Let me tell you about one of the best gaming moments of last year.
Like most gamers, I like to fiddle with things. I have a stress ball and a cricket ball in the office for the very reason. It gives me something to play with; it gives me order. And now I have something just as good: the magnetic wireless dock of the Astro A50s.
If you've watched any console esports or console streams on Twitch, you'll have seen the Astro brand plenty. They're famous for their headset and MixAmp combo with their A30 and A40 headsets.
The best offering in their product line, however, is the latest generation of the A50s. And that's because they come with this wonderful wireless station.
Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker
But let's get to the basics. The A50s come in two models: a black and blue-themed model for the PlayStation 4, and a green-skinned version for the Xbox One. Both versions are compatible with PC and Mac, and you toggle between the two by flicking a switch located on the side of the wireless dock. Either model is available locally starting from about $460, although availability may differ (some stores I checked, for instance, only had the PS4 version in stock).
The biggest drawcard is the docking station, and it comes with plenty of functionality. Like the previous generation, the A50s support optical audio, optical passthrough and an auxiliary input if you want to connect another audio source.
Charging is done via a set of magnetic connectors on the base of the left and right earcups, although occasionally it can take a little bit of jiggling before the headphones sit properly. The headphones themselves have plenty of knobs as well: the exterior of the right cup acts as a massive button for adjusting the balance between chat and game audio, while the bottom of the right cup has a wheel for adjusting the overall volume. There's a button to toggle Dolby surround sound, and another button to select one of three equaliser presets.
The EQ settings are customisable through a separate app, downloaded from the Astro website. On the left earpiece is a flexible microphone, which automatically mutes whenever its flipped back. The headphones will also automatically turn themselves off whenever you take them off your head, and the whole charging station is powered via the ubiquitous micro-USB.
The base station is by far and away the best feature. Apart from the fact that you can just pop the headset up and down all day, it's well designed. There's a small light readout on the front right hand side telling you how much charge you've got left, whether surround sound is enabled, and whether console or PC mode is engaged. (That's indicated by a change in colour, which is really neat.)
The unit itself is small, looks neat either on a TV stand or your PC desk, and is powered by the same cord that looks after your Android phone and Xbox One/DualShock 4 controllers. It's quite light, which is nice if you want to carry the station around to LANs or to/from work.
The battery life is fantastic. While anything with a battery will lose its charge over time, the A50s out of the box will keep their charge for about 14-15 hours on end. That was my testing, incidentally, although it matches up with what Astro themselves have quoted. That's a substantial improvement on the first-generation A50s, and about the right amount of time you want for any wireless headset.
The wireless distance is particularly short, though. My kitchen is several metres from my living room and bedroom (both of which have consoles and PCs plugged in). That's too far for the base receiver though: the sound and microphone both start to drop out as soon as I'm more than a few metres away. Given that Astro's site quotes the wireless range at 30ft, or just over 9 metres, it's a bit disappointing but not a dealbreaker.
The surround sound isn't the best. The main problem with gaming headphones is that they're often optimised to sound good in video games, but a little lacking when it comes to music and movies. That's the case with the A50s too. The surround sound is a little wooden and enclosed, and I ended up running mostly with the surround sound off for a clearer, cleaner experience.
The microphone is flexible, but it's not great. The audio out of the mic is compressed, which is a bit disappointing for a key part of a product costing more than $450. It's serviceable, but irrespective of what preset you use it'll never come close to the quality of a standalone mic (like any of the offerings from Audio Technica, RODE or Blue).
That said, the microphone automatically mutes when flipped up which is a great quality-of-life addition. It also naturally lines up along the side of the headset, instead of angling towards your mouth. That means it never gets in the way if you want to have a drink, something all gamers can appreciate.
Switching from PC to console is a bit trickier than it seems. If you want to have the base station hooked up at all times, the base station has to be close enough so that the optical cable can reach to one while the micro-USB plug reaches to another. The optical and micro-USB cables are only a metre long, which isn't a great deal to begin with. That's not the only quirk though: if the PS4 is turned on and you're trying to use the A50s through the PC, you won't be able to get surround sound (even if the base station is switched to PC) until the PS4 is set into sleep mode.
The earcups are magnetic and replaceable. All headphones suffer from wear and tear over time, and one of the first items to fray is the earcups. Fortunately they're easily replaceable via a small notch at the top. They clasp on magnetically, and you can get replacement earcups that are more encapsulated if you don't like the furry softness of the default pads. You can also get a replacement headband,
The headset is on the heavier side, but still very comfortable. Your mileage may vary, but I've grown up with a lot of oversized headphones and headsets. The A50s are on the larger side, with my ears fitting completely inside the headset. It's fairly comfy though: even after around 8 hour sessions of Destiny or Final Fantasy, I had no issues at all.
The price will be too much for some. As much as I've enjoyed the A50s, be under no delusion: you are paying for convenience. It's certainly the nicest gaming headset I've listened to in a long while, and the wireless charging station is fantastic. But that doesn't mean it's worth nearly $500, especially if you're an audiophile. You can get cheaper wireless headphones as well - like the Sennheiser RS120 II - and have plenty of money for a separate microphone and stand.
That convenience, mind you, is pretty damn good. It just depends on how much you're prepared to pay. I know some gamers who won't spend anything more than $200 on their audio, standalone speakers, headphones or headsets. I can understand the frugality, but it's a bit nonsensical: if you're going to spend hundreds of dollars on a PC or a console, and you game on it regularly, you should be prepared to spend at least the same amount of money on the unit that reproduces the sound.
It's a basic rule of thumb that applies when purchasing TVs, and it's a good yardstick to keep in mind for gaming. If you don't mind the hassle of cables, you can save a lot of money - but then you won't get that sexy charging station, and you don't get to do this all day.