Over the years I have watched 5.1 grow from a new and unfamiliar technology to something now found in most modern homes. Of course, when the technology first came out it was quite expensive and the performance was not fantastic. But now, we are seeing full 5.1 systems selling for under a $100 and every sound card also now offering at least 5.1 channel onboard audio.
Today we have a totally new product from a new company with hopes of shaking up everyone's idea of what 5.1 sound is and how it should sound to the listener. The company I'm talking about here is Sharkoon and what they have is a pair of headphones containing eight, yes, eight speakers! - Their main goal with the X-Tatic is to provide thrilling surround sound to the user in either analog or digital mode, all the while keeping to the benefits a pair of good headphones has to offer over a typical speaker setup.
I'm really looking forward to seeing just how well the surround experience comes across to the user in this tight space; something most other companies haven't been able to accomplish very effectively with their 5.1 headphone designs thus far. Let's now push onward and see what Sharkoon has in store for us with the X-Tatic Digital 5.1 headphones.
Package and Contents
The Package and Contents
Right then; let's first take a closer look at the contents of the package and see what's included.
As you can see above, the headphones come in a sturdy plastic molded package with lots of bright and 'attention getting' labels spelling out what the product is and what it's called.
Over all, it's not a bad design, but personally I think it lacks the pristine elegance of some of the other designs I've seen lately.
What do we get inside the green and black package? - Well, quite a lot actually; considering the simple nature of the product.
First up, we get the headset of course, but we also have a plethora of other cables included. In the box is a small black decoder that's used to decode Dolby Digital information. There's also an analog adapter for non-digital material, a wired in volume control, a (brief) manual, a small microphone, a USB cable for the latter and a power cable that provides separate power to the decoder box and the headset.
Lastly, is a tiny little cable used with the Xbox 360 controller, so obviously Sharkoon has given the user everything needed to take full advantage of these impressive headphones, whatever your hardware may be.
Usually when you think of headphones in general terms, you do not think of something possessing a vast amount of technology.
However, these are; 'not your ad-ver-age headphones yogi'. In fact, as mentioned in opening, they contain eight separate speakers. There are four in each ear piece to deliver stunning 5.1 surround sound in a super controlled environment; that being, your head!
Now let's take a quick look at some specs straight from the horse's mouth.
5.1 channel headset
8 speakers (4 in each ear piece)
Digital, in-line volume control
High end amplifier
Independent, illuminated volume adjustment for each channel and master volume
Detachable microphone with QuickOn connection
Supports Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Pro Logic
Supports the chat function of PS3, Xbox and Xbox 360
Dynamic Range Control
Center speaker: 2 x 27 mm
Front speaker: 2 x 30 mm
Rear speaker: 2 x 30 mm
Subwoofer: 2 x 40 mm
Impedance: 32 Ohm
Microphone: 6 x 5 mm (L x W) / unidirectional
Cable Length: 360 cm
Connection: 1 x 9-pin analogue plug
Digital optical input (S/PDIF)
2 analogue audio outputs for the X-Tatic headset
3 analogue 3.5 mm audio outputs (front, rear, center / subwoofer)
1 microphone connector for PS3 (USB A -> USB B)
1 power connector
Dimensions: 15 x 122 x 56 mm (H x L x W)
Weight: 110 g
PC / MAC / other sources: analogue input (via cable adapter)
Xbox / Xbox 360: optical input
PS2 / PS3: optical input / USB microphone connection
PC / MAC: optical input / analogue or USB microphone input
DVD / other sources: optical input
Okay; so we can begin to understand at this point that they promise a lot in terms of innovation and performance along with features and compatibility. In fact, Sharkoon really have set the bar high for themselves here.
But to simplify this whole section of the review, what these headphones must do is quite simply 'create' an environment in the users head that sounds like they are in the center of a 5.1 channel system.
Sound easy? - Well it is not by a long, long stretch. Please also refer to my recent interview regarding another company's foray into the same market share; that being Psyko Audio Labs.
One of the main and most straight forward reasons this is not an easy task is because we only have two ears in order to hear with and delivering six channels of audio evenly across two ears is nothing short of a challenge, no-matter who's competing.
In terms of connectivity, the user can choose either optical 'toslink' or stereo mini-jack; the former being digital and the latter analog. For digital the headphones connect to the decoder via a nine pin connector, while for analog the same nine pin plug gets used, but instead it terminates with the three mini-jacks rather than the decoder unit.
So, from a technical standpoint this product sets out to not only cover a new and exciting sector of the market, but to also leave an indelible impression on it. With a heap of support ranging from Xbox/PS3, to well; just about anything you might want to connect in either digital or analog 5.1, Sharkoon sets the bar way up high for themselves and next up I'll see whether or not they make the mark.
Setup and Installation
Once everything is unpacked and ready to go, the user must first decide what these headphones are going to be connected to and then whether or not it is a digital or analog connection that is going to be made.
For arguments sake I have chosen to set these up with my ASUS Xonar sound card via the optical cable that is supplied. However, had I chosen to do it via analog I would have connected the supplied 5.1 stereo mini-jack cable to the analog outs of my sound card and then paired the headphones to the adapter rather than the digital decoder box.
The talk-back system is handled via a USB microphone that plugs into the headphones, with a USB cable then being run from the digital control unit to the PC. The small black decoder also features a delay control for the rear speakers.
With regards to software installation, there is none what so ever which makes things easy here and also for the person setting these headphones up. Really, they should be viewed in the same fashion as setting up any 5.1 channel speaker system.
Installing these headphones is quite a simple task. Once a choice has been made between analog and digital and the device you're connecting to is operating in the correct mode, you're ready to 'rock and roll' or 'frag and stroll', depending on your application.
Testing the Highs and Lows
Okay then, now that I have wet your appetite for what is shaping up as a milestone product in its class, let's get into some testing.
Firstly, as mentioned a few times, these headphones come with a built-in microphone that runs via USB. Since this microphone is there for functionality first and foremost, I'm not going to critique its acoustic performance like I am the headphones themselves. Rather, I will add that it's functional, sturdy and adequate for the task at hand.
Running in full digital 5.1 mode via an optical cable from my sound card, I began to do some testing using one of my music test DVD's which I know completely inside out.
Firstly, the low-end. I found bass response to be quite firm and present in the sound stage, replicating the feel of a dedicated sub woofer with quite some emotion. I did not feel the bass was thin or lacked omni-presence (multi-directionality) and seemed to be emanating from the whole headset and not interfering with any of the other delicately placed speakers in the array.
Over-all volume from the LFE channel was quite good; not easily exaggerated but still with enough headroom to satisfy demanding bass junkies. During the most demanding parts of my test DVD it held itself together quite well and did not smother the other channels in boomy fluffy bass.
The middle frequency range also held together quite well, providing smooth percussion elements to the sound stage and quite reasonable transients throughout. I found the midrange to be adequately smooth in nature, as to not unbalance the sound in any way. And it was also thick enough to be present when important percussion sounds come into the mix.
At this point, I found the low end and the mid-range to be surprisingly smooth and controlled, especially for headphones, which more often than not actually cause fatigue to the user because of the way they exaggerate certain frequencies unevenly.
The high-end, unfortunately, does suffer a little with the lack of dedicated tweeters causing an issue with hitting higher frequencies like the ring of a crash symbol or emotion of a string section in an orchestra.
However, I personally think that this aides in the user's ability to wear the headphones for long periods of time without experiencing fatigue. So, it's a trade off like a lot of things in life.
Games and Movies
Now, I must also mention that when testing in analog mode I found the performance to be well and truly comparable to digital mode. In fact, I would struggle to tell the two apart; which is a good indication of high quality design elements in use here.
Given the massive market share that gamers now take up, it only seems logical to pivot this new technology off the largest market share. However, don't be put-off here; it's only marketing and these headphones cater very much to all users looking for a dedicated 5.1 solution.
Due to the less demanding nature of game audio, the X-Tatic should be able to closely translate its impressive musical performance through to gaming as well. But it's really the 5.1 positioning effects that gamers will be after so that they can hear the position of enemies around them and possibly gain a time advantage when shooting back.
For the gamer either casual or hardcore, I feel the X-Tatic will be a great product and certainly will aid gamers whom are perhaps making the transition from stereo to full 5.1. However, to only play games on these headphones, I feel, would be a slight overkill.
For movie viewing, the criteria changes again slightly with comfort playing a big part in success here. Aside from its hefty weight, the X-Tatic is extremely comfortable to wear with a really big padded band across the top and a lot of padding on the ear sections, too.
For the casual movie viewer I feel these are a really handy and innovative product to have available, being well and truly capable of handling the vast majority of Hollywood's best and loudest.
I feel that I can strongly recommend the X-Tatic right across the board; be it from gaming, to music, to movies. It does all three extremely well with only the slightest shortfalls, mainly with regard to the high-end which is really tricky to overcome without building in tweeters.
To conclude, the Sharkoon X-Tatic digital are simply the best sounding and most innovative pair of headphones I've ever used. They are well built, perform equally well across the board and support just about any device you can think of. Along with this, they actually offer a new technology as well, that being 'self contained non-algorithm based 5.1 sound'.
Digital and analog are both there to choose from as well as a functional microphone for Skype and MSN etc. but let's face it, this is a bit of a bonus feature rather than being a selling point; but it's still useful to many people, I'm sure.
So, should you buy these or not? - Well, partially it depends on whether or not you have concerns with noise pollution in your area or not. If you have no option but to go down the silent route then look no further for your surround sound needs. But for someone who already has a dedicated speaker system, perhaps consider something a little less elaborate.
I would like to re-affirm also, that the X-Tatic digital; aside from appearing inherently as a 'gizmo' purchase, is in fact a very well built and versatile product in its own right. As I always say, though; let your individual needs tailer your decision to fit.
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