Turtle Beach Ear Force X-52 PC Gaming Headphones Review

hardnrg - 2008-01-25 11:30:13 in Speakers/Headphones
Category: Speakers/Headphones
Reviewed by: hardnrg   
Reviewed on: February 13, 2008
Price: $45.99

Introduction:

Turtle Beach. Maybe some of you will instantly think of the turtle on the first beach in Crysis, and the newfound hilarity of turtle-throwing, or shooting it point blank in the head. Yes, very entertaining. But what if you turned your speakers off or unplugged your headphones? Not quite as engaging, eh?

Of course, I don't condone cruelty to animals, but at the same time I'm not a PETA mentalist. Now something I feel strongly about on a daily basis is cruelty to my ears. Turtle Beach is one of the two brands that comprises Voyetra Turtle Beach (the other is Voyetra, in case you were wondering) and is best known for its soundcards and has been at the forefront in PC audio since 1985, developing realistic wavetable synths and high-speed studio quality recording for regular PCs.

More recently, Turtle Beach brought out the Santa Cruz soundcard, offering audiophile quality at a reasonable price, and then the Montego DDL (Dolby Digital Live), which brought multichannel sound for PC games via digital interconnects for the first time.

In this review, I will be auditioning a 5.1 surround sound headset from Turtle Beach, the Ear Force X-52 PC Gaming Headphones. This isn't the first 5.1 headset I have reviewed, and I own three pairs of world class headphones that I use on a daily basis, so I have some expectations of limitations, and at the same time, a keen interest in finding out if this is the holy grail of gaming headsets.

 

Closer Look:

The packaging is made to sell itself in a retail environment, explaining key features, and most importantly, displaying the headset in molded transparent plastic, making it easy to see the size and shape of headband and earcups. On the back of the packaging you can see that the headset has eight speakers. So it's 7.1? No, it's a 5.1 headset, six channels for left, right, rear left, rear right, center, and subwoofer. Since you can't have a speaker inside your head, the centre channel is duplicated on each side, and subwoofer channels are also monophonic, so it is also duplicated on each side. This is how the headset has eight speakers for six channels.

 

 

Ok, so after cutting or ripping the plastic apart, you get to see the headset itself. The headband reminds me of the AKG K701 headphones that have been on my headphone shopping list for a while, and looks as though it would be comfortable for wearing hours on end. The earcups are padded and lined with a velvety fabric, and are a bit of an odd size. They are slightly too small to be circumaural (enveloping the entire ear), and slightly too large to be supra-aural (resting on the ear), so they sort of rest partially on your ears. The next thing I noticed was the connector at the end of the ~1.5m cable. It struck dread in my heart. A 9-pin mini DIN. Flashbacks of fighting with the Speed Link Medusa 5.1 Home Edition headset came flooding back before I thought, "come on, it's only a 9-pin mini DIN, you have graphics cards and a projector which use that connector."

 

 

Closer Look:

Unpacking the rest of contents, we have (from left to right) a 6.35mm-3.5mm stereo jack adaptor, a mic terminated with a 3.5mm stereo jack, a stereo adaptor cable for the headset, and a 5.1 + mic cable with inline volume controls.

 

 

 

 

Now, does the volume control look familiar to you? Maybe not, but it's exactly the same one used on the Medusa 5.1 headsets! How strange, and how truly awful if this headset is just a Medusa 5.1 in disguise.

 

All my ears are belong to Turtle Beach. And I have boxes of ears, hundreds of them; lucky Turtle Beach, they could make ear soup or something.

 

A two-sided printed guide explains what all the cables/adaptors are for, and how to connect to a PC, portable audio device, or home audio equipment.

 

 

The PC soundcard cable is very straightforward, maintaining the color-coding of green for the main left+right channels, black for rear left+right, orange for centre/subwoofer, and pink for mic. They are also labeled in case you are not familiar with the color-coding standard for PC audio ports.

 

So any extras in the package? Yup. A drawstring carrying bag to store the headset and accessories in when travelling.

 

 

Most full-size headphones are quite cumbersome when you want to take them on journeys/holidays or to LAN parties, etc. Those that fold normally only do so to reduce the size and are still susceptible to damage in transport. The Ear Force X-52 headset has a cool folding feature in that it reduces the size a lot, but the headband also becomes a protective ribcage of sorts. First you adjust the headband to the biggest size.

 

Then you can rotate one of the earcups 90° at the point where the headband slides up/down, and then fold the earcup up so that it lays inside the headband.

 

 

Once you've done that, you can repeat this action for the other earcup and you end up with a compact shape that sort of resembles a keg of beer with a set of guard rails around it. This is one of the best folding designs I've ever seen and looks quite sturdy.

 

 

The microphone is detachable so you can take it off for any reason, whether that be just to get it out of the way, for transit, or so you can use them as headphones and not look like an idiot. The neck of the microphone is very flexible and maintains the shape you last bended it to. Attaching the microphone is as simple as connecting a set of headphones to an MP3 player.

 

 

So that's the headset end of things. It's time to move onto the other end and hook it up to the computer!

 

Installation:

Most soundcards and motherboards with integrated audio follow the color coding standard of the 1999 PC System Design Guide specification developed by Microsoft and Intel. Of the four connectors on the 5.1 + mic headset cable, three are listed in this specification:

The remaining connector, black, is for the rear left and right speakers. If the jack sockets on your soundcard are not color coded then refer to the soundcard manual. For Creative cards, e.g. SoundBlaster Audigy2 ZS & X-Fi, the sockets are as follows:

The Audigy2 ZS has a dedicated microphone input whereas the X-Fi has a "Flexi-jack" which can be configured as a digital output, or analog input (microphone or line-input).

I've sort of over-explained this, it's just a case of matching up the connectors with sockets, square peg to square hole type of deal, hmm, except... all the connectors are the same size and shape! Here is how the headset connects to the X-Fi soundcards without PC 99 colour coding.

 

Configuration:

First you need to set the soundcard to 5.1 mode in order to enable all the speakers in the headset. Most onboard audio has auto-sensing on the jack sockets, so when I connected the headset to Realtek onboard audio I was prompted with the following screens, which asked me what channels were connected to each socket. I chose Line-out for the green connector rather than headphones, because you want that to be the main left and right speakers, not stereo headphones. All the connections were guessed correctly with a tick already in the appropriate box when each window appeared.

 

Then you need to make sure that the onboard audio is configured for 5.1 rather than any other mode.

 

Specifications:

There are no specifications of the acoustical properties of the speakers or microphone (e.g. frequency response) either in the packaging or on the website.

Only the cable specifications are stated on the website.

Headphones Cable Length: 49"
Plug: 9 Pin DIN Male
Splitter cable for speakers uses a 9 Pin DIN connection
Extension Cable (Long): Length: 82" (6.5')
One end has 4 stereo 1/8" colored plugs: Black, Pink, Green, Orange
The other end 9 Pin DIN Female is where the Headphones plug connects

 

Features:

 

Testing:

First I wanted to make sure the headset channels were set up correctly. The next step was to tune the EQ so the headset sound was optimized and balanced nicely across all the speakers. The EQ testing was done with a selection of familiar music, so they are all stereo sources. Once that was done I could move on to testing 5.1 sources, firstly pre-encoded 5.1 from movies, and then real-time generated multi-channel sound from games.

 

Testing Setup:

 

EQ Tests

A selection of music was played through Winamp to assess the sound quality and aid in adjusting the EQ. Some of the main music albums chosen for their production quality, frequency range, and content are as follows (with genre and audio format):

 

I gave the Realtek 3D Audio Demo a whirl to confirm the headset's speakers were set up correctly. I smiled as the sound source went behind my head and it sounded a lot better than the Medusa headset, not tinny as hell and horrible sounding.

For Creative cards you don't have the prompts, so you just set the sound mode to 5.1. I'm using the X-Fi in Game Mode here, you could also use it in Entertainment Mode, but Audio Creation Mode doesn't upmix stereo sound (like music) to all the channels because it doesn't have the CMSS feature. Here I have the CMSS mode set to Stereo Surround which just sends the same signal to all the speakers except the subwoofer.

 

The Realtek automatically upmixes stereo sources to all the channels including the subwoofer and you have no control over it. So all I could do was change the EQ to make the Ear Force X-52 sound more like the type of sound you can get from high-end headphones, home audio separates, or in a nightclub. Luckily I have experience with tuning all three by ear, so I came up with the following EQ curve on the Realtek.

 

There was a little bit of analog distortion when driven at high volumes, and it sounded like the headset speakers were struggling from the rather aggressive low-frequency EQ adjustment. This is because the Realtek doesn't seem to have any bass crossover and you are throwing the full frequency to the smaller speakers, making them cry a little bit. Also, it sounds like the Realtek itself is struggling to provide a signal without distortion.

Onboard audio sucks in comparison to pretty much any soundcard and the Realtek was beginning to make me feel sick, so next I tried the headset with a real soundcard, the modded Audigy2 ZS using the kX drivers. The Audigy2 ZS had a similar EQ treatment, but the bands are at different frequencies, so the curve appears a little different. The kX driver's EQ has a Precut level control which eliminates distortion introduced by the EQ adjustment, an instantly noticeable difference to the Realtek, giving a higher quality signal that could be heard easily on the Ear Force X-52.

 

I wasn't quite satisfied with the resulting sound achieved on the Audigy2 ZS, so I set the Ear Force X-52 up on the best soundcard I have, the modded X-Fi XtremeMusic. This is where things started to get interesting! Here is the EQ curve for the X-Fi. Notice also that Bass Redirection is being used as a 2-way crossover so that the subwoofer gets frequencies below 60 Hz, and the rest of the speakers get everything above 60 Hz. This results in a HUGE improvement in sound because the sub handles the very low bass, and the rest of the speakers aren't subjected to the massive booming bass from my music collection and EQ adjustments!

 

I've been listening to music on the Ear Force X-52 (connected to the X-Fi) non-stop since I got back from work about five hours ago. Normally I would listen to music on my speakers or one of my sets of headphones, but how the X-52 is set up right now, I feel like I could listen forever. It's very enjoyable listening to music on this headset, but only on the X-Fi. Most people won't be as picky as me, and may not even care about EQ adjustment or having a real soundcard, but if you get this headset, try it with EQ and Bass Redirection both disabled, and then try my settings. The difference is like going from the crappy earbuds you got with your phone, to a pair of $150 headphones! (The last three sets of headphones I've bought range from $200 to $300).

The sound produced now (with my adjustments) is extremely clear across the whole frequency range, the bass is slightly over-emphasised, with the subwoofer vibrating the earcups on my ears and head for the lowest bass notes. But, the bass is not distorted at all, and not booming in my ears, the sub is really just working away happily giving me a bit of an eargasm to be quite honest haha! The in-line volume controls on the headset cable are set to:

I wouldn't normally set up headphones to vibrate on my head, but this EQ setting gives the best quality sound, and I think the sub-bass vibration will be ace for movies and games giving you a visceral bass sensation in addition to what you hear. If the headset performs this well for 5.1 sources, it's going to be incredible. For Creative cards you need to disable the CMSS upmixing when watching movies or playing games with 5.1 audio otherwise the front channel sound will be added to the other speakers, messing up the 3D positioning.

 

Testing:

Ok, so the EQ adjustment was the hard part, and after enjoying several hours of music it was time to fire up some movies with 5.1 soundtracks.

 

Movie Tests

The following tests, demos, and movies were used to evaluate the performance of the Ear Force X-52 for prerecorded 5.1 material.

Testing:

Ok, so the last set of tests in this review will help to discover any irregularities with the sound from the Ear Force X-52 when playing games.

 

 

Game Tests

 

First up was Crysis and all seemed well until I got in a Hummer and could barely hear the sound of the engine when the car was pointed forwards (into the screen) and the camera view was external. Adjusting the volumes of the centre and rear channels helped a bit, but the sound was still noticeably uneven, it seemed as though some of the sound was missing as the vehicle careered down a dirt track in near silence. Whilst driving, moving the camera to either side using the mouse revealed the sound of the engine. I sighed a little. Although not nearly as severe, the Ear Force X-52 has the same uneven 3D soundfield as the Medusa 5.1 headsets.

Unreal Tournament 3 had the same hollow sound for some of the weapons like the chain gun. Need For Speed: Most Wanted seemed to suffer the least but still sounded a bit odd. Bioshock continued to give examples of an uneven soundfield, where sounds directly in front of you would be devoid of bass, sounds to the side of you are rich and full-sounding, and sounds behind you are muffled.

For the VoIP side of things, I tried the headset using TeamSpeak and Skype, and everyone who I talked to over the internet said my voice was coming through very clearly, and they had no problem with the sound level of my mic.

 

Conclusion:

At the end of this review I had my head in my hand. This headset came close to working very well in every aspect. For movies and music, the Ear Force X-52 performs extremely well, and I was surprised by its ability to produce the sound quality and levels even directly from the soundcard.

One of the quirks of the Ear Force X-52 is that it really needs a decent soundcard to unleash its potential. When driven flat (no EQ adjustments) and with no bass crossover for the sub, the headset sounds very much mediocre and uninteresting. Adjust the EQ and enable the bass crossover and the headset is transformed into a bass-shaking monster on your head!

I think the uneven sound problem stems from the center speakers, the other speakers perform at levels and frequency ranges that are the most appropriate match for the channel assignment. Because of the way the center speakers sound, and the resulting missing bass component of sounds in front of you, the headset does not deliver all the sound that is there in games, and does not sound like a 5.1 surround sound speaker system.

Maybe it's not actually possible to deliver 5.1 audio through headphones without some sort of compromise. This multi-speaker headphone design is certainly better than virtualization of surround sound through stereo headphones. The Ear Force X-52 is the best 5.1 headset I have heard to date, and comes very close to perfect, but the center channel lets it down, and the illusion of 5.1 is lost. It cannot deliver complete 5.1 audio in games, therefore not living up to the most basic of its claims, and so the Ear Force X-52 gets the Bronze award. If Turtle Beach could improve the 5.1 performance and tweak the shape of the earcup to be fully circumaural, they would have one of the best headsets in the world.

 

Pros:

Cons: