Roccat Studios of Germany will be blitzkreig?ing both our desks and our ears soon this February, with the introduction of their new line of gaming peripherals to North America – starting with this Roccat Kave 5.1 Surround Headset. Their US debut at CES 2012 generated quite the buzz, and they offered me to test drive this product, as well as their upcoming keyboard and mouse, which will also soon be reviewed here at BSN*.
Overview and Setup
Compared to other gaming headsets, the Kave is unique in that it will offer a literal approach to a private surround sound experience, by featuring three (3) drivers in each cup. The Left, Right, and Center channels are stimulated through the front drivers, while the Left Surround and Right Surround channels are separately handled by a second set of drivers, positioned at a proportionate 12 degree angle towards the back of your ear. Both of these 40mm speakers are advertised to handle a full 20 Hz to 20 kHz range.
Beneath each set of channels is what Roccat calls the ?vibration driver?, a 30 mm low-frequency emitter that handles anything between 20 to 100 Hz. Note this isn?t labeled as a subwoofer or ?Bass?, meaning it will only handle information that is fed to the LFE track, or the .1 in 5.1 Surround. In short, if you aren?t listening to a source that doesn?t handle multi-channel information, like a movie, or a game that can emulate having surround information, you?ll most likely not be able to hear anything coming from this driver.
The Kave connects to a desktop control unit below, featuring a volume clicker wheel and microphone control. But most importantly, the unit includes individual faders for the front, center, and rear channel levels – including a technically misleading ?Sub? fader (as explained earlier). Roccat recommends to first set all faders to 50%, then to turn up the volume to a comfortable listening level. I enjoyed giving myself a bit more depth in-game by increasing the rear channels to about 65-70%.
From the control unit, the 6.5 ft (2 m) cable breaks out into four 3.5 mm TRS cables, and a USB connector. The 3.5 mm analog audio cables can connect into any existing 5.1 audio device, whether its onboard or dedicated. The headset?s USB connection does not pass any audio information, only serving current to the headset, while presenting itself to the OS as an HID control device, similar to your keyboard?s volume buttons. There is also a switch for two different modes, Game and Movie, which I?ll dive into later in this review.
Putting it to the test
Playing Battlefield 3 with this headset has been a blast. I use BF3 in my headset reviews because of its award-winning ability to process and distribute fantastic sound effects to a multi-channel environment, but I feel the Kave really delivers a special surround experience. I could better identify my relationship with my surroundings, making it difficult for enemies to sneak up behind me, and likewise easier to tell when my buddies were following my lead. Being able to raise the Kave?s surround channels on the fly was very handy while playing as infantry, but I could easily turn it down while in a muddier, more confined sound space, such as a tank. I once found myself jumping out of my seat when bullets cracked and whizzed past my head. Turning up the ?Sub? fader did in fact boost the in-game LFE track, making plosives much more punchier and vivid – the cups even start to shake!
Being able to listen to a movie with 5.1 surround sound information on more than two headphone drivers is a real treat. I would load as many 5.1 movies as I could, and try isolating the different faders on the control unit, listening to the individual audio tracks while still keeping relevant spaciality. The control unit has a switch between a Game and Movie mode, but this difference is only noticeable while watching a movie that has surround tracks. Switching to Movie mode causes the center channel to become more prominent, which is where the majority of dialogue is mixed in any movie.
I wanted to test this tech further by seeing if I could mix one of my side projects (a short film) in surround, however the Kave seems to have a high noise floor and lower output compared to other headsets, making it difficult to accurately hear my recorded tracks. There was no difference between my mainboard?s Realtek HD Audio, and my two dedicated Creative X-Fi cards. I know this was a stretch, being a ?gaming? headset and all, but I thought it was worth a shot.
The attached microphone is easily adjustable, and even more easily detachable. At CES, when I asked Kathrin Bachmann, Marketing Director of Roccat Studios, why the microphone was detachable, she explained they wanted it to be an option for gamers. Also, if the mic were to somehow become lost or stop working, Roccat could supply the gamer with the mic as an individual accessory, so they can at least continue listening in the meantime.
This is interesting because several times over the past couple weeks, I wondered why my teammates were all of sudden not responding to me, before finding the mic on my floor. The mic needs to be jammed pretty well into the port for it to keep its anchor, although I hope this is just a fluke with mine. Unfortunately, I found the mic to be very quiet on both sound cards. After enabling the +20 dB boost within Windows settings, my voice was still very tinny. Pressing the mute button on the control unit causes the mics tip to illuminate a nice blue glow.
I asked fifteen different PC gamers over the past two weeks to also test the Roccat Kave for a few hours straight. The main complaint, if any, that I received about their experience was comfort. Comfort can be just as subjective as audio quality, but a third of these testers had a issues with the trio of padded headrests on the Kave?s bridge. When worn correctly, each pad floats above the bridge, molding its surface to the shape of the gamers head. But for some, this designed caused headaches after 1.5 to 2 hours of gameplay. The ear cups, on the other hand, are comfy and isolate enough surrounding noise.
The Roccat Kave will officially be available across North America this week. NCIX-US is already selling it for $129 USD, and possibly cheaper with a promotional code. This headset is definitely one of my faves for concept alone, despite its fidelity limitations and varying comfort levels. If you have an extra USB port and a surround sound audio device to spare, give the Kave a try, and hear what the Germans are thinking of next.