04 April, 2014

My New Cans

Headphones and surround sound

You wouldn't have thought that surround sound and headphones would be a good match—at least not normally. Surround Sound has traditionally meant 4 or more speakers surrounding the participant. Where do headphones fit in all of this? Not very well. If you want to play surround sound movies or games but you don't want to annoy the neighbours—or family—to do so, then surround sound headphones may seem like they fit the bill. Well they may, and they may not. I very recently bought the Plantronics Gamecom 780 as a surround-sound update to my stereo-only Altec Lansing headset.

The state of play

There are a number of factors to consider when purchasing a "surround sound" headset. First, does the headset use two speakers, or multiple smaller speakers? Does it connect to the computer over USB or discrete audio cables? Does it use surround sound software present on the computer or a computer-connected hardware device that the headset plugs into?

So, how does this mean anything to me?

Because it affects the quality of sound that you hear. We all like to have fantastic sound, and headphones are already a compromise. Headphones such as the Razer Tiamat use multiple speakers for each ear to reflect an approximation of a true surround-sound environment. It's a hardware method not requiring any more resources than a sound card with multiple surround outputs. They're usually more expensive, and most of the speakers have to be smaller to fit within the profile of head mounted sound gear. This reduces the range of sounds they can produce with accuracy, losing some bass response in the process.

In comparison, you have the good old two-speaker headphones. These have been around since people first made headphones, and usually use larger 40 mm 'drivers' to produce sound more accurately—for example, to give better bass response. Add some smart software or hardware to them, increase the price a little, and you're being sold a set of surround sound headphones. If you need surround sound under anything but Windows, look hard at the software solutions as most of them will only work under Windows. Also check whether the headset uses discrete audio cables or purely a USB cable, as this may also limit what devices you use the headphones with. 3.5 mm, RCA or optical cables allow the headset to be connected to any supported audio source, but USB connectors only allow for connections to computers.

In addition, you've got the software that's used to translate stereo into wow. Sometimes it's called Dolby Digital, sometimes Dolby Pro Logic II, sometimes other things. It all does the same thing, though it may tweak the methods used. Plantronics went with including Dolby Pro Logic IIx for their headset.

Plantronics? Didn't they do …

Aeronautics headsets? Yes. They've produced aeronautical headsets for use in aircraft, control towers and even space missions. Since then, they've branched out into consumer headsets. I first came across how good Plantronics equipment sounded when I was listening to podcasts. The presenters using Plantronics equipment sounded pretty good, though that could also have been their professional setup.

So, what about this Gamecom 780 then?

The Plantronics Gamecom 780 supports 7.1 virtual surround sound through a software interface, feeding two 40mm speakers and taking input from a noise-cancelling microphone. It carries these signals over a 6.5' (2 metre) USB cable, eliminating the confusion of which cable does what. It's long, but not very long. Opinion is divided over cable length with some people swearing that 10' is great, and some others swearing at 6' being far too long. I like 6', though I wouldn't have minded a little more length.

Once I got rid of all the kinks in the cable, I was able to plug it in, install the software supplied on CD, and get up and running with them practically straight away on a Windows Vista system. On Linux, I booted up and the headset was simply there with no other configuration needed. Other people have mentioned little niggles about volume control under Linux, but so far I've learned to turn them down—way down. That way I don't get blasted when I fire up Cold Play. Other than that, they work perfectly well as a normal stereo headset.

In addition, the software supplied for Windows is exceptionally basic, with no equaliser provided. You get a Dolby toggle and a toggle between music or movies/gaming. Even the volume control is supplied by the OS. For those of you hoping to beef up the bass, max out the midrange or twiddle with top end, forget it. It ain't here, though admittedly the audio already hits the sweet spot for me.

Are there any other wrinkles?

I did strike an issue that actually has nothing to do with the headset itself, but I struck it because the USB headset is treated as a soundcard separately from the motherboard one. Line-in from anywhere else, comes into the motherboard soundcard. Normally the sound gets forwarded on to the output of the motherboard chipset and doesn't get forwarded on any further. Which means that my brand new handy headset doesn't hear it without a bit of extra help along the way.

In Linux, that's as easy as firing up the alsaloop program, though this isn't entirely stable. I've found that occasionally, the alsaloop program will drop, citing inability to write data to pulseaudio. At the moment, I just restart it. On Windows, I've had to go with a little donateware program that takes two or three hardware inputs and one or two virtual inputs, and outputs them to one or more hardware devices. VoiceMeeter and VoiceMeeter Banana (previously VoiceMeeterPro) from VB-Audio fits this bill nicely, though Windows seems to have one or two issues with it occasionally. It is an excellent wee program and in 2016, I decided to pay some money to its author, because though I can't resize the elements, it does exactly what I needed it to.

Okay, what's the final verdict?

I'd recommend this headset on Windows in a heartbeat if it wasn't for the fact that other customers have had issues on Windows 8, and issues with the physical design of the hardware itself, often showing breakages in the plastic headband. For other operating systems, it's a perfectly acceptable headset with great stereo sound for music, games and movies. There's no surround-sound capability on Linux or Mac OS X beyond what programs (like VLC) generate for themselves, though surround sound on Windows definitely adds a dimension that wasn't there the same way before. The microphone sounds clear to others, though the noise-cancelling claim hasn't been definitively settled yet. For me, the headset makes an excellent upgrade from my previous Altec Lansing budget headset. As for the surround sound, I had trouble differentiating front from back. It could be I'm simply not used to the surround stage that Plantronics envisioned, but everything sounds like it's either at the sides or the front. I wanted to hear something unambiguously behind me, but that's a little inconclusive for me at least. Other people have sworn it drops them right inside the action.


Good headphones used to be stereo-only and aimed mostly at audiophiles and music lovers, but times have changed. If you want surround sound that doesn't disturb your neighbours, you can have it whether you're a gamer or simply love your movies. If you're into music, be aware that the audio quality may suffer in headsets marketed towards gamers, and good stereo headphones may still be a better compromise.

Update (Nov 2014)

I had to take the Plantronics 780s back to the shop I bought them from because they developed a crack in the headset, right where it curves outwards to the post holding the earpiece framework. I have a pair of 788s to replace them with, the only real difference is a slight rebadge and slight change of colour from orange to a light red. In addition, the software now works on Windows 8 and 8.1, though I don't know about Windows 10.

Update (Dec 2015)

I'm on my third and final set of Gamecoms, the second pair finally developed a crack in the same place that the first set broke. If this pair does the same thing, then I'm regrettably going to have to change headphones. I don't seriously expect a pair of headphones—whether cheap or not—to only last for 12 months on average. They should seriously last a lot longer. Heck, my Altec Lansings have lasted since 2006, and were a darn sight cheaper.

Update (Dec 2016)

And it's third time unlucky for Plantronics, as this pair of headphones also has exactly the same manufacturing fault as the previous two, and has a crack on each side at the sharp bend. Now I don't know what to do for a pair of good Dolby headphones, as the plastic is clearly letting this otherwise excellent product down.

02 April, 2014

My take on spectacular crash and burn

Loose lips sink ships!

First off, some links to cover the subject about the Game show sunk by one question...

In short, a group of people got together to produce a TV show about producing games. Unfortunately for that group, entertainment value decided to stick its ugly oar in. Sexism had a big part to play. Corporate sponsorship muddied the message. Poor decisions "for the ratings" sunk this project before it was even completed. It was sunk not by one man—Matti Leshem—and that dreaded question, but by a culture of "what Joe Public will lap up the most". And yet there were good things that resulted. A guy lost his job, and hopefully gained some respect of women in the process. Several others stood up collectively for their beliefs and put the project in the bin, where it belongs with last week's smelly fish heads and busted pantyhose. An agreement was tentatively made to do the job the right way—to show developers not as competitive sexists, but as a collective supportive group who can tell the difference between entertainment and the right thing.

For those of you who have read the horror story already, I can't offer much new. For those of you who haven't yet read about it, go. Do so. Read the points of all the participants in what ended up being a complete and royal clusterbomb of stupidity. And hope that it never happens again for any reason. This will have been said many times over the past two days since the articles originally aired, but I'll repeat it. Don't let people's bad views colour your view of the world, and don't ever lack respect for anyone. I suspect I'll never drink Mountain Dew if this is the extent they're prepared to go to just to get people to notice them.