Introduction

Astro Studios is a San Francisco based firm that specializes in stylized product branding and design. The company’s clients include Brim Coffee, Kodak, Nike, HP, and notably, Microsoft. Astro Studios is responsible for the Xbox 360’s design and styling that gamers worldwide know so well. The company spun off a separate entity, Astro Gaming, to concentrate on the creation of personalized gaming headsets and amplifiers that could be used across the three major video game platforms, the Playstation 3, the Xbox 360, and the PC, with nearly identical results. Uses other than gaming are possible for the device and we will discuss those later.

HardOCP contacted Astro Gaming to obtain a product sample and Astro sent us its flagship product: The Astro A40 Gaming Headset and MixAmp. We saw the product advertised on our own pages at HardOCP through Google and that piqued our interests.

PC users have always used headphones and microphones on a multitude of existing ports on their machines so we are very curious to see what Astro’s product has to offer and how it may be unique or better than what we currently use to satisfy our gaming audio needs while playing at home or online with friends.

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The Product, Pricing, & Packaging

Astro Gaming chose the configuration of the product it sent to us, Kyle simply chose the color: black. The majority of Astro’s products are available only through the company’s website although you can also find the headset at Dell. The headset and MixAmp combo price begins at $249.00 and buyers have the option to chose headset frame color (white or black), optional speaker tags, rechargeable battery pack, and TOSlink optical cable and length. Potential buyers should consider rechargeable batteries as four battery refills will cost on average the same amount as one rechargeable battery pack purchased from Astro Gaming. We were sent the standard package, TOSlink cable, and rechargeable battery pack. The total cost with standard shipping to Texas was $296.70. Replacement MixAmp units and headset upgrades can be purchased separately on the Astro Gaming product website.

All product purchased directly from Astro Gaming comes with an automatic 1-year warranty on defective parts or faulty workmanship. No registration is required.

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There had better be something very special in this box to justify the cost of an entire Xbox 360 basic package. Upon opening the package, we were very surprised to see how many accessories were inside. We thought we would be receiving a set of headphones, an attachable mic, and a small rectangular amplifier as we did with the $299.00 Psyko 5.1 headset. We were wrong.

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AstroGaming also includes the following cables free of charge:

  • Y-Adapter: connect any standard PC headset to the Mixamp
  • 1.5 Meter XBox game controller cable for integrated XBox Live chat
  • 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable-connect external audio device to the Mixamp
  • 4 Meter USB to USB Mini cable-power your Mixamp from any USB 2.0 port
  • 4 Meter RCA Piggyback cable-connect directly to your home audio system

Product Specifications

We asked Aron Drayer, marketing director at Astro Gaming, what is the highest impedance the Astro MixAmp can provide for using third party headsets and headphones, and he told us:

We have no upper impedance issues. Our minimum impedance is 16ohms. MixAmp specs all at 1K: 93 mW into 16 ohms, 56mW into 32 ohms, 40mW into 50 ohms with <.1% THD+N.

This limitless restriction on headphone choice means users can also use their favorite audiophile-class headphones, in addition to those sold by Astro, across all three major gaming platforms. A simple clarification statement in the included product manuals should be listed because we believe a lot of gamers want to use their favorite headphones all the time, on any game platform. Potential buyers should know this.

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As Quoted from Astro Gaming’s Website – Features Include:

  • Amazing sound quality – Astro A40 Audio System combines crystal-clear voice communication with pinpoint-accurate 5.1 Dolby and Dolby Surround Headphone to hear your enemies from every direction.
  • Play on variety of systems – Whether it’s your Xbox 360, PS3, or PC the new and improved MixAmp easily plugs directly into any system.
  • Voice and stereo at your fingertips – The MixAmp’s discrete game/voice balance control allows you to adjust the settings to fit your needs.
  • Dedicated voice channel – Link multiple MixAmps together for a private, hands-free, full-duplex voice communication channel experience — much higher-quality than VoIP systems, with zero network and system lag.
  • Inject your own soundtrack – Connect your mp3 player through the mixer itself with a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cable (sold separately). Free up valuable system resources, and put your music within arm’s reach.
  • Fully Loaded – The A40 Audio System comes with a quick-disconnect cable and multiple ends: a MixAmp cable (also compatible with portable audio players), a standard dual-jack PC connector with in-line volume and mute control.

Product Features

With the MixAmp’s very flexible input panel, it can be connected to the PC, XBox 360, PS3, or most modern televisions, DVD players, and stereo sound systems by digital TOSLink or COAX as well as standard analog RCA jacks. An MP3 player, IPOD, or any other stereo source with a line-out jack can be fed to the MixAmp’s line-in port for mixing in a user’s choice of music to listen to while gaming.

Some users have even used the MixAmp as a portable guitar amplifier and as a mixing device for making custom podcasts. The most unique use we have read is adding a baby monitor to the MixAmp’s line-in port so a family’s voices can be heard clearly in another room without a busy gamer having to remove the headset to hear them clearly.

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Astro Gaming included a very long RCA piggyback cable so audio output jack choices of this type are not lost because the MixAmp is plugged in as well.

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The orange jack pictured above with the MixAmp is for daisy chaining multiple MixAmps together to those of other users in the same room and then a private voice channel for communication is enabled for each team. Therefore gamers do not have to rely on Ventrilo, TeamSpeak, XBox Live’s latency filled chat, or rude shouting to communicate clearly to their own linked teammates a few seats away during a heated gaming session.

The small knob beneath the volume dial allows you to mix the ratio of sound heard between the primary source (PC, XBox, PS3) and secondary ones such as game voice communication devices and line-in audio sources.

Astro Gaming includes a very durable carrying case for your headphones, MixAmp, and whatever cables you need to take on the go.

The Astro MixAmp can be used with any PC as the sole dedicated sound card, but some of its functionality with voice and other mixing features are disabled when a third party sound card is not the primary sound source.

Headset Styling and Function

The Astro A40 Headset can be purchased separately from Astro Gaming for $199.99 in either black or white. The MixAmp is $129.95.

The headset can be used as a standalone gaming or music headset without the Astro MixAmp and can be used with any other headphone compatible device. The headset’s accompanying microphone can be plugged into either ear cup. We find that important because many users prefer their microphone on opposite sides depending on where they may be sitting at the time. It would be nice if all headset makers would offer this option. The microphone is easily bendable so its shape should be adaptable for anyone’s requirement. When the microphone is not in use, it can be unplugged or moved directly upward out of the way.

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The headset and its decorative trim are black and appear to be made entirely of plastic of varying thickness and flexibility. This is a circumaural headset, which means the ear cups and pads will completely cover your ears. Both cups swivel inward for flat storage and flexibility. The back of each cup has a honeycombed grill, so this is an open backed headset. This usually means large amounts of bass are not reproduced as well as in a closed backed set. We discussed this with Aron at Astro Gaming, and he said that if users prefer more bass, the company specifically has the Astro A30 headset for that preference.

The ear pads are made of foam and covered with a stretchy fabric that does attracts hair and dust over time. A simple damp cloth takes away the dirt and dust, so maintaining the headset after a long gaming sessions should be simple. The headband is padded and does not weigh heavily on the head. The headset collapses and expands easily along solid rails, and we feel confident it will fit anyone’s head size comfortably after placing it on Earl’s 7 7/8″ sized head without issue. The entire headset is extremely flexible and returns to its original shape without question.

The outside of the headband and the ear cup covers are heavily branded with the Astro logo, but users can remove those covers at will and customize them if they choose. Astro’s home page offers a variety of “Custom Speaker Tags,” which have custom designed logos and are easily interchangeable. The Speaker Tags attach to each cup with four very small, yet strong magnets and can be removed or replaced with a slight pull. In our testing, the gamer tags never came off unless we intentionally removed them. Astro included three tags with the headset: one with an opening allowing access to the mic port and two without. If a user removes the microphone, he can simply cover the remaining hole with the solid shape tag. Users can upload their own photos or graphics to Astro’s site, and Astro will send a customized set of tags for $24.95 plus shipping. We uploaded a few sample pictures and made our own set. It was easy, and we think it would look great for team gamers and others that want an extra touch of unity and “bling.”

The headset is very lightweight overall and after having worn it for hours, we had no feelings of fatigue. We do wish the ear pads were soft leather or something of similar and better quality than stretchy cloth. While we don’t have evidence of this, we feel as though these might wear a bit too quickly.

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Lastly, there is a one foot “quick connect” style cord hanging from the headset. You can connect an inline volume and mute cable for your mic and sound level that connect to a standard PC’s audio and mic ports. There is another such cable that plugs directly into the MixAmp that is a single four pole jack that blends the mic and headphone input but without the inline volume feature. Astro even included a cable for the MixAmp where a user can plug in their own headset and mic of choice. There is no doubt Astro has put a lot of thought and freedom of choice into its connectivity options for both the MixAmp and the accompanying headset.

Installation

The A40 Headset and MixAmp manuals are extremely thorough and well written when explaining function, connection, and very flexible input choices for each gaming platform (three different types of input for each platform are listed) or other audio device a user may have. This review is not intended to cover usage with the PS3 or XBox 360, but rather PC usage only.

Installing the Astro MixAmp was simple. Connecting the 12 foot USB cord attached to the rear panel of the MixAmp to a free USB 2.0 port on the PC was easy. The MixAmp’s power button then began to flash red to indicate the unit was charging. When the unit was fully charged, the red light became solid. Turning on the MixAmp immediately prompted Windows to install its own built-in driver. No software was required to complete the installation. The Astro MixAmp was now listed in device manager as a separate sound playback and recording choice, and if the PC’s current sound card is not disabled, the Astro has to be chosen manually by the user as the default to handle all sound duties.

Initially, we had believed the MixAmp amplifier to be simply a portable headphone sound playback solution for whatever input source it received; we were surprised it could handle full sound system duties as well. The Astro MixAmp is not a USB digital audio converter for music listening, and it is not advertised as one either.

We purchased two third party sets of headphones for testing with the Astro MixAmp. The JVC HARX700 closed headphones are $40.33 purchased from Amazon.com and the Audio-Technica ATH-AD700 open backed headphones are currently $94.57 purchased from NewEgg.com.

First, we will use the Astro MixAmp and A40 headset as the primary sound card choice and playback device. Then we will use the Astro MixAmp with the Creative X-FI Titanium as the sound card to provide source audio and the MixAmp to process the sound it receives and perform the Dolby Headphone duties for positional audio in games and movies. We never up-mix stereo music as that is not how the music was originally recorded and intended to be heard.

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Movies

We chose the new movie, Kick Ass, because it is action-packed and also contains quiet, dialogue-filled scenes. From the DVD menu, we chose stereo as the sound choice to allow the MixAmp to do the surround up-mix. In the opening scene, when the new hero is about to take flight, we instantly heard the main character’s narration firmly in the middle of our heads. When the new hero attempted to take flight and fell to the ground to his death, we heard shards of glass falling all around us. When Nicolas Cage fired his gun at his daughter’s bullet-proof vest, we heard him load then fire it off-screen, and then we heard perfectly the shot’s impact and echo all around us. Onscreen dialogue always matched the speaking actor’s on or off screen location. The MixAmp did an excellent job of surround processing.

Next, we chose Clash of the Titans 2010. At the 8:00 mark, Perseus and his family are watching people above them being attacked. We could hear and pinpoint the flying creatures perfectly in every direction. When Hades appears and his black smoke begins to unleash more destruction, the heavy bass sounds that were present overwhelmed the A40 Headset. Positional audio was great, but the intermittent patches of distortion were distracting and unpleasant. We simply chose the chapter again and before playing it back, we switched to the JVC HARX700 headphones, and our distortion problem vanished. The Astro MixAmp did a great job taking a stereo movie and giving it great surround character. The Astro headphones simply could not handle the bass.

We replayed both movies using the Creative X-Fi Titanium’s optical out as our audio source, and our experience was even better because a few more ambient sounds could be perceived and were slightly more crisp and realistic. We constantly checked task manager for CPU usage during the movie, but the Astro MixAmp had no impact whatsoever as it does all sound processing entirely with its own hardware.

Music

The Astro MixAmp outputs simple stereo when it is the primary sound source. We used no surround processing whatsoever for the music testing. We used our previous selection of high bitrate MP3 and FLAC tracks from Lil’ Wayne, Queen, Garden State Soundtrack, The Black Eyed Peas, The Best Jazz Album in the World, The Crystal Method, The Preacher’s Wife Soundtrack, and lastly, Open Your Ears from HDTracks.com.

The Astro A40 headset did a great job with music and a flat EQ setting. We enjoyed all genres very much. The headset and MixAmp together give a truly neutral sound to music. Bass is present when appropriate, but it is not overwhelming nor distorted with the A40 headset. Next, we used the Audio-Technica ATH-AD700 headphones, and we perceived some small differences in detail for each song, but there was nothing staggering here. The Audio-Technica headphones have a wider sound stage for individual instrument perception, but they do not reproduce heavy bass any better. We used the Creative sound card again for our sound input, and we were able to perceive more complexities in the music, but the Creative card is neither portable nor software-free in its installation or function.

Games

We used Left 4 Dead 2 and Battlefield Bad Company 2 because good positional audio is a must in a gamer-targeted product.

Left 4 Dead 2 was a great experience with the A40 headset. We ran through the “Dead Center” level, and we had another great experience with the A40 headset. We played through with eyes closed at some points and relied upon sound to find teammates. We pinpointed Coach down the hallway and behind us perfectly. Gunshots and zombie yells told us every time where to turn, and the increasing crackle of various fires told us how close we were to being burned in hallways. We did not experience any slowdowns with the Astro MixAmp as our sound card. The Creative X-FI later sounded very good, but we actually had more points of clear perception with the MixAmp doing the full duties and its hardware-based headphone surround.

Battlefield Bad Company 2 is our next choice, and it reveals some of what the Astro combo lacks. After having ran through the first level of single player, we observed that every heavy explosion overwhelmed the headset and left us with inaccurate positioning of points of action. The Creative X-FI separated sounds better in this game, but we had to use the JVC headphones to endure the bass-heavy explosions with either sound source.

Lastly, we played through the first few minutes of Singularity and had a very good experience with the Astro combo. Game sounds were rich and character placement on and off screen was excellent. We were able to find essential characters in the story based upon their voice with excellent results. As we rotated our character 360 degrees, we felt as if the characters were following us naturally. We experienced nothing superior here with the Creative card doing the sound duties.

Microphone Usage

The Astro A40 headset’s microphone is USB based as is the MixAmp. For this reason, it is only capable of mono recording. We had no problems in communication in the Steam lobby or in game as other gamers said, “You sound fine and clear.” Simple. If a user instead prefers to use their onboard or dedicated sound card microphone, Astro Gaming’s ingenuity comes through again because we simply had to connect a stereo cable with a 1/8″ jack (which is included) from the MixAmp’s microphone port to the sound card’s mic-in port. Then we selected the X-Fi’s microphone as the default, which is stereo.

Adding Music To Games

One of the best features we have found with the MixAmp is that music can be mixed in to whatever else we are listening to. We plugged an MP3 player into the MixAmp and began a playlist. We then used the dial on the MixAmp to find a comfortable mix of game audio to music being heard and it made speed running through levels of first person shooters for practice seem new again. We think this is a great feature, and we do not know of an easier way to mix third party music with in-game audio.

Tech Support

Astro Gaming conducts all tech support through email. A user simply fills out a ticket at the company’s website and within 24 hours he should receive a response.

We filled out three tickets asking various questions such as microphone connectivity to our own sound card and maximum impedance for third party headphones. On a Friday afternoon, we received a response in less than six hours after our first letter. Rather than quote us a page in the manual, the rep explained clearly to take the included cable and connect the MixAmp to the sound card. He then explained how to choose our sound card’s microphone as the default.

The other requests were made late at night around 1:00 a.m., and we had responses before 2:00 p.m. Central time the next day. We were very satisfied with Astro’s responses. The techs responded in simple, friendly, and professional terms and each assured us we should write again if we did not understand any part of the response. Our entire experience was top notch with Astro’s tech support.

We thought our last question submitted to Astro concerning impedance for third party headphones had been answered to the fullest after the initial response from one of Astro’s techs, Chris Tye. Five days after his last letter, he wrote again and gave another follow-up about third party headphone impedance.

There is no max impedance per say. The max output voltage of the MixAmp is 1.6Vrms. If the sensitivity of the headphones is great enough at this level (the specs of the headphones should be rated at 1Vrms) then our MixAmp is “compatible. If they have low sensitivity at 1Vrms then we are “incompatible.”

That second effort shows us that Astro Gaming’s tech support staff truly cares about what it does.


Apples to Oranges

When comparing the Creative World of Warcraft Wireless Headset to the Astro MixAmp, we have to say it is a difficult buying decision to make. The WoW wireless headset does so many things well, but it requires a 70MB software download in order to enjoy its features to their fullest potential on any PC desktop or laptop, or even a Mac. The Astro MixAmp requires no software, but it does require one simple push of its Dolby Headphone Surround upmix button to enable a great audio experience when gaming or watching movies across multiple gaming platforms and operating systems. Perhaps Astro Gaming will be inspired by the Creative WoW headset’s function and comfort, and will make a great wireless headset and MixAmp combo so users can have the best of both worlds across all three major gaming platforms.

After comparing both Astro and Creative headsets side by side, using each as the primary sound card in our test system, we preferred the Creative WoW Wireless headset because of its comfort, the intimacy of the sound experience, the wider sound stage, and the greater amount of perceivable bass that we heard for each song and movie we auditioned. The Creative WoW headset is a closed back design and this difference really did give a more enjoyable experience than the Astro A40 and its open backed nature in movies, music and games. The Creative WoW Wireless Headset can be purchased for $160 and also has its own built in sound card although not as extravagant as the MixAmp, but gives a better user listening experience, while costing $90 less than the Astro system.

The Bottom Line

We spent three weeks with Astro’s A40 Gaming Headset and MixAmp products and had a very good overall experience. We like that a gamer can buy Astro Gaming’s complete A40 system and use it on the PS3, XBox 360, and PC.

We especially like the ingenious versatility of the company’s MixAmp. The MixAmp was called, “A Swiss Army knife of connectivity” by a veteran user of Astro’s products in the Astro Gaming support forum. That description certainly fits the product. The fact that the Astro MixAmp is a portable sound card for any PC assures us that our laptops can finally have decent sound for movies and gaming with no extra software. After using the MixAmp on the go, simply plug it back to your home system and you get the exact same experience.

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Astro Gaming’s headphones are simply not worth the $200 individual purchase price. The A40 headset is in no way a “bad” set of headphones, in fact these are a very good quality product. It is just that we do not see these being worth the $200 asking price. It is just a question of value, not one of quality. Rest assured there are much better headphones available than these for the price. We recommend that instead of buying the complete package for $250 plus tax and shipping that one should instead buy the excellent MixAmp for $129 plus tax and shipping and then buy a third party pair of headphones that are just as good for a lot less money. Or the $159 Creative WoW Wireless Headset route is certainly worth consideration as well.

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The Astro MixAmp and its multiple connectivity options are well worth anyone’s investment that is concerned with quality sound. The MixAmp has a permanent place on our home desktop and mobile systems. Having such portability, versatility, and nearly universal connectivity finally gives gamers on all major platforms access to the use of well-made, quality sounding headphones and equipment anytime they game, listen to music, or record mixes. The choices are nearly unlimited due to the MixAmp unit’s flexibility. We however find better solutions when it comes to the Astro A40 headsets as these are not worth the asking price.

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Astro Gaming’s Astro MixAmp

Discussion

SOURCE:http://www.hardocp.com/article/2010/08/18/astro_a40_gaming_headset_mixamp_review/