Our First Take
With an uptick in the number of gaming headsets on stores shelves, it's hard to miss the writing on the wall: Gamers are starting to shape the personal audio market. With legendary manufacturers like Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic cashing in on this segment, it's only natural for others to follow suit.
At the same time, gamers have become more demanding of their headsets, and have slowly become willing to shell out more money for them. It makes sense: Headphones are something you're going to be wearing for a long time, and while you're paying for comfort—performance should match the price, right?
Audio-Technica has taken notice, and at the 2014 International CES, debuted two gaming headsets: the ATH-ADG1 and the ATH-AG1. Like their naming convention suggests, the ATH-ADG1 is open-backed, while the ATH-AG1 is closed. They're based on the designs of older headphones, and address some of the most common complaints leveled at headsets.
Design & Usability
Comfort and utility top concerns for headsets
Because gamers have different priorities than audiophiles do, gaming headsets provide a different challenge to manufacturers. Top concerns for this population are comfort and utility—each headset is going to be worn for hours at a time, and if the mic or connections are difficult to use in-game, the headset will get benched for another model.
With that in mind, both sets of cans have the 3D paddle headband design found on the ATH-AD700s combined with super-large ear cups, meaning you'll be able to wear them for hours upon hours without hurting your ears. Additionally, the articulating microphone is not only beefy, but sensitive—so no aspect of these cans will tax your patience.
Since it's tough to make a "perfect" headset, Audio-Technica made two: a closed-back model and an open-back model. Each of these cater to a different gamer: The open-backed model is for someone who has a quiet environment and games with nuanced music (think RPGs, real-time strategy games), and the closed-back cans are for somewhat noisier environments, as they offer better isolation.
Plain cans, with a twist
Feature-wise, these headsets aren't much more than Audio-Technica's premium cans with a mic stuck on 'em, and that's really okay. Search the right forums and you'll find recommendations to buy a set of ATH-AD700s, and simply mod them. Audio-Technica is just selling what people were already making at home.
However, there is one curveball that comes with the purchase of one of these headsets, and that's the included small amplifier/DAC combo. Now, despite what some may tell you, an amp is only necessary when the source of whatever you're listening to isn't powerful enough to juice the headphones (or speakers) you're using. Though it's a useful feature, it will hardly be necessary for most computers. An impedance of 38Ω and sensitivity of 100dB/mW means that the ATH-ADG1 and ATH-AG1 can be used near-perfectly with most computers.
However, electromagnetic radiation on the inside of a laptop can sometimes introduce teeny-tiny imperfections in the signal sent to your ears. In this event, the USB amp/DAC combo used by the ATH-ADG1 and ATH-AG1 sidestep these issues entirely by acting as its own sound card. It does not make a difference in audio quality whether you use the 6.6-foot extension cable for longer-range use, or stick with the 3.3-foot stock cable. Both the ATH-ADG1 and ATH-AG1's cables terminate in 1/8th-inch male microphone jacks, along with separate 1/8th-inch male headphone jacks.
Now for the microphone. Those of you not familiar with audio creation may not be aware that many of the big headphone companies have a huge part of their business tied up in microphone production as well. After using these headsets on the show floor, it's very obvious that Audio-Technica brought its know-how to this area of the cans, because the in-game voice sounds great.
It's a sad reality for every gamer that they are—at some point—eventually forced to interact with the outside world. So the mute button found on the opposite side of the swivel is a welcome addition. After all, your teammates don't want to hear you bargaining for more time to take the trash out anyway.
Audio-Technica didn't re-invent the wheel, nor did they cobble something together out of parts laying around. Instead, they took what enthusiasts already recommended to others, and built upon that—a solid strategy.
Taking proven hardware and adapting it to suit new needs is about as logical of a step one could possibly take in terms of courting gamers, especially considering many gaming headsets fall far short of the mark in audio quality. But, is the ATH-AG1 worth $249.99 to gamers? Is the open-backed ATH-ADG1 worth $299.99? It's a considerable price point when you consider many gaming headsets are below $200.
Gamers looking for headsets that can swing both games and music will appreciate these because that's exactly what they were designed for in the first place—the biggest difference between these cans and Audio-Technica's headphone line is the inclusion of a microphone. We'll have to give these a spin in our labs to see how they perform, but if it's true that the guts of these headsets are very similar to the headphones they resemble, they've got a lot of hype to live up to.