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Good quality but expensive, issues with bass
on 20 May 2014
This has been a difficult review to do since everywhere I have read, the Sennheiser Game Zero is concluded to be the top of the pile for gaming headphones, and the only downside is price (something which most reviews downplay as `if you are buying these, then cost is not a concern').
However, I have ignored every such review and gone by my own results, which are significantly different. I have also NOT ignored cost, and have compared against a number of other headphones on the basis that the Game Zero MUST compete on price against at least one other classic audiophile headphone set, as well as wiping the floor with more standard gaming headphones from the likes of Creative and Logitech.
I have reviewed on the following points:
1. The headphones must be able to handle gaming audio frequency ranges, and in particular be able to bring out explosions without blotting out other sound such as soundtrack and other special effects.
2. Stereo separation should be good enough to give good directional cues.
3. The headphones should be good enough for general audio such as music and occasional sound editing.
4. Usability and look-and feel.
5. Price vs features
I buy new headphones at the same rate most gamers change their graphics cards (!) so am lucky to have a full selection of headphone sets that encompass the available price range, and will compare them to the Game Zero for each of the points above. The line-up includes:
Old, last gen headphones (Creative Fatality). These go for about 20-30 nowadays and are probably the low end quality headphones a serious gamer would consider.
Current gen headphones with audio processing hardware (Logitech G430). These are a traditional two speaker set, but come with a hardware dongle that digitally emulates a 7.1 sound-space. They are a step up from the Fatality, and you are looking at the mid 50s for one now.
Audiophile headphones. The Sennheiser HD25's are a classic. A music industry mainstay, and their lightness and durability makes them very useful for gaming, assuming you can live without the microphone. You can pick them up now for around 100. I would have liked to have tested against the Sennheiser Amperior rather than the HD25 as the former are in the same cost ballpark as the Game Zero, but I don't own the Amperiors.
And of course, finally, the Game Zero.
For all the tests, I am outputting via a Creative SB X-Fi (and am certainly NOT using the motherboard audio to test such an expensive pair of headphones!). I am using a fast gaming rig that is in the top 10% of all PCs according to its 3DMark results (Alienware i7 12 core, recent graphics card, 24GB, dual SSDs, Windows8).
Ok, on with the 5 test areas!
1. Gaming Frequencies.
I tested with Crysis 3. The HD25s produced the best bass, with the Fatality and G430 coming second. I was gobsmacked that the Game Zero came last for bass. On investigation, I found that the Game Zero could be made to sound as good as the HD25s if I pressed the heads down into my ears a fraction. It looks like the foam on the Game Zero lifts the drivers too far away from the ears, and also absorbs some of the bass in the process. However, the Game Zero also uses memory foam, so maybe they will settle with time. If I don't update this point, then assume it's a design fault, and the Game Zero really is not seating properly for optimum sound. However, I must say that one of the major points with top quality headphones is that they must seat properly and consistently. The Fatality headphones also sound deeper when you press them towards your ears, but the G430s do it much less, and the HD25's don't do it at all (and never have).
For the clarity at the high end, the Fatality started showing its true colours: the separation between the bass and highs get a bit muddy when you have explosions going off, and it gets a bit indistinct. The 430 is better, but doesn't go as deep to start off with, and the HD25 and Game Zero are about the same: close to perfection. Proper frequency separation across the board, and no muddiness
The HD25s win, with the Game Zero second because it fails on the low frequencies. G430 third, and the Fatality last.
2. Stereo separation
For this test I used a game that relies a lot on sound for cues (ARMA3). You have to know where the incoming bullets are coming from in a flash, because both the AI and online players are merciless!
I thought the G430s, with their emulated 7.1 would win this but even though they are stereo only, the Game Zero really shows its quality on this one: stereo separation is excellent and far beyond the others. The Fataility was too muddy, the HD25s were good and probably as good as it gets for traditional non-gaming headphones, but I think they miss out a little on the extended sound-scape that gaming audio requires. A better result for the Game Zero: an easy first place.
3. General Audio and occasional sound editing.
For this, I listened via Spotify on both my gaming rig and a decent laptop (Sony Vaio i7 in the office at work), and also used my gaming rig for video editing using Adobe Premiere CC. Without a doubt, I expected the HD25s to win, and the Fatality and G430 to be no hopers in comparison (which was the case). The issue was how close the Game Zero came to the HD25s: the HD25 is practically an industry standard for DJing and audio production, so how close do the Game Zero come to them?
Well, pretty close, but the bass issue reared its head again. The Game zero just doesn't sit well enough to pass bass properly to the ear unless you press the cups down, so it comes second to the HD25.
Special mention comes for the G430s, which exhibit a slight crackle at times from the hardware dongle (typical Creative: great hardware, occasionally suspect software!), so for the discerning audiophile, they probably fail overall. Incidentally, they also seem to crackle a bit for certain very specific games. It's down to the hardware dongle (remove that and the headphones don't crackle).
4. Usability and look-and-feel.
Let's be honest here: the Game Zero oozes quality, and looks good packed in its dedicated hard molded carrying case. Once you take them out and are wearing them though, I think the G430s actually look the best, with the Fatality looking its age, and the HD25s looking a little cheap and fragile (although looks can be deceptive - the HD25s last forever, I've had mine since 2007 and not a mark!).
In terms of wearability, it is between the Game Zero and HD25s, with the G430 coming a close second.
For durability, I expected the same from the Game Zero as I got from the HD25s. The HD25s are built to last, and every part is replaceable and the whole thing can be taken apart into its separate pieces: it has no `design life' - its all replaceable and built to last longer than you do! None of the others look to be in the same league, although the Game Zero comes closest.
One really cool thing about the Game zero is that it has a easy to get at volume dial on the right speaker cup. The Fatality and G430 both have the volume on the wire, but that decision seems backward and archaic once you use the Game Zero.
The Game Zero also has the ability to turn the mic off simply by retracting it upwards (a feature shared with the G430, the HD25 doesn't have a mic, and for the Fatality you have to physically unplug the mic to turn it off).
One negative about the Game Zero is that it comes with dual 3.5 inch jacks only (one for audio, one for mic). These are standard connectors for desktop/laptop computers, but not compatible with some consoles without an adapter - which you don't get in the package. So the Game Zero is aimed at computers rather than consoles (but then, the headphones cost as much as a console!).
5. Price vs Features.
For the price, I would expect the Game Zero to beat the HD25 for everything except perhaps the 'General Audio' test, where it would have to come a very close second. The Game Zero fails on bass, so doesn't meet this high expectation. Short and sweet result on this one, and a bit of a downer for the Game Zero.
So to conclude
The Fatality is a surprisingly good set of headphones. Pretty good in everything, but sound is a little muddy so they have to be discounted for the discerning gaming audiophile. The G430s are an average pair of headphones bolstered by a clever hardware dongle that makes them sound very good. Remove the dongle and the G430s are worse than the Fatality (incidentally, use the G430 dongle with the HD25, and.... well, I'll leave that joy for anyone who has both systems to try out!). The G430s suffer from slight crackling on some games though, so for gaming audio perfection, they also fail.
The HD25s would make perfect gaming headphones notwithstanding the audiophile stereo separation (which isn't quite as wide as dedicated gaming headphones such as the G430 and Game Zero) and they don't have a mic attached. They have to be discounted for online gaming simply on their physical lack of the mic. They're good for occasional single player gaming though if your main focus is video/sound authoring and music, and would therefore satisfy a very particular gaming audiophile: one who enjoys single player and/or doesn't use a mic for teamspeak.
Sadly, I have to conclude that the Game Zero is not worth the money because the as-tested copy I have just doesn't beat the HD25s often enough, which they should given they cost x2 as much. The Game Zero doesn't cut it because it appears to have a design flaw when it should have no issues whatsoever *from day one* given it is the most expensive headphone set you can buy.
What isn't good enough? The sound drivers are certainly good enough (at least as good as the HD25), but the headphones just don't seat correctly on the head to get the bass to your ears. If you press the headphones just a touch to your head, the bass suddenly opens up and you get something closer to a `gaming version of the HD25 - slightly more emphasis on bass and wider stereo image, but otherwise clearly a device with the same audio quality. But you can't stay pressing in the headphones like that for normal use. So, either the Game Zero memory foam needs a while to `burn-in' to the user's contours, or it just isn't physically configured properly.
As I said, this was a difficult review to write. Every web review I see doesn't seem to note the issue with the Game Zero seating and subsequent bass issue. Maybe its just my copy, or the memory foam needs to burn in, or I have a really really big head, or I'm being overly picky, but as of this writing, this is my conclusion. 2 stars off for the bass issue on what would otherwise be 'a gaming version of the classic HD25'.
I'll certainly update the review if things improve (I intend to use the Game Zero exclusively for a couple of months following this review, but if I don't update this conclusion, assume this is my final view).
Thanks for getting to the end of a pretty long review, and good luck with your buying decision. If you have any questions add a comment and I'll do my best to answer.