The thing I like about ASUS as a company is that they sell products that others would never greenlight past the prototyping stage, let alone go to market. The ROG Theta Electret is one of those products.
The first thing you notice about the Theta Electret is that they’re massive. They’re actually the first gaming headset of its kind in Australia, using electret drivers instead of the standard dynamic drivers or planar drivers that you’d see on the market today. And because they’re using technology that you’d ordinarily only find in proper hi-fi audio equipment, the Theta Electret’s have a similar price. They cost $549 at the time of writing, and they’re only stocked at PLE Computers.
Electret drivers are similar to electrostatic in that electret headphones hold a static charge within them, and they don’t need to be driven by a separate headphone amplifier. For regular gamers, that means you can just plug them into a standard 3.5mm jack and they’ll work, although you’ll notice that the volume will be a lot lower than other 3.5mm headphones or anything powered over USB-C.
When I was first introduced to the Electret’s at Computex last year, ASUS explained that they originally removed the bass driver. The idea was that the ROG Theta and Theta Electret would get more accurate surround sound by allowing for the other drivers in the headsets to be larger. The bass was provided by a dynamic bass driver to cover any audio frequencies between 20 and 7500Hz, so while the Theta Electret’s are capable of reproducing bass, you’ll certainly notice the difference – but I’ll get into that later.
If you're designing a set of headphones, and you want the fullest, most accurate sound, normally you'd try and wedge larger and bigger speakers into your headphones so you can fully replicate each of the channels in 7.1 surround sound. But what if most games don't actually support 7.1 surround sound, or the support isn't good? That's what ASUS found during the production of their latest headsets, so they made a rather interesting call.Read more
I’ve got a separate headphone amplifier on my desk that plugs into my motherboard, and for the majority of my testing I had the ROG Theta Electret plugged into that. That helped a lot, largely because the Theta Electret’s non-detachable cable is quite short at 1.5m long. (If your PC case is tucked under your desk, you might find it a bit of a stretch.)
As for the volume issue: I have most of my headphones running at somewhere between 15 to 20 percent on Windows, but without the amp, the Electret’s needed to run at around 80 percent to hit a similar volume. Naturally, ASUS recommends using the Theta Electret’s with a separate headphone amp or DAC.
Asking for the same amount as high-end wireless or planar headphones means ASUS couldn’t skimp on the trimmings. So the Electret’s come in a suitably enormous box. Inside you’ll find two sets of removable pads for the Electrets, a removal microphone, and an audio splitter.
The splitter is essential since it’ll extend your cable’s reach to 2.7m, which should be fine for most PCs (and if you’re playing the Switch in portable mode). On consoles, however, it could be a limit depending on how far away your hi-fi audio setup is: you can obviously just plug the Electrets into the headphone jack in your controllers, but you might run into volume issues – controllers aren’t really designed to drive hi-fi headphones.
Beyond the quick start guide, that’s pretty much it. An important note is that you’ll want to install ASUS’s Sonic Studio 3 software app, which gives you a set of EQ profiles that vastly improve the Electret’s standard output. You can apply a general EQ to the whole device, including a range of presets for non-ASUS headphones, as well as specific “Sonic Studio Effects” for surround sound, bass and treble boosts, voice clarity, and improved volume.
There’s some distortion-free tech in the boom microphone, too. But it’s still a small unidirectional boom microphone that’s largely no better or worse than a lot of the other headphones at this price point. It’s serviceable, but nowhere near the presence or clarity that you’d get from a proper standalone microphone/boom arm.
Let me be absolutely clear about this: the Sonic Studio effects should be considered mandatory. Without them, the Electrets will sound tinny, distant and just lacking any sense of presence. That’s especially true if you’re not using an amplifier, but if you don’t have one, then you shouldn’t be considering a set of electret headphones in the first place.
With a bit of configuration, you can get a much richer, deeper experience from the Electrets. It can’t completely make up for some of the design decisions, though. The simple act of shooting an AK-47 in Counter-Strike, for instance, just doesn’t have that same oomph or punch that you’d normally expect. And that’s the nature of ASUS making a set of dual-drivers to begin with: to bring that bass into the sound, a ton of engineering has to go into making a smooth roll-off between the electret drivers and the dynamic bass driver.
There’s a good reason why dual-driver headphones are pretty rare. Apart from the expense and technical difficulty in making sure the drivers don’t interfere or resonate against each other, it’s also just a pain getting a good balance with the sound. And the Electret’s main problem is that you’ll always notice that lack of bass, whether it’s in the sound of a bullet, the line of your favourite song, the audio cue of an ultimate about to drop in Overwatch, or the lack of presence in an explosion.
The Electret’s still have excellent distance and depth perception in games, and I’ve no complains against their aural precision. It didn’t wow me quite as much as the first time I tried the Mobius Audeze planar headphones, but it’s undoubtedly an upgrade on the vast majority of gaming headsets out there.
The Electret’s main kicker is that it’s hi-fi equipment targeted at gamers that don’t necessarily have a background with hi-fi gear. The venn diagram of audiophiles and gamers isn’t huge, not to mention the amount of games that take full advantage of said gear. For regular gamers looking to really shell out on a premium set of headphones, requiring a separate amplifier, and the necessary customisation of the equaliser and settings, will be a step too far.
The design of the Electret’s are a barrier too. They’re an enormous set of cans, and the weight will be a bit much for some. They’re actually more comfortable than they look, thanks to the way the earcups completely envelop your ears, but not everyone will enjoy the weight on the crown of your head.
Other headphones also just have more impact the moment you put them on. The Electret’s don’t leave a great first impression, partially because they don’t have any presets built into the headphones. Other manufacturers have worked out solutions to this, and it’d be good in future versions for ASUS to go down this path.
With all of this, it’s just fascinating to me that the Electret’s exist at all. There are so many points during the design and build process where I could have seen other companies shutting the project down entirely: the problems with dual-drivers, issues with pricing, the software experience, and the raw size of electret headphones to begin with.
There are a lot more competitive headsets at the $500 mark. You can get cheaper wireless headsets, headsets that have impressive 3D tech, headsets that are easier to wear, and all of them will function happily without the hassle of a separate amp or customisation.
ASUS still deserve some credit, though. I can’t think of another company that would have forged ahead with a product like this. And that’s ultimately good for gamers. Companies trying things that might not work will, at some stage, result in innovations that everyone benefits from. That doesn’t mean you should invest $549 to support future innovations, but the effort is certainly worth appreciating.