Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Future Soldier Surround Sound Headset Review

Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360 | PC | Sony PlayStation 3

Following our recent look at MadCatz’ Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier Pro Gamepad you may have thought that we had brought you all of the pimped LED peripheral reviews you were going to see this year. Well, think again – because this time we bring you something so awesome that if you turn the lights out it’s like wearing a pair of lighthouses on your head. I am talking, of course, about the MadCatz Ghost Recon: Future Soldier 7.1 Surround Sound Headset. Manufactured by industry titans Triton this branded headset packs more than just some blinding shine however, packing some cracking features into its cool design.

First impressions on unboxing this product are nothing short of impressed; well packaged, you can not only remove the headset and associated gubbins easily from the box without damaging anything, but you can also easily pack everything back in for the sake of storage or transit. Minor points, of course, but from the off they speak of attention to detail throughout the build quality of the headset. Among the piles of connecting wires and things that can tumble out of the box are the following:

· The 7.1 Surround Headset itself
· In-line Audio Controller
· A removable (and flexible!) microphone
· Dolby Digital Decoder Box with Stand
· Xbox LIVE® Communication Cable
· Optical Cable
· USB Cable (for PC/Mac connections)
· Digital Audio Adapter
· Extra Earpads and Headrail Pad with Cap Removal Tool

Comprehensive enough then for you to be able to connect the headset straight out of the box to anyone of your PS3, Xbox 360 or PC (or Mac, if you must insist on trying to game on one of those). In fact, the only connector that you could possibly want that isn’t in the box is a simple 3.5mm jack so that you can plug these badboys into your MP3 player/mobile phone/portable gaming device. However, even that’s not really an oversight – this headset is pitched as a 7.1 (more on that later) and it really would be a waste trying to use it simply as a stereo solution, especially when you can get better stereo solutions for a fraction of the cost.

The positivity remains when picking the headset up and trying it on for the first time. The construction is robust, with the ear pieces and band having a reassuring solidness to them. Like many other modern headsets the there is a degree of swivelability, thus ensuring the headset feels comfortable when turning or moving your head. In terms of comfort we managed to wear the set for hours on end without any issues – at first it may feel heavier than you would expect but this feeling quickly disappears and you are more than able to game away to your heart’s content without feeling like your head/ears/neck need a rest.

As with other MadCatz gaming headsets the microphone boom is detachable, although doing so always gives a sensation that you are mere moments away from breaking it. While a headset is never quite going to give you the same sound quality as an equally priced pair of headphones, the option to remove the mic entirely when it’s not in use is a welcome one. Cable length is more than adequate, and could actually be too long for many setups, but once you get the headset plugged into the decoder it’s really not an issue – the cable itself is of the braided variety, and gives the impression of being able to take endless hours of being rolled over by an executive office chair.

Branding wise you should probably at least try to ensure that you are a fan of the Tom Clancy Ghost Recon franchise before you let anyone else catch sight of you in this headset. The offering follows the series’ colour palette and is mainly blue and black with a touch of white on the ears. ‘Ghost Recon Future Soldier’ is emblazoned across the top band of the headset, and each of the ears carries a cool stylised Ghost Recon skull. As soon as the headset is powered on LEDs light up behind the skulls, beaming a bluish light out from the sides of your head. Overkill? Somewhat, but it’s all in the spirit of fun, and who hasn’t seen some ridiculous get up at the various LAN parties you should all be visiting frequently? For those offput by the idea of becoming a zombie beacon in the dark there is, unfortunately, no off switch for the lights, although once you have the headset on they really have no impact on you either way. Indeed, as an added (unintended) bonus they may even serve to distract friends/enemies next to you on the sofa while you are playing local multiplayer, which could only be a good thing, right?

Moving away from shininess and looks it’s probably about time to delve into what the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier headset is actually made out of. Essentially it’s a rebranded Triton AX720, coming with the same THD and frequency response values (-97dB and 25Hz–22kHz respectively) as well as a pair of 40mm driver units (i.e., the speaker in each ear). The astute/those with common sense will note that this means the surround sound in the headset will be virtualised instead of pumped out of multiple smaller driver units located in different places in the ear piece. With Dolby being where it is this really isn’t an issue for anyone but the pro-est of gamer. To put it simply, a true quality 5.1/7.1 setup in headphones will always give you a better idea of exactly which direction the sound you hear is coming from as the pro gamer-focused headsets are designed to do exactly this. The directional qualities of the virtualised solution are still impressive, but by containing the larger drive units they sacrifice some of the pinpoint accuracy for what most punters would recognise as overall better sound quality. While we are talking about surround sound, it’s worth pointing out that if you are intending to use this device on the 360 then you will only be getting 5.1 worth of sound out of this headset. This is not due to any limitations on the headset itself, and nor are MadCatz being disingenuous with advertising what the headset is capable of, but rather the 360 itself only outputs at 5.1. It’s also worth digging through your favourite PS3 games to see if they use all 7.1 channels, although there are a healthy number of them out there that do.

With all this in mind, how does the beast actually sound? The answer isn’t entirely straightforward however as you will come away with a vastly different judgement of the headset depending on whether you use it on the PC or on one of the consoles. Testing on the PC version provided extremely muggy sounds when using the supplied USB and headphone/mic jacks, with the volume controls proving themselves to be all over the place too. When pressing one of the mute buttons on the inline controller it seemed almost random what sounds (if any) would disappear and all too frequently we found ourselves listening to something that fell far short of the standards we had come to expect from MadCatz. On the off chance that it may work we also tried plugging in the headset via the decoder and an optical connection, but if anything that was even worse (as we should have expected really, not being the suggested connection method and all). We even tried this on a fresh OS install with all the drivers we could think of, but to no avail. With the range of possible PC permutations in mind it’s hard to state unequivocally that this would happen to every setup, but our experience shows that this is very much a console focused headset and that you would be better off heading towards a PC specific offering to try to reduce the chances of the same disappointment happening to you.

The thing is, the experience over on the consoles (360 and PS3) is like comparing chalk and cheese when put next to our PC woes. Easily set up in both cases, console to decoder to headset, the sound pipes through gloriously to the headset without any of the issues found with the PC. From the off the volume controls do exactly what they are meant to do and the ‘selectable voice monitoring’ (which gives you an option to pipe through your own voice when you are talking through the mic) functionality works perfectly. If you have never played with a surround sound headset before the experience will be a shocking one, opening up facets of your gaming world that you never knew existed. The headset doesn’t suffer from the virtualisation of the surround sound either, with the directional qualities in XBL/PSN competitive matches proving themselves perfectly sufficient to give you the edge in knowing exactly where that shot/step came from. Noise isolation isn’t all it could have been in terms of sound leaking out (especially sharp gunshots, or heavy bass moments) but again, we are talking about a headset designed around home use, so as long as your partner isn’t trying to read on the sofa right next to you, you should be fine.

While fine from the off, there is a degree of tinkering that you can do to help the headset sound the best it can. In quiet moments (or no sound moments) you will get an audible hum through that you may not have experienced on older style stereo headsets; essentially a combination of ‘noisy’ optical output (the sound devices used in the consoles are hardly the best shielded of examples) and potentially interference from the powering of the headset, you can address this a little by modifying the volume and in some cases switching to ‘Cinema’ mode on the decoder. It’s an issue many headsets of this ilk face and so not one that should dissuade you from trying this pair. Like every pair of headphones, these will benefit from being ‘broken in’, with a standard suggestion of time being around thirty hours. Once you get there you will find clear sound with decent bass and treble ranges and good directional reproduction.

So, certainly a headset worthy of consideration, and one that has taken a step beyond the AX720 technology on which it is based. A word to the wise however – RRP looks to be heavily influenced by the associated branding, and you would be better off investing in these cans as and when the price drops by around a third. If the looks click with you, then you’ll end up with something that sounds great and looks badass – just don’t be put off when people point and smirk at the amount of light coming out of your ears.

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