|Name||Gaming headset and amplifier: Turtle Beach Ear Force Z6A|
|At a glance:||Four separate speakers per ear,Requires 5.1-channel capable sound card,USB-powered in-line headphone amplifier|
|Summary:||Great surround-sound headphones for those with an existing high quality sound card.|
Turtle Beach’s ‘Earforce’ Z6A headset adds 5.1 channel surround sound to your gaming experience, without the need for a cumbersome speaker system.
Virtual vs real surround sound
We’ve looked at surround-sound headphones before, but only of the ‘virtual surround’ variety rather than the true surround sound that the Z6A headset offers.
Virtual surround sound takes multi-channel sound and applies the same kind of processing to it that your brain uses to determine where sound is coming from to create the sense of surround-sound in stereo headphones.
In a traditional 5.1-channel speaker setup, you have five speakers: centre, front left, front right, ‘surround left’, and ‘surround right’ (placed at the sides or rear of the room depending on the intended effect). A dedicated subwoofer reproduces lower-pitched sounds only, regardless of direction - humans have hard time identifying the direction of low-pitched sounds and a single subwoofer somewhere in the room doesn’t reduce the 3D sound effect.
The Z6A uses four separate speakers in each ear cup to deliver true (not virtual) 5.1-channel sound to each ear. This essentially matches the traditional setup: each ear cup contains a ‘front’ and ‘surround’ speaker, arranged at the front and the back of the cup respectively, and tilted inward slightly toward the centre of your ear. Because you don’t have a third ear in the middle of your head, the ‘centre’ speaker and baby ‘subwoofer’ are duplicated: one of each for each ear cup. That’s why the Z6A needs four speakers per ear, or eight speakers overall, to reproduce 5.1-channel sound.
You might wonder whether packing so many speakers into a headset that fits comfortably on your head means you have to make compromises. The answer appears to be ‘yes’, at least in terms of frequency response - the range of sounds those compact speakers can reproduce.
The ‘front’ and ‘surround’ speaker pairs have a very average range of 20Hz – 20kHz (the hearing range of an average adult), while the ‘center’ speakers are limited to 80Hz – 16kHz. The tiny 40mm ‘subwoofers’ bottom out at 20Hz with a 20-500Hz range.
The lower, barely-audible rumble of a stirring volcano in-game, or the bassiest notes of your favourite musical performance might suffer when compared to some headphones that drop as low as 15Hz. However, the quality of the source material you’re listening to, your PC’s sound card, and your own hearing all affect the overall sound quality.
Personally, I found the audio quality high, though not quite as rich and clean as you’d find from audiophile-grade headphones which focus on pure sound quality and don’t provide a surround-sound effect.
Amplifier and connectivity
The Z6A features an in-line amplifier: a small box on the cable that includes a separate analogue volume control for each of the speaker pairs, and an overall volume control that doubles an on/off switch. The amplifier is USB powered, and that’s where we come to an important and potentially confusing point: while they use a USB plug for power, these headphones are not USB-connected.
Often surround-sound headphones, either virtual or physical, connect solely by USB. What you may not realise is that USB headphones don't use your sound card: the job of converting digital sound from your PC into an analogue signal for your USB headphones or speakers is done by circuitry within those headphones or speakers themselves.
The advantage with USB-connected surround-sound devices is that you just need a single USB plug to carry all the audio data, and the technicalities of surround can be handled by the hardware. This is not the case with the Turtle Beach Z6A headset, which uses standard 3.5mm audio jacks to connect to a surround-sound enabled sound card.
To get surround sound from the Z6A headset, you need a 5.1-capable sound card with three 3.5mm audio output jacks corresponding to front left/right, surround left/right, and centre/subwoofer. The plugs from the headphones, and the jacks on your sound card, are colour-coded green, black and orange respectively. A fourth plug, colour-coded pink, is used to connect the headset’s microphone.
Note that you need these specific outputs from your sound card. If your sound card isn’t designed to provide surround sound, these headphones won’t work for you. The sound cards on most mid-range and higher desktop PCs are likely to be fine. Entry-level or small-form-factor desktops may not be, and surround sound outputs on laptops are essentially unheard of.
Even if your sound card supports surround-sound, you may not have all the analogue outputs you need – surround might be available only through a digital coaxial or optical connection. This limits how many people will find the Z6A useful. It's possible to in invest in an appropriate sound card, internal or external, but a USB-connected headset would be a simpler option.
With an optional adapter cable, you can forget the PC entirely and use the Z6A with your Xbox 360. However, they will not give you surround sound. The front and surround speakers are tied together to give you regular stereo, and the ‘centre’ speakers are used exclusively for in-game voice chat.
At a reasonably-priced $189, the Turtle Beach Z6A presents a great option for those with an existing high-quality surround sound card, as it lets you take advantage of that card’s audio capabilities as you would with a good set of surround speakers. However, that makes the Z6A impractical (or unusable) by those with cheap on-motherboard sound solutions, or with the average laptop.