Hardware Review: Bassing Out With the PS3 Pulse Wireless Stereo Headset [Update 2]

[Update: After a couple of weeks of use, my first pair failed, no longer holding a charge. However, after receiving a replacement pair from Sony, I haven’t encountered any new issues.]

The big selling point with Sony’s new gaming headset is its BassImpact technology (this is what it says in the press release, that came with the product, so I thought I’d tackle it upfront). What this does is add a physical, adjustable “thump” to the bass in your game audio or music, in effect putting little subwoofers on your ears.

So did this feature noticeably improve my enjoyment of a little booty music circa the 2 Live Crew era (along with a video and, you know, actual games)? Or is it just a noisy gimmick on a pricey pair pair of admittedly sleek and oh-so-pretty headphones?

The Pulse Wireless headset boasts 7.1 virtual surround sound (only through the PS3, though thanks to a recent firmware update) with six BassImpact preset modes for gaming, movies, music, shooters, fighting, and racing games. The USB wireless transmitter can be plugged into your PS3, PC, or by running the included audio cable from the adapter into the headphone jack of your TV. Or, if you’re so inclined, you can run the audio cable directly into your mp3 player, iPhone, or whatever works for you.

In the instructions, Sony warns that the USB connector might not work for all PCs, but I was able to get it to work with my own Vaio (no real surprise there) and I have a hard time imagining that it would have trouble connecting and finding the proper drivers for any other PC. I’d like to check it out on a Mac, though, just to see how it performs with Cupertino’s hardware. Likewise, connecting to the PS3 wasn’t a hassle although I’m sad to report that I wasn’t able to get a response from my 360.

Sony’s headphones also include a noise-cancelling mic inside the unit with controls on the actual unit to toggle between both chat and audio, chat off, and chat only, with a separate slider for voice loudness. The Pulse headset blocks out a healthy amount of sound with a comfortable feeling of having your head surrounded by pillows while not leaving you absolutely dead to the world. On a recent flight, I was able to block out most of the engine and ambient noise, so they do what’s promised on the box (albeit not to the degree of some other competing headsets).

The form factor and overall design of the headphones are impressive, although even after a week of using it, I’m still getting acclimated to the button and function positions. On the right side, you have your buttons for Virtual Surround Sound control, Mode, and the slider for the BassImpact loudness (which has 11 levels–I checked). On the left, your power switch, Chat toggle, vVolume slider, Chat volume slider, audio jack, and mini-B USB port to charge the unit (none was provided with the retail version of the hardware, so you’ll have to scrounge one up or use the included cable for your SixAxis).

Toggling between the different modes is intended to give you some nice distinct audio profiles, but essentially they just determine how much boost or suppression the BassImpact gets. By my ears, it seemed like the Game and Shooter modes cranked it up the highest, with Shooter pushing down some of the mid-range audio. Your mileage may vary here but I preferred the rumble of Shooter for racing and Game for just about everything else (I tend to like my audio with an excess of “boom”). Each mode seems to pick up a high level of detail, though and I was able to hear fine instrumentation in otherwise noisy electronic tracks.

As for the BassImpact itself, it starts off feeling like a gimmick with the noticeable physical impact pumping in your ears and rattling your head, but a couple of things put lie to this impression: first, kept at about the halfway or maybe quarter point, the bass sound is clean and and not distorted, and there’s no actual “rattling” to speak of. I was listening to something pound-y and metal-y and I was worried that the noise would be irritating my neighbors sitting next to me for all of the grinding guitars and throbbing drums, but the Pulse is a self-contained experience. All that sound and fury was just for me and Sony made sure I was the only one who could hear it.

I’m still not really fond of the button placement and I wish there was a more elegant solution to the mode selection besides a push-button (it’s a chore cycling through five choices to get to the one you want). But overall, it’s a gorgeous and well-crafted piece of hardware, and handy if you’re in need of a high-end personal audio solution.

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