MyGamer Hardware Score: 8.0/10
I've never used any of OTTO's other audio headset products, maybe because I'm not a "fireman, policeman, race car driver, construction worker or security guy" (as stated on OTTO's web site). That said, whenever I hear a company claim that they're leveraging "…(a)ll the work we've put in over the past 45 years delivering superior audio devices" into a product intended for the gaming community, I sit up and take notice.
The product that OTTO has for us this month is their Surround Sound Stereo Headset. The device is a set of thickly padded, can-style headphones. A small Switch and a volume knob (used to adjust the intensity of the Surround effect and not unfortunately a proper volume control – more on this in a bit) is set into one of the cans. Sound is delivered from a single 3' cord fitted with a gold-plated stereo micro jack.
Right off the bat we were very impressed with the OTTO unit's audio fidelity as well as the padded cans' ambient noise deadening effect. Initially we plugged the OTTO ‘phones into a MP3 player and found their reproduction of all types of music very pleasing. Whether it was the deep, rumbling bass in Prodigy's "Breathe", the buzzing background vocals in The Crystal Method's "PhD" or the fiddle in the Corr's live version of "Breathless", the OTTO phones did a marvelous job of hitting all the high and low notes, all while sheltering us from the noise generated by the outside world.
We were less excited by the OTTO's SRS or "Surround" effect when applied to music, however. This function, which must be manually Switched on, and is powered by a single AAA battery installed into one of the cans, simply caused an unpleasant and distracting echo-chamber effect when used in conjunction with music, and we stopped using it immediately. We were also less than thrilled by the headphones' relatively short cord (we could not put the MP3 player into a pocket without the cord pulling) or lack of an in-line volume control.
Of course, many of these issues immediately went away when we plugged the OTTO headphones into a PC. There the short cord was not an issue at all, although we still found ourselves wanting an in-line volume control to more easily adjust the volume while playing games. The OTTO's fidelity in titles like Guild Wars, Oblivion and particularly in the newly-released Bioshock was nothing short of stunning, and the addition of the Surround feature added much to that title's already spooky audio ambience. While we do not agree that the OTTO would help a gamer "hear footfalls coming up behind them" (as their press releases seem to suggest – at the end of the day the OTTO Surround Sound Headphones are still only a 2-channel audio device that simulates true 5-channel audio), that doesn't mean that the units didn't swiftly become the headphones of choice for gaming sessions.
If we had one major complaint about the Surround Sound Stereo Headset, it would be the comfort of the cans when used over an extended period of time. Even when extended fully, the headband was almost uncomfortable snug, and lead to more than one staffer complaining of sore ears after a long session with Guild Wars or Oblivion. We found that two hours seemed to be the maximum comfortable use time. After we understood this, we were able to schedule in rest periods, but we can't help but compare them to a device like Steel Sound's excellent competing product, which can (and was) used for more than 3 times longer with no noticeable discomfort.
Another weakness in the OTTO unit is the Surround Sound Switch – there is nothing built into the headphones to detect when they are not in use, and subsequently there is no auto power-off feature. More than once, we pulled the phones off our aching ears and left them on the desk and returned on the following day to find the AAA battery dead. While it's no big deal to replace a dead battery, I can easily see it leaking acid inside of the cans after being killed in this manner, which could ruin them completely. For the price, OTTO should look into adding an "auto off" feature if they have to use a battery-powered Surround solution.
All things considered, however, The OTTO Surround Sound Stereo headphones look to have secured a place on our "favorite products" shelf for at least the immediate future. If and when OTTO decides to release a v2.0 set with a more comfortable head strap, auto-off Surround feature and a slightly longer cord with a proper volume control, then they'll definitely have created a true classic.
Pros: Excellent music and game audio reproduction. Sound deadening isolates the ear from outside noise. Attractive styling.
Cons: Cord too short to use with MP3 players; no in-line volume control. Cans are very hard on the ears when used for extended periods (anything over 2 hours is very uncomfortable). Lots of potential here, but the OTTO Surround Sound Stereo headset could use a little refinement – we look forward to reviewing the v2.0 of the product.