Buying a pair of gaming headphones is a complicated process. Wired or wireless? Closed or open earcups? Stereo or surround sound? Integrated or detachable microphone? Turtle Beach's top PC gaming headset, the Ear Force Z300 Wireless, is chock-full of high-tech wizardry, and it doesn't come at too great a cost to overall sound quality.
What Is It?
The Turtle Beach Ear Force Z300 Wireless Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound PC Gaming Headset -- hereinafter 'Z300', because that's a ridiculously long name -- is a wireless surround sound headset, using Dolby's 7.1-channel faux-surround software to split regular stereo audio into eight different channels, which are then downmixed back into stereo and delivered to your ears courtesy of two hulking 50mm speaker drivers.
The headphones are wireless when you use them with the bundled dongle, which uses dual-band Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth for apparently superior audio quality. You can also connect them to your laptop or other mobile device with Bluetooth if you don't want to use Wi-Fi or don't want surround sound, or you can opt for good ol'-fashioned wired audio courtesy of the 3.5mm audio jack on the lower left earcup. They charge over mini-USB -- the connector is on the lower right earcup -- and claim 15 hours of battery life while gaming.
The USB dongle is the key to using the Z300 Wireless on your computer. The setup procedure is simple enough -- plug in the dongle, download the Z300's software from Turtle Beach's website, and run the installer. After that, you'll have to select the headphones as an audio playback device in Windows, since they don't automatically set themselves as the default for some reason.
What Is It Good At?
The Z300 Wireless headset is very well put together. There's no sumptuous leatherette a la i30, but the mesh fabric and combination of glossy and matte plastic makes for a pair of headphones that feel solid and should stand the test of time. Whether the bright black and red design is particularly fashionable is another question altogether, but as gaming headsets go it's not too gaudy.
The headset's headband is just right. It's not easy to find a pair of headphones that are easily adjustable over a wide size range, have a good level of clamping force but don't place any undue strain on your head or ears, but Turtle Beach's Z300 headset is easy to wear over several hours without any noticeable discomfort or fatigue setting in. Part of that comes from the headset's relatively light weight, but the curve of the headband and its soft padding contributes greatly to comfort and it's spot on with the Z300.
The inclusion of a removable microphone is an excellent feature on the Z300. The mic itself is reasonably good, too -- it's not quite as clear as my current favourite on the Sennheiser PC 363D, but it's perfectly capable of picking clear voice conversations during in-game chat or for Skype video calls. The Z300 uses a standard 2.5mm connector for the microphone, so presumably you could replace it with a separate lapel mic if you wanted to.
Sound quality out of the Z300 Wireless is, by and large, pretty damn good. The headset competes with other high-end gaming models like Sennheiser's PC 363D and G4ME and Plantronics' top-of-the-line models, with heavy booming bass when you want it, solid clear treble response and a reasonable amount of mid-range detail. As headsets go, it's impressive, and doe If I had a complaint about the Z300's sound it would be that it's not especially impressive sounding -- there's not a great deal of emphasis on either the lower or higher frequencies, and sometimes the headset feels a little more focused on music listening rather than gaming.
It's most telling that there's only the most minor of differences between the wireless USB dongle and directly plugging the Z300 in via traditional stereo audio -- there's no deleterious audio compression taking place over wireless, so you don't need to worry about getting the absolute most out of your new 'phones when they're connected wirelessly. There is the slightest amount of noticeable audio compression over Bluetooth, though, so use this as a last resort.
You can tweak the Z300's sound, either by enabling Dolby Headphone in software or by selecting one of the equaliser presets. The EQ presets are basic -- there's treble boost, bass boost, and treble and bass boost -- but they don't do a huge amount to colour the sound that you're hearing. Dolby Headphone and the Z300's 7.1-channel software, though, does a huge amount to increase the soundstage of the headphones. The already expansive soundstage is boosted even further through software, and the end result is a gaming headset that is a genuine advantage during competitive FPS gaming -- it really is a big help, in concert with a game engine with good sound quality, to hear audio in a 3D space.
The standout feature, though, is Turtle Beach's dynamic range compression mode. As much as I don't like a pair of headphones that mucks around with the sound that I'm listening to, the sound normalising function on the Z300 Wireless did an excellent job of bringing especially loud audio -- explosions in games and movies, for example -- down to regular volume levels. It's easily switchable with the buttons on the headphones if you're not a fan, but I opted to leave it on for almost all the time that I used the Z300.
What Is It Not Good At?
If you want to use the Z300 away from your PC, you can use Bluetooth to wirelessly connect your iPhone or Android phone, or a tablet if you so desire. It's up to you, but I wouldn't be walking out of the house with these, since they shout "gamer" a little too loudly -- something like the aforementioned i30 makes more sense for everyday wear. Similarly, the choice of mini-USB for battery charging on the Z300 means you'll need to carry an extra cable with you if you're travelling with them.
Turtle Beach also suggests you pair your headset with your laptop and smartphone simultaneously, so you can listen to multiple audio streams or take a call while gaming, but I wasn't able to get that feature working despite trying a dozen times -- every time I tried to pair a second Bluetooth device the first would be disabled. I wouldn't take this as standard practice, but it's clear that Turtle Beach's Bluetooth setup procedure needs a little work.
The battery life from the Z300 Wireless in my experience is OK, but not up to Turtle Beach's claims. Over three successive charge and discharge cycles, I only managed an average of just over 10 hours of mid-volume level battery life. This is a good result from a gaming headset using Wi-Fi, but in light of the manufacturer's 15 hour claim, it's an underperformance. I'll keep wearing and using them to see if battery life improves over a longer period.
Wireless range from the Z300 was mediocre, despite Turtle Beach's lofty suggestions of dual-band Wi-Fi. I was expecting superior performance to a pair of Bluetooth headphones, but the Z300 Wireless headset dropped out at around the same distance as the i30, starting to lose connection with my PC after around 10 metres of line-of-sight distance through a single wall. If you're in a place with lots of Wi-Fi interference or heavy brick walls, you'll have less range agin.
At the end of the day, too, I think surround sound in headphones is a bit of a gimmick. I'd prefer a pair of headphones that can perform at their best with a stereo audio source, without software tweaking and adjusting the sound that I'm hearing. As surround sound headphones go, the Z300 is one of the better pairs that I've heard, but I still prefer regular stereo. That's not a slight against the Z300, but more a recommendation to think carefully about what kind of headphones you want to buy in the first place.
Should You Buy It?
Turtle Beach's Z300 Wireless headset is one of the better gaming headsets I've tested, and one of the better surround sound headphones as well. Their feature-packed design should draw in some buyers looking for the latest and greatest, too. This headset sits right at the top of my list of preferred gaming headphones, with the caveat of its surround sound not suiting every taste.
I'd be cautious about recommending the Z300 to anybody and everybody who wants a great gaming headset, but if you know that you want wireless, and you want surround sound, and you want the Z300's bells and whistles, go for it -- you won't be disappointed with what you get.