|Min OS X: Any Version Requires: Minijack Audio Port|
Founded in Germany in 1945, just a few weeks after the end of World War II, Sennheiser has steadily risen from its humble beginnings to become a worldwide leader in the field of audio reproduction and recording technology. Although Sennheiser is generally not a name associated with the PC gaming industry, their new lineup of PC-friendly headsets proves that Sennheiser understands the needs of gamers and can address them in a manner that is both efficient and impressive.
The Sennheiser PC 350: Avant-Garde AudioLeading Sennheiser's assault on the PC gaming market is the PC 350, a circumaural headset that combines beautiful audio reproduction with a professional-looking design, visibly setting this product apart from the tawdry consumer-level audio peripherals on the market today. While most headset manufacturers are clearly still struggling to meet the most basic needs of their customers (flirting with vibration functionality, 5.1 surround sound, and "cosmetic" lighting), the assiduous folks at Sennheiser have already produced a set of products that put nearly every other gaming headset to shame. As it stands today, the increasingly noisy environment that we live in poses one of the most tenacious obstacles to a pleasant listening atmosphere. Even if you don't frequent LAN parties, you are probably aware that high-performance computing produces a lot of heat, and therefore noise. In order to keep our modern computers from burning up from the inside out, manufacturers outfit them with heat sinks, whirring fans, and expensive liquid-cooling blocks that preserve stability but can shatter the tranquility of most environments. Judging by the amount of sound-policing hardware crammed into the PC 350, Sennheiser put the elimination of external noise high on its list of priorities. The only bit of high-tech wizardry missing from the headset is active noise-canceling circuitry, but thanks to an adjustable headband, dense padding, and shrewd ergonomic design, Sennheiser's engineers have created a device that can generate a nearly airtight seal over the ears of just about any head (something that goes a long way toward increasing isolation). While the headset cannot attenuate sound as well as a set of flanged inner-ear monitors (IEMs), it can certainly knock the roar of your desktop monstrosity down to a gentle hum, which translates to a lower acceptable listening volume and a smaller chance of developing hearing loss.
On the input side of things, the PC 350's boom microphone does a great job of ensuring that the rest of the world hears you and nothing else. First, a bandpass filter effectively squelches frequencies outside the range of the human voice, and second, a pair of microphones on the boom (one pointed toward the user, and one toward the environment) combined with noise cancellation circuitry do an impressive job of keeping you clearly audible in situations where noise would make communication difficult. The only downside to this leap in clarity is the equally deep hole that the PC 350 will punch in your wallet, but I hope you take consolation in the fact that the people listening to you will reap the benefits of blissful silence. By contrast, most "consumer grade" computer headsets lack even a simple bandpass filter, meaning that they have a tendency to spew everything from key presses to the sound of the neighbor's lawnmower right into the ears of your friends and teammates. If that ever annoyed you in the past, then you may want to consider the PC 350 in the future.
Audio Quality EvaluationWhile the PC 350 is advertised by Sennheiser as being a gaming headset, for MSRP $250, it had better be adept at delivering more than staccato gunfire and voluminous explosions to your ears. And deliver it does. After throwing a number of curve-balls at the PC 350, ranging from Franz Liszt's "Evening Harmony" to Daft Punk's "Robot Rock," the headset put up a brilliant performance. However, it was not without fault. Although the mid-to-high frequency audio output could be characterized as bright and very crisp, I detected a modest amount of overemphasis in the 10-16 KHz range (meaning that harmonics were slightly too strong relative to their fundamentals). While "harsh" is far too strong a term to describe this shortcoming (considering the fact that I had to crank up the volume on songs with crashing cymbals and high-pitched digital effects before listening became uncomfortable), on such an expensive headset, it was enough to merit the solitary one-point deduction that the PC 350 received during the evaluation. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that an analysis of the opposite side of the spectrum bore no such complaints. Bass response was weighty and tight--never muddy. Detail was superb. I was able to clearly distinguish a particular electronic arpeggio buried within the melody of Owl City's "The Technicolor Phase" that I was previously only able easily detect on the expensive Westone UM-2 and E.D.G.E. Acoustics GX400 IEMs. Compared to these IEMs, the PC 350's soundstage was remarkably broad. In addition to excellent X-Y positioning, the PC 350's drivers can actually manage a limited sense of vertical displacement (which is quite rare), and was something that I was especially grateful for while playing Call of Duty 4. Footsteps and other, miscellaneous sounds could be pinpointed from a very long distance away, which provided more time to make tactical decisions in the game.
Therefore, it is evident that whether you spend most of your time listening to music or playing computer games, the bright, detailed, and sonically aggressive nature of this headset's audio reproduction should be quite pleasant. As previously mentioned, the only flaw that I encountered was limited to a modicum of over-emphasis in upper frequency sound. Of course, this could be a by-product of improperly-mixed audio. One of the most unpleasant blights on the face of high-end audio today is the capricious nature of album mixing. As I tested the PC 350, I quickly ran into an interesting phenomenon: some of the music that I fed into the headset sounded worse than it did on the radio or through the cheap iPod earbuds. There is a reason for that: during the period between the recording and the finishing of an album, audio engineers carefully mix each song to sound as clear and balanced as possible on what the music labels believe to be their customers' baseline audio system. For a large proportion of popular music, that baseline is usually defined as a car stereo, a set of iPod headphones, or a cheap set of computer speakers--all of which reproduce audio in their own, ghastly manner. In order to compensate, certain portions of each song's audio spectrum are boosted to compensate for common shortcomings. As a result, listeners with properly-calibrated audio setups often run into situations where they can hear these corrections, resulting in a less-than-optimal audio experience. Amusingly, many create equalizer presets that tune their expensive audio systems to sound like cheap speakers for the moments when they encounter such music.
Another obstacle in the way of users who find the PC 350 and other high-end portable audio systems attractive is the problem of getting the microphone signals flying down the line boosted to line-level amplitude before they reach a computer's input port. For those who may not be aware of the problem, it suffices to say that the signals generated by high-quality microphones are usually too weak to be picked up by on-board audio circuitry on most computers (including all Macs). Most users will need to acquire a preamplifier like the M-Audio MobilePre USB or the Pro-Ject Head Box II to use the PC 350's microphone. While this may be too large of an obstacle for some, it is important to recognize the fact that this is a necessary requirement imposed by all high-end microphones, not an arbitrary requirement imposed by Sennheiser. If you can make the investment, the final result is audio quality that will blow away the vast majority of the users that you encounter online.
Editor's note: Sennheiser also offers the UUSB1, an adapter that converts the 3.5 mm analog jacks into a single USB connector. While this solution may not sound quite as nice as a dedicated microphone preamplifier, it is much cheaper.
Longevity and ComfortWhile one look at the PC 350 will probably turn a large portion of our readers green with envy (hence, the lack of an "aesthetics" section), looks count for nothing if the product that was designed to rest over your head for hours at a time is uncomfortable, or worse, breaks after a few weeks of use. Although it may come as a surprise, these problems are disappointingly commonplace--just recently, I had to send a brand-new review unit back to the manufacturer because of a defective cord, while at the same time, another headset that was under testing nearly snapped in half because the manufacturer decided to super-glue its plastic joints together. Sennheiser, on the other hand, has clearly taken no such manufacturing shortcuts. The headset looks like a Mercedes-Benz and feels like a tank--Sennheiser loaned Inside Mac Games this headset for nearly three months, and I cannot be more pleased at its durability so far. Thanks to metal interconnects at joints and hinges, tightly-fitting seams that do not squeak or rattle, and a cord that is amply buffered at the base of the unit, the PC 350 will likely outlast your next three or four computers (assuming you upgrade every couple of years). Even the microphone boom, which tends to be the first part of headsets to break, is still dishing out the same calculated amount of resistance as it did on the first day when I rotated it into position. In any event, should something break, all Sennheiser products carry a two-year warranty.
In terms of comfort and convenience, thoughtful touches can be found all around the headset. The muscular, yet easily adjustable headband, large earcups, and pillowy soft padding make wearing the headset a pleasure. I also liked the way that the headband's hinges "snap" into the folded position for storage, ensuring that your PC 350 does not flop open when you pick it back up. One of the more unusual features is a flexible portion of the microphone boom. Measuring two to three inches in length, this segment ensures that the boom will bend, not break, when struck. In yet another nod toward longevity, the PC 350's ear cup pads can be replaced. While this is a nice touch, it's unclear as to how many users will take advantage of it. The padding on the ear cups is so substantial that it is difficult to imagine it being ruined by simply sitting on your head, even after several years.
ConclusionIn all, Sennheiser's PC 350 headset left a terrific impression in its wake--to the point where I believe that other manufacturers should attempt to reference this design when building new products. Despite the faint bias toward high frequencies, audio input and output quality was judged to be excellent. Given the set's high price, this was a region that I approached with a particularly vicious attitude during testing, and the set passed with flying colors. Ergonomically speaking, the set is nearly unbeatable. With a muscular grip on your head and about a half-inch of some of the finest padding you can find, the PC 350 feels terrifically secure and comfortable. Although most users will need to find a microphone preamplifier to use this headset to its full ability, I have absolutely no qualms in maintaining that this headset is worth its salt. If you're a serious online gamer and music enthusiast, get this headset. It's as simple as that. Not only will your own ears thank you, but your friends' and teammates' will as well.
Pros• Brilliant aesthetics
• Bulletproof construction
• Magnificent audio reproduction
Cons• Microphone requires amplification
• Slight overemphasis of high-frequency tones