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Turtle Beach Ear Force AK-R8 Headphones

Date: December 26, 2007
Author(s): Rob Williams

Turtle Beach is back with a new gaming headset, the USB based AK-R8. Unlike the HPA series, the AK-R8 includes its own sound card. On top of that, the software is robust, the feature set is solid and the sound can get LOUD. These headphones might just be what you are looking for.



Introduction


Although I’m the furthest thing from being an audiophile, every so often a new product will reach out and beg me for its attention. Turtle Beach’s latest gaming headset is one such product. Although the company is not particularly well-known for high-end audio equipment, their products do offer great value for the money which is the prime reason it makes them a good choice.

I first discovered that little fact last February when I evaluated their Ear Force HPA headset, also designed as a gaming solution. Even though that model retailed for over $100 ($80 currently), the results it delivered made the price a non-issue. It performed exceptionally when compared to headsets of around the $50-60 mark.

Of course, does quality matter if the product doesn’t last too long? Well, that’s another area where the HPAs seemed to excel. I’ve had other headsets in the past that didn’t even last a full year. SteelSeries 4H is a guilty party – mine lasted approximately six months before the sound became garbled. The HPA on the other hand, have lasted me since that very review. These are headphones I used each and every day, and I estimate at least 30,000 songs have been played through those earpieces, and they are still performing as new.

Enough of the HPA though, because we are here to look at their “successor”. I use quotes because it’s not a true successor, because the HPAs (now HPA2) are not discontinued. The reason for this is that the AK-R8 utilize a USB connection, while the HPA2 stick to the ole fashioned audio jacks (still supporting 5.1 sound cards). To say I was keen on seeing how the new model performed would be an understatement, so let’s hop right to it.

Closer Look

Similar to the HPAs before it, the AK-R8 arrives in a large plastic blister pack that will assure that bumps along the way will not adversely affect it. The front of the package showcases the USB sound card that’s included.

Although I don’t have a direct comparison in images, the AK-R8 look quite similar to the HPAs. Both have the same basic design and both include the auto-adjusting headband for good comfort without the need of making sure “notches” match up.

Like the HPAs, the AR-K8 are open-backed headphones. This is probably a good thing given the power this model can exhibit. The center of each earpiece have a Turtle Beach logo, and it appears that the perimeter of this logo would light up – but it does not. Gamers love their bling, but that might have been too much.

The ear cups is where one of the largest differences lay. While the HPAs had a smooth leather-like material to comfort your ears, the AR-K8 use a soft velvety material that could be considered pillow soft. These cups protect the entire ear and don’t leave much room for air. Because of this, you may become overheated after long periods of time. This will depend on the person.

Here are the components that bring everything together. The small box is TB’s SRM module – essentially a sound card and amplifier all in one. The cord running from the headphones will plug into the back of this box, while the included USB cable will connect the box to the PC. Also here is the external mic, which can be removed from the headset at any time.

On the next page, we will delve into how the headset works and also tackle the software.



Software

Surround Sound is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit with headphones, but most techniques are done via software and not hardware. The AK-R8 are different, as each earpiece contain four separate drivers that offer “true” surround sound.

The layout of these drivers are shown in the picture below. The front and surround drivers are 40mm, while the center is 30mm. On top is the vibrating subwoofer. So aside from normal bass, this woofer makes sure you feel the action as well.

The included Audio Advantage SRM software is the main reason that the AK-R8 headphones are able to produce such standout sound. Without it, the headphones are no better than the HPA that I am using right now, and in some ways, they might be worse.

The HPA for example, include an amplifier that allows you to adjust the bass/surround/center and so forth. The AK-R8 leaves this up to the software. The only button on the AK-R8 is a volume dial. So on a non-Windows OS, such as Linux, the headphones will function fine (using snd-usb-audio), but none of the special features will be enabled, including the vibrating (at least in all my tests) subwoofers.

That aside, the software is robust, allowing you to tweak most anything. There are four primary tabs, the first being one of the most important. Here you can adjust your speaker configuration and also adjust your surround, front and center/sub speakers… all individually.

The equalizer consists of eight different presets, all of which are configured well, but in my experience, required slight tweaking. Luckily, there is the ability to add your own presets here.

While I am normally quick to push special effects away, I found myself toying around in the effects tab quite often. I chose the Generic environment preset the majority of the time, but I also found Home to offer a more defined and clear sound. Voices popped out better.

In one test with Dane Cook’s “Rough Around The Edges” concert DVD, I found Auditorium better reflected the video. At some points, it really did feel like the show was being watched live. For even further tweaking, you are able to move the speakers around the virtual room, though I’m unsure the purpose.

The final tab is for the mixer and includes the master volume control and also the line-in and mic volumes. The sound card included with the AK-R8 includes a small microphone on one side which is designed to allow some sound in. This might sound ridiculous, but its use actually surprised me.

The best scenario to describe is playing a game far too loud and not hearing your cell phone ring. Or a nagging family mate at the door telling you to take out the garbage. With the mic off, you are far less likely to hear anything else that’s going on, but with it on, you can hear outside sounds underneath your audio.

As I discovered, this was not intrusive at all. I gave it a test with a ringing cell phone, and could barely hear it with the mic turned off, but with it on, I could hear it faintly. The outside noise isn’t so loud that it interrupts game play, but rather is just audible enough so that you will not accidentally ignore it.

Another major plus of this software is it’s ability to save profiles. Once you are done mastering the perfect settings for a certain music genre, movie or a game, you can save it to a profile. Once done that, you can load it again at any time, and switch between different profiles without a worry. This is appreciated, because I often found the included profiles a tad lacking for what I wanted to do.

Lastly, for those with high ambition, you are able to tweak all of the available speakers separately. This was a little too time consuming for me and I found the benefits to be nil, but your experiences may differ. It’s nice to have the option, however.

Next, I will cover my thoughts from testing and also wrap up with my final thoughts.



Testing, Final Thoughts

To compare these headphones to the previous HPA I had been using, I used a collection of songs from various genres, as you can see in the foobar screenshot. My music collection is kept in FLAC.

One thing I found out fast during testing is that when listening to these headphones at a high volume, other people in the house might be able to hear it as well. All throughout testing, I often turned the headphones up rather loud to see if any distortion was noticeable, and at various points I would take them off and be surprised at how loud they actually were.

Another thing I found out is that it’s difficult to keep the volume down when things sound this good. I found that it was at high volumes that the headphones came alive. I was unsure about the vibrating woofers at first, but quickly found them to add a lot to the experience, although I don’t think I’d be too pleased with it after many hours of music listening. That… and you shouldn’t be listening to loud music for hours upon hours for healths sake anyway.

Throughout all music testing, I was pleased with the performance and lack of distortion, and the crispness of the voices on top of the music. The bass became very evident during the dance tracks. You don’t only hear it, you can feel it. Luckily, I didn’t find it to be distracting or headache-inducing – and I used the headphones for a few hours at a time. If you are going to get a headache, it will likely be from the loud volume, not the woofers.

When comparing the HPAs to the AK-R8 without the use of special software, I preferred the HPA for normal music listening. Everything sounded a bit more natural and not so in-your-face. However, the AK-R8 offered a better experience in terms of becoming part of the music. The added bass was fantastic. Social Distortion’s “Don’t Drag Me Down” was preferred on the AK-R8 because of that added bass… the result was spectacular. Live tracks also sounded really good, especially if the settings are perfectly tweaked.

But gaming is where these headphones shine, so it was time to put them to the test. I’ve had these headphones long enough to date back to Half-Life 2: Episode Two’s launch, and I used them throughout the entire game play.

Overall I was left quite impressed, but a lot of it had to do with the added bass and perfect set of tweaks. One particular level I enjoyed was near the end with all of the Striders. At some points, you could actually feel the Striders feet stomping on the ground, all the way across the map. It definitely added to the experience.

The other game I tested with was Unreal Tournament III. As much as I suck at this series, I can’t get enough of it. The headphones delivered once again here… I really don’t have any complaints. The bass became evident all throughout the game play, but most notable when firing a large weapon. Even firing from the Flak Cannon would give a little jolt to the woofers… just enough to feel the pain that would be afflicted on the opponent.

I quickly tested a variety of other games as well, and didn’t find myself with any extreme complaints. In the end, where gaming is concerned, I preferred the AK-R8s over the HPAs.

Final Thoughts

The AK-R8s impressed me more than I thought they would, but again, it comes down to the included software and the enhanced subwoofer. If it were not for those two put together, the sound output would be no better than the HPAs, or other similar surround-sound headphones. That said, the huge array of drivers do well to create a rich experience.

I would recommend these headphones to anyone who’s looking for a killer gaming headset, but there are a few things that might keep people away. The biggest issue might be the price, at an SRP of $150, although it can be found for closer to $110 at various e-tailers. Another downside, I found, was that the headphones could almost go too loud.

If you do pick up these headphones, I highly recommend turning off all Windows sounds, and any other sounds from applications you might have open. Chances are, even if your music or game sounds loud, the application notification sounds will be even louder and scare the absolute hell out of you. Not to mention hurt your ears.

I am not bringing up this warning for the sake of it, either. When I first hooked the headphones up, I rebooted the machine and heard the Windows start-up jingle. I had thought that the sound was coming out of my Edifier 2.1 set. It was loud and sounded clear. I was surprised to find out it was the AK-R8s though, and I was very thankful I didn’t have them on my noggin at the time. So, proceed with caution.

Overall, the AK-R8 headphones deliver. If you want a richer and more realistic sound, having a good sound card and headphones with audio jacks would be the ultimate solution. This excludes higher-end headphones that would obviously kick these to the curb. But given the price, these are some of the most feature-packed headphones you will find.

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