MyGamer Hardware Score: 7.4/10
The HP-1's certainly are sexy, but they're not without flaws...
Razer is a manufacturer of high-end gaming peripherals that first came to prominence with their line of professional gaming mice. Since then, Razer has kept true to their commitment to make the best pointing devices possible, while expanding their product line to include mousing surfaces, keyboards (the soon-to-be-released Tarantula keyboard) and audio devices.
Razer's reason for wanting to enter the gaming audio space, in the words of Robert "Razerguy" Krakoff, was simple: "…gaming audio still sucks. Big time." According to Krakoff, existing audio cards were developed primarily for listening to music, and have added functionality for positional audio added "as an afterthought". What Razer set out to do with the Barracuda series was develop a sound card and headphone system specifically purposed from the ground-up to deliver the very best gaming experience.
As of this review, we still have not yet had the chance to put the Barracuda AC-1 audio card through its paces, but we did get the chance to review the headphones that Razer built specifically to go with them. As we will see, the HP-1 headphones have some very ingenious features, as well as some problems.
The HP-1s are large, can-style headphones with deeply padded ear cups. Each can sports three distinct and separate drivers (each dedicated to the front, rear and center channels) as well as a fourth subwoofer driver. The inclusion of 8 distinct hardware drivers allows the headphones to recreate true, positional audio which (according to Razer) "provides a brand new dimension to your listening and gaming audio experience".
The HP-1's are designed to work in fully digital mode via a special connection to the soon-to-be-released AC-1 audio card, but for those without, a special adapter is included that lets the user plug into a traditional 4-jack, surround-enabled analog audio card. A USB power connection (included with the headphones) must be used in this configuration to power the Barracuda's hard-wired volume control pod and amplifier. This device enables the user to not only control the master volume to the headphones but to also individually adjust the intensity of the front, center, rear and subwoofer channels – a very nice touch. The HP-1 also comes with a small but sensitive detachable microphone.
But do the HP-1s really work? In testing with surround-enabled games such as Half Life II and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, we can indeed report that the headphones did an admirable job in recreating the "feel" of fully-positioned audio, even when used with a traditional analog-powered sound card (in our case, a high-end Creative X-fi device). We did immediately notice, however, that the audio quality of the rear channel was much weaker and tinnier than the front and side channels, so much so that it almost became a distraction.
For example, in Half Life II, when Barney was in the middle of one of his many speeches, if we turned so that he was behind us, it did in fact "feel" like the audio source was coming from a point behind us, but when the voice would slip all the way into the rear channel, the quality of the audio itself shifted noticeably, becoming much reedier and thinner than it had been in the side channel. We had the same experience with Oblivion, both with voices as well as the game's excellent ambient audio effects. Whether or not this coloring of the rear audio channel is a result of the analog adapter or not (something that should be corrected when we test again using the AC-1 audio card) is something we'll need to look at again, once we review that device, but when powered by an analog sound card the rear channel discrepancy is quite noticeable.
The HP-1's have some additional challenges as well. The volume control pod, for example, is wired quite close to the headphones themselves, and is quite large (about the size of a large pack of gum). Unfortunately, the designers did not leave enough cord so that the pod could be rested comfortably on the desktop (at least, it did when used by a 6 foot, one-inch player like me). Instead, the pod dangles from the cord, tugging down the left ear cup. The pod does have a clip, but it is too heavy to comfortably hang from a t-shirt. Also, the padded ear cups are indeed plush, but become quite hot after a short period of use, and the terry-cloth-like padding easily becomes soaked with sweat. This, coupled with the tight metal tension bands that keep the cans placed make the HP-1's uncomfortable after only an hour or so of use.
Last, we wondered if the HP-1's could be used with a laptop or other stereo-only sound card, and discovered that if we plugged in just the green center channel plug they could indeed be used (they sounded great, in fact). However, we also learned quite quickly that if the USB connection is not also made, the powered volume control pod would not send any sound to the cans. That's all very well (most laptops have USB hookups on the rear of the PC), however the analog adapter's wiring is very short, only about 4" tops from the tips to the wiring loom. With some laptops, we discovered, to our disappointment, that we could not make the cords reach from the headphone jack all the way back to the USB port, making the HP-1's, in effect, useless. Things aren't much better on a desktop – there, this configuration demands that you use one of your desktop's (doubtless scarce) rear USB ports for dedicated headphone power duty – it would have been nice if Razer had included some sort of USB extension cord so we could have run that connection up to one of our powered hubs. And don't forget that you'll have to disconnect your current 6.1 speakers to make room for the HP-1's four analog plugs (few PCs have a full set of analog surround outputs on the front of the PC in our experience).
Pros: Like all Razer products, the Barracuda HP-1 headphones look wonderfully menacing – all matte black rubber and blue LEDs. Positional audio works as advertised, even with an analog sound card – we can't wait to hear how different (read as: "better" ) they sound when paired with the Barracuda AC-1 sound card. The audio out of the phones (other than the rear channel) is rich and even across all points of the audio spectrum, with no glaring highlights or buzzing bass. The ability to independently control the center, front, rear and subwoofer channels' intensity is very, very nice.
Cons: Rear drivers sound weak and tinny. Cabling setup is a bit wonky, and demands that users with an existing surround-sound speaker setup totally disconnect their speakers to use the HP-1s. Hopefully the use of the AC-1 audio card (along with its customized connection to the headphones) will help with the headphone's audio and connectivity issues, but when used with an analog audio card, or when used with a laptop and a standard stereo headphone jack, the HP-1's are almost more trouble than they're worth. Hopefully the next-generation Barracuda that Razer will one day develop will have a more logically placed volume control pod, a much longer set of analog plugs and more comfortable ear phone cups.