On the field of virtual battle, being able to hear an opponent before you see him can give gamers a competitive advantage. Just ask any Battlefield 3 soldier who's set up camp in a nice secluded sniping spot, only to have some weasel sneak up behind him and plant a C4 charge directly on his butt.
Gamers who aren't blessed with surround sound speaker systems (or those who have housemates who don't appreciate the sound of gunfire echoing through the halls late at night) are the target of the Turtle Beach Ear Force XP500, a high-end wireless headset by the veteran audio tech company.
This is a pricey hunk of gaming gear, going for $269.99 (though some retailers, including Best Buy, currently sell it for $219.99). When a headset costs almost as much as the game consoles you're using it with, it better come not only with bells and whistles but trombones, klaxons and heartbreakingly beautiful flutes.
For the most part, the XP500 doesn't disappoint. It's compatible with both the PS3 and Xbox 360 (the latter uses an included Bluetooth dongle attached to the Xbox controller for in-game chat), and offers a very decent reproduction of Dolby 5.1 surround sound. While a headset can never match the discrete sound separation provided by speakers spaced out around your living room, it does a pretty fine job.
What makes this headset unique is its set of 18 programmable audio presets, which purport to offer the ability to, among other things, heighten the sound of enemies' footsteps behind you while dampening background noise.
It works, sort of, but I didn't find it gave me a competitive edge in my weekly Uncharted 3 online marathons. Whether this is because the advantage is minimal or simply because I suck at Uncharted 3 is open to debate.
If the XP500 was strictly for gaming, the cost would be tough to swallow. But what I like about this beast is its base station transmitter can be connected to any device that has an optical audio out jack. In my gadget-laden home, this includes not only my video game consoles but my digital TV set-top box and my Apple TV. This makes the XP500 ideal for late-night TV viewing, and not just to avoid annoying the neighbours - the crisp sound reproduction really adds to the aural experience when watching movies.
The XP500 also works as a standard Bluetooth headset, and if you don't mind looking like you just got off shift at NASA you can rock out to tunes on any Bluetooth-capable music device, or call your mom by pairing it to your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Guilt trips have never sounded so clear.
I had a few niggling problems with the XP500, including the occasional (albeit very brief) bit of crackling or audio loss, as well as the odd placement of the nearly flat chat volume switch right next to the Bluetooth button on the headset's right ear cup, making it easy to accidentally disconnect your game chat when trying to adjust the volume.
And then there's the cost... if you're strictly a PS3 gamer and you don't need the slightly esoteric ability to highlight the sound of enemies' footsteps, the $99 PlayStation Wireless Stereo Headset is an attractive alternative for less than half the price. Turtle Beach itself also offers cheaper, less robust versions of the Ear Force headsets for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and competitors (such as Logitech) have similar products worth a look.
Still, deep-pocketed entertainment aficionados will find lots to like about the Ear Force XP500, and it could quite easily act as a cost-effective, space-saving alternative to a full-blown surround sound setup. Whether or not it will keep your virtual butt from being blown to virtual bits remains to be seen. Or heard.
Bottomline: Despite the steep price and the occasional technical hiccup, the Ear Force XP500 is an impressive and versatile alternative to a surround-sound speaker setup.