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Review: Sennheiser's new gaming headset sounds just right

Sennheiser's new $249 333D G4ME luxury gaming headphones may be targeted at hardcore LAN party warriors, but there's good reason for anyone interested in high-end gaming audio to check out this high-tech headset.

The differentiator here is sound quality. I typically employ a pair of pretty good Bose desktop speakers for PC gaming, but when I encased my ears in Sennheiser's new cuffs I was introduced to an unexpected world of nuance and clarity that the Danish manufacturer says spans an impressive range of 14 to 22,000 Hertz. Once-subtle sounds-the crunching of grass under a combat boot, the tinkle of a spent shell on concrete-suddenly had a vibrant authenticity for which I was unprepared, while more robust noises-say, explosions and the bellowing of monsters-burst through with compelling propinquity. When I closed my eyes I felt like I was right in the middle of the action (though I don't recommend closing your eyes while playing a game at home; I'm a professional trained to suffer virtual death in the course of my evaluations).

Dolby 5.1 and 7.1 are both supported through an optional inline USB sound card that comes in the box. Slide up a large button on the top of the card and Dolby Headphone-an artificial surround sound enabler-will be switched on. I have to admit that I couldn't tell a difference between 5.1 and 7.1. In fact, I had difficulty distinguishing much in the way of any front or rear sounds. Audio environments were satisfyingly spacious, but that's not the same as being able to precisely determine that a footstep is coming from left or rear left. It's worth adding that, with one notable exception, I've never been completely satisfied with artificial surround sound headphones. It's just not the same without individual drivers for each channel. However, even without perfect emulation of a six- or eight-speaker configuration, the audio quality delivered by these headphones is plainly well above par.

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Moving past sound reproduction, the 333D has a rotating, lightly flexible boom mic that automatically switches on or off when it reaches 45 degrees. It features Sennheiser's noise cancelling tech, which seems to work very well; people on the other end of the line said that I came in loud and clear and that they heard no background sounds. They also mentioned that I felt "close," which I took to mean that it sounded as though I was in the room with them.

Unfortunately, I've found the headset slightly uncomfortable over long durations. Though soft, the cups are a bit small and press tightly against the perimeters of my ears, the ridges of which eventually became a bit sore where they pressed up against the wire arms of my spectacles. This might not be a problem for smaller-headed gamers-the cups seem to curve in and press together with more force the further they're extended from the cushioned band-but larger-noggined nerds could suffer some red marks.

A DJ-style hinge on the right cup, meanwhile, makes it easy to quickly flip the cuff back to hear other people in the room. This feature should prove handy not just for team LAN gamers but also regular shmoes like me who need to keep an ear out for their families. I also like the volume control on the right cup-a large spinning disc with an easy-to-find fingertip indentation that facilitates speedy decibel adjustments.

Clearly, these cans are a luxury item intended for gamers, but keep in mind that their utility reaches beyond interactive entertainment. Music sounds delightful-full bodied and free of distortion at healthy volumes (I didn't risk pushing it to maximum levels)-as do movies. And the rotating boom mic means the 333D can double as a headset for Internet telephony services like Skype and Gmail Call.

Sennheiser could have included several other features, such as noise cancelling drivers to block out background sound in loud households, cross-platform support for console enthusiasts, and a wireless model to free players from their PCs during non-gaming applications, but these non-essential features would have jacked up the cost of these already pricey 'phones even further. Worse, they may have had detrimental repercussions to sound quality.

And, really, sound quality is what this headset is all about. Think of it as a device designed for game-loving audiophiles-people who are passionate about sound in the same way so many others are obsessed with graphics. The PC 333D G4ME may occasionally keep your virtual soldier alive a little longer-any gamer can tell you the difference between life and frag can come down to a single subtle sound cue-but, perhaps even more importantly, they'll help players better appreciate the intricate audioscapes of their favourite games, which are becoming more complex, beautiful, and worth paying attention to each passing year.

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