Surround sound headsets are a fine idea in principal, but you have to be awfully careful if you're thinking about buying a set. Tempting as it might be to plump for an affordable effort like the Saitek Cyborg 5.1, you need to spend a little more before you get a truly beneficial advantage over good stereo headsets. Sharkoon, though, have been at it for years and are one of the more trusted names in this market, so we were quite looking forward to giving the latest version of its X-Tatic Digital 5.1 set a good test - especially since it meant playing games and watching films. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
What separates Sharkoon and its ilk from the likes of the Saitek Cyborg set mentioned above is that the X-Tatic Digital comes with its own Dolby Digital 5.1/Dolby Pro Logic decoder box. This makes it ideal for use with any device with an optical audio output, specifically games consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3, but also PCs with digital outputs and DVD or Blu-ray players. However, it's really consoles that stand to benefit the most, since unlike most PCs they don't have analogue surround sound outputs to connect to.
To underline this console oriented focus, the X-Tatic adds headset support for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 - the former via an adapter that plugs into the controller, the latter via a USB connection on the System Control Unit (SCU) which also works with a PC. Of course one downside to all this functionality is wires: lots of them. Just to connect an Xbox 360 you're looking at an optical audio cable, a power adapter that connects to both the SCU and the headset itself, some three metres of cable from the headset to the SCU and another wire that feeds from the inline volume control to your Xbox 360 controller for microphone support. If you do have a particular phobia of wired clutter, this set probably isn't for you.
Provided you're prepared for this, though, actually setting up the X-Tatic Digital is relatively straightforward. Everything you need is provided in the box, including: an optical audio cable, USB and mini-jack cables for Xbox 360 and PS3 headset support, a dual output power adapter for the SCU and headset, and an analogue adapter for using the headset without the SCU. If you're familiar with such things it's just a matter of slotting the correct plugs into the correct sockets, though if you're unsure the provided instructions are clear and to the point.
Once you slip the headset over your ears you begin to appreciate what years of evolution feels like. Despite looking and feeling quite bulky this is an incredibly comfortable set to wear. Soft, breathable, well-placed padding on both the earpieces and the headband ensure a firm hold that won't leave you feeling hot and bothered or sore. This comfort is enhanced by the usual adjustability, with the cups tilting to fit your head and extendable arms, should you have an unusually large head. Even after a three hour session we barely felt the effects of wearing the set, which is much more than many good headsets have managed in the past.
It should go without saying that this comfort is wedded to excellent build quality, since the two generally go hand-in-hand. Sure, £110 for a gaming headset is a lot of money, but the headset alone is an encouraging sign of things to come.