Corsair's HS1 gaming headset


A change of pace from memory and PSUs
— 11:54 AM on October 1, 2010

Corsair is known for many things—memory, power supplies, solid-state storage, and enclosures, to name a few—but headphones aren't one of them. Not quite yet, at least. The company has ventured into uncharted waters with its HS1 headset, which quietly made its way onto online retail stocks recently. It's listed for about $100 at Newegg right now.

Geoff tackled a couple of headphone reviews these past few months, so I figured I might ask Corsair nicely for a pair and give these a shot. Besides, I'm clearly the authority on audio here at TR, having paid slightly more than Geoff for a pair of slightly fancier headphones. I've also got this $5,000 wooden volume knob that makes my vinyl records sound so much warmer...

The HS1 is, not so surprisingly considering Corsair's usual target market, a gaming headset. It features a pair of 50-mm drivers, a three-meter braided cable, USB connectivity (no 3.5-mm jacks here), an inline volume and mic control, and Dolby Headphone signal processing. If you're curious about the impedance, frequency response, and other such numbers, Corsair provides those details on the official product page. It's hard to judge a pair of headphones by looking at their specs on a piece of paper, though.

I've been trying out the Corsair HS1 these past few days, taking it through my MP3 collection and testing the different Dolby-branded DSP settings. So far, I'm both impressed and a little disappointed. I'm impressed because this is a pretty strong first stab at the whole headphone thing—at least from a company whose only other audio devices are the PC speakers in its enclosures. I'm also a little disappointed because, well, these cans aren't quite the panacea of enthusiast audio Corsair makes them out to be. Let me elaborate.

I first tried the HS1 with an album I'd been listening to for a few days already: The Bravery's Stir The Blood. Immediately, I was struck by how much treble the HS1 was producing... on track two, Song For Jacob, the vocals, drums, and background melody seemed squished into a narrow band, and frankly, it was a little painful to listen to. I popped open the Corsair HS1 USB Headset control panel and tried to see if some of the DSP settings could alleviate the problem.

Enabling Dolby Headphone immediately added more volume to the sound, making the bass a little deeper and making me think I was listening to a pair of speakers in my office—not a pair of closed cans. No matter what I tried, though, the treble was just too harsh, and I couldn't really listen to the music without making my ears ache. I got similar results with heavier rock and metal, like April Ethereal from Opeth's excellent My Arms, Your Hearse. That song's eight minutes just fly by on my Sennheiser HD595s, but I couldn't make it more than 30 seconds or so with the Corsair headset. Way, way too much treble.

I tried something a little different: electronic music courtesy of the Social Network soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Track three, On We March, sounded a little flat with DSP effects disabled, but Dolby Headphone immediately brought it to life, and the 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter setting seemed to enhance the overall effect. The low drums generated meaty thumps, while the higher-pitched percussion samples sounded delightfully crisp. At the same time, the DSP settings made the sound airy, like it was coming from all around me. I got a similar vibe from Tortoise's The Lithium Stiffs and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, although in the latter, the percussion was too sharp and detracted from the experience.

Moving on to other genres, I put on Johnny Cash's beautiful cover of Neil Diamond's Solitary Man. The crispness was enjoyable there, but I missed the booming quality of Cash's voice, and the whole song sounded a little too metallic compared to my Sennheisers. Meanwhile, Eminem's voice in On Fire felt like a power drill boring through my skull on the HS1. Not pleasant.

In short, the HS1 doesn't do a bad job with electronic music, but other genres are pretty hit-and-miss. What about, you know, actual gaming, which this headset seems to be all about?

I was a tad less thorough in my game testing, firing up Valve's Left 4 Dead 2 and, later, DICE's Mirror's Edge. However, I didn't take long to reach my verdict: two thumbs up. When set up correctly for six-channel input with Dolby Headphone in the Corsair control panel, this headset produces a surprisingly believable sense of space, and the surround effects are spot on. Left 4 Dead 2's bullets and zombie hordes are much easier to pinpoint, both in terms of distance and position, than with my Sennheisers. In Mirror's Edge, the city's various ambient sound effects swoosh past realistically as Faith jumps from rooftop to rooftop. I won't lie; more bass and fuller mids definitely wouldn't hurt. But to put things in perspective, the surround effect and overall sound quality actually struck me as an improvement over Psyko's 5.1 PC Gaming Headset, which retails for about $300.

After my gaming session, I put the HS1 through one last listening test, loading up Avatar with 5.1 surround sound. Again, two thumbs up. The quality of the audio wasn't flawless, but it sounded just like at the movies: crisp, grandiose, and deafening in the combat scenes from the movie's third act. If you want to feel like less of a recluse when watching films on your computer screen, the HS1 is the headset for you! Seriously, though, Dolby Headphone really does its job on the HS1, helping to create a full, believable soundscape.

The HS1 also has a microphone, hence the "headset" label. Rather than use mildly pompous audiophile lingo to describe the sound quality in detail, I'll give you a couple of recordings. To make these, I put on both the HS1 and the headset I normally use to record our podcasts, a $30 Sennheiser PC131 running through the C-Media USB adapter from my much less comfortable pair of Plantronics DSP-400. I then proceeded to read a paragraph from Scott's GTC debrief. Here are the clips in MP3 format: first for the HS1, then for my other headset. The recording from the HS1 seems to have a tad more background noise and less crispness, but it seems to sound a lot less metallic and more life-like, too. Advantage: Corsair.

Now, using the HS1's mic is a bit of a double-edged sword. The sound quality is good, and the mic is nice and short, so puffs of air from one's mouth or nose are less of a problem than with other headsets—eating and drinking is easier, too. On the flip side, the closed design of the headphones makes your own voice sound muffled when you talk, which can be a little unsettling when you're trying to have a conversation on Skype. The Corsair control panel software does provide a "monitor" feature, which routes sound input through to the headphones, but the noticeable lag makes that option even more distracting. If you get the HS1, you'll have to get used to speaking without being able to hear yourself properly.

Before I reach my final verdict, I should probably talk a little bit about the build quality of this headset. In one word, it's excellent. Not only does the HS1 look tasteful and feel sturdy, but it's also extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. The padding around the cans and headband is suitably thick, and you might forget you're wearing the HS1 after a little while. In spite of that, the HS1 feels more securely strapped to my head than my Sennheiser HD 595s. That little remote Corsair includes is also quite helpful, with proper buttons to let you adjust the volume, and colored LED backlighting that turns blue when mic input is on and red when it's off. (I've got nothing against analog volume controls, but on headphones, they always have the potential to brush up against something and deafen you momentarily.) Oh, and you can actually fold the HS1 up for easier transport—see the image in our gallery.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, the HS1 has left me with a mix of enthusiasm and disappointment. The truth is that, whatever Corsair might want you to think, there are much better headphones for pure music listening in the same price range. Sennheiser's HD 555 or Grado's SR80i are both good choices. The HS1 unfortunately sounds too treble-y and too metallic with many kinds of music, and the faint background hiss as well as occasional pops from the DSP effects don't help.

For gaming, however, the HS1 really works, thanks to both its quality mic and its excellent Dolby Headphone implementation. Corsair's headset does a fine job of emulating surround sound without compromising sound quality, making all sound leak out into the open, or letting too many external sounds in. Those are all good traits for a LAN party or an office gaming session. The microphone could probably use stronger noise cancellation, though. The HS1's strengths with surround-sound gaming carry over to movie watching, as well; if you want to pop in a DVD or a Blu-ray disc to take a break from fragging or Zerg rushing, the HS1 will definitely treat you right.

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