Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/3989/corsair-hs1-gaming-headset
Corsair HS1 Gaming Headsetby Dustin Sklavos on November 4, 2010 12:01 AM EST
Over the past few years, Corsair has gradually leveraged a strong brand identity in the memory market to introduce new product lines elsewhere. Corsair RAM begat flash drives, begat solid state drives, and over time they've also added power supplies and cases to their lineup. Each introduction has gone swimmingly, with Corsair power supplies generally regarded as among the best quality you can put in your machine and Corsair cases commanding high price tags and mostly earning them, going toe-to-toe with entrenched competitors like Antec and Cooler Master. I'm not sure what the most logical next step would have been, but a set of gaming headphones? That was a little unexpected.
Yet here we are, with the Corsair HS1 gaming headset in hand. The fundamentals aren't too remarkable: the ear cups are circumaural, fully enclosing the ear to block out ambient noise, and there's heavy padding on the cups and bridge. An adjustable microphone stems out from the top of the left piece and can be raised or lowered on a single axis. The HS1 is a wired affair, using a single cable with an in-line volume control and microphone toggle that ends with a USB connector.
Where the Corsair branding and attention to quality come in is the overall build. The ear cups are surrounded in soft felt and extremely well-padded, and the bridge is also soft enough that it doesn't feel like it's driving an indentation into your head. Inside the phones Corsair has installed 50mm drivers, which they claim substantially improve the quality and range of sound the headset can produce. Finally, the audio cable is braided, and naturally there are blue lights on the volume controls that will flash at you incessantly until you install the included sound driver.
On the whole the HS1 at least looks and feels comfortable and well-made. I wear glasses and have had a history of being picky about headphones. Ear buds aren't comfortable and generally don't do a great job of blocking out ambient sound, regular on-ear phones just never fit right, and so while I've always preferred circumaural headphones, I've also had to deal with them jamming the sides of my glasses into my skull. As a result, the only headphones I've ever used and been happy with have been (cue the audiophiles screaming) a pair of Bose. They're cheaply made and break if I so much as look at them funny, which is utterly unacceptable for the pricetag, but they produce crisp sound and strong lows, and most importantly, it doesn't hurt to wear them.
So with that said, Corsair seems to have made every effort to address those of us cursed with having to wear glasses. The HS1 fit gently but snugly, and believe me when I say they block out everything. At the very least, from quality and comfort standpoints you can be reasonably certain that the HS1 is a good investment.
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.
Conclusion: Needs More Cowbell
As Corsair's first gaming headset, the HS1 is a strong opening but there are some weak points Corsair needs to figure out. One of my biggest gripes may be one of the easiest to fix: put the drivers up on the Corsair site. It's a small request, but I barely keep CDs around anymore and getting the most out of the HS1 shouldn't involve having to store the CD in a safe place. Calibration out of the box isn't that hot either: the headset is capable of producing decent lows, but the way it's tuned when you plug it in obscures that and threatens to blow your eardrums with tinny highs.
On the plus side, the USB connector makes setup a cinch (as long as you have the CD) and you bypass any interference/static from onboard audio. That's good news for noisy (cheap) laptops and desktops, and it's also nice that you only need a single USB port and one wire instead of separate headphone and microphone jacks. (The downside is that if you have a nice audio card in your system, it goes to waste, so keep that in mind.) As a pure gaming headset, the HS1 also gets the job done. The biggest credit may actually be just how comfortable the HS1 is: Corsair clearly designed these to be worn for extended periods of time. Sound quality in games is excellent, though some may have better experience with the simulated positional audio than I did.
At the end of the day it's going to be a matter of whether or not you want to drop a crisp Franklin on a gaming headset. A lot of higher quality kit is floating around in the same price range, so Corsair isn't exactly gouging you with the HS1. The 50mm drivers—when properly tuned—can definitely produce sound that beats most speaker sets below its price range (as it should). The sound is also better than the $30-$50 headsets I've used, though that's like saying your car is better than a used Kia Spectra.
I think the real shame is that the HS1 isn't the same kind of homerun Corsair struck when they entered into the power supply and enclosure markets. It's not a bad product—certainly a solid one, actually—but it's not mind-blowing either, and it doesn't set a high water mark. Still, you can't discredit a piece of kit because it's merely good and not amazing. If you're in the market for a comfortable gaming headset and are willing to fiddle with it to get just the right sound quality, you could do a heck of a lot worse than the Corsair HS1.