While some headsets are designed to cater to specific needs – such as gaming, music, or Internet based telephone calls using VoIP – the Plantronics .Audio 550 DSP headset is the latest entry from Plantronics that tries to be a jack-of-all-trades. It attempts to bring together high quality voice, sound and gaming effects into a package that also excels for use with VoIP communication. At a retail price of $119. 95, we will take a close look at the .Audio 550 DSP headset to find out where it meets these lofty expectations and where it falls short.
Features and Design
Designed to be used with a desktop PC, laptop or any other device equipped with a USB port, the .Audio 550 DSP is one of a new breed of headsets that forgoes the traditional 3.5mm mini-stereo jack in place of a USB interface. This allows for easy plug-and-play setup with any USB enabled device, but eliminates the possibility of using the headset with a typical AV receiver, iPod or other MP3 player that uses a 3.5mm mini-stereo input. This is one area where the headset falls short – a headset that will be used for gaming, music listening and VoIP would benefit greatly from a mini-stereo connection in addition to the USB connection.
With a long 10ft. cord the .Audio 550 DSP provides good mobility in terms of where you place your PC or laptop while using the headset. It also includes in-line volume control that provides good flexibility in terms of changing the volume level without having to access your PC or laptop. These pluses are counteracted by the fact that the .Audio 550 DSP is not very portable. The headset is not foldable and the in-line DSP module makes the whole package a bit more bulky than the average pair of headphones. Again, this limits the ways in which the headset can be used. It is primarily useful when you are at home using a desktop PC or laptop.
Overall, the design of the headphones is modern and attractive. Each side of the headset is covered in a glossy black casing that gives the unit a clean, sophisticated look. The small Plantronics logo that is used to decorate the side of each earcup does not distract from the sleek appearance of the headset. The earcups and the headband are made from a soft leatherette material that provides good cushioning against your ears and head, and the overall weight of the headset is surprisingly light.
• 40mm stereo speakers dish up maximum bass response
• Lightweight, flexible headband provides comfortable all-day wear
• Noise-canceling mic cuts through background clamor
• Swivel-mounted, pillow-soft ear cushions deliver soft, acoustic precision
• PerSono Software makes you master of mic and audio settings
• QuickAdjust™ boom assures ideal placement
• Inline volume offers convenient access and control
• USB adapter enables plug-and-play ease
Image Courtesy of Plantronics
Out of the Box Setup and Software Usage
Removing of the headset from the box and plugging it into the USB port are the only two steps needed to get the 550 up and running. Windows XP Home SP2 recognizes the new hardware device immediately and the hardware installation is truly a plug-and-play experience. To install the included software, you must first visit the Plantronics website to download the Persono software. Once the 5MB software download is completed, the entire installation takes only a few minutes.
The Persono software is a fairly basic tool that gives you the ability to adjust balance, bass and treble levels as well as set the microphone volume and EQ presets. The EQ presets allow you to choose from R&B, Classical, Jazz, Rock, Games and Voice. While the software is a nice touch to the overall headset package, it does not offer anything special that isn’t found in other music playback programs such as WinAmp or iTunes. I did find it convenient to have all of the headset controls in one place, rather than having to use multiple programs to adjust the microphone settings and the headphone settings.
Persono Software Screenshot
Running the .Audio 550 DSP through the paces was done using two computers – a desktop PC and a laptop. MP3 listening of both 128kbps and 320kbps was done on both sources, as well as listening to music CDs. I listened to a wide selection of classical, rock, alternative and hip-hop music in the evaluation. Also, to evaluate the gaming capabilities of the headset, I played several hours of Quake 4 and F.E.A.R. To test the microphone, I used Skype exclusively.
Starting off with the music listening, the .Audio 550 DSP proves to be quite capable of handling the various genres of music that are thrown at it. While listening to alternative and classical tracks, the headset produces clear separation of the instruments and manages different vocalists very well. The voices are smooth and not over-pronounced in comparison to the instrumentation in the songs. Mid-range sounds are also clear and well separated, and they do not get jumbled or mixed with the other frequency ranges. While listening to rock and hip-hop music I found that the bass extension was adequate, but not overly impressive. The 40mm drivers provide bass that is on par with other headphones in the $100 price range, but if you are really looking for deep, gut-wrenching bass from your headphones you will need to look elsewhere.
During gaming sessions the .Audio 550 DSP performs well and delivers accurate sound effects. In-game sounds while playing Quake 4 and F.E.A.R., such as enemy footsteps and machine gun fire, are produced clearly and allow you to pin point the location of enemies. The ability to place sound effects is crucial to any gamer and the .Audio 550 DSP does an excellent job in this regard.
Testing of the microphone reveals that voices are picked up extremely accurately. While making phone calls with Skype, the other people I spoke with on Skype reported no trouble at all hearing my voice and understanding my speech. Even with other people in the same room and considerable activity going on in the same room, the microphone did not pick up and transmit any background noise – a major plus for this headset. The microphone is also easy to adjust up or down and only requires one hand for adjustment. Once it is adjusted, it also stays in place while moving around during calls. The microphone performance is definitely a strong point of the .Audio 550 DSP and it provides outstanding results for use with VoIP applications.
A Picture of one of the Ear Cups
Plantronics .AUDIO 550 DSP Microphone
Plantronics .AUDIO 550 DSP In-line Control
Comfort and Ergonomics
Throughout the listening sessions the .Audio 550 DSP headset is initially comfortable to wear, but after about 45 minutes of use the pressure from the ear cups begins to cause discomfort. This is due to the fact that the ear cups actually sit on your ears rather than around your ears. The pressure from the ear cups pushes your ears against your head, which is good for keeping out external noise, but makes them uncomfortable for extended listening.
Another point that took away from the overall comfort of the headset was that ear cup pressure is not evenly distributed. When you look closely at the .Audio 550 DSP, you will see that the headband connects to the earcup at a point that is not in the center of the earcup. The headband actually connects to the earcups at a point forward of the center. While this design aspect is not necessarily a flaw, it does cause focused pressure on the front of your ears.
The Plantronics .Audio 550 DSP headset is an great headset for use while gaming or using VoIP applications. It also provides above-average, although not exceptional, vocal and instrument reproduction across all genres of music. The downloadable Persono software provides a convenient centralized tool to adjust sound settings, and the in-line volume control allows volume adjustments without the need to access your PC. With simple plug-and-play installation, the .Audio 550 DSP has a lot to offer for its reasonable $119.95 retail price tag.
Despite these plus points, the .Audio 550 DSP falls short of the billing as the “ultimate performance headset”. Wearing the headset for long sessions of more than 45 minutes poses a comfort problem, and the headset is limited to being used with devices that have a USB port. In addition, the fact that it is not portable limits its use with MP3 players, laptops and other on-the-go devices. All-in-all, the .Audio 550 DSP is most suitable for those who use Skype or other VoIP applications extensively, and only occasionally listen to music or play games.
• Excellent sound and microphone performance for gaming and VoIP
• Sleek styling
• In-line volume control.
• Not portable
• Uncomfortable for long listening sessions
• Not suitable for use with MP3 players.