When it comes to gaming hardware, style has to follow substance, not the other way around. The hardware has to work well before it can look good, or it’s not worth the money you pay. Cougar’s Phontum gaming headset, then, ought to sound stellar, because I legitimately love the way it looks. But at its $50 price point, we’re down into the budget range of gaming gear. Functionality is already a dice roll. We were pleased with the similarly-priced Corsair HS50 headset some time back, so how does Cougar’s entry stand up for the cash?
Style and build
The Phontums are a great-looking pair of headphones. Appearance is always going to be subjective, but Cougar’s style does it for me here.
The black-and-orange color scheme whispers “gamer” rather than screaming it, while the general style calls to mind high-end headphones rather than headsets. The big, cushy earcups look comfortable and soft, and the grille work on the outside of the earcups gives them a nice audiophile look.
The headset turns into a bit of a mixed bag when you pick it up. The Phontums’ material choices are fingerprint-resistant and feel durable. The headband is made of some pretty substantial metal that feels like it won’t break unless you really work on it, and the headband is all one piece of material onto which the earcups clamp. That means there aren’t a bunch of swivels or other fiddly bits to break off.
The earcups, however, are made of a sealed leatherette material that gets sweaty with prolonged use. There’s a secondary set of earcups that you can lock onto the headphones in place of the default cups, but they’re just the same material with less cushioning instead of a different (and more breathable) material. They are quite easy to swap, though.
While I appreciate the durable feel of the headband, the orange cushioning on it is just barely thick enough to be comfortable, though the material does feel soft and wasn’t painful to wear. The downside of the simple headband-and-earcup-mounting system is its lack of conformance to one’s head. It’ll flex inward and outward enough for just about any size noggin, but that’s about all the comfort customization you get.
The earcups themselves have just enough swivel to work with, but you’re not going to be laying them flat on your shoulders between gaming sessions. It’s possible to adjust the vertical position of the earcups on the headband, but there’s no way to lock that adjustment into place.
The detachable mic bends on the same metal gooseneck-style boom that we see on many other headsets, and it holds its position well. The headphone cord has a tangle-resistant nylon wrap, and console gamers will appreciate that the cord is only about 3′ long. PC gamers will want to make use of the included 6′ extension cord, though.
Cougar made a weird ergonomic decision with its extender. Wired headsets usually feature an adapter to turn the four-pole jack into discrete mic and headphone cords for use with PCs, but these adapters add maybe 8″ to the overall length of the cord. The extension cord also serves as the adapter here, and it triples as the home of the Phontum’s in-line controls. That means the control unit will sit in your lap while you’re playing instead of in your chest region. The control unit doesn’t have any kind of shirt clip, either.
Sound and mic quality
If the style and build quality of Cougar’s cans are a mixed bag, the sound and mic quality fall far short even at this price. The Phontum’s moving bits sound like they belong on a cheaper headset—not that there’s much of a bar to lower at $50.
If you do end up picking these cans up, do not seriously listen to music on them. Please. Cranking Yes’ “Roundabout” immediately revealed distortion at higher volumes. Even at lower levels, the vocals on every track I listened to felt flabby and undistinguished. The warm distortion on Kyuss’ “Green Machine” turns into a muddled mix of sound through the Cougars, and the brilliance of Miles Davis should be avoided on these at all costs—you won’t hear much of it. These are some of the worst cans I’ve pumped music through in a while.
The Phontums’ behavior didn’t improve on the gaming side. Even playing titles I haven’t spent much time with, I found game audio mushing together rather than remaining crisp and clear. In games I’ve played a bunch of, like Forza Motorsport 7, the song of the Phontums was especially unimpressive. Motors sounded distant and muffled, like I was sitting in the grandstands on the other side of the track instead of in my ride’s cockpit, and menu sound effects were muddy.
My online friends immediately noticed the drop in mic quality when I switched from the other headsets in my arsenal to the Phontums, too. Have a listen:
Cougar Phontum microphone
Corsair HS50 microphone
Logitech G Pro microphone
Plantronics RIG 500 Pro microphone
Compared to other mics I’ve tested recently, even in the same price range, the Phontums’ input device is soft and distant, just like the cans it’s attached to. It’s still audible, but it’s not particularly impressive. You’ll be heard while wearing the Phontums, but don’t expect them to substitute for a podcast mic.
Ultimately, the Cougar Phontum looks and feels better than a $50 headset usually might, but it doesn’t reproduce sound or voice anywhere near as well as other affordable headsets I’ve used. The Phontum’s designers seem to have made a trade-off in favor of style over substance. That could be an OK balance to strike for the money, but if you don’t dig how it looks, you’re losing out on both counts.
If Cougar can get better equipment inside the cans without raising the price too much, we’ll have a winner. For now, though, I’d skip this one in favor of other headsets in this price range.