Surround sound 5.1 headphones–why and why not. Roccat Kave reviewed

There is something counter-intuitive about 5.1 headphones. Headphones just look so stereo. Can you really create the surround sound illusion with the speakers so close to the ears?

It turns out you can, or at least sufficiently so to make these Kave 5.1 headphones from Roccat a satisfying product. They are intended primarily as gaming headphones, which explains the attached microphone, though it could be handy for Skype calls and other such uses as well. Another common use is for movies, where surround sound adds to the drama and sense of immersion. They are not really intended for music; but I found them pretty good for that as well.

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What you get is a set of closed-back headphones with a relatively fat cable and an inline control box. The cable has four two-channel mini-jacks, one each for front pair, center and subwoofer, read pair, and microphone input, as well as a USB connector which supplies power and enables communication between the control box and the PC. You can flip open a panel on the control box to reveal channel sliders and to switch between “game” and “movies”.

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Installation is a matter of plugging the cables into your sound card and a USB port. You need a 5.1 sound card, since there is no decoder in the Kave. Another point of interest: the volume control and mute on the control box directly control the volume and mute on the PC, but the 5.1 balance controls operate on the signal after it is received from the sound care; at least, that is what I observed on my test system.

The plugs are colour-coded; I also found the Windows 7 5.1 configuration utility handy for checking that I had the connections right.

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There is a CD in the box but it does not contain any drivers as none is necessary. It does have a 5.1 demo video and a manual.

I tried the Kave with a variety of game, movie and music DVDs. In general I was impressed; but it is important to set expectations. I am a fan of Sennheiser headphones and use the high-end HD600 as well as a variety of cheaper sets. In comparison with the Sennheiser models the Kave is enjoyable but unrefined, and for listening in stereo a traditional set of headphones is probably what you want.

Equally, if you have a full home cinema setup and sit in the sweet spot with carefully-positioned loudspeakers and a proper sub, the Kave cannot compete favourably.

The point though is that such a setup is both expensive and often impractical; sometimes you need to listen privately or in another room.

In this context, and given a 5.1 mix, the Kave has real advantages, even for music. It is curious. I played with the sliders to compare the sound of the front and rear channels, and found that the positional difference is subtle and hard to detect. If you play a 5.1 mix with the Kave though, and then play the same downmixed to stereo, the sound is flat in comparison, in ways that even the purer hi-fi sound of something like the HD600 cannot altogether compensate for.

The benefit of true 5.1 sound is sometimes apparent in details that you can more easily hear, and sometimes a matter of a more three-dimensional sound.

The sub in the Kave is puny compared to a real one, but does add some grunt to games and movies. Confusingly, Rokkat also calls this a “Vibration unit” which lets them say that the Kave has “adjustable vibration” – all this means is that you can vary the level of the sub channel as you would expect. There is no additional vibration unit.

It is a compromise, and if possible you should try to hear the Kave in comparison with a high quality stereo set before making a decision; or ideally have both so that you can choose the best option for a particular title.

The Kave is on the heavy side but comfortable to wear. It has a blue neon light at the headphone end of the microphone stalk, and another which lights up when the microphone is muted; this is meant to look stylish and futuristic though will not appeal if your tastes are more towards the understated.

The Kave folds for convenience though it is hardly worth it as they are still somewhat bulky. The multiple connections and awkward control box make the Kave best suited for semi-permanent installation in a desktop PC, rather than something you would use on your travels.

Given its suitability for gaming, it is a shame that the Kave cannot be used easily with an Xbox 360 or PS3, though with adaptors you should be able to get it working, remote volume aside. It should work fine with a Mac though, if you have a suitable soundcard.

I do not mean to be negative. I was pleased with the Kave, which offers an excellent listening experience, recommended for games for movies and enjoyable for music as well.

Summary

Good points: Comfortable headphones that offer a taste of real 5.1 sound; well made and high quality.

Bad points: Multiple connections and floating control box can be inconvenient.

Summary: Real 5.1 sound headphones and most enjoyable, though less refined than stereo sets at a similar price level.

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