Corsair HS1 Gaming Headsetby Dustin Sklavos on November 4, 2010 12:01 AM EST
The HS1 in Practice
Getting started with the Corsair HS1 is simple: plug the headphones into a USB port and they'll automatically install and you're good to go. Sort of.
Actually, to get any of the major software features that Corsair advertises you'll need to install their driver software. Not a huge problem, but there's a hiccup here. Think about it: how many enthusiasts do you know who keep the driver discs that come with their hardware? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Exactly. So my first inclination wasn't to go grab the disc out of the box, but to check out Corsair's site and look for the most recent driver set for the HS1, and that's where I ran into my first real problem with the headset. Simply put, the driver disc that comes with the HS1 is all you get.
The drivers aren't on the site, which is something that needs to be fixed. I suppose that makes sense, because Corsair doesn't have any other products right now where you need drivers: RAM, PSUs, Cases, and thumb drives generally just work (or not), though firmware updates for SSDs are usually hosted. Most audio devices also get routine updates, and as a USB audio headset it bypasses your sound card and does everything internally, which means driver updates would be good. The lack of any downloadable driver isn't a dealbreaker but it is a nuisance. That said, the driver software is about as forthright and clean as you could ask, and mercifully it only pops into the system tray when the headphones are plugged in.
The HS1 supports simulating up to a 7.1 speaker environment with all the usual fixin's despite just having two physical speakers, and this is something really worth testing. At this point I'm going to make the case that I should have made at the beginning of my review of the Logitech Z515's: this is a $99 gaming headset. It's not for audiophiles. Doing detailed, objective testing is frankly too onerous a task for something like the HS1 and we just don't have the expensive kit handy to do it. If audio quality is a staggeringly major issue to you, we suggest grabbing your Sennheisers and using a cheap $20 clip-on lapel microphone from Radio Shack for gaming.
With that out of the way, the first thing to test was music playback, and it was here that my findings largely lined up with the ones I read at other reputable sites: it ain't great. Music playback was tested using The Prodigy's "Spitfire" and "Memphis Bells" to get a feel for how the HS1 handles separation, and then The Birthday Massacre's "Control" to suss out how it handles something more traditional, complex, and layered. At default settings, the HS1 had tinny highs and weak lows. It's markedly better than you'll find on cheaper headsets, but I'm used to my $130 ready-to-fall-apart-at-a-moment's-notice Bose headphones, and the weak bass and poor separation are evident.
If you go into the HS1's control panel and tweak the equalizer you can eventually get music sounding a lot better and at that point you'll realize these headphones are capable of producing some bass, but you really need to massage the settings to get it. At the same time, you can also tweak those tinny highs and bring them in line to produce a fuller, richer sound. At its best the HS1 is fairly average and still has trouble separating the highs, mids, and lows, but it's better than cheap desktop speakers and obviously blows any set of laptop speakers out of the water.
For gaming I tested with Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2 to get a feel for how the HS1 simulates surround sound as well as the sound quality of the built-in microphone. The latter...was problematic. The microphone is frankly weak, and while some tuning did improve it, my associate on the other side still had trouble hearing me. With some additional work and a willingness to raise your voice a little it's probably fine, but the defaults were definitely low.
As for surround sound, that was a bust in my opinion. If you're used to having physical speakers to produce the appropriate sound stage, this is going to feel like a major step back. With Left 4 Dead 2 I found myself largely overwhelmed; part of that is the game's inherent desire to overwhelm you, but part of it was being unable to accurately position anything apart from "left" or "right." Modern Warfare 2 fared a little better, but if I have to concentrate on trying to figure out where each gunshot is coming from, that's mental energy that could be better spent not getting shot.
It's worth mentioning that overall sound quality in games was generally pretty good, though, and I'll tell you one thing: these headphones are capable of being loud. A comfortable volume was actually at around 15% (the in-line volume controls actually tweak the Windows master volume), so it's clear that if you're going deaf the HS1 is perfect for speeding you along your way.