As the resident A/V guy, I write reviews of all sort of equipment including TVs, Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, speakers, sound bars and iPod speaker docks. Yet, as I look around the office, I realize that this year I’ve tested way more headphones than any other single product type. Good thing I love headphones.
Of course, the cans I’ve been testing are the sort you plug into your iPod, iPhone, MP3 player, laptop or super-fancy DAC and headphone amplifier. Until recently, I haven’t formally evaluated a set of gaming headphones because, for one thing, they haven’t been all that popular and, for another, the two pair I did listen to a few years ago sounded absolutely horrible. Seriously, they were really, really bad.
But this Christmas, my kid was begging for a set of gaming headphones that will work for his Xbox 360. Now, I know I care way more about these headphones having good sound than he does but, as a matter of pride, I’m not going to buy him just anything.
Which is what led me to Turtle Beach’s Ear Force X12 headphones. At a retail price of $45 to $60, they seem expensive enough to potentially sound good but inexpensive enough that I won’t be devastated should they get sat on and broken. Yup, all kinds of potential there. So I took a closer look.
Out of the box
The EarForce X12 come with everything you need to hook them up to an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or PC. Because the Xbox 360 requires some specific connections differing from those of the PS3 or PC, Turtle Beach throws in a 34-inch Xbox talkback cable and a ⅛-inch female mini-jack to stereo male RCA cable with piggy back connectors.
Features and design
In order for a set of gaming headphones to work with the Xbox 360, they must be self amplified. This is because the only way to get game audio from the Xbox is to tap its analog audio output or optical digital output. Rather than design an outboard box to decode and convert a digital signal, Turtle Beach decided to build an in-line amplifier in to the X12’s very long cable that accepts an analog stereo signal. This means the X12 aren’t capable of surround sound without an additional add-on processor.
The built-in amplifier sits inline, just a foot or so below where the cord connects to the left earphone. It gets its power from a USB connection and features dials for game volume, voice volume and bass boost. An LED glows green to let you know the headset is receiving power via USB and turns red when the provided mic mute switch is set to mute. Here is where we tender our only complaints. The inline amp/control is located to close to the head for our liking. It would have been better to place it, say, three feet down the cord and attach a clip to the back so that it could be secured to a belt. As it stands, the controls are free to bounce around and it is difficult to see what you are controlling without having to remove the headset.
The headset itself is constructed of rigid plastic and feels built to withstand unintended abuse. The ear cups are well padded and covered with a textured black fabric that is comfortable to the touch and breathes well to help avoid sweaty ears. The underside of the headband is minimally padded (in fact you can feel the headband joints underneath) and lined with the same material. The top side of the headband is lined with a black faux-leather material.
The boom mic swivels about 270 degrees and has a coiled gooseneck which allows the mic to be positioned just about any way you like.
As we evaluated these gaming headphones we focused our attention on four major points: comfort during long-term wear, voice intelligibility (both inbound and outbound), spatial effects during FPS play and over-all sound quality. To judge the latter, we connected the headset to our HeadRoom Micro DAC which was fed music from our Dell laptop. All other testing was done on an Xbox 360 while playing COD: Modern Warfare 3.
To connect the headset to my Xbox 360, I attached the left and right analog audio cables from my Xbox’s component break-out cable to the female connections on the provided splitter cable. Since I run an optical digital cable to my A/V receiver, that’s all I had to do, but had I been running those analog audio cables to my TV or receiver, I would have simply plugged the male ends of the splitter cable into either component. I should note here that those using the Xbox’s HDMI connection will need to get the Xbox break-out cable that provides an analog audio connection when using HDMI. It’s either that, or you must tap a stereo monitor output off of either a TV or A/V receiver. It may sound confusing, but it really isn’t. It took just one minute to get the headset up and running. Turtle Beach has a video showing how to connect the headset at its website in case you get stuck.
I was tremendously impressed with the Turtle Beach Ear Force x12. Apparently, this model is based off of the already popular X11 with just a few modifications added in, one of which is a mic monitor feature. Mic monitor allows you to hear yourself as you speak into the mic. With most closed-back headphones, you can’t hear yourself talking and end up inadvertently shouting when you talk. The mic monitor handily eliminates that side-effect.
The other notable upgrade over the X11 is the use of larger 50mm drivers. They’re 10mm larger than the previous model and larger than many full-sized headphones. We’re not sure if the larger size was responsible for the X12’s bass prowess or not, but to be sure, they are capable of plenty of bass.
I wore these headphones for two hours at a time only removing them for a matter of seconds on occasion. At no time did I feel any significant fatigue around the ears or on the crown of our head. Though I can feel some joints hiding under the headband, I never felt that on my head. The X12 get an A for comfort.
Voice intelligibility was excellent. I had no problem dialing in the incoming voice volume from friends in my chat room and my voice came across to others perfectly clear. At no point did I ever “peak” the mic, save the one time I crammed the mic into my face and screamed into it (which was funny to witness, I assure you). The provided windscreen on the mic tip is effective at eliminating “pop” without muddying up sound. That’s another A for voice intelligibility.
While the X12 doesn’t offer surround sound via multiple drivers, an outboard processor can be added to simulate surround. I’m sure that would be fun to play with, but I honestly didn’t miss the fake surround. The stereo headphones do well to create a virtual surround effect. I had no problems distinguishing footsteps that came from in front or behind me. It was also easy to sense how close or distant footfall, gunfire, explosions and other effects were. Though I generally play on a full 7.1-surround system, the stereo X12 did a fine job of giving me a sense of my place in the game via audio queues.
Finally, I took the X12 over to my music listening rig (the one I use for testing $100 to $1,400 audio headphones) and gave them a pretty critical listen. Look, I realize few are likely to use these as music listening headphones… it’s just impractical. Still, if a headphone can reproduce music well, it is going to sound great for long-term use in even the most active, explosive gaming scenarios.
I was seriously impressed at how even, open and articulate the X12 sounded for music. I’ve tested headphones that cost two to four times as much that don’t sound as good. While I wouldn’t necessarily say they are of audiophile quality, they are certainly well above the curve for a $50 to $100 headphone and, to be sure, something I can be proud to give my son.
To be honest, I had already ordered up a pair of X12 as a Christmas gift, figuring that if they were terrible, I’d send them back. That isn’t going to happen. I’m thrilled with the X12’s performance and very pleased with my purchase.
The Turtle Beach X12 gaming headphones are versatile, well constructed and, for the most part, well designed. The mic monitor and bass boost features are a nice touch and their high degree of comfort allows for long-term wear with little to no fatigue. The biggest surprise was just how great they sounded. It’s hard to imagine wanting much more from a gaming headset, especially at such a reasonable price.
- Great sound
- Microphone Monitor lets you hear yourself talk
- Comfortable for long-term use
- Very long cable
- In-line amp and control located too close to head
- No clip for in-line amp/controls