In the Box
The first thing you’ll notice about the Sharkoon X-Tatic Digital Headset is the large number of components it comes with. Actually, the first thing you notice may be the price. At $159.99 USD, this headset is not cheap. But I’m sure producing 5.1 surround sound from a headset is no bargain either.
5.1 Headsets have been around for years, but their results have rarely been convincing. So, how effectively does the X-Tatic Digital produce surround sound? More on that later. First, back to the components.
In addition to the headset, Sharkoon provides a glossy and detailed manual, a detachable microphone, an optical S/PDIF cable, an analog cable adapter, a USB microphone cable for the PC and PS3, a 3.5mm to 2.5mm microphone cable for the Xbox 360, a power cable with three different outlet plug adapters, and a small decoder box that Sharkoon has dubbed the Sound Control Unit or SCU.
The three plug adapters are a nice touch, though probably not useful unless you’re a jet setter with frequent layovers in North America and Europe. Even if you are a jet setter, the X-Tatic Digital isn’t very portable given the number of cables it requires and its need for an outlet.
The plug adapters do, however, demonstrate Sharkoon’s dedication to detail. Between the number of connectors and the SCU features, this headset has you covered regardless of your location, game, or platform.
The SCU supports Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Pro Logic, and Dolby Digital 2.0. In conjunction with these technologies, it also supports Dynamic Range Control and, more interestingly, time delay. The time delay function allows you to delay output from the center or surround channels, theoretically increasing the distance between sound sources.
The headset itself contains four separate speakers – front, rear, center, and subwoofer – in each earpiece, along with a jack for the detachable microphone. The volume level for each of the four channels is independently adjustable using the in-line volume controller. Each of the four volume buttons even light up independently and in different colors according to their respective levels, so you can easily determine relative volumes. The X-Tatic logos on the sides of the earphones also stylishly illuminate, though they remain green in color.
In addition to being chic, the X-Tatic Digital is very comfortable. The headband is thickly padded, as are the headphones, which cover each ear completely and effectively cut outside noises. I was particularly impressed with how little lateral pressure this headset applies. I’ve had to stop using less bulky headsets because the pressure on my ears became too uncomfortable, but I had no such problem with the X-Tatic. Even after many extended gaming sessions, I barely noticed I had it on.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The microphone for the X-Tatic Digital locks into place with a push and a twist, so you never have to worry about the connection loosening or the microphone falling out. I tested its fidelity on the PC in two different VoIP programs – Skype and Mumble – and in Audacity. In all cases, the microphone transmitted crisp and even audio with no noticeable wavering, feedback, or background noise. Multiple people over Skype and Mumble even commented on how much clearer I sounded despite not knowing I had switched headsets.
But back to the main question: How effectively does the X-Tatic Digital produce surround sound? I tested the headset in five different PC games, the first of which was Team Fortress 2. Despite being over two-and-a-half years old, it remains a standard for team-based online shooters, and is a good test bed for positional audio given its frantic nature.
The first thing I noticed when playing Team Fortress 2 was how well the X-Tatic Digital produced the sound of a rocket. When fired, the rocket sounded as if it was actually moving away from the rocket launcher, instead of just getting quieter as in a 2.0 or 2.1 sound system. The headset also proved useful in pinpointing the locations of spies who had just backstabbed a teammate, especially when the rear speaker volume was increased.
The X-Tatic Digital fared just as well in Splinter Cell: Conviction’s single-player campaign, providing aural cues of enemy positions. The game’s 5.1 sound test, however, was a little more revealing. Isolating audio on five individual speakers – front-left, front-right, rear-left, rear-right, and center – proved how well the X-Tatic Digital can simulate sound from rear speakers. The front speakers, however, sounded like they were located more to the sides than in front, demonstrating the limitations of 5.1 surround sound in a headset.
The X-Tatic Digital intensified 4A Games’ creepy and atmospheric shooter, Metro 2033, by producing creaks and moans that always came from behind. But the headset really shined during sequences in metro stations, when Artyom is inundated with numerous conversations from all directions.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 also demonstrated the X-Tatic Digital’s high fidelity. Despite having esoteric sound system options – hifi, home cinema, war tapes, etc. – Bad Company 2 has one of the most innovative and complex sound productions of any videogame to date. Through the X-Tatic Digital, allies’ whispered chatter comfortably blankets you, close-range gunshots echo in all directions, shots from afar pinpoint enemy locations, and explosions reverberate throughout your body. It’s truly a spectacular auditory experience.
Finally, I tried the headset in Batman: Arkham Asylum. While the X-Tatic Digital produced convincing surround sound, the game wasn’t as good a test bed as the aforementioned shooters, given its primarily third-person melee-combat gameplay. Mark Hamill did, however, sound excellent as the Joker.
I Hear You
Overall, the sound quality was excellent. Everything from thin voices to heavy explosions was crisp and well defined, but the bass was particularly impressive. It was very firm and felt like it was coming from all directions without interfering with other sounds. Even at high levels, the bass provided emotion without smothering other channels or becoming too muddy.
When moving from game to game, however, I did find myself adjusting individual channels – increasing the rear speaker volume for Team Fortress 2, increasing the front channel volume and bass for Splinter Cell: Conviction, increasing the center channel volume for Bad Company 2 – to get the best experience. It was a little tedious and time-consuming, especially since I moved from game to game frequently. With so many options, the ability to quickly save and load different volume profiles for different games, movies, or applications would be very welcome. But that’s nitpicking.
There are only two real drawbacks to the Sharkoon X-Tatic Digital Headset that I can think of. First, its lack of portability. This is not a headset you want to take on the road with you, regardless of its various outlet adapters. Second, its price. The X-Tatic Digital’s price tag is really its main drawback and may prove prohibitive for all but the most hardcore of gamers. Regardless, if you want to fully experience a modern PC or videogame without disturbing your annoyingly sound-sensitive neighbors, the X-Tatic Digital is an essential piece of hardware.
Our total score: 9.0/10
More information: Sharkoon X-Tatic Digital Headset @ CompuExpert