I’ve been through a ton of gaming headsets in my time and I’d never heard of Able Planet until Julie passed along a set for me to review. As interesting as their LINX AUDIO technology is, the real story on this set is how and why this technology evolved, and what this innovative company is up to when they’re not making multimedia gaming headsets.
Able Planet is a company whose bread and butter involves developing technologies and creating products utilized by the hearing impaired. Jo Waldron, inventor of the technology that drives Able Planet’s products, is hearing impaired herself, so her motivation for creating this technology is clearly understood. You can check out Able Planet’s website to see just how impressive the collective credentials of their audiologists are, and the awards they’ve managed to accumulate over the past few years.
While reading all of this material myself, I was struck by the impression that the multimedia headphones they manufacture are more of a side effect of the products they create for the hearing impaired. I say that not to diminish the effort put into these headphones, but to suggest that they could be the residual of an effort pointed at a purpose greater than their intended result. To understand why these headphones are different, let’s take a quick look at Able Planet’s LINX AUDIO technology, right from the proverbial horse’s mouth.
“LINX AUDIO™ creates high frequency harmonics that enhance sound quality and speech clarity of difficult to hear words or notes, and increase the perception of loudness without increasing volume. LINX AUDIO™ provides full rich sound and enhanced speech clarity even at lower volumes, which may lead people to “Turn it Down™” to preserve hearing. An analogy of a richer sound might be the difference you hear when you play a “C” note on a piano, as opposed to a “C” Chord. The “C” Chord demonstrates the impact of adding harmonics to the audio signal.”
Having spent several years on stage and in the recording studio, I can appreciate the technology. It makes perfect sense. It appears very similar to the technology behind a device I’m intimately familiar with, BBE’s Sonic Maximizer. The best description I ever heard of the effect a Sonic Maximizer has on a mix, was that it was like listening to a set of loudspeakers with a blanket over them, and then pulling the blanket off. That’s the difference, and I agree with that description entirely. The harmonics come through, you hear everything in its own space, the sound is more full, but tight, not boomy or squally. The technology increases the audible presence of a given signal, without increasing volume. I’ve noticed a similarity with these headphones.
In addition, applying compression to an audio signal can make the sound seem to be louder. It makes the frequencies normally lost in the mix come up to the same level as the ones with a greater volume, therefore making the sound cut through. Have you ever wondered why television commercials seem so much louder than the program you are watching? Sometimes it will make you jump out of your seat. It’s compression. The engineers compress the audio signal so tightly that it literally booms out of the speakers. It’s like a laser as opposed to a cluster bomb, again, it cuts through. Is compression within a certain frequency range part of the magic with LINX?
Simply put, LINX AUDIO and similar technologies allow sound to reach the inner ear easier than non-processed signals. That’s why the technology works so well for the hearing impaired when applied to speech. The reinforcement of the audio signal with its own harmonics, allow it to penetrate. I’m very interested to see how these headphones perform letting me pick up speech of my game crew over the action. Will the in-game voice comms cut through even the most intense (and noisy) engagements?
OK, I know. That’s way too much back story without pictures for the fidgety-gadgety A.D.D. bunch. So here are the goodies:
Featuring Award-Winning Patented LINX AUDIO™-a Hear the Difference™ technology
In-Line Volume Control with Mute Switch and Clip for Easy Adjustment to Safe Listening Levels
Lightweight Adjustable Headband for Maximum Comfort
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20,000Hz
Microphone Sensitivity at 1KHz: -65 +/- 5dB
Two 3.5mm Plugs
Soft Carry Pouch
Design & Construction
First off, let me thank Able Planet for saving me a trip to the emergency room by not putting their products in finger slashing blister packs. The package opened easily by pulling the cardboard off the plastic clam shell casing, which then fell apart with no effort. Review over, Able Planet wins over every PC headset I’ve ever opened!
I think the design and construction of this headset is well above average for this price range. I think it’s one of the strongest assets of these phones. When I first got the package I thought they were a little odd looking, and indeed they are atypical. The cans themselves are different. They’re compact, stocky, and have a durable look to them.
These are not over the ear or in ear phones. They have the design look of over the ear, yet fit ON the ear. This was a bit uncomfortable at first, but I got used to them quickly. The surrounds seem like a good quality foam with a soft outer covering, are very comfortable, do an excellent job of molding to your ears and sealing external sounds out, and I don’t have to look like Princess Leia to get the effect. I noticed they did an excellent job of blocking outside noise even at low listening volume.
Many of the assembly joints use machine screws instead of the typical plastic locking clip or compression joint. The expandable part of the headband is also metal . The swivel joints that the cans sit in seem large and very solid. The screens on the outside of the cans are made of a more than adequate gauge of perforated metal.
The boom microphone uses a corrugated flex joint metal casing instead of the typical plastic swivel a lot of phones use. This makes the boom infinitely adjustable which I really appreciate as opposed to the simple up and down. It allows for a good mic placement and prevents your teammates from thinking Darth Vader has joined your comm channel as a result of the boom microphone being positioned too close to your nose when exhaling as on typical sets.
The one thing I might do differently with these phones, is to increase the width of the headband. It seems a little thin, I’m used to them now, but at first, they were a bit uncomfortable. I think if they were a little wider as they rest on your head, they’d be more comfortable.
The cables and plugs seem adequate and I notice nothing extra special about them, they simply fit with the headset. The included but expected microphone mute button and volume dial are present and functional. All in all, I’m very pleased with the design and construction. They’re very solid and constructed well. Only time will tell, but I have a feeling these phones will have an excellent life span.
The included USB adapter works just fine. There’s not really anything special about it other than Able Planet was kind enough to include it just in case you need it. Even under the Windows 7 Beta I’m running right now, the adapter was quickly identified, installed, and up and working. It also did fine under XP Pro and Vista. Sound through them seemed no different to me than when plugged in to the analog jacks.
The travel pouch included in the package isn’t noteworthy in itself other than, again, the manufacturer threw it in. I do suppose however if you travel a lot and need to take these with your notebook, the pouch and USB adapter make things easier.
There’s nothing wrong with a manufacturer throwing in a few extra goodies, especially in the middle of The Great Depression Redux we seem to be headed for. I don’t know about you, but I’m paying the same price for a cheeseburger I was last year, but it’s half the size it used to be. And don’t even get me started on the soft drinks at restaurants that blow your two meals for $12.99 tab up over $20 when it’s all said and done. So kudos to Able Planet for a little included gadget accessorizing!
Sound & Performance
I was surprised by the sound and performance of these phones after reading what to expect. I think I have a little bit different take on them than what the manufacturer touts as their strong points, but that’s not a bad thing. I’ve spent a lot of time in headphones, and listening to studio monitors, loudspeakers, and amp cabinets. What I’ve always strived for, and therefore at least in my own mind think I have come to recognize, are speakers that do not color the original source. They give an accurate and flat response. I like my sound clean, clear, tight, and punchy. And that’s exactly what I got from these phones.
The 20Hz to 20,000Hz spec speaks for itself. That, for the most part covers the range in which humans hear. These phones accurately reproduce in that range. They’re not going to be your favorite headphone if you like slamming bass and tinny highs. Don’t get me wrong, these things will blow your brains out if you crank them up, but they’re never going to sound like that rattling trunk I always seem to sit next to at a red light. So if that’s your thing, look for something with a little less flat of a response or be prepared to add in some equalizing. They’re simply accurate, and that’s the most pertinent description I can put to them, as well as the best complement I can pay them.
Before I jumped in game with them, I listened to several tracks that I use for reference when I’m mixing my own recordings. Estimated Prophet by The Grateful Dead, Weight of the World and Porch Song by Widespread Panic, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, some Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice in Chains Unplugged album, Ana Popovic (wicked female Jimi Hendrix type from the former Yugoslavia and currently my favorite artist), and some of my own stuff. I know how these songs are supposed to sound, especially my own tracks, and these phones hit dead on par with my KRK studio monitors, which are incredibly accurate. I was surprised. I didn’t expect them to be this good. I was actually able to hear some of the Alice in Chains members talking amongst themselves between their songs. I had never, never heard that before, and I’ve listened to this album a lot over the years.
The one caveat I will give to my perception of the accuracy of them while listening to music is, that like any good speaker, they have to be driven. You’ve got to pump the juice to them before they’re going to reach that sweet spot where the sound is super clean and punchy, and you can hear every nuance in the mix. And these phones are loud when you push them to that point. But they will not distort. I tried hard. They wouldn’t do it.
So what I’m getting at, is that if you use your gaming headset to pull double duty for multimedia applications, expect to either crank the volume to 11, boost your pre-amp signal, or adjust your equalizer to find that balance between a clear and comfortable listening level. At the lower volumes, like most headphones, at least when just listening to music, they’re not as clear. That said, I have been on a 20 year journey in search of perfect clarity in sound reproduction, so I am unbelievably picky, and these phones are not supposed to be studio quality reference cans. They just perform like they are.
In game, however, is a different story. They worked great in-game at low volumes. Just as important as hearing all of the action, is being able to hear my teammates. When Julie asked me to look into these to see if I was interested in reviewing them, that’s the one thing about these phones that I was really interested in. I wanted to see if the speech of my teammates would cut through when the heavy action hits.
We’ve been playing mostly Left 4 Dead lately, and the mob attacks can get incredibly noisy, even to the point that we can’t hear each other at all. Well, I was blown away the first time I tried them out in a public server with my crew. Everything Able Planet touts about these phones’ ability to reproduce speech in a way that gets into your ear better is absolutely true. Even in the thick of the noisiest mob, I could hear my teammates very clearly. What’s more, the speech didn’t overpower the game action either, it just cut through, clearly and smoothly. Speech doesn’t pierce your ears in a shrill way with these, it’s just clearer.
I’ve had the headphones a few weeks now, and every time I’ve hopped online with the team, I’ve asked them to evaluate the sound of the boom mic. I did this a couple of ways. Changing the configuration settings of my sound card with the 20db boost on and off, toying with the Windows and Ventrilo mic input volumes, and arranging the mic in different positions from my mouth. The consensus is that the mic sounds just fine. It’s clear and audible.
We use Ventrilo for our comms, which in my opinion is the best comm software out there. It’s extremely clear, so I feel like it’s a good test bed for gaming mics. The conclusion that I came to is that like every single pc mic I’ve ever had, you need to have the 20db boost on. Also, I noticed that the closer you have the mic to your mouth, the better and more clear it sounds. To me, that indicates quality.
A lot of gaming headset mics will distort easily when too close and have to be pulled away, resulting in background noise. Watch most vocalists on stage, they’re swallowing their mics, good mics can take, and need heavy input. About 1 -2 inches seemed to achieve the best combination of clarity while drowning out background noise. As I stated before, the construction of the mic is great, and I expect it to last.
Conclusion: Gameworthy and Gadgetworthy
These things are built rock solid and I expect they will hold up well over time. Music sounds great in them, but you have to sock the juice to them. Crank them as loud as you can tolerate and they won’t distort, which tells me the speakers in them are of good quality and will last a long time as well.
Gaming in them is excellent, the action is clear and directional targeting is well above average. Speech cuts through even the most involved action, but it cuts very smoothly and clearly, not harshly. Their performance makes them Gameworthy, the science behind them makes them Gadgetworthy. I’m not sure how their voo-doo works passively. I would have thought you’d need an active power source for the signal processing, but I like them much too well to tear them apart and find out for myself.
These phones are different, they look a little different, they’re constructed a little differently, and they perform and sound much differently than any gaming headset I’ve ever tried. They’re almost a reference headset or speaker system for that matter. The seemingly flat frequency response reproduces sound accurately, and the LINX AUDIO technology, as far as I am able to discern, is everything the manufacturer says it is.
And while this headset will definitely be staying on my desk for the time being as a matter of preference, I have a feeling that as the years tick away, and I begin to pay for abusing my hearing in the past, they may become a necessity.
Regardless of whether you’re impressed with this headset or not, you owe it to yourself to at least go watch a few videos posted on the Able Planet site. I think you’ll be as impressed by this organization and the difference they’re making as I am. I like technology, and I really like it when there’s good solid science behind it. I give them two thumbs up for that, but their good guy factor gets an 11 out of a possible 10.
And if you’re not into gaming, perhaps you should check out some of their other headphones for music listening. I’m anxious to get my hands on a set for use in my home recording studio. Race you there!