Developer: Roccat; Price: $169.99
There are two ways to approach surround sound in gaming headsets: Virtual, or go for the real deal. Many stereo gaming headsets offer some sort of virtual surround support, albeit on a software level, while others pair the 2.1 headphone hardware with some sort of Dolby-certified sound card (see: ASTRO’s A40 solution).
The second approach, which involves multiple audio drivers per ear, is still a popular route to go. Several drivers in each earcup, each with a specific task, all tied together with a sound card — either the sound hardware on (or attached to) your motherboard, or an external sound card solution.
The Roccat Kave XTD 5.1 Digital Gaming Headset, released last month, goes with the “true” surround sound approach, combining six total drivers to offer a 5.1 surround sound solution aimed squarely at the PC gaming crowd. At $170, this follow-up to the original Kave 5.1 isn’t priced into the stratosphere (given the hardware in the box), but is it worth the price?
The XTD 5.1 is a breeze to set up — one USB connector powers the headset and its desk-friendly sound card. Once plugged in, you’ll be able to use the headset without downloading drivers, although most of the XTD 5.1’s features are driver dependent. You can pop the included CD into your drive, or head over to Roccat’s support site for a newer version (currently at v1.19).
Once the driver is installed, you can jump into the XTD 5.1’s control panel, which is overflowing with features and customization options. It’s a little overwhelming at first, and tweaking the settings for 10-15 minutes is a good idea before hopping into the Battlefield 4 server of your choice.
The initial settings are pretty lacking in the mid-range, although the highs are represented well and often. This has to do with the driver design more than anything else, because the XTD 5.1 uses three drivers in each earcup. Many traditional stereo headsets will have one 40mm or 50mm driver in each earcup, which allows for pretty solid mid-range performance without any muss of fuss. The XTD 5.1 has two 40mm drivers in each earcup for center, front, and rear audio, and an additional 30mm driver in each to handle bass/rumble.
Diving into the Control Panel reveals a healthy number of features and settings adjustments, including a 10-band graphic EQ with presets, volume normalization, voice modulation, stereo/surround control, and bass tweaking. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but with five profiles to save settings to, you can keep one at default while messing with settings in others. The Control Panel is not without its flaws, however, including a lack of true integrated driver update support. The “Update Driver” button takes you to Roccat’s website instead of downloading software through the app, which is a little inconvenient.
The Control Panel software is only half the battle, as the XTD 5.1 comes with a desk-sitting controller. The sound card lives in the controller, and it also includes buttons for movie mode, speaker mode, channel selection, channel volume control, phone/Bluetooth control, and mic mute. The channel selection and volume controls allow you to adjust the front, center, rear, and woofer settings without jumping out of game. The master volume wheel also acts as the power button, giving you a fair amount of control over the XTD 5.1 without alt+tabbing. The phone control is a nice addition as well; smartphone pairing is a four-second button press away, and post-pairing control is standard fare (one tap to accept calls, one tap to end, and so on). The controller also sports the speaker input quartet, so you can use your surround or 2.1 speakers without plugging everything into your PC.
Comfort is vastly improved over previous Kave headsets as well. The original Kave 5.1 has pretty solid sound quality, but it’s easily the heaviest PC gaming headset I’ve ever tried. At only 11.8 ounces, the XTD 5.1 has been lightened considerably, so the headset remains comfortable instead of turning into a chore to wear. The faux leather padding on the earcups isn’t the most comfortable material I’ve put on my noggin, but I prefer it over cloth, for sure.
Sound quality, even with all the shed weight compared to its older brother, is pretty respectable on the XTD 5.1. It took some serious tweaking to get the mid-range close to where I like it, but the rumble feature represents the bass with gusto. The actual rumble can get a little annoying from time to time, but you eventually appreciate it like rumble feedback in a console controller. The XTD 5.1 ran the typical gaming gauntlet (Battlefield 4, CS:GO, TF2, and a little Titanfall beta) without causing any grief. Movies also benefit from the true 5.1 audio solution, especially files or discs with 5.1 audio tracks. Overall, the XTD 5.1 leans to the high-end, rumble aside, so keep that in mind if you’d rather swing low.
After putting the mic through its Teamspeak and Mumble paces, the general feedback I got was “tinny and distant.” That’s not to say my voice wasn’t coming through clearly, but the USB-connected mic wasn’t representing my low voice as well as my ASTRO A40’s. Clarity didn’t seem to be an issue, just quality.
The Roccat Kave XTD 5.1 Digital Gaming Headset carries on Roccat’s 5.1 tradition admirably, even after accounting for the speed bumps. The average mic performance doesn’t change that fact that the XTD 5.1 offers solid true surround performance at a decent price. With so many 5.1 solutions eclipsing the $200 mark, a $170 offering will definitely appeal to your wallet. The sound quality, while on the brighter/higher side, can be bent to your will with some tweaking, and sound-heavy titles like BF4 shine.
The Bottom Line: The XTD 5.1’s performs well, yes, but it’s hard to say if it’s a better solution than a 2.1 offering with virtual surround. I still default to the ASTRO A40 headset, despite the lack of true surround, so it’s worth it to consider both virtual and true surround options when you’re on the hunt for a new headset.
Recommendation: The XTD 5.1 performs admirably, and it’s worth heavy consideration if you’re interesting in buying a true surround-sound gaming headset.[rating=4]