Date: July 2, 2007
Author(s): Nate Marion
The choice between stereo and 5.1 headphones can be complicated, so we are taking a look at a popular sub-$150 offering of each type to see which one will come out on top. As we find out, the choice can make quite a big difference depending on what you will use your PC for most.
Not too long ago, I started looking around for a new set of headphones. I’d been using a $40 pair from Radioshack (only markings say ‘Titanium’) and they started to come apart. I use headphones nearly all the time â€“ mostly for gaming, but I usually have some music on while surfing the web, and sometimes I like to zone out with a WinAmp visualization. I’d been seeing various 5.1 headsets hitting the market for a while, so I figured I’d have a good look around the web and see what people thought of them.
What I found was that there is no shortage of opinions as to which headsets are good and which aren’t â€“ I read numerous reviews and dozens of forum threads on a variety of headphones, and there wasn’t much that people wanted to agree upon. You can find glowing reviews of just about every headphone on the market, and everywhere I went I saw threads that went something like this…
Lamz0r n00b: I’m thinking of getting XXXX 5.1 headset. Any recommendations?
1337 Hax0r: Those are utter crap. Get the Sennheiser HD5XX. They sound WAY better. Btw, I have a recording studio in my house, and I just knifed you on CS:S.
…which didn’t make my decision any easier, since the HD5XX series are stereo.
Being a gamer, I was interested in the 5.1 surround sound headphones because being able to know where your enemies are off-screen often means the difference between getting flanked and scoring a head shot. Plus, I wanted to have personal experience with how they performed.
So after figuring out what my main wants were, I decided on the Medusa 5.1 (Home Edition) headset from Speedlink. This review might’ve been solely about the Medusas, but I didn’t want to parrot the dozens of other reviews I’d already read (and found to be not-so-helpful), so I decided that the best way to review a headset was to compare it to another headset, and since the Sennheiser HD series was recommended (rather fervently, by some) everywhere I went, what better yardstick could I have than the HD555’s?
What I’ll do is present an overview of each product individually, and then I’ll compare them directly when evaluating performance. Hopefully, this will provide some more definitive (if still subjective) information that will help you make the best buying decision.
Let’s get to it.
First off, I want to help dispel a little rumor that’s been going around for a number of years that the Medusa 5.1 headphones were banned from use by the Cyberathlete Professional League because they ‘gave competitors an unfair advantage’. I don’t know where the rumor started (although apparently Speedlink advertised it) but it is untrue.
The Medusa 5.1 Home Edition retails for $143.18 plus shipping at Medusa-usa.com. They also offer the ProGamer Edition for $117.44, which is USB powered and doesn’t have the external amp. I wasn’t able to find a cheaper price from any other online retailer. The Medusa 5.1 Home Edition’s features can be seem on the Medusa Website and are fairly self-explanatory, but I’d like to specifically point out the reasons why I went with the Home Edition instead of the Pro Gamer edition. It’s all about the external amplifier.
First is the issue of using USB to power the headphones â€“ I read of numerous problems where distortion and/or noise was the result of using a USB port for power. In some cases, the headset manufacturer sent an external amplifier that plugged into the wall and the problem was solved. Rather than deal with the variability of PSUs and motherboards to provide clean power through USB ports, I wanted the external amp.
Secondly, the external amplifier also serves as a switch between the headphones and my speakers, so I don’t ever have to unplug any cables. It is also worth mentioning that the external amplifier has a master volume control in addition to the controls on the in-line remote.
You can see that Speedlink does a great job of packaging their product. Everything has it’s own box, and the ribbon is a nice touch.
Speedlink also ensures that you’ll have very few problems using their product regardless of where you are and what you’re trying to plug into. They’ve included AC adapters for both 115v and 230v, and adapter plugs to suit analogue stereo and component outputs. All of the cables are very long.
The in-line remote allows you to adjust the volume levels of four channels: front, rear, center, and bass. It’s a nice way to fine tune for certain scenarios, but I rarely change the settings. The remote itself seems a little flimsy, but I don’t think it would be easy to break by accident in any real scenario.
Like most headphones these days, the Medusas are made from plastic. The construction looks and feels pretty solid, although I wouldn’t want to get rough with any of the hinges.
The mic boom is surprisingly well behaved – you can bend the boom however you want and the mic will stay where you put it. The audio quality of the microphone is also very good â€“ I can hear myself when no games are running (there’s no mute button) and my voice comes through crystal clear. I’ve also talked to people over Skype and in online games and everyone’s said I sound good.
The cans themselves are covered in a soft fabric, and are comfortable to wear for long periods. There isn’t a lot of clamping force applied to your head, which ensures that you’ll be able to wear the headset comfortably for hours, however head-banging isn’t an option.
Here’s a couple shots showing the cables (in from X-fi and out to Logitech 5.1 speakers) and the blue LED lighting during operation, as well as a look at the headphone jack.
Overall the headphones look and feel very nice and I don’t think any unusual precautions are required to keep them from breaking. As long as you don’t hurl them against a wall, step on them, or receive a roundhouse to the head while wearing them, they should be fine. Medusa offers a 2-year warranty on these headphones, but since their main RMA facility is in the UK, I’m not sure how fast an RMA would be handled.
The Sennheiser HD555s retail for anywhere from ~$110 to $150 depending on where you shop, and seem to be the sweet-spot of the Sennheiser HD line price-wise. The lower-end HD515s can’t be found for much under $80, the higher-end HD595s go for $200. The HD555’s features can be seen on Sennheiser’s website.
The first thing you may notice comparing the features of the two headsets is that Sennheiser seems to employ engineers to do their marketing.
The Ergonomic Acoustic Refinement (E.A.R.) feature is basically the overall shape of the headset, which is incredibly comfortable, and I’ll talk about it more in a bit. The Duofol diaphragm entry has yet to be written in Wikipedia, but eliminating standing waves will reduce distortion, so the sound should be very well defined.
The neodymium ferrous magnet system is a fancy way of saying that their speakers are really good â€“ magnetic forces are what cause a speaker to vibrate, creating sound waves â€“ the main benefits of neodymium magnets is that they are much stronger than ceramic magnets by volume, so you can use smaller (lighter) magnets and still have more magnetic force to power the speakers. The others are self-explanatory, although the ‘spacious sound reproduction’ part is a little over-stated, as I will show in my testing.
I’m using these headphones simply because so many people are recommending them on various forums. I can say with high degree of certainty that all of the headphone threads I visited had at least one recommendation for these specific headphones, as well as Sennheiser in general and the HD series more specifically. Also, the next model up, the HD595s, cost a minimum of ~$200 so the HD555s make a decent price competitor with the Medusas.
Sennheiser’s packaging, while a little less extravagant, is nicely done. These are stereo headphones that do not require an amplifier, so this package includes only the HD555’s and a 3.5mm jack adapter.
The HD555s are also made from plastic, and appear to be very solid. One obvious difference here is that the HD555s don’t have any large hinges â€“ the rotating joints are enclosed within the ear cups.
The soft fabric covering the cans is very similar to that of the Medusas, but the shape is very different. The HD555’s are more comfortable than the Medusas due to the shape of the ear cup. While the Medusas will contact both the area immediately around your ear as well as your actual earlobe, the HD555’s are designed so that nothing touches your earlobes at all.
There is noticeably more clamping force applied to your head, but there is plenty of padded surface area to distribute the pressure to the side of your head comfortably, and your ears are left untouched. The HD555s are easily the most comfortable set of headphones I’ve ever worn, and I believe that this ergonomic design actually improves the sounds that you hear because your earlobes aren’t being deformed by contact with the speaker cover.
The picture below shows the HD555s on the left, and you can see that the HD555 cups are deeper, meaning no contact with your ear.
The HD555s have a more minimalist approach for their frame. While this may make them marginally more robust, the real advantage here is comfort. There is a lot to be said for being able to perk up your ears while wearing headphones.
One other thing worth mentioning is that Sennheiser also offers a 2-year warranty on their headphones, and has a local service center in Connecticut where they perform repairs.
Now let’s see how both headsets sound.
I tested both headsets using a Creative X-fi as the sound card. Thus, I used the Creative Audio Console to adjust the audio output settings. The Medusas were always run with the output set to 5.1 speakers, while the HD555s were always run with the output set to 2/2.1 speakers. I used the Entertainment mode for music and movies, and the Game mode for games.
I listened to a variety of audio, from low-detail MP3s and MP4s to music CDs. I also watched a couple of DVD movies, and of course, spent some time with popular FPS games.
I’ll say right up front here that I’m more of a gamer than an audiophile, and obviously all of this is subjective. One thing that was true for both headsets was that sound was easily able to be heard some distance from the headset itself, so neither of these headsets is ideally suited to not bothering people sitting next to you. Neither of these headsets are noise canceling, but I never had a problem with hearing background noise during any of my testing.
I listened to a small variety of iTunes tracks and mp3s including the Smashing Pumpkins’ new single, Tarantula, [/shameless plug] as well as some Linkin Park, Metallica, Weezer, Great Big Sea, and Bob Marley.
Right off the bat I can easily see why people are recommending the Sennheisers. They sounded very clear and well defined across the entire audible range, and were able to deliver some nice, head-shaking bass. The Medusas, in my opinion, also sounded good, but compared to the Sennheisers they were noticeably more muffled, and mid-range details seemed to get lost in some of the more busy/heavy tracks.
With the Sennheisers, each sound was differentiated from the others in such a way that it was easy to visualize each string of a guitar getting struck as a chord was played, and each drum in the set as it was hit. The fact that my ears felt like they were in open air helped to make me feel like I was right in the middle of the recording studio, and I commend the physical design of the Sennheiser HD line.
Compared to the HD555s, it’s obvious that the Medusas didn’t quite measure up â€“ but they still sounded good, and I don’t think that anyone other than a serious audiophile would have any problem with the way these cans sound â€“ at least I don’t. It’s like the difference between being in the middle of the recording studio vs. being outside the glass. The in-line remote allowed for a little fine-tuning, which in some cases gave a small improvement, but I was never able to get as clean a sound as with the HD555s.
I listened to a variety of music by the Smashing Pumpkins, Five For Fighting, the Dropkick Murpheys, Linkin Park, and Cold Play.
This is going to be a ditto of the low-detail section. The only surprise was ‘100 Years’ by Five for Fighting, which for some reason sounded clearer and more defined on the Medusas. Everywhere else, the HD555s sounded better â€“ but the Medusas also sounded good.
I chose two of the better action movies I’ve seen in the somewhat recent past and tried to pick out scenes where the difference between the two headsets was most notably different.
There were a handful of scenes in this movie worth mentioning, but I’ll try to be brief.
The scenes where Bruce is declared ‘ready to lead these men’ contains a bit of spooky off-screen dialogue by Liam Neeson, which the Medusas (unsurprisingly) reproduced with a more three-dimensional feel, as Neeson seemed to move around the audience.
Where the HD555’s made it sound like he moved from left to right, getting slightly louder or quieter, the Medusas did a better job of making it seem like Neeson was actually moving around the room. The following climatic fight scene was actually a little disappointing with both headsets, (mainly because the explosions were much too quiet) but I believe that this is a problem with the mastering of the movie.
Other scenes involving swirling bats and a car chase also generally sounded better with 5.1 effects â€“ the Medusas made it sound like there were more bats (in more directions), the motion and placement of cars on screen was more audible, and the quality of the Medusas was certainly good enough for me. While the HD555s sounded cleaner and tended to define the consonants in speech a little better, I have to say that their advantage in accuracy was not large enough to make me prefer them to the Medusas â€“ the surround effects were a greater benefit.
I found this movie to be an excellent choice for testing due to the huge amount of surround sound detail. I used chapter 9 (mainly) for the test. This chapter starts with a quick mission briefing in an air plane, followed by an air deployment to a tropical island, a few shots of the hero running around huffing his breath and ruffling foliage, ending with an intense battle with a huge robot. I watched this chapter completely 4 times, alternating between headsets.
I honestly couldn’t tell which headset had the better speakers while watching this movie – both headsets sounded great. From the soft ruffling foliage to the crushing impacts of the battle, the sound was very clean. One thing I noticed with the Medusas was that the center channel was overpowered, but when I turned it down to ~7 on the inline remote (leaving the other channels at 10) everything was fantastic.
Unfortunately for the HD555’s, since I didn’t notice a difference in the general quality of the sound, the only other difference was the number of speakers. Because of the more accurate 3D placement with the Medusas, I definitely preferred them here. There was a big difference in the amount of motion into and out of the screen (not surprisingly).
A perfect example would be when the robot first starts to roll â€“ with the HD555s, it simply moves from right to left and back. With the Medusas, you can clearly hear the robot roll away and to the left, and then come back forward right at your face. This is even noticeable when characters walk of screen â€“ you can tell if they’re coming toward you or moving away.
I focused on first-person shooters here because the benefits of accurate surround sound can have a large impact on the player’s success in the game, and thus these games are the main fodder of marketing people trying to sell you a 5.1 headset.
I never really got into this game after playing through it once, so I didn’t have a large selection of save-games to choose from, but the first few missions of the game have a decent variety of audio effects from running around trenches in a full-scale battle to sneaking around dark subterranean tunnels.
The Sennheiser HD555’s produced noticeably clearer sound in this game. The dialogue was cleaner, and the gunfire sounded more complex with the HD555s.
There was also very little noticeable difference between the headsets with regard to surround sound. You’d think that the difference would be obvious during the very first part of the game as rockets and lasers are constantly firing right over your head â€“ supposedly by large forces on either side of you. Unfortunately, it seems like the actual sources of these sounds are lumped into two locations, one far to the left and one far to the right, so you never get a sense of three dimensional location.
Going underground didn’t result in much improvement â€“ the Medusas seemed more accurate when things were behind me, but otherwise didn’t help much. I felt that, for the price, the HD555s were the way to go in this game.
I love this game, and at the expense of face-time with Quake 4, have played through it multiple times, and have save points for most of my favorite portions. I spent a few hours playing through large-scale confrontations like ‘LZ is Hot’ and the end portion of ‘Heavy Resistance’ as well as other choice excerpts.
Again, the DH555s were slightly cleaner and more defined, but the Medusas really started to make a difference in this game, to the point that I think some sounds were lost completely with a 2.1 setup. With the Sennheiser HD555s, an enemy that was completely silent occasionally flanked me, and I couldn’t always tell where to aim if I couldn’t see my enemies.
With the Medusas, I was never flanked unwillingly, and it seemed like there were more audio cues â€“ more footsteps, more rustling clothing, etc. and it was all very well placed. I found myself turning to aim at enemies as they emerged from cover and was often impressed with how little I had to think to aim. The Medusas were definitely preferable to me in this game.
Half Life 2 â€“ Episode 1
While I’ve played through HL2, I hadn’t gotten very far in Episode 1, so I played a while with the Sennheisers and later switched to the Medusas, without replaying anything (unless I died) and having zero advance knowledge of what was going to happen.
The Sennheisers sounded fine, which shouldn’t be any surprise, however I didn’t notice much difference when changing to the Medusas â€“ the slightly increased muffled-ness of the sound wasn’t nearly as pronounced â€“ which was a very pleasant surprise.
The difference in surround effects was also very surprising. There’s a part of the game where you’re stuck underground in a large, dark space and you have to follow a power line to a PSU box in order to power up an elevator. There are a few red emergency flares lying around.
Now, anyone who’s played a video game before would know (as I did) that all hell was about to break loose and that enemies would soon be swarming out of nowhere just as my (poorly placed) flares died out and I’d be left with only my flashlight and a prescient NPC auto-turret (with pleasantly-fitted jeans) â€“ and my ears â€“ to indicate where I should unload.
Sure enough, here they came and it was pitch black. This was the first time I became frustrated with the HD555s. The stereo sound was not enough to give me a good idea where things were, and I found myself ‘shaking my head’ with mouse-look and relying too much on my flashlight. Alex (a.k.a. ‘Jeans’) and I got smacked around a lot before reaching the elevator.
Later, when I switched to the Medusas, the first thing I noticed was that the center channel seemed over-powered, but setting it to 7 on the in-line remote (leaving the other settings at 10) fixed that problem. We were out of zombie-land and dealing with the usual human law enforcement enemies now. There were several instances where unseen enemies were moving in off-screen and I had to guess where they were and react accordingly.
I was very, very impressed with the Medusas because not only did I never guess wrong, taking out many enemies before they were able to fire at me, but being able to hear where they were and where they were going also gave cues as to the shape of hallways â€“ it’s nice to know where you need to go to meet an enemy without thinking about it. I was very, very happy with the Medusas in this game.
Little changes with CS:Source. The gunfire sounds more detailed with the HD555s, but the Medusas have a big advantage when it comes to hearing movement in the tunnels to B in Dust2 (for example), or being able to actually hit someone behind one of those wooden doors, or simply knowing if you have time to pull out a flash-bang, and where it would best be placed.
So what should you buy? That depends on what you care most about.
The people who argue that $150 divided by two speakers will buy you better quality speakers than $150 divided by 8 speakers certainly have a valid point. The superiority of the HD555s when reproducing audio (and particularly stereo audio) is not arguable. As redundant as it is for me to say it, if you’re looking for a headset to make your music sound better, the Medusas do not warrant consideration.
However, for those of you who watch a lot of movies, making a recommendation is a little harder. I had to weigh the superior general reproduction of the HD555s against the superior surround effects of the Medusas, and the Medusas have earned my recommendation. There’s a reason that a lot of 5.1 headphones are on the market for ~$100-$150 â€“ many consumers simply can’t detect the decreased quality that you get when you go from $60/speaker to $15/speaker, and if they can, it’s no big deal. I’m one of those people for whom the decrease in sound quality is no big deal considering the additional surround effects I get to hear.
For first-person shooters there really isn’t any advantage to slightly more detailed gunfire and cleaner dialogue â€“ what matters is knowing where your enemies are before they start filling you with pointy metal bits. To this end, it isn’t very surprising that a surround sound headset should be preferable to a stereo headset â€“ but you may be surprised at the difference it makes in your game.
People have said that a 5.1 headset can never hope to sound as good as a 5.1 speaker/sub setup, and I’d have to plead ignorance â€“ I have neighbors on the other side of my wall, and thus I don’t have the luxury of turning my Logitech speakers up to the volume level where I’d actually be able to hear all of the quieter cues well enough. What I do know is that the Medusas are the headset I want to be using when playing my first-person games.
If you’ve got ~$150 USD to spend on a headset and you enjoy watching movies and playing first-person shooters on your PC, I would heartily recommend picking up the Speedlink Medusa 5.1 headphones. The connectivity options you get with the Home Edition mean that you can also use them to watch movies on a home entertainment center, however I would hesitate to recommend these headphones specifically for your living room â€“ their value will be most appreciated by gamers.
If gaming isn’t a large part of your PC diet, then I would tend to steer you toward the HD555s. There’s no question that they sound better for music, and they sound good enough in movies that you’ll definitely be happy with them, especially if you can find them for up to $40 less than the Medusas.
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