Choosing a pair of headphones is akin to deciding what type of underwear you prefer. They both have to feel comfortable for long periods of time, be durable, look decent and most importantly, sound great. Okay, that last one is probably just for headphones.
In this day and age, there are a plethora of available options from an increasingly wide array of manufacturers that attempt to cater to almost every single possible situation. Unfortunately, with choice and an improved standard quality comes cost — the base level of a decent pair of ‘phones has jumped from about $40 to $100 over the past few years, thanks to a host of new technologies and fancy associated gadgets that promise to do everything from shut out background noise to increasing sound fidelity and voice communication.
So it was with interest that I noticed a new range of gaming headphones from renowned purveyor of all things ear related, Turtle Beach, that promised to provide high quality results at a low ($50) price tag. I asked them to hook me up with their PC offering, the EarForce ZLa, so I could take them for a week long test drive across the whole spectrum of use, from Skype to LoL, and Guild Wars 2 to PlanetSide 2.
First impressions were intriguing — once I managed to extract the item from its awful blister pack — in that while there are 3.5mm plugs for audio input in place of a USB, the rest of the design is quite slim, sleek and solid, with nice thick plastic that doesn’t feel cheap, a comfortable head cushion and thick foam around the earcups.
But Turtle Beach haven’t pulled out all the stops here. After all, they’re trying to provide an affordable option, rather than attempting to make their more expensive range redundant. Aside from the aforementioned lack of USB support, there isn’t much more than a basic volume wheel and a mute trigger. There’s no included software, obviously, so what we’re dealing with here comes down to raw performance, comfort and compatibility.
Straight off the bat, I wasn’t happy with the default length of the cabling. There is roughly 3/4 of a metre of cable before the breakaway plug, which then runs for about the same length before the cable split with about an inch of cable – this is fine if you’re plugging into a desktop directly, but most modern speaker systems allow headphone bypass, so I had the choice of either pulling cabling out of the back of my PC or buying an extension. Having a USB connection makes this issue redundant since you can switch between channels in Windows, here, you’re physically pulling cables out.
I was originally a little concerned at the ear cushions — I haven’t used a headphone set without soft leather for quite a few years, and straight foam tends to make my ears sore and itchy after a few hours. Not only that, but the headphone specs promised sound isolation, which didn’t seem possible since the cushions sit on top of your ears, rather than cupping them. An hour into a session of Far Cry 3 made both of my concerns float away; the plastic indents behind the foam to allow your ears to sink in slightly, providing a “faux” feeling of ear cup, which is significantly more comfortable than it seems. Not only that, but the claim of sound isolation is valid, to the point where I couldn’t tell any difference in block out during comparison with my daily-use headset that cost upwards of $250.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though. Soft leather is still infinitely more preferable, especially if you’re playing for longer than an hour, plus the lack of a secure clamp over your ears means the headphones tend to slip a little bit. But these are minor concerns – this foam design is easily the best I’ve had the pleasure of using and I very rarely felt like I had any ear strain.
But most importantly, how do they sound? The ZLa speakers are larger than most budget headphones, clocking in at 40mm, packing full-bandwidth drivers. Sound is crisp and bassy, lacking a lot of the tinny treble that usually affects speakers in this range.
If your soundcard supports it, directional surround works a treat, especially thanks to the impressive isolation, and there is very little leakage thanks to the creative design of the speaker. If you like it loud, the impressive drivers in the speakers keep things flowing without crackles or distortion. I did notice, however, that some of the more obscure sound channels were missing, and some more complex music just didn’t sound right – I’d probably attribute this to the analog receiver more than anything else.
There’s not much to say about the microphone — it’s acceptable. It’s not very sensitive, nor is there a muffler, so I wouldn’t start your own professional podcasts with it, but it’s fine for VOIP.
I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting too much from the ZLa. I’ve been fortunate enough to have decent kit and I hadn’t used a budget headset since my uni days, but memories of the awful build quality, uncomfortable cushions, terrible sound and volume, still resonate. But what Turtle Beach have developed here is deserving of praise; this is easily one of the best gaming headphones you can get for less than $50. Well built, cleverly designed, great sound and actionable sound isolation. If you’re looking for a last minute gift or are feeling the pinch this Christmas while the sticky tape hangs off your old pair, the ZLa’s get our seal of approval.
- Overall good sound quality from 40mm drivers
- Comfortable and solid design
- Good sound isolation
- Foam earcups rather than soft leather
- Some problems with complex music
- Some slippage