Another week and another Mad Catz product – these guys are such busy bees it would be a shock if their R&D department was allowed any annual leave at all. This time around we have managed to get our greasy paws on a red F.R.E.Q.5 headset, Mad Catz’s entry level headset in the Cyborg range of devices. Designed with the PC gaming market in mind the F.R.E.Q.5s are aesthetic partners to the Cyborg R.A.T. mice and S.T.R.I.K.E. keyboards, allowing the discerning gamer to stylistically match all of their gaming peripherals with one overall angular theme. If you are into pimping out your entire desk in one style, of course.
Diving into the box quickly yields you the headset as well as a detachable microphone and two braided cords, one with a USB connection for PC use and the other with a 3.5mm jack for use with mobiles, handhelds and so forth. It’s interesting to note that the quality of the packaging itself doesn’t really match that of the rest of the Cyborg range, with the box opening in a more fiddly way. While it’s hard to imagine that many people regularly sit down and repackage their gaming accessories it’s always handy to be able to quickly box things up to protect them during a house move (or transit to a LAN party!) and this departure is a bit of a shame.
Technical specs wise the F.R.E.Q.5s seem to tick all the boxes, boasting a frequency response range of -20Hz to 20KHz as well as a pair of 50mm drivers with the ever impressive neodymium magnets. If you’re not some kind of geologist-gamer fusion then you can be forgiven for not understanding the constant references to rare-earth metals when we review these headsets. A basic explanation as to why they are a benefit in any headset you look at is that they are lighter and stronger than many conventional magnets, meaning that you can save space and weight that can then be fed back into housing these larger driver units. For anyone used to a stereo headset with 40mm drivers there are no hard and fast differences that can be determined simply by comparing the size of the driver units, but it should be clearer that with a good set of 50mm headphones you will be unlocking more potential than with a good set of 40mm headphones, so always keep that in mind when looking at these things.
Located on the earcups themselves you have a couple of additional buttons for ease of access. The first is actually a volume wheel, located on the right earcup. Helpfully this allows you to reach up fairly easily and turn the volume up and down without having to search for some cable solution. Unhelpfully this functionality only works when using the headset in USB mode (that is, plugged into the PC) and even then all it does is turn the PC’s system volume up and down in a painfully slow fashion. It’s clearly designed for fine-tuning rather than sweeping volume changes, but you could be excused for not quite caring if you manage to catch yourself out and blast your eardrums while you frantically spin the wheel trying to reduce the decibels to an acceptable level. Over on the left earcup you get both a handy microphone mute button and your EQ button which gives access to three preset equaliser modes, Gaming, Music and Voice. There is no indication which mode you are in, but Gaming packs more of a bass punch and Voice feels bland in comparison so it isn’t too hard to cycle through to get to the one you were aiming for.
Sticking the headset on and piping some music through it immediately demonstrated the potential of the F.R.E.Q.5s, although initially the bass was somewhat muddy. Returning to analysis after a burn in period of around twenty-one hours of a metal-classical mash-up and the headset offered up a much more mature sound with the earlier metal bass blurring replaced by the soothing distorted roars being reproduced exactly as one would expect them to sound. Extensive testing across multiple games both on PC and portable (Portal 2, Team Fortress 2, Call of Duty 4, Persona 4 Golden, Uncharted: Golden Abyss) delighted us, with the F.R.E.Q.5s dealing with both softly spoken dialogue and the punchy cracking of gunfire with equal ease. The headset is a clear step up from cheaper offerings such as the Tritton Detonators, and in terms of sound for your pound the F.R.E.Q.5s are bang on the money.
Bundled in with the headset is a detachable microphone. Plugging and unplugging the mic is painless, although if you have a penchant for losing small fiddly things you may wish to take extra care of the microphone cap which covers the plug when the mic is unplugged. Sound quality from the microphone tested fine over both Steam and Skype chat, with the noise-cancelling ensuring that only my own dulcet tones were transmitted to my gaming colleagues. For fans of random lighting on gaming peripherals the end of the microphone contains a red LED which shines when you have the device muted, helping you avoid those embarrassing moments when you scream your head off and it turns out that no one could hear you anyway. Plus, there’s a Mad Catz claw mark at the end, and those are always welcome.
Design wise however the F.R.E.Q.5s are ultimately a mixed bag. Initial inspection is impressive with the headset looking the part, both in its own rights and also when compared to the rest of the Cyborg range. Each ear piece can rotate 90 degrees inward allowing you to wear them flat around your neck as well as being able to tilt slightly within their connections to the rest of the headset. The construction is robust with the F.R.E.Q.5s having a weighty feel to them. This is quickly revealed to have come from top arch of the headset – underneath the shiny branded plastic the main band is actually steel, helpfully ruler marked on each side allowing you to quickly extend your headset to the same dimensions each end. The padding on both the earcups and the headband is comfortable, and the noise isolation levels are exactly what you would expect from such a unit, with leakage only reaching annoying levels when you yourself have the volume up far too high. However, at least for my fat head, the initial pressure from wearing the F.R.E.Q.5s put a lot of strain on my jaw and there was definite discomfort when testing them over longer periods of time. It’s a definite shame, especially when you consider the fact that the padding itself on both the headband and the earcups is quite comfortable. Wearing the headset again and again over an extended period will alleviate this, either as the metal frame finally bends ever so slightly or your jaw gives up telling you that it hurts, although it’s a situation that you shouldn’t be in. To be fair to Mad Catz we had some smaller headed individuals go away and try the headset and all three of them told us that it ‘seemed fine’, so perhaps you should only bear the above cautionary tale in mind if you too have trouble finding hats that fit.
Moving away from the fat head issues, we also managed to get snagged on a fairly simple piece of ergonomics. While using the microphone mute button is fairly easy when wearing the headset due to the fact that it juts out of the left earcup this very jutting means that it gets in the way when trying to wear the headset around your neck. The button is positioned just under the bottom left of your jaw, and if you are inclined to move the headset to your neck during a busy LAN party (while, for example, refreshing your pizza and Mountain Dew) you’ll almost certainly just leave the earcups in default position instead of trying to flatten them. More worrying however was how the rotation resistance of the right ear cup decreased steadily over time until, by the time of going to print, it was extremely loose and would rotate inwards and out with the slightest inclination of the (obviously unworn) headset. Looking at the construction of the headset we presume that one of the screws holding various bits together simply came loose; at a rough guess we would say the hex screws on the F.R.E.Q.5 would take an H1 key/screwhead, although a T10 we had lying around the desk seemed to work well enough. After tightening all the screws that we could get to we still hadn’t fixed the issue, so we can only presume that it was one of the screws behind the earcup that was the culprit. Needless to say however that such a robust seeming headset really shouldn’t be experiencing any component issues of this kind this early into its use.
So, there we are. A Mad Catz headset that looks and sounds the part but unfortunately falls down on actual usability. The discomfort combined with the loosening earcup were maddening departures from the kind of quality that we expected from Mad Catz’ premium range of products. For parking on your desk you should be safe enough, especially if the tightness of the headset isn’t an issue for you, and as stated the actual sound quality of the headset is exactly where you would want it to be. With our experience in mind however you may be best off looking elsewhere if your intent is to continually throw into your bag as you make your way to the latest LAN, regardless of whether the F.R.E.Q.5s would complete your signature Cyborg look.