Sharkoon X-TATIC 5.1 Dolby Digital Headset Review

Audio/Others by jmke @ 2006-06-02

5.1 Surround sound from a headset, is that possible? We try out Sharkoon latest product which has Dolby Digital support and features 4 speakers at each side of the headset to help create the illusion of a true surround speaker set, does it succeed? Let?s find out.

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Listening test & Conclusion

Putting our ear to the ground

The X-TATIC packs quite a punch, literally, if you turn up the volume of the bass the headset will start to vibrate on its own, the bass is also, to no surprise, the largest speaker of the 4 inside each earpiece:

Madshrimps (c)

So with 4 speakers at each side blasting away the X-TATIC can provide quite an immersive experience in games and movies, to see how well it does we did comparative listening tests with a Sony MDR-CD570, a Sennheiser HD-590 and a Creative MegaWorks THX 5.1 550 Speaker set, the headsets are the same ones we used in our comparative test with the Sharkoon GHS1 headset two years ago, the price has come down quite a bit since then, the Sony now goes for ~€50 while the Sennheiser costs about €150. The X-TATIC falls right in between with a retail price of €90-€110.

The test system was an Athlon 3000+ on an MSI K8N Neo, the on-board audio was not used, instead a Creative Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro (the one with the breakout box) was plugged in. The MegaWorks only has an analog connection, a series of cables connect straight to the different outputs on the Audigy 2. The Sony and Sennheiser were connected to the stereo output of the MegaWorks, the X-TATIC decoder box was connected to the optical out of the Audigy 2’s break out box. Using this setup we could simultaneously listen through the X-TATIC as well as through the Speakers/Stereo-Headsets. We also used the headset with the Ultron soundcard, sound quality was comparable to the Audigy 2, which was a nice surprise.

  • 2 Fast 2 Furious

    Using PowerDVD this DVD was played back on the PC, setting the SPDIF out option in PowerDVD enabled Dolby Digital on the X-TATIC decoder box, we replayed several scenes of the movie switching between the headsets and the speaker setup; in action filled sequences the positional audio was convincing on the X-TATIC with engine noises come at you from all sides, the stereo headsets did okay here but fell a bit behind in the immersion factor. The MegaWorks, although only connected through analogue, got all the left/right/front/rear action blasting at you from all sides convincingly, so while the front/rear/center speakers in the X-TATIC do help to re-create a 5.1-like sound experience; they’re no match for a dedicated speaker setup, but a worthy replacement for those night-time sessions of movie watching.

    Going to more conversation heavy section of the movie (hard to find in this one actually) the scales are more balanced between the Stereo headset and the X-TATIC who’s mid-tones are less accentuated and the high pitched tones are more pronounced.

  • 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound Test

    This is a simple .vob file which displays a 5.1 surround speaker setup and a male voice calling out the names of the channels the sound should be played through: Left front – Center – Right front – Right Surround – Left Surround – LFE (Low Frequency Effects = Bass). The MegaWorks and X-TATIC are able to replicate the different positions and you can clearly make out where the sound is coming from, although the difference between front/rear with the X-TATIC is less obvious, the LFE is played convincingly through the bass speaker of the headset and makes it tremble. The stereo headsets, as expected, don’t do well here, left/center/right is played just fine, but the other channels are missing.

  • Call of Duty 2

    EAX2 enabled in the game we ran through the Bergstein map switching between the different headsets, we found the immersion factor with the X-TATIC to be quite good and it easily matches the Sony headset, however the Sennheiser is slightly ahead with a warmer sound reproduction and this makes the experience less tiring for the ears.

  • Half Life 2

    Surround sound 5.1 was enabled in the game, this effect is noticeable with the MegaWorks speakers, but with the X-TATIC you’ll have a hard time differentiating between the front/rear mini speakers in the headset. The stereo headset do quite well here, although they lack the surround capability, the difference with the X-TATIC for position audio was very hard to make out. The Sennheiser’s wider range of high to low tones also proved to be a winner here.

  • Music – Fun Loving Criminals

    While this headset was not intended for solely listening to music it should be able to play it well enough so you can enjoy your favorite CDs/MP3, the X-TATIC doesn’t quite deliver however, the lack of mid tones and the overly exaggerated high tones make the songs colder and less pleasant to listen to. The Sony headset does slightly better, but again the Sennheiser takes the crown, its higher price is warranted as it proves to be the best here. The X-TATIC is remarkably better than Sharkoon’s GHS1 model but for music a dedicated stereo headset is still the best option.

  • Playstation 2 – Gran Turismo 4 (GT4)

    The Playstation 2 is connected to the input of an older high end stereo system, the sound output from the large speakers is good enough for your occasional drive around the Nurburgring. In the GT4 settings menu we found an “enable Dolby Digital Surround” option, however this turned out to be only enabled in the intro movie, how disappointing. In the game the sound reverts to the standard stereo, and although the game does support Pro Logic, it doesn’t make much of a difference as you will read below. The X-TATIC decoder box was connected with optical cable straight to the Playstation 2 console. Sound quality was not bad at all and certainly on par with the stereo speaker setup. The long cable on the headset comes in handy here as you usually sit further away from your TV.

    Dolby Pro Logic

    There’s a small button at the side of the decoder box which enables/disables Dolby Pro Logic when you are playing from a stereo source, by doing so, ideally, the Pro Logic turns a Stereo signal into a 4 channel surround one:

    Source: An enhancement of the Dolby Surround decoding process. Pro Logic decoders derive left, center, right, and a mono surround channel from two-channel Dolby Surround Ðencoded material via matrix techniques.

    We experimented with this option in games and music but found the experience to be disappointing, when enabled there should be a perception of surround sound, however since the speakers in the X-TATIC are so close together this doesn’t quite happen. What does happen is a degradation of the sound quality; playing around in Winamp we could recreate the effect using the Equalizer.

    Without the Pro Logic enabled the music is playing with an unaltered Equalizer

    Madshrimps (c)

    After enabling the Pro Logic the different frequency settings are mixed up and it resemblances this Equalizer layout:

    Madshrimps (c)

    High and Low frequencies are reduced and this makes the music (and games) sound simply bad compared to “normal” mode. We wouldn’t recommend using this option with the X-TATIC.

    Moving a small switch on the decoder box enabled control over how the surround should be played, TD (Time Delay)/DCR (Dynamic Range Control). Increasing/decreasing the values from min/max resulted in a small change, but hardly noticeable.

    Conclusive Thoughts

    The X-TATIC from Sharkoon is a big step forward, coming from the previous headset we tested; it sits a lot more comfortable on the ears (although the cushions may still be a bit wider and taller) and the sound quality in games equals that of a slightly lower priced stereo headset. The ace up X-TATIC sleeve is Dolby Digital and when it comes into action in movies the immersion factor is excellent, although it’s no replacement for a dedicated surround speaker set, the X-TATIC offers a nice alternative for those moments where you can't use a speaker set.

    On the flipside there is a noticeable lack in mid tones and it has quite aggressive high tones and when you use the headset for music listening this degrades the experience, in this case a stereo headset is a definitely a better choice.

    Overall we are quite pleased with the X-TATIC 5.1 and hope Sharkoon continues their progressive trend to bring out better products every year.

    Questions/Comments: forum thread
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