You can’t get true surround sound in headphones. This makes designing gaming headsets tricky, when directionality can offer an edge. Fortunately, while true surround sound isn’t possible in a headset, you can get a passable facsimile with stereo drivers and sophisticated audio processing. The Skullcandy PLYR 1 is the high-end upgrade to the mediocre PLYR 2 headset, sharing its design but adding 7.1-channel surround sound processing, optical passthrough, and a very handy charging base and receiver that doubles as a stand. While the surround effect can’t be seen as “genuine,” it comes close enough to make it compare favorably to the Razer Tiamat 7.1, last year’s Editors’ Choice wired headset. At $179.99 (direct) it costs as much as the Tiamat 7.1, but is completely wireless with a handful of tricks and design elements from the $300 Editors’ Choice Astro Gaming A50. Astro Gaming and Skullcandy are the same company, and while the Skullcandy PLYR headsets don’t quite have the same brand recognition among dedicated gamers, the PLYR 2 proves that Skullcandy is heading in the right direction while balancing affordability.
The PLYR 1 headset itself is nearly identical to the PLYR 2′s headset, but made with seemingly better materials. Instead of the glossy, smooth plastic covering the earcups and headband, the PLYR 1 uses a sturdier-feeling matte plastic that doesn’t feel quite as cheap. A flip-down boom mic that can bend left or right sits on the left earcup. A four-direction switch that can adjust volume and balance between game and voice audio with a round power button next to it sit on the right earcup, and a small switch for choosing between Bass Mode (bass emphasis), Supreme Mode (flat balance), and Precision Mode (mid-high emphasis) sit on the edge of the cup. The headset feels very comfortable, fitting my large head well and covering my ears without crushing them.
The wireless receiver is no longer a simple plastic puck with only a few ports. Instead, it is a full headset stand with much more connectivity built into the neck and base. In addition to a mini-USB port for connecting to a computer, a USB port for connecting to the headset (it comes with two USB-to-mini-USB cables of different lengths for connecting both), and a 3.5mm audio port, the receiver features optical audio input and output so you can pass audio through to a soundbar or another device. The stand is very handy, since you can hang the headset against the receiver while it’s charging and not in use. The optical audio connections are some of the biggest upgrades over the PLYR 2, since they allow a much higher fidelity audio connection to your computer or game system through one cable, can pass the audio through to your speakers so you don’t have to juggle audio connections, and lets the receiver decode Dolby Digital 7.1-channel surround sound.
Like nearly all headphones that claim to offer surround sound, the PLYR 1 uses clever signal routing with its two drivers (one in each ear) to produce the impression of surround based on Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound. It also uses Dolby Pro Logic IIx audio processing for non-digital sound (through the 3.5mm connection) to produce a similar surround-like impression, albeit from a stereo source. While this can produce a decent general sense of imaging and make the sound seem bigger and wider than the headphones appear to allow, they can’t produce a true sense of directionality provided by a dedicated surround system.
Even for headsets that have discrete drivers for each surround channel, there simply isn’t enough room in the earcups for surround sound to acoustically function, so you’re left with a simulated version of surround regardless of what surround-equipped headset you use. The 7.1-channel decoding and headphone drivers can produce decent left, right, and center directionality with the PLYR 1, but you won’t get a sense of anything “behind” you beyond some clever mixing to give that impression.
I played a few rounds of Team Fortress 2 with the PLYR 1, and it performed admirably. While the surround sound effect wasn’t “genuine,” it provided the slightest illusion that the Heavy firing his mini-gun behind me was actually behind me, thanks to a clever volume balancing effect that mixed the mini-gun sound more softly into the action of the front channels (produced by both cups firing simultaneously). The action was clear, loud, and powerful, and my grenades as a Demoman and rockets as a Soldier both had a satisfying thump to their explosions.
Gaming headsets aren’t designed with music in mind. But they should be able to handle non-game audio at least somewhat capably, and the PLYR 1 satisfies on that account. With our bass test track, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the low synth notes got very loud without distorting, to the point that my ears began to vibrate uncomfortably at maximum volume without any noticeable crackle. The headset also worked very well for listening to television through my computer, and the latest episode of Dexter delivered crystal-clear dialogue through the PLYR 1, not to mention the visceral, creepy sound effects of the opening sequence I’ve come to appreciate.
The Skullcandy PLYR 1 headset is the significant performance and connectivity upgrade the PLYR 2 headset needed. It shares the same design, but it sounds better, supports optical audio passthrough, and even offers a passable faux-surround sound processing effect. Its $180 price tag is a bit hefty, but considering how much closer it comes to the Editors’ Choice Astro A50 (made by the same company) in form and features at less than two-thirds the price, it stands as a great gaming headset if you’re willing to spend the cash. If you don’t want to pay nearly as much and can forego the wireless features in favor of a direct computer connection (and no console support), the Razer Kraken Pro is a much more economical choice.
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