Just like Lord of the Rings’ One Ring, the Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9 Wireless Surround Headset aims to be the one headset to rule them all. It does pretty much everything you’d ever want from a gaming headset: it’s wireless, works with every major gaming device, and has all of the audio features you can think of.
The Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9 is solidly constructed from quality components, so it’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time. It also features all of the buttons you need to control what you’re listening to without having to pull your device out of your pocket, such as volume controls and track skipping. An iOS and Android app also allows you to control the headphones and monitor the battery level, the latter of which is still a rare feature.
All this technology doesn’t come cheap though--at £280, the Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9 headset sits at the very top of the gaming headset market, and competes with premium lifestyle brands such as Bose and Beats as much it does with Turtle Beach and Astro. Thankfully, the superb sound reproduction, 20-hour battery life, and plethora of accessories go someway to warranting this high price tag.
That’s not to say the F.R.E.Q. 9 is perfect. The headset itself is big, heavy and frankly quite ugly. There’s nothing attractive about its design, so if you’re looking for a portable headset that doesn’t scream “gamer”, you’ll want to look elsewhere. There are also other smaller issues: the pause button is easy to press when adjusting the headset or taking it off, resulting in dropped calls and unintentional Siri requests.
The headset also has issues that may be familiar to owners of other Bluetooth headsets: namely random audio drop-outs, confusion between which device you’re trying to play audio from, and even loud static noise.
Overall, the F.R.E.Q. 9 headset is a high-quality headset for use across multiple gaming platforms at home, but less so for use on-the-go.
See also: Best Gaming Headset 2015
Mad Catz may be a venerable member of the gaming accessory market, but it’s only in the last six years that it has really started to build up a reputation as a quality hardware manufacturer. In the early 2000s, it was perhaps best known for its cheap and often nasty accessories that were aimed at the value end of the market.
So it was quite a shock when, in 2009, Mad Catz announced that it had partnered with Capcom to produce the official Street Fighter IV Tournament Edition Fight Stick. It was even more of a shock when the finished product turned out to be possibly the best fighting stick ever made for the home market -- its solid construction and authentic Sanwa arcade parts won over notoriously fickle hardcore fighting game fans, and was the start of Mad Catz’s expansion into other premium product lines.
Enter the Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9 Wireless Surround Headset, which takes the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach by offering everything you’d realistically want from a gaming headset. They work with practically every gaming device on the market, they’re completely wireless, and they boast pretty much every major audio feature you can think of, including active noise cancellation.
See also: PS4 vs Xbox One
Let’s start with the basics. The headset features built-in Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, so it will connect to every major mobile phone, tablet and laptop on the market, as well as set-top boxes like the Amazon Fire TV and Mad Catz’s own M.O.J.O. Android console. Not only that, but it supports dual Bluetooth pairing, so you can be listening to music from your laptop and then take a call on your mobile. When it all works properly, it’s pretty darn cool.
For non-portable devices like games consoles and desktop PCs, you have to connect a small box roughly the same size as a portable hard drive. On the back of the box is a USB input for power, and both a digital optical input and a 3.5mm input for audio. The package includes all of the cables and adapters needed, even the old Xbox 360 AV cable. There are also cables for the PS4’s DualShock 4, the Wii U GamePad, and the Xbox 360 controller.
See also: PS4 vs PS3
The major omission on this lineup is the Xbox One, which requires a separate adaptor. We think it’s reasonable to expect that a headset costing £280 would include an adaptor for the second most-popular games console on the market right now, but we’re more inclined to lay the blame at Microsoft’s door, rather than Mad Catz, as it was their decision to use a proprietary connector. So if you have an Xbox One, you’ll need to spend around £20 on a separate adaptor.
All the different audio connections and standards can make setting up a headset like this confusing, but Mad Catz provides a large, full-colour manual that very clearly shows how to set up each console, with numbered bags separating each of the cables. Multiple-console owners will be disappointed that you can’t connect two devices at the same time, so you’ll need an optical audio splitter, or ideally an AV Receiver. Rounding out the package is a micro-USB cable for charging the headset itself, plus a rather large and bulky carrying case for protecting the headset when you’re on-the-go.
See also: Xbox One vs Xbox 360
The F.R.E.Q. 9 is like the headset equivalent of a Land Rover: built for comfort when going off-road. It’s sturdy and solid; it easily survived being thrown around in a bag without the need for the case. It’s also comfortable to wear for long periods, thanks mainly to the soft leather pads on the ears and headband, rather than the heavy 367g weight.
However, the F.R.E.Q. 9 is in no way stylish--it’s big, bulky and distinctly unfashionable. Basically, it looks just like a gaming headset, from the sharp lines and industrial-looking plastic to the ridiculous “F.R.E.Q. 9” name itself. We wore the F.R.E.Q. 9 commuting in and out of London for a week for this review, and we couldn’t wait to never be seen in public with them again.
If you’re looking for a pair of wireless headphones and you care about how you look even just a little bit, we’d strongly dissuade you from buying the Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9. Instead, consider the Beats Solo 2 or Sennheiser Momentum headphones. They may lack the games console compatibility, but they look infinitely cooler.
See also: Best Headphones 2015
The closest competitor to the F.R.E.Q. 9 come from Turtle Beach in the form of the new Elite 800. The Elite 800 is slightly cheaper at £250, but it’s broadly similar in terms of features. The Turtle Beach alternative are slightly heavier, lack an Xbox 360 adapter and have a shorter battery life though. The main advantage the Elite 800 has over the F.R.E.Q. 9, though, is that it looks a lot more stylish, plus it comes with a really neat charging dock and sounds slightly better. If you’re looking for an all-in-one gaming headset for use at home and on-the-go, it’s the one to go for in our opinion.
Back to the F.R.E.Q. 9, it has a number of discreetly-placed buttons on the headset, meaning you don’t need to get your device out to control what you’re listening to. The right earcup features track skip buttons, a volume control wheel, and other buttons to control noise cancellation, surround sound and microphone settings.
Annoyingly, one of the key buttons is less well-placed. The Mad Catz logo, which takes up a good portion of the right earcup, is too easy to press when you’re adjusting the headset or taking it off. Depending on the number of times you press it, or how long you hold it down, you’ll either pause the music, activate Siri (on an iOS device) or turn the headset off. It doesn’t happen too often, but we’d have preferred a smaller button that’s less easy to accidentally press.
Another issue with headset is that sometimes the buttons work, and sometimes they don’t, depending on what device, operating systems or software you’re using. For example, if you’re listening to Spotify on a phone then the skip track buttons work fine, but on a Mac, they don’t. In another example, if you’re listening to Spotify on a Mac and press the pause button, that opens up iTunes and starts playing something from your library. It’s annoying.
We also encountered other more common Bluetooth-related problems. The ability to connect both a computer and a mobile phone is cool, but it often doesn’t work as intended. If you wander out of the range of your computer, for example, the audio from your phone can end up randomly dropping out. If you want to switch from one audio source to another, you need to stop playback on the original device first, and then move over to the second device.
We also encountered random audio dropouts, which only happen for a split-second, but they’re still annoying. We even came across one occasion where the headphones started producing loud static noise for no apparent reason, forcing a complete reset of the headphones (we thankfully weren’t wearing them at the time).
If Mad Catz doesn’t approach Bose in terms of style, then it thankfully does when it comes to audio quality. The F.R.E.Q. 9 is a fantastic-sounding pair of headphones capable of creating really immersive audio across a variety of genres. These are headphones that you can use for everything: equally great at games as they are with video and music, making them a great choice of headphones for people who play games at night and listen to music at work, for example.
While the headphones produce punchy bass and rich detail at normal volume, they also maintain this quality at loud volumes, going way louder than equivalent headsets we’ve used. As a result, we found they were great for those bombastic story moments in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but they were also sprightly enough to produce details such as grenade drops and footprints in multiplayer games.
Whereas most headsets require some level of tinkering to sound their best, the F.R.E.Q. 9 sounds great out of the box. The flipside is that the F.R.E.Q. 9 offers no real way of tinkering with the audio levels, because there’s no accompanying software. Audiophiles may lament this lack of control, but we’ve often found these features are often too in-depth and unnecessary on competing headsets, and the F.R.E.Q. 9 headset performed well without them.
See also: Best Games 2015
Mad Catz’s Digital Active Noise Cancellation works particularly well. When it’s engaged (using a button on the bottom of the right earcup), it will block out most of the ambient noise in an office, on public transport and in a busy street. Listen to music at the same time, and you can block out the outside world completely. The F.R.E.Q. 9 does an especially good job of noise cancellation without causing the nauseating feeling of pressure of some headsets.
We’re less sold on the headset’s surround sound features. While they do provide a slightly more enveloping sound in genres such as shooters, it was unnecessary when the standard stereo reproduction was so good. The microphone, though, was absolutely wonderful, with binaural processing meaning you can hear yourself talk, so you don’t have to shout.
Battery life on the F.R.E.Q. 9 headset is well above average at around 20 hours at medium volume, although this drops to less if you have noise cancellation engaged. We also like that the headset charges using micro-USB -- there’s a cable in the box, but chances are you already have one lying around. Mad Catz’s accompanying iOS and Android app is ugly and only really has controls that are already on the headset. However, its best feature is allowing you to see how many hours you have left on the battery, which is one of those simple features all too often missing on competing wireless headsets.
If we were nitpicking, we’d point out that SteelSeries’ range of headsets often have a headphone port that allows you to share audio with a friend. Also, we couldn’t actually find the F.R.E.Q. 9 headset for sale online anywhere other than the Mad Catz website, where it was also out of stock at time of writing.
See also: Upcoming Xbox One Games 2015
It’s clear that Mad Catz has reached for the stars with the F.R.E.Q. 9. It’s a wireless headset that works with nearly every gaming device on the market, has all the high-end features you’d ever want, and it sounds absolutely superb.
It’s all the more disappointing then, that its relatively few weaknesses stop it from being a home run for Mad Catz. The main problem is that it’s too big, too heavy and too ugly to be considered a truly viable portable option. Gamers used to wearing their headsets in public may well disagree, but unless your main attire is scruffy jeans, a hoodie and some sort of geeky t-shirt, you will not want to be seen wearing the F.R.E.Q. 9.
There are also more minor issues, such as an annoying button placement, the inability to connect multiple consoles, and the lack of Xbox One compatibility out-of-the box. These are more niggles than genuine complaints, but when Mad Catz is charging £280, it’s reasonable to expect them to be addressed.
If you value sound quality and have a few different gaming devices at home, then the F.R.E.Q. 9 still comes recommended. General audio reproduction is excellent, while the headset’s noise cancellation feature, microphone quality and wide-ranging compatibility are also better than equivalent headsets at this price.
The Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 9 headset has everything the discerning gamer could possibly want from a wireless headset, but it falls short of being the ultimate all-in-one headset for general use on-the-go.