When anyone first enters the world of computer gaming they typically start their journey with whatever peripherals the computer came with. In the case of an iMac, it’s more than likely an Apple Wireless Keyboard. And that’s all fine and dandy for a short while. But sooner or later you will probably feel like “kicking it up a notch”. Maybe you want some extra macro keys or perhaps a number pad if you are left-handed (like me). The point is when it comes to computer gaming some users have a hefty advantage over others depending on the gear they have. If you play multiplayer games a lot, the first extra you are likely to purchase is going to be a quality headset.
It won’t take long before people complain about the echoes and ambient noise that the iMac’s built-in microphone unintentionally provides. If you use the built-in speakers or a cheap pair of headphones you may quickly become annoyed with the lack of dynamic audio in your shooters or action games. The solution is a quality headset with some noise canceling tech and (virtual) surround sound. Since 2008, MLG has licensed Astro Gaming’s A40 unit as the official headset of the tournament, making it a staple for the gaming community when it comes to hearing that enemy sneaking up on your southwest flank. But how does it look from a Mac gamers perspective? Does Astro care about our niche market?
Where to buy
The Astro A40 headset can currently be purchased from a number of online retailers including the official Astro website. But if you fancy grabbing a copy from your local retailer then you can head down to your local GameStop in North America and get yourself a pair. I also recommend that you check out the official refurb store on eBay for great deals with international shipping ready to go.
An interesting fact about today’s market for gaming peripherals and accessories is that most products don’t put a Mac logo on their box next to the Windows one, even if they do support it. If you are lucky, in some cases you might see a listing in the requirements for an OS X minimum spec. But for the most part, finding peripherals that support MacOS will require you to take a trip to the manufactures website or some may even require you to Google user reviews for support success stories. The Astro A40 + Mixamp Pro headset is no exception to this rule.
At first glance of the grayscale sleeve cover to the A40’s packaging, your eyes are immediately drawn to this little red blip in the corner of the box where a listing for Xbox, PS3, and PC are shown as supported platforms. An inexperienced Mac user might stop right there, however, I know a thing or two about the industry and know OS X is often coupled with the PC market when it comes to boxing marketing. Usually, I look for a specification or requirements listing and see if there is any listing for Mac support next to or under the Windows listing. Unfortunately in this case you are going to strike out with not even minimum specs listed for Windows, let alone MacOS.
It is likely that Astro Gaming has lost sales to Mac gamers just because they didn’t make it clear that their product fully supports our platform. This is a shameful mistake considering a very quick change to the box art graphic will cost almost nothing to the company and only yield profits once implemented. And even more saddening is the fact Astro is probably in the majority to make this mistake with their box design as far as companies go. Do not fret though, for I am about to turn down my fanboying and turn up the love because aside from the unforgivable lack of support information on the exterior, the unboxing of the hardware is just a sheer delight.
Astro Gaming may currently be owned by Skullcandy, however, it initially was created as a subsidiary of Astro Studios when they saw an opportunity to turn a profit from the untapped pro gaming accessories market back in 2006. They are the same company that brought you the design of the Xbox 360, Alienware Computers, and the Boxee box. Their part in designing the packaging for the A40’s shines brilliantly here. Unboxing the headset will lead you through a series of layers sparking deep emotions preparing you for your new headset.
You will start with a classic grayscale cover exposing a blown up picture of your headset placed dead center and a modest Astro logo in the corner. If you twist your box back and forth you can actually see a large but faint “A40 +Mixamp Pro” spelled out on the box in bolded letters adding more depth to your initial hold of it. Next, sliding off the cover you get a beautiful graffiti art styled graphic that will have your imagination spinning in eagerness to start playing. Then you will have to search for a tab that allows you to access the next part of the box.
The A40 box opens into two compartments. The first holds just the headset in perfect solitude, really selling that you purchased something momentous. Next to the headset is the Mixamp, also prominently displayed to showcase its significance. As soon as your “awe pools” deplete you will begin to wonder where the cables to hook this bad boy up are. This wonderful box has a trap door on the Mixamp side that once explored, contains your manuals and your mic on top. And all your fixings placed neatly below. It’s a strange thing to get so much enjoyment out of a box, but once you experience it you will understand. There is a reason I didn’t just throw away the box like all the other see-through plastic enclosures. There is a lot of heart put into the first experience with this headset. This is the reason unboxing videos are so popular with Astro.
As for the headset itself, it is a very attractive piece of work. In a more minimalist way, it gives the user everything they want without being overly flashy. All the edges are nicely curved and the framework tries to bulk down anywhere it can by suspending each piece of the headset individually. All the button adjustments are on the Mixamp leaving nothing but a smooth and simple headset design. But if you want a little more, Astro offers a variety of great customization options for you as well.
The A40’s come in five different colors currently to date. Starting with the standard black and white, but offering three neon colors: pink, orange, and yellow for the more adventurous. But if that’s not enough for you, Astro offers some fantastic options to really personalize your gear with interchangeable side panels known by them as “tags“.
These discs come with a variety of gaming graphics that you can attach to the exterior of both the right and left muff. There is even an option for you to make your design your own on the site and have them shipped them out to your house. If that isn’t cool then I don’t know what is.
As far as the rest of the equipment goes, the Mixamp looks very cool with minimal buttons but everything you need on it. There are backlights on the buttons that when turned on making it really stand out in a good way as your own little personal command center on your desktop. The microphone has the wire half exposed running up a thick mess to a metal end where the receiver is and even the cord running from the headset features a mute switch that has Astros logo embossed out. Nothing about this headset looks cheap or gives an impression that it is anything but a professional tool.
If a shiny box and cool looks were all it took to sell headsets, then I probably wouldn’t need to even write reviews on this stuff because you could just hit up your local gaming store and pick the best looking one yourself. However what really matters is how well things work. As far as headset criteria go it’s all about sound and ease of use.
The inability to add hardware is one main advantage that the PC community keeps using as ammunition in “the unspoken war” for computer dominance. Macs don’t have sound cards in a conventional manner. The only support you can use for dynamic audio is through the mini optical port built into the headphone jack. Most people probably don’t even know it’s there. But if you get what is known as a miniplug optical cord and plug it into your headphone jack on your iMac, you can get an optical signal from your Mac (that’s a fancy way of saying surround sound). I wasn’t even aware of this myself until I plugged in the headphones and pondered, “um.. how?”. Realizing there is no standard optical port, I had to check their website for instructions which led to a Google search to figure it all out.
Apparently, Astro didn’t know about this either because they don’t include this cord or an adapter to hook up to Macs. Its heartbreaking to have a $250 box of awesome that does nothing until you run out to a specialty computer store (because it can be a hard cord to find) and pick up a three dollar cord. In the A40’s case, it’s even worse because the Mixamp itself uses a miniplug optical to input into the device from your computer. So they put you halfway there. Unfortunately, that miniplug to standard optical cord will just not work and you will need to further purchase a miniplug to miniplug cable to hook this up. This just further adds to the confusion of whether or not the Mac is a supported platform. But I have proof, I swear.
A huge battle in the Mac gaming revolution is not only to advertise that Mac is supported or have your device tested to work on it, but mainly to have reasonable means to fix problems and update those devices. Astro does provide a very bare bone little application to do this and all it does is recognize what you are using and apply the latest firmware update. Sounds lame but it’s a step that many others often skip. There are plenty of stock keyboards and mice out there that claim Mac support but in the end are just stock devices with no drivers at all. When people complain about too much noise in the microphone or weird glitches with OS X there is an actual physical ability to get in there and fix it. And it seems to work well judging by the lack of issues with my headset and/or errors loading the app.
You probably skipped everything else and came all the way to this paragraph because you thought it is all that matters with a headset. And while it is the most important factor, because it will either make or break your decision to purchase, I strongly recommend you read everything else (if you didn’t already). Nevertheless, let’s talk about the sound. The quality of the A40’s audio output is the best I have ever heard in a headset. Everything is clear and concise, with the Mixamp offering multiple options to change the levels at the touch of the equalizer button. Surround sound (which will be virtually created for most things) is precise and I can tell when someone is coming from behind, front left or right when in games. The volume dial is huge and easy to operate, which is convenient because once using your optical port, you cannot adjust audio within OS X (keyboard or menus).
I will say it was hard to find a good setting to listen to music (I mainly listen to alt rock). It wasn’t too bass-y or to treble-y but perhaps it was the mid-level tones that made it sound a little off. I just couldn’t find a good spot. Movies, games and everything else had exceptional quality without any crackles or pops. And I am told that my microphone sound was also clear with no noise or echoing. A lot of people didn’t comment on a game, which is a positive comment on its own because usually they only say something if your mic is not up to speed. I had no issues beyond needing to push my mic farther or closer which was easy because the mic itself is mobile without being flimsy.
The A40’s sit snug on my head with the top piece holding it up without being intrusive and the round curve and adjustable sides fitting just right. The microphone easily pops out when you are not using it. and will also fold out of the way. The Mixamp to headset cord was just the right length as to not hit the floor and have me running over it with my computer chair, but long enough to let me move around. I didn’t max out the adjustable sides either meaning most people should have lots of room to find a sweet spot.
Only two items caused me some discomfort. The first being a common problem for me with headsets and it seems like it only happens when the earmuffs are lined with fabric and not leather (or a leather wannabe.) I tend to have sideburns and when the earmuffs touch and rub on them it starts to chaff and eventually rash to the point I don’t want to wear them anymore. For some, this might not be a problem but after discussing amongst friends, I am not the only one with this issue. Some earmuffs shapes cause it more than others as well. When they are round it seems less likely.
The second issue I have is just with housekeeping. Once you buy a unit like this with its own external Mixamp and three different cords to hook up plus the headset, your desktop becomes a little full. It’s not really a huge issue but let’s just say for the sake of argument that when you also have a ps3 hooked up adding additional cords it just becomes a bit too much. Nothing a few twist ties won’t fix.
- Great sound from the muffs and mic
- Mixamp provides great control
- Beautifull design for headset and packaging
- Firmware updates without jumping to Windows
- Poor Mac advertising
- Not all cords provided
- Messy desktop with all the cords
The Astro A40 + Mixamp Pro is definitely a premium piece of hardware for your gaming setup. They provide great sound and good continuous support through firmware updates. But Astro as a company is failing to cash in on their investment by not adequately notifying the Mac audience that their product is available to them. Not providing all the cords needed will leave users feeling left out and unsure if they can even use the device.
As a result, they may end up returning their new headset before even using it. If you are savvy then this $250 purchase might be the best you make, but be warned the support like most things Mac comes across as something half-assed. Most of my issues are in the pre-purchase and set up phases of the headset but if you can power past them, then you won’t be disappointed.
This review comes from resident Author Adrian Gaucher.