price: £79.99

Introduction




Speed-Link

Based in Germany, Speed-Link is known around Europe for its gaming peripherals and multimedia equipment.  The list of product ranges includes mice, gaming surfaces (mousepads), joysticks, gamepad controllers, headsets, steering wheels, and equipment-carrying harnesses and bags.  The company even has its own gaming clan, Team Speed-Link, which actively plays both online and at organised LAN party events.


Medusa 5.1 Home Edition



This review is going to be taking a look at Speed-Link's top of the line headset, the Medusa 5.1 Home Edition.  I was intrigued by the surround sound and the overall popularity of the entire Medusa 5.1 series on computer and gaming forums.  Could a headset deliver 5.1 surround?  Is it better than a stereo headset?  Let's find out!
 
 

Closer Look

Back of the box


Back of the box
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After my initial excitement of looking at the front, I turned the box around and then my eyes grew wider as I was greeted with some of the key features of the Medusa 5.1 Home headset.  It's always a bit frustrating taking pictures of the box before opening it, and this review was certainly no exception!


Inside the box


Opening the box
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A box inside a box!
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Opening up the box, revealed... ANOTHER box!  Haha!  I couldn't help but laugh, a box inside a box... But after seeing so many product packaging approaches, opening up a box without having to reverse-assemble a 3-dimensional puzzle of polystyrene sections and plastic wrapping really was a pleasure I could not remember experiencing.  It felt like Christmas had come early!  The inner box looks very much the size and shape of a shoebox - a black and shiny shoebox.  Anyway, I'd spent more than enough time taking pictures of the outside of the boxes and was more than ready to see what was inside the double-boxed surprise.


The inner box revealed...
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...and finally unpacked
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Never in a million years would I have guessed Speed-Link packaged their products so exquisitely!  It looked like it had been gift wrapped as a Valentine's day gift or something with soft fabric and silk ribbons.  I started to feel the love.  I started to feel the warm fuzziness.  This headset must have been packed by fair maidens, that's the only explanation I can suggest (well, it's the one I'm going with anyway).  I like how Speed-Link have taken a rather different approach to packaging as there is little that you need to discard, no useless internal packaging that simply fills a space, just a modest amount of quality materials that ensure the headset is absolutely immaculate and well-presented.

Right, well back to the headset then and here you can see the unpackaged headset resting on top of its amplifier, the multi-language user manual, and the accessory box (so, a box in a box in a box!).  The headset I shall come back to last, so let's have a look at the amplifier and see what we find inside the third mystery box!


The amp


Amp: front/side view
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Amp: side view
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Ok, so here's something you don't see very often - an amplifier for your headset.  I like the sleek look and the minimal design.  It's a two-tone silver/black combination which suits me just fine as almost all the hardware I own is black, or black and silver.  On the front you've got three toggle push button switches and a rotary volume control.  The two upper switches toggle between the two inputs and the two outputs.  Yes, that's right, two in and two out.  You'll see how that works shortly.  Below the volume control is the power button.  Underneath that we have a microphone socket - this is to connect an external microphone. When you connect a microphone here, it deactivates the headset mic.  Finally, at the bottom, we have a mini-DIN connector headphone socket for the headset.  A custom connector for the headset?  This doesn't mean you are restricted to using the headset with the amplifier, far from it - more on that later though.  Nice to see the controls all at the front and not spread all over the amplifier to the sides, rear or top of the housing.

A distinctive swirl design is molded into the side sections which I think gives it a unique look and some character.  So far I'm impressed.  On the previous page you saw the headset resting on the amp.  This was not merely a cunning place to balance them for a photograph: the amplifier's housing is actually designed to double as a handy place to keep your headset when not in use.  Now I know for a fact a lot of people will like this feature as I, like many others, have to hang my headphones on my chair, corner of the desk, or bed and quite often they just end up on the floor and sometimes get lost in a pile of ... unsorted things on the floor.  Ok, I'm messy, there, now everyone knows!



Amp: rear view
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Amp: underneath
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Round to the business end of things and yes, you weren't expecting that were you?!  Just look at all those connections.  Marvellous.  A peek underneath and you will find four little round black non-slip feet located near to the corners which ensures good stability and resistance to being unwittingly moved around.


Amp: rear inputs
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Amp: rear output
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The amp supports not one, but two 5.1 inputs, each with microphones.  So you can use this for two computers and, as we shall see soon, many other devices.  So ok, two inputs, all fine and dandy.  How about the two outputs?  How does that work?  Well, the rear output bypasses the amplifier to connect to your speaker system!  This could be a set of computer speakers, a stereo amp or even a 5.1 home cinema receiver.  I think this is fantastic!  No messing around with silly little switch boxes, using an obscene number of splitters, or even worse, having to unplug cables all the time.  I can switch between my hi-fi speakers and the headset at the touch of a button and that makes me very happy.  And why is there yet another microphone socket?  Unlike the front mic connector which overrides the headset mic and sends the signal to your computer, the rear mic connector is designed for an external mic that routes the signal directly to the bypassed output, i.e. it routes the mic signal directly to your speakers rather than down to your computer.  The sheer number of options for connnectivity far exceeded my expectations for a headset amplifier.


Cables / PSU


Supplied cables and PSU
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So what's inside the mysterious third box?  A fourth box!  Haha, I'm not joking, but the fourth box is only the box for the AC/DC power adapter, at the top centre of the picture.  The Russian doll game thus came to an end.  A fair number of cables for a headset right?  At the top left and top right of the picture you've got the 5.1 audio + mic cables for two sets of computers.  The cables at the lower half of the pictures are a number of adapters to give you more options.  At the bottom left there is a 6x phono/rca to 3x 3.5mm stereo adapter to convert one of the 5.1 cables to phono.  This enables you to connect to any 5.1 device with phono connections such as a DVD player.  The bottom middle cable is a simple stereo + mic adapter cable to let you connect the headset directly to something like the front audio jacks of a computer or a laptop.  And finally, a 5.1 + mic adapter cable to let you connect directly to a 5.1 soundcard.

I really was pleased to see Speed-Link provide a whole host of cables and adapters to suit a wide variety of different uses of the headset.  It really opens up the possibilities of when and where you can use the Medusa 5.1 and while called the "Home Edition", one can easiliy see that it could be taken away on travel, to work, and play.

Well without further ado, on to the headset!
 

Headset


The headset itself
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9-pin mini-DIN connector
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Even with the headset's cable coiled up, you know there is a generous length there, and you'd be right!  There's FOUR metres of cable which means I can wander around most of my room without taking the headset off.  The 9-pin mini-DIN connector has to be used either with the amp, or with one of the two adapter cables supplied.


In-line volume controls
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Headset: side view
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Four individual volume controls indicates that the headset's surround sound will be able to be customised to achieve the desired balance of sound.  This in-line set of volume controls is about 40cm from the headset, so it ends up somewhere around your mid to lower torso which is quite easy to reach.  The headset is an open-back design meaning it is not sealed on the outside.  This gives a more "open" sound, resulting in a wider soundstage, meaning there is a greater perceived distance between extreme left and extreme right.


Microphone connected
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Microphone disconnected
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The microphone stem is very bendable, so you can adjust it to a different shape to get the microphone tip at the optimum position.  It also rotates up and down at the headset itself to give a large degree of freedom.  The microphone is removable, with the idea that it would be safer in transit if it was detached.


Mic connector: phono (RCA/cinch)
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Mic mouthpiece
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The microphone connector is a decent quality phono connector (RCA/cinch).  The mouthpiece isn't the smallest I've ever seen but still manages to be quite unobtrusive.


Headset folded: folded up
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Headset folded: flat
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As this headset is meant for gaming, it can be folded up in two different ways.  The first is to rotate one earcup up towards the headband and then close the other earcup up against it to make a small bundle.  The second method is to swivel the earcups 90° and lay the earcups flat.  Both ways seem very practical for packing the headset for a LAN-party or other trips away from home.  I've taken the photos with the microphone attached to illustrate that it's not completely necessary to detach the microphone.


 
 

Installation / Set-up

Overview

Installation is quite straightforward.  The computer 5.1 audio + mic cables are colour-coded which makes it easy to match up the corresponding connections.

Connecting to soundcard

Simply match up the familiar green, black, orange, and pink jacks to the front, rear, centre/sub, and mic ports on your soundcard (or onboard sound).  Quite often these ports will also be colour-coded on the soundcard.

Connecting to amp

Connect the other end of the 5.1 + mic cable to the four ports for Input I.

Insert the headset's mini-DIN connector in the front, connect the amp's ac-dc adapter, and press the Power button at the front.
 
 

Specifications

Technical data

Amp box
Power supply: 7.5V DC

Microphone data:
Condensor microphone: Ø 9.7mm
Directivity: Omni-directional microphone
Impedence: 2200Ω
Sensitivity: -60dB ± 2dB
Frequency response: 30Hz~16kHz
Operating voltage: 4.5V

Speaker data:
Surround speaker (front/rear): Ø 30mm x 2, 32Ω, 20Hz-20kHz
Centre speaker: Ø 30mm x 2, 64Ω, 20Hz-20kHz
Subwoofer: Ø 32mm x 2, 8Ω, 20Hz-120Hz

I have to point out that the official speaker data presented here, the same data in the manual and on product pages, is inaccurate and also misleading.  The actual size of the front speakers is 40mm:

To conclude here are the official specs for the range of Speed-Link Medusa headsets..

* Rear/Centre speakers: dia. 30mm x 2; 32Ω 20Hz-20kHz
* Front speaker: dia. 40mm x 2; 64Ω 20Hz-20kHz
* Subwoofer: dia. 32mm x 2; 8 Ω 20Hz-20kHz

source: Matt Mason-Phipps, CEO, Medusa International

Matt explains the difference in driver sizes to be "by design" and that the centre and rear surround speakers are intended as effect speakers rather than full-range speakers.  While the main (front) speakers could be considered full-range drivers, the claimed 20Hz-20kHz range of the centre and rear drives could not have been measured using any type of standardised test.  Throughout testing, the centre and rear speakers were distinctly lacking in bass.  The 20Hz lower limit may be reached but the sound levels produced at the lower frequencies are nearly inaudible.

In conclusion, the specifications give the impression that these headphones have 6 full-range speakers and 2 low-range speakers, but in fact they have 2 full-range, 2 low-range, and 4 mid/high-range speakers.  This proved to create an unnatural imbalance in sound in all multi-channel applications and games.  Corrective measures were required to compensate for this.

Test Hardware

PC-based test hardware

Soundcard: Creative Soundblaster Audigy2 ZS
driver 1: (Creative driver 02.08.0004, v5.12.08.1164)
driver 2: (kX driver v5.10.0.3538j)
driver 3: (Creative driver 02.09.0016, v5.12.4.1196)
Microphone: Creative desktop condensor microphone (came bundled with Soundblaster Live! 5.1 Platinum)


Other test hardware

MP3 player: iRiver iFP-899 (firmware v1.65)

 
 

Testing

Music

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.


Test tracks

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


Hardcore



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)


Techno



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:


Optimum soundcard settings
(click to enlarge)

Mixer
Volume: 50%
Bass: 84%
Treble: 50% (ie. flat)
Source (Wave): 75%


Graphic EQ
125 Hz: +2.11dB
250 Hz: -1.22dB
500 Hz: -1.05dB
1 kHz: +1.10dB
2 kHz: +1.82dB
4 kHz: +2.57dB
8kHz: +4.91dB
Preamp: -1.33dB

Bass Management
Subwoofer volume: 100%
Bass redirection: enabled
Crossover frequency: 10 Hz


Creative Multi Speaker Surround (CMSS)
Enable CMSS 3D: enabled
Mode: CMSS
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.


Optimum iRiver portable audio player settings
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Graphic EQ
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.
  

Movies

After 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
Ong Bak

Predator
House of Flying Daggers


Dolby DTS 5.1




War of the Worlds
The Transporter
Alien: Resurrection
The Descent
 
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.


Games



Unreal Tournament 2004
Prey
Need For Speed: Carbon
Tomb Raider: Legend
FarCry
Half-Life 2
Counter-Strike: Source


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.

 
 

Conclusion


Well, this headset has left me somewhat disappointed.  Some of the headset's drivers (speakers) work very well (the sub and main left and right channels), whereas the centre and rear speakers are so incredibly awful that the 5.1 experience is worse than a stereo headset in almost all situations.  I still use the headset for VoIP applications like Skype, but for gaming I have reverted to my Sennheiser HD280Pro stereo headphones for the much more natural and engaging sound at the cost of having to go without the headset mic of the Medusa 5.1 Home Edition.  I'm quite surprised that the 30mm drivers (centre and rear) cannot produce any bass, but either way, I was expecting a much more even and consistent audio delivery from any direction.  If the Medusa 5.1 had more evenly matched drivers I think the headset would be fairly near to unbeatable, but as it is, it sounds as though it has not been thorougly tested and almost like a prototype model.

Pros

Cons