A Tale Of Two Frustrating Headphones

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

There is a version of this story where two companies, one deeply connected to gaming and one oft considered a resigned entrant, release two products targeting two ends of the gaming market. One makes a play at the more affordable end, while the other brings its particular brand of sound to a gaming market beset with excessive bass and inaccurate sound.

But that wouldn't be telling the full story.

The headsets, Sennheiser's wireless GSP 670's and the Logitech Pro X, are targeting core gamers in very different ways. Sennheiser's approach is what you'd expect from the storied audio company: a focus on accurate — or pure, depending on your point of view — sound coupled with the convenience of wireless technology and design expertise.

Logitech, which is still making a separate play into the headset market despite having purchased the Astro headset brand that specialises in $200-plus headsets of their own, has a different tack. Logitech believes crappy microphones are one of the biggest killers of gaming headsets, so the Pro X combines a headset that has a USB DAC and inbuilt technology from Blue, the makers of the popular Blue Yeti microphones. If you can combine sound that's good enough at a relatively low price point, while offering vastly improved microphone quality, that should be enough for a hyper-competitive offering at the $249 price point.

The GSP 670's, for what it's worth, will set you back $499.95. Both are compatible with consoles in different ways, either through wired/3.5mm jack connections or wirelessly via the 2.4GHz connection. (The Sennheiser's won't work with a USB-C to USB-A adapter, mind you, but most wireless adapters don't, so that's not a surprise.)

I've toiled and turned with both headsets, swapping one out for the other, comparing them against my current rig, other wireless offerings (entry level and medium tier offerings), and I've struggled with both of them for weeks. And it's because they both suffer from the same fundamental problem. The physical, raw hardware of each has a lot to love — but both are held back by the misery of software.

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

The Sennheisers are the most expensive, so we'll start with those. Sennheiser has been around the gaming space for a lot longer than most remember. Well before Razer started rolling out headphones left right and centre in the late '00s, Sennheiser headphones were some of the most common you'd find at LAN parties and particularly international Counter-Strike tournaments. Their sound profile matched the ancient CS 1.6 soundstage well, although eventually Audio Technica started to gain a reputation among the core gamer community, Plantronics muscled in below the $100 mark.

Over the last decade, Sennheiser's a brand that has been seen among gaming less and less. The GSP 670's are one move by the German brand to re-establish themselves in the space, although they're doing so at a bit of an awkward time. Affordable wireless headsets have started to become available en masse — it's an area where Corsair has done particularly well, and before their absorption into Logitech, Astro had dominated in console gaming with their Mixamps and fancy base stations.

It's not just wireless headphones that complicate the landscape for Sennheiser though. If you're prepared to spend gaming monitor-level money — or what most would drop on a GPU — for a set of headphones, there's also the incredibly tantalising option of planar headphones in the Mobius Audeze and HyperX's Cloud Orbit S. (The Cloud Orbit S are basically the same thing, but without the wireless functionality, which is fine because planar headphones aren't that comfortable on the go anyway.) And that's not to mention the increasing popularity of active noise cancelling headphones like the Sony XM3's, Bose's QC35's or their almost-released Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

Again, not all of those headphones do the same thing. But they all do something really damn well, and because nobody is going to buy everything at that price point, it's a question gamers have to ask. Do you want super-comfortable headphones that are just as quiet in the office, which are serviceable for gaming? Do you want the absolute best positional sound? Do you want the freedom of wireless headphones — and how much do you want to pay?

It's a complicated question. And as is often the case in tech, the harder and harder it gets to answering a question, the more likely people are to put their wallets away.

That impulse territory is something that Logitech know quite well, because their products oh-so-often venture beyond the normal impulse buy for a mouse or a keyboard (like that astronomically expensive $400 wireless keyboard).

But the company's hugely successful, and continues to get better year on year. And part of that was a consistent approach to build quality and the user experience across their product stack. The materials in their headsets held up. They would stand the test of time, and the comfort was reliably good at the price point. The Logitech Gaming Software experience was lightweight enough to not engender Razer Synapse-levels of frustration.

It was what you wanted from your headphones, and it synced up nicely with any Logitech mice or keyboards you had plugged in at the time.

The Logitech Pro X is the first time where that facade didn't just crack, but shattered completely.

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

Let's get this out of the way — I tried very, very hard to like the Pro X headphones. The fit on your head is one of the most comfortable from a headset I've tried this year. It's soft around the ears, and the earcups themselves aren't dust magnets like some over-ear headphones.

The metallic sheen on the outside of the Pro X's look nice, nice enough that you could remove the mic and wear them on the train without looking like too much of a dork. There's a couple of cords supplied for however you want to connect via the 3.5mm jack, whether it's directly through the USB DAC or via a splitter into your onboard sound or internal/external sound card.

All of this comes in a soft pouch that's large enough to zip up and take with you in a regular backpack. It's clean. It's neat. It's really well thought out, and its comfortable to wear for really long stretches.

It's just a crying shame that I could never get the full benefit of the card.

The big hook with the Pro X headphones are the in-built Blue microphone tech. It's supposed to elevate your voice from the bowels of tinny, distant hell that is most mics on gaming headsets. What makes it genuinely interesting, though, is the customisations.

Not only can you mess with the EQ of the microphone — which isn't that special by itself — but you have an extra set of advanced controls for the high-pass filter, limiter, noise gate, noise reduction, compressor, and more. All of these options can then be saved into a separate profile that can be uploaded and downloaded via the Logitech G Hub's equivalent of the Steam Workshop. But instead of downloading mods, you can get preferred voice profiles from sponsored players, fans who have just mucked around with weird profiles, or just simple tweaks. It's part of why the new Logitech software takes up more space and demands more RAM than its predecessor, but the benefits should win out over time.

Where it all falls down, however, is simple compatibility. In the first week of using the Pro X, the software disagreed so badly that I downgraded from Windows 10 1903 in the hopes of resolving a driver conflict. The software was consistently hanging whenever I'd go to use it, becoming non-responsive as soon as I tried playing back new EQ settings, or even just trying to shift the window from one monitor to the next.

The behaviour persisted on Windows 10 1803 as well, and after doing a system reset (which resulted in a thoroughly grumpy weekend) and re-upgrading to version 1903 again, nothing changed. The only way I could get the Logitech software to consistently behave — which you need to unlock the headset's full potential — was by not using the supplied USB DAC at all.

For some reason, the DAC simply wasn't playing nicely with Windows. It wasn't an unknown issue: I contacted Logitech's local PR, and they advised me that they knew of a small number of users who were suffering from driver conflicts. Those errors were supposed to be rectified in future updates, I was told, but more than a fortnight after waiting for those — and receiving newer public builds of the software — Logitech's G Hub was still playing up.

What this meant in practice was that the cool functionality of the Blue microphone was, effectively, null and void. I couldn't test it out or make adjustments because it'd cause the process to slow down, and my entire system by extension. Frustratingly, I had the same issue when trying the Pro X on a work PC — a Ryzen 1700X setup, wholly different from the Intel machine I use at home.

The two machines couldn't be anymore different. I gave the Pro X's a whirl with the Sound BlasterX G6 external sound card that I tested recently, and they worked well with that — but the point of buying a $249 set of gaming headphones isn't so you then plug them into a card that's just over $200 itself. The headsets did work without issue, however, which just reconfirmed what the problem was.

Intensely frustrated, I put the Logitech Pro X down and thought, well, the GSP 670's should at least be more fun to use.

Gracefully, the GSP 670's caused no such software errors on either my work or home rigs. The Sennheiser Gaming Suite is pretty small, and fairly minimalist compared to the functionality of Logitech's grander suite. You're given only two main panels: one which showcases the current equaliser setup, and gives you the ability to switch between two channel and simulated 7.1 surround sound with a reverb function, and a tab for monitoring the microphone levels and adjusting the noise gate, cancellation and "warm" or "clear" settings for the voice.

There's a third settings tab that lets you adjust the functionality of one of the buttons on the GSP 670's, but beyond that you'll spend most of your time dealing with the dials and buttons in the first two. And let me be clear about this — you are dealing with dials, programmed to behave like actual volume dials on a computer program that you are controlling with a mouse.

Why was the software not coded so the dials would recognise if you were simply moving the mouse left and right? You have to left click down and move the mouse around the dials like it was an actual dial, which is seventh circle of hell levels of aggravating. Or, if you want, instant karma for the arsehole design subreddit.

What frustrates me the most, however, is the battery life. The GSP 670's have a maximum quoted battery life of 16 hours using the wireless connection — 20 hours if you're using them via Bluetooth, but if you're gaming you'll also use the former — but in practice, I never got more than ten hours. It was hard to get a proper gauge of how much battery I had left as well, because the software would always report a different amount of battery to the headset itself (there's a toggle on the left cup, which triggers a female voice that tells you the battery percentage remaining).

If that wasn't a large enough red flag, the software had problems of its own. Audio tests sometimes randomly refused to work. Starting the software would also cause the noise cancellation to noticeably kick in, but you'd also hear that noise cancellation occasionally drop out and restart if you didn't have any music or sound playing.

The software also, for no reason at all, refuses to function occasionally. Take this paragraph that I'm writing this second. I've got the microphone monitor page on a second screen, where the sidetone is set to maximum and the noise cancellation is on medium. If the Sennheiser Gaming Suite is the primary focus — aka. I've selected the window — then I can hear how loud I'm typing, background noise from the street outside, and what you'd expect the microphone to pick up.

But if I switch to anything else, like a Chrome window, Overwatch or any other program, the sidetone cuts out and the software stops monitoring levels. Part of the benefit of having sidetone — if you like it at all — is that you can keep a track on how loud your voice is while playing, so you don't end up screaming into the mic without realising it. Having a gauge of your mic levels at all times also gives you a genuine, helpful indication of what your noise gate should be set at. (The noise gate was fully disabled during this, for obvious reasons.) You're never going to speak at normal volumes and normal cadence staring into the Sennheiser software — it'll be when you're playing a game, recording a podcast, or doing literally anything else.

But as I finish writing this paragraph, for no reason whatsoever, I could hear the sidetone again. The active noise cancellation clicked in the earcups, and I could hear the typing through the microphone for a brief moment.

Not exactly the user experience you'd want for $499.95.

But after all of those frustrations, the GSP 670's have plenty of strengths of their own. Sennheiser has been servicing audiophiles since day dot and that experience shows a lot when compared to regular gaming headphones.

The fit of the GSP 670's is decent with its split headband design, although it's not the most comfortable headset I've used. What I'd like to see other manufacturers copy, however, is the sturdiness of the chassis design. There's a large volume control on the right ear cup that you turn like a massive dial, and if you turn the whole thing off it disconnects the headset entirely. It's quite stiff, so you need a bit of force to move it, which means you're never going to accidentally annihilate your ears by turning the volume up full ball.

The GSP 670's come with Sennheiser's standard bidirectional microphone, which is clearer than most gaming headsets I've used this year off the bat — although the difference between the warm and clear presets was negligible. The GSP 670's don't leak a lot of sound, and while they're not actively noise cancelling in the same way a Sony XM3's or Bose QC35's might, they do a solid job of keeping noise from the outside out.

The supplied 7.1 surround sound mode by default takes some getting used to — these are Sennheiser headphones after all, and to most people and gamers they will sound flat initially. That's especially true if you have any preset enabled, and that experience alone might be enough of a dealbreaker. It's a solid reminder of how subjective audio is, and a solid reminder that any headset — at any price — deserves a test run before buying. The characteristic lack of punch and bass particularly in the mid-tones and bottom end are something that most gamers will miss, since that's what many have become accustomed to. (I still have a soft spot for the extra mid-bass in my Philips Fidelio X2HR's, which make movies, games and EDM a little more fun to listen to, although it comes at the cost of some positional accuracy in many FPS games. You can't have everything.)

But no matter how hard I tried to get truly comfortable with the GSP 670's, I'd run into the same problems. I'd get a voice prompt telling me to recharge the headset far quicker than I expected, no matter what the software told me. The software would never work quite the way it should, and after that, there was the $499.95 wall.

I haven't paid for either set of headphones, to be absolutely clear. Both were review units supplied by their respective manufacturers. But the most telling aspects, having the good bit of luck where both were available to me at the same time, was what headset I wanted to use when I wasn't focusing on work.

And the answer was: neither.

I wanted to use the Logitech Pro X's more, because the comfort and the fit was so, so good. The Blue functionality, if it worked, is a really neat idea. But I do take issue with the fact that you're paying $250 for a set of super comfortable headphones with a fancy microphone. The actual audio quality doesn't come close to the clarity or versatility of other headphones you can buy at that price point. My beloved X2HR's late last week were available through Amazon for just over $200. You can get cheaper level noise-cancelling headphones for around the $250 mark. And even though you'd need to find another solution for the microphone, the exceedingly good Sony XM3's will probably go for $250, if not less, this Black Friday.

Sure, they're not a gaming headset. But I know sure as well what set of cans people would rather live with on a daily basis, and the XM3's aren't bad for gaming. And that's not even getting into the solid Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro open-backs (or the closed back DT770's), the Audio Technica M50x's for under $200 that basically everyone owned at some stage, entry-level wireless headphones (Corsair's are still a great option here). And then you've got the specialist gaming gear, with the recently announced Steelseries Arctis 1, which works with the Switch (and basically everything else) via a USB-C dongle and 2.4GHz wireless.

And that's what kills both sets of headsets. If you want to play the value card, there's better offerings either for cheaper, or at the same price point. If you want the most functionality, or better functionality, they lose out on those regards as well. I can't fault the clarity of the GSP 670's profile, but you can also spend exactly the same amount of money to get a set of planar headphones that will annihilate the GSP 670's in any video game you care to play. They're heavier, don't have wireless functionality, but if you're genuinely considering the GSP 670's then you're thinking about gaming as the primary application. So why wouldn't you just buy the better, higher end headphones at the same price point?

Both companies can bounce back, though. Logitech's peripherals have been steadily growing in popularity for a reason, and the company can't afford for the brand to get trashed because the software suite uniting them all together has fallen down a flight of stairs. Similarly, Sennheiser has been in the audio game — and gaming audio — for far too long. They'll refine the chassis, work on the battery life, and hopefully improve their software to something more functional and more befitting of the price point. Until then, however, there's just too many reasons to keep your wallet tucked away.


Comments

    I have a pair of the 670's, they are a flawed headphone, but I still believe they are the best wireless (fps?) gaming headphone available right now on the market. (and please, if you want these for music, look elsewhere).

    Why? Because the 7.1 DSP that comes with these is ridiculously on point, and because they are tuned relatively flat, undirectional bass doesn't envelope positional audio.

    For headset comfort, GSP 500 cups will fit on the 670 no dramas (and I've done this with my 670). It also opens up the sound stage a touch. Also on useability, why has no one else copied Sennheiser with the boom mic and volume (click up its muted, volume all the way down is off). It makes anytime I use my LucidSound LS35x's feel like a chore.

    But yes, they are flawed. For example, I have issues with the 670 where audio on the main channel will kill sound on the voip channel (meaning discord voice gets processed thru 7.1 which I hate). Furthermore on the mic, the bitrate is ridiculously low, and even though its the same mic as on the GSP500\600 which is great, means it records much worse. I've been getting around 16 hours or so battery life so not sure why yours is so bad, but compared to Steelseries replaceable batteries, its a bit of a tough cookie to swallow still IMO.
    And the less said about the Software the better (but I guess its okay since I use these exclusively for gaming I don't need to go in there much, with my Schiit Jotunheim + Fluid Audio FPX7's and Beyerdynamic T1's on music duty).

    One day someone will master wireless headphones that can pull duties for gaming. Today is not that day.

      Plenty of other headsets mute the boom mic when you flip it up/down (Astro's have done this for ages, as a quick example).

        Yeah okay, there is someone (although the last time I used Astro's was when Destiny 1 came out and needed a headset for my PS4 and haven't looked at any Astro's since because their tuning is so terrible).

    Sounds like I won't be moving on from my trusty AT PDG-1s anytime soon.

    I really should do something about the cable on them, though. It's started to fray recently.

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