ROCCAT impressed us with its Isku FX gaming keyboard last year. This time around the company sent us its Kave XTD 5.1 Surround Sound gaming headset. With a “true” hardware-based surround sound design, as opposed to a software-emulated one, how good is the Kave XTD 5.1? Find out as we put it through its paces.
I had zero expectations entering this particular review. As I’d said at the outset, this is the very first time I’ve ever tried a hardware-based surround sound headset. So I really didn’t know what to look for once I got started testing.
So let’s start talking about how it sounds just at default settings. As previously mentioned, the headset defaults to Stereo mode. In this mode, the Kave XTD 5.1 actually sounded fairly good. The trio of drivers in each ear cup sounded like one big speaker, an effect that surprised me somewhat. Music playback is a little bit cold, a little bit harsh, but not unpleasant. The bigger issue, though, is the overall thinness of the sound. This headset is marketed as gaming gear, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that it wasn’t particularly outstanding when it comes to music playback.
Using the Equalizer alters the sound, so at least users have this option available to them. Thankfully, the ROCCAT software is well-integrated with the hardware; tweaking equalizer settings will result in a somewhat improved listening experience. You will never mistake these for headphones designed for music playback.
Going on to playback of movie soundtracks, the Kave XTD 5.1 is far more satisfying. Whether in stereo or in 5.1 Surround mode, it tracks moving audio elements as well as any other set of cans I’ve used. Lateral panning is superb. Discerning front-to-back movements, though, is a little dissatisfying right out of the box. Pushing the “Movie” button on the control unit changes the flavor of the sound, but doesn’t really address the somewhat disappointing inability to produce a convincing reproduction of sonic elements moving vertically (front-to-back and vice-versa) relative to the listener’s position.
I had the same experience with games, which proved even more disappointing. In games, there is no surround sound effect; everything just sounded mushed together. In shooters like Crysis 2/3, Battlefield 3, and Call of Duty: Ghosts, I couldn’t really tell enemy positions behind my character’s position.
Thinking about things for a while, I thought of how to extract a better performance from the Kave XTD 5.1 vis-a-vis its surround sound effect. Then it hit me: At default, the software sets all of the volume output sliders to 100%. Tinkering with the volume levels for each channel made a huge difference.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, rolling back on the front channels and keeping the rear channels on 100% produced the best effect. Human ears are pointed forward, so that we get most of our audio sensations from directly in front of our faces; we get the least audio sensation from behind us. Surround sound, therefore, is an artificial condition, an effect manufactured to enhance our experience of movies and video games. Once I figured this out, I tried biasing the sound output so that audio from the rear channels was louder.
This adjustment transformed the Kave XTD 5.1. With the rear-biased volume adjustments, the Kave XTD 5.1 becomes the unfair advantage sought by gamers. It may not be particularly realistic, but I’d argue that if realism is what you’re looking for in your audio solution, you’d get a high fidelity stereo headset, even for gaming. Humans perceive audio in stereo, after all.
Moving on to ergonomic considerations, the Kave XTD 5.1 sets a new standard in comfort. This might sound hyperbolic, but it is no exaggeration. ROCCAT deserves kudos for making the Kave XTD 5.1 so easy to keep on your head. There is really not one element that makes this headset so wonderful to use. It’s weighted perfectly, with perfectly-positioned padding both in the ear cups and in the headband. The control unit can be positioned where the user decides it’s perfect on his or her desk, so that’s an ergonomic bonus. It’s impossible to say anything bad about the Kave XTD 5.1’s ergonomics.
And speaking of that control unit, it’s very easy to use. It’s also the key to using one of the Kave XTD 5.1’s signature features: Pushing the telephone button on the left-rear leg of the control unit turns the headset into a mobile phone-compatible device. I tested this with my ancient Samsung Galaxy after I paired it with the phone, and after figuring out that the microphone and the Bluetooth volume levels had to be adjusted (strangely, these are set to zero by default), it was a pleasing product to use on a phone call.
I was a bit frustrated by the complete lack of instructions detailing many of the Kave XTD 5.1’s features. The only thing that saved me from even more frustration is the somewhat intuitiveness of the product’s design. For example, there is no documentation on how to take advantage of the Bluetooth capabilities. I lucked into discovering how you can pair this with your mobile phone by holding down the telephone button on the control unit until the Bluetooth LED started flashing and my mobile phone registered the Kave XTD 5.1 as an available pair partner. In my opinion, ROCCAT should not make its customers have to guess how to take advantage of all the perks its products have to offer.
So what does $169.99 (the Kave XTD 5.1’s MSRP) get you?
You get a product that’s a bit of a diamond in the rough. Out of the box it’s not really set up properly. As a stereo headset, it works fine, even if it’s not really something you’d reach for if you’re in the mood to listen to your favorite tunes. It comes alive, though, once you install and use the software package it’s supposed to be used with. The hardware and software elements of the Kave XTD 5.1 package (you really ought to look at both of these together) are tightly-integrated and responsive, so with a little bit of time, patience, and tweaking, you’ll eventually get results you’ll be happy with.
As a gamer’s tool, this is especially true. Discussions of anything to do with audio are ultimately subjective, so my own experiences may not necessarily coincide with other people’s. Even allowing for that basic fact, though, I think it’s fair to say that the Kave XTD 5.1 has some really great arrows in its quiver, but also some duds as well. Its biggest strengths – superior design execution, excellent functionality, outstanding integration between the hardware and its complementary software, and class-leading ergonomics – outweigh its biggest weaknesses (generally thin sound and somewhat poor configuration when everything is at default settings). The solution, though, is one that is quite easy to implement; if ROCCAT provided a good user’s manual, I truly think this product would be so much better for the end-user.